Suicide Isn’t About YOU

Better Than Bullets, macro shot of a lightbulb with a black background

People feel really strongly about suicide. They think of it as one of the worst sins and one of the biggest betrayals of love and society and friendship. People routinely describe it as “selfish” and “cowardly” without truly understanding what it feels like to be a person facing the kind of desperation and pain that people feel who are struggling with a desire to kill themselves. It’s an alien action, it goes against the animal instinct of survival, it’s something people who have never wanted to die can’t even imagine feeling because that’s how deep the narrative of survival against all strife goes. It’s so alien to our ingrained instincts that there have been a few thousand years of not really talking about it or even trying to understand it.

If we measure the length of time people have been killing themselves by the level of taboo suicide has maintained all that time – I have to ask you:

IF NOT TALKING ABOUT SUICIDE AND NOT ADDRESSING THE UNDERLYING PROBLEM AND TELLING SUICIDAL PEOPLE HOW SELFISH AND COWARDLY COMMITTING SUICIDE IS HASN’T CHANGED THE RATE OF SUCCESSFUL SUICIDES IN THE WORLD, IS THAT TACTIC WORTH HOLDING ONTO?

AND IF YOU’RE HOLDING ONTO A TACTIC THAT DOESN’T MAKE ANYTHING BETTER – DO YOU ACTUALLY CARE THAT MUCH ABOUT IT AT ALL?

MAYBE YOU’RE JUST A SELFISH FUCKER WHO DOESN’T LIKE TO BE INCONVENIENCED BY OTHER PEOPLE’S PAIN.

Maybe it’s time people stopped doing what doesn’t work and focus on discovering what the underlying problems are and figure out ways to address it. This requires open conversations in which people who don’t know what it feels like to want to die/kill themselves endeavor to find out from people who do, and in which people who do want to die/kill themselves are willing to open up to people who genuinely want to learn what that feels like and help and support them.

People are so smug accusing successful suicides as cowardly and selfish. But what about all the billions of people across the world who make unhealthy choices even thought it puts them directly at risk of death. Driving cars, eating shit food, drinking to excess, having sex without protection, taking drugs, eating puffer fish… as a world society we seem to accept that people are constantly taking their lives into their own hands to engage in activities that are dangerous to their health and might kill them but this is okay as long as we’re not positive it will kill us because then we can claim to not really know?

More people die every year in car crashes than by suicide and yet we never blame people for continuing to drive cars. In fact, if you choose not to drive a car people will think less of you and badger you for being a burden to them any time you ask for a ride. I know because I still don’t drive a car and I’ve heard it all. Every time you get into your car you are literally risking death or gambling against killing other people with your vehicle. We see no dishonor in this as long as you’re not drunk or on drugs when you die or kill someone else in your car. We don’t tell people they’re selfish for risking their life every time they get in their car.

People who kill themselves come from all walks of life and there’s a rainbow of desperate reasons they do it so there’s no way I can be a voice for all of us, and I don’t want to try. I want people outside of us to make a better effort to understand what it’s like to have serious depression and to wrestle with such low self esteem and self loathing that dying feels like the only option that makes sense. Talk to one person with suicidal ideation and you know more than you did before but you need to listen to a lot of us to understand what feelings are universal and which are individual.

You think suicide is selfish and cowardly? I think it’s cowardly and selfish to keep making those of us who struggle with depression feel worse about ourselves when we’re already hanging onto a thread of self worth against an ocean of self loathing that threatens to eat us alive. You have a right to your opinions but I think if you go around being angry and disdainful about people killing themselves without making an honest effort to understand why they do it and what you might do to help people hang on longer – then you really don’t give a shit about anyone but yourself. You really don’t care about anything but what YOU have to lose or what pain a person might inflict on YOU.

And what is the definition of  selfish if not that?

If the only contribution you have to make to the suicides of the world is to denigrate them then you’re no better than the mental illness that tortured them to death. You’re the worst kind of selfish and cowardly. I would also posit that you’re lazy – pronouncing poor character on people you know nothing about and don’t intend to spend any time to understand.

