By James Swift
Did I ever tell you kids about the time I tried to kill myself?
Sure enough, it happened. November 2008, to be exact. I’ve had close to 10 years to ponder why that grave autumn afternoon I attempted to end my own life, but to be honest, even now I’m not really certain.
Was it because I was horribly depressed over losing my girlfriend, or things falling apart with my family, or having a job I hated or feeling like a failure at school and just generally feeling like I was caught in a rut I’d never, ever in a million years escape from?
Or was it because I had just started taking anti-depressants? Maybe it was the fact I had just started taking anti-depressants and was still drinking alcohol fairly regularly. You don’t need to be a Harvard researcher to know that ain’t a good combination.
Hell, maybe it was actually a comorbid thing. I had a major eating disorder at the time and insomnia. I’d go three days at a time without food AND sleep. I’d get so weak that when I was driving, I’d have these blackout periods of upwards of ten seconds. Looking back on it, how I didn’t end up in some sort of disastrous automotive mishap is simply miraculous.
Needless to say, I wasn’t in good shape, emotionally, mentally or physically. I guess it was just a perfect storm of things that came together at the wrong place and at the wrong time. Regardless, for whatever reason, that night I decided the most intelligent thing I could do was swallow as many sleeping pills as humanly possible, shut my eyes, and peacefully fall into a fatal slumber.
Me being the dummy I was, though, not all of the pills I jammed down my gullet were sleeping pills. Most of them were Tylenol, and I’m pretty sure there was some stool softener in the mix, too. After the fact, I learned that the pharmaceutical potpourri in my tummy most likely wasn’t enough to kill me, but it was almost certainly enough to screw up my liver for life. Had the EMTs not pumped my stomach full of charcoal, odds are, I would’ve been on dialysis until the day I actually did die.
Things could’ve panned out much, much worse that evening. And – with a decade to reflect on my quasi-semi-near-fatal episode – I’ve decided there’s only one thing I can blame the suicide attempt on:
Yep, just me. Not the teachers at school giving me Cs instead of As. Not the people at work being mean to me. Not my girlfriend refusing to return my phone calls. Not my family for being a bunch of doo-doo heads at a time when I really could’ve used their help. Not the physician who gave me a prescription for SSRIs. Not the clerk who sold me the alcohol I was mixing with said SSRIs. Not pop culture for making me think I needed to be rail thin to be happy with myself.
No, it was all on me. I was the person who decided the time was right to exit the mortal coil. I was the person who made the conscious, deliberate decision to at least attempt to end my own existence. I was the person who thought I would never get any further in life and that death was – temporarily, at least – a more desirable state of being.
I was young and impulsive and brash and made a really, really stupid decision. I wasn’t thinking about the long-term. I wasn’t thinking period – I just let sheer emotion take the wheel and next thing you know, I’m lying in a hospital bed with air tubes in my nose and a burning plastic catheter wedged up my pee hole … complete with a $20,000 or so hospital bill waiting for me on the way out the door.
It’s going to sound absurd, but attempting suicide really did save my life. After about a week, I was forced to reevaluate who I was and where I was going in life. I had to contemplate why I was sad instead of letting it unreasonably lord over me like some sort of emo slavemaster. I had to mull why I thought life was so bad that killing myself sounded like a good idea, and from there, I slowly but surely managed to fix my own damn problems.
I stopped letting the opinions of others dictate my own sense of self-worth. I stopped blaming other people for my mistakes. I admitted that almost all of the problems I had in my life were self-created or self-maintained. I started mapping out goals for myself, engaging in more constructive activities, being more sociable and doing what I could to help people who were in even shittier predicaments than myself.
But most importantly, I took responsibility for my actions. Right then and there I decided that, from here on out, I had to be the one calling the shots. If I succeeded or failed, the only person I could credit or condemn was me. I realized – over time, of course – that if I had the power to end my own shitty existence, I also had the same power to turn my shitty existence awesome.
That crippling depression that almost goaded me into suicide gradually disappeared. And in its place was a newfound appreciation for being alive, of always having another day to improve myself, work on my writing and do something to make the planet just a little bit better for somebody else.
If anybody ever calls me “a suicide survivor,” I’m going to slap them silly (well, at least give them a look that conveys I want to slap them silly.) That’s an insult to people who’ve actually survived catastrophic events. People survive cancer. People survive warfare. People survive muggings and car wrecks and sexual assaults. You can’t survive anything you voluntarily chose to do yourself. Nobody put a gun to my head and made me swallow all those pills. I was a dumb, dumb kid who made a dumb, dumb decision. And anybody who tries to rationalize – let alone heroicize – impulsive, near-fatal decisions is an absolute idiot.
