Tuesday, 11 March 2014

On Suicide, or Suicidogenic Societies

Warning: this article deals frankly with the subject of suicide. Some readers may find these themes distressing.

If you have come upon this article because you (or someone you know) is considering suicide, please click the header for the full article and go straight to the end for a crucial message I would like to give you (or them). I will not attack you, nor disservice you with the kinds of statements you have likely already had inflicted on you.

Currently, about 30,000 people commit suicide in Japan every year.

That is a harrowing enough statistic – double the number of deaths from the March 2011 Triple Disaster, every year – but it also confronts you directly in daily life here. I have yet to find myself on a Japanese train that gets traumatically stopped because somebody jumped in front of it, but a number of close friends have, and such incidents recur nigh-daily on my Facebook feed or in local news. I did, however, experience it in the UK, when a London-to-Newcastle train I was on last autumn got taken out of service because of it.

No human society is alone in this. Suicide represents about a million deaths a year across the world, spanning every country on the planet. This is a global problem of hideous proportions.

When people talk about somebody jumping in front of their train, it is typically with the deepest sympathy for those affected. The thousands of passengers inconvenienced; the driver who could not brake in time, and will watch those gruesome images play out for the rest of his or her days; the bystanders who caught sight of the carnage; the police and rail staff who have to clean up the entrails and blood; and any friends or family resultantly bereaved.

But I have noticed that any reference to the person who jumped, in contrast, tends to lack compassion. The suicidal person, one hears, is selfish. “Why couldn't they have just done it somewhere else?” The sentiment is of cold disdain for his or her apparent weakness, cowardice, lack of concern for others. And it may be expressed with a certain passivity, the language of shrugs and avoidance and “well, you know”s, as though the act of suicide morally cheapens the deceased, makes them somehow too distasteful to merit the privilege of entertainment on the commentator's tongue.

Stuck on that train so disrupted at Durham station on a late autumn evening, the passengers around me saw fit to joke about it. Together they openly mocked that unseen, unknown, invisible someone who had departed from our world in circumstances they had no concrete information on.

Why couldn't they have done it somewhere else?” This feeling was bounced around with humour. With the most unhesitating amused contempt.

Still don't see my concern? Consider this account by Jay Griffiths in her Orion article, 'Artifice v Pastoral', in 2009.

This morning on the radio...I heard of an unhappy lad, only seventeen, who climbed up a multi-story car park and for some three hours he delayed, agonizing about his life and wondering whether to jump, a strange, sad Hamlet of suicide. A crowd of some seven hundred people gathered, and people in the crowd began jeering, cruelly goading him to jump. “Jump, you ****, jump,” it was reported...He jumped to his death. People in the crowd shoved forward to take pictures of his dead and mangled body, and the local chief constable reported that people in the crowd posted pictures of the scene on the internet after the event.

Perhaps you begin to see what I am getting at. But I want to make this real clear.

To those baying and bloodthirsty mobs; to those observers or commentators who casually remark about the patheticalness or selfishness or weakness of people who commit suicide as though they have half a bloody clue what they are talking about; to those who gallivant on their moral high horses and speak of suicidal people as though something of the dust and filth beneath them; and to those contemptible wretches on that train in Durham, who were mildly irritated by the delay but found that person's death funny: I say – enough.

That assault on suicidal people. That normative massacre. Enough. It stops. It finishes, today.

This is an article I have waited to write for years. I have only waited because I did not want to do it until I could do it properly.

Because you see, I've been there too.

Because I have known what it means to hanker for the freedom of my own demise for years on end, and to make an attempt on it.

Because I have stood at the brink, reached across the frontier, and shaken hands with death.

Because I knew then, as I already did, that we, the human species, have created horrors in life infinitely worse than anything death could present us.

And because, having turned my back on that frontier as circumstances contrived, I am not going to waste that experience by not bringing it down upon the sausage-machines of living hell our societies have created, which condemn millions, millions too many to a fate as soul-rippingly miserable as any we make films about or build monuments to or craft human rights treaties about – yet whose victims we jeer from that company with unparalleled scorn.

