« Excerpts from an Index Friday open thread | Main | When Evangelism is really Tribalism »

July 19, 2013


I won't disagree with you about Camus, particularly WRT depression and actual suicide and suicidal ideation. OTOH, when I was young, his was the first voice I heard expressing the view that suicide was an actual option and therefore - as I understood it - thinking about it was not wrong, or crazy, or inherently aberrant. The former aspect might not have been salutary (though it did me no harm), but the latter proved very useful to me over the years, as it allowed me to "forgive" myself (and others) for letting the thought cross my mind. And therefore spared me some of the neurotic "OMG what a dreadful person I am!" that periodically beset me.

In a way - in my personal experience - it's like a now near-forgotten "classic," John Howard Griffin's 1959 Black Like Me, in which JHG describes going through the South "passing" as a Negro. I wasn't ready right then to read Richard Wright or Ralph Ellison, actual African-Americans describing their own experience. I needed a bridge, a culture broker, someone I could identify with who had managed to cross over into foreign territory; for that I will always be grateful to Griffin.

(Hoping nevertheless not to derail this thread on depression and suicide into yet another on American racism.)

Personally, the fear of just being selfish has kept me at one time from going seriously into the preparation stage. I seriously considered going there and took care that the 'option' remained open (I studied chemistry and had certain outwardly harmless chemicals that could be combined for lethal effect stocked in sufficient quantity in the lab). I was sure to miserably fail in my PhD (I somehow managed not to). What in the end kept me from throwing the towel was the thought how badly that would reflect on my professor (who clearly deserved better) and how much it would hurt my parents (who would falsely blame themselves).
So, I think anyone taking the final exit prematurely without leaving an exhaustive justification (and exoneration of those not responsible) should imo indeed be accused of a??holish, selfish tendencies. And I have NO sympathies at all for those that commit suicide in a way that directly affects others negatively like throwing themselves before trains (leading to guilt complexes in the drivers) or causing a gas explosion (bringing the house down potentially killing others too).
I do not condemn suicide but those going that way should not just consider themselves but others too.
Clarification: I am aware that far too little is done to help people affected by severe depression and that shaming is not the right way for society to deal with it.

Good post, DS.

Society has a poor understanding of clinical depression. It is not being 'down in the dumps' or feeling 'blue.' It is, as you wrote, "Paint It Black, but world without end." There is no color, no pleasure - there is nothing. And it makes it only worse when one has to act 'normal' so as not to upset family, friends, and work colleagues.

It's like battling Dementors; you know it's only time before you lose.

In the abyss, there is no more thinking of other people; in fact, the belief is that other people will be better off once you're gone. The pull towards suicide is the inversion of 'survival instinct;' the disorder in the brain is compelling you to die. And to see it as a welcome release.

I don't know. I was suicidally depressed after my divorce, and what kept me alive? Trying to slit your wrists without getting really drunk first HURTS. The pain cleared my head enough to realize what killing myself would do to my mother and siblings. So I resolved that I wouldn't, no matter how bad it got, for their sake.

It helped somewhat that I'd learned pain would snap me out of my funk; Ended up a bit scarred in places that don't show, but I kept myself alive long enough to emerge from the depression. (Thanks to Same, not time, btw...) But if I'd been a selfish SOB who didn't care about others? Yeah, I'd be dead now.

By the way, did you know that over half of suicides in America are recently divorced men? I have a hard time believing you could flip the gender on that, and not have widespread outrage and a massive overhaul of divorce laws...

There's depression and there's depression. People are complicated.

To me, it's a Black Hole, but that's probably because I like dogs.

Not that I have ever seriously thought of suicide. I ws married to a man who used the threat of suicide as as a means of emotional blackmail, though.

The problem with discussions of clinical depression is that it gets mixed up with the other kinds of depression and that's because life and people are complicated and pure clincal depression is probably not al that common.

(BTW I ws married to a mentally ill man for twenty years and then married a psychologist, so I am not without some knowledge).

My ex was diagnosed as clinically depressed but I don't believe the diagnosis. For one thing he never responded to meds. And he refused to cooperate with the the cogitive therapy. Plus I met his parents.

He was a pretty disfunctional personality who went from doctor to doctor accummulating labels for his disfunction so that he could retreat into his dysfunction and aviod ever having to function.

By "function" I mean develop a capacity for relating to the world in a way that wasn't a constant demand for sympathy. He ws an emotional hypochondraic, always examining himself for signs of being less that happy, so he could be secure in his unhappiness.

He ws functional in the since of being employed and educated.

