How to Write about Suicide: a contemplation of fiction and harsh realities

How to Write About Suicide

September 10th was the World Suicide Prevention Day, and the whole month is dedicated to suicide awareness. If you want to comment on this post, I request that you read the entire thing first.

I’ve thought about this post for a long time because talking about suicide is incredibly difficult, which is clearly reflected in the 3000 words here. I would hate to add to the noise about suicide or come across as insensitive or rude in my discussion of it, so please assume the best as you read.

Besides, the pain of suicide and the pain that drives suicide is deeply personal and somewhat inappropriate for such a public space as the Internet. However, the fact that I have yet to hear anyone speak to that pain publicly is what convinced me, in the end, to publish this.

As such, this post is less about the actual process of how to write a suicide note and more of a discussion about suicide and how we do write about it and the ways to have these difficult, complex conversations.

Suicide personally

To anyone of my family reading this, I am not writing to trivialize these stories but to open dialogues and to acknowledge the pain.

When I was 14, my older cousin committed suicide and the effects on my (extended) family are, to this day, deeply devastating. I wasn’t that close with him, but I was shaken because someone I was related to had actually died to a cause I had, at that point, only heard about as a statistic. My cousin contributed to the statistics about how and why white men kill themselves.

It was, is, and always will be awful.

And I had no idea at that time that I would have a romance with suicidal thoughts for about a year when I was 17. After we moved from my favorite place in the world (Kraków) to the end of the earth (Wyoming), I fell into a very dark, very hopeless headspace.

My bitterness towards who I then categorized as my ignorant, imbecilic peers and their parents kept me from making friends in school my graduating year of high school. The loneliness and anger worked together to destroy any and all hope that I had about the move to Wyoming and my future in the world.

Now, I’ve never been diagnosed with depression, though I’m told both depression and schizophrenia run in my family. I can’t speak to being diagnosed or trying to live with that kind of permanent note on my record. However, I can speak to the symptoms: to a loss of interest in things that

However, I can speak to the symptoms: to a loss of interest in things that I used to love, to the drudgery of getting out of bed in the morning, to a deep boredom with my life, to an especially excruciating sense of despair that discolored all of my actions and a seething rage that I existed at all.

It was the despair of my life continuing to get worse instead of better that caused me to even consider suicide as a means to not exist. I never wanted to die—but I desperately wanted to have never existed, to never have suffered, and to never be responsible for the kind of pain my family had already been through once with my cousin.

So I kept doing the logical thing: since I already existed and the only way to stop existing once you exist is to die, I ate. I breathed. I washed my hands and learned to drive a 2-ton vehicle as safely as I possibly could. I did as much as my symptoms would let me; I wrote a lot of music, started getting into recording music, and blogging.

The pain, the pain and despair were always my fault because I was unable to make friends and I couldn’t control how lonely I felt. And the thoughts, those romanticized thoughts of ceasing to exist so that I could avoid the pain wouldn’t leave and made me feel even worse about my existence because I couldn’t control them or stop them no matter how long I read my Bible, no matter how many “truths” I memorized about myself, no matter how many prayers I prayed or prayers were prayed over me, I was still friendless and experiencing symptoms of depression.

But I kept on doing the logical thing and accepted the full-ride scholarship to university and went into English because we got to read a lot of books that I used to escape my failure to make friends and inability to otherwise deal with the pain, the pain and despair.

But because the only way to cease to exist once you exist is to die and I didn’t want to be responsible for the kind of pain my family had already been through with my cousin, I didn’t jump out in front of buses and I didn’t drive into the other lane and I only medicated to the point of getting healthier and I kept eating, I kept breathing, I kept getting As to keep my scholarship and doing the logical thing according to the “truths” I memorized and didn’t really believe, according to the faith I professed and that keeps my family together.

But what if my logic hadn’t been based on faith? What if the logical thing had been to avoid the pain and despair by dying? Granted, I knew I would be the only one avoiding the pain—really I’d just pass it on to my family—but what if?

Suicide and fiction

I don’t think anyone has numbers for the number of people or the number of times people have wondered, “what if I killed myself?” But it’s those kinds of “what ifs” taken too far that lead to a lot of unnecessary deaths.

Fiction is just a great big “what if” fleshed out in our imaginations. We assist it by reading and writing, we assist it by playing games and by watching TV. But it all starts in the imagination and ends up in our fiction and then, sometimes, non-fiction.

