Sunday, 24 August 2014

The final step

It's easy to understand someone killing themself because of a serious physical illness, or the early signs of one. Obviously they don't want to suffer endlessly or rely on long-term care.*

But when it's suicide after mental distress, people often say they don't understand why the person did it. They wonder why they didn't ask for help or why they didn't respond to the help that was given. Surely there was no need for such a drastic step?

They may even be totally unsympathetic. They may say suicide is selfish, or weak, or melodramatic, or even callous. Did they realise the grief and guilt they were inflicting on their friends and relatives?

I find such lack of sympathy and understanding quite startling. I think it's a failure of imagination, of the ability to see the extremities of pain and distress and misery the person is enduring, pain so severe that any amount of advice, therapy, drugs, support and chivvying is never going to soothe or cure it. Their psyche is so fractured, their emotions so disordered, that life is just an intolerable burden they have to get rid of.

Jenny and I had a friend who was diagnosed schizophrenic for over 30 years. When we visited her she would put on a show of being cheerful and ebullient but sometimes the mask would slip and we would see just how unhappy she was underneath. Her future was obviously cruelly limited and stuck, and eventually she killed herself. Numerous people had tried to help her but her distress was too deep-rooted to be extinguished.

It's all too common to misinterpret severe despair or depression as "being a bit pissed off" or "being up against it" and not recognise the depth and breath of an overwhelming hopelessness. Even if you recognise it, the person may feel too ashamed or timid or paralysed to admit it.

Such suffocating and unyielding misery is all too understandable. The tragedy is that even if you understand, you may be powerless to put things right.

*This suicide note from Gillian Bennett, who was in the early stages of dementia, is astonishingly rational and clear-sighted. No way was "the balance of her mind disturbed", as the cliché has it.

25 comments:

Jenny Woolf said...

It is so hard for us to see into others' minds. I have always felt it is up to the individual to make that decision, but I also think we should try to help them find ways out of their misery if they are prepared to listen.

bonsaimum said...

So true. As one father said, it did not matter how much help and love was available, sometimes it just is not enough to make them want to stay.

Nick said...

Jenny: Very hard indeed. And yes, a person is entitled to make that decision. Everyone should have the right to decide if they stay alive or not.

Bonsaimum: Absolutely. Sometimes the depth of misery is beyond any amount of help and compassion.

Bijoux said...

Disorders of the mind are not understandable to most people. I have sympathy for both the person dealing with the disorder and those who are close to them.

Mike said...

Through other blog posts and discussions like this, I have a better understanding of and empathy for this than I did not too long ago. To me, still, suicide is a selfish act that very often hurts those left behind. Selfish is not necessarily bad. When someone is in the dark depths of depression or other malady or on the doorstep of some horrible fatal disease, for the one afflicted, selfish may be all that's left.

One of our adult children suffers from chronic depression.

Keith Smith said...

You have an unerring way of picking subjects that I can relate to.

I am not depressed as such, but I am in constant pain with arthritis. Some days it is bad, and some days not so bad. Having been active all my life, it is a blow to my ego that I can only walk short distances with the aid of a stick.

I am well past my use by date so I expected these things to happen, especially as it is hereditary. I don't go out now, I do everything on the Internet from banking to shopping, because I don't want people to see me the way I am now.

I do get spells of depression, but I never think of ending it all. Even if I did, I don't have any family or friends left who would care. I'm thankful for that, because if I decided to pull the plug on life it wouldn't unduly affect anyone else.

Nick said...

Bijoux: I can understand the pain and distress but I have little idea how to reduce it. I think even professional therapists are often groping in the dark.

Mike: As you say, selfish isn't necessarily bad if it means doing what you feel is right for you, despite other people's opinions.

Nick said...

Keith: I can understand your not wanting to go out. My sister, who had MND, feels the same way. Thank goodness we now have the internet with all its advantages. Arthritis can be nasty - my grandma was extremely arthritic - but I guess it's at least livable-with and not drastic enough to make suicide a tempting option.

Secret Agent Woman said...

I think suicide is a valid option if you are facing debilitating illness or great pain. I can't even argue with it for chronic severe depression, since I do believe people should have the right to take their own lives. (In spite of the fact that I am legally bound to intervene if someone tells me they are suicidal.) However. I think you forfeit that right while you have children at home. Suicide is then a luxury I just don't think you can afford because the kids are the ones who pay. Per a big study by Johns Hopkins, "Losing a parent to suicide makes children more likely to die by suicide themselves and increases their risk of developing a range of major psychiatric disorders." And that makes it a selfish act. I am still sympathetic, but I don't think it's a fair course of action when kids are involved.

susie said...

I think people who commit suicide are just really really ill. Maybe they haven't been treated properly. I don't think it's a cop out, I think it's a final act of desparation.

Nick said...

Agent: Fair point about the effect on children. If a parent's suicide can disturb them so much, there should be a big emphasis on helping parents with mental problems.

Susie: I agree, it's a final act of desperation when they've probably tried very hard to reverse their emotional despondency.

Cheerful Monk said...

One of Andy's cousin's had four children, which was fine when they were down in Uganda (in the mid-60's) and had help to babysit and do the housework. When they got back to the states his wife committed suicide. That was rough on everyone.