I'm a classic enabler, of course, or I would have caught on years before I did.

Anyway this doesn't really have much to do with Dr. Science's post. I don't think suicide is the result of selfishness except maybe rarely. And I am certainly not accusing depressed people of having personsity disorders either.

I'm just saying that people are complicated and cliical dpresssion is widely misunderstood, making coversations about it confusing.

Oh, I ws on meds for a while, too, before I realized that the root of my depression was my marriage. My ex and I are Facebook friends and I care about him, but he's like the Tarbaby: don't get too close.

"Well, DUH. Depression doesn't involve just a disorder of emotion, it involves disordered thoughts, as well. The most prominent of these thoughts is hopelessness, that there is no way out."

What mental disorder is causing you to think there is, in the end, a way out other than death?

On a more serious note, what makes you think there's a way 'out of depression', other than the fact that for some there is? We're not all the same.

I first thought life not worth living 38 years ago. In between, I've wavered a few times, even had a few genuinely happy months.

But now I've delayed death for 38 years, and probably will for a few more, based on not wanting to cause my family grief. Was it worth it? Not in my view.

Your mileage may vary.

When you're that depressed, it feels as though everything you do or touch is horrible

And that, I think, is what those who condemn someone who commits suicide totally fail to understand. If you reach the point where you know (not just suspect, but know) that anything you do will be either the wrong thing to have done, or done the wrong way, suicide can look like something that will at least stop the unending series of wrong things that you are doing.

It's not that you don't realize that it is yet another wrong thing to do, or that you don't know that it will upset those around you. It's that it seems like it will at least be the last wrong thing that you do -- that it will put an end to error, which will otherwise continue into the indefinite future, never getting better.

You don't understand Camus at all.

I don't think you get Camus either.
Anyhoo, I like Nietzsche's idea better:
“The thought of suicide is a great source of comfort; with it a calm passage is to be made across many a bad night.”

is peitzsche
But Freud
is enjeud

For "peitzsche" read "pietzsche."

My typing should be impietzsched.


This essay on Walker Percy, Albert Camus and the philosophical concept of suicide might be helpful:


That said, I've experienced at times the illness, the utter immobilization of depression (on meds for a little while, but not now) and the feeling that my existence is of no import to anyone anyhoo, so I think I understand Doctor Science's post.

Later, rereading Percy, Camus, and others helped me put things into a philosophical framework so that I might think about depression and suicidal thoughts from a different perspective should they ever occur again.

Which is different than thinking about my mortality every day, which is hard enough.

I suppose Percy's comment (Percy had a history of suicide in his family) that Faulkner arranging the fictional suicide of the latter's character Quentin Compson made Percy strive in his own fiction to keep his own suicidal fictional characters alive, encapsulates the crux of the matter.

While I might not agree with Percy that "suicide is easy", and I don't share his Roman Catholicism, I do appreciate his interest in "keeping Quentin Compson alive."

By "suicide is easy", I don't think Percy is issuing a condemnation (though I suspect anger at his father for HIS suicide, and maybe even his mother who died under suspicious circumstances, plays a part here), but rather is saying that life, living, is in fact the hardest ... but stick around.

It'll be over soon enough.

I will say that arranging the fictional suicide of a fictional character, in most cases, is an easy way out of a story.

Unless it's a great story like "Madame Bovary" or "Anna Karenina".

Some may include "The Sound and the Fury" among the latter.

Gregor Samsa may have willed his own death, but I think the rotten apple in his carapace got him.

I appreciate the Count coming in and defending Camus as I wanted to, but didn't want to be saying something triggery.

The OP reminded me of the MASH theme song, Suicide is Painless and looking it up in Wikipedia, it notes

Robert Altman had two stipulations about the song for Mandel; first, it had to be called "Suicide is Painless", secondly, it had to be the "stupidest song ever written". Altman tried to write the lyrics himself, but found that it was too difficult for his 45-year-old brain to write "stupid enough". Instead he gave the task to his 14-year-old-son, Michael, who apparently wrote the lyrics in five minutes.

The kicker is

Robert Altman said that his son had earned more than a million US dollars for having co-written the song while he only made US$70,000 for having directed the movie.

1) Not only Nietzsche, but I gave myself A. Alvarez at way too early an age. Maybe even pre-teen. Suicide felt too fashionable. Gauche, even.

2) Somehow, in young readings of psychoanalysis, I became convinced of certain structures explaining depression:superego beating on ego, parent thrashing child, society against individual, that kind of thing. Once my depression became everybody else's fault, life became easier. At least for me, maybe not for all the a**holes surrounding me.

