THE BLOG
10/21/2015 05:50 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Suicide: The Quiet Haunting

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Moonrise, 1884 Stanislaw Maslowski

A little over two years ago, I went to the closet where I kept a hidden stash of pills, carefully packed them among my things into a small weekend suitcase, made reservations at an inn I had stayed at with my mother when I was a teenager and left for the beach town of my childhood without telling anyone. I was headed towards the place where I had had my happiest years, those golden, magical summers when I was young. So I could remember. I needed to face down something -- either do away with myself or do away with the suicidal notions that had followed me for many years. Take the pills or throw them away into the sea.

Blindsided by a series of unexpected events sparked by my mother's passing, my underpinnings had been suddenly ripped away; what I had thought was a shored up foundation was washed away in a flood of unmanageable emotion. This was not depression but a reaction to circumstances that were out of my control. These circumstances had reactivated trauma and suicidal thoughts from the past. What I knew to be true was no longer relevant. I felt I had nothing left to hold onto.

I went for a long walk on the beach just past sunset, then for a night swim underneath the half moon near a 200 year old birch tree that overlooks the pool. The massive trunk, with its intensive root system and bark that looks like an elephant's skin, extends upward and outward with generous, unbendable branches offering shade and shelter. I thought of the many lifetimes that tree had presided over -- it grew and expanded generation after generation over the dramas, the loves, the different families who had lived their lives under the tree's watchful presence. Somehow this tree and all that familiar surrounding nature that my body remembered so well from childhood -- those distinctive small, pale pebbles in the driveway, the warmth of the cement under my bare feet, the sand between my toes, the weathered shingled houses and abundant bursts of blue hydrangea, that train whistle in the distance -- began to restore me, renew me. The body remembers even when the mind is lost in a state of confusion.

Two days later I found a rocky promontory on the beach far away from others. A fisherman came and interrupted me so I moved to the next outcropping of rocks down the stretch of isolated beach. An expansive but delicate cloudbank resembling an angel's wing spread to the right of the moon in the sky overhead. I gingerly walked over the large, mossy stones to the spot where the sea was its most tempestuous -- swirling, uncontrolled, persistent even demanding.

I emptied the three pill bottles into this whirlpool, one by one, watched the pills as the sea overtook and consumed them, tossing them around with an almost furious abandon. One pill remained trapped in a corner between two rocks, but the sea quickly swallowed that, too.

I not only released those pills, but with them the family "shadow," the specter of darkness and suicidal thoughts that had felt like a pall hanging over the family for perhaps generations. The pattern stops with me. On those moss covered rocks a decision was made.

•••

We need to understand where we have come from to know where we are going. Suicide, and society's relationship with suicide, has been a long, treacherous, ever changing circuitous path. One of the earliest known suicides was Socrates drinking the hemlock in 399 B.C. He was condemned to death at the age of 70, but seems to have played a vital part in bringing about those circumstances. When on trial he defiantly turned the tables and apparently put his accusers on trial, asked repeated questions of them, refused the chance to escape execution when it was offered and when asked what punishment he felt he should receive, treated it with a careless humor. He felt it was his time to go and that death was a natural part of life. Socrates acknowledged being guided by a divine voice so it is reasonable to assume that he felt justified in taking those actions that led to his death. The Romans had a similar outlook on suicide -- they viewed it pragmatically, as something that was sometimes necessary, an act that could be noble and heroic.

Early Christians embraced martyrdom with unchecked abandon, holding fast to the promise of Paradise. Warrior societies like the Vikings viewed a violent death, that included suicide, as their heroic entry into Valhalla, as noted by A. Alvarez. Vastly different cultural and religious belief structures have been the driving force behind the justification and condemnation of suicide throughout the centuries.

St. Augustine is credited with being the first to declare and specifically address suicide as an act against God in his book City of God, citing "Thou Shalt Not Kill" to bolster his theory. The Church later stepped in and officially deemed it a mortal sin in the sixth century. Protestant reformers held the same beliefs about suicide but left room for the mercy of God and the redemption of the soul through repentance.

So much is said in an image and this is a lasting one: in the Middle Ages, the suicide victim was often buried at a crossroads under the moonlight with a stake driven through the heart and stones piled on top as a final act of desecration. Their property was usually confiscated as well. This practice continued into the 1800's. Suicide was eventually seen as "self-murder" and made a felony crime. Suicidal thoughts and acts were believed to be the work of the Devil; placing blame on "other" diabolical forces, such as witches, became common. The very primal fears and superstitions surrounding suicide, the taboo of the act and the terror of being haunted by those who have died by it, still resonate with people today.

