20 December 2011

Side-Scrolling Cowardice

It's the coward's way out.

That's what we're told about suicide. People who end their own lives are not to be pitied like the rest of our dead. They're cautionary tales, meant to scare the frail into galvanizing themselves into flipping the "Happy" switch and avoiding such a dismal end for themselves. After all, they really just need a kick in the pants to man up, start living in the real world and quit wanting anything more out of life because they're not entitled to it and blah, blah, blah. If your whole resentment of depressed people is that you boast about not being satisfied with life and they don't, then you probably need to do some reevaluating of your own, but frankly that's not what I'm here to discuss right now.

People who have never been suicidal have no idea what it's like. Just as with the rest of depression, your imagination may be sufficient to generate empathy, but you are incapable of having true insight. I can explain it to you in words and you can read those words and they can have meaning to you, but it's like looking at photos of the surface of Pluto. We might know what it looks like, but we'll never know what it's like to actually stand there. Rather than take this as some kind of slight against you, that I am arrogantly excluding you from some kind of exclusive club, shut the hell up and just be grateful you haven't known this torture firsthand. Not everything in life is about you.

There are infinite allegories for life, but the one that I think best suits suicide is that life is like a side-scrolling video game. Not only are you restricted to moving around where the game takes you, but you can't even control the pace. You have to make your way through the level as quickly as you can, and accomplish whatever is required of you before the game decides you haven't done enough quickly enough and brands you a failure. Some players are great at these levels. Some are immune to that kind of stress; others thrive on it. That's terrific.
Then there are players like me. I'm terrible at video games. Honestly, I still haven't beaten Super Mario Bros. and my mom got my brother and me a Nintendo Entertainment System the second year they were out. In a side-scrolling game, once you miss something, it's gone. There comes a point where you look around and it seems that you have significantly fewer paths open to you than you did when you began. Maybe you screwed up. Maybe you were cheated. Whatever; it doesn't matter. The point is, you assess the situation and find you're ill-equipped to continue down your choice of whatever unattractive paths remain open to you.

If we were playing a video game, this is where you would look for a cheat code or simply restart. Why not? Your options are negligible and what's the point of continuing?

Now understand this is how I felt for an entire year about drawing breath.

I spent much of my time ruminating about my own suicide. Not just how I would do it (overdose on pills; I'm not into pain, thank you very much) but the larger, philosophical implications of it. I could hear the scorn in my brother's voice as he would condemn me for my weakness. What defense could I offer? I would be gone.

That's when I wrote "Finis," my final blog post.

It stayed in my drafts section for nearly six months; I wrote it sometime in May. It was ready to be published at a moment's notice. All I had to do was go in and approve it. I even had figured out how to schedule it to appear after I would already be gone so that it wouldn't appear prematurely and warn anyone who might see it.

In "Finis," I articulated that I simply couldn't go on anymore. You might brand me a weakling, and maybe that's fair. I was too weak to keep going. So? Life's hard. It's not for the weak or the timid so what business did I have loitering around?

Cowardice? People have various phobias and the vast majority of them are rooted in the fear that harm--often, death itself--could come to them. I'm not afraid of heights because I fear my ears not equalizing properly. I'm afraid of heights because I know I could fall to great injury or death. The very subject of one's own death makes most people uncomfortable; some of them are incapable of processing the notion and have to change topic. Even thinking about one's own death requires a certain amount of emotional fortitude that the average person does not desire to have.

Now consider what it takes to overcome all the barriers between the human survival instinct and death itself. It may sound "easy," but I assure you, it is not.

Selfishness? I resolved that issue long ago. I resented being asked to continue living in pain simply because others would find it inconvenient for me to be gone. Ask someone with a terminally ill pet about making the decision to euthanize their furry loved one and you will eventually hear the declaration, "I don't want him/her to suffer." Why, then, should I? Because I can speak for myself and comprehend the situation? Because I have different options than an animal? Those are details. The core premise remains: You would prefer the peace of death to the agony of life for your animal and I felt entitled to at least that same measure of consideration.

Those left behind often grapple with things like, "Why didn't he say something?" and a laundry list of all the options that the loved one could have explored but seemingly did not. It's as though the fallen individual was somehow oblivious to their own plight. I assure you, they were not. Your loved one wanted to reach out to you, every day. You never knew it, though. You had no idea that just not giving in and ending their life took every bit of strength they had.
I had to fight to keep from going after the poison mushroom.

