August 27, 2014

Confronting Death & Unmasking Suicide. ~ Vanessa D. Fisher


In the wake of Robin Williams passing this month, I’ve found myself both enthralled and disturbed by the media coverage of his life and death.

I was perhaps most captivated by the conversations that started taking place on my Facebook feed in the days following the announcement of William’s suicide.

Amidst the cascade of posts devoted solely to expressing brief bursts of authentic care, appreciation, and love for Williams, there were a flurry of people sharing very intimate stories about someone in their life who had committed suicide or someone they knew who had struggled with severe depression; stories that were marked by a myriad of interpretations about the nature and meaning of suicide.

I’m aware that suicide is not an easy topic to discuss, let alone on Facebook.

But as someone who attempted suicide in my early 20s, I’m grateful to see more open conversation happening on the topic, even though I regret that it had to be sparked by a deep tragedy. However awkward people may be in navigating their own interpretations and judgments of suicide, to me it is a discussion that nonetheless needs to finally be brought out of the shadows.

As I’ve watched these conversations unfold, I’ve found myself feeling very sad about how little suicide is understood by most people.

I was surprised by the amount of intelligent people on my feed who were, however compassionately, equating suicide with cowardice or selfishness.

Considering that those who succeeded at suicide leave their story largely a mystery to all of us, and those who have survived rarely speak openly on their experience—often as a result of internalized shame, cultural stigma, and/or their fear of not being understood—it makes sense that suicide is so often misunderstood and shrouded by popular misconceptions.

It was this stream of cultural assumptions flooding my Facebook feed that compelled me to write this article and contribute to breaking the silence on suicide by uprooting popular misconceptions and sharing intimately from my own experience facing it.

I can ultimately only speak from my own life, but I believe it offers a window into why equating suicide with cowardice or selfishness is not only mis-guided but incredibly inaccurate.

Unmasking Suicide

Despite strides in recent years to bring suicide more into the public conversation, it still remains a largely unacknowledged cultural issue. Last year, Newsweek ran a cover article entitled The Suicide Epidemic, written by Tony Dokoupil, which cited mounting evidence for the increased prevalence of suicide, particularly in developed countries. It’s worth reading the entire extensive article. Here are some of the sobering facts gleaned from recent studies:

“Every year since 1999, more Americans have killed themselves than the year before, making suicide the nation’s greatest untamed cause of death, surpassing death by auto accidents. In much of the world, it’s among the only major threats to get significantly worse in this century than in the last…. Throughout the developed world, self-harm is now the leading cause of death for people 15 to 49, surpassing cancers and heart disease. Around the world, in 2010 self-harm took more lives than war, murder, and natural disasters combined, stealing more than 36 million years of healthy life across all ages…”

As the author of the Newsweek article notes, the result of this seems like an accelerating paradox. The last five decades, which have been defined by increasing social progress and astounding innovations in developing nations, have also left us with unprecedented levels of despair.

On average, the more advanced the country the higher the suicide rate; more men commit suicide than women, and more women attempt suicide than men.

And if this landmark collection of new studies on suicide are correct, it suggests suicide trends are aimed to rise significantly in the decades to come. The takeaway for Dokoupil: we’ve become our own greatest danger.

Despite how little we speak openly about suicide as a culture, there are many people who have attempted to mine the paradox of suicide in an attempt to understand its origins.

Philosophers, religious teachers, psychologists, biologists, and sociologists have all attempted to create theories that explain what drives an individual to suicide.

From a biology perspective, suicide often seems counter-intuitive to our ideas about evolution. Aside from a few examples of animals and insects that “commit suicide” through willful death in order to protect their kin or clan, there is little comparison in the natural world to suicide as it shows up in the human species.

Psychologists and psychiatrists have undertaken extensive research to understand the effects of depression and to work towards a psychological model of the “suicidal mind”; while sociologists tend to believe that suicide only occurs when society robs people of self-control, individual dignity, or a connection to something larger than themselves.

And religions the world over, with some exceptions, have been more inclined to simply condemn suicide as an act against God (reaching its peak of being considered one of the greatest sins in Catholicism).

Even in the face of the more grounded and researched theories on suicide, the reality is that suicide, and the people who commit it, rarely conform to any one single model or type.

Suicide is a phenomenon that fascinates us precisely because it confounds us, and because it bewilders our purely rational interpretations. This sense of bewilderment was certainly the experience for many in the face of Robin Williams’ death.

Suicide in a culture of fear

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As someone with direct experience of suicide, and having spent intimate time with others who have attempted, I’m aware of a number of popular misconceptions about suicide that I’d like to blast through.

It would take a book to unpack the layers of cultural fear-projections that subconsciously suffuse so many of our views about suicide. If we were just focusing in on North American culture, we’d have to look at our Catholic history and contextual narrative of suicide as an unrepentable sin.

We’d also have to address the way our culture subtly and persistently equates death with failure, expressed through things like our heroic battle narratives against disease (battle with cancer, battle with depression) and degeneration (battle with age).

We can also see this equation of death with failure in our manic cultural obsession with non-stop progress and innovation as greatest social good.

