I hate to leave things undone, however, I considered dropping this topic. But I do have unfinished business within it. The danger is I’m writing on another one of those steroid nights, I have a deluge of thoughts … meanwhile sleep evades me.
First, I will make it clear to anyone who is not familiar with the way I write. I do not claim any expertise in suicide or mental health. I do have a BS in psychology, which says that I know the terminology. Also, as a medical provider in pain management, I had to be conversant in mental health issues, quickly deferring to the real professionals when needed. I write as an observer, like a journalist. Sometimes I write as a thinker … but expert I am not. I wanted to address two remaining issues, suicide among Christians, and the influence of the “bell jar” syndrome on suicide with the hopes of answering the question of why would someone hurt their own family so much by taking their own lives.
Suicide Among Christians
In my previous life in1986, believe it or not, I was on a national traveling preacher circuit. I was a hard-core evangelical and was preparing to take my family as missionaries to Muslim countries. I was trying to arrange a preaching engagement with a large church in Saint Louis, MO. I was getting frustrated because (this was before the days of cell phones and e-mail) because the pastor of that big conservative church stopped returning my calls and we had not established a date yet for me taking his pulpit.
Then one day I called his house (after calls to his church secretary went un-returned). His wife told me that he could not come to the phone because he was “recovering” from a hospitalization. I somewhat became pushy as I needed to book my speaking engagement or there would be no days left. Finally, she confined with me, “John was in the hospital for a suicide attempt and his psychiatrist wanted him to avoid church work for at least a month … but I will let you talk to him.”
I was stunned. Within my world of a prosperity gospel, a true Christian would never attempt suicide, because we believed the Christian life brought you into a utopian world. We thought we were far better than the non-Christian, who would struggle with emotional things, such as depression. I remember saying to Denise after I got off the phone, “That guy can’t even be a Christian. How did he get to be the pastor of such a big church?”
I wanted to look at the research about suicide within religious groups. I found ten such studies. It was my hypothesis that suicide was higher among those devoted to their religions because, in my opinion, those systems are devoted to pretense, trying to appear that you have your shit together more than actually having it together. However, to my surprise, suicide was slightly lower among conservative evangelicals and Catholics. However, mental health pathology (eg. Depression and anxiety), in contrast, were higher among those two groups. My conclusion is that suicide is less because those two groups have a strong conviction that suicide is deadly sin, and possibly sending the person to hell. Long held Catholic beliefs said that since the act of suicide is someone’s last possible act, and therefore they have no opportunity to ask for forgiveness or to seek mercy from God, they will go to hell. I think the evangelicals share some of that stigma. So, I believe that suicide is slightly less common because of the guilt and shame it would bring to the religious person’s family, not because they personally have less of a desire to do it. If this false guilt keeps someone from suicide, then it is better than nothing, but not the best way to prevent suicide in my opinion.
The Bell Jar
What started me on the whole suicide study was my research into the life of Sylvia Plath. I was studying her life and writings, not to learn more about suicide, but that I could become a better writer. It is still my goal that before I die, I will write something stunning. I have a ways to go.
Sylvia was a very gifted American writer who, at age thirty, committed suicide while her two toddlers slept nearby. Being the gifted writer as she was, she was able to give us inside into that world of suicidal ideation, most notable in her book The Bell Jar (btw, she published it under a pseudonym, Victoria Lucas, because it was so personal).
I suspect that Sylvia suffered from some variation of bipolar disorder. I suspect that it was a primary genetically caused, as several of her family members had similar mental health histories. But like the pure manic-depressive, she had periods of her life of intense elation, vivid writing, and social activities, followed by periods of the deepest and darkest places of depression and despondency. It was those periods of depression that she said was like living inside or under a bell jar. It is a place where the real, outside world, is distorted by the glass and you are held captive to your own negative thoughts trapped inside the jar.
The example of her manic phases was when she was a college student at a private New England school for women. She said she would go on dates six nights a week, each lasting until the wee hours of the morning and with six different men, most from nearby Ivy League schools. She did this too while she was engaged. Then she took a summer internship in New York city and partied nonstop for three months while being a prolific writer.
But in her down times, she was filled with self-doubt, feeling like a complete failure as a writer, and a profound sense of worthlessness. People who knew her writing were dumbfounded by her suicide note (first attempt) when she described those feelings. She was a child prodigy as a writer. She wrote professional poetry at age seven. She had a contract with a national magazine as an author while in high school. From what I read, she was offered a professorship of creative writing at Oxford, the only time they had offered such a professorship to a non-PhD candidate and someone only in their twenties. However, under the bell jar, she saw herself as a complete literary failure and hated by all (she had a huge fan club, especially among young women). This is the curse of the bell jar. This is how a mom of two toddlers could take her own life, thinking that she was so worthless that her children would be better off without her. Many who take their own lives can’t see the pain they bring others, because they feel so worthless to society that they see their death as a gift.
