During a recent walk in preparation for our 50th high-school reunion, a friend and I discussed a classmate who had killed himself by jumping off a bridge.
Because of his fine character and extraordinary accomplishments, numerous admirers had established a scholarship in his memory. When my friend was asked to contribute, he hesitated at first.
Was it right, he wondered, to honor a man who had ended his life this way? Would it seem like an endorsement of suicide, something shameful and immoral?
When my friend expressed his misgivings, the man seeking the contribution urged him to separate the act from the man. Yes, the act is regarded as shameful and immoral, but our classmate, when he committed it, was mentally ill, he argued, behaving in a way that was irrational and out of character.
I agree that our classmate was mentally ill. But precisely because of that, his final act was, I contend, rational and in character.
Some suicides are impulsive acts of despair, precipitated by an immediate crisis or sudden calamity. But most suicides are preceded by long periods of depression and anxiety, so that a suicidal inclination becomes part of one’s character, an emotional and perceptual default mode. Only those who have experienced the unrelieved darkness of depression can comprehend the pain that can make suicide seem not only rational but also desirable and necessary.
>> READ MORE: Why are so many Americans killing themselves?
Who knows what triggered Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain to make the “forever decision”? All I know is that they were exceptionally intelligent and alive. It’s no secret that creative types – artists, writers, musicians, actors, etc. – are prone to mood disorders and depression. It’s the price they pay for seeing too clearly, feeling too keenly, thinking too deeply, living too alertly.
About 20 percent of the general population struggles with depression, mood disorders, and “afflictions of the self,” experts estimate. But among those of a creative and artistic bent, the proportion rises to 40 percent.
“They can see the big picture, they can see the subtle parts of life the rest of us myopically can’t see,” says Peter Whybrow, author of A Mood Apart: Depression, Mania, and Other Afflictions of the Self, and chair of the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at UCLA. “But the engine of creative achievement is embedded in the same genetic vulnerabilities that can take us to the asylum. Just a minor twist of the dial can mean the difference between madness and something wonderful that everyone applauds.”
The suicide rate, however, is rising alarmingly among all kinds of folks, which suggests, along with the opioid epidemic, that there’s something increasingly toxic and dispiriting about our culture and society, and the rampaging technology that is transforming both. As the eminent psychiatrist Thomas Stephen Szasz once observed: “Insanity is the only sane reaction to an insane society.”
Even for the most distraught, suicide is never an easy decision, and there’s never an easy way.
Always the question is why. Here’s one answer: “Depression is absolutely exhausting when you’re in the depths of it,” says Parker Palmer, an author and educator who knows the scourge intimately, “and people who commit suicide often, to put it simply, need the rest.”
That’s not acceptable to many Americans. The people we laud are those who survive, endure, persevere — who, in Churchill’s stirring words, “never, never give up.” We don’t give medals to dropouts and quitters.
My family tree is diseased with depression, and I’m familiar with suicide (my mother, my sister, an aunt, and two cousins). I know about the genetic and biological factors, the high highs and low lows, the mystery, heartache and frustration. I also know that these people, as well as my late classmate, were not bad and immoral, cowardly and weak.
When my sister returned from a trip to New York City, she suddenly and inexplicably descended into schizophrenic hell. She was haunted by paranoid delusions that grew more bizarre and ferocious. Nothing helped: medication, talk therapy, mental hospitals, shock treatments, the close attention and devoted care of loving friends and family.
The night she died, her face frozen in what seemed like a shriek of agony, I did not see a weak person who had surrendered. Instead, I was amazed at her strength, and that she’d managed to endure the unendurable so long.
I believe that many who kill themselves are not weak but strong, not cowardly but brave. Nor is suicide, as is so often alleged, categorically a selfish act. Frequently it’s exactly the opposite – selfless — a sacrifice, to relieve family and friends of a burden and a shadow, to emancipate well-wishers from constant care and concern.
Rather than condemning those who kill themselves, perhaps we should be grateful. By choosing suicide, they are offering an unequivocal opinion about our mores, rendering an awful verdict on the quality of modern life and the temper of our times.
Art Carey is a former Inquirer staff writer and the author of “In Defense of Marriage” and “The United States of Incompetence.”