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Monday 11 June 2018

Selfish! Weak!

We need to talk.

Depression is hard. It's a daily battle, and leaves scars every bit as real as the many scars I carry in my flesh, often the result of a reckless boyhood. Indeed, in a sense, they're even more real, because the scars in my flesh represent healing, while the mental scars are still open and festering.

What I really want to talk about, though, are the notions that suicide is 'selfish' or 'weak'. 

A couple of weeks ago, I read a piece in Mariella Frostrup's advice column in the Grauniad. On the face of it, it looks fairly unobjectionable but a little digging beneath the conciliatory tone reveals a thread of accusation, the notion that the deceased has 'lain a burden' on his widow. It talks of ending his own suffering while passing the residue on to his wife.

It's an extremely common thread in these circumstances to think like this, but it's hugely problematic for all sorts of reasons. 

When I was at my lowest, and actively making moves to pull the plug, was I being selfish? During my ideations, among the strongest desires, besides the desire not to withstand any more pain for myself, was the desire for it to be clean. This was not because of any notion of dignity for myself - there is and can be no dignity in death - but to reduce the impact on my family. I assessed several strategies, ruling out one by one all the methods that would leave a mess for my family to clean up, and eventually settled on a cocktail of alcohol and heavy-duty painkillers, which seemed appropriate. The wish would be, of course, for my family to find me looking like I'd simply fallen asleep in my chair, surely better than finding me with my arse in the air hanging out of the oven or exsanguinated in the bath.

What about the act itself? Was that selfish?

I know that, for me, one of the central things in my thinking on that day was how much of a burden I'd become. Unable to work, in and out of slumps of deep depression, miserable much of the time, and unable to engage even with those closest to me. To my mind, then and even now when I feel like I've left such ideations behind (though who knows when they might strike again), a simple cost/benefit analysis tells me that, as painful as dealing with my death and the aftermath of my illness might be, it's at least the last pain, and there's no more to come.

Since that day, I've spoken to many people on the cusp of suicide, and this is one of the most common themes running through all of those discussions, the idea that ending it is actually the best course of action for those who'd mourn our passing; that the mitigation of future pain and heartache is actually worth the immediate pain of dealing with the death itself.

So what, in the aftermath, is it helpful to tell those grieving in the aftermath of suicide? Is it helpful to assert that their loved one was selfish? 

It's a funny thing to me that we have a culture of not speaking ill of the dead. It's always amused me that we reach levels of niceness at such times that we probably wouldn't at other times, often saying nice things about people we don't even like. This one circumstance seems to be the exception, and it's troubling. 

It's understandable, of course. When we're in pain, we have a tendency to lash out, and especially at those we see as the cause of the pain. It's perfectly reasonable to think that somebody close to you ending their life is an act of selfishness, and anybody who's been in this situation will almost certainly have entertained the idea, however briefly. What's really unhelpful is asserting that selfishness as fact, and voicing it to those in grief. 

Another extremely common thread running through this discussion is that those who commit/attempt/contemplate suicide are weak. This is a pernicious idea, and one that really needs to be stomped on if we're ever going to get this discussion out into the open and remove the stigma of suicide and mental health. It's horribly destructive, not least to those who could benefit from reaching out to somebody as I benefited from reaching out on that dark day. That somebody could be deterred from reaching out and asking for help because they might be seen as weak (or selfish) means that this extremely common thread is actively hindering the saving of lives, and promulgating an insidious undercurrent to discourse, a discourse we desperately need to bring into the open.

Let's be clear here: living takes strength. There's no denying that whatsoever. What also takes strength is taking the decision to end one's suffering and the suffering of others. Suicide is not a decision taken lightly, and even to attempt to cast it in terms of strength and weakness is to trivialise the discussion and make it impossible to have, especially with those most in need of support.

What takes the greatest strength of all is recognising that you need help, and finding the courage to seek it regardless of the stigma.

