Suicides are always judged as if they were admissions of defeat, but one can take the viewpoint that their having lived as long as they did is an accomplishment of a kind. Knowing herself suicidal as a very young girl, Virginia Woolf resisted—made heroic attempts to attach herself to the exterior world—as did Anne Sexton—as do we all. Why not concentrate on the successes, the small and large joys of these lives, the genuine artistic accomplishments? After all, anyone and everyone dies; the exact way can’t be very important.
Joyce Carol Oates, The Journal of Joyce Carol Oates, 1973-1982
Our culture does not speak openly of suicide, or of the presently suicidal. Such content is an unnamed notion in the periphery of our lives, the ever-present threat inherent within many an errant phrase or earnest intention, but seldom articulated as ongoing fact. The term “suicidal” itself is, in our collective consciousness, always temporally bound: one might commit suicide, or attempt suicide, or have been at risk of doing so once, but this chronology is diametric. From a linguistic and cultural standpoint, the phenological application of the phrase “suicidal” to our existence implicitly anticipates the word’s own ending—logically, one either recovers from their depressive state, and ceases to be suicidal, or one commits suicide successfully, and so ceases to be any number of adjectives, “suicidal” among them.
So to exist, in our society, while wanting to die (or having tried to), and while the quality of that urge is still latently or consciously present in one’s mind, is nothing short of extraordinary. In our cultural narrative of health and redemption, where “recovery” is medically possible and entails a total expunging of the death impulse; or in the artistic spectacle of failed annihilation, where the Plathian miracle-skin rises, like Lazarus from the ashes; or in the self-inflicted deaths and subsequent deification of figures such as Hemingway, Wallace, Monroe, and Cobain, there is no place for those of us who are both and neither.
But we do exist. As a matter of fact, we are quite possibly everywhere. We are the margins and ruptures of everyday life. We are not immediately “at risk” of dying; nor are we “threatening” to die (although, to be very clear, such terms are reductive, accusatory and pseudo-clinical, and should serve only as a comparative cultural function here). On the contrary, we hold down jobs and places at universities. We have stable relationships and sometimes start families. We are, or can be, “suicidal” the entire time. I know this as fact, because I am one such person.
To even write this terrifies me, because I am unyieldingly afraid of how it might be received. “Suicidal” is not a term that I want ascribed to me. “Suicide” is not a notion that I want to be associated with. I am not tragic or irreparable. I am not incapable of a decent existence. I do not wake up in the morning and hate being alive. As a matter of fact, I hardly hate anything, and my life least of all. I am filled with love. I love my family. I love my friends. I love writing. I love music. I have ambitions. I want to be around for a long time yet. But this does not change, and can never change, the simple biological circumstances that have rendered my untreated brain incapable of sustaining my life on its own. Consciously, it wants to. But it can’t, and never could. I am not always depressive in the clinical sense, but like a diabetic needs insulin, I need serotonin to survive. My chemical structure does not produce adequate amounts on its own. I cannot live without it: because without it, I will want, and possibly try, to die.
In a strange, depersonalized way, this can make one feel like they have become public property. To be medicated as I am medicated, and for the purposes that I am medicated, makes me feel not entirely my own. I have other people’s hypotheses and diagnoses running through my bloodstream. Their concerns and convictions, once transferred to a pharmaceutical reality, begin to slow my pulse, strain my libido, and alter my neurochemistry. Sometimes, they even take my own consciousness away from me.
This is my relationship to therapists, doctors, and surgeons. I am the walking measure of their success. I am the body that they have been tasked with keeping alive.
They posit; I disprove.
They prescribe; I ingest.
They instruct; I live.
In this very physical sense, I am more alive than anyone, because I am living somebody else’s idea of health. It isn’t me, not entirely; but then again, it is, because it is what I have to do. And I can do it. I am happy to do it. It could be so much worse.
But this also accounts, perhaps, for the foolish stabs of pride I feel on the rare occasions when diazepam cannot calm me, or sertraline cannot elevate my mood, or lithium cannot balance my mind. Because in those moments, I know that somewhere, beneath all of this medically sanctioned self-cannibalization, some small part of my body is still fighting to exist on its own terms: the terms of my birth. However begrudgingly, however unwisely, I sometimes catch myself cherishing that. Because one of my greatest fears is that my autopsy will be marred by some throwaway line about “recreational” use—when in truth there has rarely been anything at all recreational in my usage, and usually I am just trying to do all of the things that most people take for granted: like quell the tremors, or calm the sobbing, or get some sleep. Yes, the medications scare me. They always have.
Joyce Carol Oates surmises this better than I ever could: in the introductory quotation of this post, she describes the astonishing, herculean triumph of a woman like Virginia Woolf, who bound herself to the wonder and grief of existence for fifty-nine long years, suicidal all the while. When she finally moved towards her own death, alone at the bottom of the sea, can it really have mattered whether such an action signified the tragic lack of timely access to contemporary chemicals, or the sheer relief of a body that, having labored under a single illness for its entire lifetime, finally managed to find some semblance of peace?
For me, this post, this extended meditation on suicide, is the farthest thing from a “threat.” It is not a “warning sign.” It is not a “cry for help.” It is a simple assessment of what I, and my doctors, have always known: the potential health risks that accompany any failure on my part to walk, as Plath wrote, “carefully, precariously, like something rare.” Mine is the dream of a normal death. My goal is to maximize any model of health that allows me to find fulfillment until I meet, someday, with a bodily and spiritual ending that does not occur by these same hands that I use to write, and make love, and create.
I hope now not only to illustrate my own state of being, which is, by comparison, an exceedingly manageable one, but also to shed some light upon the reductive cultural views of the suicidal human condition as dichotomous and deeply flawed—a triumph if it results in a “natural” death, and a failure when it does not. It will never cease to astonish me how fundamentally incapable we are of reckoning with the notion of the suicidal body as anything other than a temporally restricted subject. Healing has never been, and never will be, as simple as that. Many of us will engage in long, full, promising lives without ever foregoing our medical status as chronically suicidal. This can be done; in fact, it is done more often than any onlooker might expect. But for us, such life is not a gift, but a hard-earned and double-edged victory.
So it certainly seems, as Oates has written before me (and far more coherently), that to negotiate a lived suicidal existence, for any measure of time, should be considered a triumph. Such a life requires tremendous strength, endurance, and loyalty to the ones who love us: an irrevocable passion for our “attach[ments]…to the exterior world.” Regardless of the nature of one’s eventual ending, and in stark opposition to common belief, I am of the conviction that the possession and articulation of the suicidal condition is neither despondent nor self-serving. On the contrary, it is tremendously selfless—an honest, committed, and ongoing act of courage.
Perhaps even of love.