Monday, November 6, 2017

Suicide: how to steer past staring into the abyss

In June of 2012 I was home 'sick' actually trying to mark my way out of piles of English essays when the phone rang. The Superintendent at my Mum's building said she'd been found dead. She'd been battling some mental health demons but had never once said anything about suicide. She took all the pills given to her by her well meaning doctor for depression; I guess he hadn't seen it coming either because he handed her the means to do it. It probably happened early in the first week of June and I got called on the Monday of the second week. It had been a strangely hot spring and she had fallen unconscious and died in her bedroom, and then lay there for a week in a top floor apartment, slowly baking into the floor. When we were finally allowed in a week later the smell was overwhelming. I sincerely hope no one else ever has to mop their Mum's remains up off the floor.

No note was ever found, we had no idea why this happened. As she struggled with schizophrenia she had managed to give all of the money her mother had recently left her to grifter - we didn't find this out until later. I got his name and gave it to the Waterloo Police who just shrugged. Taking advantage of mentally ill seniors is perfectly OK in Canada. So Mum, destitute and in declining health looked at a future of poverty, confusion and dependence. One night in what I hope was a moment of lucidity, she sat down on the end of her bed, surrounded by boxes as she had to move to a cheaper apartment, and made a decision about her future. Fortunately, the light hand of Canadian health care had given her everything she needed to end that future.

When I see someone roll their eyes at a mental illness I want to punch them in the face. They wouldn't yell at a person in a wheelchair for being too lazy to climb the stairs, but mental illness is seen as a choice; it isn't a choice. Watching my Mum turn on herself was agonizing to watch. We tried to be supportive, we tried to be interventional, but if you bring someone in to a hospital because you're worried about them hurting themselves, they can sign themselves out a few days later. Mum did. Six months later they'll send them home with enough anti-depressants to kill themselves. This whole process was like watching a ship slowly sinking. You want to try and stop it, but it's inevitable, and there is no one around, healthcare or police, who can or will do anything about it. You can thrash around trying to stop the inevitable, but this only brought more pain. I finally ended up playing the violin on the deck as the water rose around us.

People will tell you that suicide is selfish, that it's just an expression of depression. The people telling you this are frantically trying to manage the situation. Having been on the deck of the suicide ship, I can tell you that it's fairly impossible to manage. Suicide is a reminder to everyone that our lives are ephemeral and fleeting; none of us need be here. It's a reminder that we are, in spite what the media tells us about our place in the world, the single most powerful things in our lives because we have the power to end it if we wish.

Religion is terrified of this power. It drapes suicide in shades of sin. It tells believers that they won't go to heaven if they do it. It warns of eternal damnation if they commit this most heinous of acts. Is my Mum in hell? You won't find a lot of solace in religion when you're going over the Niagara Falls of a suicide.

We are very smart animals. Unlike the instinct driven majority of creatures on Earth in a constant struggle with nature, we have made ourselves safer, more long living and this means we have time to exercise our big brains and wonder what the point of it all is. We fill that void with social expectations, belief and other human constructions like prejudice that fill our days with invented meaning. Suicide bypasses all of these fictions and brings us to a shocking truth: the only real thing about us is our being. Staring into that existential abyss, these human fictions we amuse ourselves with on a day to day basis (your nationality, your race - humans don't have races, humans ARE a race, your religion, your political stripes ad nauseam) quickly fade in significance.

Facing this implacable foe, the talk that so fuels and satisfies all of those human endeavours is suddenly empty. How do you face the shocking freedom and power of your existential self when it's thrown into the light by suicide? 

Accept your power, and then choose to use it.

It's taken me five long, hard years to get here. A lot of what we do is pretense and if you cling to those social expectations you won't find them practical tools for combating existential angst. We're capable of abstraction and self understanding beyond the ken of most of our animal cousins. If we apply our ability to think beyond the institutional confines of social convention and grasp the existential freedom our minds allow us, we can see past the whirlpool of suicide and into a future of self realization.

A lot of people say suicide is just the result of depression, but I think that's reductive and manipulative (they're saying that to make people think it's a socially manageable situation). Suicide reminds us all that our being here is ephemeral, and that usually scares the shit out of people. I've gotten past the scared shitless phase and have tried to be as honest about this as I'm able.  Suicide reminds me to cultivate my passions in life. Find reasons for wanting to make good use of your short time here on this planet, then go after them.  Love those closest to you, be gentle with yourself, cultivate your interests and use that to build your strengths, minimize your weaknesses and become a better person.

