The most startling thing I’ve heard in my life is that not everyone thinks about suicide every day. Or now and then. Or even once in a long while.
Can that be?
I heard this from a co-worker a while ago. We were collaborating on a dreary project, and I joked about it being the kind of work that makes you want to kill yourself and what a relief that would be.
“I know, right?” I expected her to say. Instead, she chuckled uncomfortably, then asked if I really thought that way. When I said yes, she was taken aback and a little disbelieving.
“You never have?” I asked.
“Of course not!”
I was taken aback. And a little disbelieving.
Is it possible that someone who has trod life’s hard ground for 40-plus years has never felt pain, loss, despair, failure, or disconnection sufficient even to have considered hastening the inevitable?
Apparently so. Who knew?
Not I. Not a day has gone by in the past 50 years in which I haven’t given some thought to hastening my own inevitable. It’s usually just a fleeting mental image, one item in the endless river of junk thoughts that flow through my mind at any given moment, along with looking both ways when crossing the street, visions of dinner and, as always, sex. At times it’s escalated to rumination, and a few times rumination has given way to war gaming some key details: method; logistics; review of life insurance policy for a suicide exclusion; impact on survivors.
And that’s where it ends. You just can’t saddle your kids with that. At best, it would cloud the rest of their lives. At worst, it would give them their own ideas.
Suicide is often examined as a philosophical question as to whether life has enough meaning to continue living it, the underlying presumption being that life is filled with suffering. In the essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” the French writer Albert Camus compared life with the pointless toil of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll back down in an eternal cycle with no prospect of relief. It’s the punishment Zeus imposed on Sisyphus, the sneaky king of Corinth who twice cheated death.
That’s life, Camus says: an absurdity with no meaning beyond what we contrive through two forms of denial: religious faith in a better beyond, or hope that tomorrow, at least, will be better than today.
He dramatizes this thinking in his novel “The Plague,” an apt read these days. In it, he likens the absurdity of life to a pandemic that comes out of nowhere and randomly plows through the population of a town, forcing people to confront their isolation “alone under the vast indifference of the sky.”
The only authentic response, he says, is to embrace the absurdity of existence with the sense of freedom that comes from understanding what life really is and a defiant refusal to rationalize the truth away. Forget hope and faith; be “content to live only for the day.”
Camus was killed in a motorcycle accident at age 47. How absurd.
Suicide at 7
When I ponder the Great Question, I don’t set out to calculate meaning. Rather, thought follows feeling. The trigger can be a sense of disconnection; a reminder of loss; personal failure; intolerable guilt; memory; the way the sunlight hits a building or the street; the smell of the air. At bottom is a certainty that the feeling, being the ultimate truth, will also be permanent.
Suicidal thoughts, plans, attempts among adults 18 or older in millions, 2017. Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Evidently not everyone thinks suicide is a reasonable response to despair. But a lot of us do. According to a 2017 survey by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 4.3% of adults 18 and older in the United States reported having had suicidal thoughts.
It seems the lonely aren’t so alone.
My most useful insight into understanding, and thus managing, these thoughts was to view them as a habit of mind, which I traced to a moment in fourth grade when I learned that a classmate from a couple of years earlier had hanged himself. I remember that even at age seven, he was an aloof, disconnected outsider and that he had a crush on the teacher. Today, he’d be diagnosed as on the autism spectrum. To me, at nine, he was a kid I knew who killed himself. I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
A few years ago, I asked my father if he had ever thought about suicide.
I was taken aback, and a little disbelieving, given how discontented, volatile and unsettled he always seemed when I was growing up. He was the picture of unhappiness. In the same conversation, he revealed, without irony, that his mother had tried to kill herself when he was young.
Oh! Nice to know.
More recently, an older brother died earlier this year at 60, after an adulthood plagued by medical traumas and loneliness topped off by a car accident that left him partly disabled. Some people meet disability and pain with defiance and grit. Not my brother. He didn’t kill himself, but he talked about it often. When his final spiral came, we suspected that, instead of fighting, he submitted. In going through his things later, I found a one-sentence entry on his tablet: “Suicide by fentanyl.”
Cultivating a Better Head
Unhappy thinking can be seductive as well as habitual, and suicidal thinking can be an emotional safety valve. I do believe there’s an element of volition in equanimity, and perhaps in actual happiness. Discoveries in brain science confirm what the Buddha knew 2,500 years ago: that mind precedes experience, or, today, that “neurons that fire together wire together.”
Seems plausible. So I try to be positive, or at least not negative. I tend to my physical well-being. I work hard at making connections with people and engaging in activities that I enjoy. I try new things. I empathize with people. I meditate, which helps me spot, release and redirect negative thoughts. And I take medication, without which none of the other steps could happen.
Most of all, I try to be productive in my creative work, which can be a portal to flow and to living in the present moment, and to purpose. The hero of “The Plague” is a doctor who, despite the futility of his medical ministrations, insists on making his rounds and lancing buboes. It’s just a cruel irony that for someone so in need of connection and, I admit, validation, I’ve chosen the most isolating and rejection-prone work: writing. Oh, well. That’s my boulder.
I doubt I’ll ever not occasionally think about suicide, in part because it’s such a tenacious habit and in part because of whatever combination of brain structure and experience has shaped my thinking. But I’ve made it this far, so something is working. And as I write this, I seem to understand my path a little more clearly. Plus, the goddamn kids.
Originally published on PsychCentral.com, April 27, 2020.