Two of My Students Killed Themselves – What Were They Thinking?
Last week, one of my students committed suicide. A few months ago, another of my students killed himself. I was talking about this with a friend, trying to deal with it, and she told me about a student of hers who killed himself a month or so ago, and had texted her immediately before he died.
These three students were in many ways quite similar: all were unusually bright, highly motivated, upper middle class, talented, male, and (at least in the case of both of my students) a bit uneasy, a bit more eager to prove themselves than the other students around them. Or I could be simply projecting that anxiety onto them now, as a consequence of their action. The first friend I ever had who killed himself was a kid named Ben who was in I.B. Physics with me at Western Canada High School in Calgary, Alberta. We competed with one another in physics, the class that really counted for the I.B. kids. Before that, my earlier experiences with suicide were when my stepbrother Paul leapt off a building in Calgary, when I was seven, and when my stepsister Lisa tried the same thing, a year or so later. Paul died; Lisa lived, with a ruptured spleen.
As readers of my column know, I tried to kill myself a little over a year ago. People asked me, “How could you? With a wife and three daughters? Don’t you know how much they need you? Think of how much harm you would be doing to them. How could you be so selfish?” Of course it’s the right question, and it is fair to ask these young men how they failed to see how much promise they had, how loved they were, how much pain they would leave behind for the people who love them. It is part of the hellish, circular logic of the suicide (at least, in my own experience): that you know these things as you go through the short ritual that precedes your failed or successful attempt, and that knowledge is further confirmation that you are not the sort of person who ought to be alive. You’re not thinking, “I’ll show them,” but rather, “They’ll be better off without me”–and the fact of the harm this will cause them is only further proof of the fact that you are the kind of person they should not be exposed to. You know something about yourself that they must not know: here’s the way to keep it forever hidden, or to finally expose it. Selfishness is part of it–and, usually, unbearable suffering, suffering that is profoundly wrapped up with selfhood. For Kierkegaard, there was a deep split in the very center of the self that was experienced as anxiety, and the deeper we fell into the black chasm of the self, the more that anxiety threatened to overwhelm us (and our only hope of being made whole, he thought, was through faith).
The best contemporary literature on suicide tells us that the urge to kill oneself, if the means are not available, often passes, and for good (Scott Anderson wrote a very nice summary of this literature in the New York Times). But the determined suicide finds a way. (One always has this nasty desire to ask the failed suicide: “But did you really mean to do it?” just as the failed suicide always has this perverse self-doubt: “But was I truly trying or not?”) When I was in the hospital after my own attempt, there was a young girl there–she was nineteen, but if you met her, you would have called her a girl, too–who was back in after her fifth suicide attempt. She had tried various things: pills, slashing her wrists, hanging herself. We talked about the feeling of not wanting to live–everyone one of us, I think, has had the experience of feeling “this is simply too much, I can’t bear it anymore”–but also the different and much more conclusive, more difficult to eradicate feeling of not deserving to live, of causing harm by living. As though one could be a virus that would spread. It’s a crazy thought: and maybe just one more justification of the need to escape. One of the familiar feelings of real depression is the inability to discern the difference between the depression itself and one’s drama about the depression.
Albert Camus’s notion–Camus always gets quoted when it comes to suicide–of Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill without end, and his conclusion that “we must imagine Sisyphus as happy,” is flat-out crazy talk, unless he means that “we must imagine Sisyphus as happy, otherwise we’ll all kill ourselves!” If this is some kind of practical self-help self-deception, maybe he’s right. But if I were Sisyphus I’d let that boulder roll right over me.
We aren’t in Sisyphus’s position. We do wake up in bed a year later with our partners curled around us, or our three year olds with their heads on our chests, or the winter sun out the window looking sideways across the clusters of pine needles and the long branches of a huge, two hundred year old tree. That, of course, must be what Camus meant to say, what I wish I
could have said to my student, and what I did say to that nineteen-year-old in the hospital: “Just don’t give up.”
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