Day in, day out, I awoke with disappointment and resentment. I just wanted it to be over and I kept hoping I wouldn't have to make it happen myself. I would check in with people via text, social media websites like Facebook and Twitter. I would blog. Every day for most of this past year, I wanted to say to everyone who might listen, "I need help! I don't want to live anymore and I'm scared how close I am to giving in and ending my life." But I had already exhausted my ability to fight just by getting out of bed and avoiding the various methods by which I could have ended my life.

You may have thought me weak for not tweeting, "I need help," but you would never have known what it was like for me to stare at a tabletop full of prescription pill bottles and wonder if I had enough to finish the job before anyone could find me. I had to fight that fight several times a day. There was no escape from it. No matter where I was, or whose company I shared, I was always a lapse in strength away from giving in. It required a strength that few people can actually appreciate.

None of this is meant to glorify suicide. But I honestly believe that by perpetuating the stigma that only cowards and weaklings take their own lives, we as a society lend credence to the poisonous sense of isolation within which depression thrives and plies its wickedness upon the afflicted. It's hard enough to resist suicide, or to reach out to someone. It is all but impossible to do so if the someone to whom you might reach out has already condemned your feelings out of hand.


  1. You never cease to amaze me, I can't tell you how many times i have held the bottle of pills or stared at it.  I am glad i am not there at this time.  Thanks again.

  2. I'm glad you're not there, too.

  3. Donald Creason12/21/2011 1:55 PM

    My friend I would say it takes great courage to be so open about such dark times. I am fortunate in that I have never suffered depression as deeply as you or been suicidal. I would say though that it may take a large measure of courage to end everything when it may be easier to stay in bed and writhe in self pity. I need to be careful in how I articulate this as I want you to know I in no way encourage you to take your own life, but at hte same time I can only empathize and not understand, just as you stated. Still reaching out and doing better as you have recently may take even greater courage. As always I am impressed with your ability to bring across your point here and offer a look inside a subject that many of us are only familiar with vaguely and from the outside. Please also know that as your friend of nearly a quarter of a century if you're ever at that point where you need to reach out and can find no one else, I will be here, as I'm sure several others of us would be as well.

  4. I understand entirely what you mean. It's difficult to say positive things that don't come across as endorsements sometime. I recently made my way through all four Star Trek: The Next Generation movies and I was struck this time by the exchange that Captain Picard and Data have in Generations where Data insists on being shut down because he's overwhelmed by emotions. Picard reassures him that "Sometimes it takes courage to try...and courage can be an emotion, too."

    I'm better now; I haven't had any suicidal urges in more than two months. But it's nice to be reminded that there are people to whom I can reach out. Also, though I sincerely hope you never have cause to take me up on it, I hope you know I'm here, too, if you ever need it.

  5. Robert Jayne12/23/2011 4:35 PM

    Hey Travis, first off I'm glad I read this post - very brave to be so personal & honest. The Mario Bros. analogy made me laugh, especially your caption about the poisoned mushroom! I'm glad you're feeling better but understand your plight in wanting to express your feelings on this - it's be too easy to just move on & not want to broach the subject at all. My views on it are rather similar, as an aside (and I'm ineterested to hear your thoughts on this) I agree with state-run suicidal assistance - & think it should in some cases be open to people suffering from a mental illness.

    If the process was official I think a lot of the stigma & misunderstanding of suicide would be dealt with head on & out in the open - which is a good thing. I think that family & friends could compute the idea (& hopefully in MOST cases solve any issues, rally around, etc) if it was a process rather than a shameful, dark & lonely experience of one suffering individual.

  6. Thanks for reading, and for the kind words. You'll find mine is a pretty candid blog. I'm pretty open about 98% of my life experiences--even the unpleasant and unflattering ones. I do try to find some humor in all of them, though, and I'm glad you got a chuckle out of my poisonous mushroom caption. That was one of the hardest things to write, believe it or not! Some drafts were too long; others weren't funny enough.

    Regarding state-offered assisted suicide, I come to that in much the way I view regulated marijuana. For those who have no use for it, it should make no difference whether the state is involved. For those who may, however, there's a tremendous amount of reassurance and safety nets that the state can institute that aren't there the way things are now.

    For instance, I might have reached out for state assistance at some point this past year and they could have intervened and helped me realize I didn't really want to be dead so much as I just wanted to not hurt like that anymore. Suicide prevention help could have achieved the same thing, of course, but I had no desire to reach out to a preventative service. I may, however, have reached out to suicide assistance and they could have had the power to help dissuade me.

    Less anecdotal, though, the greater issue is that as you say, that kind of legitimacy would compel us into a more meaningful dialog about the subject. To date, we have deferred almost exclusively to religious doctrine and social stigmas to shape our views about suicide.