I had planned to write a longer post today, but, alas, it was not to be. After a fairly hectic work day, the wife and kids and I went to the local school district’s annual spring choral festival where our fifth grader, Claire, performed – and, along the way, ran into all-around badass and fellow ABL-er, Emily Hauser – and so, the long post didn’t happen.
Still, at the very least I had to spend a few minutes to express my sincere gratitude for all the wonderful and supportive comments I received after yesterday’s post on the twenty-second anniversary of my brother John’s suicide. The world of social media can be an unsavory place. I know this because I’ve been unsavory myself – usually, in circumstances where unsavory-ness was warranted, I think – but it’s also a place where, if you surround yourself with the right people, really gratifying things happen. To-wit: The outpouring of kind words I’ve been the unworthy beneficiary of since yesterday’s post.
All I can say is, thank you. It really means a lot to me.
And one other thing. Among the kind words I received was this comment on yesterday’s post:
I am sorry for your loss, but I do honor your brother’s choice. Those of us who choose suicide, or have seriously contemplated it, don’t choose that path in an effort to hurt someone else (typically). We view it as a viable alternative for ending a life that has become unbearable to us. In that respect, it has nothing to do with the others in our lives. Does that make sense?
I apologize to the commenter for addressing it in a more public fashion, but I think it requires more than a passing reply. First, and most importantly, I want to say: Thank you for the condolences. Secondly, I think I understand what you mean and I would never pass judgment on anyone for honestly expressing their views on the subject. And, of course, I understand the desire for personal autonomy in all circumstances.
Here’s the thing, though. I suspect in many cases, the choice to end one’s life is not really all that voluntary. In some instances, of course, suicide nothing more or less than a rash, spur-of-the-moment impulse. The pain is so severe a person just acts. I don’t think, in that situation, it’s really an affirmative choice at all.
Obviously, that’s not always the case. Out of respect for my brother, I won’t go into details, but there are a number of reasons why I believe he contemplated it for a long time before he took the final act. He struggled with his mental illness for years, so I don’t want to suggest he just “gave up.” (That, by the way, is the most pernicious bunch of bullshit you’ll ever hear: that people who commit suicide just “give up.” Fuck a whole bunch of that). But I do think that he saw it as an out, if and when it got to the point where he believed his problems to be unfixable. It was an option that he always viewed as, I guess, available.
Still, I don’t know that it’s ever a fully rational, and therefore fully voluntary, choice. I think the disease takes over, makes you think it’s a rational, voluntary choice … but, of course, you might feel completely differently the next day, the next month, the next year. And yeah, I know it’s trite to say so, but if you make that choice today, you never get a do-over.
As an aside, there’s a fascinating, painful, and very prophetic discussion of this very issue in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I can’t go back and find the chapter and verse right now, but it involves a character named Kate Gompert, who’s trying to explain to a young resident who’s doing a psych ward rotation that her unsuccessful attempt to commit suicide wasn’t motivated by a desire to hurt herself, but by a desire to stop hurting. Well do I understand that feeling. I bet most of us do. But for most of us, that feeling stops at some point. Usually, anyway.
In any event, in the book, Kate Gompert ends up not killing herself, while in real life, David Foster Wallace eventually did. There’s a lesson in there somewhere; I just haven’t figured out what it is.
Finally, I agree with the commenter that people who take their own lives generally aren’t looking to hurt anyone else. That, too, is a misconception that people have. That the effect on everybody else even factors into the equation. It doesn’t; or if it does, it factors in this way: The person actually believes that his or her friends and family will be better off without him or her. Again, that’s the disease talking.
I never bore any animosity towards my brother. I never even felt angry at him. I expected to. Anger seems like a fairly reasonable reaction to a brother’s suicide, if you ask me. So I waited for the anger to come, but it never came. What did come was this: Wave after wave of terrible, aching sadness. A hole in my heart. A piece of me gone that I’ll never get back.
I can’t tell anybody else what to do. I can say, though, that there are resources available for anyone who’s enduring that kind of suffering and wants it to stop. Please, if you are in that position, contact the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). They can help.
[Cross-posted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles]