05/21/2014 07:57 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2014

For a Friend Who, Like Me, Has Thought About Suicide


I think about suicide a lot. If you do too, I want to run an idea by you. See what you think.

I don't have to tell you that a lot has been written and said about suicide. A search for "suicide" on Google Scholar yields 1.7 million hits. The It Gets Better Project has become a worldwide phenomenon in just three years. People are trying to understand and encourage us.

Of course, you've heard the other messages too. Some of them are downright dangerous. Even well-meaning people with good hearts repeat them sometimes:

"Suicide is the unforgivable sin."

"Suicide is the most selfish thing you can do."

"Think of the people you'll hurt."

As if we don't hurt enough.

So let me start with a story. Years ago, a loved one suddenly fell prey to a life-threatening illness. I was primarily responsible for her care: treating her with kid gloves, running her to the ER, finding some fresh new twist in her condition that made the floor drop out from under me again. I spent my days numb, robotic, barely able to finish the smallest tasks. I didn't think of suicide then; I didn't have the energy.

A few months into this mess her doctor, during one of our frequent phone calls to discuss what she could about the case, asked how I was doing, and I told her.

"Listen," she said, "I want you to get some help. I want you to take care of yourself. She needs you right now."

She needs you right now. Yes, it sounds a little like "Think of the people you'll hurt," or even like that dubious encouragement to "stay busy and get your mind off yourself." But for some reason it didn't hit me that way. Suddenly I had a task. A charge. I had to keep myself alive so I could help keep her alive.

So I got some help (the traditional kinds). I found an emotional floor. Eventually she pulled through the crisis. But those five words from her doctor struck a chord.

I think it's a chord for all of us. They need you right now.

I made this connection in my head while writing my book, and it's so simple it almost sounds stupid. Each of us is one person among billions. Each of us has one person's unique gifts, abilities, limitations, brokenness. Each of us has a contribution we can make -- to the planet, for the good of humanity, for God, whatever. Sometimes that contribution even comes out of the brokenness: My hypersensitivity makes me both anxious and empathic. Because I am unique, so is my contribution. No one else can make it.

So I have to make it. As outlandish as it sounds, the world needs me right now.

More to the point, it needs you.

This, for me, has served as a powerful check against ending my own life. Maybe it'll work for you too.

Oh, and that contribution doesn't have to be world-changing. It probably won't be. (Remember that each of us is one person among billions.) But if you can think of a friend you've made laugh, a generous thing you've done, a piece of litter you've picked up, there you go.

Sometimes you don't even know what you contribute, like the total stranger in our local pet store. My daughter and I went there to buy a cat. She had already chosen one on a previous trip to the store, but this was my first visit, and I became drawn to another. That's when this stranger walked up and, without another word, said, "Get 'em both." So we did. If he hadn't been there, we would have missed out on the love those cats have brought us, each in its own way, for 14 years. A small thing? Sure. But a big ripple effect.

We all make those ripples.

So that's a start. Keep thinking about this, and you can (maybe with help) discover the gifts you have to make the contribution only you can make. You might even come to cherish those gifts. It's hard to destroy something you cherish.

Eventually you might join your one person's contribution to those of others. The difference you can make starts to grow. Granted, if you're like me, dealing with others is the last thing you want to do. But maybe it might happen someday.

Is this foolproof? Of course not -- no more than SSRIs or talk therapy or ECT or meditation or anything else. As I often say about mental illness, some days you win, and some days it wins. If it wins on a particularly dark day, you're still in trouble.

But maybe keep this in your back pocket. We need you. And if you can make this idea better, please, leave a comment below. That's another contribution you can make.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.