Let’s talk about an obvious truth: Suicide is a choice, unlike cancer. People with cancer don’t make a conscious choice; they don’t take a deliberate action. But people commit suicide.
Over the last two years, two beloved actors died.
We offered genuine respect and love to Alan Rickman, who, it was said, succumbed to cancer. “He lost his battle,” the headlines read.
By contrast, our response to Robin Williams' death was much less clear. He “committed” suicide. Many headlines added that he hanged himself.
In the suicide-prevention community, many have discontinued the use of the word “commit,” but many have not. I mean, it kind of works, right? This isn’t the year 1800 — we don’t think of suicide as a sin or crime any more. But we do think of it as a choice, as a deliberate action.
Isn’t that right?
Earlier this year, hip hop star B.o.B made the headlines. If you didn’t already know him from songs like “Magic” and “Airplanes,” you may have heard about his epic Twitter feud with astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.
It started here at Stone Mountain, which overlooks metro Atlanta all the way up to Sandy Springs.
B.o.B tweeted, “The cities in the background are approx. 16miles apart....where is the curve? please explain this. "
Look, it’s obvious the Earth is flat.
Going back a thousand years, the Earth would in fact have looked downright flat to every one of us. From the every-man perspective, with a limited view, this appeared to be obvious for thousands of years.
Of course, there have always been signs that our limited view as humans was, well, limited. The first clue is that in every lunar eclipse we see the shadow of the earth cast against the moon. And we see a circle.
Tyson also explained to B.o.B that the Foucault pendulum demonstrates that the earth rotates. These clues could have been put together (and were) long before satellites or space travel. The conclusion: The world must be a ball!
Apparently, this was way too much looking through a glass darkly and didn’t persuade B.o.B. He believes the pictures of the round earth are the CGI creations of a conspiracy, and, in reality, most humans have not seen this view with their own eyes.
However, we could try to change his perspective. Instead of 16 miles across, let’s go one more mile. Let’s make it 17 miles — but straight up. Now, the curvature of the great, great big planet begins to emerge. The “Aha!” moment.
See also: Blueprint for Suicide Prevention
In life, we don’t always get the 17-mile perspective. Sometimes we fall one mile short. What seems obvious could not be more wrong, and sometimes, unlike with B.o.B's tweets, there are consequences.
I wish we could zip up 17 miles to see the true perspective on suicide, but it’s going to take some faith. Let’s look at the clues and what doesn’t fit, like that nagging circle shadow of the Earth on the moon.
The approach I describe in the caption sounded really good… until the moment the platform underneath me dropped away. I was immediately slipping on the bar, struggling to hold on, my hands sweaty. I doubled down on my grip, but, quickly, my muscles began to ache, and my forearms ballooned like Popeye's. The pain intensified as the seconds passed.
I relaxed my breathing and went to my happy place (a beach in my mind with gentle waves lapping). That strategy was good for a couple seconds, but it still didn't work.
Finally, I was simply repeating to myself, “Hold on one more second, one more second.”
It was a long way to fall, so I desperately wanted to hang on. But I could not. Gravity and fatigue forced me to succumb to the pain.
You can watch my embarrassing fall. (YouTube Video
Pain is not a choice
Many of us somehow think we've experienced enough pain through the normal ups and downs of being human that we have at least some insight into what leads people to suicide. One of America’s top novelists, William Styron, said, Not a chance. His book, “A Darkness Visible,” about his own debilitating and suicidal depression, is titled after John Milton’s description of Hell in “Paradise Lost.”
No light; but rather darkness visible
Where peace and rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all, but torture without end
One of our most talented writers ever, Styron said his depression was so mysteriously painful and elusive as to verge on being beyond description. He wrote, “It thus remains nearly incomprehensible to those who haven’t experienced extreme mode.”
If you haven’t experienced this kind of darkness, anguish, the clinical phrase “psychic distress” probably doesn’t help much. Styron offers the metaphor of physical pain to help us grasp what it’s like. But, frankly, many with lived experience say they would definitely prefer physical pain to this anguish.
Putting the Clues Together
So, some of you are thinking, I get what you are saying, but my loved one didn’t fall passively. I’m sure they were in pain, but they took a deliberate action. They pulled a trigger. They ingested a poison.
So, let’s put these two clues together but reverse the order. The pain. And the response.
After my first marathon, when my legs had cramped badly, I decided to try an ice bath and jumped right in. I bolted. I was propelled. Exiting the tub filled every neural pathway of my mind, and my hands and body flailed as if completely disconnected from my conscious decision-making process.
My example references an acute pain, but extend that into a chronic day-over-day anguish that blinds the person to the possibility of a better day. Perhaps people do not choose suicide so much as they finally succumb because they just don’t have the supports, resources, hope, etc. to hold on any longer. Their strength is extinguished and utterly fails.
See also: Employers’ Role in Preventing Suicide
Is Suicide a Choice?
The every-man perspective is that suicide is a choice. Robin Williams committed suicide. And it’s the hand of the taker that is completely responsible for the choice and deliberate action.
It seems so obvious. But it’s the limited, 16-mile perspective, the one we all have, and it's one mile short of the truth.
Someday, we’ll have the space-station view — and with it the solutions to create Zero Suicide.
But, for now, it’s time we study the signs, trust the clues and be brave to stand behind them.
Here’s a different headline:
“Robin Williams lost his battle. Tragically, he succumbed and died of suicide.”
Loving, respectful, true.
When you can’t hang on any longer, you can’t hang on. As I watch the video of my fall on Fear Factor, it looks like my right hand is still holding on to an invisible bar. I never, ever stopped choosing to hang on. But I fell.
Believe the signs. Change your perspective. Use your voice. Let’s change that great big beautiful round planet we live on, and let’s do it together by doubling down on our efforts to help others hold on.