Activism, Suicide, and Survival: Healing the Unhealable

Becca Shaw Glaser
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Watching the wounds of history play out on our bodies, our bulimia, our abusing of our children, our constant wars, I’ve struggled to not have hope squashed out of me. I’ve burned and burned with anger towards the things around me. I’ve felt complicit, blaming myself just for being born human in the United States. I’ve been grateful, delighted, the trees, my pink geranium.

Being a person who thinks about the hard stuff in the world can turn in on itself. Self-annihilation as solution. I’ve seen what it can do to people who want to make the world a better place. I fight to remain open to the horrors, to keep my heart open to sadness and to joy.

In 2004, when I was twenty-six, two friends of mine killed themselves within a week of one another. Even though I’d dealt with my own depression for many years, and was trained in suicide prevention, I hadn’t been able to stop their deaths. I swore that if anyone was suicidal in my life again I would do absolutely everything I could to intervene. Four years later, my twenty-four-year-old cousin Joel was taken over by a fierce depression. My family and his large community of friends jumped in to help, but within several months, he was dead.

After his death, I felt useless. How could I stop suicide when even in my own family, with all the training I had in mental health, with all my well-thought-out analyses of the world, I couldn’t save him? How could I keep working to make the world a better place when ultimately we have no control, either in our closest circles or in the broader world? And furthermore, what harm, or usefulness, can come of writing about these tragedies?

Yareak was one of the toughest people I knew, an anarcho-transfeminist activist who toured North America giving workshops about domestic and sexual violence in radical community. When ze confided in me that ze had driven to the Penobscot Narrows Bridge, and only hadn’t jumped because of the construction workers, I said the things I’d been told were the right things to say. “I’m so glad you didn’t do that. Please contact me anytime you want to talk. Are you feeling suicidal right now? Do you have a plan?” I did the things suicide prevention programs train you to do: Look for certain signals and behaviors. Ask questions directly, rather than hinting or waiting for the distressed person to bring it up themselves. Take it seriously. Don’t shame or ridicule. Let their loved ones know. But I may have been fooled, thinking such a tough activist dedicated to the ideal of survivorship would never kill themselves. A few weeks after Yareak and I had that conversation, my mom called to tell me that Amilia, a wonderful eighteen-year-old artist I had known since she was a child, had, after years of struggle, killed herself. Days later, Yareak, too, at twenty-seven, was dead of suicide.

Something in the world shattered for me then; I don’t think it will ever heal. And anyway I’m not sure I want it to.

After their deaths, suicide became real—it was no longer the abstract concept that friends and I had flirted with for years, casually telling each other, “I’m suicidal,” when actually we were nowhere near it. I sought out counseling and read books for suicide survivors. A counselor told me over and over, “It wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t have prevented it.” But the sense of regret never fully disappears. Not the fear either. I still panic when I get an unexpected phone call.

Mother’s Day 2008. I was having lunch on the porch with my mom, my aunt Kathy, and my stepdad’s eighty-five-year-old mother. I’d come back from New York City for a brief visit. Robins and chickadees were chirping, breaking seeds at the feeder. We were catching up, talking about pleasant things, when Kathy mentioned that Joel was having a hard time. “Is he suicidal?” I asked. “Yes,” she answered, without hesitation. “He talks about not knowing why he’s here. He doesn’t want to get out of bed.”

When Kathy left I immediately called him. I could hear it in his voice, an almost cracking, unsteady roughness, not the voice of the Joel I’d known since he was a baby. There was a force in his voice, something different, something different from the voice of the fully living. As Kathy had said, he kept cycling back over the same themes, desperate, unsure.

I was, and am, scarred from the suicides of Amilia and Yareak, and as a result sometimes can’t trust my interpretations of crisis situations. But right away I recognized that Joel’s condition, the tenor of his voice, the way he seemed stuck in his thoughts, was extremely dangerous. I got off the phone, terrified, and told my stepdad, “Joel’s in real trouble. He sounds really bad.” I later learned Paul had leapt in his car and driven the half-hour to visit with Joel.

