Tuesday, December 22, 2009


When I awake from an uncompleted dream, I experience a moment of frustration, wanting to drop back into the sleep story to see how it comes out. Yet as I try to recapture the thread, I am usually struck by the impression that there was no real plot, no going anywhere about the dream. Just random associations, tying themselves into a plot for a moment, then dissolving. This is consistent, BTW, with the evidence from brain waves that dreams are just a wash of energy pulsing back and forth, hitting memories at random. There can be interesting self-knowledge extracted from that, as each random thought sets off associations that might be revealing, and how your mind constructs a story is likely unique to you. We have a sense of plot and of story because the emotional cues are also being randomly triggered, giving us a simulacrum of the feelings we would experience with an actual story - as if the theme music were playing under the movie telling us what's important, or sad, or funny. But there isn't necessarily a connection.

Compiling data about those who attempt suicide via bridge jumping has also proved interesting. Notorious bridges also have notorious spots. If you make access to those spots impossible or difficult, or put nets under them, the suicide rate goes down. People do not, apparently, just move fifty feet along the rail and jump from a new spot. If a bridge is closed off to jumpers entirely, nearby bridges do not see an increase.

This is consistent with my professional experience. I have known many people over the years who have made serious attempts but survived, or been interrupted unexpectedly in an attempt. Some remain suicidal, intent on finding another method or repeating the previous one with more care. Others have their suicidality reemerge pretty quickly. But some cease to be suicidal at that point - indefinitely. They may or may not have a new story to go with it involving a theme of God or fate intervening for a reason. And "do you have a plan?" is one of the key questions on evaluations of suicidality.

It is almost as if some people create a narrative that they expect to play out. If the narrative is broken, the Whole Thing is broken, somehow. They do not have an immediate adaptation of means. They are certainly clever enough to make a new plan, and despondent enough to desire death, but somehow, the spell is broken.

We are story-making people quite automatically. It is hard-wired into us. We can imagine events that have not happened equally well whether they actually come to pass or not. The narrative is equally powerful, equally real, event if the event never becomes real. NPR puts anecdotes into its news because they are gripping. Human-interest stories still make the front page. Soap operas and celebrity stereotypes are still gobbled up avidly. Sporting events play out mythic story elements as well: underdogs, crafty old pros, familiar personalities, cheaters, the determined, the unlucky, the arrogant. We make stories even when they aren't there, filling in the blanks with our own material. It is who we are. We cannot stop it, though we can suspend judgment, suspend narrative, for a while.


Retriever said...

Great post! I so agree with the point about block access to a favorite jumping off place as you relate it to our story making propensities. Prevent the story unfolding as the suicidal one had imagined and you have a chance to help them imagine a life.

We were in a NAMI family group at one point when a far off relative was manic and calling us 24/7 and we were trying to arrange care from a distance with the relatives going there. One day a very nice couple we had been sitting with and chitchatting with for weeks looked despondent. It emerged that their kid had tried to jump from the top of a very busy bridge much travelled by commuters that week. Traffic had been stopped for hours, but the police had successfully talked to him and got him down safely. The attempt had made twisted sense in light of his then preoccupations. But, thank God, he did not make another attempt upon being thwarted.

Ironically, a coworker had just been grousing to me the day before about "Some loser jumper stuck on the top of the bridge" whose suicide attempt had kept her stuck in traffic for hours. "I said Jump already, so I can get home..." was her comment...

However , for family members, one interrupts the narrative and never stops being afraid of another. Life on permanent nuclear alert....

karrde said...

Now, I had this story in my head that said you were going to spout off a bunch of nonsense...so I guess I'll just respond to that nonsense

I hope that I haven't described the thought processes of certain notorious trolls (here and elsewhere). But I suspect that I have.

I've been surprised by a small decision (put a change off until after Some Future Event) quickly becoming a story (when the Event happens, I'll do everything different). In my case, I think outside influences jarred me enough to set the story aside, and choose a different path/story.

Even doing that small choice caused me to run into the hill of habit. Habit in thought is a powerful thing. Stories that are familiar are loved, even when they might be found unnecessary (or counter-productive).

Stories are powerful things.