I attempted suicide when I was sixteen. Over the almost fifty years since, I have told very few people. I’ve only shared when the importance of disclosure felt greater than my desire for privacy. I have shared with others who have survived suicide attempts. I’ve also shared with those in danger of succumbing to their suicidal urges—when the sharing of my personal experience would have more impact than my professional experience—when it might save a life.
Suicide is not a conversation-friendly topic. Like most provocative subjects, it makes people uncomfortable and can generate rigid opinions. But, there has never been a greater need for education on the complexities of suicide. One thing shrinks know for sure about suicide is that it is contagious. Hotlines and ERs have been on high alert since Robin Williams committed suicide. If someone who has so much going on for him cannot go on living, why should I? Maybe opening the discussion is Robin’s last gift to us—not through laughter, but through tears.
We who grieve Robin’s suicide are on a quest for answers as to Why? That’s often the case for survivors of suicide—those left behind. We want to understand. Sometimes the answers are clear, but most times they are not. Grief is complicated by unanswered questions.
I’ve called suicide the most selfish and narcissistic of all acts—because it is at that point the pain is so overwhelming that it overshadows any thought of the consequences of one’s actions on anyone else. The mind in pain gets sneaky and deceitful, rationalizing how others will be better off without the burden of you, the depressed nonfunctioning one. The only way to imagine feeling suicidal without having experienced it is to try to remember the torture of your most intense physical pain, and how you would have done anything to escape it—with little or no regard for anyone else.
My first thought when hearing about Robin’s suicide and his history of depression, was how much pain he must have been suffering. I hurt for his family and loved ones and I hurt for him. Depression is ruthless. It robs you of your capacity for joy while magnifying the smallest hurts. It steals your energy, leaving you exhausted and making any effort to find comfort feel impossible. It isolates you at the very time you most need human contact. It alternately churns your thoughts and emotions like a high-speed blender, or leaves you curiously devoid of feelings. It has many different faces and manifests with a variety of symptoms. Depression is a heavy, dark, cloak.
Depression alone is bad enough, but when stress is added to the mix the risk of suicide increases. For Robin, the diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease may have been the stressor that pushed him over the edge. Stress adds the “I’m coming out of my skin” factor—the urgency to escape what feels inescapable. The hopelessness of the situation and helplessness to effect change leads people take the leap that those who’ve never been there cannot possibly understand. It is at that time suicide feels like the only solution to a problem that feels permanent.
When I’ve held those sobbing in deep despair, who have just barely survived a suicide attempt, or who are on the brink of making one, and shared my story with them—it was not a “textbook” intervention. It came from a place of deep empathy and intuition. It was the only thing I could do at the moment. And it has worked. I could tell them honestly that life does get better. And that there are many joys and surprises awaiting them once we get them past the pain. And they could see me and trust me and believe it to be true. My wish in sharing my story with you, my readers, is that it will help even one of you heal in some small or huge way.
Over the years, when I have shared my suicide attempt, I’ve often said I don’t even remember why. There was no one major event I recall with certainty. This week, I went back, searching for clues. Trying to make sense of what I tried to neatly file away—hoping my search can give me some peace—while helping my readers who are grieving or struggling to more clearly understand the complexity of suicide. If you wish to read my story, please read my piece entitled “Silent Echoes.”