Monday, January 25, 2010

Talking About Suicide

Warning: This post deals with the topic of suicide. It includes autobiographical narratives but does not offer any particular wisdom or advice. Suicide is a topic of personal interest to me, but it does not reflect my area of professional expertise. Nor does it reflect the opinions or attitudes of any other person or entity. These words, and any errors they may contain, are mine alone.

If you are troubled by the fact that I'm dedicating a post to this topic, you may wish to avoid reading it.

And if you feel suicidal, or if you know someone who does, I encourage you to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline [link]: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Their service is free and anonymous.


Occasionally when I'm teaching my course "Rhetoric and Public Life" I think about suicide.

Perhaps that last phrase requires some clarification.

What I mean to say is this: I reflect upon the impact of suicide, which is generally a solitary decision made through the miasma of personal despair, upon the lives of family, friends, neighbors, and even strangers who hear that a person has killed her/himself. In this sense, suicide is a topic suitable for any discussion that includes "public life."

And no, I don't ask incredulously, "why could a person do such a thing?"

I know why.

One of my earliest memories from childhood starts with me waking up in the apartment of two friendly neighbors. I was about seven, and I remember feeling odd about the sensation of lifting my head from fancy silk pillows in a room I didn't recognize.

Two men walked softly into the room. I vaguely recognized them as the couple who lived in the apartment at the end of our row (in the '70s, I suppose, these two guys were considered "confirmed bachelors" - how things have changed). I wondered: Where am I?

I don't remember how I wound up in their apartment. But soon I came to understand that my mother, who must have been about 27 at the time, swallowed a fistful of pills. Somehow that night I was moved to my neighbors' place, which was filled with flowers and fancy knickknacks, and I was placed in their warm and comforting bed.

I have no idea who found my mother. I have no idea how she survived. Was hers a serious attempt or simply a cry for help? I never asked her.

In the time that followed, I was intermittently angry at my mom for threatening to leave me like that, in the hands of people I barely knew. And yet for years at a time I managed to overlook that night altogether. Still, I never really forgot.

Once, in a pique of teenage rage over something inconsequential, I hurled my mother's suicide attempt at her as a verbal attack. I don't remember her literally smacking me across the face in response; she might have just yelled. But I do remember the palpable feeling that her suicide attempt was no trifling matter.

Her effort to kill herself affected me in an existential way, but it was hers. It was personal. My mom always kept part of herself locked up tight. Even a moment in happier times that she described as somewhat close to a mystical encounter, one night at the beach under the stars when something happened to her, would never be fully explained to me. As outgoing as she was, my mother guarded herself carefully. She had few possessions in those years, but her suicide attempt was her property, not mine.

I therefore recognize the potential disrespect that I may inadvertently demonstrate by telling this story. I imagine that even now, years since she passed away in a hospital after entering for a basic procedure, my mom might be angered at my writing this - if the dead concern themselves with the living at all. I promise her, and you: I mean no disrespect.

In fact, I look back upon my mother as a strong, confident, courageous woman who dealt with drunken parents, violent boyfriends, unstable employment, and periods of poverty and homelessness with remarkable optimism and foresight. She raised a troubled son as best she could, wrenching our little family into a world of relative happiness and security with sacrifices that are in some ways unspeakable.

Eventually my mother married a kind man, and together they built a wonderful life. They traveled frequently and they enjoyed years in homes earned through their shared labors. I look back on early days when my mother quoted Scarlett O'Hara, a heroine with whom she personally identified: "As God is my witness, I'll never be hungry again" (she remarried for love, I know, but Sandra was always a practical woman). And I remember Mom's justly earned happiness with a man who treated her with kindness and for whom she was a good friend and companion. My mother's death, when it came, surprised and saddened me. But her passing concluded a life she lived on her own terms, with as much dignity as she could muster.

