Stubborn Ignorance

Silence is not agreement.

I keep my mouth shut as I walk behind the two women I am working with this week.  The younger one is marching in her formerly fashionable combat boots in time to the words barking from her mouth.  The topic is Suicide. Don’t ask how they got on to that subject, I wasn’t really paying attention.

She says, with all the force of the righteously ignorant: “I don’t understand how anyone can kill themselves. It’s so selfish. How can anyone be that selfish?”

This woman has been a part of my life for about eight years, a friend of a friend at first and now a coworker. I’m sure she’s heard my story. Perhaps she has forgotten.  Or, more likely, she thinks she is imparting a message to me.

“I’ve been depressed, everyone gets depressed sometimes, but I’ve never wanted to die.  Don’t they know how final that is?”  She says, with a tone that implies, “idiots.”

In my head, I answer, “Uh, yeah, they do. That is kind of the point.”  But I don’t say this aloud.  I just follow. Silent. Listening. Cringing to think of the older woman’s thoughts.  The older woman is smart and tolerant, I know she’s been through an emotional hell of her own.  She doesn’t respond either.  Because what can you say?  Silence is not agreement, I just don’t have the will to argue with her.

The speaker continues on, telling stories of people she knows who were hurt by someone’s suicide and how terrible their lives became because of their loss.  “So selfish!” she says, repeatedly, unaware of the hypocrisy.

What is Death?

I know other people who don’t understand the desire to end ones life.  They may not be as obnoxious in their verbalization,  but it boils down to the same thing: they don’t think about death the same way I do. I want to ask her, what does the word DEATH mean to you?  She is one of those agnostic-yet-spiritual types.  I imagine she would answer,  “Of course we don’t know what comes next, and I don’t believe in a fairy-tale heaven or god or anything, but there has to be something. My soul is real, and it can’t just disappear.”

In other words, you are afraid of not existing, therefore you have convinced yourself that you (your ‘soul’) will never die. It is that fear that keeps you from understanding suicide.  If you looked upon death as an inevitable ending, a dissipation into nothingness, a sleep without dreams or waking, perhaps then you could understand the desire to just skip to the end.

What is Life?

I choose to live, and it is a conscious choice. My life is a good life. I have experienced great joy and I believe that I will feel those bursts of happiness again and again in the future. That belief counters the anxiety, the fear of failure, the defeats, the blanket of numbing despair that threatens to smother me. No, I don’t forget.  It is always there, in the dark corners of my mind.  An open door into oblivion.  A promise of nothingness.

We are born into a reality not of our own choosing. The chemical soup of our brains can so easily twist that reality into pain/despair/insanity. We make life-altering decisions before we have the knowledge to understand that the repercussions can destroy all happiness. There are no second chances. There are no do-overs.

What keeps you alive?

She is facinated with skulls and crossbones, symbols of death, evident in her tattoos and the stickers she plasters on her car and her luggage. (Reminds me of the totems used by an old shaman to ward off evil spirits.)

English: Skull and crossbones
English: Skull and crossbones (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She has a ‘Kill or Be Killed’ attitude towards guns. She believes the weather/economy sucks and is just getting worse. The city is full of terrorists.  We’re all going to be speaking Mandarin in twenty years and of course that means the end of the world.  All strangers are bad until proven good.  And in the end, life is about suffering, after all.  If you aren’t complaining about something, you aren’t really living.

Here’s what I don’t understand, when your fear of death is the only thing that keeps you alive, what is the point?  If I told her I believe the world is a wonderful place, that most people are mostly good, and disasters bring out the best in us, she would tell me that I was terribly naïve. If I told her I that I live for the future moments of unexpected joy that I know are coming, she would tell me I was being childish.

And yet, I’m the one who has attempted suicide.  I’m the one who understands why, for some people, it is the only solution. I’m the one who’s selfish because I figured out that we can live (or die) only for ourselves, because it is the only reality we know.

I know why I keep going, why I keep breathing through the unending moments when I’m curled up in a ball on the bathroom floor unable to stop crying.  Does she?

Stubborn Ignorance.

“I don’t understand suicide!”  No, you don’t.  And somehow, by ignoring the inevitable end of life, you seem less alive.

Her ignorance on the topic of suicide ought to mean that she has less to say, but, sadly, she just keeps talking.


This Time

“It’s different this time,” she says to me, out of nowhere.  We’ve been talking about movies we’ve missed over the summer.

“What’s different,” I ask, although I know what she’s going to say.

“I don’t think I’ll make it out this time.”

A dozen glib comments come to mind, but I don’t say them, because I think she’s right.  Even though I’ve seen her this way before.  The long slide into nothingness, into a sleep that she never quite wakes from.  She has a hard time hearing, a deafness caused by the pressure of unreleased thoughts. The slide is longer this time.  Deeper.  Usually by now there are tears, rages against the unfairness of living because other people say to do otherwise is selfish.

There’s none of the anger this time, just the sadness, growing.  Her eyes are empty.  It’s even in the way she talks, flat, with an economy of breath, like she knows she’s running out of air.

She’s leaving.  She’ll save her breath for the good-bye.