Back in New York, I mailed Joel letters. The first one was empathetic: “I know how it feels…I promise it will get better, etc.” But after he swallowed a bunch of his antidepressants, I was more aggressive, attempting to appeal to his sense of compassion: “Please don’t kill yourself. It will absolutely destroy all of us who love you.”

After Joel got out of the hospital, I spoke with him on the phone. He was clearly only begrudgingly talking to me, and was furious about the hospital experience. There had been talk of keeping him there longer than that one week, but he told me angrily, “I would have definitely killed myself if I had to stay there one more day.” There was a lot of busywork in the hospital, sheets to fill out: “On a scale of 1-10, how confident are you feeling today?” I asked him how he would improve mental wards, and he said, “Give us music. Let me have my guitar.” But when he was there he had punched out a window, the kind of thing Joel would never have done before.

Joel was peaceful, he was extraordinarily kind. In college, he had become a hard-working organic gardener and community organizer, always creating spaces for people to work on projects together. Depression changed him dramatically—his thoughts were different, his behavior was different.

Western medicine and psychology, with their clinical ideas about depression, don’t yet offer a satisfactory way of understanding the immense power that overtakes people, and sometimes leads to their deaths. I’m not religious, I’m not really even spiritual, but somehow what kept coming to me was to think that a demon or some other external creature was engulfing Joel. Part of him was trying to fight it, but it was unrelenting. Trying to decipher which of his thoughts came from the real Joel, and which from the ‘demon’ must have felt impossible.

June 28, 2008. Waking up in Brooklyn I turned on my phone. There was a message from someone pretending to be my cousin Chelsea, Joel’s little sister. It sounded like she’d said, “Joel killed himself yesterday.” I couldn’t have heard it right. A woman pretending to be my mom had also left an exhausted-sounding message. She said, “Call. We’re at Kathy and Steve’s.” I delayed calling for several hours. If I didn’t call, he wasn’t dead.

This is not a cautionary tale. Stories suck. They rob reality. They turn things into narratives. They necessarily exploit. But how to tell it without it seeming like one? How to tell it without feeling like I am exploiting the tragedies of my family and friends? Could it end up making suicide sound somehow beautiful? Could it lead to more suicide, could it stop people from killing themselves? What is the point of these narratives of horror in the world?

I want to give voice to suffering. I want to warn. I want to console. And of course I want less suffering, less stigma, less suicide. Often it’s the ‘experts’: doctors, psychiatrists, and pharmaceutical companies who control the discourses and narratives about mental illness and suicide. They refer to depression and anorexia as being ‘treatable diseases,’ emotions as ‘symptoms.’ They refer to people with these diagnoses as ‘sufferers’ and ‘victims’ with ‘genetic imbalances.’ Some might regard these views as an improvement over earlier views of mental illness as stemming from immorality, innate ‘feeblemindedness,’ genetic inferiority, and lack of willpower. But in many ways the current framing is problematic, too. For example, these ‘expert’ views rarely take the bigger picture into account. So, people with disordered eating practices are seen as having a personal disease, rather than what should be seen as an obvious wake-up call to implicate society’s current insistence on slimness.

The present-day mental health establishment focuses primarily on a ‘biological’ cause for despair and other so-called ‘aberrant’ mental manifestations in the world. But when we look at the news, it’s bursting with sad realities. Animals dying, people starving, rape everywhere. Climate change bringing more disasters, racist mortgage practices. Are we to grow a skin so thick that we don’t cry when we read about a government firing scud missiles on its people? How are we to process mass-murder in an elementary school? What is more aberrant: to be so hardened that we do not cry, or to cry constantly? Might the healthy response to depressing realities be to become depressed? How do we create hope when so often our world seems so terrible? How much activism is enough?

Kathy in bed, shaking uncontrollably, unable to eat. Me trying to reassure her: “Shaking is normal after trauma. It’s probably better to shake than to store it in your body and not let it out.”

