Whenever I find an article about suicide, I’ll read it, consider it, and then immediately bolt to the comments section to watch the inevitable stupidity and vitriol of the internet unfold before me in real-time. Preferably with a bag of popcorn. It’s virtually the last hot-button topic that everyone does their best to NEVER use logic when addressing, which is simultaneously entertaining and deeply disturbing. The assumptions we make about suicide are so incredibly reflective of why fatal depression in America continues to be such a huge problem. As a survivor of two attempts, I’m rather familiar with the archaic beliefs we have about it and their repercussions. Fortunately, we can start working to end them. Here are 5 things we finally need to stop assuming about suicide:
1. Failed attempts are all about “seeking attention”
It’s one of the most unfortunate and fucking ridiculous things I’ve ever heard about suicide attempts, and it’s usually followed up with “If you really wanted to kill yourself, you would have done it.” Ah, because shaming an obviously tortured soul for living is a pretty classy thing to do. Let’s get this out of the way first: It’s not that people want to kill themselves. Given the choice of a) die and be gone forever and b) live a long, happy life, you better believe people are going to go with b. Serious mental illness, however, robs people of their ability to see that second option. They thus feel option “a” is the only possible choice left. Capiche?
People who don’t “succeed” at killing themselves are then often dismissed as pathetic attention-seekers, little drama queens who just want a hug. Suicidals are not seeking attention, they’re seeking an escape from the dismal existence they think they’re trapped in. I would have made a few “hey guys, guess what I’m about to do!” phone calls or texts if I had wanted the attention. My note was written, and a select few could read it and pass it along after I was gone. I didn’t want them seeing it while I was alive, and I definitely didn’t want them to know what kind of pain I was in. I was scared of looking like that emo attention whore, the ignorant assumption we often make about people with crippling depression. This same ignorance was what kept me from saying to someone, “I’m terrified, depressed, I’m having suicidal thoughts” in the first place. Ironically, I was accused of being that attention whore when I did survive, and the desire to hide my depression returned fairly quickly. In hindsight, my second attempt really wasn’t surprising. There’s a massive difference between help and attention. People who attempt suicide are sick and need the former, not your ignorant judgements.
This is a debate that will probably rage forever. Was it brave of him to kill himself, or was he a coward for it? The answer is that both arguments are pretty fucking stupid. Labelling suicide as either an immensely courageous or a disgustingly weak act completely misses the point and dismisses the issue we really need to talk about: mental illness. We don’t say anything about how brave someone was for dying of colon cancer (how noble it was to allow his asshole to end him) or how cowardly someone was for succumbing to a stroke (a stroke? What a pussy). Instead, we actually talk about the fatal diseases and work towards preventing and curing them. Why is that so hard to do with depression? “My brain chemistry is wayyyy off.” Well, we’re not going to talk about causes, preventions, or treatments, but we’ll definitely talk about your courage and/or gutlessness when it kills you!
This whole assumption causes some major delusions with suicidal people, too. I had known people who had killed themselves, and I got caught up with the whole “well, that must have taken a lot of courage” thing. So it’s no shock that the first time I tried to give up the ghost I saw myself as some honorable Akira Kurosawa character committing seppuku for all the right reasons. I was almost proud of myself and my perceived bravery for carrying out what I thought was necessary. “Killing yourself is obviously the ultimate form of courage.” Since I don’t live in feudal Japan, I’m going to have to chalk this up to delusions created by a sick mind and exacerbated by societal assumptions. Delusions that almost killed me.
The second time, years later, I had completely switched viewpoints and saw myself as this pathetic worm just looking for an easy way out. A coward. As shocking as this may sound, feeding self-loathing with assumptions of cowardice actually doesn’t help a suicidal person. Gasp! Maybe it’s time to stop telling people suicide is brave or weak. Maybe it’s time to start telling people “this needs to and will be fixed.”
