Subscribe to Healing Emails for Parents

Heckler on the suicidal trance
Grief Journey, Trauma & Mental Illness

The Suicidal Trance

Richard A. Heckler, Ph.D., made a fascinating study of individuals who survived suicide attempts. In his book, “Waking Up, Alive,” he described the decline toward suicide.

Heckler wrote: “As these stories unfold, we can identify critical components of the decline toward suicide. The stages of the descent are as follows: Pain and suffering remain unaddressed…The person then withdraws behind a façade designed to protect himself or herself from further hurt and to cloak the suffering underneath. However, the façade only intensifies the slide toward a suicidal trance. Ultimately, the trance narrows the person’s perspective until the only inner voices are those that enjoin him or her to die. …

“Early in the withdrawal phase, people still make some effort to stay in touch with the world and hope for at least some promise of better things. But when hope finally dies, people no longer see or hear anything outside their own minds – the tight spiral of thought that tells them to die. While this shift may occur just moments before a suicide attempt, it can be months or years in the making. A colleague of mine from Louisiana, an experienced therapist for many years, contemplated suicide for over a decade. She describes this mental state as an almost totally separate reality, in which your world may not look or feel so limited and painful to anyone else, but it does to you. You enter a very powerful trance.

“During the latter stages of the descent, people lose faith that their predicament will ever change. Their strength is depleted, and they are deeply stressed. Some people are never able to leave their chronically destructive surroundings. In other cases, there is just no one able or willing to push past their facades. In yet other instances, people are no longer able to recognize support when it is, in fact, available.

“The trance is a state of mind and body that receives only the kind of input that reinforces the pain and corroborates the person’s conviction that the only way out is through death. The trance marks the moment at which the world becomes devoid of all possibilities except one: suicide.”

According to Heckler, despite differences in detail, everyone who attempts suicide enters a suicidal trance. He writes that suicidal trances can be identified by certain common characteristics:

  • “They appear extremely logical, with a premise and a rational series of arguments that encourage suicide as a reasonable response to pain. These arguments are powerful, especially when created by someone who has become emotionally deadened–whose reservoirs of faith, trust, and hope have run dry.
  • “Suicidal trances appear as resignation. A person seems to stop caring about the state of his or her life. They are frustrating and frightening to family and friends: it seems as if there is no force strong enough to persuade the person to act on his or her own behalf.
  • “Suicidal trances beckon. As the trance intensifies, it becomes more insistent that the person finally complete the act.
  • “Finally, this type of trance includes a particular vision of the future: an illusion of eternity in which the future is projected as an endless repetition of the present pain and disappointment, never-ending and hopeless.”