I lean away from her.  I have to leave now.  I can’t let her drag me down into that abyss with her.  I can’t go there again.  I have too much to do.  I have a house to maintain. I have a man to love.  I have a job.  My life is good now, dammit.  It is good.  There is nothing to be depressed about.  Not anymore.  I’ve made all the changes.  I have the mantras.  I know the signs to look for.   Deep breaths and exercise and plenty of sun.

They’ll keep her here for a while. But not forever.  Eventually she will go home, and this time she’ll do it for real, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop her.

She’s already gone.

Not me.  Not me.  I pick up my purse from the tiled floor.  I stand up, my thighs peel away from the plastic chair.  She stands too and misinterprets my pulling away from the chair as a lean towards her.  She puts out her arms for a hug, limply, a habit of motion only.

I don’t want to touch her, but I also respond to the habit of the hug.  My arms go around her and suddenly we are both hugging tight, too tight.  We are each others lifelines but we are both drowning.

I can’t save you, I scream at her, at myself.

At home, he asks me how it went.  I shrug.  I won’t say my thoughts aloud.  It might make them come true.

He kisses the top of my head and tells me he loves me.  “I know, I say.  Our little joke.  Because sometimes I can’t say those words.

“I’m proud of you,” he says.

I feel sick to my stomach.  “Why?”

“I know how hard it is for you to go there.”

“I’m not going back.”

“I know,” he says.

Our little joke.  Because that is what I said yesterday.

image source:

Daily Prompt: Proud – When was the last time someone told you they were proud of you?

Why is Suicide so Sad?

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by George Charles B...
Virginia Woolf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face, and to know it for what it is…at last, to love it for what it is, and then to put it away.  – Virginia Woolf

Much of the “civilized” world puts a lot a talk into the idea of human rights. As if there is some sort of list of things every one of the eight billion individuals out there is born deserving. In fact the UN has written one : The Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
(If you haven’t, you should read it. It is short and clearly-worded.)

Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
Article 4. No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.
Article 5. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.

All of that says to me: Your BODY belongs only to you, and to no one else. If we all agree this is true, then why is it a crime to commit suicide? I believe that suicide is the right of every human.

Terry Pratchett is a prolific author and, more recently, a sufferer of Alzheimer’s. He has become one of the leading spokespersons for the right-to-die movement.
From a recent interview in the Telegraph:

He is dismayed that Tony Nicklinson, the severely disabled man who fought and last month lost an impassioned campaign to end his life, effectively had to starve himself to death. “I put his picture on the little lectern by my desk because I don’t want this guy forgotten. He was very clear about what he wanted and you cannot tell me that two doctors helping him to go to sleep [as in a Dignitas clinic in Switzerland], would constitute murder. It cannot be murder. The law says it’s murder so the law is most definitely wrong and needs to be changed. This poor guy was a prisoner of technology.”

It may be a stretch, but if it is a crime to ‘hurt’ yourself to the point of death, shouldn’t it also be a crime to  participate in any sports where fatal injuries can occur? To drive in a car, or fly in a plane? To give your self piercings or tattoos? Yes, I am being silly, but don’t all of these things have the potential for self-inflicted harm?

Suicide, like anything else a person chooses to do to their body, is none of anyone’s business.

Unfortunately, none of these logical, rational thoughts changes anything. The reason suicide a crime is because the rest of us, the ones left behind, are so horrified by it.

Why? What is so awful about it? Why does it make us so sad?

I will risk a bit of TMI now and tell you that I attempted suicide while I was in college. But, to quote Meneken,

The impulse to self-destruction is a natural accompaniment of the educational process. Every intelligent student, at some time or other during his college career, decides gloomily that it would be more sensible to die than to go on living.

I don’t mean to lessen the impact of my act, quite the contrary. The second time I ever saw my father cry was during the conversation we had about my desire to die. (The first time was when I was ten and he took us to see E.T. in the theater.) My father was sad because my suicide attempt forced him to imagine a future with out his daughter in it. It had nothing to do with the pain that led to that attempt. He dismissed that pain as fleeting and imagined, because from his point of view, it was

Suicide was not altogether unfamiliar territory for my father: his grandfather successfully took his own life in 1930. My grandmother, who was eighteen at the time of his death and had just graduated from nursing school, was often heard saying, “My father always told me that if I became a nurse it would be over his dead body.” (His suicide probably had nothing to do with her: he managed a bank in their hometown and lost a great deal of other people’s money in the crash of 1929.) But her sadness from his death affected her entire life. (Ironically she committed suicide herself. In her 90th year, in excruciating pain from the cancer that had spread across her entire body, she overdosed on morphine. This act, however, made no one sad.)

And all of this brings me to the reason for my focus on this subject: the story of the nurse who, supposedly, killed herself due to the humiliation of falling for a prank. I say supposedly because we don’t know, and we will never know, if that was the reason.
The objective observers see her act as a permanent solution to a temporary problem. But the problem, whatever it is, is not temporary to the subject. It was not temporary to me. It was not temporary to my great-grandfather or my grandmother. To the person experiencing mental or physical pain, the present is the only reality.

Suicide is sad because we miss or feel sorry for the person who is gone. But it is not a crime, and no one, not even two idiot prank callers, is to blame. I would ask that we all show some respect to the deceased and stop reducing her life to one bad decision. Instead, we should recognize that she did what she could with her life, and when it became time to do so, she put it away.