I mean, this process is a good thing. Without a show like Star Trek, who would want to develop a holodeck? Books like Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies make it easy to talk about politics, morality, and ethics with kids who don’t necessarily understand actual political, moral, and ethical systems yet. Books like The Hunger Games and Divergent shed light on what our society would like to avoid in our future.

And then you get something like 13 Reasons Why.

As an English major, I believe we need fiction like 13RY. Without it, we leave real struggles and fears and issues in the dark. Society has to start and have conversations about difficult topics, and fiction provides an easy place to shed light on those dark places.

Someone has to shed light on suicide. That’s why there’s a day dedicated to preventing suicide, and a month dedicated to making people aware of the numbers, the ways you can help, the things you can do.

And while the numbers and the statistics and the checklists of how to spot and help someone who might be struggling with depression are necessary, you haven’t made it real to people until they see it as more than a piece of data. What more effective way than to tell stories? Because heaven knows it’s better to make it real through stories than through experience.

As an English major, we read and discuss the society-punching books that are inappropriate and that changed the way the world thinks and talks about things. And we talk about what the current fiction is doing in much the same way. And fiction about suicide is bringing to light things that data keeps in the dark—things like “the stupid reasons” why people think suicide is a good idea, things like who is dying and how they are dying. I’ll touch on this again later.

As someone who faced suicide, 13RY should never have been published, let alone made into a TV show and thrown into our world which still doesn’t *really* talk about suicide. Yes, we need the fiction to start talking about it, but I can’t even listen to people talk about the show/novel without getting all messed up emotionally.

So far, science agrees with my person and not my major. And as far as I know, the social scientists 13RY’s producers consulted with told the producers exactly the same thing.

But since the show exists and the only way for it to not exist is for us to turn back time, we have to deal with what it is as it is now and start, for heaven’s sakes, talking about suicide.

To briefly address writing suicide in fiction: if you are considering including suicide in a piece of fiction, then please, please, please: write carefully. With actual lives on the line, authors need to err on the side of caution and sensitivity. In the words of Hannah Heath, with emphasis added by me, Do not romanticize suicide:

Really? How long have you been training to be a prat? There are so many books out there that make depression look…alluring? Special. Pretty. It’s not. Don’t write a book that makes depression out to look like some poetic journey about becoming one with the darkness. And do NOT romanticize depressed characters who considering committing…or do commit…suicide. There are no words to describe how damaging this is.

We need bold authors to fiercely tackle the stigma and the pain of suicide. Even though it’s a scary, difficult place to go in ways that help the issue instead of increasing it.

The conversations we need about suicide

Note: these are conversations that we need both in public (aka social media, sermons, speeches) and in private (aka face-to-face). Just as the world is starting to have conversations and making changes regarding racism and sexism, so we need to start talking about and changing the way we approach suicide.

In my opinion, the following are the most important things we need to talk about. I’m not saying we need to start having school and parental conversations about suicide like “the birds and the bees,” but we do need to acknowledge that suicide happens.

The reasons why suicide happens

My romance with suicide boils down to the fact that I had no friends. And it wasn’t even like I didn’t have friends—they just all lived thousands of miles away. So my story boils down to me not having friends in my immediate vicinity.

Now I might be wrong, but that sounds like a contender for the dumbest reason to contemplate suicide ever.

Looking back after having overcome those thoughts in my life, I can say stuff like that. It was a petty reason to want to cease to exist.

But when it comes to being on the fence about ending your life, there is no reason that is too dumb/stupid/petty or shallow. All reasons are valid reasons. Life is hard. We don’t always have the tools we need to deal with pain or despair.

And yet, as far as I can tell, most reasons boil down to a sense of either hopelessness or boredom. Mostly the former, but the latter is just as important to address. Hopelessness is exacerbated by pain and an inability to manage pain (as in my case).

A suicide note sometimes uncovers some of these deeper roots. When we talk about suicides—whether or not they were successful—we have to acknowledge the reasons as valid and talk about them as such.

And we should talk about them, hopefully before they result in actual suicide.

How to actually help someone with suicidal thoughts

You’ve probably been educated on this: if someone confides suicidal thoughts to you, tell someone. Don’t gossip, but find someone who is in authority to help that person and tell them so that they can get the person help. Trust can be rebuilt but the dead can’t come back to life.

I never told anyone how I was struggling—but if I had, and my parents had tried to help me, I honestly don’t know if it would have helped or made things worse.

I’ve never seen drugs help someone overcome feelings of hopelessness. Research seems to indicate that drugs can and do help—but usually only a very specific one that works with individual bodies. And it can take months or years to find that one drug that actually helps.