Steve going for a morning jog. Coming back sobbing, being held. He cried, “It’s the first time I’ve run since Joel died.” They always ran together.

At the funeral home he’d been laid out. Kathy placed a bouquet of June flowers from their backyard, rosa rugosa, dandelion, into Joel’s folded hands, and placed hers over his. Chelsea kept falling down. She yelled, “Joel, I want to be with you!” We held her back, as if right there and then she was going to die, too. We sang and held hands. We wrote him notes, folded them into white paper cranes, and placed them around his body. Steve pulled the hospital gown down over Joel’s chest. A streak of dried rusty blood veined out from the tiny hole over his heart. I thought, ‘What the fuck, the funeral home couldn’t be bothered to clean him? Is this because we’re supposed to be ashamed he died of suicide? Would they have left the blood if he’d died in a car crash?’

Joel’s funeral. Three-hundred friends, community members, and family members squished into the local opera house. On stage, a counselor who met with Joel a few times: “I don’t know. One of the main things they say is a protective factor is, ‘Does this person have a good support network?’ And look at this family, look at all of you!”

Joel and Amilia were raised in the best sorts of households I can possibly imagine—food, shelter, surrounded by art, love and community. I watched them both grow up. I watched them kill themselves. When I consider having children, I would want to raise them in the same kind of households. I’m not sure I can do it.

In my grieving process I stumbled on various brochures for suicide survivors put out by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the National Organization for the Mentally Ill. I assumed these were grassroots-driven non-profits, but it turns out their funding and their Boards are flooded by pharmaceutical corporations. How much is Big Pharma, then, framing our cultural conversations about suicide and mental health? Isn’t it in their best interest to implicate nothing in society, and say, rather, that we just need to take a pill? Of course, many people find help from psychopharmacological medicine (I’ve tried several myself), and that’s wonderful. But antidepressants are the most prescribed medication in the United States, a fact that can’t possibly be all due to genetic ‘imbalances’—if it’s due to them at all.

If all the non-profit mental health groups are deeply enmeshed with for-profit mental health systems, we’ll miss out on a zillion creative ways of thinking about trauma, healing, various mental health states and the world in general. We might, for instance, look at the gifts that different mental states can bring to us. I’m inspired by the work of truly grassroots peer-run groups like The Icarus Project and VOCAL who desire to put their voices out in the world, to conceive of mental ‘illness’ in different ways. Icarus Project co-founder Jacks McNamara, in the documentary film Crooked Beauty, talks eloquently about rejecting their diagnosis of ‘bipolar disorder’ in favor of thinking of themself as ‘living with a broken heart.’ I love the idea of people who have these ‘dangerous gifts’ coming together to write our own stories, our own thoughts, to add our voices to the conversations, the stories our culture tells itself when it talks about mental ‘illness.’

Piecing it together. At the ‘sporting goods store’ he checked ‘no’ next to the box about recent mental institution time. Paid. They gave him the handgun. He drove directly to our grandma’s empty house and shot himself.

My uncle went back to the store to return the gun.

He said, “My son used this gun to kill himself.”

The guys at the shop argued with him, saying my cousin could have killed himself another way.

My uncle said, “But maybe without the gun being so easy to get, he could still be here. Who knows?”

If the hospital hadn’t released him after a week. If insurance companies didn’t determine our medical care. If the antidepressants had worked. If the gun store hadn’t given him the gun. If Maine participated in federal background checks for recent mental health institutionalizations. If the culture embraced all emotions equally. If there were no demons. If we had known. If if if if if if if.

After every suicide, there are a million excruciating ifs. The books for suicide survivors say that for every family beating themselves up for not hospitalizing their loved one, there’s a family beating themselves up for hospitalizing the loved one. All of us want desperately to go back in time and do something a little differently, say something a little differently. Things could have gone a different way, but they didn’t. It seems our love was not enough.

