Today, part two on suicide. I've put it off for a long time because it's just tremendously difficult to talk about, and I still don't feel like I have my words right, and I still haven't responded to some of the best, most important comments on the last entry, but this needs to go up.
We're tackling selfishness in this one, but first, let me make a couple of disclaimers.
Firstly, I do not want anyone to take anything I say, ever, as a validation of their personal decision to commit suicide. The purpose of this is not to foster despair in the already depressed. I am not telling you to kill yourself. I would, in fact, quite prefer it if you didn't. Stay.
Second, I also don't want people to take any of these entries as an assertion that I believe suicide is inevitable for anyone, and that depression should therefore not be treated or fought, or that any depressed or suicidal person should ever be written off. I don't think suicide is an inevitability for anyone. I believe recovery is possible. Depression gets more difficult to treat if it is left to fester, but I always believe there is hope.
The purpose of this is to clear up some basic misunderstandings people have about depression, suicide, depressed folks, and suicidal folks – and thereby hopefully reduce some of the pressure that keeps people who are hurting from opening up.
It is tempting to withdraw sympathy from the suicidal, especially the less-than-virtuous. It's tempting to regard their suffering as a just punishment for their fast living, drug use, infidelity, etc. If we feel that they deserve it, that they brought it on themselves, then we can believe that it will never touch us or anyone we love.
It's easier to dismiss and blame people than it is to sympathise; easier to say that a thing is unfathomable and inexcusable than it is to admit that there must have been a compelling reason to do it and a human motive behind it.
It's efficient to dismiss all suicidal people as people the world would be better off without. Saves you the trouble of trying to help them.
It's a lot less frightening to call suicide "stupid" and "overreacting" than it is to acknowledge the terrible, terrible pain that our fellow human beings feel, and the responsibility that suffering may place upon us.
It is tempting to call suicidal individuals selfish, moreso when they leave loved ones and/or children behind – especially if one is one of the loved ones or children. Condemnation comes easier than understanding, and anger is a natural part of grief.
And all of this . . . it's all part of the problem. Part of why people in pain don't always ask for help. "You don't mean it." "That's not worth killing yourself over." "Your problems aren't THAT bad." "You brought this on yourself." "Don't be stupid." "You must be weak." "You're just being selfish and only thinking of yourself." "If that's how you feel then go ahead and do it, because the world would be better off without you, anyway." Blah blah blah.
And I'm here to tell you that no, I don't see suicide as a weak, selfish act.
I cannot call suicide weak, because strength does not enter into it – there is a level of pain that will buy anyone. If a person caves after suffering as much pain as they are capable of handling, that is not a moral failing. It is not a moral failing if a person endures 15 years of suffering and then snaps in the sixteenth year. It is not a moral failing if they snap after six months, either. A lower pain threshold does not make anyone less worthy of sympathy, whether that pain is emotional or physical. Pain is pain, remember? We have surprisingly little control over how sensitive we are to hurts. We cannot all endure the unendurable simply by screwing up our courage and soldiering on.
I cannot call suicide selfish, because "selfishness" is too simple a judgment to apply to such a complicated act. The idea that suicide is universally selfish, that it is a morally wrong act, is a cultural meme that needs to be buried. The idea that suicidal people should be embarrassed by their feelings needs to be buried along with it. Deepest of all should be buried the idea that shaming the mentally ill is in any way discouraging of the urge to harm oneself.
Let's look at the word "selfish," and see what it means.
1: concerned excessively or exclusively with oneself : seeking or concentrating on one's own advantage, pleasure, or well-being without regard for others
2: arising from concern with one's own welfare or advantage in disregard of others (a selfish act)
So there you have it.
It carries another connotation, too, though; a connotation so essential to the meaning of the word that it is not even stated in the definition.
Very few people would disagree that in order to be truly selfish, an action must be deliberately chosen. "Selfish" implies a degree of self-determination, of personal agency. It implies that the selfish person is capable of making another choice.
