Thought Catalog

People Are So Fragile

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There’s a myth about suicide: That those more likely to commit it are the delinquents, the drop-outs, the homeless, the addicts, the apparently troubled.

Quite often, though, the most susceptible are our role models, the high-achievers, the straight-A students, the chipper, the friendly, the generous, the successful.

As a journalist, I’ve written about death and tragedy countless times. My first full-time reporting gig was in Tracy, Calif., where I covered murder, rape and torture for three years running. But it wasn’t until I took up my current job as reporter for a local publication in an affluent Bay Area suburb that I had to write about suicide.

Unlike a death where there are obvious “bad guys” and victims, suicide is so often inexplicable. Family of the victims question themselves, wonder why they didn’t see the signs and turn back that anger on themselves.

“Family of people who take their own life often look back at what the person said, or how they acted, for missed signs,” said suicide expert John Bateson, who runs the Contra Costa Crisis Center in Walnut Creek, Calif., and is penning a book on Golden Gate Bridge suicides.

“Invariably, it is such a complicated mindset that unless you’ve been suicidal, it’s difficult for someone of normal thinking to see that point of view,” he said. “The best we can do is let people know that there is help.”

Most of the time, reporters refuse to cover suicides. Suicides happen in clusters, partly because someone who’s suicidal may cement that decision to take their own life if they hear about someone else doing the same. It’s risky to bring attention to the behavior.

But sometimes, suicides are a public event and we’re forced to write about them. Last summer, a man my own age waved a 9mm handgun at a bunch of cops after an hourlong standoff. The cops shot back, 37 times, and the kid crumpled into a dead heap on the ground. A jury later ruled it suicide by cop.

Not long before that, a well-known community member a town over rammed his car into a utility pole, endangering the people around him. Since it was in the open, we had to write about that, too.

More recently, a 15-year-old girl went missing. Earlier this week, Alliy was last seen riding her bike around school. Her family said she left a suicide note and traces of an Internet search for directions to the Golden Gate Bridge. The public responded in a heartbeat. Hundreds of volunteer searchers combed the beach, parks and trails of San Francisco to find Alliy.

On Wednesday, authorities called off the search. At that point, their only hope was to find the body. They had enough reason to call it another suicide – one of 1,300 suicide jumps off the bridge since its construction in the late 1930s.

Another life taken to a kid’s temporary hopelessness.

Alliy was exactly the type of high-achiever I described earlier. She was a record-breaking swimming, a 4.0-GPA holder, someone so many people looked up to.

We’ve had some pretty high-profile suicides in this area. A few years ago, a little girl suffocated herself in her bedroom after getting a less-than-perfect score on a math test. Her story inspired a local documentary filmmaker to create “Race to Nowhere,” a movie about the overwhelming pressures society and families place on our youth.

My mom called me after I just got home from Alliy’s vigil last night, so we started talking about all the suicides in this area.

My mom grew up in Danville, like Alliy did, and felt many of the same pressures. Her parents were rich CPAs, moving every couple years into bigger and better homes, moving their kids around from city to city to pursue their money-driven American dream.

My mom became bulimic to live up to her mom’s expectations that she stay a size 4. My mom became a cutter and tried to take her own life because she felt like she always fell short of her parents’ expectations that she do well in school, keep up the house and steer clear of boys.

I don’t know why Alliy jumped. Suicide is, more often than not, unexplainable, even to those closest to the victim. Alliy’s best friend, who I spoke to this week, said nothing could have been more unexpected.

“She would brighten your day, she was so optimistic,” she told me, barely able to fight back tears.

Sometimes it’s mental illness. People with bipolar disorder describe coming down with “tunnel vision” that blocks out all prospects, all concept, of tomorrow. They can’t imagine a future. They don’t want to kill themselves, but feel theyhave to.

Other times, it’s everyday pressures like those felt by my mom, it’s all the little things and the big things and the things we can’t get over. It all starts to pile up and seem insurmountable.

