Suicide is of course a choice. No one can end their life without choosing to do so. I’m choosing to write this blog entry this morning. I chose to sleep until 8:30 this morning. The only thing a choice is, is a space between what we think and what we do. That is it.
I come from parents who have made hard choices their entire lives to get out of poverty. They didn’t do it by going to school and finding a professional career, they chose to do it by invention and production because invention and production were what they knew. Was it a wrong choice? Apparently not because today they are wealthy and enjoying a nice retirement, which by the way did not come to them by choice. Retirement was something they rarely thought about or planned for. They are in a sense living a nice life by the outcome of other choices in their lives.
My mother has 5 siblings. Her world was beautiful and peaceful until her father got out of World War 2 and came home. There were no psych evals for Vets back then. They just arrived home. He was a loose cannon full of rage and compulsions for things. If his compulsions weren’t satisfied, he beat the hell out of his wife and children. To this day his legacy of choices to deal with his pain through violence to others affects me.
Most of my aunts and uncles are as dysfunctional as the day is long. The two boys that came first after the war were mercilessly beaten, one was just 6 weeks old. They are both still living and in their 60’s but their lives are not very pleasant. I have yet to understand why their circumstances haven’t caused them to choose to end their lives. My guess is that horrible lives are what they know so they simply continue to live them. There is no substance abuse because my grandfather was ruthless in his condemnation of alcohol and was a highly moral man who served on a church council. Simply put neither of my uncles allow for those kind of vices. Success was never something they understood how to carry very well. Living a bare bones existence is normal for them. It is clear that they are choosing to live the way they do.
My mom is very different because for three years her brain was nurtured in a loving secure home. She was well fed, cared for when sick, told stories and played with by the adults in her life. Her younger sister is different because she wasn’t dealt the severe blows in rapid succession that the older kids endured. Their choices in life have been completely different.
When we say that someone is mentally ill enough to commit suicide, what we are really saying is that for some reason their ability to make sound choices has been compromised. Artistic, highly sensitive people operate out of a place in their brains that is very different from the place the technical, concrete more absolute thinking people do. Both types of people have the potential to make choices differing from their brains natural bent but it is largely unrecognizable to them without much effort.
I am a natural at thinking from the sensitive side of my brain. I experience feelings long before I experience any logical thoughts. Being sensitive has also meant that I’m a very spiritual person. I experience my environment from a sense of feeling my way through it long before I ever consider the functionality of it. My husband is just the opposite. He rarely feels first. He has deep spiritual inclinations but primarily he operates from a logical framework. He likes the yard to look as neat and tidy as possible because it looks orderly to him. I like how it feels when I look at the green grass and the flowers blooming. Staying together for 31 years has meant that we have both had to make choices to jump over the mental fence and see the world from the others perspective. If we thought that our individual way was the only real or right way to see the world, our marriage would have ended at hello.
When someone commits suicide, you can be sure that their choice has been greatly influenced by which side of the brain they come from. I think about a scene from the Shawshank Redemption when the warden commits suicide. He does it because he’s a horrible man doing horrible things and got caught in way he can never escape from. He logically ended his life because he knew his time was up in the real world. He knew that if he continued to live, society would demand that he pay for his crimes. He wasn’t about to pay and could have cared less about what he did to his loved ones. That is a purely logical choice.
It’s a very different choice when you are dealing with mental illness, especially depression. In that space you sincerely think that you are saving others. You believe that you are saving them from the pain of YOUR own life. You are deceived when you make that choice. You have believed many lies about yourself and your life, and in a very real way you see that removing your life from others is best for everyone. So in a very concrete sense, it is true that do make the choice. Every mental health professional knows that and they work very diligently with their clients to teach them how to make good choices. They daily help them move into their logical thinking brain and away from their abstract ethereal sensitive brain. It is hard work for both the provider and the patient.
I believe that if anything is going to change, we need to first be patient with those who do not understand mental illnesses. In my work with parents of girls with eating disorders, I often had to spend time extra time with logical concrete parents explaining in logical concrete ways what actually happens in the brain when their daughter’s engage in certain behaviors. The love many of them had for their daughters allowed them to find space to listen to me and when they listened they found a way to overcame their resistance to the absurdity of not eating or making yourself throw up after you do. In the end everyone benefitted.
It is rarely helpful to yell at each other from one’s own side of the brain, shaming the other for not getting it or having ridiculous ideas about it, isn’t really very helpful in the end. In fact, it often just digs us in deeper. Coming to an understanding of mental illnesses hasn’t been at all easy for me. I’m not a professional psychologist. I’m just a mom who deeply cared for her daughter and a teacher who has deeply cared for her students with mental illnesses. As a highly sensitive person I find it very hard sometimes to comprehend the world of those not like me but at the same time have found that it is not an impossible thing to do. In fact it’s been quite enriching for me. It’s allowed me to embrace others not as enemies but as other humans along the same road through life as I am. In conclusion, we desperately need one another’s perspectives if we’re ever going to heal this great divide.