Suicide Isn't Romantic, Part 1: Maybe There Isn't a "Reason"
The romantic, closure-giving picture of suicidal ideation pop culture gives isn't how it really feels.
[Content Warning: suicide. A lot. Disclaimer that I'm fine and I'm getting treatment and this isn't really about that. My best guess is that this could be extremely triggering if you know somebody who has committed suicide, and less so if you yourself want to.]
This was originally going to be about a lot of different things, but I wrote the first section and it was already the length of a full post. So instead, it's part one in a series that may or may not ever continue.
I think we as a culture have a tendency to romanticize mental illness in complex and dangerous ways. We have archetypes of tragically depressed artists, seeing their deaths as part of their art instead of an illness. We have subcultures and TV shows glorifying self-harm instead of asking how to prevent it. We let ourselves, in the words of Bojack Horseman's Ana Spanakopita, "fetishize [our] own sadness" and that of others.
Maybe someday I'll find the words to write about the ways I've romanticized my own depression and the real problems it's caused. You can probably see this tendency in the poetry I've previously posted. But today I want to talk about something different. Today I want to talk about the way we portray suicide as "the end of a story", an inevitable response to a tragic life, and the way I think this blinds us to the systemic brokenness lurking in the background.
The first time I really thought about what might drive a person to kill themselves was as a young teen listening to "Javert's Suicide: Soliloquy" on the Les Miserables soundtrack. Here Javert, a man of the law who's chased a supposed criminal for many years, is unable to process that same criminal's act of grace in sparing his life.
And my thoughts fly apart
Can this man be believed?
Shall his sins be forgiven?
Shall his crimes be reprieved?
As a work of art the song is devastating and haunting. This man, whose entire character up until this point has been defined by his unwavering commitment to the text of the law, is faced by an act of undeniable mercy by a man he's written off as unredeemable and it completely breaks him.
And must I now begin to doubt,
Who never doubted all these years?
My heart is stone and still it trembles
The world I have known is lost in shadow.
Is he from heaven or from hell?
And does he know
That granting me my life today
This man has killed me even so?
And in the context of the story, in the context of the song, this is just the way things go. The world has no place for Javert, and Javert has no option but to leave it. A fitting end to a tragically misguided life.
Suicide happens. It happens a lot, actually. It's the second most common cause of death for people my age, after car accidents. And every time it happens, the question we're all supposed to ask is why? What led this person to a place where a painful death seemed like the only option?
And the lie --- the dangerous, slanderous, lie--- is that there's a reason to be found, if you just look hard enough.
That's not to say people don't have reasons for the choices they make or that mental illness can't result from the trauma of specific experiences.
But when I need there to be a reason, I'm not looking for a list of facts. I'm not looking just for cause and effect, I'm looking for a reason. I'm looking for something that makes sense. I'm looking for something that says this was the unavoidable end to a fully fleshed out arc, something that lets this person have a full story. And that fundamentally is just not what suicide is.
You don't get to make it make sense.
And that really, really hurts when everything you see says life is supposed to.
Javert's suicide isn't beautiful. It's not poetic. And it's certainly not inevitable.
Javert kills himself because he won't admit that he's wrong. It's not brave. It's not tender. It's stupid and it's frustrating and it doesn't make any sense. Don't cry because he had no way out. Be angry that yet another person died for nothing.
Sometimes when I tell people I struggle with suicidal thoughts, they ask me why, and it's a perfectly reasonable question. But it's not a question I'm convinced has an answer. Here's an incomplete list of reasons I've wanted to kill myself over the past few weeks (disclaimer again that I'm currently dealing well with these thoughts and this isn't something to be worried about right now, these are more like automatic or intrusive thoughts than anything else):
I couldn't fall asleep
Zoom wouldn't let me make an extra breakout room.
I remembered an embarrassing moment from high school.
My heart was racing and I wasn't sure why.
