Recent events have pushed me back to a subject I’m really tired of addressing in my journey: The ability to take life or retain it. I phrase it that way on purpose. We can encapsulate a person’s ability to end life as suicide, but as per usual, we human beings feel the need to assign titles and then stereotype based on a narrow definition. We see it in the news, life ending, on a scale larger than life.
We see it in our personal lives when those near to us make choices that change the direction of the journey for everyone involved. It’s bigger than one word, folks, and the decision to retain life is as significant as is the choice to take it. But we don’t focus on, “What ain’t broke,” right? Well for those faced with the choice as though standing on a narrow ledge with a canyon on either side, one choice is every bit as valuable as the other.
Because of my journey with mental illness, the option to end my life has been a daily decision. Every day I wake up thinking, “Is this the day I won’t find a reason to keep fighting? It is a dialogue that is as familiar to me as that to brush my teeth, feed the dog, and do my list of chores for the day. I have been addressing that commentary for over 30 years. That is not necessarily the case of someone who does not battle mental illness. You can be taken to the ends of endurance for many reasons that do not include mental illness.
My personal belief is that desperation, disillusionment, and despair occur in the absence of hope, and many of us have lost hope in the midst of endless struggle where we simply knew we were incapable of going on, and an option to jump ship seemed not only the only option but completely rational in the face of ongoing battle and the complete depletion of our reserves.
I do not believe ending life is categorically defined as mental illness. If so, in order to logically balance that statement, my NOT ending my life makes me NOT mentally ill, which would be lovely, but I have a bottle of lithium, anxiety meds, and a lack of mental control that would present as witnesses to the contrary.
My point in writing this is that we cannot look at the tail end of the life-ending process and attempt to address it there. We must look at how it unfolds in life, and even then, the ability to determine to continue to live or to end life is the fundamental right of the person making the decision. I am not advocating ending personal life. If that were the case, I would have ended mine a long time ago. I am saying we need to look at what we can do regardless of outcome.
We are such a reactive culture. We bond together in aftermath. Watch the patterns in our society, and you can’t miss it. Our medical practices, our mental health practices, our reasons for changing our life practices are largely seated in reacting to something after it happens. We lose weight after our health fails. We address medical issues after the body fails. We address mental health after we have lost it, and our systems for treatment perpetuate that.
So what is the answer? I believe that we are always faced with choice. We cannot change another person’s choices the majority of the time, but we can choose to love greatly, to invest mightily, and live the lives we have been given for as long as we have them.
I have been a public speaker for 25 years. I have spoken to law enforcement, church organizations, and academic settings about my experience with bipolar disorder and what it has done to my life. I have addressed suicide so authentically that it makes people very uncomfortable. I have taught classes on addressing suicidal ideation in self, because it is arrogance to assume you can address this issue in someone else unless they want to address it. I adamantly profess self assessment and accountability when it comes to suicide, because it’s as much my responsibility to prevent my death every day as it is to do anything else I have committed to.
I believe with all my professional and personal experience that we need to look at suicide in a different way, because what we are doing is not working. I am not sure a person who has made a decision to end life can be dissuaded. It is either something done in overwhelming despair in the moment or planned out based on very thought out reasons and process. Neither is really a scenario set up for talking through it.
People who reach out for help can be helped, but we need to come up with better ways to help, because what we are doing is not working. We have to be willing to talk about suicide, what it is, what it does, and the fact that it is permanent. The young do not necessarily understand this. Duh. Right? Nope. The brain is missing major logic connections, and there is often an inability to understand that there is no coming back from completed life termination.
We have to be willing to talk about the ending of life when we talk about living it, because it has become an acceptable solution in our current society. Sometimes having notoriety in death is worth not being here for, just to know at SOME point people knew you were here and that you suffered.
There is a double-edged sword present in talking about suicide. It can backfire with more suicides because people are often pushed to suicide because they feel alone and misunderstood. The more we publicize those who have ended their lives, the more it speaks to the person who is so desperately needing to be seen. But not talking about it causes stigma. As I said, a double-edged sword.
We must get with people who have survived suicide attempts or ongoing suicidal ideation and learn from them; find out how they have managed living with such a permanent inclination. We MUST redefine how we address the option to end life. We are not getting anywhere.
I am going to sound as though I am talking through both sides of my face. I believe in the right to decide for self. But I also believe we must educate and open up what life ending does to the person and especially to the people that person loves. The aftermath of death for any reason devastates those who love that person. When an individual takes their own life, there is a feeling of betrayal and abandonment that accompanies many who are left behind that does not generally accompany other reasons for tragedy. We have to be ready for that, and when they reach out, we need to be willing to talk about it without condemnation. It is never our place to judge, unless we have reached perfection ourselves.
The bigger issue is the lack of available treatment for those trying to get away from having to constantly make the decision whether or not to live. I confess, I have no answers here. I have largely steered clear of what is available in the professional sector for treatment for my illness. I am medicated, but I am an authority on my illness. I believe knowledge is power, and I am armed to the hilt. I do not view the medical community as knowing any more than I do. They are my employees, and I hire them to provide what I need.
I pray and ask my Creator to show me how my body functions. I do not believe he made me with mental illness, but he has allowed it in my life for reasons I do not fully understand, and he has given me means to handle it that are not in the current treatment regime for such illnesses. I have navigated outside the current system and the damage it does to people, but I have also used it to receive what I need to sustain my life. I modify, modify, modify. I surrendered a “normal” life long ago, and now I function at a daily deficit.
But I Function
This is an ongoing problem. We cannot put a period on the end of this one. We must start with those in our lives and begin to change how we look at this, one person at a time, and we must remember that as long as there is the option to live, there will be the option to die; the ability to take life or to retain it.