Magdalene With the Smoking Flame by
Georges de La Tour
Editor’s note: I actually wrote this post a few years ago but was too…I don’t know. Devastated? Confused? Chicken?…to actually publish it. I just found it again this morning, brushed it off and read it, and realized it’s time I just got over myself and put it out there for whatever it’s worth. The truth is I’ve healed so much over the last three and a half years and it’s mostly because I found a lot of other people who understand and aren’t afraid to talk about this kind of stuff and it’s amazing to me…extraordinary…how much that’s helped to normalize my life again. So, here’s passing at least some of that gift on. Love you all.
We had dinner with Cam’s parents last night and it was a good visit. It’s coming up on two months now since he committed suicide so of course they’re having a lot of bad days and bad nights…some good moments but still mostly hard…and I admit, it was a splendid gift for us to be able to sit down and share it all with them. Shook us back awake from the swiftly creeping denial and oh-so-human stupor of taking things for granted again.
Life is a rare, luminous, and devastating gift. God help us.
Today my thoughts turn back to something I observed during the days immediately following Cam’s death, the period when we kept gathering to cling to one another at the lip of the abyss that had opened at our feet. There were a lot of people impacted by his loss…Cam touched more lives than we had any idea…and there was somewhere in the neighborhood of 1200 people who attended the memorial service alone, not to mention the swarms that kept showing up at vigils, memorial events, dinners, and other spontaneous gatherings.
And I couldn’t help but notice that, while I heard everyone openly discussing Cam’s battle with depression and suicidal thoughts, only one person, a young woman, acknowledged that she had waged a battle of her own. Which at first seemed like a good thing…the rest of us must all be safe then, no?
But then I remembered the recent surveys showing that almost four percent of adults battle clinical depression with even higher rates for teens while, in the U.S. alone, more of us now die from suicide than motor vehicle accidents.
Which is when it dawned on me that it was statistically impossible for Cam and this one other girl to be the only ones out of the thousand-plus assembling who’d ever experienced suicidal thinking. Far from it in fact. A fair number of the people I was looking at and talking to must have, at some point, toyed with the idea of taking their own lives. And there was a smaller and scarier subset of the people around me who were currently considering it.
But for some reason all of them were maintaining strict radio silence.
Actually, not for some reason. I know exactly why they weren’t saying anything. I used to think about ending my life all the time and almost did a few times…when I was nine, twenty-eight, and thirty-five years old to be exact. So of course I’m familiar with the ebb and flow of dark thoughts. But I wasn’t speaking up either.
Why? Because suicide is a very taboo topic. It’s laden…laden…with shame whether you’ve tried it yourself, considered trying it, have it in your family, or even so much as mention it in polite company. (Try bringing it up at your next holiday dinner and see what happens for yourself.) The taboo against talking about suicide is deeply entrenched and we all learn early and well that secrecy is the ONLY socially correct response.
I’ve always thought that people who can stand up and openly challenge a taboo this powerful are almost mystically brave, which I’m not. N.O.T. During the weeks following Cam’s death, I freely admit I only revealed my own history with suicide one time. And it was the edited and not-entirely-true version of…I almost committed suicide once…and, as expected, the disclosure wasn’t received well allowing my clam shell to quickly slam shut again.
Which, in all honesty is what I really wanted. I was incredibly uncomfortable bringing it up.
But I’d be lying if I said that Cam’s suicide hasn’t called up the old ghosts for me…not that killing myself holds the allure for me it once did, thank God. I passed through a final ring of fire on my last attempt and finally discovered a powerful reason to live, something that’s sustained me ever since.
But I do vividly remember the old stomping grounds of suicidal ideation…that dark and isolated, grotesquely seductive terrain that the terrible wounding of life can topple anyone into…and Cam’s death along with another young family member’s recent suicide attempt has not surprisingly called up those memories. The old ghosts are back, vivid as ever, and they’re deeply distressed and chattering at me to do something.
Only this time, instead of urging me to end my life they seem to have come up with another plan. They want me to emerge from my hidey hole and start being more up front with the world about this part of my life. They want me to say something. They insist…no, moan…that keeping the secret is bad for me and truly awful for them, and they don’t really care anymore if I have mystical courage or not. Joan of Arc isn’t available and I’m all they’ve got.
These ghosts are giving me a lot to think about. I’m not sure what exactly they want me to say, but I know they’re right about one thing…I have been hiding out rather than talking about it. It’s why I quit posting here and why I almost stopped writing entirely for the last five months. With two family members attempting it, OF COURSE suicide has been on my mind a lot, but I really have been too afraid to explore it here on the blog.
For the shame.
Editor’s note: Not so much anymore though. I have much to be thankful for.
Thank you for sharing this!! I recently sat with a young man’s Mom days after he committed suicide. Which is TOTALLY different than my norm of Hospice visits.
