Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Thoughts on Death

Dear Lovers of Life and Those Who Could Care Less,

Suicide is a difficult subject for some people. It is a touchy subject. It is often a divisive subject.

Understandably so. The notion of suicide, that one would have a desire to end their life here on Earth, contradicts the very nature of our existence. The simple nature of our existence is that we are alive; our breath reminds of this and so too does our uniquely aware sense of human consciousness. Most of us will attest to a strong desire to remain alive for as long as possible, some of us will even express a desire to prolong our lives if we become able to do so.

Some people don't feel a desire to live, for whatever reason, and this confuses those of us who eschew death. Those of us with a desire to live a long life wonder what it is inside of a person that could make them want to move on from Earthly existence. We wonder if a person who wishes to die has lived through some kind of tormenting pain, whether or not they've experienced immeasurable hardship, or if they simply feel unloved or unwanted.

I have lived through suicide. Not my own, mind you. While I have wondered what life would be like if I were not here, I have never felt a compulsion to end the life I have made for myself here on Earth.

I lived through the suicide of my father and I learned some things about this unconventional type of death.

My father died when I was relatively young. He struggled with a condition that affected not only his mental health, but also his livelihood, his life quality, and all of his relationships. Schizophrenia had consumed my father's life and he suicided after a short battle with this disease process. He left me and my young mother behind to cope with his death and the challenges it presented.

As I grew up through the transition of adolescence, I began to wonder if there was something I had contributed to his death. Stress made the symptoms of schizophrenia worse. Had I caused my father stress? Did he want to die because of me?

I wanted to blame myself. In fact, I looked for ways where I could implicate myself in his death. I also looked for ways to blame other people. I even tried to blame his disease.

But I had an epiphany one day, some months after I was diagnosed with schizophrenia, the condition I had inherited from my father. I realized that I had nothing to do with my father's death. I realized that no one really had anything to with my father's suicide. There was no cause. There was nothing to blame. And there really was no easy answer.

Having faced the same demons of mental health that my father had to confront, I came to understand some things about life. Moreover, I came to understand some things about death.

That pain alone would cause someone to want to die is a myth. It is also a myth that unfortunate personal circumstances or hardship would cause someone to end their life. It's a myth as well, that one would end their life because they feel unloved or unwanted. This latter belief is the most dangerous myth among those who survive a loved one's suicide, since it compels us to imagine that if only we had been more loving, we could have prevented a needless death. This latter myth is the one that imposes a deep sense of personal guilt and shame about suicide among those who are left behind.

In my experience, there is only one thing that keeps us humans holding on to this thread of existence that we call life: This thing is hope.

While some may scoff at the simplicity of this relationship between the desire to live and the desire to die, you need to understand the power of hope.

Hope means that you are able to fall asleep at night knowing that you will wake up to a *different* tomorrow. Hope means that not only can life change, but that you expect it to change for the better some time in the future. Hope means that you can trudge through a dreary present, if it will take you to a happier place in the days that follow today.

If you lose hope, you lose access to the promise of tomorrow.

When you are hopeless, your concept of the future becomes blended with demands of the present.

If your present is bleak, or overwhelming, and if you imagine the future to be nothing but more of the same, you begin to feel as though you are treading water, rather than moving on or along. While you tread water, you become exhausted, and may find yourself losing your will to live to see another day.

And that is what my father faced, I think. An immeasurable sense that tomorrow will be no better than today, whatever "today" looked like to him all those years ago.

Who wants to wake up with a feeling that their present circumstances are permanent? I know I certainly don't.

Admittedly, my current life circumstances aren't great. I'm still technically unemployed, living up to that wonderful statistic that dictates that about 80% of people with my diagnosis are unemployed or underemployed. I know that I will wake up tomorrow and have to confront the challenges of discrimination and social mythology. I know that tomorrow I may have to hear another story of a life lost to mental health problems. And I know that tomorrow I may ask, again, for meaningful support and an iota of understanding, and that again, I am likely to be ignored.

So why do I want to wake up to see another day? Well, I attribute my will to live to that hope. I know that tomorrow can be different from today. I know that the struggles I live with today aren't necessary, and that they are becoming more and more impractical as our treatments improve. I know that some day there will be social change, and that my struggles will be diminished. When that day will come, I don't know. But I know I want to be here to see it. And maybe I hope to participate in helping that day to come.

I hope that tomorrow will change and become better than today. That is what tethers me to this world. I think this is what tethers most of us to this life on Earth.

Would my father's circumstances have changed? I don't know. Likely, but he couldn't get close enough to that future to be able to see it.

Can I blame my father for his suicide? No. I can't blame my father for wanting to end his life any more than I can blame myself for wanting to live.

Do I think my father's choice to suicide was an easy one? Certainly not. My father understood that he was leaving behind his child and his spouse, and he indicated as much before his death. He knew he was leaving an extended family who loved him. He understood that he would be missed, and that all of us would be confused and hurt in the wake of his loss.

Was my father selfish in his choice to end his life? I don't think so. Selfish implies that my father would have imagined that his death was exclusively to his benefit. My father understood the consequences of his death, and had to weigh these with the life he was living. Frankly, I would think myself selfish to expect him to live a life that denied the truth his very pressing reality: that he felt hopeless and that he wanted to die.

My father's death was his choice. It was a choice borne of his circumstances, whatever they were, whatever sense of hopelessness they engendered. I understand the complicated feelings he had to endure while balancing out the things he had to live for with the sense of hopelessness that compelled him to end his life. At the end of the day, I respect my father's choice, despite the fact that I wish things had turned out differently for him, differently for our family.

My choices are equally borne of my circumstances. Thankfully, I have the benefit of hope and the promises of tomorrow to carry me through.


If you are a Canadian having thoughts of suicide, or if for some reason this post has made you feel uncomfortable, the Centre for Suicide Prevention has a list of local prevention centres and hotlines.

If you are a US reader who is having similar thoughts, 1.800.SUICIDE would be the place to call.

PostSecret.com is also a great place to vent about life and all its dirty details. (In anonymous secrecy, of course!)

Warm Regards,


T.Allen-Mercado said...

Thank you for addressing the mythical claim of selfishness. Following my suicide attempt, I faced a sudden fall from grace as if all of the good deeds I'd done went unnoticed. Now, I became a selfish pariah who would laden so many friends and family with fear, worry and grief over losing the person they wanted to believe I was. We live in an age of armchair psychiatrists who even with the best of intentions somehow further the depth of misconceptions surrounding mental illness. But, who am I to shed light on the complexities of it all, I *am* the mentally ill.

I lit my candle and I thought of you and of others. Thanks for sharing your story. (Hugs)

Occupant (aka Olivia) said...

Dear T,
Thanks so much for sharing your experience.

The mythology is the most painful aspect of mental health and the related issues.

The mythology is what kills, from my experience.

And I'm truly honoured to know that you thought of me while your candle was lit. What a light!

Warm hugs,