My cousin was one of the kindest young men you’d ever meet. He was generous, he was trying to live his ideals: community-building, organic gardening programs, live music. He smiled an enormous smile all the time, and whether that was always genuine or sometimes an attempt at hiding his pain, I don’t know. The depression that caught him manifested in such a way that he was demanding of himself that he be 100% eco-ethical. Every plastic bag or Styrofoam cup enraged him. He got caught in a rut about the impossibility of living his values.

I don’t mean to imply that Joel was perfect. Sometimes we heroicize our dead loved ones, immortalizing them. My culture decries suicide, yet seems to heroicize many of its victims. I don’t want to do that, but he was an especially caring person. He was trying to do good things in the world.

I once took part in a workshop in which a woman said she felt “everything happens for a reason,” about her own experience of being raped. I was shocked, but kept it to myself. It’s not my business to take issue with how individuals interpret their life experiences, especially when it’s part of their survival strategy. While people can, and do, “learn” things from tragedy, from my activist viewpoint, that’s no excuse for viewing tragedy as just part of the “natural order of things.” I won’t claim that “nothing good ever comes from tragedy,” but on the whole, I reject the concept that there’s some universal structure that predetermines fate, on which we have little effect.

If we say that “everything happens for a reason” doesn’t it follow that we must accept fate as it comes, not view our rapes as part of a larger structure of patriarchy? Does it mean that we have no right to fight back against oppression? How can I be an activist if I believe everything’s just as it should be?

Most books about suicide set up a dichotomy: follow this simple, easy-to-understand list of instructions, and you can save your loved one. But when the person dies, the books step in to say the opposite, “It’s not possible to save your loved one. Don’t blame yourself.” And “You’ll heal with time. You’ll never be the same, but you’ll find a way to go on.” That may be true but I never wanted a suicidal person to read that part, just in case there was still a shred within their demon-ravaged self who could even imagine a fraction of the pain their suicide would inflict, the perpetual gash they would leave in the world.

After Joel’s death I felt, ‘I did everything I knew how to do, told him everything I thought he needed to hear about depression, about what suicides do to crush the spirits of those left behind, etc.’ But what I did, what we did, wasn’t enough. The primary sense I’m left with, in addition to deep grief, is total helplessness. ‘I give up.’ So, how do I keep trying to make the world better when I’m ineffective even in the closest quarters? When Depression keeps winning.

Amilia, Yareak and Joel are not martyrs. Their lives are not morals. Their deaths were not inevitable. In some other alternate universe, they might still be alive. I want to remember those who have died of suicide, without it seeming that they are more important than those of us who are still here, those of us trying our hardest to live in a world that so often feels impossibly full of grief.

I can give no nourishing tidbit of hope. I can’t say: go out and get trained in suicide prevention and then we’ll solve everything. That’s probably a good idea, but in my experience it’s impossible to know what to do or say that might make someone stay alive. It’s impossible to know who’s just feeling suicidal, versus who’s going to actually kill themselves. I do believe in the good fights, in working for a better world, a world with less suffering, a world where people feel safer to ask for support from one another, a world where we recognize that our livelihood is intimately woven with everyone else’s. I believe in these good fights, but I know that even with us giving our all, our work, our love, we will not heal everything that is broken, nor will our efforts be enough to prevent future brokenness, future suicides.

I learn to live with this broken heart, to cradle it, to ask for support, to face the world as open-hearted as is safe to do. I learn to love everyone wide and big. I learn to rest and recuperate. I learn to be grateful for clean water in a glass cup, for the birch with its silver sheen, for life in all its unhealable sorrow and its big, big beauty.

13 COMMENTS

  1. I am not going to try and make you feel better or be consoling. But instead I encourage you to remain angry. To keep getting angry.

    Everything you said is true, I know because I have worked on the inside of that system for a long time. I know that the insurance companies are blood thirsty and make billions mistreating people, walking away from them, because a psychiatrist believes that he understands depression or another mental illness because he read about it in a book somewhere.

    Psych residency’s are short nowadays, and are about dispensing medications, and medication is not treatment. Those medications are powerful disinhibitors, and brain damaging.

    In a court of law, psychiatry’s ability to predict what someone will or will not do, is not admissible. Yet those decisions are made on a routine basis by insurance company psychiatrists, with catastrophic consequences.

