This post discusses suicide and mental health. If you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts, please contact the national suicide hotline at 1-800-SUICIDE or visit suicide.org immediately for help.
I try not to talk about suicide very much. People seem sharply divided into two camps: those for whom suicide is an abstract concept and those for whom it is all too real. I can barely get through a conversation about death without getting propelled into an existential panic attack, so as much as possible I try to avoid conversations about suicide with anyone who glamorizes it or, conversely, condemns it out of hand as selfish, stupid, and so on.
At age 34, I already know way too many people who have seriously considered or attempted suicide, several who died from drug overdoses while in a suicidal state of mind, and in 2009 my aunt died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. I still can’t wrap my head around the gruesomeness and finality of her death, but it is her suicide I will talk most about below because it is the one I experienced with the most clarity.
I don’t usually participate in things like World Suicide Prevention Day (this past September 10) because it’s all still too raw seven years later, but in the interest of raising awareness, I think it’s important to stop keeping quiet.
— OXCinNYC (@OXCinNYC) September 14, 2016
Yesterday I relived some of the emotions around my aunt’s suicide when a purportedly suicidal man stood on top of the Macombs Dam Bridge in my neighborhood for about two hours. I was painting in my studio and heard so many sirens and such loud low-flying helicopters I thought I was in a scene from Boyz n the Hood. I didn’t find any news coverage or police alerts, so I took to Twitter to find out what was going on, where I watched a chilling video of the man, shirtless, on top of the bridge, as police officers approached him.
— Galissa Boully (@boullygalissa) September 14, 2016
I responded to a few Tweets that were asking why Metro North had been suspended for so long due to “police activity near Yankee Stadium” to let them know the cause, and like me, most people wished or prayed for his safety and expressed concern. One editor for the NY Times made a tasteless joke, but that’s a story for another day. After a few hours, I saw a transportation alert that bus service had been restored after “an earlier incident on the Macombs Dam Bridge,” and I was cautiously relieved. It wasn’t until nearly 12 hours later that any news coverage showed up, with this local story from CBS including even more terrifying footage of the man climbing up the bridge, removing his shirt, and standing on the edge.
I read a bit about media guidelines for stories about suicide, and I understand and appreciate the minimum of information given and presumably waiting for confirmation from police before releasing any details, as every story that was posted came out within a few minutes of 9pm. I see how it would have been easy to sensationalize such a dramatic stand-off for breaking news ratings. Either a suicide attempt doesn’t count as newsworthy in New York City anymore, or I can be relieved that our local news outlets were responsible and showed restraint in their coverage, focusing on the steps taken by the NYPD to protect and save this man.
In college, I remember several friends repeating an expression we’d all picked up, “Suicide is never about just one person,” implying that it was about the victim and whoever the victim was trying to spite, or perhaps more optimistically, release. This mythology is, of course, a foolish and dangerous misunderstanding of the romanticized suicides of melodramatic love stories and pseudo-heroic fictions. I remember scrambling to change the subject whenever suicide came up in conversation in front of a dear friend whose father had died by suicide, and I will never be able to forget the look in his eyes when he quietly said, “I think he just wanted it all to be over.”
My aunt was not well. It’s not my place to air out all her personal business, but she struggled with mental health issues and an eating disorder for most of her life, and from what I understand, things were getting much worse toward the end. I hadn’t seen her in years after she moved from Hawaii to Nevada, and we were never very close, through a combination of violent episodes that kept us from meeting for most of my childhood and the unshakeable feeling that she basically despised me from about age 10 onwards, once we did meet. The few times I saw her when we visited family, I primarily felt pity and sadness that I struggled to articulate. She seemed so profoundly unhappy, in a way I’d never seen before, but also vaguely understood.
Arthur Dove, Silver Sun, 1929, oil and metallic paint on canvas
I don’t have any photos of my aunt on my computer, and I was never able to find an obituary or more information about her death than what was conveyed through hushed phone calls and sober family discussions. I remember the few conversations I had with her almost word for word because I spent so much time replaying them as a teenager and trying to get a feel for how she became the way she was. I feared the familiarity of some of her thoughts and saw her as a warning for what I might become if I didn’t get my mental health together.
Two nights before we found out she had killed herself, I had an incredibly vivid dream about her, which was so unusual I mentioned it to my mother the next day and we had a long talk about my aunt. My mother told me about some of the threats and attempts my aunt had made at suicide in the past, before I was born, about some of the erratic behaviors that were exacerbated by drug use, and we talked in great detail about the impact of her illness and actions on the rest of the family. I said, in almost a whisper, that in her case if she knew she truly wouldn’t get better and didn’t have any joy in her life and felt like she was just burdening everyone who cared about her, maybe I could understand suicide – but I quickly rushed to take that statement back and said I would pray for her to find some peace.
