Despair, and the recklessness of hopeless youth, contribute to the numbers of boys and men who “step off” this world. There are options, however, for those who remain.
Editor’s note: This post contains descriptions of suicide violence.
I thought I’d soften the blow with the title since the stark reality of suicide always implies failure on a scale that is final. It’s difficult for those of us here who have lost or have seen the loss because we are implicated as participants. My personal impression—and it is personal—is that the lack of participation is a better indicator; our absence is much more profound than our presence when it comes to the choice to step off.
I don’t take this position by attitude or anecdote, it’s not to inflict guilt or apply some tough love; in my life I’ve been exposed to it numerous times and considered it myself, more than once. The first was in grade three; a friend’s brother hung himself on the dining room chandelier. There was a note on his desk, four words: “I didn’t mean to.”
The knee jerk response may be to consider circumstance or analyze indicators. Was it mental health, pharmaceutical, a response to abuse, socio-economic conditions? That’s what we do when we just don’t know and we often don’t know what those closest to us are experiencing. We have the language to express ourselves, but I wonder if we have the freedom. Is there an acceptable way to express despair? Do we lack the credentials to hear it or to speak it; do we lack the credentials to ask?
One of my uncles in his later years discovered he had a disease he could not recover from; it could only get worse. He chose not be a burden; he drove to the local fire station, locked the doors of his car, and shot himself. There was no effort to steal another day, no time for one more sunrise or sunset. His decision was final and not to be shared unnecessarily. All that was left of him is who and what I imagined him to be.
In my younger years I lived in foster care, from the age of eleven to sixteen in a boy’s home. Three known suicides, two others simply disappeared. One boy chose to step in front of a tractor trailer; he’d had enough and didn’t see the point. He said his life was like a rat’s in a maze, he was tired of being treated like an animal. As one of those rats I understood what he meant; there was no way to lie to him about it; all I could say was we were prisoners of our age and our youth, but one day we could be free. He couldn’t wait.
The two other boys overdosed, one chose heroin, the other pills. Those that disappeared I often imagined as breaking free and happy somewhere it’s better. Each had a story of circumstance, a perspective they had been trying to survive. I find it hard not to believe that their hopelessness wasn’t imposed on them as powerlessness. I say this because of what I’ve seen.
In one instance five of us had gathered in a 12th floor apartment to spend some time together. There was liquor and drugs and big talk. The big talk turned reckless, challenging and dangerous. The challenge was to see who could hang off the 12th floor balcony with the least number of fingers. I’ve spent much time throughout my life wondering how a group of boys can become collectively suicidal and I recount the circumstances over and over.
I often consider the issue of context; if you’re powerless to alter the context of your experiences, if the world cannot see you as you see yourself, the choices to survive it are dramatically reduced, and for some they are reduced to zero.
A number of years ago I found myself standing looking at a painting in the hallway of a psychiatric hospital, waiting to speak to a doctor. A young man in a bath robe walked up and stood beside me. He said he liked the green in the trees of the painting. I agreed and said I thought the painting had a very calm feeling of a Sunday picnic. We stood for a few more minutes looking at the painting and he turned to me extending his hand to shake. Looking me in the eye he thanked me for spending time with him. Then he turned and walked away. It was the ward where they housed suicidal patients.
When I was nineteen I was told that one of my peers had attempted to step off by cutting his wrists and taking prescription drugs. He had survived the day and now was left to survive the pain of those around him. He came from a wealthy family with access to whatever was needed, including the best care. Some who knew him thought he wouldn’t survive the guilt he felt towards his family. I offered to show him a secret swimming spot of mine, but told him it would take the day since we had to drive.
He was amazed to see a waterfall that you could walk behind and dive through. After swimming I slept on a log while he played his guitar. He finally woke me up to talk and wondered why I had nothing to say about his suicide. I suggested we take a walk in the forest. He asked me again after walking a mile and I suggested we go to a place I called weathertop where we could see for miles. We sat their enjoying the view, he played his guitar and I watched the clouds go by.
After some time the guitar stopped and it was silent, I turned to see him staring at the ground. I asked if he was waiting for an answer and he responded with a nod. I asked if he liked the swimming hole and he went on about how great it was. I asked him if he enjoyed the forest and he said he did. What about weathertop I asked? Hey man, this is one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever seen, he said. I turned and looked him in the eye with no more than the expression of life on my face.
You have three more choices now, and all you have to do is show up and breathe.
I’m bothered by people that choose to step off. They make me angry mostly because they leave me to contemplate something irrational. I can’t always find the answer or the reason, which makes the meaning of life more complicated more irrational. I believe that stepping off is categorical; it could be emotional, which is transient. It could be a misunderstanding, and it could be logical; it could even be chemical, which means that it can happen to anyone, anytime.
People have a profound capacity for pain, so much so that we redefine it as strength, purpose and determination; some see it for what it is and know it’s unnecessary. Some are so scripted to their pain they can no longer differentiate between the possible and the predictable. Making one moment enjoyable by intent, giving it, introducing that possibility into someone’s life, may save it. You may never know the outcome, so you’ll have to forego the entry on your résumé.
The lack of evidence for the heroism of your humanity won’t fill the coffers of your charitable foundation and it’s not tax deductible. It is, however, self-defining and in a dark moment may even save your own life. You or I may not be able to save the world, but with determination and intent we may be able to save the moment that leads to one more.
In Canada and the U.S., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Read more on Suicide.
Shabby old shoes of the suicide image courtesy of Shutterstock