he great thing about suicide is that it’s not one of those things you have to do now or you lose your chance. I mean, you can always do it later. • Harvey Fierstein, actor, playwright
He hates him much that would upon the rack of this tough world stretch him out longer. • King Lear, Act V, Scene iii
I’ve written a small book about suicide, and attempted it one and a half times. People who have contemplated suicide will understand that number. But for those of you who don’t: The half attempt I knew I would not see through. I cut my forearm, rather severely, lots of blood. A scar marks the occasion. Looking at it from time to time gratifies me. I had proved something to myself, and in that sense the act was a success.
In what some (including me) consider to be the finest book on suicide, “The Savage God” by A. Alvarez, one of many strong points the author makes is the understanding of preference. People may have a preferred method in which they would like to commit suicide — or at least a method they feel they can bear. I have seen no medical research to suggest why someone suicidal prefers one method over another. Cutting wasn’t for me but I wanted to see if I could do it.
My attempt that counted, seven years ago, was not a “cry for help,” or “ideation” (a pathetic word). I told no one about it before or during, and (until now) only a few people ever have known about it at all. I did not write a note. Bugger that. I had no one who would really care anyway. I did line the bed with plastic garbage bags, so there’d be an easier mess to clean up. After all, I am a considerate fellow.
The attempt would have worked, except that in taking the two types of pills I made a stupid math mistake. Some might say switching counts was an unconscious act, or proof of a subconscious intent. I would disagree.
If you read my last column, you know I’ve been dead, and somehow skirted death other times. It would be fair to ask if these, what shall I call them — incidents? Would these incidents suggest an unconscious (there’s that word again) attempt to end my life in exotic ways? No again, for I could never predict, for example, snakes or scorpions.
People have proposed that I have traveled where and how I have because I am an adrenalin junkie, but that’s not true either. (You can read of exploits far more extreme than mine.) You see, I am not traveling towards something (like a pulse-pounding experience) but away from something. To oversimplify, and therefore distort my efforts, I will say I run from boredom, and run towards peace.
The most truthful observation about boredom I’ve ever heard is this: boredom is the regal descendant of loneliness. My response is, yes, but knowing boredom’s ancestry doesn’t solve the problem.
After nearly sixty years of travel, four circumnavigations of the globe, one million flight miles, six continents, more than one hundred countries, I’m here to tell you that travel, simple or death-defying, isn’t a solution either. But it does focus one’s attention elsewhere.
Travel has taught me the prime lesson of my life, that attending to the world around me can be life-sustaining and focusing on myself is deadly. On the other hand, avoiding oneself is a prescription for disaster. I don’t see a way to live a life at all if you don’t look inwards now and again.
When I do, those are bleak days. Some will think the following sad, but the truth is seldom pretty and it is true that the greatest comfort in my life is knowing I can end it when I wish. I admit that other people can be the greatest comfort if one is lucky enough to have other people. Too many don’t. And I don’t mean the people you say “hi” to or meet at the pub, or the “friend” box people click on in social media crap. I mean real people, key people.
Over decades I have talked with people who deeply considered killing themselves. The majority reject mainstream “solutions.” Yes, the mentally ill can benefit from medical intervention, but the massive mistake society makes about suicide is thinking that most people contemplating the idea are mentally challenged. They aren’t.
As being mentally ill doesn’t necessarily make you suicidal, so being suicidal doesn’t make you mentally ill. The two states are not always equal.
One fellow I knew had been trying for years to get a job, any job. He thought every day about ending his life. “I don’t need a psychiatrist, or pills, or therapy,” he told me. “I’m not mentally ill, and fuck those who think I am. I’m homeless. I’m hungry. I’m cold. I’m tired. I need work I’m physically capable of and a roof, not some glad-handed bullshit, or a drug.”
He never found any of that and jumped off a bridge.
A forty-year-old French woman who twice attempted to kill herself told a small group of people that she knew she had never been beautiful or attractive. “These doctors, all they have is pills and talk. I’m not mental. I’m lonely. You don’t have a solution to my life. Get away from me.”
If society wants to confront suicide, society needs to stop addressing it as a mental health issue and start grappling with the reasons behind the act. Mental illness is only one of so many reasons. Society must also accept that for a great many people it will never be able to present a counter-reason or solution. Living may be a puzzle we must all try to solve but for many there is no solution except to exit. This circumstance does not mean that all who leave are insane. In fact, a strong argument can be made to say that such people are incredibly rational.
As for me, I have returned to the United States after having lived mostly abroad for nearly five years. I have plans to leave again quite soon. This country is hardened to mental illness. As I write, children were murdered in a Nashville school and the country will do nothing about it, again. That is madness I can do without.
I know that as I run around the world I am being chased by my shadow. The time will come, I feel certain of it, that I will catch up with myself. I predict that what I will feel most on that day is relief.