The Best Book About Suicide I Ever Read
Are there people who don’t think about killing themselves every day, several times a day? Yes, apparently there are. I was chatting with some menfolk in a bar where I’m a regular. One guy mentioned that, although suicide has touched his life in the form of friends or family members killing themselves, he had never had the urge to kill himself. There was a sense in which he just didn’t get it. He knew it was something that people contemplated and did, but he hadn’t ever had the inclination to do it to himself.
What a revelation. Blows my mind. I have been suicidal all my life. And given that fact, it’s surprising to me what a long life it’s been. Never thought I’d make it to 50. It’s kind of like, “Good job. You made it this far. Gave it the old college try. Now you might as well do whatever the hell you want.”
Being suicidal is part of my personality. I’ve written funny suicide poems and more serious suicide poems… oh, what the hell, they’re always funny to me, unless they’re not. Really, just writing it down makes it manageable and puts it in perspective. Makes me realize my worldview is so full of doom and gloom, it’s actually funny. Like an emo or goth who is actually a clown.
I use suicidal ideation as a decision-making tool. My default mode of being in the world is suicidally depressed, even on a maximum dose of antidepressants. If someone asks me why I made a certain life decision or what my goal was, the true answer, which I rarely explain, is that I thought about killing myself and then tried to think if there was anything else I might like to do or at least be able to tolerate or something I could try that I hadn’t tried before, which was in the realm of attainable possibilities, which, by the way, are extremely limited when you’re so depressed you can barely move.
I’ve had friends who killed themselves, friends who talked about it. I lived with someone for years who had the sentence, “Suicide is always an option” appearing on repeat as the screensaver for his computer. He would leave suicide notes on Post-its around the apartment — not the only person I’ve known who does that, interestingly enough. Anytime we tried to make a decision about anything, like going to a restaurant, the conversation would go like this:
“We could go here”
“Or we could go there”
“We could do this”
“Or we could do this other thing”
“OR WE COULD JUST KILL OURSELVES!”
In a way, he was perfect for me. I wouldn’t get along with anyone who was cheerful and into positive thinking. Someone who didn’t see all the problems, imperfections, frustrations in the world and in daily life would irritate the motherfucking crap out of me.
I bought him this book at Quimby’s as a present: The Dick Troutman Handy-Dandy Pocket Guide to Successful Suicide by Dick Troutman and Brian “James.” (I know, I’m an incredibly thoughtful gift giver.) When we split up, I ended up keeping it. It goes into great detail discussing various ways to kill yourself, giving pros and cons and how-to tips. Rereading it, I came across this helpful caveat which reminded me that, if you’re going to kill yourself with an overdose of pills and alcohol, you should probably go through some kind of cleanse and give yourself a series of enemas.
“…when you die, if you haven’t taken the time to give yourself an enema or otherwise gotten rid of as much of the waste in your body as possible, that big, stinky pile of shit and puddle of piss is sure to give away that something is really, really wrong and you don’t want to tip your hat (sic) too soon.” (p. 21)
More recently, at Quimby’s, I came across this book which has the opposite purported agenda: How Not to Kill Yourself: A Survival Guide for Imaginative Pessimists by Set Sytes. I think this is my favorite book about suicide of all the ones I’ve read. And, as you can imagine, I’ve read quite a few. Why is this book so great? Because instead of singing the praises of positive thinking and looking on the bright side, it acknowledges that there is a lot of ugly, depressing crap in the world. That is, it tells the truth. It’s geared toward individuals he calls “imaginative pessimists.” These are people who are unhappy with the world because they can imagine a better one. These are people who prefer to live in their own heads and seek out entertainment in books, TV or video games. People who are creative, imaginative, sensitive, thoughtful. People who are in their own worlds because the so-called real world doesn’t work for them and they don’t work for it. What he is saying to these people is, “You want to die because of who you are, and what the world is… And day to day you struggle to find reasons for living.” (p. 19)
But being suicidal doesn’t mean you actually kill yourself. That actually takes planning and effort and the courage of your convictions. And knowing that you won’t kill yourself is in itself a problem.
“Knowing that you’ll never take the plunge doesn’t make it any easier—in fact, it makes it worse … —a torture with no end in sight, an infinity of shit.” (p. 21)
So what to do?
I especially like this book because it praises anger as the motivating emotion it is: “…anger pumps your blood… it gives you energy…” Anger is something you can use, something you can work with. Anger is about self-preservation, an antidote to wanting to kill yourself, “…a force for good, a defensive force, a barrier against the hurt and unfairness of the world.” (p.46) Here’s what there is to be angry about:
“How dare the world lead you to actually contemplate killing yourself?… I hope you’ll join me in agreeing how very wrong it is. And it’s not just you. All over the world, people are killing themselves, taking lives of potential and throwing them away — all because the nature of the world led them to it. That is disgusting.” (p. 47–48)
What’s the point of being angry at the world? It’s so you can fight back, so you can survive.
