Talking About Suicide

About the Blog

NOTE: This blog is no longer active. The original content is below, but this is a living archive. The original author has asked me to take it over and maintain it. If you have questions, I can be reached at [email protected].

This blog came about because I have a theory, and I’d like to know if the thinking is right or wrong.

I worry that some people, young and old, are going into suicide attempts with serious misconceptions. Maybe they’ve been influenced by romanticized images in films, books or elsewhere and assume that killing themselves will be easy. As if a collection of random pills will do it, and they’ll drift away. (Emma in “Madame Bovary:” “I shall fall asleep and all will be over.”) Or they assume that harsher methods _ a gunshot, a jump _ are so violent that they’re foolproof.

Nothing is foolproof. I now know several people who have shot themselves and survived. The New Yorker wrote about people who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived. I know people who have put themselves into comas with overdoses, attacked themselves with knives and razors, jumped from buildings, set themselves on fire.

“When it comes to death by suicide, the body is not going to cooperate _ it is not designed to,” the suicidologist Thomas Joiner and colleagues have written.

Some people _ how many? _ go into their suicide attempt assuming it will work and instead emerge with a body that is long or permanently damaged. People have been paralyzed. They have damaged their livers with pills. They have faced months or years of reconstructive surgery or physical rehabilitation. Hospital bills alone have reshaped their lives.

Julie Holland, who wrote “Weekends at Bellevue” about her time in the psychiatric emergency room there, put it bluntly: “These are the most pathetic things that I deal with, bar none _ the botched suicides. … It’s tougher than you think to end it all, take my word. And after a failed attempt? You thought your life sucked before, just wait.”

From the 2010 article in The Atlantic, “Death Becomes Him,” about one assisted suicide group in Europe: “Luley described some of the people who, having failed in their own suicide attempts, had contacted Dignitas to finish the job. ‘One lady jumped eight stories down to a paved parking lot. Now she is in a wheelchair. Then there was a man who shot himself in the face, but survived. Another leapt in front of a train and lost both his legs.’”

For another perspective, you can read Dorothy Parker’s poem “Resume.”

Or Lewis Wolpert: “Though I am a biologist, I did not know of a fail-safe way to kill myself. … I hoarded my sleeping pills and heart pills but was not sure they would work, and I did not want to end up even worse off, if such a thing were possible.”

Or, finally, Kay Redfield Jamison, who may be the best-known current writer about suicide: “Laypeople … were wildly variable in their understanding of different methods. They overestimated (when compared with the pathologists) the effects of prescription drug overdoses and wrist cutting and underestimated the deadliness of gunshot.”

I believe that some people who try to kill themselves set out to destroy their suffering, not their bodies. They don’t consider that their lives could end up more limited than they were in the first place. They just want things to be over.

That seems like an awful gamble to me. “Maybe this will work,” people say. I’ve said it myself.

There’s so little we know about this. The issue should be studied and reported. How many people have been affected? How many wish they had known far more about the possible consequences before they tried to kill themselves?

I’ve found a couple of studies. Russel Ogden in Canada has written about botched suicides there. And law professor Roger Magnusson in Australia has explored the issue: “The fact is that very little is known about the prevalence of ‘botched’ attempts. … Of the 88 firsthand accounts of involvement given by interviewees, 17 (19 percent) involved ‘botches.’ … The rate of botched attempts may well be higher where health care workers are not involved.”

One anonymous poll of people who posted in the “I attempted suicide” section of The Experience Project website shows that one-third of respondents have replied “yes” when asked, “Have any of your suicide attempts caused long-term damage?”

I think that the more that people know about the risks, the less they’ll look to suicide, especially in impulsive moments. And the more openly we talk about suicide overall, the less people will find themselves isolated and desperate and trying to “fix” everything themselves based on information from who knows where. (So much is anonymous online.)

The danger also cuts in the other direction. Some people who misjudge a method and aren’t meaning to kill themselves die by accident. Here’s one example from a New York Times story in March 2013 from Afghanistan: “Nabila tried to eat just enough poison to scare her family but not kill herself. But she misjudged. Overwhelmed by guilt and grief, Fareba followed by taking her own life on the doorstep of the city’s most holy shrine.”

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe others who think about suicide don’t feel this way. But I know that I’m here because I was too scared to take those risks. I researched various methods and ruled out many because of what could happen to me if I failed. (I ruled out others for the risks posed to first responders or others connected to the scene, but that’s another story.)

That kind of fear can be a deterrent. The message should become a key part of suicide prevention efforts, because the usual and overly simple message _ “Don’t do it” _ doesn’t begin to say enough.

There. I’ve said what’s most important to me at the moment on the subject of suicide. It’s been pressing at me for months, and I feel better to be putting it out there.

If this makes sense, or if you’ve lived the risk I’ve described here, I’d like to hear from you.