Thoughts of suicide during Suicide Prevention Week

Scott Woodham

On Sept. 1, Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell issued a proclamation declaring Sept. 4th through 10th "Alaska Suicide Prevention Week." His announcement barely registered with me until several days after it was made, but in my own life, it's proof the universe has a sense of humor.

Alaska, for folks who don't know, contains a great number of people who consider, commit, and survive suicide. Parnell's announcement runs down the major facts about the prevalence in Alaska, but the big one is that Alaska's statewide rate of suicide is twice the national average, and in many places across rural Alaska, it's much, much higher. It even affects military men and women stationed in the state. Basically, it all means that suicide is every Alaskan's problem. Including my own.

I have dealt with depression most of my adult life, but it's grown less frequent and intense in the last six or so years. I'm very lucky, but I work hard to keep it manageable. But to compound matters, from time to time, even if I'm not particularly down, I have seemingly random thoughts involving my own death, either at my own hands or as the result of an accident. These images just appear, then as quickly disappear.

The French have a rather romantic phrase for it: l'appel du vide, "the call of the void," referring mainly to the irrational urge to jump to certain death that some people feel when looking down from a high vantage point, like a bridge railing. But my void may even call to me while I'm waiting at a stoplight, standing in line at the grocery store, stringing my fishing rod or cooking dinner. It's usually uncomfortable but easy to dispel, like a clearly disastrous sequence of chess moves.

The times I have to take extra care with, though, are when depression and the void call out to me at the same time. And that's what happened to me last weekend, just as 2011's Alaska Suicide Prevention Week began.

The timing is kind of funny to me now, but I've passed through the worst of it despite forcing myself to dig into this essay, which frankly, is uncomfortable for me. I'll spare everyone the details of my Labor Day weekend. The last thing I want to do is publicly re-live a depressive episode in great detail. I'm still not even sure why I'm saying any of this to the entire world.

Despite all I have going for me and despite all the great people and things in my life, which thankfully are many, I still – inexplicably – have to consciously decide to continue living now and then. But if I, a financially secure, educated person with a great, exciting job at the forefront of his profession can have these thoughts, anyone can. And I know this affliction is much worse for other people out there. Gov. Parnell's proclamation urges Alaskans to speak out about suicide, in defiance of stigmas attached to it and to mental illness in general. Maybe that's why I'm saying this.

Those stigmas can deter people who really don't want to die and need help from seeking it, whether from professionals, family or friends. If more Alaskans talk about it, the thinking goes, the fewer people will hesitate to get help, and the less alone people will feel when they're in the middle of the darkest thicket that never ends. And hopefully, that means fewer Alaskans will die at their own hands.

I say that with a little bit of hope that I'll start to believe it more myself. The common idea is that all lives are "precious," and suicide is a mistake, but I'm not always confident about that. If someone wants to die, they should be allowed to die. I realize that sounds cold. There's no doubt suicide can devastate communities and families, and it leaves a legacy that tends to create more of itself, but in a deep depression, life doesn't feel too damn precious.

Luckily, I have ways to cope with it, and ways to avoid getting too depressed in the first place, so most of the time it amounts to a silly idea that goes away quickly. I'm fortunate that my depression isn't chemical or genetic, mostly just situational, cropping up during times of great stress. And I'm fortunate that I've never followed through with an attempt.

Last weekend, people in my life either didn't know I was feeling bad (that's depression; it tries to hide itself), or unknowingly made things worse by saying well-meaning things like, “I'm glad you're alive,” or worse yet, “How can I help?” In the twisted logic of my depressive episodes, good intentions -- especially healthy people's -- often have the opposite effect. And hearing from other people how wrong it is to lose hope usually tends to make me feel more broken.

Obviously I didn't kill myself at the beginning of Suicide Prevention Week 2011. I've decided again to stay here. I expect I'll have to decide that again, perhaps dozens of times, before dying a natural death.

I never decide to survive alone, and this time was no different. I started pulling up this time because I told a close friend of mine how I was feeling, and he talked to me about his own depression, which he said had also been a bit deeper than usual lately. I had forgotten that he and I share this awful thing, but our simple exchange reminded me.