Evidence of views beginning to shift are the publication of John Donne's defense of suicide, Biathanatos (c. 1608, published posthumously in 1647) and Richard Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1621). For the first time since the Church's condemnation, the suicide was given a measure of empathy and seen as a troubled human being, not only as a horror and low criminal.

"No man is an island... Any man's death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." - John Donne, Meditation XVII

With the coming Age of Enlightenment, reason, science and philosophy started to inform people's thinking, and with the rise of man as an individual, a more rational perception of suicide began to emerge. The Industrial Revolution permanently shifted how society functioned: an alienation began to take place as big cities blossomed and emphasis on technology and progress started to replace the Church's previously indomitable hold on society. The cohesive family unit and traditions began to break apart.

Thomas Chatterton's poignant suicide at the age of 17 in 1770 struck a chord and he became the symbol of the beleaguered, neglected and idealistic Poet at odds with an increasingly materialistic society in the Romantic era that followed. Yet his suicide was anything but romantic. His face horribly distorted and frozen in a death grimace from the convulsions induced by the arsenic he ingested, he died in a gloomy garret in the direst penury, near starvation, his talent unrecognized. His was the first of many premature deaths to come -- "only the good die young" still reverberates in the collective mind.

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A view of the city from the New York tower of George Washington Bridge, 168th St and Hudson River, on December 22, 1936 Jack Rosenzweig (from the Municipal Archives of New York)

Suicide was embraced as never before, leading to the Cult of Suicide that burgeoned in the 1800's. Courting death was seen as a sign of exalted emotion and an act of aspiring artistic greatness. Romanticism elevated the arts and honored the intuition of the artist.

The extensive scientific study of suicide that continues to this day commenced with the publication of Emile Durkheim's Suicide: A Study of Sociology in 1897. As Alvarez suggested, suicide became an accepted fact of society and lost its element of shock. It was replaced by an excessive focus on sexuality -- sex of all kinds was the final, unexplored frontier.

The secularization of existing belief structures, the breakdown of long standing traditions and values, and a new isolation of the individual in the midst of an increasingly chaotic society led to the modern age with its senseless wars and violence. The frivolousness and artificial gaiety of the 20's that arose out of the devastation of WWI, leading to the Great Depression in the early 30's and the second World War, created an unrecognized sense of impending disaster within each individual. Much of the art of this time began to reflect this increased alienation and steep decline in the belief in an afterlife. Society's soul was now in crisis -- something that was even exemplified in Hollywood with the new genre of film noir with its powerful, dangerous image of the femme fatale as the embodiment of the seeming cruelty of Fate. And for the first time in human history, there was the possibility of planetary annihilation with the advent of the atomic bomb.

"The passion for destruction is also a creative passion." - Mikhail Bakunin

The first suicide hotlines were established in Britain and Los Angeles in the 1950's. There has been a marked increase in suicides worldwide with each decade among the growing population. If true artists are a barometer for the zeitgeist of society, the excessive number of artists who killed themselves in the 20th century is a grim, foreboding sign of the state of society's soul and inner world.

•••

So where are we now? There is a silent, worldwide epidemic. The rough figures are staggering: about one million people kill themselves and an estimated 10 to 20 million attempt suicide around the world each year; over 41,000 people died by suicide in the U.S. in 2013. Hundreds of thousands are admitted into hospitals in just the U.S. alone every year for acts of self-harm. It is difficult to know how many suicides are registered as "accidents" and to tally all of the attempts that are not reported -- the reality of the actual number is guaranteed to be significantly higher. It is sobering to think that every 40 seconds around the world someone loses their life to suicide. We lose at least 3,000 people a day. There are far more suicides than homicides.

How do we view suicide in this new century? A. Alvarez wrote this back in the 1970's but it still rings true today:

"What was once a mortal sin has now become a private vice, another 'dirty, little secret', something shameful to be avoided and tidied away, unmentionable and faintly salacious, less self-slaughter than self-abuse." - from The Savage God: A Study of Suicide, 1971

The suicide of today is a particularly modern phenomenon -- an act that appears to be more of an existential crisis than anything else. In a fractured society with a secularization of society's overriding beliefs, we are experiencing an unpinning and a freedom that has left many with a feeling of being lost and confused. The suicide bomber is a contemporary embodiment of this existential crisis -- the need to hold fast to a strong belief system and sense of community, even if following a false light.