I debated how much I wanted to write here about my own bell jar. I, again as a journalist, wanted to tell the story of what it is like inside that awful space, from a personal account. However, this type of writing about myself, will invariably sound like self-pity and I don’t think I have the word skills to navigate this information in a way as not to sound that way. To make it clear, I am writing about this topic to help those of you who have felt suicidal to navigate this world better, and to help those who have been victimized by suicide by someone they love, or have someone they love now contemplating it, to understand it better and to know how to intervene better. But first a brief word (sorry steroid-induced rabbit hole) about self pity.
Someone said to me after I wrote of my suffering in 2019, “It’s not fair that you get to talk about your suffering when most of us suffer in silence.” That was a haunting thought for me. I have never felt like I have suffered more than all others, quite the opposite. I have also never felt like I deserve the right to talk about my suffering when others do not. I happen to like observing and writing, and I don’t care so much about social mores, which tell me what I can and cannot talk about.
I have thought a lot about self-pity and wrote about this in my early days when I wrote about stoicism. But when we suffer, we have three possible attitudes to have. The first is guilt. “I suffer due to my own fault and I should be ashamed of my suffering.” The second is denial. “I will never speak of my suffering, pretending it is not there.” The last is self-pity. “I’m suffering … and its not my fault.”
Now the attitude of self-pity, in my opinion, has gotten a bum-rap. I think, when we suffer without any fault of our own, that self-pity is the most healthy way to deal with it. The problem with self-pity is allowing it to consume you in a death spiral.
I remember an interview with Barbara Walters and the late Christopher Revee. He was a strong man (played Superman in the movies) who, via a simple accident, was left as a quadriplegic in the prime of his life. She asked him if he ever felt sorry for himself. He said (my paraphrase), “I allow myself to feel sorry for myself for the first five minutes of the day … then I end it, otherwise it would consume my entire life.” That is healthy self-pity. Far better than guilt or denial.
I recently heard someone say something about a friend of mine who had died, “He was a good man. He never complained up to the end.”
This friend had a horrible chronic illness. He, indeed, was a good man. I often cornered him and asked he how he was doing and how he was feeling. He was reluctant to answer me … but sometimes he did. I knew was suffering because I asked. But I think he was well-aware of the social stigma of not talking about suffering as not to appear like he was in self-pity. I feel sad for him because of that. It’s isolation that makes your suffering worse. I bet some of his physical suffering could have been alleviated if he talked about it more (greasy wheel syndrome). Now, we all know those people who talk nonstop about their suffering, to the point we try to avoid them because they wear us out. But those are the exception.
From Inside My Bell Jar
I mentioned last time that I’ve had suicidal ideations four times in my life (that I remember). One time, 2019, so seriously that I was within minutes of ending my own life. But my last time was last winter. While 2019 was impulsive (unbearable suffering and no hope of life), 2020 was the more typical depression and gradual introduction into self-destructive thoughts inside the bell jar.
In summary, (as if I had not talked about this many times) I went from a healthy man, bread-winner, strong person in my family in 2018 (preparing for a trek across Greenland) to instantly being near death, profoundly weak, loss of hope for a future, or ever feeling well again, and finally being fired from my profession. I didn’t realize how powerful that last event would become in my personal life, a sucker punch to my gut. In 2001, I was a headache specialist in the # 1 neurology practice in the world (Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota) and I was constantly praised by my colleagues, as invaluable to the department. From that, I went to sitting with the CEO of a small town hospital’s in December 2020 as he told me, in my present weakened state, I brought no value to their organization anymore (my paraphrase).
I saw the winter of 2020 on the horizon. Because of COVID, I was ordered back into strict isolation. No leaving the house. No connecting with others, including my own children. On the other hand, because of COVID, Denise’s hours went from 50/week to about 100/week. We rarely talked in depth. She was exhausted. I had two video chats with my friend Curt during those months. I had to suspend my walks with my friend Jerry, who always asks me how I’m doing, as I do him.
It was a set up for serious depression and such depression ensued. If it were not for me talking to Greta, my Saint Bernard, I think I would have lost my mind. Writing and building also helped keep me alive. But under that bell jar, the world outside became very distorted. I felt captive, within the ambience of my own negative thoughts, “I’m completely worthless now. I bring no value to the world. My family has no use for me anymore. I’m better off to them … dead.”
While I had serious suicidal ideation last winter, and I know that many of you have, or at least have had those negative feelings about yourself, I did not make a suicide attempt as I did in 2019. But if I had, people (including my family) would ask the question, “Why would he do this, take his own life, hurting the family he supposed to have loved?” The answer is within that self-delusion, that they are better off without you and you see your suicide as an act of love. Yes, I know some people commit suicide for other reasons, even revenge.
The Problem with Our Society
I’ve had three conversations with Christians, that I can remember, about how I handled the pandemic. I have a deep flaw (in some people’s opinions) is that I’ve very candid. I answered those conversations by telling the truth. “The pandemic was very hard for me. I was isolated dealing with cancer, getting fired, and feeling ill all the time. It was so bad I considered taking my own life.”