Of my grandmother's reasons to kill herself some years ago, I know much less. Hers was a hard life; at least that's what I remember. I recall flipping through old albums filled with black and white photos. Most were marked with names of people I never met: friends, neighbors, co-workers. I imagine my grandparents with their two children, my mother and her sister, living in Dunedin in the fifties and sixties. They had a boat, they played games at home, they sometimes went out to nice restaurants, they seemed to have a rich social life.

But my mother's parents drank so constantly that I remember them as violent and scary more than anything else. We lived with them for a few years - I've described this elsewhere - when we had nowhere else to go. We moved to my grandparents' house after my mother freed us from living with some lunatic who slept on the couch in our St. Petersburg apartment, when he wasn't beating the hell out of both of us. Living afterward with my grandparents offered some respite but little improvement.

As I've said, I know little about my grandmother. My aunt tells me that Charlene lost her own mother at age 9 and her father when she was 15. She married my grandfather shortly thereafter and promptly assumed the role of stay-at-home mom. Charlene tackled that job with determination, insisting on keeping a clean and orderly house. I'm told that no holiday table was complete without a suitable flower arrangement. Her daughters, my mother and aunt, were well cared for but also reminded of their duties to assume adult responsibilities when the time came. Both were promised college educations, with the proviso that financial support would end at age 21 or marriage, whichever came first.

I'm certain though that Charlene hardly imagined how one of her daughters would return to the old house, divorced, drowning in debt, and dragging a frustratingly mixed-up kid in tow. When she was sober, my Nana tended the house and to the needs of my grandfather and her unexpected house guests. I remember few times in which she was happy. I can't envision what she sought out of life, what she dreamed for herself as a little girl, but I doubt she found her ideal world in Dunedin.

After granddaddy died of a heart attack, Nana found a life with another man. He was a drunk, too. He didn't work, and he contributed little to the house. All he needed was a bindle on a stick to complete my mother's assessment: this guy was a bum. Funny thing though, our new house guest stayed for years and years. He too was a practical guy, and my mom came to understand him a little. This man wasn't evil, and he never mistreated my grandmother. He understood his place in the grand scheme of things. Sure, he was a usurper who slept in my grandfather's bed (my mom could never tolerate that). But he was gentle, quiet, and kind. Again, he drank. But he never hurt us. And he helped fill the emptiness in Nana's life. In his later years, he suffered from a lingering illness. And when he died, my mother was genuinely sad to hear the news.

Only this time, Nana faced debts that had piled up over those last years. All her savings were gone and she was alone.

Looking back, I think I only knew Nana through the men in her life, men who each eventually left in their own ways. I remember her as the wife of my grandfather who seemed to rule our Dunedin ranch house with incontestable domination, the product of an era when men were lords over their castles. I also remember her as the companion of a stranger who lived in granddaddy's house for almost twenty years, who seemed to drift through the day in subservience to the memory of a man he never met. Nana ruled the place after granddaddy died, but she somehow deferred to guests who would never leave.

I also remember one day back when my mother and I were living in Clearwater, surviving on substitute teacher-pay that never seemed to arrive on time, and Nana came over to the apartment. I have no idea why, but she and I began to argue. I recall leaning out of my room upstairs, yelling at her about being a drunk, about being cruel to me as a child, and about her being unable to hurt me now. She was standing on the parking lot and I stood above her from my second-floor room, a ten-year old boy possessing a giddy but guilty sense of power over a woman who affected me so greatly, a woman I never really got to know.

I couldn't begin to tell you about Charlene's aspirations, her goals, her accomplishments. I just never got to know her except as a person who dealt with people around her with a sharp tongue. She did much to build a life for herself, but I don't know what she would have said of her choices or the consequences that followed.

Years later, I can't say I was surprised to receive the phone call. Nana had been alone for a while after her friend died. She, who had always insisted on order and sought to instill a sense of responsibility in her daughters, had been publicly humiliated by a bankruptcy judge. He said she'd have to sell practically everything to pay off her debts, even the furniture. That's when she made her final decision. My aunt recalls that Charlene cleaned the house, got dressed as she deemed most suitable, and wrote instructions on how to distribute household items. And then she killed herself.

