Hello darkness my old friend
Updated: 6 days ago
Memoirs of my very own madness, Part 2: Hello, Darkness, My Old Friend
[*This is the second in a series of memoir-essays on mental illness and suicide, begun on FB Aug 13. ]
That same summer of 1985 I also experienced censorship for the first time, when I was asked to share a summer “testimony” for youth Sunday at church. My carefully written speech included the onset of my first experience with depression, and the attendant thoughts of suicide.
“That’s awfully dark, you sure you want to include such personal details, son? Besides, that may upset some people. We don’t want to do that, do we?” Not only did this “Senior” pastor condescend to me, display poor leadership skills and questionable ethics, but he turned it around on the diminutive 13-year old? I’m the one who might hurt them by telling about the experience which hurt me? Not only did I leave his cologne-stained office with less respect for him and zero respect for his values, so too began my steady move away from the church of my childhood.
Worse, it began a pattern of silently internalizing the negativity from depression and suicidal ideation. It was easier, and appeared to be safer to keep such closeted secrets to yourself. One of the most important things friends & family might do for their depressed (and suicidal) loved ones is help them learn how to talk about their depression and suicidal thoughts by simply offering to listen without judgment.
Like depression, suicide has followed me most of the days of my life since then. If my depression is a disease (of course it is), then suicide is one of the most severe manifestations of it, an extreme, acutely painful symptom never taken lightly. Thankfully, some of suicide’s visits are short and painless, though not innocuous. Like each neuro-diversity and mental illness, each experience is unique. If suicide is the darkest manifestation of my depression, it's one I want to say no more than “hello” to before crossing to the other side of the psychic street. But some times I can’t avoid being stuck on a corner at a crossroads with her; other times I hear him singing to me like a dark Siren...
Because so many celebrities and historic artistic figures have “done it,” it’s especially easy to romanticize suicide when you are an artist. Was I drawn to melancholy and dramatic artists, from Schubert to Van Gogh, Woolf to Rothko because of shared diversities, a temperamental kinship which transcended artistic ties? Since suicide is even less normalized than manic-depression and other mental illnesses, perhaps it needs even more understanding, if not sympathy? Anyway, identifying with artistic “heroes” like Gerard de Nerval and Sylvia Plath and DFW always helped me feel less alone and expanded my empathy.
David Foster Wallace (DFW) wrote memorably about suicide (between receiving ECT treatment and before his own suicide in 2008, in his mid-forties). We don’t blame the person who chooses to jump out of a flaming building to avoid being burnt alive. The suicide feels forced to make that same excruciating choice.
Suicides are like wounded lone wolves. Separate from their pack, nature/life has wounded them to rage, if not bitterness. They will not go without a fight, and they will go on their terms…
The suicide’s questions - what is the point? why does it hurt so relentlessly? will it ever stop? will things ever improve? why can't I be free of this? - all point to the condition's relationship to existentialism. Religious and belief systems fail the one irrevocable choice known as suicide. The ‘will to live’ is the ultimate reason to which the suicide has to recommit or refute. This is sometimes a daily choice.
The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus, an essay on suicide, imagines Sisyphus “smiling,” a symbol of the absurd acceptance of fate. Rather than cursing it, Sisyphus smiles as he performs his daily task of rolling the rock uphill, laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. Camus’ humanist existentialism, with its dose of Zen-Buddhist non-attachment, is an engaging thought experiment tackling a subject found impossibly difficult across history.
How to prevent suicide? Seek professional help without embarrassment nor delay. From a lay person: Notice signs of depression, withdrawal; listen for harmful speech and look for violent behavior. Most suicides are premeditated. Suicidal thoughts often appear in association with the onset of depression. This is especially true during the teenage years but may appear at any time.
call 911 for emergency See online resources: Amer. Foundation for Suicide Prevention (afsp.org)
Sometimes I spend so much time with Depression, Suicide and/or Mania I forget to have regular conversation with my human loved ones and companions. Those gremlins on my shoulders are nearly always present, though I rarely talk about it. Talking about suicide is important for me the way talking about depression, mindset, spirituality, money and other important matters is. It’s vital! And talking about it really helps - it is essential for me to process it.
But just because I process by thinking out loud, just because I talk in order to process emotions and complexes - just because it's easy to talk doesn’t mean it's easy to ask for an ear, or pick up the phone, or initiate the conversation which we hope will lead to the sharing we desperately need. This point is regularly missed.
It may challenge societal and moral norms, but suicide is not entirely selfish nor is it a cowardly act of surrender. In some ancient societies it was acceptable, in others, “assisted suicide” for the condemned included herbal poison. Still the stigma of self-annihilation, with fiercely determined autonomy at its core, challenges social, civil and especially religious "norms." Suicide is a death with no shame, a paradise-exiling, unpardonable sin. As with other “taboo” violations, denial only reinforces its allure, it does nothing to diminish or prevent its occurrence, and silence only perpetuates misunderstanding.
Suicide, along with the mental illness which precedes it, is a complicated tome to take off the forbidden shelf and start talking about.
If you're reading this and have already met depression, mania or suicide, please know you're not alone.
And even if you're one of the chosen few who lives with 2 or 3 of them, they can be managed so that what remains of your life is, in fact, yours.