wheatfield I‘m really annoyed. I just finished reading a review by Salon’s Laura Miller of Lisa Lieberman’s book Leaving You: The Cultural Meaning of Suicide. And I’m really pissed. I mean, where do these people get off moralizing about when suicide is or is not ‘justified’ , judging the motives of individuals’ personal actions, and claiming that “it is a universal human duty to try to prevent any healthy person from self-destruction, regardless of how good that person’s reasons might be”? What bullshit. Obviously neither of these two rank amateur psychologists have had any personal (I mean personal, not something your step-mother or grandfather might have thought about) experience with wanting to end their own life. They obviously also haven’t had any experience with the debilitating effects of anti-depressant drugs. Christ, if they’d even read some first-person accounts on the subject like The Noonday Demon they might at least have a clue about the subject they pontificate on.

I read this review because it got off to a decent start. Lieberman says that when they are institutionalized and forced to take anti-depressive drugs “individuals at risk of destroying themselves [are] deprived of the right to determine their own behavior.” But it’s all down-hill from there. Judgements fly left and right: suicide is “petulent”, “an act of aggression”, “a variation on ‘fuck you!'”, involves “dishonesty, self-pity and sheer malice”, a “glorified tantrum”, “self-loathing masquerading as concern for others”, “competitively morbid”. These hackneyed guilt-ridden labels are an insult to both the intelligence and the valour of the ferocious, life-long emotional struggle of those that commit, or seriously contemplate, suicide.

Regular readers of How to Save the World have read both essays and fiction from me on the subject of depression. For those that want to know more about suicide, please disregard Miller’s sanctimonious review and pass on Lieberman’s flimsy and uninformed pseudo-intellectual tract, and read The Noonday Demon or any of the other well-researched, first-hand accounts of the subject, or just talk to someone who has been suicidal. The sufferers and the survivors we all know deserve that much.

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  1. The Raven says:

    The debate, such as it is, doesn’t actually revolve about the idea of a person’s right to commit suicide. We all have that right. We exercise that option every time we drive across a bridge and elect not to veer off through a guardrail, every time we descend a flight of stairs and choose not to dive headlong forward. You could even say we face the matter every time we look under the kitchen sink and decide not to swallow the bleach. The real argument (for the reasonably healthy, anyway) is whether we should have access to painless suicide – a bottle of pills or a syringe of morphine.A fairly lengthy debate occurred in Japan around 1990 or so, with the publication of the Suicide Handbook, a thinnish tome that outlined the standard methods available (jump in front of train, hanging, wrist cutting, etc.) and scored each procedure in a matrix under headings like “painfulness,” “impact on those discovering the body,” and “likelihood of success.” Against those criteria, you see that the method chosen depends, in part, on the reason for pulling the plug. Are you escaping a difficult situation or a terminal one? Are you acting in the interests of family and friends or are you seeking to “really let ’em have it”?The Raven’s very first posting was a reflection on the question of “philosophical suicide,” which is my term for suicide as a existential response to the apprehension of life as an exercise in absurdity. Yes, we can go on in life, eating, consuming, making stupid noises and coloring the walls of our homes, but perhaps we might decide that the payoff doesn’t warrant the effort. This view sees the decision to proceed into the next moment as one that always requires internal validation – you consciously decide that each subsequent second is one filled with purpose that you genuinely sense as an opportunity for self-actualization (or altruism, heroism, creation, etc.). If you don’t see it that way, if you sense that you’re “just here, along for the ride,”then you change the cable channel, open another bag of Doritos, and maybe get a Celtic knot tatooed on your forearm so you’ll look extra spiff at the White Stripes concert this weekend. Of course, the absolute worst way to spend your existence is to imagine that you can help your fellow man, and that you’ll justify your own meanderings through the performance of Good Works, alleviating suffering, and spreading wisdom and enlightenment where e’er you may go. Fortunately, not too many are possessed of such vile hubris, and most are too stupid to do much damage in the event they are so inclined. Regards, – R.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Sarcasm aside, well spoken, Mr.S. Now I’m going to find out how easy it is to find someone’s first post on Userland.

  3. Marie Foster says:

    One wonders how Raven got to be such a cynic. Altruism is alive and well thank god and does have its rewards. It seems to me that in many cases that suicide is some kind of statement. Good or bad it has its consequences. Many argue that it is more profoundly harmful to survivors than natural death. I suppose that can be true if the survivors are convinced that the loved one has cheesed off God in some manner to deserve a trip to the old hell hole. I do think that suicide could be a decent option for many. Obviously, those smitten with a terminal disease come to mind but then the logical push on that is that we all are suffering from a terminal illness. I have only had one close association with a suicide and it was a young friend who could not deal with the marginalization that he got for being openly gay.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Marie, I think what you say is true in some cases. In others, I don’t think suicide is a ‘statement’ at all. If you have a headache, you take an aspirin. If you have pain night and day you take something much stronger and more often. If you live with agony that never stops, never gives you a moment’s peace, completely debilitates you, whether physically or emotionally, beyond the point of being bearable, you look for relief any way you can get it. Every situation is different and generalizations are inevitably unfair. The point is that those who are suicidal should not be judged, analyzed, stigmatized, forced to do anything or deprived of free will.

