February 19, 2004

THE ROOTS OF HORROR: The Suicide Taboo

Alice Miller's writings explain a great deal that otherwise remains mystifying. In particular, her identification of the precise mechanism by means of which an authentic self is prevented from being formed allows us to see that, in the deepest sense, a genuine soul -- an "I," if you will -- never has a chance to exist in far too many instances. And crucially related to this absence is an inability to remember in a meaningful way, or often even to acknowledge, the pain that we ourselves have experienced -- and this denial then prevents us from realizing the pain of others. This lack of a self, and the obedience to authority to which that lack is tied -- since we must find guidance from some source, and if it is not ourselves, it will be some external authority -- also lets us see why people desperately hold onto ideas which they otherwise would easily see to be nonsense, whether it is an incomprehensible, contradictory, unintelligible supernatural being, or some kind of totalitarian ideology.

No subject is more misunderstood, even today, than suicide. It remains one of the last taboos. This post is extremely difficult for me to write in certain ways. I have experienced very bad depressions in my life and, while I never attempted suicide, I went through periods when I often thought about it. Sometimes, I would share those feelings with friends. (I would always discuss them with a therapist if I was seeing one, but I'm not talking about professionals in what follows.) Almost every time I discussed my suicidal thoughts with friends, it turned out to be a disastrous mistake.

It is a measure of the deep misunderstandings and unthinking moral commandments so prevalent today that a number of people have said to me over the years something like the following: "Oh, don't even think about it. It's wrong. It's selfish. Think about the pain you would cause all of those who love you, including me. Don't you see how cruel it would be? Besides, it's so weak. How could you give in to such feelings?"

Every single issue that Miller discusses at great length is revealed in this illustration of what I've often heard over the years. And I assure you, it is absolutely accurate in terms of what people have said to me on any number of occasions. Several things should be noted about such remarks. The easy part is what we might term a general ethical point. It is more than a little absurd to say -- to someone who may be seriously contemplating wiping himself out of existence for all time -- that he's being "selfish." And such an argument is hardly likely to hold much persuasive power for someone experiencing deep depression, but to make that point only underscores how ludicrous the argument is, especially in these circumstances.

But that isn't what interests me about this, and as I said, that's the easy part -- although it points to the underlying issue, one of critical significance. Here's the hard part: note what is missing in those comments. What is missing is simply this: any acknowledgment of the inexpressible anguish and pain experienced by the person who seriously considers suicide. Do you have any idea how intense and unbearable such pain must be for a person to view suicide as a viable option for more than a moment? If you don't, I suggest you think about it for a long, long time. And then think about it some more.

The truly significant part is the following: this is exactly the mechanism that Miller describes. People who make comments like those (and most people have similar views) are cut off from their own pain, and they are therefore unable to empathize, or even recognize, pain felt by others, even when such pain is agonizingly extreme. When you make real to yourself the degree of pain someone must be feeling to think about suicide, it is simply astonishing that anyone would believe for one moment that pointing out the pain of others would be a compelling argument. In addition, there is another truly destructive element that such an approach introduces: that the person thinking of suicide should feel guilt for even considering it, much less doing it. Implying that anyone in enormous psychological pain should feel guilty about having such feelings in the first place is not precisely a useful therapeutic approach. But people very often accuse those experiencing deep depression of being "cruel," "weak" and "selfish" -- and they apparently have no appreciation at all for how deeply wounding such accusations are -- particularly at a time when the person hearing them is at his most vulnerable, and possibly in grave danger. This issue cannot be overemphasized: to the extent that a person hearing such accusations views them as valid, he will feel guilt, and he will experience even greater pain -- and the possibility that he may actually kill himself thereby increases. While they delude themselves into believing they are "helping," many people thus commit great harm. Sometimes, such harm is tragically and finally irreversible.