    In my own life, after a long custody battle, my ex wife dropped my 12 year old daughter off in front of my apartment, on the street with all her worldly possessions, after threatening to kill her cat. I was unaware that she had put her on medications and had hidden it from me. The medication became a further basis for my lawsuit. I was considered irrational by the court for objecting to my daughters medications. Eventually I won my case, and got custody of my daughter.

    It has taken a good 10 years for her to get beyond the depression that those medications and her mistreatment caused her.

    It takes a long time to heal, and it requires patience, and understanding and a willingness, to feel the anger and express the hurts as you feel them. Its very hard to find validation from professionals who believe that what you feel is what makes you sick.

    Sometimes, anger makes you fight harder, for what you believe in.

      • My heart broke as I read your account of loved ones who suicided. It made me think of one of my favorite songs by Bill Malonee, Earth Has No Sorrow That Heaven Can’t Heal. As a young aspiring musician, sensitive and idealistic in my yearning for a better world, I eventually succumbed to suicidal despair and the services of the psychiatric system. Depression and psychosis overwhelmed me, though ironically, it may have been my departure from reality that saved me from killing myself. Thankfully, with the help of some good people in an evangelical church, I was able to revive a sense of hope and God’s love for me. This enabled me to shed the meds, shake the demons (figurative and literal) marry, raise a family and pursue a career as a therapist.

        Suffering is a great mystery. I’ve seen friends and family die from suicide, drug overdoses and tragic events. All three of my children have seen the same things in their peers. Despite all of the psychological, philosophical and theological attempts to explain these tragedies The only thing that seems to give me comfort and hope is a bloody God/man on a cross. Forgive me if this sounds like crass proselytizing, but this Christ who claimed to overcome death, is the only adequate answer that seems to make sense. Only a God who suffered, died and resurrected, seems to have the right to ask us to trust him in the face of the horror that this world imposes on us.

        God bless you in your fight to make sense of it all.

  2. I knew of one person who I was close with who completed suicide.
    I think of what could I do to save them if I could go back in time.

    You wrote “Every plastic bag or Styrofoam cup enraged him(Joel)”. I also can feel anger at the pollution.
    Yes I think it is the ease at which Americans can get a firearm contributes to completed suicides.
    If my son or daughter was thinking suicidal, the only solution is to move to another country that does not have such easy access.

  3. “I can’t say: go out and get trained in suicide prevention and then we’ll solve everything. That’s probably a good idea…”
    I’m not sure it’s such a good idea:
    “I’m so glad you didn’t do that. Please contact me anytime you want to talk. Are you feeling suicidal right now? Do you have a plan?” I did the things suicide prevention programs train you to do: Look for certain signals and behaviors.”
    Signals and behaviours? I can’t stop but think thins is such and instrumental view of a human being. How about asking someone about their life, if they need help with something, what bothers them? How about sharing your world with them, your fears? How about actually doing something real, tangible? I’m not saying that can help but the simplistic ideas out of psychiatry’s handbook are not only ineffective but sometimes insulting.

    “Most books about suicide set up a dichotomy: follow this simple, easy-to-understand list of instructions, and you can save your loved one. But when the person dies, the books step in to say the opposite, “It’s not possible to save your loved one. Don’t blame yourself.”
    Exactly. But the worst are when you end up in hands of the “professionals” who will subject to every kind of torture they can come up with in name of suicide prevention and then if you kill yourself will wash their hands and say that suicide is individual’s responsibility. It’s a sick joke and it turns my stomach every time I hear this narrative. Hypocritical and mascaraing as moral authority – so sick.

    “There had been talk of keeping him there longer than that one week, but he told me angrily, “I would have definitely killed myself if I had to stay there one more day.”
    Why is no one talking that being in these places can make people more likely to kill themselves? the coercion, the drugs, the humiliation, abuse, threats, physical violence… UN calls it torture.