What are you so afraid of? Are you afraid that you can catch our illness? Are you afraid suicide will rub off on you?

It’s natural to be angry when someone you love dies, and especially when they take their own life. I’m not making light of how hard it is for the people who lost their loved ones to suicide. All I’m saying here, boiled down to the simplest plea I can make is this:

Please try to understand the level of internal pain and struggle it takes for a person to over-ride their animal instinct to survive in order to kill themselves. Please do your best to learn about the mental struggles that tend to lead to suicide and do your best to be a support rather than another cog in the gear that propels people to the end of the known universe to free-fall into the great wide nothing.

Here are some things I think it’s important to understand:

Suicide isn’t inevitable for people with mood disorders. This means that with good support and people around us who don’t judge us or freak the fuck out about our ups and downs we can stabilize and manage our mental illness in such a way that we’re at significantly less risk of suicide.

Suicide is rarely an act of selfishness. More often than not the people who successfully kill themselves believe they’re doing the world a favor by leaving it.

It takes a great deal of resolve to kill yourself. Having a great deal of resolve isn’t a quality of cowardice. If you knew how many people have planned and obsessed over their own suicide but didn’t do it or succeed at it you would see that of all the people who struggle with the desire to die, only a few manage to follow through. I’m not saying you need to see them as brave, but I’m saying that cowardice is the suicidal person’s friend and not the other way around.

People who struggle with suicide often have an overabundance of empathy and love for this world we all share to the point where they can’t shut out other people’s pain and seeing abused animals rips them to shreds. So in some respects they’re dying because of your pain and everyone else’s pain in addition to their own.

Suicide isn’t about YOU, it’s about unbearable pain in the spirit and love that can’t be reconciled with pain.

So stop being so selfish with your empathy.

UPDATE: I would like to acknowledge the comment a twitter acquaintance of mine made on this post (you can read it in the comments) which I think is good perspective and something I actually know to be true but which I didn’t give credence to in this post: it’s generally not true selfishness on the part of those who have a hard time dealing with suicide – it’s fear. They feel fear and it’s worth having empathy for how frightening suicide is to most people outside of it. I agree with Jonathan. If I can ask others to have more empathy for people who struggle with suicidal ideation and depression, it’s also important for me to have more empathy for how scary this subject is to people who don’t experience it directly.

2 Replies to “Suicide Isn’t About YOU”

  1. I’m someone who understands what it’s like to feel like that because I did for more than a decade, almost every day. So I understand the frustration we can have with people who call it selfish or cowardly.

    But I also think that the reason people resort to that stance in the face of suicide isn’t mainly selfishness or self-righteousness, but fear. The fear of death pervades society, and so the possibility that someone may actually wish for it is terrifying for millions of people. It opens the door to a world of chaos in their minds, to the risk that their own inner struggle to find value in their existence might in fact be on shaky ground.

    I know how it feels when people say those things, but, because we understand the sense of helplessness we have felt as depressed people, we can understand how frightened and helpless they must feel, too. And because we can, we should. Because often they just can’t.

    It’s taken me a long time to come around to this point of view, so there’s no judgment here from me. I was just moved by your post and wanted to share. Thanks. 🙂

    1. I think that’s a fair point. I understand their feelings of fear but I wish they’d go ahead and dive into what scares them because when people declare that suicide is “selfish” or “cowardly” it exacerbates the problem rather than helps it. I think if I came at this from a less fiercely protective place for people I consider my tribe (you included) I could express my understanding and empathy for how scary it is for people who haven’t experienced suicidal ideation to deal with it. I would rather people be honest and say “this is outside anything I know and it scares the hell out of me” rather than shouting out how cowardly and selfish people who commit suicide are.

      I think it’s time for reaching from both sides to meet somewhere where understanding can actually produce useful bridges and supports. Talking openly about suicide and the depression that leads to it is fairly new in human history even though these experiences have existed for a very long time.

      I’m working on a book about depression and suicide that endeavors to offer peer support to people who struggle with it (Suicide for Beginners) – your comments are a good reminder for me to temper my personal feelings and experiences with what I know is hard for people outside of this experience to deal with. I really appreciate your thoughts on this.

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