Mostly I just listen. She screamed and cried and ranted and laughed with precious memories and then cried some more. She said he had been fighting “the disease of depression ” for years.
She dared anyone to say anything to her that didn’t affirm her som’s life.
She truly wanted to punch someone but decided against it.
You are right, we must talk, share, educate, listen….really listen.
The only book that helped me, not necessarily for everyone, is The Otherside of Suicide by KarenPeebles
It takes a lot for people to open up at, especially about anything to do with death. I noticed you mentioned God twice in your post. I look for that in people these days, and notice when He is mentioned, especially by people suffering. Which is exactly where we find him.
There is a definite hope, and a very real guarantee. To those that reach out for it. I hope you seek him out because I can tell you faithfully, you will certainly find him waiting.
What an incredible service to render her. I imagine that’s a little hard for her to come by and it’s always a good reminder about how just listening is usually enough. I’ll have to check out that book! I’ve never heard of it. Thanks.
You know, I just read your comment again and this sentence jumped out at me: “She dared anyone to say anything to her that didn’t affirm her son’s life.” I’m so inspired by her fierceness on that one! It was a perspective that I eventually worked my way around to with Cam’s death. Suicide has such a powerful negative effect on those left behind that the horror can easily consume everything beautiful and nourishing that happened prior. The same thing can happen with any serious mistake or bad thing a person does of course. For some reason it just feels so natural to collapse a person down into the worst thing they’ve ever done and then jettison them with judgment. It feels safer somehow.
Cam was an extraordinary young man. Only seventeen but, already, the number of people whose lives he had touched in a profound way took us all by surprise. In the end it was impossible to collapse and erase that much good. It was actually a huge gift to me, to realize that his suicide was just the way he died. It in no way defined who he was or what he contributed to his world, anymore than cancer would have. It lifted a huge load off my heart.
I realized ALL lives are worth something, no matter what…worth loving and letting go of gently…on those final scales of our hearts.
I’m glad the mother you were with knew that already, about her son. And I’m SO glad she stood guard over the value of his life like she did, for both her sake and the sake of those who might not have known any better yet.
I LOVE the work you do, girl!!
Thanks for sharing this recent reply. It’s helps today so much. A family member committed suicide yesterday.
Oh Becki. I’m so very, very sorry for your loss. I vividly remember the carnage. My heart’s with you and your family and the one who you lost yesterday. I love you so much.
Thanks Dia, again…most of all I hope those closest to this dear soul will be heard more than any other attempt to “make them feel better” .
You said you discovered a “powerful reason to live.” I’d love to hear more about what that is. And I hope by bringing your secrets out in the open that you have had “a curious cure” from being as haunted by them.
Boy, this question stopped me in my tracks! I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit since you asked, wondering whether it’s something I can even describe to someone else. (And if I would want to.) The simple answer is that I just realized I wasn’t done yet. For a moment, right when I thought I was about to die, I experienced a powerful sense of destiny, like there was a storyline I was living out and I hadn’t reached the end of it yet. Honestly, it doesn’t sound like much when I write it down like this, but that moment completely removed the obsession that gripped me.
The less-simple answer involves what I was experiencing before I reached that final moment of destiny. I wasn’t alone in there, Karen. I didn’t get to that realization all by myself. I had a lot of help. But that gets REALLY hard to put into words!
SO glad you’re back…if even for a tiny teaser. And I was about to ask precisely what Karen just asked! Perhaps your powerful reason was too personal for others to benefit from, but…maybe expressing it would point others in the right direction to find their own powerful reason(s)?
Sorry to take so long responding to this question! I really had to think about it first. I tried to answer it in a reply to Karen’s comment so I won’t repeat it here, but maybe I’ll think about it some more and try to do a post on it, too. It’s so abstract and personal it’s hard to imagine it would be of benefit to anyone else though. Plus it ventures into an area where strong opinions tend to be rife and vocal…and I don’t even want to invite THAT into the comment section. 🙂
You have spoken for me, Dia. Shame kept my mouth closed about suicide for over five decades – and it was not even my own attempts or ideation about doing it – it was, and is, my first wife’s suicide that has haunted me. I was somehow connected, if not, at the very least, partially responsible. The thought, “I could have saved her ” has never left me. As aware as I am about suicide and all its causes and effects, that “irrational” thought stays with me. And some level of shame in my gut remains. What am I doing – or have done – to shake the thought and the shame? One, two or was it three years ago, I started talking about i with a few I trusted. And during that time, I decided I’d try writing about it – and have completed roughly 1/2 a book about it. And still, it’s still there: she’s still there.. . . .You’d think as old and as “experienced” as I am, and as good a life as I am now leading – and have had – since her death, that it would be behind me … but it isn’t