A reader writes:
Thanks for the discussion thread. But as a daughter who endured her father’s suicide when I was 12, I get upset when people like your readers say the act is selfish. My dad suffered from mental illness and depression, and if hanging himself from a bridge brought him relief, I can understand. One thing that helped me greatly was reading William Styron’s Darkness Visible. Styron was able to describe his depression succinctly and convincingly; I read the book in a few hours and immediately found the forgiveness I guess I needed.
Like many of your readers, I’ve had up close and personal experiences with suicide – family members, friends, acquaintances, sick, healthy, etc. I have thought repeatedly about doing so myself. I’m part of that 30% for whom SSRIs and other meds don’t seem to work, and talk therapy can only do so much. For me depression is as painful as I imagine a chronic debilitating disease and I have made peace with the fact that it has become the defining issue of my life.
I recently had a heart attack, and must admit that at a certain point I thought I could take advantage of the opportunity and not dial for help. Had the pain been less intense, I might not be writing this to you. I know exactly, without a moment’s hesitation, how much I am loved and how much pain it would cause if I were to follow through. The question for me: Would it cause more pain than me keeling over dead from a heart attack or refusing treatment for an incurable disease or any number of ways life presents us with returning our energy to the universe. Why is that? Why are those deaths socially acceptable?
I’ve been following your recent thread about suicide with a kind of bemused interest. Barring a bus or car accident or being shot randomly on the street, my death almost certainly will be suicide.
I agree with your commenter several posts ago who received such a violent negative reaction: A right to life is meaningless without the right to choose death. It is for me a matter of when, not if. I cannot imagine not wanting to be proactive about choosing when and how I will die.
My first thoughts about suicide surfaced in my 30s, while I was under therapy. It was the one thing I could not name in the voluminous journals I wrote to my therapist. I could write around it, but I knew that if I named it, he would be legally (as well as professionally and morally) obligated to take action to take away my right, to remove whatever mechanism I had in mind. But still, the power and finality scared me then – especially since I am an atheist, confident that death is an end – full stop. However, even though suicide frightened me then, I was more scared by the possibility of relinquishing the right.
I am now in my 50s, and the idea of my suicide has been a constant companion for more than a decade. I think about it daily and I have grown comfortable with it. Indeed: It is sometimes the only thing that keeps me living, keeps me moving forward.
The last few years have been a difficult struggle. The amount of work it takes to sustain life far exceeds any pleasure to be found in being alive. This is not depression talking; I went through depression in my 30s and came out the other side. This is simply the cold calculation of reality. It takes way too much work just to stay alive for way too little payoff. It is only knowing that staying around to fight another day is a positive choice rather than an obligation that makes staying around bearable.
Thanks for bringing up the topic of suicide. Discussing it in the public forum helps to alleviate the stigma for those of us who have lost loved ones to suicide. I lost my 21-year-old son three and a half years ago. Like some of your other readers, I’ve done a lot of reading and talking to people since then.
I don’t think of suicide as a selfish act. As one person has told me, “Suicide is not chosen; it happens when pain exceeds the resources for coping with the pain.” I don’t believe that my son wanted to abandon his family and friends; he loved us deeply. I do believe that he wanted to end the terrible pain he endured.
I also don’t think of suicide as a sign of weakness. To the contrary, it takes a perverted sense of courage to complete the act of suicide. I raised my son to be strong and courageous, and to meet problems head on. I think it was those characteristics that he used … but again, in a perverted use of those usually admirable traits.
I agree with the reader who cited Dr. Thomas Joiner’s work, but with this refinement. Joiner says that the first two elements, perceived burdensomeness and perceived loneliness can come and go; but the third element – the fearlessness of death – is learned and then stays with you forever. And the way one “learns” not to fear death is through habituation to various forms of violence. This explains why combat veterans, police officers, prison guards, and doctors all have a higher rate of suicide than the general population. (And here’s a link to an article that describes interesting research going on at Harvard.)