It’s the expectations of the people around us, especially of our teachers and parents. Often, kids who get tons of positive feedback for their accomplishments have a fatal weakness – undeveloped coping mechanisms for criticism and what they perceive as failure.

I’ve struggled with suicidal thoughts as an adult. I think it’s safe to say that it’s common for people to feel at times that death is the only way out, that things will never get better.

Suicide and the people who consider it are often stigmatized, especially, in my experience, by conservative religious communities. Taking one’s life, or even weighing it as an option, is taboo to talk about. People are made to feel ashamed to admit that they’ve considered it.

I think it’s important to bring out in the open, though. Because often when you’re at that low point, you feel guilty and alone. You think you’re the only one who feels that way, that there’s no one who cares and no one who can help and no solution.

If more people knew that the feeling is shared and overcome by so many other good people, I think they’d make it out alive.

Suicide is always a temporary feeling. We need to make those permanent solutions – like that too-easy-to-jump-over Golden Gate Bridge railing – less available so people have time to get over it.

That brings me to another myth about suicide: That if someone’s Plan A is foiled, say by a suicide barrier on the iconic Golden Gate, that they’ll find some other way to kill themselves. Bateson, and a long list of other experts, say that’s not the case.

U.S. Berkeley psychology professor Richard Seiden in 1978 studied that very question: “Will a person who is prevented from suicide in one location inexorably tend to attempt and commit suicide elsewhere?”

Seiden and some graduate students followed up with more than 500 people who had tried jumping to their death at the Golden Gate Bridge. A quarter-century later, some 94 percent died some non-suicidal way or remained alive. Six percent actually committed suicide.

“They might have a Plan A, but there’s no Plan B,” Seiden told the New York Times Magazine, per Bateson. “They don’t say, ‘Well, I can’t jump, so now I’m going to shoot myself.’”

The authority that governs the bridge has for years turned down proposals to erect a suicide barrier, or to build a net to break the fall. It’s too expensive, they say. The net alone would likely cost more than $46 million, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

But if it shatters the bridge’s image as a spectacular place to die by making it harder to do so, is it worth the price?

Sometimes, all a person needs is a little more time for some hope to grow.

Stay strong, people. Hug your friends and family. Tell them you love them. Be nice to strangers. It could save someone’s life. TC mark

image – DaNASCAT

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    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

      This is really good. Poignant…

    • Teukros

      “Suicide and the people who consider it are often stigmatized,
      especially, in my experience, by conservative religious communities.”

      This is a weird conflation of two utterly unlike concepts.  Simply put, stigmatizing suicide is good, but stigmatizing suicidal people is bad.  Why would you put them together in the same clause, unless you disagree with my previous sentence?  It makes sense to say that there's help, that having suicidal thoughts is okay, but should we say that suicide is okay?

      Furthermore, without some documentation, your claim against conservative religious communities is a straw man.  It's in the same mold as the whole “suburbia is hell” meme that so many directors like to peddle.  I don't doubt that you could make your point without such a logically weak springboard.

      • Bourdillon

        Stigmatising suicide is not “good”. People don't commit suicide because they think it's cool, they do it because they lose all hope (often for reasons which are not directly related to their circumstances). If you stigmatise suicide you automatically stigmatise anyone who finds themselves considering it. That's the way stigmatisation works.

        • http://twitter.com/jennwadsworth Jennifer Wadsworth

          Well said, Bourdillon.

    • Kali

      Well-thought article. Thank you for sharing. :)

    • Cm3smith

      Sometimes all a person needs is room to be human, to go against the grain without condemnation and to know that family and friends will pick up on and reinforce the essential goodness within.  Trying to live within the narrow confines of societal rigidity will suffocate the often fragile and rare  gifts of those who still feel, hope and dream. To try and to err is a sign of vitality. Too often I have seen creative individuals make spontaneous decisions, misguided or not,  seeking a fuller human experience.  The resultant vicious condemnation, public or private, amputates self-worth, is unnecessarily is life altering and the world is denied the gifts of those with much to offer. Tolerance, faith and redemption. We could all use and extend a little more of it.

