A book about suicide has recently been published by Harvard UP and I feel no desire to read it. Since there is the very tiny, very remote possibility the author may chance here, I want to say, immediately, that I have nothing against him, not a thing. Well, except for the fact that his research is about
Serotonin transporter gene’s relation to psychopathology; development and empirical tests of interpersonal and cognitive theories of depression, suicidal behavior, and bulimia nervosa; understanding the antecedents and temporal parameters of suicidal crises; defining the structure of psychopathological syndromes, using taxometric and structural equation modeling techniques,
and one of the articles he coauthored (why are people in the social sciences so into co-authoring while us monkeys in the humanities write our own stuff?) is titled “Association between serotonin transporter gene polymorphism and family history of completed and attempted suicide.”
What I mean is, I have nothing against him as a professional helper because I have no way to assess how good he is at helping people, but I have a lot against a model of psychological inquiry that frames pain in such a way that it can be measured, quantified, taxonomized. Dr. Joiner, of course, is hardly the only psychologist in America who thinks about mental anguish in these terms; in fact, he is part of a large, ever-expanding tribe.
(I even understand why one would want to think about mental pain in these terms. Psychologists are in the business of alleviating pain, and if we can box pain, reduce it as it were to nuts and bolts, and find the right spanners for those very nuts and bolts, then bingo! lots and lots of people are going to feel so much better. And, after all, why not try to make it easy? Maybe it is, after all, easy. Maybe it is all a matter of nuts and bolts and spanners, and if we put our heads together and try to figure it out we’ll find the holy grail of mental solace, we’ll nail that fucker mental pain, bomb the shit of it, pulverize it out of existence, send it to kingdom come. So, see, I understand them. Sorta.)
In fact, this is not a post about Myths about Suicide, which seems to have helped at least one person (the reviewer who brought me to it). This person is a suicide survivor: her ex-boyfriend killed himself barely a year after they broke up. She lives in tremendous anguish. She thinks that the book is required reading material. She thinks the book might help save lives.
Nor is it a post about psychological approaches. I’ve been yacking simply to delay getting to the heart of what I want to say, which is this. The ex-boyfriend guy who killed himself and caused the book reviewer (and doubtless many others) untold anguish videotaped his suicide note, and this videorecording, which is posted on youtube, is such a striking human document, it’s branded itself in my mind and heart. It is a surprisingly accessible video, deemed by youtube itself appropriate for all ages; it is level-headed, dispassionate, calm, even a little humorous. It is, as I said, remarkable. I’m not going to post it here, but here’s the link to it.
In the video, Michael (following his desires, the family published his full name) describes his life as a bad movie he’s had to sit through for his 30-something years; he talks of a terrible anguish that’s dogged him from day one; he says, I don’t see why I should continue sitting here and watching this awful movie. He acknowledges he has been loved, and thanks those who loved him for making the journey a little less tormenting. He encourages viewers to imagine there might be people in their lives who feel the way he does, people we might not even imagine are in such pain, and, if we can, to make things easier for them, provide a little solace along the road.
He regrets what he’s about to do. He knows he’ll cause a lot of pain. He repeats “It’s not your fault; it’s just me.” He begs people not to feel responsible. He hopes they might not be too hurt, too angry. He says, “I know this is selfish, but this time I just have to do something for me.” He sounds like he’s had all he can take.
Michael has a good job. He has friends. He talks about his family in nice terms. There is no animosity at all in his speech.
He has prepared a letter he’s going to send out seconds before he dies to everyone who knows him. From the video, it seems clear to me that he has tailored the letters to the various recipients. He says repeatedly that he’s sorry, but he doesn’t grovel and doesn’t over-apologize. He sounds and looks extremely dignified.
He has made very detailed plans to cause as little inconvenience to people as possible. He is going to call 911 on himself a few seconds before he dies to avoid traumatizing someone who may happen upon his body. He says he could have quit his job and blown a month on a holiday before dying, but that would have deprived his family of his life insurance and he didn’t want to do that.
I could continue. I am tempted to continue. I want to relay the entirety of Michael’s speech. I want to memorize Michael’s speech. I want to spend hours on each little turn of phrase. I am completely captured by Michael, his goodbye, his death.
And now I’m stuck, I don’t know what to say. Because I have dallied with suicide too and what Michael says resonates in me with the clarity of perfect understanding. In fact, quite frankly, I admire him.
If I had seen this two, three years ago, I might have felt so disturbed by the contrast between his courage and my pusillanimity, it would have been hard to bear. But I have found help when I thought help was entirely beyond the domain of possibility, and I feel differently now. The hopeless, solid, impenetrable despair Michael describes and that characterized my (longer) life too is and will always be a thing of the past. I have seen beyond the fog curtain. I know there is another future for me. If my analyst bailed out on me today, I’d still have seen the future on the other side of the fog. At the same time, I know the chances that anyone in such depths of despair might find the good help I have found are so slim as to be almost nil. I know what my analyst did to make me see through the fog and I know that it’s a little magic, a little miraculous, a little unique.
I cannot commit myself to the view that suicides should be prevented at all cost, regardless of circumstances. Some people have nothing left in the tank. Some people need the simple mercy of being able to check out.
Because of my work I’ve been reading a lot on disability, and the mantra of the disability scholar is access/accommodation. Take in-utero genetic medicine (not something we are yet able to do) and in-utero genetic diagnostics (a blunt tool we are using somewhat recklessly). There is a ton of money that’s being spent on this stuff. Disability advocates say, “Before you spend money on preventing us from existing, why don’t you spend more money on making life easy for us so that we and those who care for us won’t have it so damn hard?”
I’m going to make the same argument for suicide. Instead of fostering an anti-suicide culture with its accoutrement of laws and punishments (see for instance all the various measures that allow medical and police authorities to detain suicidal people), why don’t we create a culture in which people in agonizing inner pain are offered genuine help?
By genuine help I don’t mean the quick or not-so-quick remedies thought up by professionals in mental health or pharmacology that aim at getting rid of the pain. Getting rid of the pain, just like getting rid of disability, inevitably comes with the semantic, rhetorical and ideological association that pain is bad. Which, in turn, brings the negative association that people in pain are bad, i.e. have something wrong with them we must at all cost fix.
Thinking of pain in the simple terms of badness, unacceptability, and correction does exactly nothing to help people in pain. It helps, instead, those who are not in pain to feel better about themselves and their anxieties with respect to the inevitable encounters with pain that lie ahead of them.
Alleviating pain is one of the most serious imperatives for any human being, but dispatching pain is very different from alleviating pain. For one, pain has value. For two, pain is simply non-dispatchable. We can hold on to the fiction that pain is dispatchable for as long as we like, but it will be to our detriment. For three, pain can only be alleviated in relationship (we need each other). For four, engaging in a pain-alleviating relationship (i.e. a relationship, period, if that relationship is worthy of its name) is one of the most rewarding enterprises a human being is afforded in this life, and refusing to engage in such relationships is impoverishing beyond measure. For five, we must, as a society, move away from a culture of fixing toward of culture of engagement.
A culture of engagement requires, among other things, a return of the mental health profession to long-term, expert, compassionate, slow, loving, giving, patient, undemanding, not-money-driven, not-result-oriented practices. If we are unwilling to give the Michaels of the world serious access to this kind of healing, we are going to have to let them die without stigma and without posthumous punishment.