I am pretty stingy when it comes to guest posts on here. I probably get three to five offers each week from people who want me to publish a post here. And it goes without saying, most of the proposals are either unoriginal or just downright bad.
A few weeks ago a reader named Dave emailed me offering to write an article about suicide and his attempt when he was in university. A number of articles have been published recently about how suicide rates in men have been rising over the past couple decades and that they now outpace women by more than three male suicides for every female suicide.
The problem is that few people talk about this. And I don’t mean just about men’s suicide rates, but suicidal men don’t talk about their suicidal thoughts. Men don’t talk about other men’s suicidal thoughts. Men are socialized to keep quiet about their problems and handle them on their own. Obviously, this is having some tragic repercussions.
It was for this reason that I took Dave up on his offer. He wrote a great piece and I spent some time editing it and refining it. I’m proud of the result.
I don’t expect this to be necessarily earth-shattering. But I do hope it can give some men who suffer from suicidal thoughts a little reassurance and make suicide a little less stigmatized for people.
So without further ado, I’ll let Dave take over…
When I woke up on Tuesday, October 14th, 2008, I didn’t plan on trying to kill myself. Maybe some people plan it way in advance, but I didn’t.
That Tuesday was a strange day for me. I had just transferred to a new university that year and freshman orientation began the week before in earnest. It was the annual ritual in which friendship, flirting and good times were supposedly guaranteed in a haze of booze and pre-planned festivities.
I had already been through a week like this before. I dropped out of my previous university due to unmanageable depression. I had been repeatedly told by adults my entire adolescence and convinced by TV shows and films that university was where I would truly become myself and ‘bloom’, which of course just made the isolation even worse. I saw friendships and romantic relationships form all around me, and the feelings of failure intensified. Everyone told me these were going to be “the best years of my life,” but I had utterly failed.
After my first university experience I was reluctant to try again at a new school, but there seemed to be no choice. I had been friendless for the past few years and therefore had no life to go back to. There was no turning around.
So a year later I found myself in a similar situation in a new school. Social interaction did not progress beyond small talk, attempted jokes and some insecure laughter. After a night of being generally ignored by all other people, I began to feel suicidal again.
While I had contemplated suicide at my previous university, I could rationalize that I was merely unlucky in terms of my flat mates, housing, etc., and that the problem lay with circumstance rather than me.
But as the pattern duly repeated itself, it became clear that my circumstances were not at fault. It was me. I blamed myself and concluded that I had a deficient personality.
I thought of a lonely four years at this university, a future in which I would never be more than an acquaintance or a social burden wheeled out for charity (my mind had long learnt to shut down any expectation of sex). I felt that I could no longer live in that future.
I decided to take action. I swallowed 25 paracetamol and tried to go to sleep, with the intention of not waking up the next day.
Surprisingly, I did wake up the next day.
I had thrown up, though I did not remember doing so. Puzzled I looked on the internet to see why I had survived and found out that the results of a paracetamol overdose may be asymptomatic for the first 24 hours and only fatal after 5 days.
I talked to the chaplain of my college. He drove me to the hospital. There, I was told that survival was not certain, at least not without an organ transplant.
Hours later, after a battery of tests, I was finally given the news that I would survive without the need of a transplant. I had taken a dose that bordered on fatal but I would be fine because I threw it up.
I was ashamed of what I did. I would spend the next year trying to excise the incident from my memory, though I never succeeded. It’s not the sort of thing you just forget.
Suicide and attempted suicide is a difficult subject for men to broach. Though global suicide rates for men top the rates for women, they are also less likely to seek help with suicidal thoughts or get treatment for depression.
This is perhaps because depression and suicidal thoughts contravene the qualities of resilience and self-control which have long been integral to the masculine identity. To admit to suicidal thoughts and to suicidal actions is to admit to weakness and to be a failure as a man.
Given that men rarely talk openly about issues of depression and suicide, I decided to try and make sense of my attempt through honest introspection and some reading. After a while I found that there was an internal logic to suicidal thoughts that is hard to break, especially for young men trapped in a cycle of insecurity, anxiety and fear.
Control, society and the rationale behind suicide
A fundamental problem is the issue of control. Throughout my teens I felt out of control of my social life. I did not want to be lonely or a virgin, but I felt as if I lacked the qualities necessary to change my life.
When you are hungry or tired the problem can be solved entirely through your own action (eating and sleeping), but changing your social life is dependent on other people’s reactions to you.
During freshman orientation week I had tried to get people to like me and failed. I was unable to control people’s indifference to me. Whenever I was with another man talking to a girl, I was unable to control the fact that she primarily talked, made eye contact, and interacted with him and not me. I felt that I could not change this state of affairs as I lacked the necessary personality traits for people to ever perceive me as a friend or romantic partner.
Suicide, on the other hand, always presents an option for generating a definite future. At a certain point, a depressed person may begin to see this controlled and predictable result of death as more attractive than the unpredictable loneliness and pain of years and years of isolation. On the day I attempted to take my life, I thought that if I chose to continue living that I would spend my life as a lonely outcast and that only suicide could guarantee that this would not happen. It literally appeared to be the only reliable solution from the pain.
This, of course, ties into the fear of failure. Socially risky behaviors that form friendships and generate intimacy — such as teasing, flirting, touching, practical jokes — can fail or backfire causing awkwardness, criticism and shame.
There were instances before my suicide attempt (and there have been instances afterwards too) in which my attempts at flirting or jokes were met with outright criticism and a judgment on the poor quality of my social skills. These reactions ruined my self-esteem and served as an external reinforcement to my low opinion of myself.
On the other hand, when such risky actions work it generates intimacy, approval and excitement. For a long time I hated the socially outrageous people who could get away with socially risky behavior and reap the benefits, because I felt that whenever I tried, I was punished by indifference or worse.
