Anthony Bordain. Kate Spade. Young doctors plunging from towers. Such high profile cases grab our attention, but they are merely tips of an iceberg: the epidemic of suicide. What’s going on? What were these people thinking?
I wasn’t. Thinking, that is. I was far beyond thought. I had no choice, no other option. At the tender age of 20, life was unbearable, and I had to make it stop. Everyone I loved would be better off without me. I remember exactly what I felt, with laser clarity, as if it were yesterday. Feelings are to belief as facts are to knowledge. Was there a suicide hotline, 50 years ago? Would I have called one? I doubt it.
My descent into depression was gradual and mundane. No unique tragedies, just the usual assortment of disappointments, romantic conflicts, a genetic family curse, and a general disillusionment with mankind. The world was in turmoil: King and Kennedy assasinations, childhood friends coming home dead or crazy from the Viet Nam War, Kent State, violent demonstrations everywhere. Graffiti in a toilet stall in the student center read: “Committing suicide at Rice is redundant.”
Not everyone who feels sad commits suicide, but contemplation is nearly universal. Some inciting stimulus is required for actual commission, like a match tossed into the pile of straw. For me, it was the suicide of a family friend. She had invited us over for dinner, shortly after her husband left her. Despite her changing circumstance, she was upbeat and charming, totally devoted to two adorable children. We shared the same name, spelled the same way, and she understood me, encouraged me. Less than a week after that nice evening, my parents didn’t show up to meet me for dinner. That was the time before email and cell phones, so I got the news of her death from a payphone in a dark parking lot. If I close my eyes, I recall the sound of the nearby surf, the warm, humid air, and the diamond studded black velvet sky.
Fortunately, I had no access to a lofty ledge, so I couldn’t just take one small step into oblivion. I didn’t own a gun. And my room mates came home early. I have a vague recollection of a large tube pumping out my stomach and waking up to my mother sitting on the side of my bed, wiping my face with a cool cloth. After a few weeks of therapy, the psychiatrist, threw in the towel. I wasn’t compliant. But I was better. Time and family support lifted the fog of depression. Here was the big takeaway, the overarching lesson: my family would never have recovered from the pain of my death. The real tragedy of suicide is the desolation of those left behind.
It wasn’t grief over the loss of a friend that drove me. It was simply her act of smashing through the mysterious wall at the outer boundary of life, leaving a gaping hole in reality, like a gash in the side of an airplane at 30,000 feet. She was the queen of hearts pulled from the house of cards, the domino falling against me.
Suicide is an impulse that can jump from one life to another, like some viral meme, or a spark from a wildfire that flies across a river or highway to spread the inferno. If someone else steps over that line, the act is no longer unthinkable. Maybe the urge to shoot people in a school or a club is a similar germ. I feel immune now, as if I have been vaccinated. Still, at the first news about Bordain’s death, before I heard that he had taken his own life, I had a weird random thought. The world is in terrible shape. He’s lucky to get out before it gets worse.
Suicide is contagious. It is a tragic epidemic. Like any public health crisis, we need more research, more knowledge. We can’t just build safety nets to catch the falling. It is just not possible to deliver the a critical message of hope for redemption on a need to know basis, at the crucial instant of decision. We need to address the forces that drive people to the narrow ledges of skyscrapers.