“No one asks you why you cry but if you kill yourself, they all ask why.” A few weeks ago, during the Friday afternoon soiree we had at my office for a co-worker’s last day, this was how she explained her capstone research project that she was expecting to spend this coming school year finishing. That line was how she introduced her plan of interviewing people who live outside around Seattle investigating the question “Can love really change the world?” That line is the first thing one of her first subjects said to her (she’s already started some interviewing) and it arrested her. Honestly, it should. That line.
Why is it that we can joke about suicide but we can’t talk about it seriously? When talking about something minorly annoying or difficult, I have had friends on numerous occasions shape their fingers into a gun, put it to one temple, “pull the trigger” and mimic brain splatter from the other temple with their free hand. I’ve seen several Facebook posts that casually mention jumping off a bridge as a “solution” to their admittedly pain-in-the-ass hassle. And yet, actual suicidal thoughts, if expressed, get terrified stares or the cops called on you. And that is becoming more and more a death sentence in itself.
Maybe we’re so callous to people suffering under the enormous burden of suicidal thoughts because every article we see on Facebook about them, or about depression, contains a picture of a woman staring forlornly out a window, or a guy with his face in his hands in a dark room, or a person with a deeply sad look on their face as they stare almost past the camera. And no one in real life actually looks like this. In our stigma-heavy, blame-the-victim-for-everything-from-rape-to-mental-illness culture, it’s not safe to be THAT open about depression or suicidal thoughts. Those who are struggling with these things are likely either having to fake being okay all the way through each day or not out out in public much so you wouldn’t know it if one such person is in the room when you casually joke about killing yourself over an insurance problem or a frustrating roommate situation or a bad grade.
Humor is a funny thing (not in the haha way). It can be used either to tell the truth or to avoid it. It depends on the intent of the user generally. But I’ve never seen anyone even attempt the clearly difficult task of telling the truth about suicide and its various complex causes using humor. Actually, the way I’ve most seen joking about suicide isn’t even to avoid the truth; suicide is co-opted to highlight how difficult someone feels the thing they are experiencing is. And the only thing that really accomplishes is diminishing the experience of being suicidal. It contributes to the misunderstanding, the belittling, the blame-the-victim/”what-do-you-have-to-be-so-upset-about” attitude that drives so many suffering from ideation further into the dark. Bad grades are nor worth taking out your future, we say. Insurance bureaucracy is a formidable foe, but also not worth ending your life. What other problems could there be?
I’m not an apologist for suicide. I’m an apologist for caring about it – its victims (for example, the anniversary of DFW’s suicide is this coming Saturday), those who have attempted (the chances are that you know someone who has), those who are thinking about attempting (chances are even higher that you know someone in this category, too). If we value human life, we can’t simultaneously joke about ending our own. It’s totally confusing to me – and really quite unfair to those dealing with suicidal thoughts – that we can so flippantly talk about jumping off a bridge but freeze up and think only of calling the cops or committing someone to the psych ward when someone means it. It certainly is scary – imagine experiencing these thoughts when usually, death is what everyone else fears – but our joking about it is not making it easier to talk about or understand.
You may not think that this your problem but even if you’ve not lost someone to suicide and really don’t know anyone who’s attempted or struggled with thoughts of suicide (which, given the numbers, I’d find hard to believe), or struggled yourself, you’d be wrong. As I’ve said before, I’m starting to understand my work as a writer as getting people to care about what it means to be human. Somewhere in the world, someone dies by suicide every 40 seconds – that’s about a million suicides a year. Greenland is the suicide capital of the world and there may be climate-change-related reasons at least partly at play there. Suicide is also arguably the most stigmatized of all human behaviors. Both the huge number of suicides and that it is so stigmatized say something about what it means to be human these days. To take a line from DFW, this is water. And it’s increasingly poisonous, largely because of our collective actions. It’s time to stop the joking and start the listening.