Trigger Warning: This post talks about suicide and suicidal thoughts. If this subject is a trigger for you, please do not read this post.
When my brother killed himself, I had a few reactions, not all of them appropriate. For instance, I found myself thinking: “Great, now I can’t do it because everyone will think I’m just copying him!” I could hear his annoying, pokey voice saying, “Stop copying me, stop copying me”, over and over in my head…an echo from our childhood.
I also grieved, of course – but I was definitely conflicted. He was mentally ill and dangerous, and he had suffered for a long time. So did the people in his life. I found myself unable to judge his choice.
I have a bit of a love/hate thing going on with suicide, although it has evolved over the years. When I am in the darkest parts of my own depressive cycle, suicide can seem as if it would bring sweet relief. The fact that death is not what I really want out of suicide is one of the things that keeps me alive. It’s such a commitment…I mean, what if I do it and I don’t like it? There are no take backs, as far as I know.
The First One
The first person I knew who killed themselves was a friend of my parents. I was probably around 12 years old – I don’t remember exactly. My parents were very social, and all the parents in the neighborhood would get together to drink and laugh and talk loudly. They would take turns at each other’s houses, so I saw them all probably an average of once a week.
Alcohol was always a big part of these events, and this particular friend was always the life of the party. Not in a gross way, though – he was just always really funny, and seemed so happy, and he was really, really nice to me. When the party was at our house, he would take time to step outside the melee and pay attention to me, talk to me, and make me laugh and feel important.
Although many of my parents friends were really nice to me, this particular man was exceptionally kind and friendly and funny. He was tall and skinny with a face that reminded me of Jimmy Stewart, and I really, really loved him. To me it didn’t matter that he was my parents’ age. He was my friend.
One day my mother informed me that this wonderfully funny and kind man had killed himself by closing himself in the garage with the car running. I remember how mad she was at him, and how both she and my father talked about how weak he was and how SELFISH it was of him to do this to his wife. I liked his wife, too, and I felt sad for her, but mostly I felt confused and sad for myself.
I didn’t understand how anyone could call my friend selfish – he was always SO kind to me and seemed so happy all of the time. I couldn’t make sense of it, I just knew that someone I loved and who was kind to me was gone, and that people were mad about it. I’m not sure I even fully realized that I would never see him again.
The reality of someone like that just disappearing had never happened to me before. I don’t know if that was the very first funeral I attended (other than our pets), but it was the first one I remember. I remember his wife, on that day, and all of the grown ups acting kind of fake and weird.
This was also very likely the first time I fully realized that you could end your own suffering, an idea I returned to often.
Not Dealing Well
My judgments about suicide as I got older ranged from empathy to an echo of my parents ideas that suicide was selfish. When I look back now, I realize my reaction stemmed only in part from my parents’ voices in my head…the rest was a reaction to my own secret struggles. I had already begun dealing with anxiety, depression, and suicidal thinking, and found that I had very little sympathy for my own suicidal tendencies.
I would be in my own head, wanting relief from my life while at the same time hammering myself with the judgment I had heard from my parents. There was no love or compassion there. Of course, as an adult, I realize they were processing their own grief in their own way. That didn’t really help the child “me”, however.
I can’t recall speaking a word of my problems to anyone, but my emotional difficulties around the dangerous situation in my home were not helped when someone at school was mean to me, or I was bullied. In fact, I had to be very careful to NOT share stuff like that with my brother – he hurt more than one person who had hurt me, and I did not want to be responsible for that. I often fantasized about ending everything, so all of it could just STOP.
I do remember feeling envy mixed in with my judgment, when someone else had the courage to speak up. I perceived people who talked about or even attempted suicide as stronger and in a much better place than I was. In an awful kind of way, their words and actions seemed like a form of freedom and even self-acceptance that I couldn’t reach, and rather than dissecting my feelings I hid behind my judgment.
After college, life kept happening of course, and years passed and I had adventures and a few mostly happy years. Anxiety and depression still lived in my head, but I was active and busy and mostly able to ignore them. I got a cool job in a cool place on a remote island. On that island I met a wonderful father-figure who blessed my life in a myriad of ways. He was protective and loving and listened to me and gave me the kind of fatherly attention I needed at the time.
The Second One
My island “Dad” was kind and our friendship was healing and positive and good for me. He even helped me decide whether to date certain people based on, of all things, whether they treated me well! I eventually left the island, and he stayed for several years after I left, and we stayed connected through letters. Yep – real life, send them through the post office letters.
He killed himself after being caught stealing trash (discarded tools, mostly), of all things, from a government facility. It’s a longer story than fits here, but this was a good man who did a stupid thing, and he couldn’t bear the thought of going to prison. This is reportedly the same reason my brother ended his life years later – a refusal to accept another prison sentence.
He wrote me a letter just before he died, in which his knowledge that he would not be of this world for much longer was clear. He talked about how he had been in prison in Mexico at one point, and after being caught for this pseudo-crime of stealing trash, he could not go back to prison again. He gave me his last words of advice and wisdom, and told me he loved me and to have a good life.
He said goodbye in that letter, and it arrived in the mail at around the same time that I heard that he was dead. My heart shattered when this man killed himself – he had been the person that held so many of us “together” living in a situation that could get pretty difficult. He was island “Dad” to many of us – putting himself in the position of protecting many of the younger women on the island from the “hounds”, as he called them.
Here was another person who was loving and had depth and compassion and a true love for the people in his life…and who found life too painful to continue. Love was not enough. Possibility of “parole” was not enough. He was done – life had just been too hard for too long. Another man who had been kind to me had been hiding a darkness inside himself.
Happy On The Outside Does Not Tell The Whole Story
I saw an episode of “One Day At A Time” recently, in which they handled this subject with respect and honesty. Schneider (of all people), said something I thought was very interesting to Penelope, who deals with depression and had had some suicidal ideation. He said, “I think you know healthy brains do not go to that place.”
We have seen, as a society, a number of these types of suicides with celebrities. Robin Williams is the main one that comes to my mind because I grieved him almost as if I’d known him. A funny man, a kind man, a man living with the pain of mental illness who simply could not keep going.
Mental illness can be deadly, and the stigma attached keeps people unwilling or unable to take care of themselves. Keeping it hidden, putting on a “brave face”…this might be the only difference between someone who makes it, and someone who just can’t take it anymore.
People of all genders often think they have to be “strong” about what is going on inside them. They force an external happiness, tell jokes – make themselves the life of the party. We can NEVER know just by looking at someone, whether they are truly “OK”. I have spent most of my life hiding my own struggle with this particular shadow, only recently deciding it was time to shine some light on the subject.
I’ll tell you more about this in the next post. If you are interested, please come back and read “When Life Is Just TOO Hard – Part 2”.
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please know there is help. Reach out – your life is worth it! You can find help at: