Before anyone worries too much, I’m not considering suicide. Not today anyways.
This morning was Anthony Bourdain. Not long before that was Kate Spade. And between the two, how many others? I can’t help but think that this is getting worse and not better. There’s a negative energy that’s growing in our world and it’s impacting us in some profound ways. I think these are conversations we need to have.
I can’t remember the first time I thought about suicide. I was probably quite young. It wasn’t a function of depression as much as it was an exercise in exploring the extremes. It was probably a fight with my parents, or getting picked on at school. A moment of woe is me, I bet I would matter more if they thought I had committed suicide. In grade 12, I fell for a girl and was infatuated to the nth degree. When she left me, I was convinced that I would never be happy again. There was probably some consideration of suicide, but where I landed was that I wanted to be a fire fighter or something to that effect. I figured that if I wasn’t capable of being happy, I could at least dedicate my life towards helping others. It blew over and I moved on, but the conversation of suicide remained.
In my third year of university, I dated a girl who opened up to me about having tried to commit suicide. According to her, she wasn’t dealing with a breakup very well and ended up going into the shed at the back of the house and slitting her wrists. As she tells the story, her brother stumbled in on her and took her to the hospital, saving her life. I asked to see her wrists, and saw no scars. I was asked to keep this to myself as nobody else knew besides her brother. I did my best to be supportive. When we broke up, she told me that she didn’t think she could handle another breakup like this. That she might go and do something extreme. I reached out to her brother and asked him to keep an eye on her. From what I can tell, she’s doing just fine these days.
It wasn’t something I could relate to. Even in my darker, more melodramatic moments, I wasn’t interested in taking my own life. It seemed like giving up. For better or worse, this mindset of never giving up is hardwired into me. I’d much rather go out on my shield. Maybe that’s why I’ve often thought of ways in which I would be willing to sacrifice myself.. the hero’s death. The idea was that if I was going to die, I wanted there to be as much value in my death as possible. I either wanted to die of old age among a lifetime of accomplishments, or to die in a proper blaze of glory. There was almost a mathematical element to it, if my life was worth ‘x’ and an honorable death would yield ‘x’ + 1, I’d take it.
When I started getting in over my head at the banks, I started looking for outs. I wasn’t willing to throw any more money at the problem. I wasn’t willing to quit or give up. I wasn’t willing to compromise my integrity. And I was running out of time. Part of my role at the bank included being licensed for life insurance. I remember reading that a life insurance policy would still pay out if you committed suicide, as long as more than 2 years had passed since you took out the policy and when you took your life. Hmm…
Last year, I was in a relationship with a girl who had been through a fair bit. In grade 11, she was in a head on collision with a motorcyclist and the motorcyclist didn’t make it. She went through some rough patches around that. Her family was not as supportive as they could’ve been. I knew this, but I also knew that she had been keeping something from me. I knew it was something dark, so I told her that I would be ready if she got to a point where she wanted to share. One night, we were hanging out in my car and the conversation went in that direction. Feeling like I had an opening, I asked if she spent much time thinking about death.
I told her that I think about it often. In the last 7 years, I’ve lost parents, friends, and family members… how could I not? I told her that every once in a while, when life gets to be a bit much, I think about suicide. What would it be like? How would I do it? Would I have the courage or the conviction? Would I regret it? She was surprised that I was talking about these things so calmly and openly. She opened up to me about her experiences and we had a remarkable conversation.
At first, I think she almost expected me to freak out or want to report her to a hotline. I didn’t, I just listened. And when she talked about life getting to be too much, I told her I could relate. I told her that’s when I think about it too. I told her about the conversations that take place in my head when I reach those dark corners, and then I told her about all the things that bring me back to the light. I could tell that she had never connected with someone else on this. It’s easier when you don’t have to face things alone.
After that conversation, I can’t help but think that the contemplation of suicide is a sign of a healthy, curious mind that’s going through some things. I spent most of my life thinking that people who are ‘suicidal’ are mentally weak, or damaged, or so distraught with life that I could never relate. I suspect that most people have had a similar perspective. Perhaps this is why we feel alone rather than connected when we have these kinds of thoughts. If thoughts of suicide only happened in extreme and rare cases, then perhaps it would be indicative of faulty hardware and perhaps those people should feel scared and alone. But if thoughts of suicide were had by most individuals in times of extreme duress, isn’t that something we should be aware of? Something that we should collectively acknowledge?
I’ve seen different ways of communicating what it’s like to have suicidal thoughts, none better than this by the late David Wallace,
“The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”
And yet the final thoughts of almost every person who has survived a jump off the Golden Gate bridge, are thoughts of regret..
‘What have I just done? I don’t want to die. God please save me. Boom.’
There’s something happening here. We need to talk about this. Posting the suicide prevention hotline to your social media account isn’t enough. Thoughts and prayers are not enough. We need to have real conversations. We need to acknowledge that suicidal thoughts have a place within a modern society like ours, and we need to do a better job of understanding why.
Unemployment rates are at all-time lows while income inequality is at an all-time high. There’s no lack of work, just a lack of income for it. With a lack of income comes a lack of opportunity.. The lack of opportunity to own your own home, or to further your education, or even to start your own family. How many of us were raised with the idea that the only thing between us and a good life was hard work? How many of us are at a point now where no matter how hard we work, we can’t seem to make any progress? And how many of us are getting a sense that these factors are largely out of our control?
I can’t help but think that this structural shift in equality of wealth is the underlying reason for all this pain and suffering.. it’s the root of what we’re ultimately desperate to escape. Like J. Cole said, ‘you can’t take it when you die but you can’t live without it.’ When wealth has been shifted from the many to the few, this is how it plays out. When there isn’t enough to go around, people fall back into their tribes, looking to protect their own. Rather than looking for a solution to the problem, we’re looking for someone to blame. People become quick to draw lines in the sand between us and them. Social discourse becomes hostile. Where we were connected, we are now divided. And it all starts to break down.
If we’re looking for an analogy for how this plays out, we don’t have to look far. It sounds remarkably like climate change to me. The planet is a large and complex ecosystem which tends to exist within an equilibrium. Adjusting the average temperature of the planet by a few degrees over a long period of time isn’t something that most people would notice, but that’s not all that’s changing. With a shift in temperature comes a shift in equilibrium and the path from here to there is filled with chaos. Heat waves are now keeping planes from taking off. Blizzards are lasting well into the spring. Every hurricane that comes along seems to be worse than the one before.
By shifting the distribution of wealth by a few degrees over a long period of time, a lot of people didn’t notice. But they see the mass shootings. They see the school shootings. They see the police brutality. They see the Charlottesville protests. They see the government corruption. They see how little they’re making. They see how much they owe. They see what level of health care is available to them. They see the opiates in the community. And they see that we’ve lost the ability to talk these things through. Things are heating up.
When I think about the world we live in right now, it’s not easy. Then I remind myself that for some, this path is harder than others. Then I remind myself that not everyone is equipped with the tools to deal with these things. And that’s when I think no-shit people are struggling, these are hard times. These are the times where those with nothing to lose and those with everything to lose are choosing to escape rather than endure. And I can’t help but think that this is a function of hope.