Friday, December 17, 2010

The Suicidal Trance. Friday, December 17, 2010.

Sera: “Is drinking a way of killing yourself?”
Ben: “Or, is killing myself a way of drinking?”
–“Leaving Las Vegas”

Ben Sanderson has lost it all. His wife is gone, and has taken their son. He’s been fired. And he’s lost all control of his drinking. Facing a life that appears to be devoid of choices, he nevertheless makes one final choice: to go to Las Vegas and drink himself to death.

In the process, he meets the beautiful Sera, who falls in love with him and begs him to reconsider. But Ben is determined; it’s too late to turn back. Unable to switch gears, Ben ignores Sera’s pleas and drinks until he is dead.

Nicholas Cage won an Oscar for best actor in “Leaving Las Vegas” (1995), and Elisabeth Shue was nominated for best actress. But John O’Brien, the author of the novel on which the film was based, was actually writing his autobiography; he drank himself to death shortly after his movie was released.

Cage delivered his tour de force in his portrayal of what Richard A. Heckler, Ph.D., calls “The Suicidal Trance” in his book, “Waking Up, Alive.” Heckler describes a state in which someone apparently loses the ability to turn away from suicidal ideation. The process, he says, can take hours or years; but once someone reaches that point, other options seem to evaporate, and suicide simply makes sense.

“Ultimately the trance narrows the person’s perspective until the only inner voices that can be heard are those that enjoin him or her to die,” says Heckler. “The trance marks the moment at which the world becomes devoid of all possibilities except one: suicide.”

I remember being in this trance, and I think Heckler explains it well. It’s a sort of auto-pilot that allows an override of one’s basic instinct to stay alive. At the time, there is no emotion. In his book, Heckler talks about the matter-of-fact way suicide attempt survivors secured a rope to a tree or located an appropriate bridge to jump off of. In the Trance, their actions seem unremarkable, even sensible.

As an attempt survivor, the Trance is very frightening to recall. And it’s probably frightening for family and friends to hear about. It means that there is a point during a suicidal attempt where despite their best intentions, loved ones might not be able to impact someone’s behavior. Short of having someone taken into protective custody, there comes a point where you might not be able to prevent an attempt. As Heckler says, “Suicidal Trances beckon.”

Does that mean you shouldn’t try to help someone who is suicidal? Absolutely not. Just please understand that if the person is in the Trance, it might not be enough to simply talk someone down from a cliff – he may just return to the site the next day.

Realize that you might have to risk someone’s ire by having their freedoms taken away until they’re in a safer place emotionally.

The Trance is powerful. If you love someone, you have to be twice as strong.


  1. I have never actually attempted to take my life, but I've felt the pull of the Trance sufficiently to take a sublethal (but bad!) number of pills and end up in the hospital three times. I hear its call now. How should I respond?

  2. Contact someone - anyone - who will be supportive and caring. You don't even have to tell them why if you don't want to, but try not to be alone. And if that call gets really loud, call 1-800-SUICIDE. You HAVE attempted to take your life; you're just not labeling it that way. God bless. <3 ALIZAH.