I’ve been thinking about suicide a lot lately. Deep, ponderings about suffering. Questioning my own deep seated belief that to take your own life is selfish and weak.
First things first... I’m not suicidal. Not in the slightest. I have always told myself it’s because I’m not selfish. Or weak. I’ve spent time in some very dark places in my years but I always pull through. Because – strong. But I’ve challenged those thoughts recently and I’ve surprised myself.
My father-in-law died a horrible cancerous death four years ago. A tumour was discovered in his sinus. Mucosal melanoma. The oncologist told him his best chance was to remove it and all that surrounded it... which was half his face. This may give him some more time. More time than the 80 years he had already lived. He was scared to do it and spent many hours deliberating. Discussing with his loved ones. With his family who all urged him to do it. “You HAVE to fight” was the message he got loud and clear. “Don’t let this beat you”. And so, bravely, he decided to go through with the procedure. He did fight. He fought hard. But he confided in me, not long before he passed that he wished he had never done it. Because it did beat him and it did not buy him time and we buried him with half his face missing.
When he died, like the countless others that I know who died at the hands of a debilitating disease, the people he left behind [us] were relieved. “Thank goodness his suffering is finally over” “He fought so hard but the pain was just too much for him” “He was so brave”.
Far too many of us have watched someone we love suffer intensely before dying. We watch disease ravage them. We watch them change before our eyes. We remember brighter days when they weren’t sick. When we could laugh together and have fun. When their body was fit and healthy. When all hopes and thoughts of the future included them. We watch them waste away before us as their illness takes hold. As their appetite wanes and their ability to put on a brave face become less frequent. We watch as the light dulls in their eyes from medication to help them ease the aching. We watch and we wait and we empathise because we can’t even imagine the hell they must be living in. Many of us sit by their bedside and hold their hands and give comfort as we assure them that we will be ok without them. That they can go. That they can give up the fight. It’s ok, we say. You have been so strong and so brave to hang on so long. It’s ok, we say.
But what if their disease is not physical? What if their illness is mental? What if the excruciating pain they are feeling is all in their head? Are they not brave too? Is their pain less worthy? Is their yearning for it to end really so selfish? Do they not deserve dignity too? Why do we urge our loved ones who suffer from physical pain to let go yet demand the ones that suffer from emotional pain to hang on?
Have you ever loved anyone who is depressed? And I’m not talking some bullshit down in the dumps or in a slump or a bit flat or sad. I mean bona fide, clinically depressed. Someone who is actually unable to function for weeks, months and even years on end. Someone whose emotional pain is so intense they are unable to maintain a relationship of any kind so that they are deeply alone and overwhelmingly lonely. Have you ever loved someone who is so devastated that they choose to physically harm themselves as a distraction to their internal suffering? Have you ever watched someone waste away before your very eyes and pull away from you so profoundly and have absolutely no way to help them? Have you ever watched someone you love self-medicate and seemingly prefer to choose poison over their relationship with you? Have you ever looked at someone you love, survive a suicide attempt and think “you’re so selfish” or “you’re so weak” or “you’re just doing this for attention”? Have you ever said to someone you love, who can’t seem to get their shit together who tells you they’re suffering and tries to explain the depth of that suffering to “snap out of it”?
As though they have a choice.
I know I’m only one generation shy of “there’s no such thing as mental illness”. I was brought up on “snap out of it” and “toughen up” and “there’s nothing wrong with you, you just need to work harder”. Will our next generation ‘get it’? Will my kids grow up understanding all the different pains in the world? Will their empathy extend to those whose suffering they don’t even understand?
I think [hope] most of us are well intentioned. That our insistence that those we love who suffer from depression try harder is because we believe that’s all it takes. Because those of us who are healthy of mind can, actually, talk ourselves out of [and into] all sorts of moods and mindsets. I hope it is our naivety that fills us with the belief that all our suffering loved ones need is more company/stimulation/money/love to drag them out of their slump. I hope we are simply well-intentioned and naive because if we are not, then it is US who are selfish. It is US who are weak. It is US who need to snap out of it.
My truth is, I believe the fight is worth it for everyone. I believe life is worth it. I believe that if you have any fight in you then you should use it to war against any disease you have – physical or mental. I also believe that wars aren’t won without an army. In my family, when that bastard cancer is diagnosed [far too many times] we all suit up and stand strong as we face the enemy. We know that enemy well. We understand it and we hate it. So we fight. Together. Until the end. Because cancer is ok to have at the dinner table. It’s ok to have cancer at Christmas lunch. It’s sad, and sometimes confronting, but it’s there and we accept it – like an uninvited, estranged relative.
Depression, however, is not welcome at lunch. Or dinner. Or at picnics. Or even for coffee. Deep-seated, I’d-rather-be-dead-than-face-another-day depression is not welcome. It’s uncomfortable. It is not understood. It is not discussed. It is verboten. It is not real.
And so I ask you.
How can anyone possibly amass an army against an enemy that does not exist?
And how can we possibly look our suffering loved one/s in the eye and ask them to stay without first trying to understand the pain that makes them want to leave?