There’s a chapter of practical tips on how to counteract the desire to kill yourself. The title of the first section in that chapter is “Video Games.” Video games are not my thing, but I know they are relaxing and entertaining for some people and can offer some relief from their depression. The next section’s title is “Productivity,” which isn’t really my thing either in the usual sense, but he includes creativity — writing or drawing or whatever — in this section, and that is my thing. Writing poetry is my thing. Writing is how I deal with my emotions and think things through.
“Write. Draw. Paint. Photograph. Film. Animate. Perform. Craft. Sculpt. Construct. Sew. Cook. Design. Experiment. Edit. Program. Plan. Blog. Brainstorm. Vent. Imagine. Think. Create. Play.” (p. 60-61)
Yeah, creative productivity is totally my thing. I’m going to add playing dolls to his list, too. When I do their hair and change their outfits and arrange the displays, I make some things, even if it’s just doll-sized things, look the way I want. That makes me happy, or at least a little less miserable. And dancing, too. Dancing has always been my thing. Writing is like dancing with your mind or acting on paper.
“Go Outside” is the next section. Outside is not my thing, but sometimes I wonder if I should force myself to get dressed and go outside more, because maybe once I get out there and am walking around I will like it. Sometimes it seems like I like being outside and walking around, and sometimes I’m miserable and can’t wait to get back home.
“Music” is the next. Listening to music is totally my thing. His advice is not to pick anything too happy, because you’ll hate it. He recommends the gothic/doom country band Those Poor Bastards because their music is gloomy and miserable but also tongue-in-cheek. I like Aimee Mann, but I like a lot of other stuff too. Lately I’ve been listening to the recent album from The Decembrists, I’ll Be Your Girl, especially the songs “Sucker’s Prayer” and “Everything is Awful.”
The next section is “Get Dressed.” I forwent air conditioning this summer, so I disagree. It was too hot to wear pants or anything else. Although I also see his point. Once I’m dressed, I’m more likely to do other things like chores or errands or go out into the world and talk to people and go to bars to hear my friends’ bands.
Next, Sytes tells us to “Look After Yourself (And Fight The Dark Side).” This is stuff like brush your teeth and shower and other kinds of advice that piss me off, such as the advice to try to keep a regular sleep schedule when that is exactly the thing I have been unable to do for my entire life and have only made myself more miserable by trying. Sometimes it feels luxurious to go to sleep without brushing my teeth or taking my makeup off, though I suppose it feels that way because I’m in the habit of doing it most of the time. I’m good about confining any food mess to the kitchen and not leaving food wrappers and pizza boxes scattered about. It surprises me that others can leave that kind of mess out. I usually eat every day, too. OK, maybe he’s right about forcing myself to take showers. I’m actually pretty good about that, at least when I know I’m going to be around other people.
The next is “Power-Ups (aka Medication),” which I’m guessing is a video game reference. I can’t emphasize enough how angry medicine shaming makes me. People who tell you to try therapy or change your diet or exercise more, blah blah blah, and then you won’t need medication, should seriously fuck off and die. Here is a nicer way of saying that. For decades I tried managing on my own, taking various supplements, trying various strategies, because I didn’t want to talk to a doctor about it and end up heavily medicated and doing the Thorazine shuffle. When I finally caved and realized I needed meds to function, it took years to figure out the right cocktail.
I tried a bunch of different medications in different combinations. The doctors are only guessing. They don’t know what will work for you because everyone is different, apparently especially me. I got this psychiatrist I didn’t particularly like to give me samples, and I would experiment with combining them on my own, which, as I learned the hard way, you shouldn’t do. You need someone else to know what you’re taking in case it all goes horribly wrong and you have a bad reaction. And I’ve had them.
Depakote caused objects to slip out of my hands. Abilify gave me the worst headaches of my life. Many of them make you gain weight. Many make you really tired. I guess the idea is to make you so tired you don’t have the energy to carry out a suicide plan. Sytes mentions one of the main reasons I resisted taking meds for so long. I don’t think I should have to medicate myself to function in society. I think I’m just fine and society should accommodate me. “Why should I change myself to fit the world, when it’s the world that’s awful and should be the one to change?” (p. 71)
Sytes says taking meds is just one of the ways we adapt to the world. We’re always adapting. We wear clothes and take public transportation or Ubers or whatever. The world changes. We hope it progresses. We adapt. At this point, taking meds beats ECT (aka shock treatment) or lobotomies or being locked up in an institution, so three cheers for progress and I’ll take my pills. Maybe in the future, after I’m long gone, people like me won’t have to take pills to function and deal with reality, because reality will be different with less stress and stupidity and general ugliness and war and genocidal shit shows.