We are deeply out of tune with the organic cycles of life; thus, often finding ourselves in a heroic battle with death, rather than in a humble relationship with its inevitability.

A culture that represses the reality of death is a lot like a culture that represses sex: death will still find a way to express itself and be seen, often in unconscious ways.

Inside the suicidal mind

In the limited space of this article, what feels most important to make clear is that suicide rarely, if ever, is an act of cowardice or selfishness.

Clinical psychologist and suicidology expert Thomas Joiner, makes clear that suicide actually takes a rare kind of courage; a fearless endurance that is not laudable, but certainly not weak or impulsive.

In my own case, what most motivated my suicide attempt was my fear of becoming a burden to family, friends, and the world. In my own mind at that time, as I was seized by immobilizing depression, I truly felt I was beyond hope and I believed that my family and friends would be better off with me gone.

Yes I know they will be sad for a bit, I reasoned, but better than a lifetime of them being drained by my suffering and having to take care of me.

I’m not saying this was right or wrong to presume, it was simply my internal logic at the time, and it made sense to me in that state.

Also, being a passionate artistic and creative person, when my depression got so deep that I could no longer even motivate myself to get out of bed, let alone create beauty through artistic expression, I felt there was no point in going on living.

It felt to me at the time (as is a common experience for many people in depressive states) that the depression would go on forever. I saw no way out. It felt like a lifetime sentence of torment with no respite; not even the respite of art or beauty.

There were also spiritual elements to my experience, which I’ve written about elsewhere, that collided and intersected with my depression in a way that made it feel “right” to say to myself:

“I’d rather die than live a life that wasn’t truly lived to its fullest potential. I’d rather die than live a half-lived life, numbed on medications or dependent on others to take care of me.”

Again, I’m not advocating my rationale; it was simply my rationale in that state, and made sense to me.

My choice to commit suicide had very little to do with selfishness or cowardice and had a lot to do with what I felt had been taken away from me: purpose, meaning, beauty, and the value I felt I could bring to the world if I wasn’t plagued by depression.

After months of being tormented with thoughts of suicide, I finally crossed the chasm between thought to action.

The act of going through with suicide was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever faced. It took me a whole day of walking back and forth across the Lion’s Gate Bridge to get up the gumption to take my own life.

It was far from a painless process or easy escape, as some people assume.

Rather, it required a crazy amount of determination to override the natural instinct we all have to survive, even when we are suffering, and actually willfully plummet myself hundreds of feet towards my death.

There was nothing romantic about it, and also nothing cowardly about it.

In my case, a police officer arrived out of nowhere at the last minute, wrapped his arms around my chest, and pulled me over the side of the bridge just as I’d closed my eyes to jump.

I still think of him as my guardian angel.

I was then admitted to an emergency psychiatric unit with others who had attempted suicide, and it was there that I received my best education on the harrowing mind and soul of suicide through many conversations with others facing similar, even if distinct, struggles.

The relationship that impacted me the most was the one I developed with my roommate in the psychiatric ward.

We used to share stories and tell jokes while lying across from each other in beds surrounded by a barren room with nothing but blank white walls staring back at us. During the day we sometimes journaled together, and at one point one of the other patients brought in tarot cards from home, and we used to do group readings.

These are the kinds of small comforts and points of connection that become amplified in importance when staying in a psych ward.

My roommate was in her thirties, a mother of three, and married to a man who loved her. She had been routinely in and out of psychiatric wards for years getting rotated on different cocktails of anti-psychotic and bipolar medications, often five or more at a time. This time, she had been admitted for slitting her wrists in the shower. The nurses were now administering a series of ECT treatments (another name for electro- shock therapy), because it seemed nothing else was working. She agreed to the treatment because she felt hopeless.

The ECT treatments happened in the mornings. She would be rolled away, and when she came back she would be bed-ridden and unable to talk until later in the day. Her body hung with the weight of sadness and the effect of the treatments. One night, she told me that she had tried to commit suicide simply because she wished to end it, for the sake of no longer being a burden to her children and family. It was not out of cowardice or selfishness, nor even that she didn’t want to live. She simply saw no other way out of her depression.

I lost contact with Candace after leaving the psych ward. I still wonder now and then how she is, and if she is still alive.

Confronting death, and beyond

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I realize this is the point in the article where many people would probably like me to offer advice for how to help prevent suicide, give crisis line numbers to call, or create a set of steps to help keep their loved ones safe. For a lot of reasons, this is not the position I tend to take. There are many good resources out there for people who wish to find them.

Yes, there are some things we know can help.

In my case, I was able to pull through my experience and back into life as a result of a combination of support, a creative outlet, a healthier lifestyle, and a hell of a lot of grace, but in my view there is no formula that applies to everyone.

We all know Robin Williams must have had access to state of the art health care as well as a loving family of support, not to mention a creative outlet and success.

But Williams’ was also a sensitive human being, as many genuine artists are.

His art utilized and channeled the entire range of human experience and emotion. In my view, one cannot communicate such authentic joy and artistic mastery as William’s did without also being in touch with the dark side of human suffering. That is why it is always a risk to be “awake”.

