Suicide is (not) Painless

This is probably a giant bandwagon that I am getting on here. With the recent devastating loss of Robin Williams – one of many great artists to fall to suicide (I should say presumed suicide, since they are still examining the evidence to this point) – came a slew of facebook and twitter posts about the national suicide hotline and depression/mental health awareness. There are thousands of people out there talking about this issue right now, probably saying many of the things I’m about to say.

I don’t mind being one voice among many on a topic for which there are never enough voices.

At once it seems strange that there aren’t enough voices – it seems like there should be plenty, just based on my own personal experiences. I was introduced to the idea of suicide when I was quite young – probably five or six, due to some interactions with a habitually suicidal family member. I saw the anguish that this person went through, and experienced my own every time they said they were thinking of taking their own life.

I remember the day I learned that one of my classmates killed himself – we were fourteen at the time. I remember my friends from high school who lived in horrible situations where they frequently thought of suicide, cut themselves, called me in the middle of the night in tears saying that they just couldn’t take the pain anymore. As an adult in healthcare I’ve seen many people who were contemplating or had attempted suicide, and witnessed one death by suicide – the person who died surrounded by weeping friends and family. I didn’t know this person and never got to talk to them, yet I stood outside their room and cried, wondering what must have gone through their head the moment before the gun went off. Did they think their family was better off without them? Was the pain of breathing so great that one more breath would have been too much?

Would it have helped even a little if I’d met this person a day before and somewhere else?

Perhaps I grew up in a particularly bad place for suicidality – perhaps I just happen to attract people to my life with this particular experience. Certainly as a healthcare professional I willingly expose myself to it, and hope that I can make some small difference in my clinical role. It seems to me that more people should be speaking out about this topic, and more should be understanding when a stranger, friend, colleague has the courage to speak up and say, ‘I’m depressed, I need help.’

Sadly it seems that our world does not respond well to these cries. If you look around the internet for a minute you’ll see strangers posting into the ether asking for help, met by other strangers internet-shouting to ‘get over it!’ or calling these people selfish, worthless, failures. I first encountered this in real life during my early pre-med years while volunteering in an ER with some other pre-meds. One of my patients was a woman who had attempted suicide. My pre-med colleague was also on the case, and she said some things I’ll never forget.

“I don’t understand why they don’t call the police,” she said disdainfully, her eyes narrowed with what I can only describe as disgust. “That woman should be in jail.”

Never in my life had it occurred to me that the reaction to ‘this person was so distraught that they saw no alternative but to slit their own wrists’ would be one of disgust and punishment. Naiive little me, I suppose, I fought back with my words, demanded that she see how this was not a moral failing or a matter of choice – attempting or completing suicide is the endpoint of an awful series of events, and if the person who has done it thought there was any other way, they would have chosen it. We are hardwired to live. Taking our own life means that something has gone seriously wrong.

I call this post “Suicide is (not) Painless” because I know – quite intimately – that it isn’t. Suicide is the ultimate culmination of years of hideous pain; when it is completed that pain ripples out to dozens and maybe hundreds of people. In cases where the people driven to take their own lives are great artists who brought us joy and wonder, this pain is amplified to thousands. Nothing about suicide is painless – and nothing about it should be shameful, either, even though we as a society have made it out to be.

If you need help, please ask for it from people you know will be sympathetic – close friends, a therapist, a doctor, the national suicide hotline if you’re in a pinch (1-800-273-TALK) or the boys town national hotline if you’re a teen in trouble (1-800-448-3000). You are not bad, wrong, or selfish. The pain is real.

Thanks for the laughs, Robin Williams. I hope you find joy somewhere out there.

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