Suicide reminds me that we are very powerful indeed, and we should grasp that power and use it to fill our lives with real meaning.  

If you're ever feeling overwhelmed by it all, remember most of it is bullshit made by your fellow humans to coerce you into their way of thinking.  Step past all that, grasp your existence and make it your own.  It'll be over before you know it anyway.

Note: the images in this are from a series of art therapy pieces I did shortly after my Mum's death. I was stuck having nightmares of her week slowly melting in the parquet floor of that apartment  and needed to get them out of my head. Mum was an artist. I'm glad I inherited a piece of that. The process she gifted me helped me get over one of the hardest events in my life.

My brother and I put her ashes into the sea by our home town in England.  Events like that help create a sense of closure, but I'm always amazed at how close to the surface those feelings are, even now.  This week we're dealing with multiple suicides at my school.  The skin is still thin where it has healed.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

But We're Much Happier Now

The stats back up that officer's anecdotal experience. 
I've had a number of conversations in the past few weeks that shed some light on a difficult subject. This all began at my men's yoga class. One of the other guys there is a detective from the city south of us. He has been working on homicides for the past nine years and is starting to feel the weight of being around that much death all the time. He said the hardest part of is job is seeing his own demographic so prevalent in the suicides he covers. When I asked what he meant he said the suicides always seem to be guys in their forties and fifties. That was a heavy way to start a yoga class full of guys in their forties and fifties and not the kind of thing you soon forget.

From that I went into Christmas. The last couple of years have been good with trips away to warmer places. These adventures have been a great alternative to having how dysfunctional my family is rubbed in my face for two weeks. After a long bout of mental illness, a divorce and a suicide the local family members aren't very good at getting together and all the rest are an ocean away. I feel remarkably isolated during the holidays and getting generic presents from in-laws only serves to emphasize how peripheral I am to the festivities. I can see why some people struggle with the season while the rest are manically happy.

With that all behind me I attended a lodge meeting this week that developed into a very insightful discussion by a group of sharp men on the steady deterioration of social interaction between our gender in the past two decades. Evidently I'm not the only man who feels socially isolated. Many older members lamented the lack of time and the means to enjoy that social time together. My sardonic reply was, 'yeah, but we're all much happier nowadays.' Attendance in masonry is an ongoing concern. Twenty years ago the social aspects of the craft were central to a meeting with brothers often socializing long after the meeting was done. Back then we had time for each other, nowadays our commutes are longer, our work expectations more stringent and our family commitments more involved. We have less time for each other in the Twenty First Century.

We're feeling time squeezed at a time when our debt levels are going through the roof in a desperate attempt to maintain that standard of living we enjoyed two decades ago. One of the first things you try to curtail when you see debt spiraling out of control are optional social events. The economics of Twenty First Century life is just another force acting to tear us apart. As Axl so aptly once said, 'as our arms get shorter our pockets get deeper.'

Running the desperate treadmill of modern life has us feeling like we have no time to make connections with each other. To fix this problem we cunningly invented social media to fill that gap. You can stay in touch without sitting in traffic in crumbling infrastructure while burning ever more expensive gasoline to see people, but you're not really seeing them. Having the time and means to actually meet your fellows and spend time with them without feeling like you need to be virtually or physically elsewhere is a basic human need many men have forgotten. I'm willing to bet many of those suicides my yoga buddy attended were lonely men feeling socially isolated.

The health considerations of poorly socialized, less active men are bad for everyone. I keep getting told to be active. I'd love to play hockey or soccer as I once did, but there is no access to the local cliques who do it. Men tend to be remarkably tribal and don't like taking in outsiders. That makes it difficult to play team sports if you're not living where you grew up with the people you grew up with (that's most of us).

I'm going to make a concerted effort to try and cultivate the time and space to find the social discourse I seem to have grown out of as a middle-aged man. My family and my work are important, but so is finding the time and means to experience meaningful relationships with other men. It might even lead to exercise and a chance to expand my social network into something beyond words on a screen.