When I see stuff like 13 Reasons Why, my heart sinks. For years, U.S. society – especially Hollywood – has been guilty of romanticizing suicidal behavior. The danger of stuff like The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Suicide Room is that it attempts to ascribe logic to the ultimate illogical act. Unless you’re terminally ill and in so much physical pain that not even a punch bowl filled with narcotics can make the agony go away, there’s absolutely NO reason to kill yourself. But instead of denouncing youth suicide as the absurdity it is, the cultural zeitgeist seems hell-bent on justifying it. How many maudlin news stories have we heard over the years of middle schoolers hanging themselves because of cyberbullying, or high schoolers shooting themselves because of homophobia or college kids slicing their own wrists because of fat shaming? As evident by the disturbing number of incidents of children killing themselves live on Facebook and Periscope, modern suicide has literally become the ultimate form of virtue signaling. Our culture has convinced young people that killing themselves makes them martyrs in the great cultural crusade against intolerance. Now, suicide has become the most radical way of getting back at one’s oppressors. Kids aren’t killing themselves because they’re disappointed in who they are or the irreversibility of their actions, they’re killing themselves because the media tells them it’s the best way to show their “tormentors” the error of their ways.
Youth suicide, for lack of a better term, has become weaponized for ideological warfare. Whenever a young person makes the terrible, terrible decision to kill themselves, we’re willing to blame everybody and anything but the person who is ACTUALLY responsible for the death in the first place – that being, the kids themselves. Instead of saying “that poor, naive kid made a real dumb, real tragic decision,” we’re saying the kids were literally killed by peer pressure, or prejudice or unrealistic societal standards. I am reminded of the case of Kenneth Suttner, a 17-year-old Wisconsin boy whose alleged harasser – 21-year-old Harley Branham – was actually arrested on second-degree murder charges after he committed suicide. Suttner was all alone when he made the voluntary, conscious decision to kill himself, yet a court of law is now actively trying to pin the blame on somebody else. The precedent that could be set here is absolutely chilling – and almost guaranteed to inspire more short-sighted, emotionally fragile youths to kill themselves as an extreme – and responsibility-diverting – response to momentary adversity.
By passing blame on to bullies and bigots and intangible constructs, the media’s doing something worse than normalizing suicide, they’re practically encouraging it. Youths who commit suicide are almost always depicted as victims, as people wrongly and unjustly denied by a cold and callous culture. They become celebrated as tragic heroes, people pushed to the absolute brink by the insidious doings of others.
And it’s all a bunch of bullshit – incredibly, insanely dangerous bullshit.
I can only imagine the thoughts the pass through a depressed kid’s head when they watch the media lavish suicide-perpetrators like Chris Cornell and Robin Williams with syrupy, hagiographic praise. They watch in awe as the 24-hour news cycle practically celebrates them as martyrs, almost always romanticizing their drug addiction and mental health problems as tragic-yet-character-defining traits. Under the guise of memorial retrospectives, these poor, foolish kids witness the most grandiose displays of unfettered emotional pornography and idol worship. They realize that all they have to do is put a gun in their mouth or tie a noose in their closet and they too will be forever remembered as beautiful, troubled souls. What an alarming – and downright lethal – message to relay to the young, impressionable, and attention-starved; just kill yourself and you’ll finally get all that recognition and appreciation you thought you always deserved.
I’m a very, very lucky dude. I and I alone made a stupid, pointless and emotionally reckless decision and almost died. That’s nothing to be proud of and everything to be ashamed of. I don’t deserve any sympathy for it and if, anything, I deserve far more scorn for such idiotic behavior.
But there are a lot of people out there – many of them preposterously young – who don’t get a chance to live to understand the error of their ways. They’ll get sad and unmotivated and think there’s no escape from their problems, and they’ll swallow some pills and slit their wrists or drink furniture polish. But unlike me, they won’t have all those years ahead of them to realize their problems weren’t that bad, their predicaments in life we’re going to change for the better and that at the end of the day, only THEY had the wherewithal to control their own lives.
It’s because their suicide attempts worked.
I’m sorry, but nothing – bullying, mental health problems, homophobia, divorce, breakups, losing a job, getting called names on the internet, etc. – is worth killing yourself over. There is no logical excuse for something so extreme and, bluntly, stupid. Suicide rightly deserves to be a social stigma, because sometimes, critical cultural standards can save lives.
As someone who attempted suicide, I have no qualms stating anyone who takes pride in being a so-called “suicide survivor” is a moron. Trying to end your own life because of a temporary, circumstantial problem IS something you should be ashamed of, and to attempt to pass on the blame for your reckless, voluntary action to somebody or something else is pathetic.
The last damn thing our culture needs is some shitty Netflix program glorifying the post-mortem justice myth of suicide. What we NEED is Hollywood and the media to highlight perseverance and triumphs over adversity instead of vaunting self-loathing and self-destruction as role model behavior. We need people to vaunt the importance of self-responsibility over self-absorption, people who glorify tenacity instead of irresolution, and perhaps most importantly of all, people who promote adult reasoning over the sheer emotion of childhood.
The more the media covers and celebrates youth suicide as ghoulish acts of postmodern protest, the more young lives that are needlessly going to get flushed down the drain.
There is nothing noble or admirable about suicide, and any attempts to reassign blame to anyone other than the person who chose to kill him or herself will do nothing but incentivize more children to hang themselves and blow their brains out.
Those who commit suicide should be pitied as confused and shortsighted people, and never celebrated as “troubled heroes.”
Unless, of course, you want your son, daughter, niece or nephew to follow the leads of their own fallen idols.