Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Suicide: The Ultimate Selfish Act

Following another volley of celebrity suicides, we come again to the treacherous place of balancing sadness and the need for solutions with not condoning this permanent “solution” to temporary problems. The problem I see is that there is not a lot of condemnation of suicide. This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise in a society that is increasingly accepting physician-assisted suicide in certain situations, but I think there is still wide agreement that in most circumstances, suicide is not the answer.

I don’t think we make that clear enough. It’s not that we are openly encouraging it, but we make excuses. I think there are situations that are very tragic and out of an individual’s control, such as brain damage caused by concussions and other head trauma. Former NFL player Junior Seau and former MLB player Ryan Freel were victims of this. I am also more sympathetic towards younger teens who are undergoing hormonal changes when facing extreme bullying.

But even then, we have to be careful not to make it appear that suicide is out of a person’s control. With rare exceptions, it isn’t.

We certainly have a problem. In 2016, the number of suicides in the U.S. increased again, this time to almost 45,000. That’s about 123 a day. The more telling stat is that, according to the Center for Disease Control, only one in 25 suicide attempts succeed, which means that there were well over one million attempts.

But this goes well beyond the statistics. There are many other people involved in a suicide. Many of us, myself included, know someone who has taken his or her life. What is sometimes overlooked is the effect the suicide has on those close to the individual.

I may be crucified for saying this, but I’m going to: With rare exceptions, suicide is a choice.

I don’t mean to sound heartless in placing some blame on the individual who commits suicide. But I would rather run the risk of that than run the risk of someone thinking he has no alternative. That doesn’t deny that there can be trauma that leads to someone being suicidal. There can be mental illness that can contribute. Certainly, there are complex circumstances surrounding it. But there have been plenty of people who have lived through trauma or mental illness and have not committed or attempted suicide.

And I will go further (if I survived the first comment, I don’t like my chances here): Suicide is a selfish act. It is the crown jewel of selfish acts. If one really cares about his family and friends, he won’t take his own life. If one really cares about the first responders or family/friends or innocent bystanders that have to discover his body, he won’t take his own life. Suicide is evident of self-absorption. One is so wrapped up in her own problems that she doesn’t realize how many people around her she will hurt by killing herself.

Research has been done about the effects of suicide on “suicide survivors”—those who were close to the dead—and PTSD is common, as is survivor’s guilt.

