What to do with a suicidal part

I am so damn tired. It’s been a rough week with a lot of stress in my head and the lives of a few of my close friends. On the upside, I have a lot more material for the part of my book that’s about managing overwhelming emotional pain… sigh. Silver linings!

One of my big stresses recently was a part becoming suicidal. This can be a huge issue for multiples! I get a lot of emails and contact from people who are struggling with one or more parts who are in absolute meltdown. Whole systems can fall apart under the stress, and processes which were fair or reasonable can become abusive and totalitarian.

Most people who have felt acutely suicidal have experienced that disjointed place of desperately wanting to die and being terrified of your own feelings and actions at the same time. It’s a profound conflict, an inner struggle that consumes all resources and leaves people utterly drained and deeply afraid of themselves. For multiples the struggle and the conflict can be more polarised and even more intense. Parts who don’t feel suicidal are often terrified of being killed – as far as they are concerned, not by suicide but murdered. Fear does not make us kind. We recoil, disconnect, and attack when we feel like our lives are being threatened. Systems can rapidly devolve into massive power struggles, and outright war with other parts trying to permanently suppress or annihilate suicidal parts. Child parts especially may become so terrorised that they dehumanise a suicidal part and see them as a witch, demon, monster, or other evil creature. Being trapped in a body/mind with a suicidal part can be very traumatic. Experiences of fear, horror, and helplessness may contribute to the development of severe trauma responses in other parts, including PTSD. As a suicidal part becomes increasingly attacked, dehumanised, and alienated from the rest of their system their despair usually intensifies, their behaviour becomes more dangerous, and the restraining factors of empathy, connection, and a sense of responsibility to the rest of their system are eroded. Sometimes this ends in catastrophe. The loss of anyone to suicide is utterly devastating. Having spoken with frightened, non suicidal children and other parts in the hours or days prior is almost unfathomable.

Versions of this dynamic tend to repeat themselves with parts who self-harm, have addictions, re-contact abusers, suffer eating disorders, or have other frightening and self destructive behaviours, with varying levels of intensity. There is no one magic fix for this situation, and different multiples manage it in many different ways. I can share some thoughts and ideas that I’ve found useful and you can possibly use them as a spring board to trial your own approaches.

My first observation is simple but important. When we are frightened, we will try to control. When we are frightened of someone, or some part, we will probably want to reject, dehumanise, and alienate them. It’s okay to have these impulses, they are human! It’s okay to feel everything this horribly stressful situation makes you feel – scared, frustrated, confused, angry, overwhelmed, defeated, hurt, exhausted, burdened… It’s a really hard place to be in. Some of your feelings are going to want to make you act in ways that will feel right but make the situation worse. You have every right to feel everything you’re feeling, but you need to be careful before acting on impulse.

Exactly the same goes for the suicidal part/s. You probably can’t make them stop feeling the way they do and rejecting their feelings and pain will probably intensify them. They have every right to be feeling the way they are, it’s their impulse to act on them that is the issue. I have one part who has a strong desire to self harm, and at least two who are very vulnerable to feeling suicidal. So how come I’m still here (touch wood)? My observation has been that parts who are at greatest risk of killing themselves are parts who:

  • misunderstand the nature of multiplicity and think they can kill the body without the rest of the system dying. This is pretty common and important to check with any suicidal part!
  • are disconnected from or rejected by their own systems and don’t feel empathy towards the other parts
  • are being abused by their own systems
  • are being abused by other people in their lives
  • are angry and resentful towards their own systems and deliberately seeking to frighten or punish
  • do not feel loved
  • do not feel hope, and feel responsible for finding a sense of hope for the whole system
  • have horrific roles within the system – for example, the part who remembers all the bad things, the part who feels all the shame, the part who acts out all the stress for the system, and so on
  • do not get their needs met
  • do not feel safe
  • feel overwhelmed by guilt or shame, believe they are evil, believe their death will protect someone or make the world a better or safer place

Obviously there are other risk factors too. Some of the protective factors I’ve found support suicidal parts are:

  • having a safe place or person to express their intense feelings without censoring or judgement by their systems – other parts often feel shame about these feelings and may refuse to allow a suicidal part to speak to a therapist, write honestly in a journal, and so on.
  • feel a sense of connection and love from their systems. They work together as a team to manage the feelings and impulses. Their system expresses empathy for their situation, and they can feel empathy for the situation their feeling puts other parts in
  • understand that suicide will kill everyone in their system
  • are able to allow other parts or people to find or create hope in their lives, accept support from others
  • are able to negotiate some role changes when needed
  • are given respite from demands of life. eg. when out, these parts are allowed to stay in bed, email the therapist, not leave the house etc, or they are willingly switched back inside if functioning is needed that day
  • are willing to compromise on ‘needs’ – so eg if the intense experience is a ‘need’ to cut, they work with their system to find alternatives that sate that need somewhat, such as Ink not Blood.
  • are treated with respect and gratitude for their role
  • are treated as though they are important, valuable, significant members of the system

