27 May 2014

The Suicide Survivor's Club

Teaching teenagers is a funny thing.  The longer I teach the more I realize that my perspectives and views when I was a teenager were not the norm.  For example, while many of my friends were in the throes of obsession over Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet, I was in the throes of thinking that it was perhaps the weirdest and dumbest movie I'd ever seen.  (I still think it's moronic to introduce teens to Shakespeare via. the two "greatest lovers" in his canon.  I didn't/don't understand the draw to obsession over two characters who make stupid and reckless and extreme decisions.)

Now I think that obsession over dramatic death may be something of a hormone related rite of passage for many of my older teens.  Every generation seems to have its romantic death story.  They're all pushed through Romeo and Juliet, and they couple it with cancer stories galore (my generation had A Walk to Remember.  Now we have The Fault in Our Stars.)

I don't fault them for this fascination with death.  Most of them have experienced it at some level by the time they are in junior high and high school, but may not have been old enough to be included in many adult conversations about what happened, why, how. . .etc.  There is an allure of mystery about the entire process for many of them, and that mystery often has its blanks filled in with fiction.  I'm not entirely opposed to this either.  Our imagination is a powerful tool to help us understand what we have not personally seen or experienced.

What concerns me is, like all great romances that end with the engagement, most of these stories of death end with the death.  From a writing standpoint, it makes sense.  Writing about grief is tedious and reading about it perhaps worse, because, from a plot standpoint, it's a disaster.  It's not linear, grief.  It's all over the place.  It's the Picasso of emotion.  And because of this omission, the romance of death remains in most of these stories.  The stories, perhaps rightly, focus on the tragedy of an early death and use the remaining space to pay tribute to a life so short lived.

I bring this up because of a Facebook thread a teacher friend of mine commented on that got posted on my feed as a result a few times over the weekend.  The thread was started by a student asking how anyone can tell another person that they can handle every trial they are given when things such as suicide exist.  The comments in response to the post, on the whole, made me feel rather sick.  They ranged from quick responses of trivial to more heartfelt encouragement, but included several responses from fellow teens agreeing that suicide was "not an easy out" and, in fact, a complicated and - although not overtly said, certainly implied - a brave thing to do.

So as a card carrying member of the Suicide Survivor's Club, I have a few words of my own on the subject:

First - I don't know and will never judge the mental state that someone is in when they turn to suicide as an answer.  In the months and years after my uncle killed himself, I sat through dozens of lessons in school and church and heard conversations from friends where jokes were made about killing yourself, or comments made about how people who kill themselves will go to hell - dozens of things that just hurt.  My uncle was not a perfect person.  He made a lot of bad choices, and the older I get the more aware of them I am.  But he was my uncle.  He was my father's brother.  And he loved me.  And he was sick.  Mentally he was really, really sick.  It isn't my job to judge what made him do what he did as right or wrong.  It's my job to love him.

Furthermore, I have never been in a position where I felt that suicide was an answer to my problems.  I struggle with depression - there have been many times where I felt like it was better for everyone if I disappeared for a while - but seeing the impact of my uncle's death on my family has ruled out suicide for me forever.  So while I can't speak from personal experience on the side of wanting to kill myself, I can speak from three times over experience in people I know killing themselves, and in feeling and watching that grief that suicide is literally the worst.  It is not romantic.  It is not beautiful.  It is not the "only way out of this hell hole" as one commenter put it.  There are thousands of other and better ways out of hell than with a gun.

I can't speak for the so-called bravery or courage of ending your own life, but I can tell you that there is no romance when it is over.  You may cease existing but the rest of the world continues because that's the job of the world, and what is left is an incredible, immense, indescribable pain that never, ever leaves.  It's earth shattering, that grief.  It wrecks an entire body, and yanks the fabric of friendships and families hard.  What's left behind is a different world and that world requires a very patient form of detoxing that is different than other sudden forms of death.  Horrible accidents, for example - are horrible, but they are accidents.  With suicide you have an endless string of guilt and blame over what you could have or should have or might have done differently.  Wondering if it would have made any difference.

I don't want to start some kind of pain or "my grief is stronger than your grief" war over this.  Grief is grief and pain is pain and no matter the source, those emotions deserve to be treated with care and understanding and kindness.  Grief and pain, whatever they are, are not a competition.  We all have moments, or weeks, or months, or years, where we feel alone or misunderstood or abandoned - and those times suck.

What I can tell you is that suicide, however justified or helpful or perhaps even needed for the individual involved is still a very selfish thing to do.  That there is always always a better option than ending your life.

What I can tell you is that being a member of the Suicide Survivor's Club is not something I would wish on anyone.  It's a horrible club.  It's a club you are forced into before you've even really understood what it means.  No membership dues to ignore that will get you kicked out.  No playful initiation.  It's all out hazing - not by fellow members, but by your own guilt, and by those who tell you that you could have changed your membership by doing X or Y. (X and Y are both lies, by the way.  No matter what anyone tells you - X or Y would not have changed anything.)  It's not a club you're ever happy to be a part of, but it is a club that, after a while, you can learn to wear as a badge because speaking out is better than staying silent.  My way of speaking out is to hopefully call maybe a bit of attention back to the fact that approximately two million teens will attempt suicide each year in the US alone.  According to the last census, if that information is correct, then it means approximately one in every ten teenagers attempt suicide yearly - and many of those can be prevented with more open, more frank, and more honest discussion, and more earnest attention to understanding each other.