Suicide is (not) painless

Suicide is Painless is the lilting refrain from the classic 1970s television show, M*A*S*H which followed a motley medical team stationed at the 4077th mobile hospital in South Korea. The familiar tune played in the background as the choppers landed, discharging their wounded occupants to waiting surgeons, Hawkeye and BJ Pierce.

Except suicide is not painless - it exacts a toll from the living who are left behind, from those who contemplate it as the option of last resort, and the community at large. I know because I came close to completing suicide on three occasions during a merciless bout of depression.

During depression’s savage storm, there was no past, no future, only a profound misery that passed for my life. My mind became so crippled, I was convinced suicide was the only option to stop the relentless torment and despair. I found refuge and comfort in my suicide plan which was the only control I had over my life.

In his seminal 1990 article, psychologist Roy Baumeister offers a unique glimpse inside the suicidal mind. He describes suicide as the ultimate escape from the self and the world. He posits the escape has six steps and suicide is likely when all steps are met. These are (1) falling short of standards, especially for people with high expectations; (2) feelings of self loathing and worthlessness; (3) unforgiving comparisons with a former self; (4) the need to end acute pain and distress through the loss of consciousness; (5) reducing the world to its most simplest level and focussing on the immediate; (6) overcoming inhibitions about killing oneself and the fear of death and leaving others behind.

I became intimately familiar with steps 1 through 5, signposts of the depths of my depression’s abyss. Yet to this day I still don’t know why I didn’t succumb to the final step, why I didn’t kill myself, despite my detailed plan and firm resolve. All I know is that I’m grateful I sought medical treatment, even if it meant a prolonged period of hospitalisation and slow plodding steps to recovery. Daily I give grace that I’m well, thankful I’m still alive with the capacity for wonder and joy.

But my hold on recovery is tenuous and can be threatened when I least expect it. I was reminded of this when I learned of Robin Williams untimely death by suicide. My day began no differently to any other, sitting on a crowded work day tram wending its way along the verdant boulevard of St Kilda Road. As I scrolled through the twitter feed on my iPad, the first tweet about Williams suicide smacked me in the gut like a sucker punch to the solar plexus. Each successive tweet delivered another blow until I was winded, unable to breathe, By the time, I got off the tram, a full blown panic attack was in full force. My pulse raced, sweat dripped from my face and the thumping of my heart pounded in my ears. As I staggered to a nearby bench, a sing song voice in my head started chanting ‘It could’ve been you. It could’ve been you. It could still be you.’

Williams suicide is a terrible reminder about the fragility of life and recovery. It is also a reminder to reach out to others and to keep hope alive. As someone who now lives with mental illness, I have come to accept that psychiatrists and medication are a necessary part of my life. But it is hope that sustains me – hope that I will stay well; hope that I will fight the black dog and call on others if he attacks; hope that we can shed the stigma associated with mental illness.

As Emily Dickinson wrote:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all.

Out in April through Jane Curry Publishing.

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