Suicide is Not a Crime: Musings on Pain and Agency

I have long opposed the establishment of “normal” as a normative standard to strive for — or against — because it further entrenches the dangerously conformative notion of what “should be.” This is the unpopular question I’d like to pose (along with a plea for contemplation over perfectly natural, reactionary backlash): What if — for a very, very small percentage of people — there IS no solution but the final solution?

The Crimson’s magazine ran a very soulful, well-assembled feature on mental illness and the alarming high suicide rates at my alma mater. Is it a bit solipsistic (Harvardistic?) to call it the “Harvard” condition? Yes. That doesn’t detract from the feature. I honestly believe it provided respite to a large proportion of students who still believe themselves alone in their suffering; at the same time, I wonder if the progressive angle of inclusivity, the “pretty, successful peers you’d envy struggle with desolation too!” tone that implies that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel, could have, for a limited number of students, only deepened their sense of hopelessness and loneliness.

That statement is not, at all, criticism — it’s an open-ended invitation towards further reflection on the complexities of melancholia — the word I prefer to “mental illness” when labelling a persistent sadness that can’t be attributed to material chemical imbalances or any external factors. But first, let me state that it’s impossible to hyperbolize how heartening it is to see such concrete evidence that the courageous students today are far more open with their inner turmoil. We are finally on the precipice of ending the lethal otherization of depression on a campus where the condition is — statistically — more “normal” than an unblemished four years of #blessed happiness. I’ve sung endless praises of The Crimson’s current incarnation to a former managing editor — and he’s heartily agreed that the paper is just…superior to the excellent product our guards at 14 Plympton produced during Harvard’s last presidential search, Barack Obama’s first election, the nascent, but contentious campus expansion across the river into Allston. Yet on second read, there’s something too…neat about this story, a thought that wouldn’t have crossed my mind even two years ago. Maybe it’s the lumping of all the shades of melancholia into “mental illness — depression” and the neat assignment of addressable environmental causes (e.g. lack of a “supportive friend group,” a “hectic schedule,” the “stigma associated with medication”) coupled with the chirpy ending (“and the Harvard Condition goes into remission”).

This is the unpopular question I’d like to pose (along with a plea for contemplation instead of perfectly natural, reactionary backlash): What if — for a very, very small percentage of people — there IS no solution but the final solution to the endless agony of their human condition? After cancer and heart disease, suicide accounts for more years of life lost than any other cause of death. That alarming CDC stat, first and foremost screams for a drastic and immediate improvement to the access, approach, and quality of mental healthcare. Yet do we have any evidence that suggests that homeostasis happiness levels don’t follow the same human bell curve distribution as say, height, metabolism, or say, penchant for written expression? What if some people, through a combination of unmalleable nature and nurture, just don’t arrive at adulthood with an average ability to find joy in life worthy of sustaining? Proffering a slightly more specific rephrasing, what if, for my subset of peers, if the combination of (20-some years of expectations — both internally and externally imposed — that come with being labeled exceptional) X (a precocious onset of existential crises) X (something yet to be defined in our limited understanding of neurology and soul) just…makes life unbearable?

I use that combination of descriptors because they are the ones with which I have the most familiarity. In the jumbled, humbling existence I led for the year since leaving Stanford — during which old Dior heels were stuffed with crumbled eviction notices, when my exposure to both the scope of human suffering and literally incredible resilience were broadened by immersive observation — forced the recognition that individual experiences with struggle are incomparable. That the observable conditions of existence regressed against internal happiness yield a very, very low R^2. But we know only what we know. And thus, I now deeply regret the contempt I felt for my former peers, stonily unmoved by the bitter disappointment of having to settle for Wharton juxtaposed against the joyous gratitude of a teenage corner girl to whom I brought — wait for it — a Crayola marker and packet of concealer found in Elle. Layered thickly with some creative mixing, the combo hid the jaundice-colored, customer-unfriendly bruise her apologetic pimp had left on her jaw. I do not bring up these coeval events in ridicule of the first. At 25, a rejection from GSB would’ve launched me into months of obnoxious, histrionic self-pity, wallowing unbearable to not just me, but friends who bore the misfortune of emotional proximity. The former friends whose experiences I now trivialized with cold mockery.