My friend and I depend on each other every day in other contexts, but this time was different. I know that he knows exactly how I feel when it gets bad, and just the reminder that he's still here was enough for me to chip a foothold and start climbing out of the pit on my own.

I'm not alone with these feelings, and neither is he. And neither is anyone else out there who's fighting to stay alive right now. Unfortunately, many people who suffer from depression aren't as lucky as my friend and I are to have another person who knows what it's like.

With Alaska's suicide rate as high as it is, there is no shortage of people who know exactly how it feels to spiral into despondency, how grindingly difficult it is to stay on this planet after at one time deciding to leave it, and how necessary it should be to stay, in spite of depression.

But in the depths, the last thing I want is for people who don't know what it's like trying to "take action" on me or tell me how "precious" life is, or start trying to reason with my depression. I know that's irrational, but it's what I feel when things get really bad. The pathology of my depression, and maybe others', is that even letting other people know feels like a burden to them, and it usually feels like a risk that they might start to feel responsible for something that is ultimately my decision. The stigma works both ways, on the ill and healthy alike.

The decision to kill oneself is irrational, yes, but it is one's own decision. My life is my life, and so are the lives of others who are depressed. My own responsibility is not the problem. The problem is that I should be directing my energy toward creating the kind of life I want, not toward ending it.

Suicide is many things, but it is the last act of personal agency in a life that feels out of control. The last thing I want is for that final decision to be out of my hands. If I can't be trusted to make that decision, the most important one, it changes things.

The whole point of deciding to kill one's self is a direct repudiation of everything, except an individual's ultimate agency to determine what happens to his or her own life. In suicide, that particular power, metastasized into self-ending permanence, is being asserted with an exclamation point. That's a distorted, destructive kind of empowerment, but it may feel like the only self-determination some people have.

The governor's proclamation encourages "all Alaskans to speak up about suicide and reach out to those who may be struggling, reaffirm their commitment to life, their community and family."

I'm not sure what I've written here counts as a reaffirmed commitment to life. It doesn't feel that way to me yet; I'm still pulling out of last weekend's horror. Plus, I kind of feel like a hypocrite affirming a commitment to life because at times I don't have much of one. Who knows. Maybe saying it will help it come more true for myself. Maybe my friend and I aren't as alone as we feel sometimes.

The governor's proclamation clearly means well by saying "we must never lose hope," and it isn't the only place I've read that sentiment. But it's the stigma talking. The stigma isn't only borne by people like me or by loved ones left behind after someone didn't choose to stay. The stigma says "silence,” but simply speaking out isn't enough. What we say is just as important.

The stigma implies that contemplating suicide is so horrible that to even consider it is to be utterly lost, that to lose hope or the will to live means never to have them again, or to only possess them a tainted forms thereafter. The stigma leads people -- even people who wish to combat suicide -- to make all-or-nothing statements which coincidentally are identical in structure to the distorted choices presented by the deepest depression. If we must never lose hope, what does that say about me and people like me?

The fact is that people like me lose hope frequently, and we still have a choice in whether or not to answer the call of the void. Hope is actually quite fragile, but I'm sorry I know that. Out in the frontiers of experience, it is easy to lose hope. If we must never lose hope, why have I lost and regained it so many times in my life?

It occurs to me now and then that hoping my attitude toward major stressors will improve, hoping that major depression will leave me alone for good, or hoping that my brain will stop confronting me with the ultimate existential question when I'm least prepared to answer it are just ways for me to abandon a role in my own situation. Thinking I don't have a central role in my own life or that I'm not living the way I want to often contributes to my downward spiral.

I have every reason to hope, yet sometimes hope is in pretty short supply. When that happens, if I can glimpse life through the fog, it helps me know when to stop hoping to live and start living. Being hopeless isn't the disaster. Apparently it must happen now and then for me to know why hope is worth having.

And despite what some may think, losing hope doesn't make me a terrible person or someone who needs pity or extra care. It also doesn't mean other people should accept more responsibility for my own life than I do. Hope often starts returning to me because of my loved ones, but it's still my choice to build on that.

No matter how much hope I've lost and found again, no matter how many times I've heard the void call and thought hard about an answer, I'm not permanently broken. I'm not weak, and I'm not selfish. And neither is anyone else who knows what I'm talking about.

Contact Scott Woodham at scott(at)alaskadispatch.com.