So I do not write on this lightly. The agony of knowing only to seek your own death is something no living being should have to experience. Not one. If you know it, or have known it, you know it is something you could not wish upon the vilest of your enemies. And a world in which this agony exists is suspect enough, but a world in which it exists for millions of people is a disgrace of metaphysical magnitude.

I write this because I want this travesty to end. I write this because I want no-one to ever have to go through it ever again. I write this because we, humanity, keep doing this to people, systematically, while denying our role in it. And because of my own experience of this, you will excuse me if I occasionally come across as just a bit furious in the following evisceration of all those people who, in their ignorance, their sanctimoniousness, or their desire to feel superior, have yet to recognise that their self-satisfied supercilious attitudes to suicidal people are actually quite a fucking contemptible thing.

That compassionlessness, that callousness, is precisely what transforms this into a world which drives people out of their lives in the first place. That is what I write this to assert.

Too long have we relegated suicide to taboo status, an inconvenience best not discussed, so that when it happens it can swiftly be blamed on the moral or cognitive poverty of the suicidal individual, as though all the rest of us are alright and suicidal people are just unwelcome anomalies in an otherwise functioning society.

Keep this up, and we will continue, day after day, to lose hundreds of thousands of human beings – all their love, all their dreams, all their diversity, all their contributions to making this a better world – until we lower ourselves to consider that our societies are causing suicide.

And let's be completely clear what causing means. It does not mean the “romanticisation” of suicide, as has become a popular scapegoat. It does not mean things like “positive cultural interpretations” of suicide, a charge so frequently hurled at Japanese heritage, for example. Scapegoats - all scapegoats. Thirty thousand shattered salarymen, alienated youths and miscellaneous tortured souls do not jump in front of Japanese trains or hang themselves in Aokigahara because they believe it brings supreme honour upon them in the name of the emperor or some such. That seventeen-year-old did not jump off the car park because he had taken on romantic ideas about the transience of life and eternal mystery of death or suchlike. And I did not walk into the Thames on that January afternoon because of any of that shit. I did it because other people had tortured me to death, while the social norms and structures established my suffering as 100% my fault, inscrutably and comprehensively, while completely ignoring all those others' malicious deeds, holding up those cruel norms and structures as though they were absolute and commonsense laws of the universe, and castigating me simultaneously for ethical failures and for mental disorder for not accepting those judgements without question.

There are few matters where I accept that you have to have directly experienced something to properly comment on it. That's usually too easy an excuse to silence criticism. But suicide is the singular exception. If you are capable of attacking suicidal people, then you simply do not know what it means when existence itself becomes a twisted abomination of torment devouring all time, space and reason. (Worse still there are known to be people who simply do not care, surely be the very originators of evil.)

So I am going to confront some popular myths here, myths as preposterous as they are shameful for ever entering our suicide discourse in the first place.
  • The myth that suicide is necessarily a choice;
  • The myth that suicide is necessarily selfish;
  • And the unspoken assumption that suicide is principally a problem with suicidal individuals, which reflects no further on the societies around them.

Note that I am not writing here about the likes of volunteer kamikaze pilots, or suicide bombers, or heroic sacrifices, or Jonestown, or other such situations where there is an explicitly more complex (and often political) framework involved. In those kinds of scenarios it gets more complicated: there is an entire other discussion to be had there. My concern today is for the person for whom living becomes simply impossible. For the person who jumped in front of your train, or leapt from the balcony above you. Or, if it applies, for you. And I make no pretence that all such suicides can be generalised into a single category – to the contrary, every case is unique and must be considered as such – but I have seen enough suicide or near-suicide to be in no doubt that more than enough of it has these issues in common.

A million people a year, people. One million. Every year. We could call that murder, or even mass murder, but somehow that doesn't seem to capture it. One million people driven to suicide every year. That, in its sheer output of victims, is right up there with the very worst of humanity's pandemics, genocides, and crimes against humanity – and for a species like ours, those are not modest numbers.

