I have written about suicide before.
I have written about my processing of one such loss,
and the way that pain heals,
and the way that pain changes.
Losing my Dad to suicide when I was 19 does not make me an expert on suicide, but it gives me an urge to share from my experience. That urge is in part an element of my own healing process. That urge is also an effort to offer hope to others walking similar paths, because vulnerability can be one of the most powerful gifts to those devastated by this particular kind of loss.
That power of vulnerability was in my mind for a completely unrelated reason as I scrolled through Facebook this evening. My feed offered a number of reflections on the suicide of Robin Williams. The internet conversation on this topic is a mixed bag, of course, but one thread in that fabric grabbed my attention. I am referring to the commentary offered by blogger Matt Walsh about Williams’ death being a “choice,” as well as the impassioned response to his assessment.
I disagree with much of what Matt Walsh said, but those disagreements wouldn’t be worth a blog post. Most of my arguments were made by others in comments responding to the post. These comments cited research, and biochemistry, and personal stories – all presented with the same authoritative tone as the original blog post. And, while I agreed with many of the comments more than I did with the post, the whole feed left me feeling drained by the invulnerability of it all. It was as though the entire discussion was built on the common premise that the one who can claim the most invulnerable authority on the issue has the right to define, in absolute terms, the truth of suicide.
When we are talking about something as raw and devastating and confusing as suicide, absolutes seem to me to be incredibly unhelpful. And I think that help is really the most important thing that incidents like this can inspire. Help for those who are mourning suicides and help for those who are contemplating such an exit.
Now, I know that Matt Walsh trades in absolutes – that is his electronic identity in many ways – but this prioritization of helpfulness is actually evident in a key argument near the end of his post.
“To act like death by suicide is exactly analogous to death by malaria or heart failure is to steal hope from the suicidal person. We think we are comforting him, but in fact we are convincing him that he is powerless. We are giving him a way out, an excuse. Sometimes that’s all he needs — the last straw.”
Read more at http://themattwalshblog.com/2014/08/12/robin-williams-didnt-die-disease-died-choice/#5DKJGMxl2YMEwGMT.99
Walsh’s argument is that characterizing suicide as illness rather than choice does the opposite of helping them, and therefore is absolutely wrong. It is a position that can be argued back and forth and the result will be (as evidenced by the comments on the post) … an argument. I do not claim that Walsh’s position would not be helpful to any person considering suicide. I do not, however, believe that it would be absolutely helpful. I do not believe it would be helpful to every person considering suicide.
I cannot believe this because of my own experience with depression. Not my Dad’s experience, my own.
This is where I have to live up to my challenge about vulnerability. While I have blogged about my dad’s suicide before, I have never before shared my own struggle with mental illness in such a public way. While this is not an active pain, it still feels too private to share. But… my intensely personal experience is why I feel so strongly that arguments about absolutes are more harmful than helpful in this context.
I have Major Depressive Disorder, which has manifested in four major depressive episodes. I am incredibly thankful that I have not had a depressive episode in ten years, but I can still feel that pain in my memory as a visceral, all-encompassing reality.
My experience of depression is like the slow, inexorable descent into quicksand. It’s just a pressure at first, a sucking drain on joy and energy that feels like I should be able to just shake it off. But the effort to shake it off triggers a much more vice-like grip. I try to strip it away, but there is nothing get hold of. My fingers slide through the suffocating pressure – small grains of pain are too insubstantial to grasp and deal with, but the very ease with which they slide away creates a pocket of empty space to suck at scrabbling fingers, always pulling down. It takes so much effort to struggle, and the effort only hastens the descent. It saps all energy and will to fight. It’s so much easier just to stop fighting. I know it will eventually crush me with its weight but the slow compression becomes almost like a tight bear hug. I am lulled by the promise of a final enfolding of sleep – so much preferable to the violence of lungs filling quickly with the sucking, pressing, all-surrounding pain that will win no matter what I do.
That is my experience with depression, an experience that gives me a small glimpse into the pain that ended my Dad’s life. It is only a glimpse because I have never gotten very close to suicide myself. As technical diagnostic levels go, my depression only ever reached a one on a scale of one to three. But even my relatively minor experience teaches me how utterly enervating depression can be.
It also teaches me that there is no absolute about what helps and what hurts. Sometimes talking about it helped. Sometimes it drove me deeper. Sometimes prayer was a lifeline. Sometimes prayer made me feel abandoned and alone. Sometimes understanding my depression as an illness helped to alleviate the crushing sense of guilt at not being able to snap myself out of it. Sometimes the label of illness made it feel inescapable. Different episodes resolved in different ways and there was no formula, other than the presence of friends, my husband, and God. Presence – because the only way out of quicksand is for someone not caught in it to stand close enough to grab hold of.
And that is the problem of absolutes in the public discussion of suicide. Suicide is possibly the most personal phenomenon I have ever encountered. As a result of my own experience with it, I am attuned to the stories. I have been listening to them and talking about them with those most directly affected for 18 years. Every story is incredibly individual, to the point where absolutes just break down.
I sympathize with the need to find a cure – to present a path – to claim the authority that reassures us there is a right way to respond to this devastatingly final pain. I just don’t think that is really very helpful.
Try vulnerability instead. Be vulnerable to the scariness of it. Be vulnerable to your own pain and to other people’s. Be vulnerable.
Vulnerability is really the essence of presence.