"Not your fault"...heard that somewhere. It's your fault, you quack. Went off drugs and therapy around 1980. (Diagnosed as borderline, involuntarily committed twice.)

3) Now despair, that's something else, and much more interesting to me. Sisyphus can have fun, or contentment, as long as the peanut gallery quits cheering on the uphill, and quits jeering or consoling on the downhill slide.

And of course, as a Japanop...as someone who reads about Japan, I am way over familiar with suicide from shame and honour, suicide for the sake of others, in freaking institutionalized droves. Place makes sociopathy look very good indeed.

Hell is absolutely other people, not yourself.

And ASPD/DSPD has always worked for me.

I was about to mention Alvarez' book, (A Savage God: A Study in Suicide) I read that in college (1982?) and heard him speak.

Anyway, I liked the book, but have never returned to it, because of its centering around Sylvia Plath's suicide (the first section), which continues to be pretty fraught topic. Though Alvarez seemed like a really nice guy (the seminar class all went out for curry with him after the talk) Of course, the book is sandwiched between the Plath suicide and a recounting of Alvarez' own attempted suicide, and at that time, I don't think we consciously knew many people who had attempted suicide, so it was very much terra incognito to a college sophomore in the early 80's. (at least in my recollection)

"Somehow, in young readings of psychoanalysis, I became convinced of certain structures explaining depression:superego beating on ego, parent thrashing child, society against individual, that kind of thing."

While the fact that my depression gradually lifted after I started taking SAMe for joint pain, resumed when I couldn't afford it, went away again when I could, and gradually stopped resuming after a long time using it, convinced me that, while my depression may have seized on life events as an excuse, it was at it's root biological in origin.

I have to say that it gave me a great deal of insight into my depressive thought patterns to come in and out of depression so many times. I can now detect the onset before it even achieves a mild funk, and self medicate myself back into the normality of being unrealistically optimistic. (Studies have shown that the depressed are actually phenomenally objective about their situation, it's the normal who have an unrealistic notion of their prospects.)

Despair is a whole 'nother something than depression, I think.

Depression is deeply personal.

Despair condemns the universe.

Studies have shown that the depressed are actually phenomenally objective about their situation, it's the normal who have an unrealistic notion of their prospects.

May want to look at the Thomas Theorem See also: Self-fulfilling prophecy

The notion that suicide is selfish has always struck me as arising from either a lack of empathy or (irony) a certain selfishness on the part of the person thus opining. And while suicide need not relate to depression, I think the (cliché?) inability of some "normals" who have never experienced depression to understand depression (i.e., "Stop feeling sorry for yourself! Just be happy and quit whining!") is very similar - and indeed, possibly related - to what causes said opinion.

I'd say more about my own attitude regarding the subject, but I can't really say anything that Harmut didn't say better, though I (only) disagree about the selfishness. It doesn't strike me as a fundamentally selfish act, although at the same time I will admit that concern for the impact on those around me was what kept me from moving from plans to action on all but one of the occasions it's gotten that far (that other time it was a random confluence of events bringing into question my ability to follow through at that time, coupled with a realization that trying and failing would have made my life worse than not trying).

Lorentz also speaks in a voice much familiar to me. I've been ideating (and in what is likely not coincidence, almost certainly in the grips of clinical depression) my entire adult life, but I slog on as much for the sake of those around me as for the hope that the rare days where the endless grey hell shows a flash of white might mean that Things Can Change in the long term. I have family who I know (through their reactions to suicides in the past) hold firmly to notions that suicide is selfish, who would be hurt, guilty, and resentful should I ever move to act on ideation. Their opinions won't be budged on this. Given these circumstances, it's a sad truth that my proudest accomplishment during my time on Active Duty was resisting the temptation to attempt to stage a suicide as a hostile-fire incident during deployment.

Here's the full text of Mary Karr's poem, which being a poem, has more nuance than its partial quoting:


Also, some background, not the least of which was that Karr and David Foster Wallace were lovers (troubled) at one time:


It could be that her anger is of this variety:

Wallace: I'm dead. I've killed myself.

Karr: Thanks for the heads-up, asshole. If you had warned me ahead of time, I'd have .... at least, because I still love and care about you, have had the chance to tell you that if you kill yourself, I'll kill you.

Karr is a recovering alcoholic and I believe said somewhere (can't find a link) that she and Wallace kept each other alive, or words to that effect.

She also admits to at least contemplating suicide herself, which seems reasonable since I think you get kicked out of the poet's union if you aren't open to the notion from time to time.