If anything, I cite that jarring contrast in self-censure: my inability — or refusal — to understand trauma in the situation of individual experience. Which is — and I swear by this statement — the only valid means toward genuine empathy, something I owed my more privileged acquaintances as a human being — the relativity of their pain was completely irrelevant to the fact that their emotions were not only valid, but just as real. It was even longer before I could situate — in a more universal context — my experience bouncing between the upper echelons of Ivy alumni and New York’s shadowy netherworld. Using my expanded understanding of the human condition to measure whether someone’s unhappiness or depressive state is justified is ironically the most ignorant, solipsistic and arrogant thought exercise I’ve indulged as a bona fide adult.

Pain is pain. Period. No modifiers necessary. Whether or not we can relate, it — at the very least — demands the respectful acknowledgement of epistemological ignorance. Independent of class or privilege, some people are content in American Dreaming, in striving for success. Others are searching for some kind of meaning, yet others for a deeper truth that once found, makes life ugly and unbearable. Reading the endless analyses Kurt Cobain’s suicide note, struggling through the summer of “takes” and “thought pieces” on The End of the Tour, the latest David Foster Wallace’s biopic frustrated me to no end — there just isn’t always a nicely packaged explanation (“Quite simply, [DFW’s] death was the result of a psychopharmacological catastrophe”), which implies that had they — or those around them — made different choices, just tried harder to rid themselves of despair, gotten on a different cocktail of medications to escape “mental illness,” they would still be with us.

No. There is nothing simple or universal about suicide that allow for generalizations. Post-hoc hindsight is for those left behind to continue the task of, you know, living. The glamorization of artistic celebrity suicides, the banal “reasons” we attribute to the lesser-known deaths that become statistics — all of it seems, to me, repugnant and false. And there are the questions I’ve mulled over for a decade but never had the balls to write down.

What if for some, suicide is a release from agony sans solution? Are they obligated to suffer through decades of intense misery for the sake of those who love them, who depend on their existence?

The person who first prompted these queries is not Cobain or Wallace. It’s not Kendrick Lamar screaming alone in a hotel room, or the trifling pulls towards oblivion I’ve felt from time to time. It’s the soulmate who I am in constant terror of losing, the brilliant, brave man whose consistent self-loathing intermittently drives him to acts of both brutal cruelty and a destructive capacity for sacrifice. This piece was also supposed to be about ten years of watching his grasping for whatever he — in fervid, happy certainty — was convinced would end the misery of his high-functioning melancholy, followed by the awful disappointment of attainment. The goals have varied — love, success, friendship — but the existential torment that sets the bass tone of his existence hasn’t missed a beat. Is he depressed, in the DSM sense? Sure. But it’s been a long, long time since I’ve thought of his condition — or even the alarmingly close brushes he’s had with death — as a “mental illness.” It is just an innate melancholy interwoven into the fabric of his identity. During a particularly bad spell a few years ago, I remember going to a psychiatrist, then feeling the overwhelming guilt of self-revelation wash over me as his friend and I begged, then practically force-fed him the Lexipro I had obtained.

It wasn’t solely — or even mostly — out of concerned altruism that I had gone to such lengths to prolong an existential misery I know I don’t have the mettle to face, let along live in for 27 years. I did it for me. Out of the immediate fear that I’d wake up to find that my life has been stripped of that exquisite layer of richness and understanding that I’ve come to rely on, that I know I’ll never replace. If insisting on another being’s suffering, denying his right to relief, and violating individual agency because I need him for my life isn’t abject selfishness, then what is?

Surely, by now, he knows that he is, to me, sine qua non. But even I — in all my inflated sense of self-importance — don’t have the arrogance to believe that derivative meaning can drive a will to live or even provide the necessary analgesic against…whatever you want to call it. A chemical imbalance. Chronic depression.

For some people, their normal, everyday struggle to want to live.

Originally published at on October 12, 2015.