A Life-Long Intimacy with Suicide
The act of taking one’s own life has been a misunderstood part of human history for centuries. In 1824, in his writings entitled Lacom, Or, Many Things in a Few Words: Addressed to Those Who Think, Charles Caleb Colton wrote, “Suicide sometimes proceeds from cowardice, but not always; for cowardice sometimes prevents it; since as many live because they are afraid to die, as die because they are afraid to live.” As I see it, some only breathe the air around them, merely existing from birth to death and never knowing what it’s like to truly feel the wind of life, the fragrance of a breeze, or face the courage of life’s storms. I don’t believe as Colton did that there is cowardice in suicide, for facing death without fear takes great courage, no matter the circumstance. I do believe, that there are many who simply choose to exist, their lives go by and yes, they are afraid. They are, yet today, just as Colton had said, “too afraid to live.”
Suicide. Yes, I said it, “Suicide.” It’s almost shocking really. The way in which the word forms in your mouth and rolls off the tongue. It’s not an easy word to bring up in conversations either. I’ve grown up using this word from a very young age, clearly understanding its permanence while still struggling to understand the depth of what it really means to all of its victims, myself included.
Before sitting down to write this, I wanted to first know what types of information are available on the topic. I was surprised, but then again not, that no matter how I worded a basic search, the same several sites came up. These sites offer help in the prevention of suicide. To be fair, we need these sites to reach people who would otherwise slip through the cracks. They do good work, they provide quality help and research. I learned from one site, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention at afsp.org, through many well-made and researched charts and graphs that suicide is the tenth leading cause of death, affecting more than 44,000 people lost in the United States, which is more than twice the average number of homicides, at around 18,000 people lost. As an individual, I found these sites somewhat cold and filled with an enormous amount of facts. It is good that they are there to provide this information to the public, to study and find ways to prevent suicide and provide assistance to its victims. However, it is not enough. I know how hard it is because in the depths of darkness and desperation it’s hard enough to reach for the light to find hope, and in that moment of agony, I fail to understand the logic of statistics. As Paul Brodeur wrote in his book of articles entitled Outrageous Misconduct, “Statistics are human beings with the tears wiped off.”
I remember thinking obsessively about this word when I was a child. The word itself got such a reaction from the adults around me. I was six years old when I lost my mother. I was with her when she over-dosed. My world was suddenly in turmoil, my mother was gone, and it was like coming across a great whirlpool in the midst of the ocean where your life is spinning, spinning while pieces of it are sucked down into eternity and gone forever. It was all because of this strange word I had not heard before, but the adults around me only whispered it. Suicide. I would think about the meaning of it, how it would feel to simply close your eyes and be on the other side, and to speak to God, to tell Him my pain. I would ask for my mother back, another chance. I was desperately sad inside but there was no way to express it, because then, and even now, this is something that we simply don’t discuss.
Eventually, as I grew up, not only was it seemingly wrong to discuss suicide, as my mother was attached to the subject, it also became difficult to discuss her. It was frowned upon to talk about her. It was as if burying her wasn’t enough, I had to take everything I knew about her and bury it deep within me. Eventually, her voice and memory faded, and I felt such tremendous guilt for having betrayed her memory — for forgetting. Society, school, and my family all insisted that suicide and my mother were topics not to be discussed, not ever. The guilt simply grew into a form of desperation. I would get so excited to go to visit my grandmother, just to stare blankly at my mother’s photo she kept on the shelf, trying to memorize her every feature. I was never allowed to have my mother’s photo until I became an adult. I was being taught that hiding memories would make them less painful. Shame. There was something there to be ashamed of but not understanding, the shame fell to me. In the words of Marilyn J. Sorensen, author of Breaking the Chain of Low Self-Esteem, “Unlike guilt, which is the feeling of doing something wrong; shame is the feeling of being something wrong.”
I have made up a hundred thousand reasons why, like many who experience this at any age ask themselves, excuses that made it ok — ok that it happened. I had given my mother the benefit of the doubt over and over again her reasons must have been overwhelming, but it always circled back around to ‘why’ again, only why wasn’t I enough? It’s a question we are all left asking ourselves when we deal with a loved one who makes such a lasting decision. I grew up asking myself that very question every single day. Why wasn’t I enough — was there something wrong with me? I know every kid has to question themselves about who they are and learn to stand on their own two feet… and hopefully live happily and be able to accept who they are; but instead of hurdles to jump, I would have a lifetime of mountains to climb.
