I’ve been debating if I should tackle this issue or not. But it keeps worming its way back into my brain so I’ll take that as a sign that I should. After this I really hope to move on to some lighter issues for a while! There was an article published in the Huffington Post called Stop Calling Suicide Victims ‘Selfish.’ While I recommend reading it in its entirety (it’s not very long), the gist of it is that we should not judge those who take their own lives because suicide is the result of severe mental illness. The author makes the point that we don’t judge victims of other fatal diseases. She does a good job, in my opinion, of pointing out that it is wrong, and in fact, impossible, for those who have never been suicidal to even begin to understand what it must be like, and therefore, they should not, and cannot (fairly) judge this action. One of my favorite quotes from the article: “I’ve felt sad before, yes. I’ve felt bad about myself before, yes. But I haven’t actively wanted to die, so why should I pretend to know what that’s like? I’ve had the flu before, too, yet I don’t know what cancer is like.” I appreciate that. But I disagree with her when she says that suicide is not selfish.
Here’s the thing… yes, more needs to be done to get help to people before they reach this point. The taboo that surrounds mental illness from anxiety and depression to schizophrenia all needs to be a thing of the past. But suicide is a tricky beast. it is a last resort. It is terrible and awful and clearly speaks to a kind of hopelessness and misery that, as the author of this article points out, cannot be even imagined by most people. But in the end, it is still a choice. It’s a terrible choice. And in that moment, I assure you it does not feel as though there is any alternative. But even I cannot deny, having been in that place, in that moment, I made a decision. I own it and all of its consequences. Aside from the obvious fact that it speaks to a kind of pain most people cannot fathom, what is perhaps worse, or at least as awful, is that it doesn’t end with the person taking their life. Its reach extends as far as their presence in life is felt – to every friend, family member, coworker. It tears people apart. It’s hard enough to lose someone you love to something inevitable. But to know that the person you love actually decided to make this happen…what could be worse?
So I understand the anger and the characterization of of suicide as being selfish. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but at the root of it all, if it is part of the overall sentiment, which includes compassion and at least an attempt for understanding, I think it’s a fair assessment. I’ve been on both sides of suicide. Someone I love taking their life, and nearly taking my own. While the words hurt, they are not wrong. I put the people I love through the worst kind of hell. And despite what I was feeling and what drove me to that point, I cannot deny that it was a selfish choice. I can’t deny that I was putting my own misery and hopelessness ahead of the pain and suffering I was about to cause. Those are facts. They suck, but they’re real. And they have real consequences.
When someone plans in as much detail as I did how they are going to die, they don’t think about what happens afterwards if they survive. You’ve worked hard to minimize impacts once you’re gone…making sure your loved ones aren’t the ones to find you, for example. But surviving and facing those who you have hurt is never a part of the plan. Thinking about how you will earn back trust or repair relationships isn’t a part of the plan. The plan is to stop the pain, the hopelessness, or whatever awful thing has taken over your consciousness. The plan is to simply stop being, at what ever cost. The road back, when you fail, as I did, is incredibly difficult. Facing the pain you’ve caused, trying to find a way to make amends for something that is almost unforgivable. And even when people forgive, trust is something that is, in many cases, beyond what your loved ones can achieve. These are consequences of a choice. I face them every day and I accept them. What I did was selfish. And I am blessed that so many in my life have forgiven me. I do not get frustrated when I have to offer extra reassurances that I’m OK on a bad day, or take measures to ensure that those most deeply affected are confident that I am safe.
So while I disagree with the author about suicide being selfish, I think the bigger, far more important message is that people are suffering in unimaginable ways. Some of them out loud and in the open. Some silently and alone. As a society, we have to stop judging. We need to be more accepting of mental and emotional illness and distress and collectively find ways to support those most in need. Open dialogue, collective awareness and sensitivity combined with more widely available (and effective) therapy could change…and save…so many lives.