There is a still deeper issue involved. In For Your Own Good, Alice Miller discusses Sylvia Plath at some length. Her chapter title is illuminating: "Sylvia Plath: An Example of Forbidden Suffering." Here is part of what Miller says:
Sylvia Plath's life was no more difficult than that of millions of others. Presumably as a result of her sensitivity, she suffered much more intensely than most people from the frustrations of childhood, but she experienced joy more intensely also. Yet the reason for her despair was not her suffering but the impossibility of communicating her suffering to another person. In all her letters she assures her mother how well she is doing. The suspicion that her mother did not release negative letters for publication overlooks the deep tragedy of Plath's life. This tragedy (and the explanation for her suicide as well) lies in the very fact that she could not have written any other kind of letters, because her mother needed reassurance, or because Sylvia at any rate believed that her mother would not have been able to live without this reassurance. Had Sylvia been able to write aggressive and unhappy letters to her mother, she would not have had to commit suicide. Had her mother been able to experience grief at her inability to comprehend the abyss that was her daughter's life, she never would have published the letters, because the assurances they contained of how well things were going for her daughter would have been too painful to bear.
Miller then quotes from the mother's book of Sylvia's letters. Plath's mother tells the story of how a pastel still-life Sylvia had completed gets blurred accidentally, when an apron brushes up against it. Sylvia lightly said, "Don't worry; I can patch it up." Later that night, Sylvia wrote her first poem "containing tragic undertones" -- at the age of fourteen. Here is part of it:
I thought that I could not be hurt;
I thought that I must surely be
impervious to suffering--
immune to mental pain
or agony. ...

(How frail the human heart must be--
a throbbing pulse, a trembling thing--
a fragile, shining instrument
of crystal, which can either weep,
or sing.)

Then, suddenly my world turned gray,
and darkness wiped aside my joy.
A dull and aching void was left
where careless hands had reached out to

my silver web of happiness.
The hands then stopped in wonderment,
for, loving me, then wept to see
the tattered ruins of my firma-

(How frail the human heart must be--
a mirrored pool of thought. So deep
and tremulous an instrument
of glass that it can either sing,
or weep.)
Here is Miller again:
If a sensitive child like Sylvia Plath intuits that it is essential for her mother to interpret the daughter's pain only as the consequence of a picture being damaged and not as a consequence of the destruction of her daughter's self and its expression--symbolized in the fate of the pastel--the child will do her utmost to hide her authentic feelings from the mother. The letters are testimony of the false self she constructed (whereas her true self is speaking in The Bell Jar). With the publication of the letters, her mother erects an imposing monument to her daughter's false self.

We can learn from this example what suicide really is: the only possible way to express the true self--at the expense of life itself. Many parents are like Sylvia's mother. They desperately try to behave correctly toward their child, and in their child's behavior they seek reassurance that they are good parents. The attempt to be an ideal parent, that is, to behave correctly toward the child, to raise her correctly, not to give too little or too much, is in essence an attempt to be the ideal child--well behaved and dutiful--of one's own parents. But as a result of these efforts the needs of the child go unnoticed. I cannot listen to my child with empathy if I am inwardly preoccupied with being a good mother; I cannot be open to what she is telling me. This can be observed in various parental attitudes.
And that is the most important, the absolutely crucial point: suicide is the only possible way to express the true self--at the expense of life itself. Most people do not grasp this at all.

Do not think that this is academic, or that it does not touch your life. It touches all our lives:
The silver grave cover bore colorful wreaths and American flags -- a nod to Suell's three years of military service. He was deployed to Iraq in April 2003 as an Army petroleum supply specialist out of Fort Sill, Okla. Less than two months later, he was dead.

A report provided to the family at their request says that the 24-year-old died of a drug overdose on Father's Day, one of 22 suicides reported among troops in Iraq last year.

According to William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, who discussed the suicides in a briefing last month, that represents a rate of more than 13.5 per 100,000 troops, about 20 percent higher than the recent Army average of 10.5 to 11. The Pentagon plans to release the findings of a team sent to Iraq last fall to investigate the mental health of the troops, including suicides.

The number Winkenwerder cited does not include cases under investigation, so the actual number may be higher. It also excludes the suicides by soldiers who have returned to the United States.
For instance, two soldiers undergoing mental health treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington reportedly committed suicide there, in July 2003 and last month. In its weekly report on the treatment of returning battlefield soldiers, the hospital never mentioned the deaths. An official at Walter Reed said the deaths are "suspected" suicides and are being investigated by the Army's criminal division.

Stephen L. Robinson, who visits the hospital regularly and is executive director of the National Gulf War Resource Center, a nonprofit advocacy group for veterans and soldiers, said there was no public record of the deaths. "They just covered it up," he said.