All three Christians reacted the same way. First, shock. Second, what appeared as anger toward me. Lastly, quickly telling their story of how they fared so much better than me during the pandemic because they trusted Jesus. Now honestly, what purpose does that serve except to make me feel even worse than I do and them to feel better about themselves?
I will add, my one friend who I do talk to the most, Jerry, did not respond this way at all.
I will pause here again before anyone gets the wrong idea, I am not writing to talk about how people have mistreated me. I am writing about how something is wrong with our societies, especially the Christian society. I am part of that problem. I have not listened to others when they have tried to tell me about their suffering. Especially when I was an evangelical, I did not hesitate to shame someone who confessed weakness, if it made me feel more pious.
When someone talks about their suffering some of the worst things we say are, “Look on the bright side or count your blessings.” Is that the cause of their suffering, thinking that they are suffering more than anyone else or have no blessings? I don’t think so. I know for me, I see my blessings profoundly clear, and yet I can suffer and want to die at the same time.
Another bad thing to say to someone who is suffering is to give a report of how you have handled things so much better than them. I know that’s the evangelical M.O., but I’ve seen non-religious people do it too. Like I said, I’ve done it.
Lastly, the very worst thing you can say to someone who tells you they are suffering or contemplating suicide, or for whom you suspect these things without them saying it, is … NOTHING. Silence is a horrible thing to give back to someone who has shared with you their most intimate feelings, either through words or non-verbal communications. What does work? Validation of their suffer. “That sucks” will suffice. In the case of actively thinking about suicide, it takes more time, words, and actions. Count yourself fortunate that you know in advance. So many take their own lives without a hint given to anyone. For those who love them, they never had the chance to say or doing anything to help.
I know that talking about hard things is difficult in our society. I have had to talk to one of my own children about their depression, and asking them, “Have you had any thoughts of hurting yourself.” That was hard as hell. It was also hard as hell to take them to a mental health professional, but I did it. I did it for selfish reasons because I didn’t want to loose them. But I don’t mean to share this story in the same spirit that I somehow handled it better. I didn’t.
This is another point that frustrates me about our society. Talk of suffering is so taboo, and for what reason? On this side of suffering, I don’t get it anymore. I know my family loves me, but the word “cancer” has never been uttered in our household, except by me. Maybe Denise has used that word, rarely, but she loves me. It’s just hard to talk about. Maybe my oldest son, who has PhD in biochemistry and works in cancer research has spoke to me about it, but I rarely see him. But no one in my family ask me how its going, how I feel, what’s going on with my “c” (dirty word). My kids know far more about Denise’s pull hamstring than my battle with cancer … per their choice and I try to never bring it up. My sisters never ask me about it. Thankfully Jerry ask me how I feel as I do him. I don’t blame these individuals but I blame our screwed up society that has declared that cancer is shameful, as is depression, substance abuse, suicide … and suffering in general. Why is it that if we talk about these things, it is considered a social blunder, something shameful? Yes, I have to imagine my family loves me when somethings it doesn’t feel like it, only because of the way society (and me in the case of my own kids) has taught them how to deal with someone else’s suffering. Denial or shame.
Can you imagine a society where someone is thinking of hurting themselves and has no hesitation about telling his or her friends and family because they know they will be met with a listening ear and a profound support? This is what all parents fear, the silence of depression. Can you imagine a society where people can mention their suffering and not be ignored or ostracized for it? Again, I’m not talking about the constant complainer, but the social force that pushes all mention of suffering and sadness underground.
To give us who have failed in this area some credit, I think why someone else mentioning real suffering is awkward for us is that we don’t know what to say or do about it. We do care. I suspect this is why my own family can’t talk about it.
One Last Story
When I was about fourteen, I was playing basketball (alone) on our street’s hoop. I happened to notice a neighbor, John Smith (about 70 years old), inside his car parked on the street. I saw him there for an hour and the car wasn’t going anywhere.
When I got done shooting baskets, I walked up to his car to make sure he was okay. When I got there, I was shocked. He was laying down in his back seat crying like a baby. He had been crying so long, that his white buttoned up shirt was soaked.
With my basketball under my arm and a scared look on my face, I asked him, “What’s wrong?” To which he replied in a rare moment of candidness, “Son, don’t ever get old. I have prostate cancer (which I had no clue what that was) and I’m in so much pain that I want to die.”
In a moment of profound social awkwardness, I slammed his car door shut and ran to his house. I knocked on his wife’s door and when she answered, I said to her, “Uh, uh, John is crying in the car and he wants to die.”
She laughed at me and said, “Leave him alone. It is shameful for him to act that way.”
I felt horrible for days because I didn’t know what to say to John or what else to do to alleviate his suffering. This is the stigma of suffering, sadness, and suicide ideation. The fear that we don’t know what to say or do. Let’s work together to change society. Love listens.
If you are thinking of suicide and have no one to honestly talk to, here is the 24-7 suicide hotline’s number: 800-273-8255. Call it. They can navigate you from beneath the bell jar.
It is 3 am and I must try to sleep. Please forgive the typos, cloudy syntax, and lack of conciseness. I’m done with this topic. Good night.