I’ve been reading a lot about suicide lately. For obvious reasons, of course. Kate Spade. Anthony Bourdain. So many people are shocked by their deaths because, well, they were famous. They were rich. They had fans. People adored them. Why would anyone willingly, intentionally end what so many others consider the only life worth living?
It’s often a surprise to a person’s loved ones when that person commits suicide. To me, that’s a sign of how well people can function in their routines, and then not function when they’re alone. (Laura Zera)
Our culture is so hell-bent on celebrity, on branding, on whatever it makes to get into the public eye even for a lousy 5 minutes.
Our culture says that everyone should aim to “be their own brand,” a fiction that can feel easy to maintain as long as we have a screen between us and the world. (Ana Marie Cox)
We just can’t understand how people who are living the lives we envy would say “enough.” They leave behind family and friends who love them, and who are now having to pick up the pieces. The second-guessing will never stop, the hindsight will stretch back years and years.
Any life lost to suicide is one life too many. For some, suicide becomes an option because our society does not know how to talk about death. For others, it’s an option because they don’t know how to ask for help, or they do ask for help and no one hears them, or they ask for help and are rebuffed because nobody wants to hear them.
Suicide doesn’t make sense to most people, not when tomorrow might be different. That was often my way of “coping.” Let’s see what tomorrow might bring, although sometimes I was deathly afraid of what tomorrow might bring.
I have and still do engage in suicide ideation, although I’ve never made a plan. I have had those black moments in my life when I could have died “unintentionally”: too much alcohol and too many painkillers at one time. But I’d wake up, surprised and feeling miserable and strangely resigned to muddle through the day. And the next day. And the next.
But long before that, when I was a teenager and had not yet entered into the drug- and alcohol-fueled phase of my life, I thought of suicide. A lot. It was philosophical (what does it mean to live?) as much as it was concrete (No one likes me). I remember one particular afternoon in a college library. I was in the second-story lounge, sitting on a couch facing a picture window which looked out onto the quad. I started to wonder what the point of life was, why was I living, who the hell would even miss me if I was no longer around? I was painfully shy and introverted. In high school other kids thought I was a snob when I was simply terrified of making eye contact. I had a few friends but I was always on the edge of sabotaging the friendships. I hated myself and, by extension, hated anyone who liked me. Something had to be wrong with them if they liked me. Or maybe they were really mocking me behind my back.
I definitely had “issues.” I considered suicide that day, in a general way, considering my options. But when I came to the part about what would happen afterward, I froze. I didn’t believe in God but what if I was wrong? I had read Dante. What if what he wrote (The Inferno, The Purgatorio) were all true? What if suicide were truly a sin? Then I’d be worse off, wouldn’t I? So I filed away my thoughts and anxieties and distracted myself with ideas for what tomorrow might bring. I was pragmatic.
I think what saved me then was literature, and not just Dante and the fear he put in me of the afterlife. Literature gave me hope, helped me to imagine a world different from the one I was in. And there was no social media–no Facebook, no Twitter, no cell phones, no computers–back then. No cyberbullying. No 24/7 news cycle to overload my psyche with information. I could lose myself in books and imagine places in which I could reinvent myself. If I just hung on one more day.
Of course, that’s not the end of the story, and my own bouts of depression and anxiety and suicide ideation aren’t really the point of this post.
What I would really like is, if we as a society stopped and considered how we contribute to a person’s suicide. When we say, “but she should have asked for help,” we are essentially blaming the victim. When we say, “he should have had a therapist to talk to,” we are labeling the problem as internal, something unique to the person who committed suicide. But is it?
Sure, mental health problems can be organic, and chemistry might help. It’s not enough to take medication, though. I’m going to out on a limb and suggest that perhaps we really don’t want to be labeling people as being “mentally ill” or having “mental health problems.” Maybe the problem isn’t with them. Maybe it is with us, the royal us, the outer, external world with its demands and conformities and rigidity.
It’s not my own mental health issues I’ve had to deal with. My dad was “mentally ill.” I put that in quotes because I still suspect–and will to end of my life–that he wouldn’t have been so bad off if he had been born a few decades later. I suspect that much of his “treatment” led to the worsening of his mental condition. He was born in 1919 and at some point in his adulthood, he had electro-shock therapy. Do the math. Electro-shock therapy is not something you would have wanted to undergo back then. Nor would you have wanted to be given all those drugs which left him with a Parkinson’s-like condition.
I was afraid of his pain, the utter anguish that poured through his tears.
Once my father was labeled, there was no hope for him. His world didn’t have much use for a man who was emotional, who had a hard time holding a job, who felt such an incredible weight of responsibility for things and events he had no control over. And that was it: he had no control. They labeled him. Put him in a box along with the other mentally ill, and sent him off on his slow decline.
I guess I’m kind of angry. I’m not angry with Kate Spade or Anthony Bourdain or the almost 45,000 American who committed suicide in 2016. I’m angry with a society that values celebrity over privacy, a society that values transactional relationships over meaningful relationships, a society that values the branded self over the intimate self, a society that says, “Here, take this pill and all will be well.” A society that labels you and makes the label stick.
Almost 40 years ago, a gentleman who was part of a group I hung with killed himself. He had been missing for a few days when another friend came up to me in a bar and said, “Matt shot himself in the head.” I didn’t know Matt very well. Most of us were in our 20s and Matt was much older. I remember him as a soft-spoken, kind, handsome man with interests in art and music. He was also an alcoholic. My boyfriend at the time complained that Matt should have told them that something was wrong; they would have helped. I said nothing because I knew better. Nobody wanted to hear Matt’s pain. He was a little bit like a celebrity: someone we looked up, admired from a distance. He drank too much, but we all drank too much. He had financial problems, romantic problems. So did we. Frankly, I don’t think he was even trying very hard to put a good face on things. He shouldn’t have had to say anything. We should have seen his pain and reached out to him.
And maybe that’s the point of this post: Don’t wait for a friend or a family member or just another human being to ask for help. A few minutes of your time can be a lifeline for someone else.
To learn how you can help, visit http://www.bethe1to.com/
And if you feel you need someone to talk to, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You are not alone.