These feelings are not uncommon given the circumstances. Feelings shouldn’t be stuffed away because someone else or society is ashamed of the cause, cannot bear to hear the word, or deal with the circumstances behind someone’s death. If society can’t say the words behind the actions, it makes it very difficult to deal with the landslide of feelings that come with it. Suicide. It’s a simple word with such power that it causes lips to tremble and through a lifetime of tears there comes no understanding of the meaning behind it, a loved one is lost forever, and inside the survivors are left to die a thousand deaths each time they close their eyes. As survivors we are left hiding from some fabricated ‘shame’ from the suicide, not only struggling with our own self-worth but also wondering if we had done enough to reach out and be there for our loved one… “If only, if only I had called that day if only I had known.”
“SUICIDE. The word suicide caught your attention, didn’t it. The truth is suicide catches everyone’s attention. It’s the actions that lead up to suicide that go unnoticed.” These words by Morgan Leigh are hard to swallow truths. Everyone has the need to look away when they see someone in pain. I believe that most suicides are preventable, however, we seem to have revolved into a society that has lost our ability to have empathy and reach out and take the responsibility of spending time just being someone’s friend and not just an image on a computer screen. Touching, human warmth, kindness, these are things that cost nothing to give but to many are priceless gifts.
My teenage years were extremely tough for me. My life changed drastically as I ended up a ward of the state and abused at the hands of the system. It was the mid-1980s and my answer was to lash out at authority figures, run away, and fight back at any sort of controlled environment. I was abused physically and sexually, and never given any opportunity to heal between one abusive situation and another. Eventually, I was diagnosed with depression and PTSD. As the pain built up inside of me, I began to more thoroughly understand my mother’s suicide. I also began to forgive her.
My life being so difficult was only a background for understanding this discussion, for it was far worse than described in so few words. When someone suffers from depression, trauma, or other mental abuse, the pain inside can be overwhelming and there are simply no words — no way to express such deep agony, for it is indescribable. As a child or teen, sometimes living on the streets, it became etched into my soul the many times and ways I tried to end a silent scream. So, I started cutting. I fantasized about killing myself and ending it all as I pricked my skin watching the blood trickle out. In the end, that isn’t why I continued to do it. It was like letting the steam out of a pressure cooker that was about to blow. It wasn’t what I had expected the first time I had cut myself, the feelings of release had been a surprise. It was in the end only a temporary band-aid.
While in a foster home, I was overcome by stress, grief, depression, and more. I had realized the depths of my mother’s despair and was still a child. There was no one for me to turn to. The only way to find peace for me that I could see was to die. I wanted to close my eyes, never open them again, to make everything still and peaceful. I tried to take my own life. I woke up in the hospital and for some, there may be relief that they are still alive but for myself, I had to face the agony that I was still here. I was filled with anger, no, an extreme rage, that it didn’t work and I was still here, alone, lying in a cold hospital room. Then as if Fate wanted to give me a swift kick in the ass, the nurse came in to offer me a soda, but nothing with caffeine.
The quiet solitude of the room was a deafening force on my mind left to hopelessly wander and sometimes scream out against blank gray walls. I wondered how long I would be kept in here. I began to cry. This world was no longer mine. Between heaving sighs, I remembered a part of a conversation between two of the characters in the book How to Kill A Rock Star by Tiffany DeBartolo that suddenly become clear to me.
“Did you really want to die?”
“No one commits suicide because they want to die.”
“Then why do they do it?”
“Because they want to stop the pain.”
It had never been about death. It had always been about ending the pain and loneliness in my life.
Eventually, I aged out of the system enough to end most of the abuse. I married young desperately looking to fill holes in my heart and soul; I sought safety, peace, and stability in my life, even if I didn’t see it that way at the time. When my daughter was born, I declared internally that I “could never leave her in the way that my mother left me.” In my mind, I believed my fight with ‘suicide’ was over. Time heals all wounds, but then again, things change too.