As you can hear, a lot of this is about relationship. This kind of connection takes more than an afternoon to build, and for a system under such extreme stress it’s a hell of an ask. On the other hand, it could save your life. In my experience there’s usually one member at least who is able to connect and empathise better with a suicidal part, and it can become their role in the early stages to intervene on behalf of a suicidal part and the rest of the system (assuming a system of more than two parts). Part of the basis for this can be realising that there is a lot more common ground to your situation than it seems at first. Suicidal and non-suicidal parts are both often feeling trapped, stressed, scared, overwhelmed, and unhappy. If you keep seeing the problem as being the suicidal part, all your reactions and solutions will be about controlling or eliminating them. If you can see the problem as the experience of being suicidal, you can approach the part with more empathy and team up with them to help manage that experience. Here are a few approaches that people sometimes find helpful:

  • directly influencing a part’s feelings, memories, or autonomy. Some systems or parts can do this, some can’t. Sometimes you can directly engage to dial down intense emotions, shift who is ‘keeping’ bad memories – perhaps spread the load a little more evenly, or keep a part inside in lockdown while they are a danger.
  • engaging suicide on a symbolic level such as allowing a part to ‘exit’ from life, refuse to come out, disengage from relationships, change their name and so on
  • killing or supporting the part to die without affecting the body. Some systems can do this, some cannot. There are complex ethical concerns here that suggest this as an option of last resort.
  • containing the part except for safe locations – eg. hospital, in therapy, in a ‘safe’ place where they can express feelings (safe is dependant on their likely methods of suicide – it may be an empty beach if drowning does not appeal, or a craft room if scissors are not a concern, etc)
  • increasing the part’s dissociation so they are buffered from their intense feelings and less likely to act on them. eg. sometimes if a suicidal part is close to the surface whoever is out in my system will trigger dissociation by surfing the net, watching tv, sitting in the bath, anything that makes us ‘zone out’ until we feel safer
  • comforting the part internally by doing things such as hugging them, talking to them gently, singing to them, making a safe nurturing space for them internally (not all multiples have internal worlds, and not all multiples can communicate internally)
  • take on the parts’ unmet needs as problems the whole system needs to engage and manage. eg. if they need better social support the whole system works on building stronger supportive friendships or finding a good support group online, or if they need a musical outlet the system works together to save money for an instrument and lessons. Take the burden of solving problems, finding hope, and meeting needs away from the part who isn’t coping.
  • explain the part in non-frightening ways to scared system members such as children. Humanise them and help to develop empathy towards them. Sometimes kids will have the most profound and effective connections with deeply wounded parts.
  • make the most of the multiple experience of never really being alone. Support and be with each other.
  • stagger behaviour in order from least to most harm done. If an extremely bad night is going to be survived only with self harm then better that then death. I write more about this kind of approach in ‘Feeling Chronically Suicidal‘.
  • merge or fuse a suicidal part with a hopeful or naively optomistic part to create a more balanced single part from them both
  • try taking a caring, invested, parental approach to a suicidal part. Coax, coach, nurture, and set limits with them
  • understanding and affirming that no systems are invulnerable without also being psychopathic. Part of what it means to be human is our capacity to feel shame, suffering, and hopelessness. We also have the capacity to heal. Most people who survive a suicide attempt later feel far better and are relieved they did not die. I’ve no reason to think that parts are fundamentally different. Keep these things in mind if killing or otherwise removing a suicidal part is your intention, there may be unintended consequences assuming you are successful.

In some ways, what helps suicidal parts is pretty much what helps anyone. Other approaches are more specific to being multiple. Some of these ideas may seem increibly far away or even impossible for you, especially if your system is at war. Please be assured that even small steps make huge differences. Little gestures of compassion or connection can start turning everything around. Only you and your system can find what works best for you, and only you can decide your own take on the values and ethics with which you will engage these very challenging situations. Please be assured that you are certainly not alone in these struggles, and that it possible to live with suicidal part/s. Wishing you all the very best.

For more information see articles listed on Multiplicity Links, scroll through posts in the category of Multiplicity, or explore my Network The Dissociative Initiative.

2 thoughts on “What to do with a suicidal part

  1. Caring for one part who is particularly distressed is challenging enough, but we’d love to hear something about dealing with group morale, what to do when depression or anxiety sweep through the whole team like a wave. How do you set things right when all of you are feeling dreadful all at once and there is no-one in the (somewhat) stable emotional and mental state to figure out a plan for fixing things? Also, is there a way to make sure events don’t bowl all the pins over at the same time, in the first place? We have been studying the concept of ‘morale’ for a long time and eager to learn more.

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