This explains why “losers” tend to gravitate to the stereotypical activities of video games, internet forums and pornography. These are “low risk” activities that can still fulfill –- even if temporarily –- basic emotional needs.
But the largest issue here is the culture of shame that surrounds social rejection.
If a person experiences social and sexual rejection, they often suffer from shame and ridicule at the hands of their peers. They’re seen as deficient and inherently inferior.
Even attempting to improve one’s social life inevitably leads to social rejection and the formation of a reputation as a loser or outcast. For a lonely and desperate person, this feels like a no-win situation. You’re punished for trying, and also punished for not trying.
In contrast, you expect suicide, or attempted suicide, to elicit a completely different reaction from people: namely, sympathy and the validation you’ve always craved.
As Stewie Griffin from Family Guy said to his sister: “Meg, if you kill yourself now you’ll get a whole page in the yearbook”.
People sympathize with people who are dead. Your absence will force people to miss you, or at least claim they will miss you. It will finally validate you for the qualities you always felt went unnoticed. It will force the appreciation out of them that they never expressed. It will make people think twice about the shame they caused you and the rejection they leveled on you.
Yes, it’s sick, but when you’re this lonely and depressed, this begins to look like a legitimate solution.
How attempted suicide affected my life
My suicide attempt caused me to feel a great deal of guilt.
The first instance of real guilt occurred when I was told that I might need a transplant to live. I felt unworthy to be offered such a costly new lease on life when my position was self-inflicted and when I was unsure about whether I would want to continue living. I could not deal with the idea of living at the expense of someone else who could have been assigned the organ. I told the doctor that I did not want an organ transplant and I meant it.
The second and more enduring source of guilt was my family. I was forced to tell my parents who were understandably devastated. I was always aware that suicide was a selfish act as you are putting your problems and feelings ahead of the distress your death will cause to those who love you, but in my depression it was hard to ever see beyond my unmet needs.
Last year my friend’s sister committed suicide, leaving my friend and her family emotionally destroyed. It forced me to consider what I would have left behind me if I had succeeded. The validation that comes with death is born out of the hurt of those who actually cared for the deceased. In short, it is not an outcome that is actually good for anyone, it’s horrible.
The guilt I harbor means that I have kept my suicide attempt a secret from a large portion of my peers. Most of my siblings and friends still do not know.
But there’s another interesting effect from my suicide attempt. Since I got back into socializing, I became more aware of people publically expressing suicidal thoughts and the reactions they garner.
One example was a girl who was insecure about her weight and frequently went into manic public outbursts of depression. The reaction to these outbursts was an overwhelming validation that she looked fine and had nothing to be insecure about.
The problem was that these comments were made as emotional blackmail in order to calm her down, not because they were true. Chances are that she knew this and that meant that no amount of kind words would improve her self-esteem, and so the outbursts continued.
This is the reason why I have kept my secret from all of my friends except one. I don’t want to pressure them to give me sympathy. I don’t want to rely on their sympathy. The one friend I told, it took me four years to tell him, but his ability to keep it a secret has increased my trust and confidence in him. I know he genuinely cares about me.
Lastly, I have found that I am, ironically, generally more optimistic about things. I am still not where I want to be in life. Nevertheless, my suicide attempt marks a base point, a very low base-point, [Editor’s note: many refer to this as “ hitting rock bottom”] which I can compare my current state against. Every time I look back, I realize I have moved forward. I have faced numerous situations since that would have pushed the “old me” over the edge. But instead, I have sought to improve my situation and take some control.
For example, in my third year at university when I felt unsatisfied with my group of friends, I went out and made new ones. Although not ideal, this is miles beyond where I was years prior.
Advice for those with suicidal thoughts and those who are recovering
I’d like to take a moment and give advice to anyone reading who may be having suicidal thoughts.
It’s important that you talk to someone, but I would recommend making it someone close to you who you can trust. Don’t make it public. Fishing for sympathy or creating drama only invalidates any sympathy you may receive from people.
I recommend parents, a trusted friend, or a counselor. I never talked about my suicidal thoughts and it allowed me to become trapped in my own head. I began to believe that no one actually cared, when really, no one knew.
If you are having suicidal thoughts and feel trapped and like you have no one to talk to, call a suicide hotline (1-800-SUICIDE or 1-800-273-TALK) and seek professional help as soon as possible. It can’t get any worse, right? So you may as well try it. These are trained professionals that can get you the help you need to make your life better.
Another point of advice would be to slowly try and increase the level of social risk you are willing to take, and to try to do it in an environment where you feel you at least have some safety. It is important to look for arenas in which the effect of ridicule on your self-esteem is minimized or the risk of ridicule is low. Start with your family and long-time family friends. Don’t try to be popular or the “cool kid” all at once. Find pre-defined social groups (clubs at school, extra-curricular activities, etc.) where risk of rejection is less because there’s some external focus. The point is to slowly build up your social risk in a way that failure doesn’t devastate you all at once.
Lastly, if you are recovering from suicidal thoughts or actions, take your time and think about how much your life has improved.
It may take a long time to become the person you want to be, in fact it may never happen at all, but it is important to compare your status now (concerning friends, dating and confidence in general) to how you felt at your lowest rather than against what other people appear to be.
[Editor’s Note: There are plenty of popular and “successful” people who kill themselves. Don’t always be so sure other people have it better off than you.]
For example, I am still worse than most with women, but I have improved and got myself a sex life and a wonderful group of friends. I may not be an incredibly attractive man but I feel myself improving all the time. That’s what matters.
This is a guest post by Dave. He’s not dead.
[Image credit: Sam-Cat]