A paper I was reading was vague on literally the one step in the proof I cared about.
Someone posted something dumb on facebook
If I had died, and you had asked why, and somebody told you that "Zoom wouldn't let Colin make a breakout room. He had no other choice", you would rightly tell that person they were completely insane. But if I'd had a more profound sounding trigger - say, a rejection or a period of loneliness - you'd nod and you'd furrow your brow and say "it's so sad" and you wouldn't bother asking what the hell is wrong with a brain that that thinks a proportional response to heartbreak is death?
Why write all of this? Why complain about the way a Broadway musical about dancing revolutionaries portrays its villain?
Every time suicide is in the news, I see call after call to "be nice to everyone you meet because you never know what they might be going through" and promises that "I'm here to talk if you need it."
And of course these are good things. The world could use a lot more kindness. Your mentally ill friends do need love, and we do need people to talk to (or better yet, to reach out if we start isolating, because starting conversations can feel like the hardest thing in the world.)
But when we focus on looking for the story and the reason instead of the underlying illness, we can miss out on the bigger picture. Even if everyone in the world were nice to me all the time (which honestly is pretty close to true anyways), I'd still think I wanted to die.
Because the mundane, boring, disappointing truth is that mental illness isn't an existential battle between man and uncaring world. It's a dangerous, complex, sometimes-fatal illness that can't be waved away with smiles. It's something I'm not certain I would have survived were it not for the therapists and psychiatrists and partial hospitalizations my school-provided health insurance covers.
We do need to build a world where nobody feels like they have no way out. But in addition to our smiles and our love, the first step is to work to build a world where:
Nobody goes without mental health care because they can't afford it
We each can recognize mental illness in ourselves when and if it appears and seek help, instead of mistaking it for personal weakness or lack of character.
Mental health treatment is seen as a completely ordinary option without a hint of stigma
We understand and support our friends as they show symptoms of mental illness, not just when they fit our standard of "normal."
Churches recognize that mental illness is not just "a lack of faith" and build serious theologies incorporating its messiness and complexities (mentoring us in growing in faith with it, while leaving its treatment to professionals.)
Suicidal patients feel free to speak openly with their therapists.
(I realize the current protocols are intended to protect us, or at least to protect our therapists from lawsuits, but mentioning your suicidal thoughts is definitely harder when you know it triggers a bunch of unrelated questioning that might land you in a psych ward against your will if you're "too" suicidal in your therapist's subjective judgment. I don't know what a better solution is, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't look for one.)
Our homeless, mentally-ill friends and neighbors are connected with resources for meaningful, holistic treatment instead of the rest of us just sort of ignoring them and hoping they go away.
Our pool of therapists is more diverse. Seeking help is hard enough without also having to explain the basic facts of your everyday existence to someone who doesn't understand them.
I had this experience with a non-Christian therapist who didn't really understand religion and I left a lot of our sessions stressed out, tired, and unhappy, and I didn't get any better. And this is me talking to another white, upper-middle class person! Until we find ways to get a more representative pool of therapists, the treatment we can offer will be limited at best.
(My current therapist is not the same race as me, but she understands my religion well and that and other things make her a wonderful fit. It's not as simple as "we just need meaningful numbers of therapists of each race", but it definitely isn't simpler than that.)
Our vision of supporting people with mental illness includes people with diseases like schizophrenia and borderline personality disorder who we'd rather not include because "they just make everything so hard when they're around", not just our friends who write nice poetry.
All of these are hard. And they don't always work. People die from illnesses we understand much better than brain chemistry.
But I think they're at least part of where the problem is, and they're going to take a lot of people working separately and together. Changing stigmas is hard. Educating people about signs of mental illness and what they can do about it is hard. They involve a lot of thankless, personal work by a lot of different people. And they don't make you feel as good about yourself as simple acts of kindness.
But the more we try, the closer we'll get. And maybe that's the best we can hope for.