Counseling seems to be much more effective (it definitely helped me), but again, then you have to choose (and afford) a counselor who is helpful to the specific reasons you are facing suicidal thoughts or tendencies.

In hindsight, two things would have helped me, and I would have been able to tell someone what those things were. As such, in my experience, we need to ask people who are struggling what they want/need and give it to them as is reasonable.

But if someone doesn’t know what they need, then trying a wide variety of treatments and most importantly, loving and caring for them is probably the best way. Since this wasn’t my experience, I don’t know if this makes sense to those who have undergone that kind of concern.

Grieving and loss

Maybe the only reason why I want to talk more about this is that no one has talked to me about it in a way that was helpful.

I know the 5 stages of grief. Didn’t help me grieve or understand how my family grieved my cousin.

I know that grief is an ongoing state, and that we don’t ever really “get over” loss, we just learn to live with it in ways that, over time, hurt less. The Western cultures I’ve been exposed to could learn a lot from this fact.

Injustices like suicide seem impossible to put into words. And so we would all benefit from coming to terms with sobbing, shouting, wailing, and so on, as acceptable and possibly necessary forms of grieving. I’ve yet to go to a funeral in the West where we don’t bottle up our grief until we explode in one way or another.

Grief is needed. It’s a process. We don’t “get over” things, we learn to live with them in functional ways, but that takes time. Time and grace are perhaps some of the best gifts that we can give each other as we process and struggle with suicide and the loss that it leaves us with.

Maybe we need to point out and celebrate more examples of healthy grieving—which to me is any grieving that is done in the open and not bottled.

What is in the dark must be brought into the light so we can see it for what it is, accept it or change it as we can, and live with it.

Living with what is

Celebrities seem to be committing suicide all of the time. And I think it would be worth talking about why heroes like Robin Williams’ or Chester Bennington’s deaths are terrible tragedies lest they contribute to the romanticizing of suicide.

Finally, and perhaps most hopefully, I think we need to hear more stories of people who have overcome suicidal thoughts or survived an attempt and decided to live.

I can’t find the source, but I’ve read that of the survivors who jumped off of the Golden Gate bridge, 100% of them realized about halfway to the water that the problem that had caused them to jump wasn’t worth dying for. That is a 10/10, folks, across the gamut of reasons and the breadth of the human race.

And while we have to understand that all reasons—no matter how stupid/dumb/petty—are valid, we also have to provide narratives of how people come to terms with life in its difficulty, hopelessness, or boredom.

In the end

So here’s the rest of my story. It’s totally faith-based, so if that’s not a thing you jive with, consider yourself warned.

I made what I considered to be friends in college while I wrestled with the injustices in the world and the futility of life. The more I observed, the more hopeless the world seemed, and the more frustrated I was because I was a part of that futility.

A friend betrayed me and I spiraled even further into thinking the world was useless and I was useless because it was my fault that I couldn’t keep friends and couldn’t save the world and couldn’t reverse my existence and couldn’t cope with all of that.

Then, one summer while working a youth camp, I had what can only be called an encounter with God. He and I fought about it—whether He was right or I was right about the world—and in the end, I conceded that He was right and that even if it was my fault, He still wanted me to exist. So I existed. And if it was His business that I existed, then the pressure was off of me to make and keep friends.

At that time everything lifted. All the pain, the pain and despair left. The bitterness and rage were taken. I couldn’t believe it.

Turns out that not believing in something that is true will cause phantom pain to come back, and it did. So now I’m learning every day to fight to believe in what is true: that existing has meaning even in an unjust world, and that loneliness is just an expression that I need to know God better and closer. Besides, I thought He was an angry cosmic genie when it turns out He’s a loving Father. So learning that distinction helps.

I’d be lying if I told you that I never despair anymore. But I’ve learned how to manage that despair so that now suicide is no longer on my radar.

So what now?

We need to talk about suicide. Fiction might be a useful way to do it—then again, it might exacerbate the problem. Posts like this might contribute to the conversation, but there is still so much in our culture that strokes suicide’s ego and makes it, dare I say, fashionable to do.

All I can do is refer back to the surviving jumpers from Golden Gate—100% of them were relieved that they lived. 100% of their reasons were fixable. And 100% of them found people and mechanisms to help them turn around.

What do you think? How should we write about suicide? What conversations do we need—how do we change culture and evidence that life is or isn’t meaningful? Please, please be respectful, sensitive, and err on the side of caution if you choose to comment.

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