There is a battle between the light and dark sides of our nature. Everyone has to face this battle within themselves, whether it is consciously addressed or not. The more light there is, the more depth of shadow. Some people, artists in particular, are forced to face what I call "the shadow of the shadow" -- it is reached when one travels beyond the razor's edge into an unknown free fall. You face the darkest of the dark in yourself. The irony of this is that facing that darkness in yourself and dying to your weaker, more limited self is the way to true freedom and self-knowledge.

"There is only one liberty - to come to terms with death. After which, everything is possible."

Sylvia Plath went to that "shadow of the shadow" and sent us the extraordinary gems of the Ariel poems, but she couldn't find her way back; she got caught there -- totally isolated -- and in the end, wasn't able to extricate herself. Alvarez, who knew Plath before her death, didn't feel she meant to kill herself. He concludes that it was a desperate cry for help, and the circumstantial evidence surrounding her death supports his theory -- he felt she was acting "out the awful little allegory once over before she is free of it" (Plath's own words in discussing the narrator in her poem, Daddy). Was she trying to cast out, exorcise -- once and for all -- that death intent within her? She was at the height of her powers as a writer and was in the midst of writing a novel she had no reservations about, one she felt was far superior to The Bell Jar. She was the mother of two small children asleep in the apartment. It is hard to believe she really intended to check out completely. She played Russian roulette with her life and lost.

Everyone who has suicidal thoughts has unwittingly tapped into that river of psychic pain that is available to all of us. We get there through different circumstances, but it is the same river. Your pain is not special. And in knowing that, you realize that you are not alone. Others have felt and experienced this temporary, overwhelming psychic pain. And many have escaped it, learned from it and are changed and ultimately transformed by it.

"The capacity for change is our great hallmark as human beings." - Edwin S. Shneidman, The Suicidal Mind, 1996

Studies have revealed that the death intent is present in the large majority of people who have experienced the death of a parent or loved one, especially before adolescence (Hemingway, Plath and so on). Or, if they have experienced a trauma that registers as a "death" -- childhood abuse, in particular. These are both factors that bring on an early awareness of death, mortality and fate. Trauma and childhood abuse, as Kim Tingley wrote in the New York Times, "can cause changes in the receptors of brain cells," leaving the brain in a heightened state of alertness, affecting how someone reacts to stress in the future.

Every suicide is a combination of so many factors -- biological, biochemical, cultural, sociological, interpersonal, etc. But there is one common thread: No one really wants to die. They are just trying to escape their unbearable pain at that moment. I liken it to being in a burning building. The increasing heat, pressure, smoke and noise of the fire overwhelms them, and all they can think of is escaping and getting relief. In that moment they are not able to think of their loved ones. When people accuse the person who has attempted or succeeded in taking his/her life of cowardice and selfishness, it is clear they have simply not had this experience of extreme psychic pain -- a pain that almost always comes from thwarted and/or unfulfilled or distorted needs and desires. Every aspect of this person's psyche and spirit is in a state of constriction and a sense of total hopelessness obscures their sight. It is like trying to understand the experience of sex before its actuality -- it is impossible to grasp it until you experience it yourself. What they are seeking is peace.

We need to really listen to those who have returned from the brink; those who have actually survived an attempt. They seem to echo one another:

"Please, I don't want to die!," a woman who had shot herself screamed as she was rescued and saved.

"I instantly realized that everything in my life that I'd thought was unfixable was totally fixable -- except for having just jumped," said Ken Baldwin, who survived jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge in 1985.

"My first thought was 'What the hell did I just do?' I didn't want to die," said Kevin Hines, who also survived jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000.

The cries to be saved from a teenage boy who had shot himself -- but could not be saved -- are haunting.

The two top spots that people gravitate towards to die by suicide are the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Aokigahara Forest in Japan. Those who are seeking out these "magnetic" places are attempting to make their death an event, an almost sacred happening, by traveling to these mysterious, mystical places where so many others have crossed over. Through the natural majesty of these places, they appear as a gateway between heaven and earth. Seeking a transcendent experience even in death?

Aokigahara, "Japan's haunted forest of death," is a breathtaking expanse, a lush sea of green -- a dense forest that rose from the volcanic soil at the base of Mt. Fuji. Since the 1950's people have gone there to hang themselves in the gnarled trees. Some leave a trail of colorful tape on the trees to find their way back if they decide against it, like the tale of Hansel and Gretel leaving breadcrumbs to find their way out of the forest. The tape looks like bright ribbons indicating a path to be followed, signposts of a journey. The corpses left behind are anything but a mystical, glorious sight. Sometimes only the remnants of tattered clothing and bones remain. Or a dirty, empty, weathered rope dangles from a branch. Each, a reminder of an extreme, isolated, very solitary death.

