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.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

With no warning. Wednesday, December 15, 2010.

"I'm as puzzled as everyone else. There were no clues. There were no red flags." – Teacher Keith Schroeder

Monday, November 29, started out like any average day at Marinette High School. And 15-year-old sophomore Sam Hengel was like any average kid – except more so.

“Better than average,” like all youth in the mythical Lake Wobegon, Sam was one of those kids that were too good to be true. He was good-looking, in an innocent sort of way. He was a Boy Scout, working hard toward a variety of badges. He enjoyed doing community service in the small community of Marinette, Wisconsin, and was known to treat adults respectfully.

Sam’s grades were excellent, and he struck everybody – his friends, family and teachers – as a happy, laid-back kid. He loved outdoor sports like hunting and canoeing, and enjoyed time with his family. He was popular and had no record of disciplinary actions at school. Sam had everything going for him.

But Sam had something else. He had a duffel bag with 9mm and .22 caliber handguns, as well as more than 200 rounds of ammunition. And at the beginning of sixth hour, as the class started to watch the movie “Hercules,” he took two dozen students and a teacher hostage. Their ordeal ended six hours later, when Sam shot himself to death.

Six hours is a very long time. And Sam had a captive audience. He could have made some sort of demand – money, for instance. He could have railed about school pressures, or bullying, or trouble at home.

But as the minutes and hours ticked away that day, Sam did none of that. His best friend, Nick Nelezen, says he was thinking, “’Sam, what’s going through your mind? This is not you.’” Sophomore Nathan Miller says that Sam did not appear to be angry during the ordeal; in fact, the hostages said, Sam barely said a word the whole time.

Marinette is a close-knit, quiet, homogeneous community where the crime rate is low and not much seems to happen. The city’s police department poured all their resources into finding out why the tragedy happened, and came up with nil. "There is no common thread coming out (of interviews) regarding motive," Marinette Police Chief Jeff Skorik said. "There is nothing unusual that is coming out (of the investigation) about this boy or his family."

Hundreds of Sam’s classmates attended his funeral, including most of the hostages. “We're not angry at him,” said one of the hostages, Zach Rastall. “We feel worse for his family and we want to support his family because they're going through a much more difficult time than we are.”

I don’t believe that people “just snap” for no reason. The fact that a motive was not offered and has not been discovered doesn’t mean there isn’t one. What secret did Sam take to the grave with him? We may never know – and that’s a pity in so many ways.