As an aside, that makes me and others of us qualified in part for membership and a merit badge in the poet's union. Now, to write some published poetry which, alluding to Walker Percy, is the hard part.

Maybe she thinks, on a philosophical level, maybe not on a medical-depression-as-an-illness level, that now I guess what she's left with is pushing the boulder up the mountain all by herself, without the illusion that Wallace is pushing his own damned boulder, which now rests in the valley of the shadow of death below after its catastrophic fall, and was somehow a help in a past life.

I've been thinking that we could be conflating three distinct categories of suicide here: 1) resulting from the medical condition called depression, which has awful gravitational pull of its own in addition to feeling like you are wearing one of those lead apron's that the dentist drapes over you before he escapes the room to avoid the X-rays, 2) depression resulting from life circumstance, of the Shakespearean variety, Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, Ophelia, and 3) suicide as political and/or philosophical statement, a la Tibetan monks over the past years, or as Camus/Percy have addressed the subject.

They do become conflated.

By the way, I'm glad Brett Bellmore and Doctor Science, and the others of you, have not been successful in your suicidal endeavors so that you could be here to drive me a little crazier than I can manage to by myself.

aprons, not "apron's, for eff's sake.

Sometimes you are shouldering the boulder up the mountain and a lighter-than-a-feather apostrophe lands on it, and down goes Jack, head-over-keester, perhaps to land on Jill.

Alright, I've been "dying" to ask this question, and I guess I will given the confessional manner of the post and comments, specifically Brett Bellmore's admission that he attempted the deed ---- and I reiterate my pleasure that the attempt was unsuccessful -- but given the choice and convenience of weaponry you've admitted to having at your household disposal, Brett, why the blade on the wrists and not, you know, a bullet?

Apparently, there are twice as many suicides by gun in this country than there are murders by gun.

This question is not a "trigger" of any kind, just curiosity, and if there is no answer forthcoming, that's O.K.

Count, I don't know Brett's history, of course. But there is a rather well known phenomena of even successful(?) suicides having "hesitation marks" -- scars on the wrists, for example, where they started to do the deed, but either thought better of it or failed for some other reason.

The thing about suicide by knive/razor or pills is that you are leaving yourself the possibility of not succeeding. With a gun, your chances of failing are minimal. So you only go with a gun if you are certain that you want to succeed. It's a whole different level of dispair.

Even before I lived on the 15th floor of an apartment building in Hong Kong I always assumed that if I did it, it would be by throwing myself from a high place. Which was a good reason not to go out on the balcony by myself in the middle of the night.

Even from quite high places a quick death is not guaranteed. Suicide should be left to the experts or at least not be conducted without their input.

But I have consulted experts:

By Dorothy Parker
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Ah, but your expert gives contradictory advice under cross-examination:

By Dorothy Parker
There's little in taking or giving
There's little in water or wine;
This living, this living, this living
Was never a project of mine;
For hard is the struggle and sparse is
The gain of the one at the top;
For art is a form of catharsis
And love is a permanent flop;
And work is the province of cattle;
And rest's for a clam in a shell;
So I'm thinking of throwing the battle;
Would you kindly direct me to Hell?

a fresh Hell, no doubt

"but given the choice and convenience of weaponry you've admitted to having at your household disposal, Brett, why the blade on the wrists and not, you know, a bullet?"

That's a fair question. Setting aside my desire not to give anti-gunners any ammunition in the manner of my death, which was only a small factor, the truth of the matter was that, while I desperately wanted to be dead at the time, what I wanted more than anything was for my friends, family, and acquaintances to notice that I was in mental agony. I'd been walking around for months under a dark cloud, I couldn't drive past a bridge abutment without having to fight the urge to steer into it, and nobody was noticing.

So I left a bottle of booze and a carving knife on the edge of my tub, when my family visited, and even though there was but one bathroom in the house, nobody noticed. And so, when I was in a particularly deep despair, AND in need of a bath, (The depressed are not really into personal hygiene, it's a classic red flag. But they do eventually start itching.) I decided to experiment. If it went well, I'd just finish the job, if not, let them not notice my wrists bandaged.

See, just because you desperately want to BE dead, doesn't necessarily mean you've resolved to do the deed. And you only pick up a gun if you HAVE made that final resolution. It's not an instrument for experimenting with the idea.

I'd say that the obsessive consideration of suicide and the depression associated are clinically mental illness--dysfunctional and detracting from health.
I don't agree with Sullivan that we get to judge all suicides as "assholes", though.

