Thursday, August 14, 2014

From the Heart of Despair: Reflections on Suicide

With the passing of Robin Williams, the topic of suicide seems to be on the hearts and minds of a lot of people.  It's also been a source of controversy as two opposite reactions to the tragedy have emerged.  On the one hand, we have a professional blogger Matt Walsh who has taken Williams' suicide as a chance to speak out on how suicide is a choice, that the suicide victim is not a "victim" in the same way as a cancer victim or someone who dies of some other disease.  There were some good points made, and I especially liked that he pointed out that depression has a spiritual component as well as physical.  Especially given his follow up post, I believe the message he intended to convey was a positive and compassionate one, and the vitriol and hatred he has received is uncalled for.  Yet his delivery could have used some work at certain points; that's only natural, as it's an emotionally charged topic and when a man writes from the heart not everything he says is going to be polished.  Still, the post came across (if incorrectly) even to some civil and level-headed readers as at the very least a bit harsh toward Robin Williams himself, even if compassionate to those contemplating suicide.

On the opposite end, there are those who are posting the already-viral meme, a screenshot from Disney's hit animated film "Aladdin," with the caption:  "Genie, you're free."  This well-meaning approach, perhaps unintentionally, paints the passing of Robin Williams as no different than an accident or natural causes.  It portrays his fate as something almost serene, the welcome release at the end of a long and terrible battle.  This can easily make the option of suicide appear dangerously poetic in the eyes of those actually contemplating suicide.  Having hope that those who die from suicide have found peace, by God's merciful grace,  is one thing.  But attempted assurance of it makes suicide a more seductive choice for anyone suffering depression.  After all, if suicide almost certainly leads to freedom, then there's little to stay the hand of a soul burdened by misery at every turn.  This is the sort of thing that Matt Walsh rightly wanted to discourage, even if some of his wording in the post distracted many readers from that message.

We need a balance that consoles the grieving,
but resists romanticizing this choice so that still more will have to grieve.

It's a good time to say this:  I have been suicidal before.  I've often vaguely thought of suicide, and even more often have I wanted to die by God's hand.  And at other times, the thoughts of suicide were very intense, but still without any concrete plans.  But on at least two occasions, one more severe than the other, I have gone beyond "vague" thoughts and into the danger zone.  The first time was brief and ended up resolving itself as quickly as it came:  I was to the point merely of planning out the suicide note.  The second time, I was actually resigned to the deed.  I knew how I was going to do it, and I knew when I was going to do it.  I didn't want to tell anyone about it, because I didn't want anyone to try to talk me out of it.  If not for a small twist of fate, which I truly believe was God-led, I feel that, as hard as it is to believe looking back on it, I really would have gone through with it.

So while I can't speak to what the experiences are of any other person, I can speak out on what was true for me.

Suicide for me wasn't about "killing all men," as much as I admire G.K. Chesterton, who said that the man who kills himself does just that.  Because, for as desperate as I was, I really did still believe in a next life.  To me, all men would not be obliterated, then, because I would still continue to exist.  And my Catholic beliefs were still intact, meaning that, if by some slim chance I made it to Heaven, I would still be able to watch people here below, and help them, which is far from wiping them all out.  Make no mistake, I was hoping against hope that God would have mercy on me.  In my particular case, my suicidal episode did not displace or disregard my Christian ethics.  I knew suicide would be wrong.  My morality had not "checked out."  But I was holding out some desperate hope that God would forgive me, because I simply saw no other way out.

I should explain that in my case I knew that my death would cause pain to those that I loved, but I'd also found myself in a situation where I'd exaggerated a small transgression (something that was, in hindsight, more unwise than outright wrong) into an enormous one; it played on my already depressive tendencies to bring me to the point of desperation and despair that led to my plan of action, and it also made me feel certain that my wife and others who know and love me would probably feel more disgust with me than love.  So I thought that, whether dead or alive I would be bringing pain to others.  This was not a decision born of not caring what sort of pain I brought others, it was a choice springing from a place where I thought causing such pain was inevitable.

When living feels like a burden to others and ourselves,
suicide can look far too much like a sound choice...

So I really don't think we can say, as a blanket statement, that those who commit suicide are selfish, at least not in the sense that they don't care about the pain they bring upon others.  We just can't judge that.  It's fully possible that some really don't.  But it's just as possible that, in that desperate, miserable, illogical state of mind, any given suicide victim might honestly have thought that, at the very least, his dying wasn't going to cause more pain than his life might already cause to his loved ones.

On the other hand, I don't want to sterilize the harsh reality of my suicidal episode for even a second:  In hindsight, if I had committed suicide, I don't know--even given my state of mind at the time--that I would have been "free."  I hoped that God would forgive me, and the Church certainly emphasizes that there is hope for suicide victims, but at least for me personally, I'm not sure what would have become of me.

Now, I am in no way saying that this gives me any grounds to judge someone else, especially in light of the Church's current policy of always entertaining hope; I'm just saying that even knowing where I myself was at that point, I am not prepared to say that "God would have understood," and that I would have achieved a "happy ending."  I just don't know that.  That's one reason, among so many, that I'm glad I didn't commit suicide that day.  And it's one reason that, if you are a depressed  person of faith and you still have any sense of reason whatsoever--even if it's slipping, due to your despair--I hope you will have the presence of mind to realize that suicide is not a safe option of escape.

Always give others who succumb to this terrible tragedy the benefit of the doubt but, if you have any capacity to do so, hold yourself to a higher standard, the old approach of "better safe than sorry."  I believe it was that faintly held conviction that saved my life, because somewhere inside of me it prompted just enough fear and uncertainty that I forced myself to tell my wife about my plans, which broke the spell.  Incidentally, she'd volunteered to come along with me on an errand, because "something told her to do so."  It was during that errand that she suggested a fun little outing, and something in me reawakened to the possibility for joy in life.  Then I opened up to her.  If not for that, even the faint fear I felt might not have been enough to stop me, because up until then I'd been desperate enough to risk it.  But without the fear, I don't think I'd have spoken up and broken the spell regardless.  Because in that state of mind, if I'd seen nothing to fear from suicide, I'd have seen nothing to lose.

One small token of kindness or companionship might literally save a life.
It saved mine.

Finally, I want to say that there are far more reasons than fear and uncertainty that I'm glad I'm alive today, even if none of these occurred to me then.  There has been so much beauty in my life, since then, that I would never have witnessed.  My daughter has grown so much in the year since, and now I have a son who could be born any day now.  I have experienced love and forgiveness and friendship beyond that which I ever imagined possible at the time.  I've found out that even worse mistakes (far worse) than the one "straw that had broken the camel's back" have failed to make my wife or others closest to me lose even one bit of love or respect for me.  They really would rather have me alive.  There are hopes and dreams on my horizon that I would never have even seen from afar if my life had ended that day.  I'm glad I'm here to see it.

And if you're facing the darkness and hopelessness that has brought you to the brink, I want you to be here to see better things for yourself too.  Life is always a cycle.  Please know that.  Joys are sometimes fleeting, but they are there.  I promise that, no matter how brief or small, you will know some sort of joy again.  But you have to give it a chance.  Hang in there.  Pray.  Don't give up.  Because you're too dear to give up on.  If you weren't, you wouldn't already be here.

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