Next section is “Support.” That’s pretty generic and cliched. Ask for help. Asking for help is not weakness. There are people who want to help, who will listen, blah blah blah. I’m not totally discounting this. Sometimes you can seek out help and be the better for it. But more likely you’ll seek out help and feel much, much worse for your efforts.
Next Sytes recommends “Movies,” but not romantic dramas or comedies. He recommends comfort watching (watching something you’ve already seen and love), scary horror movies, especially for people who don’t usually watch horror (like anger, fear is supposed to activate your survival instinct), good comedies, and stuff that makes you cry a lot (because that’s cathartic). I cry at Hallmark commercials so that last one is really easy for me.
Next sections are “Help Other People” and “Avoid Other People.” I can testify to the benefits of helping other people. I notice that’s what will motivate me more than anything else, doing something to help other people. So volunteer work and work in the service industry appeal to me. Although those kinds of things can be heartbreaking and can have extreme ups and downs, because you’re dealing with other people and other people have their own issues and problems, which they sometimes take out on the people trying to help them. Also, I think helping others balances out my totally selfish interest in realizing my creative visions. Writing and researching and thinking take a long time. Often there is anxiety about how and when a project will be completed. Some projects are abandoned and sometimes I come back to them. I won’t know that anything I write will mean anything to another person often until years later when someone mentions that they like a particular poem of mine.
I do avoid other people, but not in the way the author suggests. He recommends avoiding negative people and the social media masochism of getting into arguments online. I guess I do see his point, but it’s not negativity per se that I want to avoid. I like negativity. But relentless, nonproductive, wrongheaded, no end in sight, delusional negativity I might want to take in smaller doses or lessen my engagement with. I don’t want to deal with racism, ableism, sexism, classism, elitism, moralism, blah blah blah, etc. Some days I don’t want to have to deal with anyone at all. I don’t want to walk outside and navigate an obstacle course of dog poop and out of control dogs and their irresponsible, oblivious owners. I don’t want to go to the store and have to interact with people. I don’t even want to have food delivered because I don’t want that human interaction. I don’t answer the phone. I don’t read the mail. I just don’t want anyone to bother me at all.
Next is “Argue With Your Bad Thoughts.” When you’re thinking of all the arguments for killing yourself, come up with counterarguments. Sytes recommends imagining yourself as the heroic lawyer in a courtroom drama. (I knew watching all those Law and Order marathons had to be good for something.)
I think people should kill themselves when and how they want to. It’s not worth all the handwringing of the people who are making a show of mourning and trying to prevent it. The people who are doing the handwringing are probably the people who don’t want to kill themselves every single freaking day of their life. Suicide can be an empowering life choice. If you’re not enjoying life and you don’t see any way it can get better, it makes perfect sense.
I can see that physically it’s all going downhill from here for me. I’m going to get older and fatter and even more tired and I’m going to get wrinkles and have more health problems. Also, the world is going to keep feeling stranger and more alien to me. Everyone is going to seem increasingly different from me, and I’m going to be more and more alone. I’m going to be aware of my brain slowing down and forgetting things. I’ll know that younger people are going to know more stuff and be better at doing stuff than I could ever be. I’m just going to be more and more of a burden to society, just taking up space and resources…
Wait a minute, is that last bit actually true? Do I have nothing to offer anyone? No role to play in society? Are there no pleasures to be had left? The answer to those last few questions is, No. Yes the world sucks in all sorts of ways and I am quite astounded by all the mundane bullshit and hassles I have to deal with, and as I’m writing this I realize I’m one of the relatively lucky ones. I’m not broke. I have a place to live. I have friends and family. Maybe those worse off think their lives can actually get better. I’m pretty convinced this is as good as mine is going to get. But still, does that mean I should give up at this very moment?
And here I’m going to use the general “you” pronoun, because here is what I would tell a friend, and I’ll tell myself too, and anyone who can benefit from it: The world doesn’t need you to beat yourself up trying to make yourself into something you’re not. The world needs you to be you. We need biological and ideological evolution. We need biodiversity and diversity of ideas.
Of course I want to kill myself, and you may want to kill yourself, too. All the best people do. But some of us fellow imaginative pessimists would prefer you hang in there if you can, because, even though it might not know it or admit it, the world needs people like you.