My mom had called to tell me, and I handled the news with a certain equanimity. I heard the news and reported it to Jenny, who was sitting across from me in our living room. I did not cry, but I recall Jenny bursting into tears when I said the words. She wept, saying, "that poor, sad woman."

Honestly, as the years passed I never thought about my mother's attempt at suicide or my grandmother's completion of that final act. I'd done a tour with the Navy, finished college, and gotten a good job at a profession that seems suited for my abilities and limitations. With Jenny, I'd built a safe and satisfying life.

Always I remembered the fear that haunted those bad old days. I could never quite forget how everything can be taken away, violently, mercilessly, completely. No door lock is strong enough, especially when the threat abides inside, ordering up a highball, sleeping on the couch, knowing all your weaknesses and most of your secrets. I never rid myself of that nagging fear. But I felt more and more sure of my own security nonetheless.

That's why I was truly shocked for the first time some years ago when I found myself gushing tears in front of a stranger in a cramped office at local suicide prevention hotline center.

I'd applied to work as a phone counselor who could talk with folks contemplating suicide. The choice to work in that capacity seemed reasonable enough, a chance to bring my skills as a professor of communication studies to practical use. I knew I'd be asked to complete 40 hours of training, which seemed superfluous to me. How hard could it be? Answering the phone and helping people contemplate choices other than killing themselves must be like putting together a puzzle. You just have to fit the pieces together.

Naturally I had no idea how wrong I was. The hours of training introduced me to a practical application of communication theory and crisis psychology that I'd never encountered in grad school. I learned from people with far less formal schooling than I possessed, survivors who carried their own deep wounds, who quickly managed to puncture my self-assured objectivity and ludicrous detachment with a wisdom earned through pain and self-knowledge. I quickly ditched my smart-ass attitude; I was dealing with grownups.

And for a year I answered the phone. Every Saturday night from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., I did my best to employ a protocol designed to help callers deal with crisis. I dealt with crank calls, bored teens, lonely shut-ins, and plenty of people who were considering suicide but who had no definite means or plan to kill themselves. I remember only a handful of calls in which I counseled people who seemed, as we said in that office, "highly lethal."

I felt that I did some good during that year, but it didn't take long to abandon the silly heroism of hoping that I, one disembodied voice, could literally save the life of the person on the other end of the phone. All I could do on most nights was try to help a sad and vulnerable person work out a plan to stay alive for another day. Sometimes one more day was all they could promise; one more day was all I could expect. I don't diminish the value of that service, but I don't wish to aggrandize it either.

Those memories follow me long after I completed my service. No, I don't "still hear the voices," as one might say in a movie. But I do remember the feelings of metaphorically walking in the dark with a stranger past an open window and relying on my ears and voice alone to say, "Let's keep going just a little bit more."

Even so I always return to that first meeting with the woman who ran the suicide hotline. She was interviewing me, I presumed, to gauge my interest and expertise in crisis counseling. As I said, I entered that room with confidence. I could foresee the year to follow as an interesting exercise in applied communication. Just show me the phone and I'll be just fine, thank you.

Following her own protocol, she asked if I'd attempted suicide or whether I had family members who had attempted to kill themselves or did in fact kill themselves. I'm not sure I even remembered at first. Then I began to rattle through my story. Well, yes, my mother tried to kill herself. And, as it turns out, my grandmother did kill herself not too long ago. And, well...

What happened afterward is hard for me to understand. I don't know why I began to cry, but I was quickly overwhelmed with tears. I was a little scared, actually. Where did this onslaught of feelings come from? I was embarrassed, too. No one in her right mind would let me near a phone to counsel people in crisis when I clearly had no grip on my own problems. I was shaken. This woman, who really had not impressed me, opened me up like a locked safe with the simplest combination. She simply asked. For some reason she allowed me to join the program anyway.

