“Killing oneself is, anyway, a misnomer. We don’t kill ourselves. We are simply defeated by the long, hard struggle to stay alive. When somebody dies after a long illness, people are apt to say, with a note of approval, ‘He fought so hard.’ And they are inclined to think, about a suicide, that no fight was involved, that somebody simply gave up. This is quite wrong.” – Sally Brampton

I don’t trumpet the fact that I’ve thought about ending my life on more than one occasion. Society tends to treat thoughts of suicide as a dirty secret, with the act itself being a scandalous betrayal. But when necessary, when someone could benefit from knowing that someone else in this world experienced the same dark thoughts they might be having, I’ve freely given comforting solidarity. It’s different when you’re on this side of it–the side of someone who has held a bottle of pills or razor blade in her hand, the side that had a “last wishes” document drafted at 14 in case she found the courage to actually go through with it, the side that has looked the lonely beast in the glaring, red-eyed face and chosen a different path.

That’s why I found Linda Gray Sexton’s essay “In the Shadow of My Mother’s Suicide” in Salon to be so damn powerful. She eloquently articulates what it’s like to be on that other side of suicide–so close to it, you can feel it breathing on your neck. It’s seemingly inescapable, and the more you struggle against it, the more your resolve waivers and fades. It has nothing to do with selfishness; it has everything to do with this ineffable, growing void that feels like it will consume you from the inside out. As Linda Gray Sexton writes, “My thoughts of suicide did not mean that I didn’t care about these very important people in my life. It was more as if the pain that accompanied my depression had moved onto a new plain, and, in my confusion, it seemed to require a new and different sort of release.”

The-hardest-thing-in-this-world-quoteIf you’ve ever thought of taking your own life or are contemplating it now, I urge you to read “In the Shadow of My Mother’s Suicide.” If you’ve ever had a family member or friend commit suicide, I urge you to read it, as well. And, more importantly, I advocate for compassion and patience–on both fronts. Linda Gray Sexton points out that the road out of the valley of suicidal thoughts is a long one; there were several moments (years, even) when she didn’t think she would make it out alive. The choice to survive the journey is an every day one. For many, thoughts of suicide are like that old acquaintance that shows up when you least expect or want him. You know you shouldn’t indulge him, but the familiarity pulls you in, sometimes before you even realize you’ve been suckered, and then he just won’t take the hint and leave.

I’m not ashamed to admit that at my lowest points I still gravitate back to thoughts of self-harm and self-destruction. I’ve likened it to a compulsion to equalize the pain inside with pain outside–that somehow the act will restore balance (even though, logically, I know it won’t). But in knowing and admitting this about myself, there is a bit of strength. I acknowledge my feelings rather than allowing them to spread like a silent blight beneath the surface. I journal the feelings, sing them out of me, confide them to a (very trusted) friend–and then I put them away.

The heart of the matter is clear in the second-to-last paragraph of Linda Gray Sexton’s essay: the word “hope.” Hold onto it with a white-knuckled grip. When you find yourself at the lowest of lows, the last thing you want to hear is a handful of trite cliches about how it gets better, you have to put up with rain to get rainbows, you take the bad with the good, etc. etc. But, if you’re openly honest and compassionate with yourself, there will be at least one small glimmer of hope–a flicker of light in the dark of seemingly unending night. Find that hopeful thing and focus on it. Even if it seems small like a barely visible star. The important thing is that it’s visible. Never lose sight of it.

4 thoughts on “BE BRAVE. LIVE.

  1. One of my good friends killed himself several years ago. I remember it was this huge wake-up call to me to change my life. Up until then, he and I had shared a lot in common. Because we were so alike, and because I witnessed his spiral (we worked together–across two companies–cube mates)–it scared me. I realized that it could easily be me, and now my life is very different. I’ll always miss my friend, but his death really changed my life–and I know it made a big dent in a lot of other people’s lives (for better or worse).

    I was actually thinking the other day about resilience…how some of us seem to go through so much and never really give up while others seem to struggle with the smallest things. (No judgment there). I think I’m pretty resilient. I have some really bad days. Most of my friends don’t understand how I got through the things I did. But I always, somehow, crawl out of it. I think part of it has been that, on my very worst days, I’ve always witnessed some amount of kindness. Sometimes, it’s huge and blatant. Other times, it’s tiny. But I’m always looking for things to hold onto. Hope plays a huge part of my life, and I think that’s why I’m able to witness and absorb the things I need most on the hardest days. I probably get that from my Mama. I just wish everyone could do that. There’s nothing harder than watching someone finally give up.

  2. Sometimes, for some people, the pain and suffering truly is intractable. Hope just doesn’t always materialize.
    It is quite simply a moral abomination to ask someone continue to live just so that we aren’t saddened by their passing. Rather than the suicidal being selfish, I couldn’t think of something MORE selfish than THAT.
    From this, I take a morally neutral stance on suicide. It is, unfortunately, part and parcel of the human experience, no matter how many platitudes or positive spin we throw at it.

      • I read the Salon article, yes.

        Some people find their suicidal impulse waxes and wanes or is otherwise part of a depressive rhythm that comes and goes in that context; these are the cases where you can batten down the hatches and just wait for it to pass. For some, again, it is a response to utterly miserable life circumstances in which it would be a category error to pathologise it is as depression or some other fleeting entity.
        One think is perfectly clear though, there’s those who has suffered chronically, and those who’ve had the luxury of NOT suffering chronically. This in mind, the latter can never really fully empathize with the phenomenon which brings about a fair bit disconnect with the ‘what is’ as opposed to ‘what we’d like’ when it comes to examining the urge to die.

        To be honest, I think the sheer complexity of the phenomenon pretty much negates any universal narrative to how any one person can or should respond to it, let alone anyone else….

        I’ve desperately wanted to die for many years but haven’t been able to cross that line into non-existence for a variety of reasons.
        I was in my early 20’s when I got struck down with a painful and life-changing chronic illness that just destroyed me. I lost it all: career, long-term relationship, all my old interests and most of my abilities. Being pretty much housebound and just existing to dealing with the pains of illness everyday is not the best quality of life. Ironically, getting hold of a lethal dose of Pentobarbital to use as and when I’d like to has given me the courage to go on; I view it as a kind of fail-safe to use if things really did get beyond the pale.

        For me at least, I don’t really see wanting to die as an urge to be pathologised and viewed as something external to the self as such; I see it as a valid existential option when living becomes too painful.

        Check out Yale Ethicist Shelly Kagan’s series on suicide. It’s quite lucid.

        Best of luck with your own struggles and I hope you can keep them firmly at bay.

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