I was listening to NPR on my way to taiji on Saturday, and it was in the middle of a story by a guy named Jake who had interviewed his friend, Brian, about his (Brian’s) suicidal tendencies. I was dropped in the middle of the story, so I didn’t have all the background, but it was immediately gripping. Brian’s voice was flat, stripped of all affect. and I immediately recognized it as deeply depressed. I assumed it was recent, but soon found out that it was from 1999. That made more sense with some of what he was saying, but I’ll get to that in a bit.
It was fascinating to me because I think about death a lot, and even though suicide isn’t on the forefront of my mind that much these days, it’s still tucked away in a corner, ready to break its way out. I have never woken up and been glad to be alive. The best I can do is not be sad that I’m not dead. So, Jake’s interview with Brian after the latter tried to kill himself for the second time. Jake simply wanted to try and understand why Brian felt the way he did, so he lets Brian do most of the talking.
The thing that struck me is how rational Brian sounded in his explanation as to why suicide was the answer to his problem. The brain can justify anything, and his brain had honed its justification to perfection. When Jake asked him if he thought suicide was selfish*, he responded by saying that it was selfish in the way going to therapy was selfish. It was a way of solving a problem, he explained in a clinical voice. He wasn’t trying to convince himself or Jake that this was true; he actually believed it. He was convinced that his solution was no different that trying to work it out in therapy.
This is the insidiousness of depression. Listening to Brian, I could say, “What you’re saying doesn’t make sense. Suicide isn’t the same as therapy at all.” But, I understood where he was coming from. When I was deep in my depression, I was able to convince myself that I was toxic to the world and that it would be better off without me. It didn’t matter how many friends I had or what anyone said to me; I was convinced the world would be better off with me dead.
Being somewhat removed from that mentality, it’s easy for me to say, “What the hell was I thinking?” But in the middle of it, it seemed as immutable as the fact that the sun rose every morning and set every evening. I could hear that in Brian’s voice, and I knew nothing anyone said to him would change his mind. Jake says that part of the reason he made the tapes was that he hoped in listening to them, Brian could see how wrong he was. I felt bad for Jake because that was destined to fail, as Jake himself realized at some point.
Another thing Brian said in response to the is suicide selfish question was that he didn’t think you should live for other people, anyway. Like, if all you’re doing is staying alive because of external factors, then what’s the point? It’s something I’ve struggled with myself and have come to terms with somewhat. During my deepest depression, one of the reasons I didn’t kill myself is because of the impact it would have on whomever found me. Chances are, it would have been my brother, and I would not wish that on anyone. Then, when I got my cats, I didn’t want to upset their little furry worlds by killing myself. I knew other people could take care of them, but not the way I did. Not the way to which they had become accustomed. I think it’s OK to live for others until you can find a reason to live for yourself.
It hurt to listen to Brian because he was smart and funny, and listening to his voice, I knew that if he didn’t get some real help, he wouldn’t be long for this world. He was talking in his flat, disconnected voice about how he knew the mind can do anything it chooses to do–I cringed when he said it. I hate that truism, and it sounded so false in his mouth–and I actually screamed at the radio, “Get therapy!”. Then he said he knew this because his therapist had told him so, and I was appalled. What kind of therapist says that bullshit in good conscience to a deeply suicidal client? When I found out it this was 1999, it made a little more sense, but still. I considered it malpractice to tell a client/patient who is determined to commit suicide that ‘your mind can do anything you want it to if you try hard enough’. Brian went on to say that it was so hard to do, and then I said to the radio, “Get drugs!” This was before I knew how long ago this had happened and what the inevitable result was.
Brian’s mother had committed suicide when Brian and his brother were little kids. It obviously still affected Brian at the time of this recording. He mentioned it and how you shouldn’t be a parent if you still have problems with your own parents. It was the only time Brian sounded flustered and unsure of what he was saying. He also noted that talking to Jake about this was the most he’d ever talked about it. That’s one of the problems with being depressed. You isolate yourself, and all you have are the voices in your brain that are telling you you’re complete shit.