During my training, I learned that people who have had family members attempt suicide are themselves much more likely to do the same thing, and maybe kill themselves in the process. What's more, people whose family members have killed themselves face an even higher likelihood that they will also attempt the act and potentially take their own lives. So while I'm talking about the experiences of others, most importantly about family members who are no longer alive, I am compelled to answer the obvious question: Have I contemplated suicide, or even made an effort to kill myself?

I have never made the effort, but I have contemplated it twice with a fairly high degree of seriousness. In both cases, I faced struggles that seemed so profound and so unmanageable - crises that called into question my personal sense of security and the worth of my good name - that I did indeed think, "It'd just be easier to kill myself." That I'm still alive is no miracle. No heroes swept in to lift me from rocky shoals. It was just a matter of finding a reason to focus on the small but essential truth that my life, no matter how miserable it may be on rare occasion, is more valuable to those whom I love than any freedom from life's pain to be found in suicide.

I offer no assurance that my choices to reframe those problems are transferable to anyone else. Looking back, it's easy to say, "Hey, I have a family. I have a few friends. I have a job. I have a good thing going here. Nothing happening today is worth losing all of that." On most days, happily, that truth is blindingly obvious.

And for some people, it's easy to pitch forth some sanctimonious rebuke about the selfishness of suicide, even the risk that such an act merits being sent to hell. From a certain vantage point, it's easy to be blithe about the pain of strangers.

But even the most apparently fortunate among us confront obstacles from time to time that appear to be unmovable, crises for which there seem to be no resolutions. Anyone blessed with friends, coworkers, and loved ones can still face dark periods when perceptions are most easily skewed, when no person seems to possess strength or willingness for sacrifice sufficient to help us.

Anyone may be forgiven for thinking that the only control we have left in our lives is the time and method of our deaths. And, particularly in cases of grave and painful illness, many reasonable people hold that artificially induced death presents a compassionate response to prolonged suffering.

So there's no easy resolution from me on the topic of suicide.

I don't advocate it. I don't encourage it. And I don't anticipate it.

I merely state that we should not be ashamed to talk about it. As with any difficult dialogue, there's a time and a place for the topic of suicide (even if some readers argue that a blog post fails to meet that standard). Otherwise, we are left with the gnawing guilt that the contemplation of this act must be as solitary a moment as its commission, that we must face our fears and our most irreversible outcomes alone.

Such an attitude, inevitable if one assumes alienation to be the fundamental reality of public life, is nearly as sad to me as the lengths to which some people will go to be rid of their pain and simultaneously communicate their sadness and isolation to others. I reject the attitude that we must avoid discussing suicide in public. Talking about this subject may be awkward as hell. Not talking about it, though, is much, much worse.

At a minimum, suicide affects those who are left behind in ways that may not be apparent for years. The pain may at first be invisible, but it cannot be ignored. And those left behind must endure the sad litany of unanswerable questions. What could I have done? What could I have said? How could I have missed the signs? At once, we recognize the price of silence and the futility of our decision to value harmony over honesty.

Suicide touches all of us who feel connected in a web of human relationships, bound to each others' choices, pains, celebrations, and fears. All of us in some nearly imperceptible way feel the loss of one of us, particularly when that one's choice to die comes from perceived isolation. That's why I wrote this post: Our lives, our problems, and our potentials for communication are far more universal than initial appearances convey.

No one is alone when thinking about suicide. At least, no one has to be.

1 comment:

Vienna said...

I sincerely appreciated this post. Thank you for directing me to it. I am glad to have been made aware that my blithe confidence in going into suicide prevention training may be misplaced.

But also I never realized how much I didn't know about my family's history with suicide. For that reason alone I am so gratified to learn more about where I come from, and where you come from. I will be sure to check in with you regularly with my own experiences once I start training.