Suicide Leaves Behind Nothing, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Feb 3 2015 @ 5:00pm

A reader revives the debate over whether killing yourself is selfish:

I don’t really understand it. I guess people are motivated by loyalty or empathy to stick up for the deceased.  But if we try to think of any reasonable definition of selfishness, say “putting one’s own needs and desires before those of everyone else,” we have to concede that suicide is selfish by definition.  The person committing suicide is ending their own pain, at the cost of substantially increasing the pain of everyone around them.

I went to the funeral of a brilliant young student who took his own life, and the black hole of devastation surrounding his mother was almost unbearable. Even thinking of her face now makes me flinch.  I suppose maybe it is possible that a person can be so depressed that this selfish act can be justified, but I’m very reluctant to accept that.

Another isn’t as reluctant:

Is it selfish? Probably. What isn’t?  Are the people left behind hurt? Absolutely. What death doesn’t produce some approximation of that? Our society says No and so we fall in lockstep. No one gets out of this alive. No one. If someone chooses an exit by their own hand, so be it. Suicide laws are the most egregious examples of government overreach. Do we really believe we can stop them? Let’s approach each suicide the way we approach each patient who, after years of agony and struggle, decides to stop fighting. Then let’s grieve their loss and move on with our lives.

Another reader:

I figure since you are probably closing the site down, or making drastic changes, I should send an email. I’ve been reading your stuff religiously for ten years; I think you were the first blog I found after college.

I’ve been with my fiancé for a little over five years now, and she tried to kill herself last year.

Other than the day my good friend told me she was going to die and my mom told me she had cancer for the first time (she’s still going, guilting me with impunity), it was pretty much the worst day I have experienced. I was working at home and enjoyed the lax schedule of waking up whenever I felt like it. Things had been getting progressively worse, her behavior had gotten more erratic. She was always drinking, trying to hide it and play it off, but I knew. I didn’t know what to do, other than encourage her to go to therapy and talk to someone. When she finally did, the therapist told her to check herself into a hospital. I didn’t know that, of course, because she told me after this whole ordeal.

I woke up and found all of her stuff still in the house, but the car was gone. There was an empty bottle of vodka, and she wouldn’t answer her phone. Eventually she called me, delirious, telling me she didn’t want to hold me back anymore, that she was a burden, that she just didn’t want to hurt – things that are, after reading your extensive thread on this topic, common.

Well, after getting off the phone with her I did the only responsible thing: called 911. And I waited. The cops were very helpful, and after a few hours of sitting on the couch staring at the wall and petting our dog, they found her. Where? Trying to buy a dress so she could “look pretty” when they found her. It turned out she drank way too much vodka and took a whole bunch of Xanax. She then got in her car, drove to a department store and wandered around aimlessly before buying a few shirts that didn’t fit. I’m pretty sure the most dangerous part of her adventure was getting into the car at all.

So after two weeks in a detox and addiction center she was diagnosed with bipolar and PTSD (from severe trauma as a child) and alcoholism. She has been sober for seven months as of yesterday and properly medicated, and we are working extremely hard so she can figure out who she really is, now that she can see life clearly for, effectively, the first time ever, at 30.

I don’t know if there is any advice I can give anyone, but I know her attempted suicide was not a selfish act. She genuinely believed that she was suffering and that her suffering was making me suffer. And to an extent she was right. I was spending all of my energy trying to hold her together that I was incapable of doing almost anything else for myself. I take pride in being a strong communicator, but there are only so many tools you can be given in life to deal with situations like this.

I am very fortunate to live in a city was strong mental health resources (Boston), and she was very fortunate to have decent health insurance. Our relationship has gotten stronger, and she is able to enjoy activities I had written off years ago. We did have one slight relapse, and that’s kind of the point that I wanted to get to.

A few months ago there was some confusion between her psychiatrist and the pharmacy and her medication got screwed up. She ran out of pills, and was so embarrassed that she didn’t do anything about it. She didn’t tell me, of course, and I only noticed when she had a full on breakdown in the apartment because we were going to go and see people, and she just couldn’t handle the stress of it. The drastic change I saw, over those few days (I think she was off her meds for a week) was overwhelming. She went from this fun, bright, excited woman to a shell of a person. It reminded me of all of that sadness rolled in to all of those days before she tried to kill herself.

As far as I see it, selfishness is not the reason for suicide (at least not for her attempt). It’s fear, and it’s sadness, and it’s an unending sense that you are letting everyone around you down over and over again. To diminish that and wrap it up as selfish just dismisses the complex reality of our relationships with each other.

Another reader is on the same page:

I’ve tried several times to write in about this thread, but if I succeed this will be my first time actually pressing “send.” I’ve survived several suicide attempts, the most recent last August. (Though I am no longer suicidal – my doctor and I finally figured out a combination of medication that works for me. For anyone reading this, KNOW HOPE. No matter how bad it is, it really can get better.)

The “suicide is selfish” line really grates on me. For those left behind by suicide, I absolutely understand why they might feel this way, but for someone who has survived a suicide attempt, this line sounds like an accusation. Trust me, when you’re suicidal, you think you’re doing the world a favor – your decision couldn’t feel farther from “selfish.” Furthermore, a suicidal person hearing “suicide is selfish” just feels even more like a failure, like a fuck-up, like a person who doesn’t deserve to be alive.

I absolutely agree that portraying suicidal as inevitable is exceedingly harmful, but, in the end, a suicidal person needs to realize that she wants to live. Keeping yourself alive for someone else may be a great temporary fix (speaking as someone who once aborted an attempt because I realized that the last person I had spoken to was a lovely young co-worker who didn’t deserve the guilt I’d be placing on her – hey, silly, but it worked), but eventually that won’t be enough. The battle is always going to be between you and your demons; others in the equation don’t stand a chance, and telling a suicidal person “stay alive for me” just makes it worse for the person left behind.

But that approach has worked for this reader thus far:

From 2000 – 2003, three things kept me from killing myself (or so I thought at the time): my mom, my dad and my dog.  When my dog died, I felt that much closer to giving myself permission to leave.  But I promised myself that I would never, ever put my parents through the experience of losing me.  I was willing to live in misery to save them that horror.  It’s 2015, my parents are still alive and so am I.  I no longer suffer from suicidal depression thanks to medication, counseling and a 12 step program.  Maybe I wouldn’t have committed suicide under any circumstance.  But at the time, it was helpful to know that there were three things standing in the way.

We’ve all been there to some extent in our lives. Know hope.