Thomas Pluck looks at suicide, and points out that if we count reckless and stubborn behavior, the adult male suicide rate is insanely high.
We probably all know a man who has committed suicide. Men commit suicide at a rate three to five times that of women. We know all the statistics and reasoning; men choose more direct, violent methods that there is no coming back from. We have a higher stress level. We are less likely to seek help, and the stigma against mental illness does not help matters. If I killed someone for every time I’ve thought about suicide in my lifetime, I’d be one of the most accomplished mass murderers in history.
I don’t consider that normal, but neither do I see myself as a risk. I’ve never attempted suicide in the traditional sense. No overdose of pills, no cutting. Never held a loaded gun to my head. But I have done plenty of things that I knew damn well could lead to my death, and I know as a man, I am hardly alone. The fight or fight reflex, life or death, is hardwired into our lizard brain. When there’s nothing to punch and nowhere to run, we glimpse the ultimate escape route.
In youth we believe we are invincible. Our frontal cortex has not fully developed, and we have difficulty seeing the consequences for our actions. The reckless behavior of young males, along with the cuteness of felines, is probably all that keeps Youtube in business. But once we reach age 24, the behavior often continues in different guises. We fear a decision and we avoid it. Sometimes, it’s like a slow motion suicide.
This isn’t about long-term self-destruction, like in Leaving Las Vegas. These guys don’t even know they are killing themselves. They exhibit behavior we see all the time, behavior that when looked at reasonably can only be called insane.
A friend of my family died recently. I’ll call him Will. He had a ready smile and a helping hand for everyone he knew. But he didn’t like doctors. He didn’t want to be bothered. Or there was a lurking fear of the unknown, of a future he couldn’t control, that kept him putting off appointments as his cold lingered for months. He waved off his wife’s insistent prodding, to see the doctor. And when it got bad enough to scare him to the hospital, it was too late. His family, his entire community, was robbed of a good, decent man when he died of walking pneumonia. The same illness that took Jim Henson, a driven man who had been raised to walk it off, to ignore the little pains and aches that plague us, because that’s what a man does.
Will had insurance. He was retired, it wasn’t concern about taking off work. Like many working class men, he was taught not to make trouble. To do his job and take care of his family without complaint. A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. We fight through things, we get the job done. It’s a fine attitude in a survival situation. Our reflexes are tuned for fight or flight. We have not adapted to civilization, or the last century of relative peace. And it is killing us.
Another guy I’ll call Tony. Tony and his wife had just had a baby boy, a healthy and happy child. He wanted his wife to stay home and raise their son, and she agreed. They had bought a house with a mortgage that was a little too big of a nut, but they made it work with some changes in their lifestyle. I worked with him during that stressful time. And I watched him revert to behaving like a reckless teenager in many ways.
Now, Tony is not that kind of guy. He specialized in planning projects in such a watertight, foolproof manner than they survived all the attempts of Murphy’s Law to fubar them into charley foxtrot-ville. But he had an outlet for his stress—driving badly. We’d be driving to a branch office at 90 miles an hour, him texting his wife while the seatbelt alarm ding-ding-dinged like Chinese water torture. His own life or death was the last thing he could control. He had to go on a strict diet to get his weight down so he could purchase extra life insurance to cover his son’s future, but Tony would be damned if he was gonna buckle that seat belt.
Does that sound like a 35-year-old man with a wife and child, or a seventeen-year-old with Dad’s Shelby? When we lose control in other parts of our lives, sometimes we react in an utterly unreasonable manner. He had always been a bit of an anxious guy, and when the stress level reached a certain point, his fight or flight reflex kicked in. Thankfully his story has a happy ending. After some therapy, he took up kickboxing and got his tension out that way.
I see this in myself. If I don’t go to the gym for a few rounds of MMA, or to my cousin’s garage to lift weights every week, the little things start to bother me. At first, I thought it was simple physical exertion clearing my head, and that is part of it, but I’ve come to think that it’s the struggle itself.
Me vs. an opponent, or myself and a steel bar. It shows me that a loss in the ring or a missed rep is not the end of the world. That it is not fight or flight, live or die. That in the end, it is the struggle for improvement. If I go to the doctor, I’m not complaining or showing that pain beat me, and I gave in. An argument with my wife does not mean divorce, nor does compromise mean I am henpecked or defeated any more than my spotter grabbing the bar means the entire workout was a failure.
To end on a happy note, another friend of the family turned 60 when he started feeling tired all the time. It wasn’t like him. He was grumpy, and it seemed to him that this was 60, life was going to be tougher, and he just had to deal with it. Luckily for him, he gets a regular cardiac exam due to a family history. He had a 98% blockage in one of his arteries. Four stents later, he feels like his old self again. I do this myself. I went for the dreaded Dr. Coldfinger probe a few months ago, due to a history of colon cancer in the family. They removed a pre-cancerous polyp, so I get to look forward to the exam again next year. But I’ve skipped my yearly physical, because you know… I don’t like them. I have white coat syndrome. My blood pressure is great when I give blood and the sexy phlebotomist oohs at my bicep. Not so much when my GP gives me the going over, looking to see what’s wrong with me. But I’m scheduling it now, because of these stories. And you should, too. You don’t expect your car to walk it off, when it needs maintenance…your body shouldn’t either.
—Photo Fear of Falling/Flickr