So what are we going to do about it?

Suicide is not a choice. Suicide is not selfish.
Some things are choices, others are not. If you are so fortunate to have had the choice to keep living, or to be happy, then honestly I am pleased for you, and I hope you are making the most of it.

But for millions of people, that choice is not available.

Because people are diverse. Because circumstances are diverse. Because different people respond differently to different circumstances. Some people can absorb enormous hate or pressure from those around them, but would scream at the sight of a scorpion. Others might happily touch the scorpion and give it biscuits, but break down and crumble at nasty judgements from other people. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses. We all have our exposed nerves which, when sliced up sufficiently, can wreck us in blistering pain.

It is easy to get tangled up in the baggage of comparisons here. “I experienced (this conflict)/(this impoverishment)/(this disaster)/(the IMF), so what are you complaining about?” Or “people in (your spoilt society)/(your privileged group)/(your stupid situation) know nothing about real suffering, try going to (insert calamitous, war-torn, probably media-caricatured country here), and then you will know what real problems are.”

If this is you, then stop. Just stop.

Yes, you may have been subjected to the most deplorable violence or poverty or prejudice or heartbreak, yet been able to choose to keep living. Well done – honestly, well done. But do not assume that this means you are a better person than those who could not endure the same challenges, or challenges which you consider trivial by comparison.

Enough of the comparisons. The comparisons must end. Forever. A suffering contest benefits no-one, and achieves only to divide ourselves further. More alienation. More misunderstanding. More ignorant judgement and condescension. This stops, now, when we recognize that all our problems are connected, and that every culture and society has its inexcusable miseries. Suicide, remember, is a problem all over the world.

We do not know what it is like to be other people. As that is the case, we must take their pain at face value. And sometimes, just sometimes, that pain can become so explosive as to utterly compromise a person's consciousness.

The drivers of that pain may be different for each of us. A savage betrayal. A callous job market. An unspeakable act of violence. An unjust deprivation of property. The loss of all you ever loved. Maybe even a long accumulation of all of the above. Maybe even a bloody scorpion. We all have our triggers. We all have something, even if we refuse to know it, that could saturate our souls with pain and reduce us to an anguish-stricken shambles scarcely resembling ourselves: something in the form of which we would do things we would never in our right minds do.

The ideology by which everything is a choice becomes a form of denial: a means of distracting oneself from awkward questions of social responsibility. Those who have been there will know it. That on the one hand, we all must take responsibility for our actions and choices; but on the other, we all have circumstances in which we could not exercise it in practice, because it hurts so freaking much that EVERYTHING – BECOMES – PAIN.

Everything. Everything. This cannot be imagined in abstract. It becomes pain of a level beyond pain itself; something transcendental, something without a name, in whose realm all the standard rules of thought and feeling burn away to ash. You burn in perpetuity, but never burn out. You cannot go to sleep, you dare not sleep, because then you would have to wake up, to realise that you still exist, when that is the most bloodcurdling terror in the world. You do not sleep, but faint; and then you do wake up, and find that it is that terror, that unreplicable nightmare of nightmares. The world is broken. The world is mad. Everything that you are becomes a singularity: one fact, which is that the very thought of continuing to live for one moment longer is too horrific to bear.

Kegon Falls in Nikkō. In 1903, Misao Fujimura, a 16-year-old philosophy student, jumped to his death here. In a poem he carved into a tree, he reflected on the struggle for meaning and identity in a Japan where – sources vary – he had been rejected by the girl he loved, and faced mounting alienation due to the rise of competitive nationalism in the school system. Kegon Falls has since been a notorious suicide hotspot, but it is too easy to scapegoat the Falls, the poem or the media attention: 111 years later the mass alienation of Japanese youth is still one of the country's most ruinous problems.
Suicide, driven by something of that magnitude, is not a choice. It is a consequence. To consider the person weak, unable to cope, is to miss the point entirely: for this becomes a world that cannot be coped with, any more than a fish can cope with lava or a shadow with light. And to know those conditions exist, and insist nonetheless that the individual is solely and completely responsible for everything he or she does in all possible circumstances, is at best the blindest of ignorance, and at worst the most unconscionable of cruelties.