Finally, a little advice on how to deal with somebody coming to you for help. This is pertinent to this topic, but it's also more general in situations where people seek support, including people on the verge of suicide and those suffering bereavement.


1. Offer advice.

This seems a bit of an oddity. Our first instinct is always to offer some words of comfort but, in all likelihood, this will serve only to exacerbate the problem. What almost always happens is that what we offer is empty platitudes. These generally only serve to make us feel better and have no positive impact on the person in pain. There's been a lot of talk in recent times about the efficacy of 'thoughts and prayers', and the sort of platitudinous dreck offered in such circumstances is as empty and worthless as discussing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

2. Pretend to understand.

You don't understand, so don't pretend to. You can't understand unless you've experienced the emotional history of the person you're talking to, and that's not possible. You don't know my pain, and I don't know yours. Emotions are chaotic and cumulative, and our emotional responses differ based on our personal histories. This leads me nicely to something else you shouldn't do...

3. Make comparisons.

It's extremely common to point to the suffering of others and engage in some sort of emotional calculus, comparing your 'piddling concerns' with the plights of those in purportedly much worse circumstances. This is a direct reflection of those worthless platitudes mentioned above, and carries an additional burden of guilt. It's the assertion, once again, that I'm being selfish. 

4. Try to fix things.

You almost certainly can't do this. You can't take away somebody's pain, not least because, as already mentioned, you can't understand it. 

5. Presume to know what's best.

See all of the above.


1. Be there.

This is the single most effective thing you can do in any circumstance. It entails simply letting somebody know that you're with them, and there if they need you. In some settings, this can be difficult. For example, not everybody is in a position to talk about their pain and, on social media, for example, this can translate into awkwardness quite easily. One strategy I've found that can be quite effective is sending random gifs (usually hugs) by direct message and checking for read receipts. It's a small thing, but you each know the other is there.

2. Listen.

Try not to tell people what they need, ask them. It's rare that an opportunity will present itself for you to do something practical to help, and such opportunities should be seized, but simply listening and acknowledging goes a long way.

3. Try to guide to the right kind of help.

This isn't always possible, not least because some have had very bad experiences with professionals and have trust issues. Where possible, though, don't try to shoulder the burden alone. Always be sure that you're doing what THEY need, not what YOU need.

4. Reach out. If you haven't spoken to somebody for a while, contact them, even if it's just to say hello. If it occurs to you to text somebody later, do it now. If you notice changes in behaviour, talk. It's pretty rare that there are any noticable differences, but notice them and act on them. This is not to say that anybody is to blame for not reaching out when somebody does 'complete', because that would be asinine. Don't beat yourself up if you think you missed some signs. Some of the most deeply damaged people I've ever known, including several who've completed, have been publicly effervescent. 

5. Seek advice. This shouldn't need to be said, but let's be certain. It can be hard to sit and listen. Forget what you think might be the worst thing you can think of to have happened to somebody, because it can be worse than you're ready for. Some of what I've discussed with people almost broke me. Once you open the door to talking, though, it's open, and opening it when you aren't ready to see the other side of it can be damaging. 

6. Be the love you want to see in the world.

This needs explanation?


7. I'd meant to include this tip from the wonderful Natalie Guest, which she's permitted me to reproduce.

Finally, it would be nice if we could stop being dicks to each other. I'm not innocent - far from it - but I am making a concerted effort. Try to remember that the people you meet on a daily basis are just like you, complex. They're often presenting a face to the world as a matter of strategy or self-protection. Remember that, if you meet them on another day or in different circumstances, things might go differently and you end up friends. Lest we forget, we can be programmed to like or dislike somebody based only on the difference in temperature of a cup handed to us moments before our first meeting. Things aren't as set in stone as you might think.

Allow for the fact that people may be suffering the consequences of complex and traumatic emotional journeys.

I'll leave this with a really quite lovely piece by Lynn Hauka in the Huffington Post about 'Holding Space'.