“The man who kills a man, kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men. As far as he is concerned he wipes out the world.”—G.K. Chesterton, “The Flag of the World.”
The suicide is committing, from his or her terrible and terrifying and terrified point of view, genocide. Humanity-cide.
In the United States, September is National Suicide Prevention Month. For someone out there, perhaps publishing this phone number today—1-800-273-TALK (8255)—is the only reason for this website’s existence. There are similar services available around the world; in the United Kingdom, for example, the phone number is (0) 8457 90 90 90. There are people on the other end of the call who are volunteering their time to speak with anyone who is living with the sensation of being unalive but alive and wanting to end themselves.
September 10 is the annual World Suicide Prevention Day, created by the International Association for Suicide Prevention and the World Health Organization. This year’s theme is, “Preventing Suicide: Reaching Out and Saving Lives.” You can help, today and any day.
And who am I? I’m a suicide attempt survivor.
In his memoir, “Experience,” Martin Amis paraphrases the Chesterton quote that I led with, and then he contrasts it with a more nuanced and empathetic passage from Vladimir Nabokov’s “The Eye”:
I saw now […] how conventional were my former ideas on presuicidal preoccupations; a man who has decided upon self-destruction is far removed from mundane affairs, and to sit down and write his will would be, at that moment, an act just as absurd as winding up one’s watch, since, together with the man, the whole world is destroyed; the last letter is instantly reduced to dust and, with it, all the postmen; and like smoke, vanishes the estate bequeathed to a nonexistent progeny.
Myself, I am grateful that I am many years removed from any such moments of despair in my life, more than a decade, but I remember things vividly. I remember that I was not going to leave a note because a note was an act of a living man, and I was already not among the living.
An impending suicide attempt tints every mundane act with an unholy glow, an outsider’s perspective that one briefly, ruefully, wishes one had had “in life.” The simplest acts also acquire sarcastic, rueful, air quotes: “This is the ‘last time’ I will have to fight with this stupid broken shoelace.”
Any step in the dance of the living—eating a sandwich, say, or washing a fork—feels like a betrayal to the mission, which is a stifled soul-sickness and grants everything a suffocating calm. A suffocated calm.
It can last a split-second or it can last years, and a shorter period of time, seconds or minutes, does not make it easier, and is perhaps just as exhausting; I wish that I am the only person in the world who has felt it, but I know very well that I am not. That is why there are phone numbers out there. I would not be writing anything today if I was not many years removed from it.
The twinned quotations in “Experience” about the saddest reality (Amis has many twins in his work) come unironically in a chapter about expanding love and family: he impregnated a woman with whom he had an affair in the 1970s and she gave birth to a daughter but never told Amis. The lover subsequently committed suicide when the daughter was two. He knew about his lover’s death but did not know about the daughter until she was 18, when she learned who her father was and introduced herself.
Their mutual discovery is that love is not a zero-sum game, in which a loss is always balanced by a gain; they learned that love instead can only increase. This discovery is a hard-won insight, the sort that only comes from a deep, shared loss. No one needs to be anyone else’s loss. No one needs to be anyone else’s sad story.
No one needs to be anyone else’s loss. No one needs to be anyone else’s sad story. This is because love can only increase. That is all it does. Unlike hate, which can be remedied and is always itself merely a zero-sum proposition, once love is felt, it leaves a permanent mark on the landscape. Maybe it is the inner landscape.
It is unbearably easy to forget this and it is unbearably sad that it can take so long to begin to learn it, because cruelty and hate and the stress of everyday existence can sometimes make a day feel and appear breathlessly empty. Frantic and vapid. Circumstances, along with one’s own inner psychological condition, can make that cruelty make sense and can cut a person off from themselves.
It isn’t like that every day. But the only reason I can make that reassuring blanket statement is because I am still here, bearing witness.
In the United States, there are two other organizations worth knowing about: the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the Alliance of Hope for Suicide Survivors, which is a fellowship for those left behind.
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In the moment itself, my attempt was an impulsive act, even with a lot of time dedicated to feeling suicidal, to feeling trapped in that weird suffocated calm I mentioned above. I took an overdose of sleeping pills after a stressed-out two years of being stressed out. My lack of knowledge about the pills saved me: I did not consume enough of them to do anything other than get my attention and call for help. A friend brought me to a local hospital and the toxins were washed out of my system and an appointment with a therapist was set up for me the next day. But the moment itself was impulsive; “Now” was the most complicated thought I could construct.
I did not own a gun. I own knives and rope and plastic bags, but I do not like pain, and those are tools of pain. I did not want to hurt or injure myself; I wanted to leave. What if I had owned a gun? Or had access to one? I am and was at the time a law-abiding man with a clean legal record and no recorded history of mental illness. If I had wanted a gun, I suppose I could have acquired one. If I owned one, that morning I am certain that I would have used it. In an impulsive act.
This column would not be here. I would not be here. I have not yet held a gun in this life. (One of those odd pieces of trivia about me: I have been shot, by a BB gun, but I have never held a gun.) Of the 33,636 individuals in the United States who were shot and killed in 2013, nearly two-thirds—21,175—died at their own hands. Committed suicide. Out of 30,000, some 11,000 were murdered and more than 20,000 committed suicide.
It is an impulsive act. If there had been a gun in the house, that one thought “Now!” would have put it in my hands. It is known that if a person who is contemplating suicide reaches out and speaks with someone (1-800-273-8255), the chance of suicide drops precipitously. Two-thirds or more. Making that call is an impulsive act, too. I took a fistful of pills and felt myself get sick and made the call. A decade and a half later, I am writing this. That moment allowed life to assert itself in me once again. A suicide with a bullet kills that moment along with the life.
In the United States, it is estimated that there are more than 300 million privately owned firearms. That is almost one gun for every human being here. Many of those 21,175 who died in 2013 and were joined by a similar number in 2014 and another small city’s worth of gun suicides this year ought to be here today, and they would be here if this country did not have its obsession with gun ownership.
Gun violence is a public health crisis in America; there is no single answer to murder as an issue, but I can think of almost 100,000 individuals who died in the last four years who might be alive today and marching and speaking on behalf of World Suicide Prevention Day if guns were more reasonably rare here.
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Some of this column dates from October.
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