Yes, suicide is an act we choose, yet we do not choose the conditions that lead to it. When we come to the fork in the forest road, we can sometimes control whether we take the left hand turn or the right, but we cannot choose not to go into the forest in the first place. And depression, anguish, and despair devastate one's ability to choose anything other than the left hand path of suicide. That is why depression, or the other mental illnesses commonly associated with suicide, are so crippling. They destroy the ability to do the most necessary thing – cope.
If suicide's an act that a person chooses, it's not one most people choose with all of their faculties intact, and it must not be judged as such.
A suicidal person is not any more selfish than any person who demands relief from terrible pain. It is not selfish to demand help if you are sick and in agony. It is selfish, however, to expect others to endure pain without complaint. It is doubly selfish, and cruel as well, to tell a depressed or suicidal person that they are being selfish simply for having those feelings, or to tell a person that their pain is unimportant because it is not a physical pain.
I think that the "suffering is noble" myth also contributes to the perception of suicide as selfish; suffering is seen as something you just have to endure. Everyone has to put up with it, why should you be any different? This is bullshit, and I will go on about it at length in a different post. At any rate, it is often seen as ignoble and weak to "give up" by committing suicide.
But it's not morally weak to break.
The thing about depression is that you don't get a choice about how you feel. It is a disease. An illness. You can no more blame a depressed person for "giving in" to depression than you can blame someone for "giving in" to any other deadly disease. You can't hold a person morally responsible for the symptoms of an illness. And you can't blame them for catching the disease in the first place; it's not something people choose to experience, or can choose not to experience. We don't bring it on ourselves.
We are told that we should fight. That we should stand up in the face of the worst pain we have ever known and soldier on. And if we do not, or cannot, then we are told that we are weak and therefore morally inferior.
I don't think "should" ought to enter into it; when you bring "should" into a debate, you place a moral judgment on those who do not or cannot do whatever it is you think "should" be done.
Yes, I think it would be wonderful if we could all be more stubborn than our demons, and I think it is miraculous that so many people hold out as long as they do. But some people can't, and that's not their fault. We didn't choose to be ill, and the illness robs us of the weapons we would normally use to defend ourselves, remember?
"Selfish" also implies thoughtlessness and carelessness: something done without regard for others or their feelings. There is no doubt that suicide is devastating to those who are left behind, and if one is being selfish enough to disregard everything but the effect of a person's death on other people, then suicide can be seen as selfish, yes. It is wrong, however, to assume that the person contemplating suicide is unaware of the effect it will have, or does not care.
I was well aware of what effect it would have on my loved ones. It was an agonizing thing to contemplate, truly horrific. I felt tremendous grief and guilt over even contemplating it. But the illness itself provokes a suffering so profound that it eclipses everything else, everything.
When you're in that place, it's entirely possible to for-real believe that you are doing what is best, for you and for everyone else. That's the horror of it.
I cannot speak for anyone else, but let me give you a sampling of the thoughts I had when I was genuinely contemplating suicide:
"They will have the rest of their lives to put this into perspective."
"They will never be the same, I know that, but I can't stand this any longer; my suffering now is greater than theirs will be."
"They will have each other."
"They are stronger than me, and fundamentally healthy. They will be all right."
"I don't want to hurt them, but I cannot live like this, and I don't know what else to do to make this stop."
"Better for them to learn to live without me and eventually get over it than for them to have to put up with the suffering and inconvenience I would cause them for the rest of my life."
"This will never go away. It will always come back. Better to die than to fight this forever, when fighting only makes me miserable and hurts those around me."
"If they knew how much I was suffering, they would understand; they would not blame me."
"Nobody can help me. I am only causing them pain."
"As horrible as it is, if I kill myself, my pain will be over; I won't have to watch them suffering because of what I have done, and they won't have to watch me suffer with this illness any more."
"I didn't ask them to love me. They shouldn't. I certainly don't deserve it. It's their own fault if they get hurt when I die."
"They say they love me, but if they had known at the start that I would wind up like this, they would not have chosen me. They are simply too kind – or addicted – to sensibly part with me and save themselves the pain."