Years later I find myself raising two children, and my marriage to their father had turned controlling to the point of extreme abuse. Around this same time, I began having severe extreme pains in the side of my face and lower jaw. The only way I can explain this type of pain is like a toothache that is so indescribable the only comparison I could think of is the pain feels like getting shot in the face. Then when it would occur, it was like getting shot over and over again; and I just wouldn’t die. After many different doctors and specialists, a team of medical students finally diagnosed me with trigeminal neuralgia. Afterward, I had to go home with my controlling husband, not knowing when I would even be ‘allowed’ out of the house again, all while digesting this information about a strange nerve condition. This condition causes pain along the trigeminal nerve and is so painful to endure it is nicknamed the ‘suicide disease.’ I believe the philosopher Seneca summed it up best, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”
As my doctors looked for ways to get this illness under control I was prescribed many different pain medications. Little did they realize my psychological state of mind, that once I left my appointment, I was virtually being held prisoner in my own home by my controlling husband. I pretended that everything was normal, distracted my children, while I wept when they were at school. I even spent time considering my own suicide again but couldn’t stand the thought that my children would be the only ones to find me. The day became night, summer became winter, soon I was simply existing — going through the motions of living, but inside I was simply numb and stuck one step away from death.
Then one day a knock came on my door. It was my mother-in-law, she came in person to tell me that my brother, had hung himself and died just a short time earlier that morning. The sound of her voice simply echoed in my ears, it was like a punch in the gut. My baby brother, just 23 years old, who I believed was happy enough with the world, who had a young son and even umpired baseball games for neighborhood kids — he was gone, and he too chose to take his own life. If he couldn’t find anything worth redeeming in this world enough to stay, then why should I, with this horrific pain, continue on living? I wept for days after he died. I was angry. I was angry at myself for being so caught up in my own situation that I didn’t see his pain. I was angry because I wasn’t there for him. Most of all, I was angry because I was still here.
I fell into my own darkness wallowing in my despair I grieved not just for the loss of my brother but for the loss of my own identity which had been swallowed up over time, by allowing myself to continue a forced loneliness at the hands of another. I prayed to God, I cursed God, through tears, whispers, screams, and yes, sometimes silence. Turning away from God who seemed to have abandoned me at every moment of need in life, seemed somehow justified. I felt abandoned, ashamed, and not worth existing as a human being. I tried even harder, not for myself but for my children who I love dearly, and attempted to reach out. It would take time, as I had been so isolated that the world no longer considered me as a part of society. I soon realized there would be no help for me. I would have to break free from this deep depression and abusive isolation on my own. I’ve since learned from self-improvement guru Dale Carnegie’s quote, which comes from his book, How to Enjoy Your Life and Your Job, that “Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no help at all.”
It was a blur how I made it through the next several years. I made many life-changing decisions and many dear mistakes. What I failed to realize was that I was simply moving from one abusive situation to another. I stayed in an abusive relationship even after having had a gun fired at my head. It was if I couldn’t do it myself, it was ok to be in a situation where someone else possibly would kill me. Everyone could see my screams for help but me. It took the words of a deputy sheriff to say, “If you don’t do something, he’s going to kill you…” I filed a restraining order. As in most domestic violence situations, ending the situation can be the most dangerous time for the victim. The deputy was right, and the violence and stalking that ensued left me with worsened depression, severe anxiety, and PTSD. I became an emotional zombie, I became so completely numb inside that I just stopped feeling anything at all.
