The Fragility of Suicide

Rachel Rodgers, September 3, 2016

One of the things that resonates with me deeply is the sudden and total permanence of suicide. My aunt recently died of suicide. She was someone very close to me, my childhood and who I’ve become as a person. I’ve encountered the suicide before, though this is the first time it has truly stabbed my heart. I want to explore some of the raw thoughts largely buried after a suicide occurs.

There’s a hidden sensitivity and confusion around the complexities of mental illness. Depression is almost always an instigator of suicide. Mental illness is often the force that throws the mind over the edge. In the case of my aunt, at times she had depression and bipolar depression. Terms that thirty years ago we used to describe personality– negativity, stubbornness, nervousness, quick to anger, loner, weak character, mad– are now neatly packaged into medical diagnoses. On one point, history was right: it’s impossible to think of mental illness as something distinctly separate from one’s personality. Though my aunt had some mental illness’ intertwined in her thoughts, I know it was not her soul.

I say this because I’ve watched it happen to my friends and I. I have anxiety. I’m comfortable enough now to say that it’s a fundamental part of me, though it’s doesn’t define who I am. The intensity of mental illness tends to come in waves. A few years ago, when I became incredibly anxious, I was still me. I still had the same views about myself and the world. But­­ — this is the mind under mental illness’ grip — the anxious parts of my personality were intensified and the unanxious parts were attacked. Anxiety causes fear to rule the mind. My thoughts became unhealthy, exaggerated, and all-consuming, quick. My tendency to want to be alone deepened into a fear, anger and resentment towards an unjust society. This developed into an ugly nihilism: “even if I did try to fit into my society, how much of myself would I have to mold or deny, and what would be the point in bothering anyway?” Outwardly, I full of nerves; paper-thin in the presence of things that used to cause me a bit of stress, such as driving in a busy city, meeting people I don’t know. I got worse before I got better. I very slowly returned to myself.

Mental illness exists on a foundation of extreme fragility. Internally, there is nothing more sensitive. It teeters on the foundation of a personality and often eats away at it, cracking into a person’s strength and certainty of self. At its core, the soul wants to free itself from this.

Humans perceive the world through the lens of the mind. If you tell someone in a deep unhealthy state that they’re doing badly, chances are they don’t respond or become defensive. There’s also a deep sense of internal shame causing a greater distance between their mind and the outside world. The sense of self can be so fragile at the surface, that the worst thing to say is, “There’s something wrong with you, you need to fix it.”

A person’s loved ones need to listen. Listen more than ever to the unhealthiest thoughts because even they are believed to be true. A good technique is to slowly introduce the person back to who they used to be, through activities they once enjoyed or found strength. The person may find that an experience they used to love, such as sailing, feels oddly stressful, confining or pointless. The important thing is to experience it. While out on the water, they may sense their unhealthy mind corrupting their soul, and begin to work toward uncovering it again. I’m not saying that this works for everyone–nothing about a personality can be completely understood, and people heal in their own time.

There’s something that I keep coming back to when I think about my aunt’s death. I find this hard to talk about. What was the state of extreme internal anguish or anger that she felt at that moment, to make the instantaneous decision to end her existence?

It could have been an internal battle with her mind, the pressure of bipolar depression pushing and pulling her moods to extremes. Maybe it was the chaos of a mind tricking itself to the point at which she couldn’t determine whether or not her feelings of happiness were real. It could have been the problems she had with her boyfriend, that her efforts to love him weren’t causing him to love her. This is something I’ll never know.

My aunt, my grandmom, and I share a love of nature. When I was a kid and teenager, we spent many weekends going to parks around eastern Pennsylvania. My aunt was a biologist. At a young age she taught me how to catch turtles, frogs, fish, snakes, to feel the same way about these animals as I did about puppies and kittens. We hiked through the woods, saw waterfalls, swam in streams, camped in cabins or tents. She had a funny, honest sense of humor that I always loved. I was an exploratory kid, but what I found in nature was even greater. It was a true exhale, the sense of freedom and peace in the natural world, and I found it because of her. At about age 6, I remember walking trails to a creek and seeing a fallen long. I would never be allowed to cross it if my mom was there. My aunt and grandmom though, encouraged me. My aunt taught me how to walk slowly and carefully, aware of every step. I was both terrified and excited, laughed with relief as I hopped down on the other side. Each time after, whenever I crossed a log, I thought about my aunt and the feeling of freedom, purity and exploration she gave me.

I’m uncomfortable with publishing this. There’s an acute stab that I feel when I think about it. I know this article is my intellectual self’s small attempt at closure, though it will never be. It’s something that feels better protected between the pockets of memories my family and I have had. I also know that this article doesn’t represent a closure to her death. A big part of me thinks this is something too personal to be floating on the internet. But there’s a larger purpose to this. It’s bringing awareness to some of the internal questions we’d rather not say, the questions of people left in the wake of a suicide. There’s a deep truth in knowing that a person’s unhealthy state is not their true self, and in remembering the beautiful impact they’ve had on our lives.