One example is of a woman who was notified by police at her door in the middle of the night that her father had shot himself:
My sister expressed to me the sickness she felt when she looked at her front door, and the fear she had that more bad news would come to her front door if she fell asleep. She discussed the jumpy feeling she had when someone rang the doorbell.
Another, whose brother committed suicide:
This is where I was the moment I was told my brother had shot himself. I let out such a terrible shriek that the strangers outside the window stopped talking. For a brief moment there was a pure, unadulterated silence. 
I remember a bolt rising from the top of my head, expanding to the hot furnace that was my skin. I rushed to my room where I slammed my fists into the walls, tore blankets from the mattress, and began swinging my arms, hitting anything and anyone in my path. I screamed so hard that I was left without air. I was given a valium to numb my body into sleep — it was a sleep fraught with terrifying images of my brother leaving. I heard bullets bursting in the air; my sheets were sweat-filled the next morning. There was a sense of drowning, of falling, of being completely shattered… 
Shortly after my brother’s memorial service, I began experiencing chronic panic attacks and nightmares that persisted for several years. On numerous occasions at movie theaters, I had to make a silent exit during an especially rousing scene of a character shooting himself in the head — rushing to the nearest bathroom stall to sob. I stopped listening to music for an entire year because my chest throbbed from certain songs played on the radio. My most recent bout of symptoms came after reading a searing essay from a woman who considered her friend’s suicide a blessing. As soon as I read the piece, I felt the intense need to flee, to cry, to punch a wall.
Another who lost her brother:
Looking like my old normal self on the outside; I let no one in on the devastation going on in the inside. I was terrified to face my own grief. For quite a while I attempted to stuff it down, in fear I’d shatter in a million pieces if I had to deal with it. 
For over three years I did not want to get out of bed in the morning. Doing the dishes felt like climbing Mount Everest. I forced myself to work. Experiencing debilitating anxiety and flashbacks of what I thought my brother’s death looked like, I would later understand after seeking counseling, I was experiencing PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) symptoms common to suicide survivors. 
Becoming more and more withdrawn, I didn’t socialize very often unless I had to. Sometimes I wouldn’t leave my house for days. Shopping and eating at nice restaurants were the only things that made me feel good and I subsequently gained 15 pounds; which lead to more shopping, because now I couldn’t fit into my pants. 
As I walked around New York City, I would find myself clinging to skyscrapers as complete and utter dread rushed though me for no apparent reason. Life felt very unsafe those first few years. I never knew when an anxiety attack or a flash back would strike. My marriage unraveled as quickly as I did and I ended up divorced.
Things are even worse when someone discovers the body or watches the suicide occur. One person commented on a blog post:
While walking my dog in a park on friday [sic] morning, I found a man hanging from a tree. He had committed suicide earlier that day or the night before. I called it in. I didn't feel upset at first. Numb? Surprised? Disbelief? I've since cried several times. I don't understand why I have to be upset about it. I didn't actually see him do it. I didn't see his face. I at first thought it was just a man standing there. Now I feel emotionally raw. I cry easily and I don't want to leave the comfort of my home and my dog. I can't stop thinking about it. Reading all the other posts, this situation was nowhere near as traumatic. Why can't I just move on? Why do I keep thinking about him? How can I let go?
Another comment:
My 28 year old [sic] son shot himself in front of me a couple weeks ago. It runs on a continuous loop in my mind, each time me wondering could I have said or did anything differently to save him.
The USA Today featured an article several years ago about the effect of suicides and other deaths on train operators (I’d recommend it in its entirety):
“Train operators are trained to accept that they will likely be involved in a fatal incident at some point,” said Dr. Howard Rombom, a psychologist who works with New York subway and bus employees when they deal with the deaths. 
Some deal with it more quickly than others. But those who are deeply affected often suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome, waking from nightmares and sometimes withdrawing from social situations. 
"They are typically so uncomfortable at times that they feel that they can't relate to other people," Rombom said. 
Although the engineer may be the last one to see the person alive, conductors are the ones who have to step off the train to find the body. It can be gruesome.
A subreddit included some witness accounts as well, like this one of a child discovering her mom:
Saturday, I woke up to go and see if she was in her usual spot. She wasn't. I thought okay, she might be in the garage. So I didn't think anything of it. About a half-hour later, I went out to the garage and saw only my dad and grandma there. Something was wrong. I went outside a couple of times, and the third time I checked the other side of the house. I regretted and still regret my decision to do that. 
She had shot herself with a handgun through the chest and was face down. She had a blanket with her. 
My first instinct was to go get my dad while in the process panicking and hyperventilating. I didn't actually cry heavily which was weird because death upsets me greatly. I tried to pick her back up but all I got was blood on my hands. But it didn't occur to me at all and instead I went to tell my friend who was staying over. 
Coroner and police were called and she was hauled off. All of us had a crying session and I am still haunted by what I found to this day. That last time I really got to see “her” was when she was dolled up and looking f*****g youthful as ever for the viewing. 
This was this past October 11th. This year will be the first anniversary.
A worker cleaning up after a suicide (a tame photo compared to others I found)
Or this account of a boy finding a stranger:
When I was a teenager, I went to football training early one morning. We were mucking around, kicking balls and running and there was a car parked by the oval which was unusual. After maybe 5 minutes we noticed there was a hose attached to the exhaust pipe and leading into the window. Being 13 or so, we didn't know much better and a group of us walked over to the car. 
There was a man, late 20's, completely pale with blue lips, stiff, lifeless, with a bottle of whiskey in his lap. His head tilted to the window, the car still running. We went and got our coach who called the police. Never got that image out of my head.
The housekeeper for Linkin Park lead singer Chester Bennington discovered him hanging, and the chilling 911 call by his driver included her weeping and screaming in the background.

All of that to show that there is a lot of trauma involved for those close to the person who takes his own life. The dead person doesn’t have to concern himself with that, but it affects others.

There is always something for which to live. But when someone is convinced there isn’t, his thoughts ought to shift to those that care about him. There’s always someone. If he is convinced no one cares, his thoughts should shift to the people who will find his body. The search and rescue volunteers that find the corpse below the bridge. The stranger who discovers the body in the woods. The police who find him in his house after he hasn’t been seen for a few days. The people who must haul the mangled body away. The workers who must clean the blood and organs off the front of the locomotive.

The selfishness of suicide seems counterintuitive, since it is an act of violence against oneself. But suicide involves a lot of self-pity and a lack of thought for the feelings and health of family and friends. Those who commit suicide can subject others to years of trauma, PTSD, guilt, and shame. It deprives family and friends of time with someone they love by an act that was entirely preventable and ultimately that person’s choice. It drags strangers into the horrors that await them upon discovering the person and cleaning up the mess. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says that suicides cost the U.S. $69 billion each year. Think of the money that must be spent in cleanup, search and rescue, investigation, counseling, and time off work for the survivors.
Suicide prevention poster

What is worse is that the person that commits suicide is no longer there to help mitigate the problems she created. Everyone else is left to pick up the pieces.

This is not to say that a suicide isn’t unfortunate. The circumstances are often very sad. But we can’t make excuses. Circumstances cannot always be helped. But the reaction to them can. It is wrong to subject others to one’s choice to kill himself. We need to affirm to people that there are other solutions, that their lives have meaning, and that people care. I think it should also not be missed that there will be a wide impact on those close to the individual, and if that person has the least bit of care for family, friends, and strangers, she will not go through with it. If she is only focused on her problems and selfishly shows no regard for others, she just might.

One takeaway from the latest celebrity suicides is that no one is exempt from depression and other problems. Fulfillment is not found in fame or money, nor in relationships or success. A stable and unchanging identity is only found in a relationship with Jesus, and that is the message Christians must hold to. Even so, people outside of Christianity still care about others. It is that care for others that should pull anyone from the brink of self-destruction and away from an extreme and permanent action to alleviate problems that surely will not last forever.

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