"She wants the peace of the deep earth, the order of Nature's cycle of life and death, the sanctuary of the great womb." - Edwin S. Shneidman

The revelation that comes from watching the controversial, but important documentary on suicide, The Bridge, is that these men and women that were filmed jumping from the Golden Gate thought they were totally alone, yet they were not alone. They needed a witness to their pain. We all do. Why else would they choose to jump in the daytime with all the traffic and tourists? And they got their witnesses -- not just the people on the bridge nearby, but those who were filming the bridge in that moment and the thousands of people who have watched the film since. Most of us were thinking, "If I could only have been there to save them," just as the videographers who were filming tried to save people numerous times in that year they were making the documentary.

A landmark study -- "Where Are They Now?" -- in the late 1970's, conducted by clinical psychologist Richard Seiden revealed that only a very small minority (6%) of people stopped from suicide attempts went on to actually kill themselves. More than 90% of them overcame their suicidal thoughts and did not continue on their self-destructive course. The acute, potentially lethal suicidal impulse is often momentary -- an attempt can occur as quickly as ten minutes from the initial impulse. It has been proven time and again that "means restriction" -- cutting off easy access to quick exits like guns and bridges without barriers -- can be an enormously successful deterrent. It gives the impulse time to lose fire and momentum. After Britain switched from coal-gas to natural gas in the 60's and 70's, the "suicide rate in that country was dropped by a third." They essentially removed the "execution chamber in everyone's kitchen," wrote Scott Anderson in the New York Times in 2008.

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The Wind, 1910 Felix Vallotton

Then there are the "hidden suicides," those who die from a silent, unrecognized method, destroying themselves through repeated, destructive behaviors without taking responsibility for what they are actually doing: drugs, alcohol, food, smoking, extreme risk taking activities, etc. Jack Keourac's protracted suicide is difficult to watch in videos on YouTube -- that beautiful man touched by brilliance slowly drinking himself into oblivion in a haze of overwhelming sadness. More recently, a gifted actor was found dead with numerous heroin packets and other drugs around him. The addiction is discussed -- but the possible death intent, the buried pervasive sadness behind the addiction, is not really addressed.

The media tends to push the idea of suicide away with convenient labels -- "depression," "mental illness" -- and leave it at that without examination. All of us are guilty of this deflection because it is hard to know how to face it down. Many people who experience this strange haunting of suicidal thoughts are not depressed or mentally ill. We need to begin to ask the deeper, more probing questions behind their desperate, extreme acts. In the last five years, a number of high profile celebrities have taken their lives; celebrated designers Alexander McQueen and L'Wren Scott, and Robin Williams just last year. We responded with shock, profound sadness and a sense of hopelessness, but social media revealed another level of response -- some comments were vicious, condemning and castigating, with no empathy. Remnants of those primitive fears from the past perhaps. But also maybe a legitimate feeling of, "Buck up, I have my own problems and you don't see me killing myself." I think there is a tendency to be surprised that someone who has found such outward success in this life would still choose to willfully leave it. Isn't that tremendous outer success and fame what we are all seeking in this age?

•••

Three months after throwing the pills into the sea, the biography tornado struck: a falsified account of my grandfather Norman Rockwell's life was published in November 2013. I started my own in-depth investigation, first by reading my grandfather's autobiography and then branching out to many other sources, including my grandmother's letters from Paris and some personal letters and notes that were kept in an old suitcase. I approached the search with a brutal honesty, not sure of what I would find -- my ignorance unwittingly led me on a journey to an unveiling of my family and, in turn, myself.

My personal epiphany came when I read a letter that my grandmother, Mary, had written to her psychiatrist, Margaret Brenman, in 1955, five years after her first breakdown. I stumbled on this line and paused:

"...I have no black hostility in me because no matter how much I thought about it and I certainly examined every possible method, I am constitutionally incapable of committing suicide."

This sentence summed up what I had lived with for as long as I can remember since adolescence -- the psychic darkness that would sometimes visit me, an unmitigated fear that would grow into a nameless terror that would haunt me with these strange thoughts of suicide, even grip me in the middle of the night and arrest me from my sleep. No actual suicide attempts, but what I call the "death intent" was there intermittently. (Freud referred to it as the "death instinct," the psychoanalytic term is "death trend.") I had one incident of self-harm cutting -- I mimicked what I saw other girls my age were doing, a coping mechanism to try to deal with emotion I wasn't able to process.