The military's emphasis on honor, valor and courage makes suicide perhaps one of its last taboos. The Pentagon does not publicly identify a soldier's death as a suicide but may classify it as a "non-hostile gunshot wound," or death from "non-hostile injuries," which can also include accidents such as negligent discharge of a weapon. In comparison, the Pentagon will release a description of the cause of death -- enemy fire, a land mine, a car crash -- for a soldier killed in action or as a result of an accident.

The Washington Post contacted more than a dozen families of soldiers whose causes of death were listed as non-combat related. Some said that although the military had not provided further details, information from soldiers in the field indicated that the deaths were from "friendly fire" or an accidental weapons discharge. For others awaiting the results of an investigation, the possibility of suicide was too painful to bear.

"I am not ready to hear that," said the mother of one soldier who died from a gunshot wound to the head -- a "non-combat weapons discharge," according to the Pentagon.

In Texas, the Suell family says the military has it wrong. Suellboy, as he was known to those closest to him, was strong-minded and a God-fearing Christian. The son of a minister, he preached to others that suicide was a sin. He drew hearts on the letters he sent to his wife and said he could not wait to come home to see his daughters.

Rebecca Suell, 23, said she will never believe that her husband killed himself. She and her mother-in-law, Mathis, 47, are demanding answers, and they say the military has been silent and unsupportive. ...

Soldiers looking for ways to cope have several options. Military chaplains, assigned to individual units, offer comfort without the label of mental illness. Soldiers in more serious distress might be referred to inpatient psychiatric wards or be sent home. The Army sent 596 soldiers from Iraq to mental health treatment facilities in 2003.

Still, some soldiers don't speak up or don't get noticed. ...

In his letters, Joseph Suell wrote that Iraq was a shadowy conflict. "Over here you never know what's going to happen next," he wrote to his mother-in-law, Janice Doggett, 41. "So I just keep faith in Jesus and keep my eyes open."

To his widow, those are not the words of a suicidal man. He had no history of mental illness, and even while in Iraq he was making plans. Married at City Hall, he and Rebecca planned a church wedding upon his return.

Maybe he took some pills because he couldn't sleep, Rebecca Suell suggested. Or because he was feeling a little bit stressed. But the intention was not death.

"When he got his teeth pulled he wouldn't even take one pill for the pain," said Rebecca Suell. "Why would he take a bottle?" ...

"He didn't commit suicide," Shepherd said. "That ain't him."

Tears crawled down her cheeks at a Sunday morning church service when the minister spoke of having a good year. In her living room, they fell again as she tried to make sense of Suell's death.

"I have no autopsy report, no toxicology report, nothing," she said. The one document that Mathis has from the military is a DD Form 1300, a casualty report that lists the cause and circumstances of the death as "self-inflicted: drug overdose."

"I believe in my heart that he did take some medicine, but it wasn't to kill himself. He probably had a headache," she said.

"I'm not blaming God -- God don't make mistakes. I'm not mad at the war -- Joseph wasn't war material."

Suell told his mother that he hadn't killed anyone, and he hoped he wouldn't have to.

"God looked down on Joseph and said he's not that type of person. God came down and took my son."
And so you see how the denial -- first the denial of one's own pain, and then the denial of the pain of others -- continues, and takes the most terrible toll imaginable. Whatever the cost, even if it may result in a person's death, people will not acknowledge the reality of another's pain. And so a mother says, "I am not ready to hear that" -- even though her son's pain was so great that it may have caused him to take his own life. He is dead, but she is not ready to hear why. Her denial of his pain probably took precedence over his life, and now it takes precedence over his death.

And thus the horrors continue.

Finally, here's some unsolicited advice. If anyone you know ever makes a tentative effort to discuss obviously painful feelings with you, and perhaps even thoughts of suicide, do not judge them, do not condemn them, and above all, do not attempt in any way to shut them down. Listen, listen as carefully as you can -- and communicate to the person in every manner possible that there is someone who cares about them, who hears and sees the pain they are in, and who wants to help, if you can. Just be there, as a friend, as someone who empathizes, and make real to yourself what their pain feels like.

Just be there, with understanding, with compassion, with affection or love, as the case may be. As Miller indicates, be open to what the person is telling you. Sometimes, just being there, being there in the most meaningful sense, is the hardest thing in the world to do -- and the most important.

And perhaps, someday, the horrors will end. I still choose to believe in miracles.