Choice requires that you have a) alternatives and b) the agency to decide between them. In the pinnacles of pain that exist, you have neither. You metabolically cannot be expected to cognise anything else. Everything becomes HELL. You cannot think about the impact on others, because EVERYTHING IS HELL. You cannot consider any hope that things will get better, because EVERYTHING IS HELL. There is no thinking, on feeling, no hoping – only the hell, only an existential agony that consumes every aspect of your existence, so finally excruciating that breaking out of it becomes the only thing that matters.

And that is not selfish. When a person attempts suicide out of this, he or she is not doing it in order to inflict on loved ones and passers-by the anguish of his or her passing, as genuinely terrible as that anguish might be. When you are in that kind of pain, you cannot process it. It becomes physically impossible. You are not failing to think about others, because there is no “think”: there is only HELL.

No, let's give this one the burial it deserves. What is actually selfish?

Selfishness is knowing a person to be in that pain and telling them that that is life, expecting them to just live with it. Selfishness is to complain about the inconvenience of a train delay when someone has jumped in front of it because they were in SO MUCH agony that they knew nothing else they could do. Selfishness is to construct a narrative in which they are cast as weak and despicable, having lacked the “courage” to “get help”. Selfishness is to expect them to put up with a world of constructed cruelties, characterized by those reprehensible chimeras as “tough love”, “get over it”, “move on”, “life's unfair”, “we all have problems”, or the foulest of all for its gendered connotations, the hideous “man up”. Selfishness is to deny there is such a thing as society. Selfishness is to call suicidal people selfish.

Because look what we have done.

We have created societies where life is often worse than death
Let us be very clear on this. Suicide is a problem in all our societies because all our societies are suicidogenic. Our societies generate suicide, because our societies break people.

All our societies. All of them. We have created a world in which we expect people to bear torments with no basis in nature, which no human being should ever be expected to bear. Look upon the horrors we have created, things which poison everything they touch and benefit no-one, and which we have allowed a place in our world for no reason at all. Things with which we chain people; twist people; force them to be who they are not. And there is no escape. To live in this world is to be confronted not by the fundamental challenges of life, but by constructed nonsenses, creations, invented as though for no other purpose but to grind the very humanity from our hides. We are forced to prostrate ourselves for the right to live, before an employment system that values not our contributions, but our conformity, our submission, and our greed. We get butchered by people, and it gets put in the history books that they were right. We get ostracised and persecuted because we cannot even come to terms with our own sexuality. It is as though we have come to relish every chance to ruin each other, and to feel good about it when we do. Our societies are industries of suffering.

But though that suffering rips our victims apart, it is with a murder weapon still more insidious that we strike the final blow. It bleeds not their lives, but far worse: their narratives. It is Normality: the atmosphere of attitudes that all that horror is simply part of life, rather than a problem with life, and that it will never change, and that “most people” put up with it without complaining. No matter how terminally catastrophic it is – no matter how complete your realisation may be, for example, that your will never have friends, or a home, or a family, or a social environment where you can even begin to belong. Normality says: it doesn't matter. It's not as bad as you make it out to be, or if it is, then it's completely your own fault. You are the problem here, it says. The world is fine.

Like that, there are a thousand paths by which death becomes rationally preferable to life – and far enough down those paths, it can become the only conceivable destination.

In May 2013, 53-year-old Stephanie Bottrill of the West Midlands committed suicide after the Bedroom Tax, part of the UK government's austerity programme, made it impossible for her to meet the costs of her life. Societies are supposed to protect their most vulnerable members; the UK's propensity to cull them instead is a failure at the civilizational level.
Suicide, in a great proportion of cases, may as well be murder by society. And when we cast bile upon suicidal persons, we are not merely disservicing them with hatred they do not deserve, but passing the buck. To reduce suicide to a matter of individual choice or selfishness is to reject our own responsibility to confront our societies' problems.