"They say they don't want me dead, and I know they would never wish for me to die, but they really don't understand how much better off they'd be without me. If it happened, they would realize just how difficult life with me was, and would quickly realize that it was for the best."
Note, please, that this sampling includes some statements that were true, some that were false, and many that were a combination of the two. That's what makes these thoughts so awful. They can be really damn convincing.
I felt my options had been reduced to two choices:
Choice A: Me, suffering for the rest of my life, and inflicting suffering on those around me for as long as I live. My presence would be a constant irritant, a perpetual open wound.
Choice B: Me, ending my own suffering and causing my loved ones a great deal of pain, but knowing that pain will fade. The terrible injury of my death would heal, in time, and eventually, my loss would be far less painful than my presence would have been.
I sincerely believed that they would be better off without me. I believed that I would be doing the right thing in the long term.
Those are not the thoughts of a healthy mind. If I had not been deeply sick at the time, I would have dismissed them immediately. The injured mind, in a state of terrible pain, will go through amazing machinations to justify something it believes will bring relief, even if that means causing others pain.
It is not true, of course. Those who care about us would never agree to the trade. The very least you can say of suicide is that it is hurtful to those left behind.
But what do you call being told you must live in horrible pain simply to please other people? Especially when you aren't convinced that your presence is any less painful than your absence would be.
Though we regularly ask it of those we love, though it is a part of love, we must not forget that asking another to suffer for our benefit, or demanding that they suffer "for their own good," is extraordinarily selfish. Living for someone else is one of the most horrible, caged feelings there is; it leads only to resentment and frustration and more depression. In fact, this feeling of being "trapped" is a critical element in suicidal ideation.
I am not saying that we must regard suicide itself as a positive act, and I am not saying that we must approve of it or refuse to intervene when a person we know is suicidal. Death is not a happy thing, and we absolutely should try to protect those we love from it, even when it is self-inflicted.
I'm simply saying that we cannot regard the person, or their feelings, as morally bankrupt. And that means using words like "selfish" with extreme caution. I do not believe that "selfish" is a word that has a place in any compassionate discussion of suicide.
As I said before, used neutrally, and applied solely to the effects suicide has on those left behind, yes, suicide is selfish.
The view from within alters this irrevocably. The suicide's anguish and suffering alter it. It is a tragic act – unfortunate, devastating, horrific, terrible, ruinous, dreadful – to those who remain, but we must not forget or discount the torment suffered by the suicidal person in life. We must not brush it aside. We must not weigh their pain against our pain.
To reduce an act of such bitter desperation to simple selfishness is to reduce the suffering of a depressed or suicidal person to nothing more than the effect their death has on others. That is not right. It completely negates the individual's agency and humanity.
Suicides, and suicidal people, are not to be held in moral reproach for their feelings or their actions. It's a morally gray act, a thing too big for anyone to judge, because almost no-one who makes that decision is in a right state of mind. An otherwise loving and caring individual would have to be truly tormented to cause their loved ones so much pain. Anyone who would do it is not healthy. They are ill, or at the very least they are desperate, and suicide is a horrible symptom of that.
Morality and illness are very rarely connected. The fact that our culture believes the exact opposite is one of the most deeply hurtful myths that any sick person has to deal with, whether they have cancer or arthritis or major depression.
Condemning and dismissing the mentally ill only increases the burden placed on those who are suffering. It creates and validates feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, and despair. It contributes to the aura of shame that surrounds mental illness. It fosters pain and spreads misery. Laying blame, treating mental illness and its symptoms like a moral failing, makes open, honest, life-saving dialogue impossible.
We must treat the depressed and suicidal with compassion and respect. It is not necessary to approve of the act itself in order to do so, any more than one is obligated to regard cancer or pneumonia as a positive thing. It is only necessary to acknowledge the validity of their suffering, attempt to understand their feelings, and alleviate their pain if that is possible. It is necessary not only to talk, but to listen.
Pain, all pain, would be easier to bear if people would simply agree to that.
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