Shock. Grief. Disbelief. Sadness. In the last four weeks, I have known of four people who have committed suicide. On the days that each of these four people took their lives, 40 seconds later someone else, somewhere in the world, did too. And 40 seconds after that, another. Perhaps, then, hearing of these suicides shouldn’t be so shocking. But of course I felt the publicly shared shock. The empathic, once-removed sadness. And yet…There was more to it than that. So I’ve been wondering why I have been so unsettled by this, so deeply affected. Why do the faces of these people keep floating through my head? This wasn’t my loss: what right do I have to this grief? And so I began to write.
But suicide is an emotive topic, to both write and read about. So first, a disclaimer: This is a personal post. About one person’s experience of depression and the effect of just the word suicide on the physical and emotional memory of that experience. It makes no assumptions and no judgements about what others have been through. It does not diminish the suffering and pain felt by those left in suicide’s wake. But if this post has resonance with just one person who has been there, or who is perhaps trying to understand being there, that will be enough.
In the aftermath of a death by suicide, perhaps especially very public or high profile ones, many are left struggling to understand it. Trying to make sense of it, to find explanations, as we all tend to do in the face of tragedy. And underlying some of this is that question to which the answer seems impossible to comprehend: what could lead someone to that place? A place where the desperate and painful and awful act of ending life seems to be the choice that is made. A decision to remove oneself from the world. In our public and personal narratives, one can often find the (mis)conception that some people are or should be immune to such things. They had achieved so much in their lives. They were a successful academic, a prominent researcher. They were a health professional, a doctor, a psychologist. They helped others with this sort of thing. They knew how and where to find help. And then those become reasons: Mental illness and suicide on the rise among academics. Among medical professionals. In South Africa. In the world.
Perhaps there is also something self-protective in trying to find reasons. In blaming this or attributing that. We can never know what combination of things will have led someone there. But reasons give us armour. They give us things we can identify, pinpoint, avoid: if I can protect myself from this, or if I don’t live like that, then I might never get to that place. If I can change this or fix that, someone I love might never return there. Depression, of course, is often one of these reasons. And here is where the statistics are publicised. The prevalence of mental illness, the epidemic of depression. The nature of the disease is highlighted again, in order to cast blame away from the person who was in the grips of it. But it still somehow seems a difficult one to get inside of, a state of mind impossible to understand from outside of it. Hard even for those who have been there to articulate the experience of the there.
And then there are those of us who understand it too well. Who know. Because we’ve been there, to that place. Walked the line, sometimes tried hard to cross it, between wanting to live and wanting to die. Who know that there is choice and there is not-choice. So, when I hear about another person’s suicidal act or suicide, a mixture of thoughts and feelings whisper their way into me: This time it wasn’t me. Relief. That could have been me. Sadness. That could still be me. Fear.
In a much-loved film from my childhood, The Neverending Story, there is a scene where Atreyu, on a quest to save Fantasia, must pass through the mirror gate, which means facing his true self. In the movie, being able to pass through the gate is a good thing: Atreyu’s true self does not send him screaming from the gate and he makes progress on his journey towards finding the answers he is looking for. When I think of this mirror gate, I think instead of the threshold between life and death. For me, it’s the familiar place of depression. The true self I face in my depression does not send me away in fear; it is so unbearable to look at and accept that it convinces me that the only ‘escape’ from this self is to cross over the threshold from life to death. It is a harrowing image of self-loathing, hopelessness, despair, futility, torment. To borrow more metaphors from The Neverending Story, it is simultaneously drowning in a swamp of sadness and being consumed by The Nothing.
This is a threshold at which many of us who are at the mercy of depression have stood, a threshold some have tried repeatedly to pass through. And some of us live with the awareness that we may find ourselves at that threshold again. So suicides affect us with an unsettled sorrow. There is profound sadness, a resonating kind of grief, having a sense of what that person might have been going through. But for me there is also a sense that hearing of another person’s suicide infects as well as affects. They are like whispers to those memories, to those emotions. They remind us that, once you’ve been to that threshold many times before, the odds are higher that you’ll find yourself there again. If this is sounding a-volitional, it’s because it is: once I fall into a landmine of depression, I cannot predict or control how far I will fall. I know what to do, of course – increase my meds, see my therapist more often, ask friends to hold onto bits of me – but even in doing these things, I fall.
To think that I might become suicidal again is frightening. For me and for those who care about me. When someone commits suicide, many often ask, how could they do that to their family, to their friends, to people who loved them? In my experience, this is a complex, difficult question, with even more complex, difficult answers. I don’t think any one of us can put ourselves in the place that person would have been in when they made the impossible decision to take their own life. But what I do know is this: it is both a choice and a non-choice. We try to understand it, try to make sense of it using our rational senses. But this is the thing: Depression, by its nature, is irrational. There is no sense to it. Suicide is not a sense-ible act. It is one of being overwhelmed by all senses and overwhelmed by the absence of any senses.
This is a paradox I live with: that I spend half of my life wanting to die and the other half being afraid of death – wanting, I suppose, to live. The former is most often as a result of depression. The latter I understand to be the corollary of suffering from depression and of the suicidal ideation that comes with it. Tomorrow, or next month, or next year, I might find myself in that place again. And so, during these rare times when I am Okay, I clutch onto life. Fearfully. Not spectacularly, not adventurously. Just quietly, cautiously. And gratefully. That, today at least, my internal world does not include a mirror gate.