Yesterday was #WorldSuicidePreventionDay. The stigma against mental illness in general is horrible. I’m pretty thoroughly convinced the stigma against men (and especially, but not exclusively between men) being able to authentically express emotional or psychological pain, whether the result of mental illness, circumstance or whatever else, is one of the most significant contributors to the many forms of violence we live with, including, but in absolutely no way limited to suicide.
Most of us have done things in our lives, at one point or another, where feeling shame as the result was actually healthy. It demonstrated that we aren’t complete narcissists. None of us should ever be ashamed of struggling. Being suicidal doesn’t make you weak. It doesn’t make you strong either. The same is true of mental illness more generally. The only thing it makes you is necessarily adaptive.
One of the unfortunate realities about this shit burger of a society we live with, is that it’s been telling all of us that one of the necessary adaptations for people who are or who ever have been suicidal is that we have to be ashamed. The same is true for mental illness in general. It’s an utter and complete fabrication.
I’ve lived with some level of suicidal ideation for more of my life than not. If I’m completely honest, I can just barely remember a time before it was present in my life. I don’t live with a constant urgent feeling suicide is necessary or even should be a possibility. There have been times when it was constant and urgent enough, emergency intervention and help were necessary. I have lived most of my life with it in a different way though. It’s consistent, and only on the rarest of occasions, after a period of escalation is it urgent. My mind very easily, and very quickly turns to suicide as a solution for types of problems so numerous, I don’t know I could even categorize and count them all.
There have been a handful of times that I’ve burst into laughter in public because of the absurdity of suicide being tossed into my stream of thought as an option to an incredibly minor mistake or dilemma. This is to say I dropped an egg on the floor of my own kitchen and for some reason, the thought pops into my head which says, “You fucking idiot. You should kill yourself.” I’ve had instances of not having a discount card or membership to some program or whatnot, after I’ve told a cashier or clerk I did have it, and when not being able to find it the responding thought is, “You’re fucking wasting these people’s time. What good are you? You should kill yourself.”
The most absurd examples though are when it’s proposed as a result of nothing I’ve even done. Someone cuts across two lanes of traffic in order to make the exit they didn’t realize they were about to pass, I end up having to hit my brakes, and every muscle in my body goes into emergency mode. When I realize an accident has been averted and take a deep breath as the offending car exists, from somewhere in the recesses of my mind, it emerges. “How could you let someone do that to you? You should kill yourself.”
It truly is absurd. It can be comical, and it’s something I’ve shared genuine laughter about with other people who’ve had similar experiences. The thing is, the comical and absurd side are the easy side. They’re just so plainly ridiculous, it’s impossible to be able give them any credence at all. The only reasonable response is, “Am I fucking kidding me?” Every other part of my personality and mind respond with an internal equivalent of pointing and laughing.
It’s not always as plainly absurd and easy to recognize. At some point, not quite 20 years ago, I developed the habit of more often treating it with the equivalent of “Thanks for sharing,” during those periods. I essentially treat it the way I would if I were in a group of people having a discussion and one of them contributed something which may be tangentially related or could be a long term solution to a problem we’re trying to address immediately. I know they want to have their opportunity to have some input, and that was the best they could come up with. I don’t have to have a response or feel any kind of way about it. “I heard you,” is all that’s really necessary, and in my case, often best. Engaging that line of thinking, be it genuinely considering that maybe I should kill myself or attempting to start arguing with myself about how terrible an idea it is never works. Engaging it is bad. Nothing good comes of engaging with it.
The day to day thoughts are not so easy to dismiss as so absurd. Day to day is much more looking at the world I exist in as I attempt to exist in it, the culture and society, and being pretty convinced this is in no way where I belong. The trick of it is that I have almost no clue which is more real or which came first. Do I feel this way because society is currently in the process of exposing it’s most monstrous aspects, and a whole lot of people are feeling like the home team is finally bringing home a championship in response or is it that I’ve spent most of my life with relatively consistent intrusive thoughts of suicide, and the state of things outside of me isn’t going to have any bearing anyway? I’m relatively sure the truth is somewhere between the two, but I have yet to be able to nail it down with anything like certainty.
The uncertainty has it’s purpose though. It’s one of those bulwarks against being able to take this sense that I’ll always be impossibly disconnected too seriously. The cliche goes, suicide is one of those very permanent solutions to temporary problems. My problem isn’t temporary. It’s been around thirty years now. However, there is some weird, bottomless hope that I’ll at some point have found something which will give me enough of a sense of meaning or of genuine usefulness that even if the suicidal thoughts don’t go away, the more day to day version will seem just as absurd as the version which comes along because I missed a highway exit.
The hope that I’ll be able to find my way to being able to spend much more of my time engaged in efforts which bring genuine benefits to my fellow human beings is powerful. I’ve been helpful and useful, at times. I’ve done things because I believed they were right and contributed to either a greater good or individuals well being and I don’t know that I would say I’m genuinely proud, but I do know I’ll never feel regret or shame about. I say I don’t know I’m proud, because I essentially feel like those were instances in my life where I happened to find a way to do what I should be doing. The doing of them is the most contentment I’ve ever had, but oddly, they also seem to come with lessons that make it necessary to keep seeking more effective ways to be helpful and useful.
