Trigger Warning: suicide
Disclaimer: none of these comments are meant to say anything about my current frame of mind or alert anyone that I am feeling suicidal. I’m interested in discussing how we talk about suicide, and how that talk can affect individuals who are feeling suicidal. I hope we can all be adult and sensitive while still being honest about a taboo subject to try to understand how our talk affects each other.
There has been a lot of writing about and coverage of suicide recently, as Stephen Fry recently opened up about a suicide attempt in his past. It’s gotten me thinking. I have never attempted suicide, but I have absolutely been in a state where I have considered it and been tempted by it. There have been some extremely intelligent and important things said about the subject recently, particularly that there is often no necessary rhyme or reason to it, but I want to get to something that I think is the biggest fear of many friends, family members, and loved ones, something that is extremely important to me, and something that comes up a lot when we talk about the ethics of suicide.
If someone commits suicide it is not about you. If someone attempts suicide it is not about you. If someone thinks about suicide it is not about you. When I have talked about suicide and the ethics of suicide in the past, the thing that comes up most often is the harm that it does to those around the individual: it leaves them hurt, lonely, and confused. Many people cite their family or friends as the only reason they won’t go through with suicide-they’re too afraid of who would find them, or of what it would do to their mother/lover/child/etc. More often than not, someone with mental illness thinks long and hard about what their actions are doing and will do to the people around them. But despite how much thought goes into the family and friends, the action is still not about them.
I can say with a fair amount of certainty that the vast majority of the time, the feelings of unhappiness, depression, and suicidality are not your fault, nor are they about you. Of course there are some exceptions to this, but for the most part, if your loved one is struggling, they are more likely to be worried about letting you down than they are about you ruining their life. So the action is not caused by you, or motivated by your actions. It’s caused by an internal battle and an internal desire.
In addition, the action is rarely taken with the intention to leave you alone, abandon you, or hurt you. Rarely does someone who is feeling suicidal take the pain felt by you lightly. Their struggle really has nothing to do with you though. Whatever feelings may be driving them towards suicide are their own: their own mental illness, their own life, their own circumstances that are leaving them helpless, frustrated, or unhappy. They are struggling with demons in their own mind. You may have some influence on their life: you may have helped some, you may have hurt some. You may have done both. But at the end of the day, no one can make another person depressed or safe another person (I’m going to except abusive situations here because that absolutely can make a person depressed). So they were not motivated by you being bad, nor were they motivated by a desire to leave you.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that they did it with the intention of ignoring you, or taking your struggle lightly, but that they are so wrapped up in what is troubling them that they can’t necessarily prioritize taking care of your emotions. When I have been in bad places, the unhappiness clouds out everything else. There are people I love and care about, but the hopelessness and pointlessness of my life are all I see and all I feel. To be perfectly honest, those are the times I generally pay little to no attention to anyone else. I isolate. I’m not too interested in what anyone else has to say. And that’s because I’m too busy fighting the battle in my own mind. Other people feel peripheral.
When they intrude, it’s mostly to remind me that I don’t want to hurt them. But if I ever were to have gone through with something, the only thing I would have wanted to tell people was that I didn’t want to hurt them, I wasn’t trying to leave them, it wasn’t their fault, and in no way did I mean for it to be about them. If I could have I would have just winked out of existence without ever having been there so that no one would have to experience it. The pain in a suicidal person’s life often outweighs the struggle that they feel to protect those around them. But asking them to think about you and not put you through that can put even more pressure on them, and talking about the survivors afterwards can leave other people in similar situations feeling as if they’re doing something wrong and bad by even contemplating it. Adding guilt to the situation of someone who’s already struggling is unnecessary.
Suicide is intensely personal. It’s about an individual’s relationship with themself and the world. It’s about self-identity. It’s about individual experience. But it is NOT about you. When we’re talking about suicide, I would love to see less of how much it hurts others, and more about the experience of the individual who is in so much pain.