Nick said...

Jean: I'm sorry to hear that. A suicide can be absolutely devastating to those who have to come to terms with it.

Ursula said...

I do completely underwrite Secret Agent Woman's view. When a parent you DO NOT commit suicide. Crawl through life on your knees and your gums (not a pretty sight either for your kids) if you must but keep going. Under no circumstances, as we say in the motherland, do throw the shooter into the cornfield.

Suicides (attempts and completed ones) have touched my life from my late teenage years. My first husband tried and was saved by the cat (and my early arrival home). A good friend of mine (same age - about 22) succeeded. I could write you a list as long as my arm. There are two things I do know: Suicide has potential to rip families apart. The fall-out beyond imagination, beyond redemption. Secondly: It's a fallacy to think that there must be a 'history' of, say, mental illness, depression. That there should have been warning signs. Often there aren't any. None. Surprise. Surprise. Like a birthday cake.

Then there is the spur of the moment. A moment of madness (in the metaphorical sense)/I am not the suicidal type. Never have been, never will. Yet, and this is as confidential as anything can be confidential on the world wide web, I recently experienced the fright of my life. In a moment of conflict and despair at not knowing how best to solve it, and being totally disenchanted with myself in the face of this helplessness, totally overwhelmed by it, something descended on me like a cloud of red dust. Maybe what a bull experiences when he sees red. For a few seconds (and it was only seconds) it was as if something washed over me. If that moment I'd stood on a quay or near a river with a heavy rock in my coat I'd have done a Virginia Woolf. I can't describe it, Nick, it was a moment of madness. Shook me to the core. And it lifted in as many seconds as it had to descend on me. The reason I am relating this very personal moment that I do not believe that all suicides can be EXPLAINED. Not all suicides are based on a history of mental illness. Not all, scant comfort to those left, potential suicides are recognizable. And I'd rather not know how many suicides are committed without anyone ever suspecting that someone's demise was more than an accident.

Now, should I hit the wall or a tree any time in the next thirty years, Nick, please do not deduce from it that I was trying to do away with myself, unnoticed. In my case it will have been an accident.

All I know, and I shudder just thinking about it, it being beyond my imagination, what depth of darkness someone must feel to take that FINAL step. I am no coward. I do take risks. But all those risks are calculated, and reversible. Suicide? You know: Sometimes in moments I want to frighten the shit out of myself I imagine what it must be like to jump from a truly great height. What if you change your mind ca 10 floors down? And you can't do anything about it? You can't stop and rewind? Splash.

U

Nick said...

Ursula: I guess you're right that there isn't necessarily any visible history of mental distress, and whatever led to the suicide might be very recent. As you say, there may be no catalyst whatever except a sudden "moment of madness" that throws you over the edge.

Also true I think that many suicides are not identified as such and just seem to be tragic accidents like a car crash.

What depth of darkness indeed. But I can well imagine a situation of such all-encompassing despair and "trappedness" that suicide seems the only possible solution.

Rummuser said...

There was a time when I seriously contemplated suicide due to my domestic life having become totally unmanageable. It was my sense of responsibility to my wife that prevented me from taking the long swim to China but I can assure you, it takes a great deal of courage to commit suicide. In some ways I admire people who commit suicide for precisely that reason.

Nick said...

Ramana: I agree it must take a lot of courage to commit suicide. After all, it's irreversible, and once you've done it, that's that. I haven't heard the phrase "long swim to China" before....

Grannymar said...

This is a tough one, Nick. I know of four people who ended their lives by suicide. One a thirty something year old single male who appeared to be doing well. Two men in their fifties a continent apart, who used a tree in the front garden to end their lives. One used a pistol, the other a rope.

The last, a woman who lived along the avenue from where I grew up. I was a young teen at the time, she packed her children off to school, then lit the gas oven, but did not light it. To this day I have no idea whether it was her husband or her young children who found her.

Which of us know when that switch will trip.

Nick said...

Grannymar: That makes me realise just how many people commit suicide. It's more common than we like to think. The last one reminds me of the recent story of a mother who died suddenly of a heart defect. Her child was alone with the body all day, assuming her mother was asleep and trying to wake her.

John Gray said...

Nick
Well written and a good point
Well made

Nick said...

Thanks, John. And as a volunteer for the Samaritans, you probably know more about the subject than most.

Rummuser said...

http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2014/08/suicide-an-act-of-supreme-bravery.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+3quarksdaily+%283quarksdaily%29

Nick said...

Ramana, that's a wonderful piece on suicide and why some people are driven to it.

"Life is not always bearable - we've all felt that. Sometimes it seems there is a societal pressure that you simply MUST enjoy your life. But that has a hollow ring to those who don't have a good time of it. There's something offensive about such heartiness. As though you owe it to others to be happy. All those happy people being happy around you, can depress the heck out of a person."

Quite so.

Liz Hinds said...

Very wise words, Nick.

Another label often placed upon suicides is 'cowardly', which again is so far from the mark.

Nick said...

Liz: Thanks. Absolutely, suicide is not in any way cowardly. The piece Ramana linked to said exactly that, suicide is really an act of supreme bravery. Because once you've done it, that's it, you can't change your mind.