I tend to avoid offering prescriptions on prevention because from where I stand, there is a much larger conversation we need to start having as a culture.

This includes a discussion about the shame and stigma associated with “mental illness” that needs to be brought out of the shadows. This also includes a discussion and questioning of the very labels of mental illnesses themselves.

We also need to collectively confront the existential fear and repression of death that still haunts us, and the slew of cultural misconceptions and projections about suicide that remain unquestioned as a result.

We will never make significant progress on the “suicide crisis” until we start having that conversation.

The silence around suicide is the real epidemic.

That is why I’ve chosen to contribute to breaking that silence by sharing my story.

As Tony Dokoupil so aptly puts it, “suicide is the rare killer that fails to inspire celebrity PSAs, 5K fun runs, and shiny new university centers for study and treatment.” Suicide is the silent killer.

In the wake of Robin William’s death, we now face a rare opportunity.

A door has been opened on a mass scale for the topic of suicide, depression, art, death, and all things related, to be widely discussed and addressed in potentially new ways.

It’s about time.

I hope we don’t let this door of opportunity close in a month when the next exciting media story grabs our attention, but rather recognize the precious opportunity amidst this tragedy and add our support to keeping the flame of this larger discussion alive.


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Apprentice Editor: Carrie Marzo / Editor: Cat Beekams

Photos: Used with permission, by Barbara Bickel

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Mary Williams Sep 11, 2014 1:14am

Hi again Vanessa, and thanks for responding. Certainly, I understood you were speaking of historical contexts and unconscious cultural impacts. I guess it did seem to me, though, that you were singling out Catholicism, when it is actually
Christianity as a whole that has had this influence. (And someone reading your article might conclude that Catholicism claims suicide to be the unrepentable sin.) The one unrepentable sin in Christian teaching is actually "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit," which is a kind of willful denial of what one knows to be true. I recognize, however, that many have interpreted suicide as a form of this kind of blasphemy. (Some Christian churches have, in the recent past, denied burial to those who commit suicide.)

(I mention these things as someone who rejected her baptismal Catholic roots as a teen and then returned to the church at mid-life — a hesitant & stumbling journey that is ongoing. One of the things I have grappled with is discovering my misconceptions about what the church teaches — which often reflect larger cultural misconceptions & prejudices. So my response above is, in good part, a reflection of my own personal tender spot. It is a minor quibble within my larger feelings of appreciation and gratitude for your insightful article. )

vanessadfisher Sep 8, 2014 12:48pm

Mary thanks for the link and I will check it out for sure. I have no doubt that progressive churches have attempted to move beyond strict definitions of suicide as unrepentable sin, as was the case in earlier doctrines. Just like progressive churches are moving towards more inclusion of gay marriage, women, and a slew of other things. My argument is actually a historical one, and one that is also meant to put suicide within a larger context. I believe that our cultural mythologies have a huge impact on how we see and experience the world, and at deeply unconscious levels. The shifts happening in the Catholic Church towards more inclusion of things that were previously condemned is a relatively new movement in the larger historical frame of the Catholic Church.

So I argue that the mythology around suicide as sin still has deep psychic and unconscious impacts. It is not pointing at any one church or priest, it is pointing to deeper undercurrents of mythos. If you read the article again you will see that I said that suicide as sin came to its height in the Catholic Church, which is true. Most all religions condemned suicide in some form (with rare exceptions), but it definitely reached its height as unrepentable sin in Catholocism. So I'm not sure how what I'm saying is in contradiction to what you are saying.

I still think the larger lineage of our religious traditions in the West has huge impact on us unconsciously. Just like including women and more of women's spiritual stories in the church has not yet ultimately altered the patriarchal structure of the Catholic Church itself. In my view because shifting the underlying mythos of the Church and its impacts on us collectively will take more than 50 years.

That also doesn't mean Catholicism is all bad, my point is deeper than that. Hope that makes sense

Mary Williams Sep 8, 2014 3:16am

Vanessa — Thank you for this article and for sharing your views and experiences– I too was taken aback by some Facebook posts I saw about suicide being selfish and cowardly. I saw anew how little understanding there is about depression and the depths to which it can lead.

You mention that the Catholic view on suicide is that it is an "unrepentable sin" — the church claimed this in the past but no longer makes that claim today. Technically some might define it as a "sin" because it violates the commandment against killing; but pastors today are much more likely to urge compassion for all involved. The pastor in the following link, for example, stresses that "the church makes no judgment" in cases of suicide and that "we place all our trust in God's mercy and love for the one who has died and for those terribly hurt by the death." http://www.catholiccourier.com/commentary/other-c

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Vanessa D. Fisher

Vanessa D. Fisher is a published author, poet, public speaker, cultural critic, and self-ascribed Global Nomad currently living in Istanbul, Turkey. Vanessa’s given Korean name is 초화 (Chohwa), which translates as “the first fire”. She has gained a reputation for her irreverent spirit, her deep commitment to truth and justice, and her love for art and beauty in all its forms. Visit her at www.poetic-justice.ca.