Lets Talk about Suicide
Mid October I jumped in for a couple days of impromptu cycling with a good friend who was riding the length of the California coast. After leaving my car at the Salinas Amtrak station I met up with Greg and we took off from Monterey toward Big Sur and beyond. This was an ideal means to catch up with a dear friend and to clear my head a bit—on one of the most spectacular stretches of coastline. I had gotten news a couple weeks prior that friend, ex-lover and fellow-passionate-trail-runner, David Terry, had committed suicide in his home in Portland, OR. Though a bit of time had passed, the finality weighed heavy and I craved a couple full days of endurance-time to gain perspective.
You see, David isn’t the only friend who has chosen to take his life. I know several—endurance athletes, talented and zealous about their sport while vigorously seeking to gain a stronger foothold on life. Some had addiction or depression issues and some struggled to find a comfortable corner in their minds for the lives they had created. But the result held common with each was that we, the-left-behind-folks, generally avoid or feel uncomfortable talking about their means of death. Why?
Does our society feel that those who commit suicide are untouchables, shameful, selfish, or sinners? Is their choice somehow a reflection on us? Does our discussion of their choice to end their lives dampen our positive memories of them or interfere with our own current life plans? What rides my conscious are never these trite questions, but rather the possibility that open communication about suicide before the fact might help us gain perspective on this choice and possibly prevent future tragic loss of life. The absence of wonderfully intense and talented David has shrouded my thoughts daily, but what weighed thick and heavy initially is that very few that I was aware of in the ultrarunning world, knew about or discussed, his chosen means of death. It’s as if it was a sordid secret.
Shawn was a client and someone I mentored through much in her life. During her memorial service eulogy I talked of her struggles with addiction and the courage she exude time and again working to face off her demons. She went through the motions in rehab programs, NA or AA meetings, or with her therapist, but she couldn’t admit to herself in total that she was an addict. She couldn’t come clean to herself. She ultimately chose to end her life.
Shawn talked to me about her thoughts of suicide and that she had been surfing the web researching a means—just like you or I would do a search to find technical information on a new kayak paddle, or a good deal on a hotel room. Our talks about suicide bought her some time as they always seemed to ward off, sometimes for months, her ultimate decision. It’s when she stopped talking about it and asking for help around it that she chose to stop living.
All who shared at Shawn’s memorial spoke of her wit, humor, passion and caring for others while carefully avoiding acknowledging her mode of passing. In addition to elaborating on Shawn’s virtues—I chose to openly discuss her choice to commit suicide. I did it because I knew that if even one person at that service could gain perspective by my addressing this tight issue, then Shawn would have wanted me to. And I did it because I believe that not talking about it can be more destructive for those of us who still have daily choices to make about living.
The ‘survivors’ of friends who kill themselves naturally expend energy trying to figure out what their role may have been in this persons demise. Was it something we didn’t do? Could we have helped in any way? I do think there can be value for us in finding some answers if, we are open and ready to hear them. I knew that Shawn fought hard and had exhausted her options for a functional life unless she could make the decision to square off and be honest with herself about her “secrets”. I couldn’t make that decision for her. And I knew that the many discussions we had about suicide, though ultimately futile on my part, helped me gain an honest perspective of her pain and who she was at that time in her life. Those talks are what helped me in due course to accept her passing.
About six weeks before David’s death I was in Portland for a slide show and book signing. We had dinner and talked about sports injuries we both struggled with, caught up on family news and upcoming adventure plans. But he held back uncharacteristically from engaging in his usual effervescent joy of conversation. Like me, David was someone who thrived on connecting in substantive conversation. So much so that we once ran out of gas driving across a remote part of Nevada the day after we had both run Wasatch 100 in Utah. We were ensconced in an intense conversation, and engaging was more important to him than monitoring the gas gauge—even if that meant he had to hobble for 6 miles on wrecked legs to the nearest gas station.
At dinner the end of July there seemed an anvil of worry on David’s face and in our extended goodbye hug. Since then I’ve often wondered if maybe things would be different if I would have asked him then, the question that he and I had previously perused in discussions—“Have you ever thought about suicide?” I’ve pondered that if we all were able to shirk the taboo and talk about this topic that maybe David, or maybe someone you know, would still be with us.
I know that some of you reading this will feel as though I’ve stepped over a social line in discussing David’s death in this way—especially around the holidays. I respect your view but I’m much more driven by the possibility that honest words of caring may prevent you or someone you care for from taking their life prematurely. We can shut down all suicide websites and ban discussion from our communities but the thoughts and subsequent execution will always remain a part of our world. Being in denial about suicide’s existence in human thought doesn’t make it go away and may stoke the fire for those unable to gain healthy perspective on their own.
I respect an individual’s decision to live—or not. We drive the bus in our choices, but when the road becomes unmanageable and life gets a bit too tough for too long then perhaps what we really need is to feel like we can pull over to the side of the road and get a mediated perspective from someone we trust—without being chastised. Maybe if we all can feel comfortable talking about the struggle freely while broaching the topic of suicide with people we trust, we could create a platform on which to touch those with situational or long term emotional needs.
If you suspect some one you care for is struggling, reach out. If you are struggling, reach out to someone you trust or a professional. It is human to work through immense challenges in our lives and it is so very human to help each other work through these tough times. Reach out. Talk about it. And in that, your holiday just might look a tad bit brighter.
Wishing you warmth and perspective this holiday week and in the coming year.
December 20th, 2009
December 21st, 2009
December 22nd, 2009