The next morning I was procrastinating heading into the city for thesis research, when my mother got one of those phone calls I immediately knew to be serious. She came into my room with a stricken face and said, “I don’t know what kind of creepy prophet you are, but I need to tell you something.” She told me all the information she had, keeping her composure, then her face crumbled as she said, “I just don’t know how to tell your father.”
Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Cross, New Mexico, 1929, oil on canvas
We only knew my aunt as someone unwell, who was cruel when she lashed out, and seemed irreparably unhappy in life. My father knew her as a joyful little girl with a fantastic wit and fiendish sense of humor. He knew her as a fearless, tough, bold child who stared down the world and grew up into a free-spirited, tenacious adult. But most of all, he knew his baby sister, and knowing that she’d really gone through with it this time absolutely devastated him. I think we all hoped that her death had been an accident with medication, or maybe a cardiac episode, but once we learned that she had shot herself in the chest, there was no doubt that she intended to die. No one knows how long she lay bleeding on her floor or dead – the neighbors called the police when they noticed her dogs had been outside barking for hours, but they couldn’t remember if they’d seen them out the night before. It’s entirely possible that as I was dreaming about her, she was facing the reality of dying, and I don’t want to know what that means.
At the time, my grandmother was experiencing Alzheimer’s-related dementia. Earlier that year, I remember how upsetting it was for my aunt Elise to have to recount another death in the family to her repeatedly, but my grandmother’s mind held fast to the reality of her daughter killing herself. I don’t think the incredulity ever left her voice when she said, “I can’t believe she actually did it,” and I know it broke her heart over and over again for the rest of her life. My father and his sisters were similarly wrecked, and everyone kept going back over it, blaming themselves or wondering what could have been done differently to help her.
When my father came home from the memorial service, he seemed comforted by celebrating her life and remembering who she had been when she was younger, even remarking on her famous tenacity, “Well we always said once she got her mind on something, nothing was going to stop her.” But I watched their family ache, how deeply and sometimes resentfully they hurt, wondering why she had to do it instead of getting help, wondering if maybe she really was trying to spite one of them, and then asking which one. Things were never right with that side of the family since her suicide, and I can see the hurt in my father’s eyes when his childhood comes up because she took that joyful part of his memories away. No one can mention her without saying, “And then she killed herself,” negating every other part of her existence with the finality of her death, as she did with her suicide.
Salvador Dalí, Inventions of the Monsters, detail view, 1937, oil on canvas
I have heard many variants of the argument that in certain conditions of terminal illness, suicide is a noble or gentle way to escape suffering or relieve others of the burden of care. I have never known someone who lost a loved one to suicide who would agree with this statement. According to suicide.org, the leading cause of suicide is untreated depression or mental illness. Without getting too detailed, I understand what happens in the depths of depression when the mind is able to convince you that suicide is the best course of action. Facing a lifetime of struggling with mental health issues can feel very much like receiving a terminal diagnosis. I can’t speak for everyone, but the idea of “no one would even miss me” is really the opposite of the thinking – it’s more the sense that you will only ever cause pain and hurt to the people you love, and while your death would upset them, it’s ultimately kinder to them to get it over with and stop dragging them through things. Obviously this is distorted and unhealthy thinking, and it’s absolutely not true. I swore to my family that I would never go the route my aunt did, but I know how that voice sounds and how dark that place is, so I am deeply sympathetic to others who struggle with depression, mental illness, and suicidal thoughts.
I think it is essential to work together to remove the stigma around mental illness, to stop using it as a punchline or a gratuitous plot device, and instead encourage people to get help and treatment way before it comes to standing on a bridge staring down a void. It is especially damaging to children and young people who are increasingly dying by suicide after extended bullying or social media tormenting; in addition to not knowing how to battle the distorted thinking in their own minds, often their brains and ego-permanence literally haven’t developed enough to understand the finality and reality of death yet. We need to help people recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness and make it okay to speak up and get help. We need to stop telling new mothers it’s just the blues – adult women know when their mind is not working like usual and they should feel supported and encouraged to get help for postpartum depression. We need to stop telling veterans with earth-shattering PTSD or those who are struggling to reacclimate that they need to toughen up and focus on being productive. We need to stop telling teenagers and young adults they are being melodramatic or ungrateful or attention-seeking, or assume they’re just upset about “school drama” and instead listen and learn to recognize behaviors like cutting, eating disorders, social withdrawal, drug abuse, and other red flags.
Most of all, we need to stop treating mental health issues as a sign of weakness or inferiority or treat people as “damaged” when they are struggling. We need to be better support systems, to listen to each other and take it seriously when someone expresses feelings of hopelessness or despair, not just wait to vent our own day-to-day frustrations. The mind is both the most powerful and the most delicate system we possess, and it needs to be treated respectfully and compassionately. Because once a mind becomes set on its own obliteration, it can be impossible to save people from themselves.
To reiterate, if you or a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts or mental health issues, please contact the national suicide hotline 1-800-SUICIDE or visit suicide.org immediately for help.