I knew a man--retired, a widower, grown children--who was our neighbor. He was helpful, friendly, intelligent, but I realized that, due to medical operations on his intestines, he was in pain all the time. When we moved away, soon after came the news that he had killed himself with a gun. Inconvenient to his survivors (suicide generally invalidates your life insurance, for one thing), but do we really have the right to tell such a person--not dying, but suffering--how long he must endure that pain? I don't presume to judge.

I think having Sullivan as your go-to guy on any issue whatever makes me question your judgement.

I would recommend going to someone with more of a history of clear thinking.

Which is not to say that I hold myself forth as an example.

Thanks, Brett, for the response.

Regarding Sullivan, I'm aware of his tendency to be all over the place and to be hysterically reactionary, but on an oddly non-partisan, albeit maddening basis.

Nevertheless, I find his site to be fascinatingly eclectic, wide-ranging and chock full of interesting links.

He's interested in everything, but his opinions seem to shift extremely from day to day, comparable to stock market shouter Jim Cramer, with equal vehemence regardless of the shift.

A friend of mine is fostering a teenage girl who made multiple "suicide' attempts. I use quotes because she always arranged things so that she was never really in any danger of dying.

She wants her mother to love her.

Her birth family rejected her because she reported her father for raping her for years. The family belongs to a very cult-like small town Protestant fundamentalist church. No one believed the daughter.

She got thrown out with nothing but the clothes whe was wearing. She lost her pet dog.

So she staged these near-miss suicides, always carefully calculated to be misses. It wasn't selfish behavior, although she was not thinking of the stress she put on her foster mother. It's her parents who are selfish.

In case you are wondering, myfriend finally did put her foot down and told her foster daughter that she was goig to have to find some other way to act out because the suicide attempts were just too hard o everyone.

Now tha the foster daughter knows her next suicide attempt will result in a stay in menatl institution, she ahs switched to promescuity.

I have no end, no end at all to my respect for people who are foster parents.

In my darkest moments, the desire not to cause loved ones pain is often enough to get past the despair. For me, the worst was not when one's emotional state was he lowest, but when feeling more or less OK and having the lurking anxiety that the cycle of sadness and despair would come again. Meds help and the cycle's frequency is greatly slowed, but there's rarely a time when I am not well aware that an "out" of last resort has been contemplated. Strangely enough, there's even a certain amount of strength and comfort derived from that. For me it means remaining focused on what will help keep me from spiraling into that emotional state in the first place. Finally, one needs to be reminded of one's ability to help others.That sort of caring helps reconfirm the notion that others need you, just as you need others. Know that if you truly reach out, you are never really alone.

I think this is the best poem I've ever read on suicide (note of personal interest: I'm a lifelong depressive, too). The poem captures for me quite well the rage, as well as hopelessness, that a person contemplating suicide often feels:

FOR THE SUICIDES OF 1962 by Donald Justice
in memory: J & G

If we recall your voices
As softer now, it’s only
That they must have drifted back

A long way to have reached us
Here, and upon such a wind
As crosses the high passes.

Nor does the blue of your eyes
(Remembered) cast much light on
The page ripped from the tablet.


Once there in the labyrinth,
You were safe from your reasons.
We stand, now, at the threshold,

Peering in, but the passage,
For us, remains obscure; the
Corridors are still bloody.


What you meant to prove you have
Proved: we did not care for you
nearly enough. Meanwhile the

Bay was preparing herself
To receive you, the for once
Wholly adequate female

To your dark inclinations;
Under your care, the pistol
Was slowly learning to flower

In the desired explosion
Disturbing the careful part
And the briefly recovered

Fixed smile of a forgotten
Triumph; deep within the black
Forest of childhood that tree

Was already rising which,
With the length of your body,
Would cast the double shadow.


The masks by which we knew you
Have been torn from you. Even
Those mirrors, to which always

You must have turned to confide,
Cannot have recognized you,
Stripped, as you were, finally.

At the end of your shadow
There sat another, waiting,
Whose back was always to us.


When the last door had been closed,
You watched, inwardly raging,
For the first glimpse of your selves
Approaching, jangling their keys.

Musicians of the black keys,
At last you compose yourselves.
We hear the music raging
Under the lids we have closed.

"Strangely enough, there's even a certain amount of strength and comfort derived from that."

"O Brothers of sad lives! they are so brief;
A few short years must bring us all relief:
Can we not bear these years of laboring breath?
But if you would not this poor life fulfil,
Lo, you are free to end it when you will,
Without the fear of waking after death.", The City of Dreadful Night, by James Thomson

Thanks, Aaron.

That's a different Aaron Baker--but you're welcome.

The comments to this entry are closed.