What suicide meant to me
Suicide is a slippery concept and its definition carries a rather negative connotation which has proved to be deeply rooted in our culture. The mere fact that I speak of committing suicide using the same word usually associated with committing a sin or a crime shows how even our language has been fostering a very specific idea of suicide. For me, this resulted in a certain mistrust towards my attempted explanation of what suicide means because I had gone astray from the right path. ‘She was not in her right mind!’ — or so I overheard during my recovery.
Is suicide morally permissible? Is it the result of coercion? These are possibly unanswerable questions and for this very fact I would like them to be an invite to those in a healthy condition to trust and respect the inaccessible experience of suicidal people and/or survivors.
Simon Critchley published an interesting collection of the last notes left by those about to commit suicide that I think give a sense of the conundrum behind suicide. I realized they all present a thread: the choice between life and death mixed with resentment and resoluteness. I would point at two notes.
First, the words of Kay Redfield Jamison, clinical psychologist author of An unquiet mind, who described suicidal depression from firsthand experience:
[It] is a state of cold, agitated horror and relentless despair. The things you love most in life leach away. Everything is an effort, all day and throughout the night. There is no hope, no point, no nothing.
Second, Virginia Wolf’s suicide note:
I can’t fight it any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life. … You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you.
Lastly, I will add a piece of my own, taken from two notes I had left my girlfriend and my mother.
I’m sorry, I am truly sorry, but I can’t do this anymore. I cannot feel how I feel knowing that there’s no other way out of this but going away forever. I want it to be forever because I don’t ever want to feel this way. […] I hope I won’t be in your thoughts for long. I hope I can simply become a happy memory of someone who loved you and maybe hasn’t shown it enough. […] I’m not living and I don’t know how to call what I go through every second of my day. And since I’m not living, I have to go ‘forever’. Just know you’ve been in my heart until the last moment. I’m sorry.
You might think that attempting suicide is the last resource a suicidal person thinks she has. Ultimately it might be, but it is not as if she has ‘given up’. You give up something, but my feeling was that there was nothing left to give up. You could say that the pain is the ‘something’ I wanted to give up, that it was still a way reacting to some very feeble perception of myself in the world.
I am not sure if anyone, suicidal or not, can answer this question. I cannot and will not endeavour to do it now.
Why do I speak of ‘absurd’?
When I think about suicide, I don’t think about death as an end per se, but rather as the means to achieve something. I would use a very simple but powerful word if applied in this context: one’s end is relief. For the sake of these few words I’m writing, I would interpret suicide not as the mere act of self-killing, but as the following: the intentional infliction of death upon oneself following an assessment of one’s own situation, which is judged as worse than death itself.
I have been tempted to think of suicide as a vestige of heroism, as the ultimate answer to the absurd. But I have to face the compelling feeling I remember from when I was suicidal and admit that there is nothing heroic about it. It does not mean that it is a defeat either. It is indeed saying ‘no more’, but I am yet to find a justification to why ‘no more’ would be neither heroism nor defeat. The one thing I can settle on for now is that it sounds like a choice that has weighed life on the same level as death.
But why am I even presented with this choice? Can I really find an answer to the meaning of life? My answer is the absurd and if I wanted to avoid the absurd, I should stop asking the question of the meaning of life altogether. I’m not sure whether one can really do that, but, for the sake of clarity, what I’m saying is that my mental illness precludes me from approaching the question like other people do.
I don’t mean ‘meaningful’ as a synonym of happiness. When I ask myself if my life has meaning, I am trying to find out if my life is intelligible. What I seek is philosophical intelligibility, a distinct understanding that is not satisfied by scientific enquiry. I am asking if I can have an understanding of myself and my relations to this world, an understanding which will make the world a familiar ground and which will give a place to my singular, concrete existence.
As with any quest for intelligibility, I must take the risk of not finding an answer — or to take the missing answer as the answer itself. It is not a scientific experiment missing data, it is an answer that is already implied in the question.
Maybe if I relied on a more rational reasoning, I might not conclude that life is absurd, but my belief about the self-evidence of my claim is what justifiably motivated my actions.
The difficulty in describing what the feelings of a depressed person are show that depression is not subject to agreement or disagreement — not in the sense that the illness cannot be diagnosed, but that the categories of truth or falsehood cannot be applied.
The mountain has disappeared
The time has come for me to deal with the first name that usually comes up when we talk about suicide: Sisyphus from Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus. The famous image of Sisyphus pushing a rock up the mountain only to see it roll down and starting all over again seems to be the perfect representation of the absurdity of life. The metaphor works pretty well for me. We can get to the top, but we haven’t actually achieved anything as there is nothing to achieve. The moment we think we have made it, we go back to the beginning.
But is it really so obvious that I, as Sisyphus, will be pushing the rock up the mountain for an endless number of times? I don’t think that’s quite right. Camus’ text is a reply to the question: Why should I not kill myself? — and his answers may very well be valid, but not so for me and my mental illness. As a suicidal individual I had stopped being Sisyphus a long time before that. I could no longer push the rock up the mountain and, as it happens, the mountain had disappeared altogether.
Just to stick to the metaphor, I would describe my depression as the extremely demanding attempt to roll the rock around without even having a mountain to climb.