Tons of us think suicide carries with it the implied notion of selfishness. People who attempt it or follow through with it obviously don’t consider the terrible impact it will have on their friends and family. How could she be so selfish to do this to us? Did he even think about how this would tear us apart? Yeah, they thought about it. They knew. But when faced with the inability to see any other alternative, this only piles a whole lot of guilt on to an already unmanageable load. It’s why most suicide notes will say “I’m sorry.” So if people know the impact it will have on others, then why do they still do it? Well, once again, you’re completely missing the point of mental illness and how it kinda screws a person’s perception of things. It’s almost like getting mad at a guy with alzheimers for forgetting your name (After all these years! What a bastard!).
Another thing that no one seems to consider when talking about selfishness is that suicidals often think their friends and family would be better off without them. Their very presence on this earth is adding to the shittiness of it, so they feel they have to remove themselves for the greater good. In this warped mindset, the pain their death will cause a few is justified when compared to the relief it will eventually bring to everyone. Of course this is wrong (Hitler being the exception). But mental illness can convince suicidals that they’re actually being selfless in killing themselves. Hence why we really need to start addressing the medical cause and not the ethical implications.
Are you seeing the pattern? So many of us are willing to stand in unity for Suicide Prevention Week, change our Facebook cover photo, or wear little ribbons for “Mental Illness Awareness,” and yet nobody wants to treat it like an actual goddamn illness.
4. A failed attempt = cured!
I’m not sure if I can blame people for this since a lot of us really don’t know what it feels like to come back from the verge of death. Nevertheless, it’s an assumption based in ignorance and it needs to be corrected. I’ve said it before, but when you have a near-death experience, nothing fucking changes. Those inspirational “Wow a new lease on life! Everything is colorful and exciting and cool now!” life-changers are the stuff of fiction. Waking up after an overdose, blood-loss from a cut ulnar artery, breathing carbon-monoxide, or whatever the method is will absolutely be a moment of clarity. Emphasis on the word “moment.” That clarity will be gone just as fast and the depression will be back.
Depression doesn’t disappear with a suicide attempt like that last moment in Fight Club where Edward Norton shoots himself to get rid of Brad Pitt (SPOILER). Assuming that living through something like that is a cure in and of itself is just stupid. Survivors will still need help, which more often than not will include therapy and medication for years after an attempt. So it’s absolutely meaningless to say to someone who survived suicide, “I hope this taught you a lesson and you appreciate what you have now.” It makes it seem like everything will be totally fine and dandy, so screw follow-up, when it probably won’t be. Instead, try “we’re going to work on this so it never happens again.”
5. You can’t joke about it
This assumption runs so deep that I hesitated to even bring it up here. Yes, suicide is a serious, terrifying, and horrible thing. The level of insensitive you’d have to be to crack a joke around someone who has lost a loved one to it would be unfathomable. But like a racial slur, it’s all about the context and will be different for everyone. Depending on who I’m with, joking about my suicide attempts has always been an excellent way to broach the topic and start a healthy discussion about it. Of course, joking about it can be an instant red flag and you should always ask if a person needs to talk. But shutting people down with “you can’t joke about that” makes the whole topic seem like something that can never be mentioned and it can even alienate the people who don’t know how to ask for help. Return of the stigma. The more people feel they can’t mention it, the more they’ll keep it to themselves, and the less you’ll see it coming.
After my first attempt, the ER nurses gave me a lunch complete with plastic utensils. Either because of some gross oversight or because suicide via cheap cutlery would be nigh impossible, one of those utensils happened to be a plastic knife. My dad was in the room, still wiping tears out of his eyes. He looked at the knife, grinned, and said, “Shit. You’re not going to kill us both with that, right?” Mere hours after I had tried erasing myself from this plane of existence, my heartbroken father and I laughed our asses off together and began the healing process.
Humor has always been my way of coping with depression, as it is for many. It’s a way for some of us to talk about it and accept it as something we can fix. The assumption that it can’t be joked about undermines all of that, so please, don’t tell us what we can and can’t joke about. We’ll thank you for it later.
If you need help, don’t wait. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-8255.