“The human heart is exquisitely fragile,” Catholic author and columnist Ron Rolheiser writes in his annual column on suicide. “Our judgments need to be gentle, our understanding deep, and our forgiveness wide.”
I am grateful to reader Babs for leading me to Rolheiser’s column, and am grateful for Rolheiser for prodding his readers to open their minds to try to understand the desperation of a person who seeks refuge in suicide.
How timely as I read all the tabloid reports on Owen Wilson’s attempt to end his life.
“What triggered it?” is everyone’s first question, a query that has always annoyed me. As if his break-up with Kate Hudson was the rationale behind his slashed left wrist and stomach full of pills. Such justification is our way of staying out of it, of segregating ourselves from those who can’t handle messy breakups. By assigning pain to a specific event or circumstance, we can hypothetically remain immune to that hopelessness inherit to a suicide attempt. Because we’re not dating Kate Hudson. And if we were, surely a breakup wouldn’t take us to that pathetic place …
Rolheiser quotes the same verses of William Styron that I have in previous posts. But the words are wroth repeating because, in my opinion, the author of “Sophie’s Choice” best articulates the agony and torment of suicidal depression. I often play the theme song of “Rocky” as I read it (not really), but his description has that affect:
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.
The rest of Rolheiser’s column is enlightening, as well:
Styron then describes graphically how the depressed person becomes obsessed with thoughts of oblivion:
Any 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 “ever 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 story.
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.
And I absolutely love this:
The human heart is exquisitely fragile. Our judgments need to be gentle, our understanding deep, and our forgiveness wide.