I took my son to another state and hid, a place far enough the stalking would end. The cost was that I was so far away from everyone that I was losing touch, and those friends who lived locally were too frightened of the neighborhood I lived in that they would not come to my home. I had just gone through so much trauma, I was healing from surgeries, and there would be no help. I had never felt so alone in my life. Despite my promise to myself years earlier, I took an overdose of medications expecting to simply fall asleep and never wake up again. It didn’t work. Afterward, I was so upset that I was still here, it was as if I had to go through a grieving process over my own non-death before I could move forward. I also had to go through this process alone because I had extreme amounts of fear and shame of anyone ever finding out. A fear that is based on reality and facts, I didn’t want my son’s life disrupted any further over my mistakes. To myself, it is a reality in a society that single mothers with children have an increased chance of losing everything they own and their children when seeking mental help, especially if there is a discussion of suicide. There is no system to fall back on. I had to be strong enough to hold my shame and vulnerabilities like weights and still keep my head above water. Dr. Brené Brown, who focuses her life studies on vulnerabilities and shame, has her own ideas on how these struggles affect our lives. She has stated that “Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it is also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”
After a couple of years, I reached out to a friend to move back near my family. My son and I had a small place together as he finished his last years of school. I was still very much alone and had tried to reach out for help and counseling. I wasn’t ready. I had been forced to be on my own for so long that I felt above it somehow like I can do better on my own. At that time in my life, maybe so. I think in order for counseling to be effective you have to want to participate. My choice to stay to myself and concentrate on creating a decent space for me and my son and this was the best choice for us. I had time to breathe. Yes, I was alone, but I had learned to accept the quiet, delight in the peace, and be myself for the first time in my life. I chose to be alone because now it provided safety, but it seemed I had not only learned to build walls in my spare time, it seems as though I had built a fortress.
By chance, or by God’s grace, someone came along who was not intimidated by my demands of staying arm’s length away and who chipped away at my icy veneer with a pick and warm mocha lattes. I discovered a love that comes with freedom and encouragement to be anything or do anything I want in life. I’ve made myself a comfortable life, in my small hometown, where I can walk my dogs and hug my cats. Just as I thought I’d finally have a near-perfect life, writing and editing from home, I began feeling less and less able to complete tasks. The doctor diagnosed me with fibromyalgia. I still have other medical issues, including trigeminal neuralgia, the nicknamed a.k.a. Suicide Disease, so it just seemed to be piling one thing on top of the other. It has gotten worse over time. There are days the pain that covers my entire body is indescribable the first moment my eyes open and I fear moving at all because it will exacerbate it into more intense shooting pain. I’m taking the prescribed medications, but I don’t feel like running in the park the way the commercials advertise. I barely feel like existing at all. Much of my time is controlled by how far I can be from the extension cord attached to my heating pad. Somehow my physical pain has now created its own barrier to the world as if it all exists outside my window. It’s a tight rope I walk, making sure I take the correct doses of everything. That I don’t take too much or too little, that I balance food and exercise with my meds. If I overdo it one day, I’m in more pain the next, so it’s all about keeping a light walk on a skinny tightrope.
I believe William Arthur Ward put it into context when he wrote for the June 1, 2007, Woman’s Day Magazine, “A well-developed sense of humor is the pole that adds balance to your steps as you walk the tightrope of life.” Humor and lots of it, with healing doses of biting sarcasm, helps me get through each day. To some, I may appear bitter or angry, but I’ve surpassed those feelings years ago. I have a reluctance to allow myself to feel anything with my emotions at all. What’s left is an ability to cope with day to day issues with dry self-deprecating humor that often offends others and keeps them at arm’s length. Allowing myself to ‘feel’ my emotions freely is like playing with fire when I am involved in such an intimate dance with suicide. Our long-term relationship has taken its toll across my life, though I am determined that I will take the last bow in our dance and it will be ‘adieu’ as I use humor to laugh my way through to the end of life’s party.
Today I’m working on coping with my various illnesses. I’ve managed to build myself a comfortable prison. I still suffer from a great deal of physical and emotional pains every day. I often go days without sleep, some days barely maintaining a zombie level of existence. However, I have made my home so comfortable, there’s no reason to leave. I do go to therapy and have resigned myself to the idea I will just go the rest of my life. I don’t know anyone else who has had such a life-long intimate relationship with suicide. Perhaps it is good if I’m the only one, it isn’t so great to be so near to death. I try to remember the past to share with others in hopes to make someone else’s life journey a little easier. Maybe just understanding another human being will allow someone else to reach out to another when they need them the most. Remembering that it’s the actions that lead up to suicide that are key to prevention and we all have the power to care enough about each other to reach out when you see someone in need. We can all learn to simply be human to each other again. I know I will. Be human again, that is.