  5. Art Jacobson says:

    Dave… Wonderful post and very interesting comments. My own view is that suicide is the last act of a truly free human being.

  6. Rori says:

    How timely that I find this. I am a person they could talk to. I have struggled with depression most of my life, largely undiagnosed, currently still on the chemical cocktail merry-go-round.What I hate is if I even discuss the topic with people, in a theoretical way of course, the response is “You can’t do that”.My feeling is the people that are left cannot deal with the guilt they feel afterwards.My friend Erica took her own life, and I know her spirit was free. She never would divulge what horrors she had lived through as a child, but after years of cutting, and substance abuse, one day she ended it.I was so calm with her decision, it surprised even me.I heard it once at a memorial service for Del Shannon (who I knew via a group we belonged to). People were dissing him for killing himself and one wise man said “Who are we to question how God calls his children back home?” I have always held that close to my heart.And I will stop rambling.

  7. Marie Foster says:

    I don’t have any argument with what you are saying Dave. Many cases of suicide are exactly what you have said and the idea that people who make a logical choice (to them) is judged by others is just wrong. As I said in my earlier post the one suicide that I am the closest to was certainly done as a statement. Those of us who knew Steve expected that he would make the choice to deal with his problems through suicide as a way to get back at his Father for his inability to accept his sexual orientation. We also have the example of the Buddhist priests who emmoated themselves to protest the Diem regime in Vietnam. So in some cases a suicide as statement can be for a good cause as well as one that was misguided. (I doubt that Steve’s Father for example was as troubled by his choice to kill himself as not having to deal with what the guy felt was his failure to bring up Steve to be a heterosexual.I guess the point is that all suicides are ultimately individual choices. And I agree completely that the idea of categorizing them as some kind of mental illness that can be cured with a pill is patently ridiculous. I have contemplated suicide both in the dept of depression and when I was feeling normal and perhaps even in those rare states of mania that I have been prone to. Each time the rationale that I had was pretty much the same and resulted in my choice to hang on a bit to see what life would present to me.Even when a person is affected by an altered state of consciousness (or perhaps the question should be is there ever a state of perfect unaltered consciousness) you do not always lose the ability to apply rational processes to your thoughts.

  8. mrG says:

    Language is a virus, and suicide is a viral death indistinguishable from any other; it is SARS for the psyche, malaria for the soul.The reaction against suicide is probably more interesting — any rational human (purely rational) has to conclude suicide as a solution for many situations, but across most (not all) cultures, there is this ingrained cultural taboo which, like most cultural taboos, is born of a wish to save someone from a bad choice that the advisor does not truly comprehend, and so they appeal to cultural taboo. Primative man had no idea why incest was bad, but collective experience just said that it was, and the same is true for suicide: The cultural experience is apparently that it causes more suffering than it solves.What is particularly interesting to me in these debates is how, by “psychologist” people almost universally mean “white european psychologist” the three most famous being a coke-addict, an ex-nazi and a rapist! That aside, they never stop to consider that most of the planet is not judeo-christian, and other perspectives on the situation can be quite different. For example, the famous Japanese psychiatrist Morita Shoma’s famous comment on depression was the very Buddhist line “It is amazing how different the world looks when we have changed.”And what’s most odd is that we all know this to be true. We all know that when in the pit of sickness, the fever colours our mood and our mood colours our perceptions. We will excuse bad behaviour saying we’re tired, or stressed or our mother hated us or whatever, yet when someone’s reality has been so twisted by the coke-bottle lenses of a severe internal storm, unless they choose to become an author, poet, artist or musician, we label them broken and pump up the pharmaceuticals.Morita’s approach to the same problem? Isolate the patient from the feedback circuits of their circumstance, and then work with them to improve the skill in recognizing the lens — knowing their reality is being bent, almost everyone learns to compensate for the distortion and get on with their lives.

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    mrG: My reading would be that primitive man, for strictly Darwinian reasons, instinctively abhored incest (inbreeding hurts the gene pool) but not suicide (in circumstances when such a ‘self-sacrifice’ helped the tribe). Morita’s view is interesting, but still appears to presume that suicidal feelings need ‘healing’. How do we know it’s the reality of the suicidal person that is ‘bent’, and not ours?

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