Monday, November 6, 2017

Suicide: how to steer past staring into the abyss

In June of 2012 I was home 'sick' actually trying to mark my way out of piles of English essays when the phone rang. The Superintendent at my Mum's building said she'd been found dead. She'd been battling some mental health demons but had never once said anything about suicide. She took all the pills given to her by her well meaning doctor for depression; I guess he hadn't seen it coming either because he handed her the means to do it. It probably happened early in the first week of June and I got called on the Monday of the second week. It had been a strangely hot spring and she had fallen unconscious and died in her bedroom, and then lay there for a week in a top floor apartment, slowly baking into the floor. When we were finally allowed in a week later the smell was overwhelming. I sincerely hope no one else ever has to mop their Mum's remains up off the floor.

No note was ever found, we had no idea why this happened. As she struggled with schizophrenia she had managed to give all of the money her mother had recently left her to grifter - we didn't find this out until later. I got his name and gave it to the Waterloo Police who just shrugged. Taking advantage of mentally ill seniors is perfectly OK in Canada. So Mum, destitute and in declining health looked at a future of poverty, confusion and dependence. One night in what I hope was a moment of lucidity, she sat down on the end of her bed, surrounded by boxes as she had to move to a cheaper apartment, and made a decision about her future. Fortunately, the light hand of Canadian health care had given her everything she needed to end that future.

When I see someone roll their eyes at a mental illness I want to punch them in the face. They wouldn't yell at a person in a wheelchair for being too lazy to climb the stairs, but mental illness is seen as a choice; it isn't a choice. Watching my Mum turn on herself was agonizing to watch. We tried to be supportive, we tried to be interventional, but if you bring someone in to a hospital because you're worried about them hurting themselves, they can sign themselves out a few days later. Mum did. Six months later they'll send them home with enough anti-depressants to kill themselves. This whole process was like watching a ship slowly sinking. You want to try and stop it, but it's inevitable, and there is no one around, healthcare or police, who can or will do anything about it. You can thrash around trying to stop the inevitable, but this only brought more pain. I finally ended up playing the violin on the deck as the water rose around us.

People will tell you that suicide is selfish, that it's just an expression of depression. The people telling you this are frantically trying to manage the situation. Having been on the deck of the suicide ship, I can tell you that it's fairly impossible to manage. Suicide is a reminder to everyone that our lives are ephemeral and fleeting; none of us need be here. It's a reminder that we are, in spite what the media tells us about our place in the world, the single most powerful things in our lives because we have the power to end it if we wish.

Religion is terrified of this power. It drapes suicide in shades of sin. It tells believers that they won't go to heaven if they do it. It warns of eternal damnation if they commit this most heinous of acts. Is my Mum in hell? You won't find a lot of solace in religion when you're going over the Niagara Falls of a suicide.

We are very smart animals. Unlike the instinct driven majority of creatures on Earth in a constant struggle with nature, we have made ourselves safer, more long living and this means we have time to exercise our big brains and wonder what the point of it all is. We fill that void with social expectations, belief and other human constructions like prejudice that fill our days with invented meaning. Suicide bypasses all of these fictions and brings us to a shocking truth: the only real thing about us is our being. Staring into that existential abyss, these human fictions we amuse ourselves with on a day to day basis (your nationality, your race - humans don't have races, humans ARE a race, your religion, your political stripes ad nauseam) quickly fade in significance.

Facing this implacable foe, the talk that so fuels and satisfies all of those human endeavours is suddenly empty. How do you face the shocking freedom and power of your existential self when it's thrown into the light by suicide? 

Accept your power, and then choose to use it.

It's taken me five long, hard years to get here. A lot of what we do is pretense and if you cling to those social expectations you won't find them practical tools for combating existential angst. We're capable of abstraction and self understanding beyond the ken of most of our animal cousins. If we apply our ability to think beyond the institutional confines of social convention and grasp the existential freedom our minds allow us, we can see past the whirlpool of suicide and into a future of self realization.

A lot of people say suicide is just the result of depression, but I think that's reductive and manipulative (they're saying that to make people think it's a socially manageable situation). Suicide reminds us all that our being here is ephemeral, and that usually scares the shit out of people. I've gotten past the scared shitless phase and have tried to be as honest about this as I'm able.  Suicide reminds me to cultivate my passions in life. Find reasons for wanting to make good use of your short time here on this planet, then go after them.  Love those closest to you, be gentle with yourself, cultivate your interests and use that to build your strengths, minimize your weaknesses and become a better person.

Suicide reminds me that we are very powerful indeed, and we should grasp that power and use it to fill our lives with real meaning.  

If you're ever feeling overwhelmed by it all, remember most of it is bullshit made by your fellow humans to coerce you into their way of thinking.  Step past all that, grasp your existence and make it your own.  It'll be over before you know it anyway.

Note: the images in this are from a series of art therapy pieces I did shortly after my Mum's death. I was stuck having nightmares of her week slowly melting in the parquet floor of that apartment  and needed to get them out of my head. Mum was an artist. I'm glad I inherited a piece of that. The process she gifted me helped me get over one of the hardest events in my life.

My brother and I put her ashes into the sea by our home town in England.  Events like that help create a sense of closure, but I'm always amazed at how close to the surface those feelings are, even now.  This week we're dealing with multiple suicides at my school.  The skin is still thin where it has healed.