We are in denial
Nowadays we frequently attribute suicide to depression, which we consider a mental illness. This framework has its advantages: it allows recognition that something has gone wrong for the depressed person that is not necessarily his or her fault, at a scale and significance which – in theory – makes available social resources to help. But mental illness is also subject to sensationalising, stereotyping and stigma based upon centuries of obnoxious heritage, and risks problematising the “patient” while leaving out the social context. If we attribute suicide to depression, what do we attribute the depression to?

You do not “catch” depression like malaria or the 'flu. You do not “diagnose” and “treat” depression like a disease. Depression is a complex social condition, a matter of thoughts and feelings, identity, values, beliefs - none of which can be understood without reference to a person's relationships (or absence of relationships) with other people and the world, and respect for his or her normative integrity as a human being. The same is true for suicide: which means the whole mental health paradigm is too easily commandeered by those social forces in denial of their own wrongs.

“The moment you went out to walk into the river,” one of my therapists told me after the fact, “it was obvious there was something wrong in your response to problems.” He was mistaken. In the circumstances it was the only possible response to those problems. There was no alternative, because that society – that is, other people, and their norms and institutions – had over the course of years made living THAT insufferable. By that point, attempting suicide, at that time, in that place, had become rationally and emotionally inevitable.

You cannot explain that in terms of disorders or syndromes, still less madnesses, on the individual's part. You cannot explain that in isolation of human societies and human social norms doing inhuman things to people. The mainstream psychiatric establishment today, with its social status-quo bias, pretences to empiricism, and refusal to acknowledge its own value judgements, is totally unequipped to provide this. It is normatively compromised.

A narrative that ignores society's problems and only problematises the individual is pretentious, not to mention cruel. It is also ineffective. It hijacks the stories of victims, in which their own narratives have catastrophically collapsed, and in those moments of weakness chains them to a different narrative, in which they are cast as the great villains or lunatics, the emotional terrorists, and the injustice around them as a decent, reasonable reality which “just is”, where change is neither needed nor possible, and where they just had to come along and upset everyone with their selfish, narcissistic talk about suicide.

That's not so persuasive a case for continuing one's life, is it? But that is exactly what a suicidal person can experience with “psychiatric help”, that last checkpoint before the cliff where our realm of the living borders with death.

This may be for the same reasons that suicidal people receive so much popular odium. It is society in denial. Nothing better betrays societies' guilt at driving their people to their deaths than the extraordinary lengths they go to to have that suffering established as the individuals' own fault. We fear to utter the word “suicide” itself, preferring to shudder behind euphemisms like “harming oneself” or “passenger action”. Most major religions contrived to consider suicide sinful, with the worst of their authorities professing even more suffering for suicidal people after death, in the flames of hell. What can be said of this, other than that the progenitor of such a judgement must have been the most perniciously wicked enemy of humankind, and an archetype of legendary proportions, whose perfidious image is perpetuated by today's disparagers of suicidal people? (As well as monumentally idiotic, as those religions' worst depictions of hell sound like freaking jacuzzis compared to living while suicidal.)

And let us also condemn, categorically, every state which has put in place laws against suicide, to the effect of prosecuting people who fail in their attempts to kill themselves. The pits of the cosmos are empty and all the abominations are here.

So to all those who can still find it in themselves to attack the suicidal, I say: you are the problem. Because in the end, I do not care if you think the suicidal people are weak. I do not care if they actually are morally flawed, or selfish, or cowardly, or whatever else you deign to label them. I do not care how much bad science or bad religion you see fit to invoke to make it look like they deserved what they got. We all have our flaws and our weaknesses, and no matter how flawed or weak a person is, that is not ever, EVER an excuse to let them be tortured to death then blame them for it.

That is not how a decent society works. That is not a society any person should feel comfortable to be part of, let alone expect others to live in. That is not a society worth even the name of society. And that is a society where, sooner or later, any number of those it has suffused in rage and pain will conclude that death must come not to themselves, but to the world which destroyed them. Some might even seek to bring that about.