  4. Thank you Becca for this offering. I do consider it an offering: to the memory of those you love and left through the act of suicide, to those who are still alive and suffer from their own experience of depression and may also be contemplating suicide, to those frustrated and angry with the multi-layered disfunction in today’s world, to those seeking ‘first person’ education and guidance not imprisoned in the limitations of clinical jargon. There are many ways your sharing in this blog can and does make a difference. So many notes within this disturbing symphony that you touched upon, and the deep, seemingly unanswerable dilemma of how we can somehow affect the dissonance [internally and externally] to shift, inspire, create more harmony. It is an ongoing challenge. It takes something that might be called a ‘warrior spirit’ to meet and work with that challenge. Sometimes that necessitates feeling the anger and having the heat of that fiery energy focus and direct action. That action can be dedicated to ‘building’ something, or ‘destroying’ something. You seem dedicated to building. I’m glad. I also think and feel the greatest ‘acceptance’ allows for all feelings with equal curiosity. Know that your journey makes a difference. Blessings.

  5. Do we not have choices? Are there no alternatives to focusing on illness or suicide when a person first mentions depression? What if depression is our brains way of saying it feels out of step with the world around it? What if that feeling is the way our brain tells us we really should be focusing on health; watching the chickadees at the feeder, or noting the brilliant patterns of snow on the icy river, walking, preparing wonderful food? We have not been close to a clearer understanding of our mental selves in centuries as we are right now. That’s what MIA says to me. That’s what research in so many areas is finally saying. Should we really choose to ignore these new perspectives and continue to focus on our infirmities? They are not nearly as imposing as we think. Turn off the TV. ISIS is a world away. The cat is at our feet. The birds are outside. People, good people, surround us. Choose them.

  6. Who am I to pretend to know anything about you and your wish to go away from this mess permanently. Like I have some right to insist you stay here! Only just a little bit presumptuous on my part. Do I want your advice? I’d ask for it wouldn’t I?

    You loved them, didn’t you? They left here for the next dimension having experienced love. What a priceless gift you gave. Some have never known what that is like and never will and they will die that way. That is a tragedy. That is heartbreaking.

    I bet God gets pissed off every time we walk by a field of purple flowers and forget to thank him for their beauty. Color Purple

  7. The worst thing a friend or family member can do is call the police or psychiatrist on a person who talks about suicide. I know several people who are adamant that they WILL commit suicide because they endured hospitalization and the PTSD it engenders on top of whatever other suffering they had in the first place. On the other hand, I have talked several young people out of suicide using empathy, openness, non-coercion and common sense.

    Psychiatry kills sensitive, empathetic people. But perhaps that is what is wanted and needed by a society of thugs, droners, warmongers and sociopaths.

    • “I know several people who are adamant that they WILL commit suicide because they endured hospitalization and the PTSD it engenders on top of whatever other suffering they had in the first place.”
      It was exactly my case. I tried to kill myself in a”hospital” because of the abuse I endured in there. Have I succeeded I’d be used as one more example of “why we need more mental health”. Study after study shows that introducing psychiatric treatment leads to worse outcomes by pretty much any criteria but hey, if it doesn’t work it means you need more of it.

      “Psychiatry kills sensitive, empathetic people. But perhaps that is what is wanted and needed by a society of thugs, droners, warmongers and sociopaths.”
      Call me crazy but I agree.

  8. This, YES: “Most books about suicide set up a dichotomy: follow this simple, easy-to-understand list of instructions, and you can save your loved one. But when the person dies, the books step in to say the opposite, “It’s not possible to save your loved one. Don’t blame yourself.” And “You’ll heal with time. You’ll never be the same, but you’ll find a way to go on.” That may be true but I never wanted a suicidal person to read that part, just in case there was still a shred within their demon-ravaged self who could even imagine a fraction of the pain their suicide would inflict, the perpetual gash they would leave in the world.” At the time I was fantasizing about suicide, I understood it would hurt everyone around me. Once I realized that everyone would eventually heal from it, I moved into the planning stages. Luckily, I had a safety net to catch me. Others do not.