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Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Suicide Solution

Greetings, dear reader.

Today I want to talk about suicide. This is a topic that doesn't get nearly the coverage it deserves – something that's painfully apparent by the attitude toward those who ideate and say so in public.

First, an update for those who've been following my twitter feed. I recently posted that I can't find the strength to go on. I'm far from out of the woods yet, but I'm still fighting, and so is Hallie. It's an uphill struggle, not least because we're presented with barriers at every turn. I'll come back to that, because some of it is apposite here.

A couple of days ago, I posted that I was having a hard time having a reason to keep going, and that I thought I'd run out of fight. Some things have happened since, some that have made it worse, and others that have made it slightly better, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Some time ago, I penned a piece about a particularly horrible bit of advice given by celeb agony aunt Mariella Frostrup in the Grauniad. It reflected a very common attitude about suicide, and was possibly the single worst piece of advice she could have given. It would have been bad advice in any event, but the one saving grace is that this dreck wasn't actually given to somebody contemplating suicide, but somebody who was grieving the suicide of their spouse. I'll link the piece at the bottom.

In the aftermath of my tweet, I received the same comment, among others. I won't belabour the point about what a shocking approach this is to somebody close to completing, because I cover it all in that piece.

However, while this piece of advice was shockingly bad, it wasn't the worst possible response to somebody talking about their contemplation of suicide. I want to talk about some of the really bad approaches to somebody who's actually contemplating ending their life.

The first thing to note is that I advocate suicide, if that's what somebody wants. This might seem a particularly strange thing for me to say, given the hundreds of hours I've spent talking people off ledges on social media since my first serious brush with suicide. However, while I mostly think that people can recover from such situations – I did, after all, albeit only to return to it – there's one point that seems entirely lost on the vast majority of the population when it comes to this one thing that the same majority would be horrified to encounter in another situation, and it's central to what it means to be free: bodily autonomy.

The notion of bodily autonomy is one that underpins every bit of ethical and moral reasoning we have. I've previously talked about freedom of speech as the single right from which all others flow but, in fact, freedom of speech is merely an expression of bodily autonomy, or the right to self-determination. All of the rights we talk about have as their core the notion that your freedom to swing your arm ends where it meets my nose, and other such notions, yet we feel entirely entitled to intervene and violate this freedom when we think somebody is going to take their own life. Why is this?

It's fairly understandable in some respects, of course, but it's the product of really poor thinking, and that's why it finds voice in this venue, where we inspect such things.

We don't like death, generally speaking. When somebody we know – and especially somebody we care about - talks about or dies by suicide, we get angry at being forced to face our mortality; our inherent frailty. We're a social species, and the societal bonds we form are strong, and when they're broken in such a brutal manner, we realise just how tenuous life really is.

Are we justified in taking away somebody's right to determine their own fate? Of course not, even though it's entirely true that most can find a way out of it and continue to live.

Let me be clear before we go any further: I'm not currently contemplating suicide. I really hope that nobody reading this feels compelled to have me sectioned, because my mental health is pretty good at the moment, better than it's been in decades, in fact, despite the very difficult circumstance we find ourselves in. We've been offered a lifeline, and we're taking it.

Now that's out of the way, let's talk about that tweet.

So, there it is. When I penned that tweet, things were pretty grim. Circumstances haven't changed appreciably in terms of the fact that the world seems determined, apart from a few tiny pieces of it, to want to separate Hallie and myself, whether temporarily or permanently, but we're not entirely devoid of support. Most of that support is from people who can ill afford to give it, yet give it they do, because they're wonderful and caring people who want to keep us in the world and keep us together.

Some of the responses I received, however, were exactly the opposite of the right thing to say. One person, whom I've long considered a friend, managed to parse the tweet entirely incorrectly, and thought I was saying that suicide was warm and comfortable when, of course, it clearly says no such thing. Part of the problem we have as a species is something that I've talked about before, most notably in a debunk of a certain apologist who shall remain nameless; passive listening.

