What You Need to Understand About Suicide

Author’s note: This post is very triggering. Please do not read it if you don’t feel you can handle it. Take care of yourself. If you are feeling suicidal, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. 

On the way home from a road test in New Rochelle this morning, I turned on the radio to listen to the Geraldo show. Larry Mendte was filling in, and the topic was Robin Williams’ suicide. Since I saw the story online last night I’ve been reading articles, tributes, compilations of his greatest acts and quotes, and, of course, watching his movies. I’m in middle of Dead Poet’s Society. Robin Williams was a great man who not only inspired countless people, but touched every one of our hearts with his comedy. Who hasn’t watched Mrs Doubtfire at least 10 times? He will be sorely missed by the world, and we all mourn his passing.

Except, apparently, for Larry Mendte. No, instead of opening with a tribute to Robin Williams, Mendte decided to open the show with a ten minute diatribe about how selfish, unforgivable, disgusting, and cowardly Robin Williams was in taking his life. He touched upon all the usual talking points whenever suicide finds its way into the news: It’s the easy way out; It’s the coward’s choice; It’s selfish; How could he not think of his children and wife? Mind you, this was after Mendte admitted several times that he had neither suffered from depression or suicidal ideation in his life, nor had any education on the subject. And yet, somehow, he felt qualified to give his tens of thousands of listeners his opinions.

And then he opened the show for callers. He asked his callers to please explain to him, because to him it was unfathomable, how a man could do something so terrible. First two callers up agreed with Mendte’s assessment of Williams’ suicide. “You’re right, Larry, it is selfish and wrong, and I will never forgive him for what he did to his family.” “It’s the pharmaceutical companies. They overprescribe medicine and it makes people do crazy things like this.” Finally a call came in from someone who actually suffered from depression, and I thought oh maybe just this once a talk show host will accept education when it’s offered. Nope. The caller described his experience and his history of depression and suicide pretty well, but after he hung up, all Mendte could say was that he didn’t know, couldn’t understand it, and still found Williams’ suicide unforgivable.

Meanwhile, I nearly hit a barrier on the FDR drive I was so angry. And it’s not just talk show hosts and people who are paid for their opinions. These are commonly held beliefs. People think depression can be cured by funny cat pictures or a motivational speech. They think that depression is something people pretend to have because it gets them attention. They think that suicide is something people consider lightly, that someone standing on the edge of that bridge, or with a gun in his mouth, or a fistful of pills hasn’t considered the impact their action will have on the people they love. They think it’s a selfish act. And you know what? It is. But not in the way they think.

I speak as someone who attempted suicide more than once, has suffered on and off with depression for three years of my life, and who grew up with someone who was rendered quadriplegic by a suicide attempt. Depression is not a bad day. It is not laziness, or a lack of proper motivation. It is an utterly debilitating inability to feel. Anything. It is an emptiness that cannot be filled by any amount of money or any number of people. It’s your soul taking a hiatus. And sure, a person suffering depression can smile, or laugh, but that smile is a mask, that laugh is a lie. They don’t penetrate beyond the depth of the skin and flesh required to make them. We laugh and smile because we desperately wish we could feel it, and we never show you our true sadness and emptiness because we either care about you too much to worry you, or we don’t think you’ll understand.

This is what people don’t understand about suicide when they call it a selfish act. Human beings are born selfish—there is nothing more selfish and demanding than an infant. As we grow older we learn to take care of ourselves, and to empathize with other people and their needs. We train ourselves to temper our self-interests for the benefit of the people we care about, but as human beings with needs, sometimes we need to be a little selfish. Sometimes that selfishness takes the form of alone time, and we blow off a friend because we just can’t deal with people at the moment. Sometimes it takes the form of a shopping spree we know we can’t afford just because we need to be cheered up. Sometimes it’s telling a friend that they’re toxic and that you need time away from them, or a significant other whose heart you know you need to break because the relationship has to end.

We who suffer with depression and suicidal ideation have gotten into the habit of being selfless, of stifling our needs, our feelings and emotions, for the benefit of those around us. We put on that mask every day because someone counts on us, or because we don’t want to burden you. We put others first constantly, neglecting ourselves to help others. That’s why, so often, the nicest, most thoughtful, most caring people you meet suffer from depression. We understand how it feels, and we deprive ourselves every day to make sure no one else needs to feel the way we do. And no, it’s not healthy, and we should take care of ourselves, but that is the nature of the beast. We don’t feel enough self-worth to value ourselves before others.

Suicide is the culmination of all those times we weren’t selfish, all those times we forced ourselves to smile, or to laugh, or go out, help you move, drive you to the airport, not take those sick days or vacations. It’s all those times we thought of maybe telling the world to go to hell for a few hours and doing something for ourselves, but then chose not to because of our obligations to the ones we love and their expectations. It’s the end game, where we look back on all the pain, all the suffering, all the sadness, the anger, fear, uncertainty, dread, anxiety and hopelessness, all the times that people dismissed our misery, trivialized our experiences, called us liars, abused us—it is that single moment of devastating clarity when we realize that we are human beings, and we are entitled to be selfish every now and again, and we jump, we pull the trigger, we swallow those pills because once—just once—we decide to look out for ourselves and make the pain and emptiness just go away.

In that moment, when I stepped in front of that bus, I apologized to everyone I’d be hurting, but I kept walking. I thought about all the responsibilities I’d be leaving behind, the void that would need filling in my absence, and I looked at that bus and I walked toward it. And in those few seconds as I stood there, hoping the bus wouldn’t swerve out of the way, I felt free and in control for the first time in my life. I felt like I was finally—for once—doing something just for me.