It becomes a Catch-22. I don’t regret them, but I also can’t repeat them because of what I learned in the process or as a result, and there’s always the slightest bit of feeling as if I was naive to have attempted them in the first place.
For a lot of my life, people referred to the “Fear Of Missing Out” (FOMO for those who aren’t literate in netspeak) as a negative. I can’t really buy it being a negative. It’s one of the other reliable bulwarks against the decades long recurrence of suicidal thoughts. Sure, there are tons of people out there who love the arts, and the popular arts more specifically. For most of my life, they’ve reliably been a source of those discoveries which come with the feeling or thought, “I would have missed this.” It’s that simple really. It’s that experience.
I’m not going to list any of them, because they’d never translate to anyone who didn’t feel something similar toward those specific pieces of work, but this is a thing many of us do experience. Some of those works stand the test of time and continue to be nearly as powerful years and years later, after repeated listenings, viewings or readings. They’re like old friends we can always pick up a conversation with as if no time had passed since we’d last spoken. Some of them don’t, but even those serve their purpose at the time, giving me some connection to life, a little while longer. They’re like people we appreciate having had in our lives, but whom we’ve grown apart from so much the distance is obvious. Even as I recognize it’s probably an unhealthy part of a celebrity obsessed culture, I’m deeply grateful to the many creative people who have participated in that process throughout my life.
It’s also the hope of knowing people do come and go. If they’re gone now, just maybe there will be others. Maybe some will come back. The isolation isn’t always so cloyingly complete, and those times are worth having. The laughs, and the experiencing other people’s lives with them. Feeling happiness at their joy, genuine sadness when they experience sorrow. It’s what FOMO really is when I break it down to it’s most fundamental elements.
Living like this, with some abstract sense of suicidal desire, and the various patterns, perspectives and cheats I’ve found (I’m sure anyone else who also lives with it has many of their own, if not some of the same), is complicated and messy. Many days are as much about searching for a reason to find that whispering voice absurd as they are about just doing the things which are expected of every person of whatever age I happened to be. There’s no guarantee of equilibrium or consistency. The good periods can last weeks, even months at some points. The bad can last days, weeks, months or years. It can be a roller coaster of good days and bad.
I’m not sure anything is more useless and ineffective in trying to get through the fog of it than shame though. It’s corrosive. Worse, it’s one of the main sources of alienation.
Intellectually, I know there are many people out there who experience something very much the same. I know that men especially are loathe to speak sincerely and openly about it. It turns into the very direct variety of suicide which makes the top of the list of gun deaths or it turns into the kind of misguided, alienated, terrified rage which results in us turning the same violence on someone else. It turns into drug addiction, alcoholism and a whole list of other risk taking behaviors which are often more socially acceptable, but no less destructive. It turns into the desperate, despicable attempts to prove some kind of socially constructed sense of primacy and worth which presents itself as lying for sex or about sex, sexual abuse, assault and harassment.
The time I’ve spent researching the latest science at any given time through the years has almost always just given fact to what I already knew. I know the same voice which whispers about the solution being my own death has bragged, screamed, howled and slurred a million other bad ideas through the years, a few thousand of which I’ve listened to at one point or another. Shame enough comes with those, as it should most of the time, especially when they hurt someone else.
That shame, which arises from those times when I’ve been unable to detect the fact that the source of some push or pull or desire is exactly the same as the one which whispers that I should kill myself, that shame I’ll take. That shame is instructive, and often constructive. It’s made me a better person. It teaches me the difference between a bulwark against this whispering idiot and an excuse to take it’s advice.
But the shame which is supposed to be mine because this is how I exist, despite decades of trying to find another way to exist, no. I won’t take that. It’s not mine. This wasn’t a ride I signed up for. It wasn’t a ticket I bought. That shame belongs to the rest of society. It’s that shame which is the most harmful, the one which is the greatest barrier to the thing which brings the real healing, the sense of belonging, the understanding that people you genuinely respect and believe in also respect and believe in you, just because you’ve managed to overcome the fear brought on by your respective sources of shame. It’s the shame which keeps so many of us from being able to reach each other.
I’ll accept the shame I’m due. It’s an inevitable part of continuing to try. It’s part of the process which comes with each instance of deciding there might be something which I wouldn’t want to have missed. I’ll accept the shame of having hurt other people. I’ll accept the shame of having attempted a few thousand terrible ideas, just to try and get a little bit of momentary relief.
The shame which says continuing to exist in spite of the familiar voice whispering about suicide and a million of those other terrible ideas, I’m not accepting that anymore. It’s not mine. It never was. I’m not going to be ashamed for being a broken piece which doesn’t quite make for a good cog, because the machine is so incredibly ghastly and inhumane I desperately, unashamedly hope it breaks down completely. That’s your shame. The shame of the society which goes about it’s days just accepting how ghastly and inhumane it is, and that it is so because of how much shame we’re all trying to run from and hide from, so much of it having nothing at all to do with anything we’ve done, but instead about who we are, and our very existence. To that, all any of us should really say is, “Fuck your shame. Keep it. I’m trying to actually live and you don’t give a shit if I survive.”