The topic of suicide seems to be inescapable as of late.
With the passing of the iconic Kate Spade and the crass but endearing Anthony Bourdain, the topic has again been thrust into the social and moral lexicon. The constant media coverage and social media posts have led me to do some serious soul searching.
A little more than 10 years ago, I made the decision to take my own life. A less than ideal childhood led me to severe depression and a hopeless addiction to heroin and other drugs. After returning home from a number of months living as a gypsy “drag-rat” in Austin, Texas, I was emotionally and physically drained.
I overdosed on prescription medication and alcohol. I didn’t leave a note—I didn’t have the energy. I was exhausted.
I spent several weeks in the ICU and the psychiatric unit at the local trauma center. After several more years, I was able to gain a meaningful and lasting sobriety and live a life bursting at the seams with joy and fulfillment.
Those are my credentials—I’ve been there.
One more quick disclaimer before I proceed: suicide is sad. Losing people we love is tragic and traumatic. And there are often meaningful solutions and resources that can rescue suicidal people and give them the opportunity to recover and lead meaningful and productive lives.
But the reality for many people is that they suffer from clinical depression or a variety of other mental disorders, which can be resistant to treatment. These cases are similar to cancer or other physiological illnesses in that they are biological diseases. What many people seem unwilling or unable to accept is the idea that there are those for whom major depression and other mental disorders are terminal conditions.
As a society, when a celebrity dies by suicide, we tend to focus on the idea that their death could have somehow been avoided; and in the process, we neglect the fundamental truth that it may have been the ultimate conclusion to a terminal biological disease.
When we oversimplify the condition and establish that there must always be a cure or remission, we deny the deceased the dignity of dying. We place the full responsibility on their shoulders for their untimely departure instead of viewing their death as we would someone who has lost their battle with cancer or heart disease.
There is nothing amoral or selfish about dying—under any circumstances. As sentient beings we have the fundamental right to die. For someone who has tried in every possible way they know to overcome their mental illness, suicide is a dignified choice. If we could shift our social consciousness toward those who choose to end their own lives, we could help their friends and families grieve more effectively. Instead of shaming them or asserting there must have been another way out, we could accept that they made a decision that is immensely personal and the result of disease.
We can allow them the right to rest in peace, which is what they deserve.
Dying is the one thing in life we all have in common. It is something we must all do. Whether we go connected to various machines in a hospice center, suddenly at home from a heart attack, or on our own terms by suicide, we will leave behind people who feel sorrow and grief. Let us not belittle or depreciate one form of dying over the other. The reality is that those who die have a right to be remembered through the vivid lens of love, compassion, and life.
We are more than our ends. We are the sum of our life experiences and what we learned, what we gave, the joy we brought, and the pain we shared. We are imperfect. We stumble and we fall; some of us get up and some of us can’t. For those who no longer have the ability to go on, let us not shame them and focus on their end, but instead consider their lives and their deaths as natural and uniquely theirs.
If I had died—if I hadn’t woken up in the ICU—I would have wanted my family and friends to remember me as the authentic, love-filled person I was. That I craved experiences in every form. That I laughed hard and embraced my pain. That I sped through life with the top down and my hands in the air. And most importantly, that when I chose to get off the ride, it was my decision and my decision alone—that while I loved them very much, it was just my time to go.
Setting people free in life is a popular idea; we see it in all the self-help books. But when it comes to suicide, let us learn to set people free in death. There is nothing to forgive because dying isn’t offensive—it’s inevitable.
Relephant: The Simple Buddhist Trick to being Happy.