It would not be a good thing, if that happened. It would be wrong of them to do it. And we can protest and bluster all we like about all their wrongful wrongness. But that isn't going to stop it. Do we want random aliens, though none might be so shallow, to one day find the wreckage of our world and say, oh look, this “humanity” committed suicide? How weak? How selfish? Why couldn't they have done it somewhere else, where we didn't have to see it?

If we don't want that to happen, then we stop destroying people.

Suicide is not a choice. It is not selfish. It is not a crime, not a sin, not weakness, not cowardice, not madness. It is not a thing which, in itself, may warrant a single ill sentiment towards a suicidal human being. We have no business keeping it under taboo. And so long as “business as usual” goes on, suicide will continue to recur in the millions on the pages of humanity's story, and blot those pages with our disgrace.

No more suicide-bashing. Do we want to end suicide? Then here is what we do. We say no to prejudice. We stand up to racism, to sexism, and to those who would generate hate for the young, the old, the indigenous, the poor, the different. We put an end to gender alienation, gender inequality, gender conflict. We end rape, and clean up that whole deplorable mess we have made around our own sexuality. We pull down all the stigmas and taboos around the discussion of death, around mental illness, around suicide itself. We stop considering it okay to smash others' hearts to miserable pieces. We cast the dynamics and agents of thuggish self-interest out of politics, out of business, out of international relations. We cease to disdain anything that isn't like ourselves, and stop persecuting each other based on the slightest difference. We stop alienating people. We start giving a damn. We respect each other. We cooperate rather than compete. We build systems to protect and care for those who need us most, rather than burying them deeper in our derision. We restore love to our national paradigms, our employment paradigms, our relationship paradigms, our international relations paradigms: to everything. We make this a decent world to live in: a world where every person has someone there for them, someone they can talk to, someone they can trust, someone who will listen rather than judge. We be what we should have been: a humanity which leaves nobody behind, and in which those who hold contempt for those they consider weaker than themselves are marginalised from public influence, rather than given the keys to the most powerful offices in all the spheres of life.

And good on you, those of you already doing this. Keep it up, and perhaps one day our societies may be passable enough to not drive people to suicide anymore. We will never cleanse from the human conscience the fact that we once did, but we may, one day, atone before the universe. And then, maybe then, we may be in a position to lower ourselves before the millions we tormented into taking their own lives: to beg them for forgiveness.

And so, if you are reading this because you are considering suicide: I will not accuse you of being selfish. I will not condemn you for not thinking of things you are in no condition to think of. I cannot and will not judge.

But I will, nonetheless, ask a thing I have no right to ask. I will ask you to stay.

Because I am sorry for the wrongs perpetrated against you, by that species of which I am a member. I apologise, on behalf of us all.

But not only that.

Because the world needs you. Because your task is not done. Because you, you alone, know what it is like; because you, who have cast your immediate visions across the frontier, alone understand what it means for life to be worse than death. And because that gives you, you alone, a power, a voice which no others have. A voice to wake the rest of us from our centuries of folly.

Only you can do this. Because only you know what it is like.

After what you have been through, after all the injustices you have suffered, nobody can reasonably ask this of you. Nobody has the right to expect you to bear that pain beyond all pain, not for one moment longer. But, if you can – if you by any means even remotely, possibly can – then please, hang in there. Please give it one last try. Because the universe is bigger, and better, than the cockups we have made on this planet. Because we, humanity, are of this universe, and thus we were supposed to be so much better too. Because you alone, within you, have the voice we need to become better again: and because if you can endure, if you can hold out even for just long enough to emblazon that voice in the story of humanity, then you will be heroic on a scale far vaster than anything contrived by the mere opinions and judgements of us mortal sods.

Despite where you are now, because you have been where you are now, you can fix the human race. You can fix reality, and it cannot be fixed without you.

The universe needs you. The universe needs you.

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