Passive listening is a real problem, and almost always ends in some form of conflict. In customer service training circles, it's recognised as a particularly pernicious problem. It's when we listen only for key words and phrases and begin immediately composing our response, despite the very real issue of not having heard exactly what's being said.

So my friend read 'warm' and 'comfortable' and 'suicide' and immediately berated me for promoting and glamourising suicide which, clearly, I didn't do. I never said or remotely suggested that suicide is warm and comfortable. I was in Denver, Colorado at the time, and had been for over a week, excepting a brief stopover in the UK prior to coming straight back only 24 hours later. For those unaware, Denver is at almost a mile elevation, and the air is very poor in O2. It was also very cold, snowing, in fact, at the time of the tweet. What I was expressing was a simple desire to feel the warmth of the sun and be able to breathe prior to ending it, entirely aware that simply being able to breathe properly might improve my perception immensely.

Another person, one whom I have generally found to be a clear thinker, actually slated me as a potential murderer, for the simple reason that we would go together, making whoever was driving entirely responsible for the death of the other. This is asinine, of course, because the decision is the thing; the only thing.

These, my friends, are exactly the sorts of thing that can drive somebody who's genuinely contemplating suicide to complete. Of all the things that can be expressed in response to a cry for help, because that's what it almost always is when somebody openly talks about suicide in this manner, the very worst thing one can do is express anger, or to employ that favourite bit of emotional manipulation known as gult-tripping.

Some months ago, a very dear friend for whom I have the utmost love and respect asked for my blessing as they contemplated ending it. This is not some idle musing, but is the plea of somebody who ideates like the rest of us breathe. This friend had even picked a date. It stopped me cold. At this point, after my own close brush, I'd been doing my best to counsel people in difficult situations, and I wasn't immediately ready to answer. Like many, I'd have considered such a blessing to be a violation of my own ethics. However, the request coming from where it did, I thought about it for a while, and indeed I discussed it with Hallie, who gave me some much-needed perspective, and that's what I pass on to you here today.

She quite rightly pointed out that this is a bodily autonomy issue. It's all about the right to self determination. To fail to give my blessing would be to violate the one principle that underlies all of my ethical thought. Once I grasped this, it became clear that I had to give my blessing. What I in fact did was not only to give my blessing, but my phone number, and made my friend promise that they'd call me when they decided to complete so I could be with them so they didn't have to go through it alone.

I do not promote suicide. I think it's most often a terrible thing to end your life. However, it's your life, or mine, and to violate bodily autonomy in this manner is no different than any number of such violations that we would find abhorrent.

Here's the thing; we're always operating on the basis that anybody who wants to complete must be irrational, or mentally unstable, or some other such thing, that we think gives us the right to violate them 'for their own safety'. The problem is, of course, that the underlying premise, that living is preferable to not living, is a simple imposition of our own values on others and, without having been subjected to their emotional journey, we can't reasonably say that living is preferable, nor that not living is preferable. We simply can't logically or ethically support either position on behalf of somebody else. I can find no logical basis for asserting that living is preferable to not living, and I've thought long and hard about it.

So please, my friends. Think long and hard about how you respond, because you may well be doing more harm than good. Can you really justify your position on behalf of somebody else to the degree that you're confident making a value judgement on their behalf? Of course you can't, and there can be perfectly rational reasons for not wanting to live, rational reasons that can be explained simply by anybody who can express them without being subjected to anger and vilification, especially when you may simply have misread or misheard due to not paying proper attention.

I should add that advising somebody you barely know on the basis of very little information to seek help from a professional is a very poor thing to do. You once again bring your own assumptions to the table, and never once question whether they're justified.

Tomorrow, we're going to try to get to a friend's place in Canada to ride out the visa application process, taking the opportunity to meet and hug one of the most special individuals it's ever been my extreme pleasure to interact with. I'm not going to say who, because everybody who's shown us any kindness so far has been subjected to the most vile abuse by those who wish me ill. I hope that we can overcome the challenges before us, because I have no intention of living without Hallie for even a moment now that we've found each other.


Further reading:
Selfish! Weak!

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