After years of domestic abuse, a lovely young woman (a friend of my girlfriend’s, but I met her several times) took her own life today. She leaves behind children. Her husband, the person from whom she was trying to escape for years, is today posting sympathy-begging messages on Facebook, the likes of which are stunning. At least, I am stunned.
Perhaps I should not be, as I have been writing columns for years about human rights violations in nations controlled by repressive regimes around the world. Repression and torture do not need a national policy to make them real. Repression happens on a sliding scale, from the size of a nation to the size of the back of a man’s hand. And no one can measure the cruelty of words.
I am angry, I suppose on her behalf, little good it does now. Angry that there are individuals who treat their world and their “loved ones” like a repressive nation treats its dissident citizens: he threatened her with overwhelmingly expensive legal battles to extricate herself from the pain he was inflicting on her, and she felt driven to make attempts (plural) on her own life. And then, his hands clean because he did not end her life (he also did not save it) he began to fill the airwaves with messages posted “more in sorrow than in anger” about how his wife abandoned him today. (I have this fantasy that my friends in Anonymous will launch an “Ops” attack against him. Pah. To what end?)
Maybe someone who feels the need or desire to hurt themselves today—perhaps to strike out against someone who is hurting them or perhaps because they may not want to die but they can not imagine continuing to live—may read what follows.
Perhaps publishing this phone number right here, today—1-800-273-TALK (8255)—is the only reason for this website’s existence. It is the national suicide prevention hotline number.
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.
And who am I? I’m a suicide attempt survivor.
In “The Flag of the World,” G.K. Chesterton wrote:
“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.”
The suicide is committing, from his or her terrible and terrifying and terrified point of view, genocide. Humanity-cide.
Martin Amis, in his memoir, Experience, paraphrases that quote and then contrasts it with a more nuanced and empathetic passage from 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 removed from them, 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 a 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 in a chapter about expanding love and family: a woman with whom he had an affair in the 1970s had a daughter but never told Amis and subsequently committed suicide when the daughter was two. He knew about his lover’s death but not the girl and finally met her when she was 18.
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. (1-800-273-TALK (8255)) No one needs to be anyone else’s sad story. This is because love can only increase. That is all it does. That is all it ever does. Unlike hate, which can be remedied somehow 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, though, 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 the world’s twisted cruelty appear sensible and correct and can thus 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.
Once love is felt, it leaves a permanent mark on the landscape. One more person in this world was given too much confusion in her own home to continue to feel that love. There are so many twisted wrongdoers in this world … and I will have to look in this one’s eyes at his spouse’s funeral next week.
* * * *
This column dates from October 2014.
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