TO BE OR NOT TO BE,
that is the question of today’s blog post. And what a tough question it is, although it may seem quite simple and self-explanatory to a person who has no inner struggle or emotional difficulties. To a person without mental illness, it may never be a question at all.
Now, before we continue and get into the nasty little details of suicide, I would like to clarify that I am not trying to glorify it in any way. My goal is not to make suicide seem heroic, purposeful, or whimsical. Suicide is death, and so it is painful, and messy, and usually, from my experience, like a ginormous bomb being dropped in the middle of a family, smashing up anything and everything within reach and leaving nothing but craters and rubble.
My only goal here is to speak for the long-silenced side of the suicidal in an age-old argument built on misunderstanding and a lot of pain. People who commit suicide are, of course, dead and cannot give their rebuttal in the blame game that often takes place after they are gone.
All I want to do is speak for the dead. All I want is to explain to those who have never gone through a mental illness why suicide is not selfish, and why saying that it is selfish is not only ignorant, but also quite dangerous.
Suicide and Pain.
First of all, in a very literal sense (and I know I am about to contradict myself), suicide is selfish. If you take selfish to mean consumed with the self, than yes, of course suicide is selfish, because the person who commits suicide is completely consumed by his or her inner pain. In a way it’s as if people who commit suicide are destroying the source of the pain. It’s as if, after looking for the source of pain in all different areas of their life, they come upon it suddenly, naked and obvious in front of them: the self. How awful it is to look in the mirror and know that you produce your own suffering.
Second of all, let me point out what most people know in at least a very surface-level sense: mental illness is very painful, and suicide is not easy.
Suicide is not something people do offhandedly after deciding they’ve had enough. It’s not something people do after an especially bad day at work or school. People commit suicide after experiencing A LOT of pain, usually for a long period of time. It is pain that they believe will never go away, and it is bad pain.
By bad pain, I mean pain that is worse than other types of pain. I can only speak for myself, because everyone’s pain is unique, but to me, the psychological pain I experience from depression is worse than any other pain I have felt in my entire life. This, of course, is not saying much because I am not that old, and I have not experienced an extreme amount of physical pain. But it is more painful than hours spent vomiting by the toilet until I can’t breathe, and it is more painful than a dog ripping my hand open when I was five years old. It is a different kind of pain altogether: it is deeper, and larger.
To put things in perspective, my psychological pain is bad enough that I often want to cause myself physical pain in order to distract myself and focus on something less painful.
The only thing I can compare the pain of depression to is the pain of grief. A few years ago, when my uncle died, I got a small taste of what grief feels like. I think anyone who has experienced grief can agree that it is deep and huge. It can be so intense that it actually feels physical, like a real emptiness somewhere near the heart, the stomach, or the head. The only positive side to grief is that it helps a person move on with his or her life, and it often comes with some sort of enlightenment. A person who has grieved, in many cases, gains a greater understanding of life in general and his or her own death which is eventually to come. Grief is wretched, but it cleanses.
For me, the pain of depression is very similar to grief, but there is no enlightenment, and, worst of all, there is nothing to focus my sadness on. There is nothing to be cleansed of. There is only a continual hurt that presses down harder and harder with time, like I am Atlas, from Greek mythology, holding the immensity of the sky upon my shoulders.
I will never forget my therapist telling me that she believed a young person should never commit suicide, but she wasn’t so sure if an old person, a person who had tried every method of medication and still suffered, for years and years, should not commit suicide. Who was she to say that a person living with so much pain for so long should not have the option to die? It is the same ethical dilemma that crops up with the assisted suicide of people suffering from chronic physical pain.
What I am really trying to say is that, although the pain of losing someone to suicide is immense and should never be made to seem less than what it is, perhaps a person who has committed suicide can never be selfish in the fact that it can never be known how much pain he or she was experiencing, and if it was any less than anyone else’s after he or she has died.
(Again, let me reiterate, I am not justifying suicide. I hate suicide with a passion I cannot describe. I am only trying to show how suicidal people are not selfish in their actions.)
Suicide and Choice.
In most cases, people who believe that suicide is selfish also believe that people who commit suicide have made a choice. The act of suicide is selfish because a person has consciously decided to rid him or herself of pain by dying, and thereby cause great pain in others.
Suicide, then, is not selfish if a person does not have a choice, as I believe people with mental illness do not. In fact, they very much think that they have no choice at all — their options have run out, and killing themselves is what they believe is the last thing they can do.
The best way I have ever heard it described is in a quotation by David Foster Wallace, comparing a victim of suicide to a person on the high-rise of a burning building. If you ever need an analogy for suicide, use this one, please — it is the most accurate I have ever come across.
“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.”
David Foster Wallace.
Suicide as a result of mental illness is like that. There is no choice. There is only a crazy hurt that cannot be contained. It is true that people do not think of others when they commit suicide, but how could they when the flames are burning their backs and the expected pain from the fire is limitless?
So there it is: people who suffer from mental illness and commit suicide are 1) in unimaginable pain and 2) have no choice.
If you still believe that suicide is a selfish act, please believe it quietly. It is a dangerous idea to express to anyone who is suicidal. The lack of understanding that it possesses will only make a mentally ill person feel more alone than he or she already does.
Now, as I finish, I would like to say (in case I have still given the wrong impression and I appear in favour of suicide) that although the pain of mental illness feels eternal, it is not. Or, at least, it can never be known that it is. There is always the chance that things will get better, that the weight will be lifted from one’s shoulders, and that the flames will no longer be burning one’s back. There is also great wisdom, beauty, and an acute sense of being, or “alive-ness,” to be found in the pain and experiences of the mentally ill. Those three things alone are worth living for, and if you add some love from family and friends into the mix, the question of “to be or not to be” may fade bearably into the background.