Now I realize that this darkness was not just mine: my grandmother had harbored some of the very same thoughts. This explained so much. The darkness at times felt so heavy that it couldn't fully belong to me. There wasn't anything that had happened in my life that seemed to justify that level of psychic pain. And I, too, don't feel capable of actually dying by the act. I finally had the means, those three bottles of pills, and still could not, would not, succumb. It is up to us to work through the shadows left behind. Our own shadow and the shadows of our forefathers and mothers.

In my twenties I had to contend with fits and starts of depression, but a series of illuminating experiences in my late twenties left me convinced, without a doubt, that there is a power and light that is much greater than we are. I was not bothered by depression again. A day or two of melancholy perhaps, here and there, but never depression. I thought I had been completely freed from the death intent, only to learn in that perfect storm a few years ago that it had just gone dormant within me and was waiting to be triggered.

Suicidal thoughts can be passed down from generation to generation just like other hereditary factors like addictions to alcohol, drugs or food, health issues, hair color, etc. I now look upon the suicidal thoughts as an addictive part of my personality, a built-in weakness that I have to remain vigilant of, to remember that much of this darkness is not mine -- it doesn't belong to me.

There are those of us who have carried the suicide ticket in our back pocket, reassured that we can take it out whenever circumstances overwhelm and/or thwart us. That ticket is our escape route, if needed. It is the braver man or woman who takes that ticket out of their back pocket, ignites it, and burns instead with the possibility of life. Healing is not linear; it is a process. It is not something that takes place with one epiphany or action. It often takes repeated actions and discoveries before a true shift occurs. It takes much more courage to face the remaining unknown moments of our life without flinching and without any means of escape, except to move forward.

The saints, sages and mystics of all ages and religions have essentially said the same thing: the divine light is within us and all around us if we develop the eye to see it and the sense to experience it. But in this age of technology, science and reason, we have lost belief in that mystical realm of possibility.

No one has the answers. Each and every person is searching. They find pieces of truth along the way. They puzzle small sections out, but not the whole picture. This is what I know is true for me right now: it is not my place to choose to leave this life; each of us has a contract to fulfill. We can choose not to fulfill it, but that is choosing a lower path with many brambles. It is my duty to honor the contract and discover the expectations of it along the way. I know I am fulfilling its requirements when I experience joy and a quiet sense of knowing and peace in the process.

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In every moment we are choosing either creation or destruction, light or darkness, life or death. Begin by choosing differently, moment by moment. Two things are essential. The necessity of faith in something -- in God/Source, Nature, Art, family, the battle of life, truth and/or love, etc. And the need for illumination -- a mystical union of the spirit with a power greater than ourselves and/or a deep sense of purpose that sparks the soul and sets it on fire.

We can't do it alone. Azuza Hayano, a Japanese geologist who studies the environment surrounding Mt. Fuji, also goes into the forest to try to save people and has said, "You think you are alone, but that's not true. Nobody is alone in this world. We have to coexist and take care of each other."

We are here to connect with one another and help share the journey together. Don Ritchie, who lives right near a cliff called "The Gap" in Australia -- the most notorious place in that country for suicides -- has saved about 160 people. If he sees someone who is standing alone, too close to the precipitous edge, he goes over to them, starts up a conversation and invites them to his home for tea.

A man who jumped from the Golden Gate in the 1970's had left a note behind on his dresser that read: "I'm going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump." No one connected with him and he jumped to his death.

A college housemate told me years ago that I had helped her to save herself from dying by suicide. All I remember was going into her room to occasionally talk with her. I don't remember anything that was said. But I do recall us connecting.

"She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and the soul of every man. Only connect! That was her whole sermon... Live in fragments no longer." - E. M. Forster, Howard's End

As I was writing this piece I learned that a young woman had just died by suicide. She had the face of an angel and the energy of a pixie -- an ethereal beauty that seemed otherworldly. She was a talented photographer with a unique eye. I didn't know her, but I do feel I knew her somehow. I have an idea of what she was struggling with, how fragile she felt. And she lost her struggle. Another person gone.

We have to overcome the shame of suicide and talk openly and humanly about it. It affects us all. My hope is that the tender, sensitive ones who find it so difficult to exist in this world at times will not only survive, but thrive. The world needs their spirit and presence to balance things out. Some of us don't have huge fame and millions of followers on Twitter in our futures; instead we have a quieter destiny that is just as important, like that magnificent oak tree in the far field that hardly anyone sees. It stands triumphant, year after year in its beauty and strength and resilience. It provides a home for the birds, nuts for the squirrels, and occasionally a person hiking comes upon it and stands in awe. It is enough to just exist -- and share your beauty and kindness with those that are near.