Sadly, at the end of the tapes, Jake came on to say that two years after he had interviewed Brian, Brian had tried to kill himself, and this time, he succeeded. This didn’t surprise me, but it still hit me in the gut. I had come to know Brian a little through these recordings, and I wished I could have gone back in time to…what? I don’t even know. I was depressed myself at the time, and I probably wouldn’t have been much use to him because I couldn’t have been rah-rah about him not killing himself.
Depression is so damn convincing, and it’s a full-time struggle to beat back the demons on a daily basis. It’s tiring, and it’s hard to see a point in fighting. That’s what I wish people who’ve never felt this way before could understand. When you’re suicidal, it takes a lot of strength and energy just to not kill yourself. It’s all you think about every second of the day, and one irony is that being severely depressed can actually keep you alive because you just don’t have the energy to actually kill yourself. There are several studies about how getting on antidepressants can actually increase the risk for suicide. There doesn’t seem to be an agreement as to why, but I think it’s partly because all the negativity that has been percolating in your brain while you’re lying prostrate on the couch finally has legs.
It’s a terrible loop, and it’s one that is extremely difficult to break. I wish I could give some handy tips on how to deal with it, but I don’t really have any. The biggest reason I never killed myself during my worst years of depression was cowardice. I was too afraid of what was on the other side to do it. Also, I couldn’t help but think of my friends and family, who I could at least intellectually recognize would be hurt if I killed myself, even if I couldn’t understand why.
Am I glad to be alive? No. Do I wish I were dead? Big pause. The jury is still out on that. It was hard listening to the tapes of Brian because I’m not that far from that mentality myself. It’s too close in my past to listen to dispassionately, and yet, I couldn’t stop listening. It broke my heart because I knew the end five minutes into listening.
A sad addendum. When I was Googling the story in order to write this post, I came across another story by Jake. Phil, Brian’s brother, committed suicide three years after Brian did. Brian did it with a cocktail of drugs, whereas Phil did it by jumping off Golden Gate Bridge. Brian had a history of suicide attempts, but Phil was a pathologist and had even planned on visiting Jake with his girlfriend (Phil’s) in a month. The Golden Gate Bridge is a notorious place for suicide attempts in part because it’s so easy to jump. For many people, including myself, not committing suicide is more about inertia than actual wanting to live. The Golden Gate Bridge makes it to easy to impulse jump, and I think that might be what Phil did.
This time, I felt more pain for Jake because he actually had to visit the morgue and see his friend, Phil. I can’t imagine dealing with that, especially after having to grapple with the death of Brian. Brian included copies of the interview in his letters to his brother and cousins. Phil left no suicide note.
There’s a phenomenon called copycat suicides in which hearing about a suicide will trigger other people to kill themselves as well. My pop psychology reasoning is that once it becomes a possibility (by hearing it), it’s easier to reach for it. It’s especially difficult when it’s a family member who committed suicide, and it feels as if the brothers were marked from the start because their mother killed herself when they were younger. Brian, especially, really never had a chance, and then once he was gone, Phil was infected with it as well.
It’s a heartbreaking story all around, and I really feel for Jake. He’s the keeper of the tragedy, and it’s going to burden him all his life. I checked in on him while writing this post to make sure he’s OK, and he’s still alive. I’m glad I listened to the original tapes, but it’s heavy in my heart. The tragedy and senselessness of suicide is obvious from the outside, but it’s so hard to feel when you’re in it. I never want to go back there, and I hope I never do.
*I’ve written about this before. I don’t think it’s selfish in the traditional definition of the word, but it’s a person so focused on the pain they’re feeling, they can’t think of anything else. It’s depression in a nutshell, really, that you can’t think of anything other than the overwhelming pain that you’re drowning in.