      • Mary

        my best friend committed suicide last month, and you have articulated exactly how i see it. what enrages me even further is that even after his death, people continue to put judgement on him in order to distance themselves from his death, and from death in general.

        • http://carlamariasmith.blogspot.com Cm3smith

          I am sorry for your friend and for the world's loss. It's exactly what I meant. My friend sent me an article written by Robert Fritz, talking about Lady Gaga and how despite all her success she remains conflicted inside. It was written about a tearful moment she had just before she went onstage in Feb. to a sold out crowd in NYC. She still felt I thought it might help to know that the walking wounded are everywhere, even where you might least think to look:
          In the opening of HBO’s production of Lady Gaga Presents the Monster Ball Tour at Madison Square Garden special, Lady Gaga gets a coffee at a neighborhood deli, says hi to some fans on the street, gets back into her limo, is driven past the Madison Square Garden marquee with her name featured in gigantic letters, wipes a tear from her eye, and says “Look at that,” to herself. Later in her dressing room, putting on her makeup, looking in the mirror, she beings to cry. “I just sometimes feel like a loser still, you know. I know its crazy because we’re at the Garden but I still feel like a F***ing kid in high school.” She cries some more, “I’m sorry,” she says to the people in the room. She continues to cry softly, her head down.So, here is the most successful rock star in years just before another example of her brilliant success, crying her eyes out. Self-honesty comes with the territory of being an artist. For most people in this structure, they can hide their unwanted beliefs from themselves for long stretches, only once in a while seeing it rear its ugly head. But an artist, any artist, rich or poor, successful or not, has to delve deeply into the truth of themselves. It takes the deepest truth there is. You have to dig down right to the core of yourself, and see it all. All the evil and all the good and everything in between. Everything exposed. No place to hide. No place to try to make yourself look good. You can’t hold on to anything – dignity, self-respect, faith. Those things are all an illusion in light of what you find. It takes a certain strength, maybe even courage, or you can’t get to something in art that nothing else can reach, something real.

          Robert Fritz

      • Mary

        i have to respond to this again. so moved by it.

    • http://www.noahtourjee.com Noah Tourjee

      Thanks for writing about this. I don't think there are proper words to describe the loss of a loved one to suicide. Theres just too much to feel. All you can do is try and use that feeling to live. That unbearable mystery and unnecessary loss is just too big. Its hard to even think about.

    • Landon Traller

      One of my friends just wrote a long post on her blog about wanting to kill herself after her marriage dissolved. I just sent her a text saying to call me or a therapist or anyone, and now I'm crying like a two year old and waiting for a reply.

      • http://twitter.com/jennwadsworth Jennifer Wadsworth

        That's good that you reached out. Also, Google some crisis hotlines in your area to pass on to your friend. Sometimes it helps to talk to a stranger about the situation because that person may not want their friends/family to know all the dark thoughts running through her head …

    • LitNit

      My fiance killed himself. I want to punch people in the face when they say, “It's not your fault, he would have found another way.” I know it's not my fault, but the point is that I failed him when it was important and, at the very least, I need to make a lesson out of that. For myself. For others.

      • http://twitter.com/jennwadsworth Jennifer Wadsworth

        Litnit, I'm really sorry for your loss … I really can't imagine. What I can say, as someone who's been suicidal before, is that it's not your fault. Someone who comes to that point psychologically rationalizes the motivation to kill themselves with thoughts that they're good enough for love, good enough for life, that they HAVE to end it. Don't blame yourself, please. Suicidal thoughts are symptoms of mental illness, not necessarily a reaction to actual circumstances or a lack of affection.

    • The_wall7777777

      The difficult thing is getting the message out especially to people that haven't been affected by suicide. A lot of people hold the “it'll never happen to me” mentality. How should we overcome that?

