Posted August 17, 2007
Canadian poet, Margaret Atwood, says that it is not enough to say
certain things just once. Some things need to be said, and said, until
they don't need to be said again.
Every year I write a column on suicide and each of those columns usually
prompts a flood of mostly grateful letters. The gratitude comes from the
fact that those columns suggest that, in most cases, suicide claims its
victims in the same way as does a heart attack, a stroke, cancer, or an
accident. There is no freedom not to die. Suicide victims are, like
victims of sickness and accidents, not responsible for their own deaths
and suicide should not be a matter of secrecy, shame, moral judgment,
For this year's column, I will not reiterate those same themes, namely,
that suicidal depression is usually a terminal disease and is not a free
choice that connotes moral and psychological delinquency. Rather I will
give a first-hand testimony from William Styron, author of Sophie's
Choice. A victim of suicidal depression he wrote, in 1990, a book
entitled, Darkness Visible, A Memoir of Madness, within which he
chronicles his own descent into suicidal madness and his helplessness as
he spirals into that hell.
Since Styron is sharing, first-hand, the experience of suicidal
depression, allow me to quote him extensively:
"The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have
not suffered it, and it kills in many instances because its anguish can
no longer be borne. The prevention of many suicides will continue to be
hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain . . . . and for the tragic legion who are compelled to destroy themselves there should be no more reproof attached than to the victims of terminal
cancer . . . .
What I had begun to discover is that, mysteriously and in ways that are
totally remote from normal experience, the gray drizzle of horror
induced by depression takes on the quality of physical pain. But it is
not an immediately identifiable pain, like that of a broken limb. It may
be more accurate to say that despair, owing to some evil trick played
upon the sick brain by the inhabiting psyche, comes to resemble the
diabolical discomfort of being imprisoned in a fiercely overheated room.
And because no breeze stirs this caldron, because there is no escape
from the smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim
begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion."
Styron then describes graphically how the depressed person becomes
obsessed with thoughts of oblivion: "many of the artifacts of my house
had become potential devices for my own destruction: the attic rafters
(and an outside maple or two) a means to hang myself, the garage a place
to inhale carbon monoxide, the bathtub a vessel to receive the flow of
my opened arteries. The kitchen knives in their drawers had but one
purpose for me. Death by heart attack seemed particularly inviting,
absolving me as it would of active responsibility, and I had toyed with
the idea of self-induced pneumonia-a long, frigid, shirt-sleeved hike
though the rainy woods."
After reading virtually all the literature, medical and psychological,
on the issue, Styron suggests the suicidal depression is, in the end,
caused by chemical imbalance, despite the fact that other factors
(lifestyle, childhood, moral values, memory) contribute. Modern
sensitivities, he contends, make us reluctant to use old-fashioned words
like madhouse, asylum, insanity, melancholia, lunatic, or madness, but
"never let it be doubted that depression, in its extreme form, is
madness. The madness results from an aberrant biochemical process. It
has been established with reasonable certainty (after strong resistance
from many psychiatrists, and not all that long ago) that such madness is
chemically induced amid the neurotransmitters of the brain, probably as
a result of systemic stress, which for unknown reasons causes a
depletion of the chemicals norespinephrine and serotonin, and the
increase of a hormone, cortisal."
Styron was one of the lucky ones. With his suicide already planned, he
drew on some last gleam of sanity and, in that, realized that he could
not commit this desecration on himself and his loved ones. He woke his
sleeping wife and she drove him to a hospital. In its "safety" and given
"seclusion and time" he healed. He lived on to tell this insider's
That insider's story has a double value: Not only should it help us to
understand suicide more deeply and exorcise more of its shameful stigma,
but, in helping to expose the anatomy of suicide, Styron gives us better
tools to help others (and ourselves) in its prevention.
Beyond that, a proper understanding of suicide should help us all walk
more humbly and compassionately in grace and community, resisting the
bias of the strong and unreflective who make the unfair judgment that
people who are sick want to be that way.
The human heart is exquisitely fragile. Our judgments need to be gentle,
our understanding deep, and our forgiveness wide.