      • http://www.noahtourjee.com Noah Tourjee

        I'm not sure, but I'd like to know. I'd like to know how to protect the people I love. You learn something from it. Like the endless slow tug of part of you, sliding sheets of pain through your soul every day. What can you do? What could you have done? When will it stop

        • http://twitter.com/jennwadsworth Jennifer Wadsworth

          If we talk more openly about suicide, then we can learn from the people who overcame the urge, we can ask them what changed their mind, what got them through. I've found, personally, that if I'm open about my struggles, other people are more willing to open up to me. Then, we can get to the heart of a person. That connection may be enough sometimes to keep a person hanging on. What brought me through my darkest moments? Friends, the best kind.

      • http://twitter.com/jennwadsworth Jennifer Wadsworth

        That's a good question. Don't know the answer. I think it's safe to say that at least one person in our lives has at least considered suicide if they haven't gone through with it. My co-worker was chatting with this guy named Kevin Hines, who survived a jump of the GG Bridge about a decade ago. He can offer a lot of insight into what he felt leading up to those moments. And some insight into reading the signs of it in the people around us. Check out his website at http://www.kevinhinesstory.com.

    • erqeqw
    • kateh

      I live in the same-ish area you're talking about and it's strange hearing about people i know on the internet. Great article, though.

      • http://twitter.com/jennwadsworth Jennifer Wadsworth

        Did you know Alliy? Glad you liked the article.

    • Noel Anderson

      Jennifer, I love every article you have written. Please keep writing more!

    • whu

      wow you know stuff
      thanks for telling me the stuff you know

    • Carly

      As someone who suffered through depression which led to suicidal thoughts for one year of my childhood and this year (I'm 20 years old), I just want to point out that suicide often stems from depression. A lot of people use the word depressed in their everyday life, i.e. “I'm so depressed, I didn't get that job!” or something similar. But in actuality, real depression involves a chemical imbalance in the brain. I personally am lucky enough to have a great life filled with wonderful family, friends, memories, and experiences. Despite this, when I suffered from severe depression I discovered that it didn't matter what was going on in my life — I needed anti-depressants to correct the chemical imbalance that was causing me to be so miserable and consider killing myself. I feel like not only is depression sometimes taken too lightly, as in my experience people would always tell me that I had a great life and I “just needed to be happy and positive”, but also anti-depressants are stigmatized as a sign that someone is too weak to fight depression on their own. I just felt the need to address this based on my personal experiences — I acknowledge that not everyone who suffers from depression needs anti-depressants, but I think it needs to become an option that people are more willing to consider, especially in the case of their children. I can honestly say that I most likely would not be alive if my parents had not made the decision to take me to a doctor and a therapist when I was younger, and to suggest that I do so again when the depression came back this year.

      • http://twitter.com/jennwadsworth Jennifer Wadsworth

        Glad to hear you got medical attention for your illness. Depression is more serious than most people know. I also have clinical depression. I self-medicated for a long time with cocaine and ecstasy. Even though a doctor didn't OK it, those drugs got me through some tough times alive and well. I'm almost certain I'd be dead without them. Medication, particularly doctor-prescribed meds, are quite often life-saving. Stay well, Carly. Sounds like you are =D

    • http://twitter.com/jhollida Jordan Holliday

      Jennifer thanks for writing this… I am from Danville and my little sister went to school  with Alliy, she has been really choked up about it. My mom told me about it just a few weeks ago… it breaks my heart.

      • http://twitter.com/jennwadsworth Jennifer Wadsworth

        I'm sorry about your little sister's loss … did she attend the memorial service? I didn't, but one of my freelancers did and wrote this lovely piece: http://sanramon.patch.com/arti

    • Nicole Evangelista

      Thank you so much for writing this article. My sister committed suicide about a week before this article was published, and I’ve since been struggling to find anything meaningful written on the topic. Stumbling upon such a heartfelt examination of the suicide phenomenon is a comfort to me. Thank you. 

    • Lauren

      Very healing, Jenn. Thank you. I’m speechless.

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