Suicide and the Illusion of Choice
Jennifer Angelina Petro
A year ago yesterday (January 17, 2017), I got released from the psyche ward for the second time in two months for suicidality, a bipolar crash, and clinical depression, among other things. That same day, a year later, a dear friend’s brother was claimed by suicide. What is the difference between us? Did I make a choice to live? Did he make a choice to die? Does someone who takes their own life have freedom of choice? I argue no. They don’t.
Freedom of choice involves the ability to make conscious, awake choices. It involves clarity of mind and heart. It involves a healthy mental, emotional, spiritual state. People who are claimed by suicide do not have these things. No one, in their right (meaning healthy) mind does such a tragic act willingly. It may look like they made a choice. They may even believe they are making a choice. But they didn’t.
Someone high, someone drunk, someone under siege, someone under attack, someone in extreme pain of any kind cannot make conscious, clear choices. And for some people, the depression, inner pain, outer pain, PTSD, bipolarity, and other mental illnesses are simply too strong to leave someone clear of mind and awake enough to make such a choice. Depression is a monster that speaks lies in your head. Well, sometimes it speaks, sometimes it whispers insidiously, sometimes it screams and drowns out all rationality. And sometimes all it screams over and over is: “I can’t take this anymore. I need to die. This needs to end.” And the disease of depression convinces that person that they are making a free choice—THAT’S part of the symptomology of depression and mental illness—it makes you think you are well. It makes you think everyone else just doesn’t understand. It makes you think you are in your rightful power as an individual to control your actions. And these are all lies, these are symptoms of a disease.
I knew someone once who, when a friend was claimed by suicide, said: “That selfish sonofabitch.” The victim had left two children. To the outsider, this person committed a selfish act. He was essentially an asshole.
Part of the problem with believing suicide is a choice is the definition of the word and the language surrounding it.
Suicide, as defined in most dictionaries goes something like this: the intentional and voluntarily choice to take one’s own life.
The words surrounding this definition are ones like: committed, took their own life, chose to end it all.
Perhaps it would be more accurate to say, “suicide claims the life of a suffering person.” Perhaps words like the following might be more appropriate:
Tyrannicide—which may sound insulting, but a person who becomes ill enough to kill themselves is not killing THEMSELVES, they are attempting to kill the pain, the monster, the tyrant inside. The person claimed by suicide is a victim, and in no way a willing victim. It is analogous to being possessed by a monster. It’s the monster that pulls the trigger, it’s the monster that takes the fatal leap. The person unwillingly and unwittingly hosting such a creature essentially—if untreated (and sometimes even if they are treated)—becomes powerless over the depression.
Some would say this analogy doesn’t work because possession implies a spiritual, demonic force. I am not suggesting that—although, I believe that is possible (there are physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual diseases), I am more using the image to help people see that the person claimed by suicide did not make the conscious choice to end their own lives. If the possession analogy doesn’t work for you—try thinking of the person with fatal cancer as being possessed by a monster that eats its host from the inside out.
Fideicide—the killing of faith. Someone overwhelmed by a disease can easily lose faith. Someone claimed by suicide is trying to end their hopelessness, not themselves. The disease has swallowed their faith.
Facticide—the killing of facts. The monster of depression distorts the fact the ill person is worthy of living, is worthy of help, has the ability to choose otherwise.
Claim—the word “claim,” comes from the roots of words meaning, the act of shouting out, to demand, and to take sometimes by force. This seems far more accurate than the deliberate and voluntary choice to take one’s own life.
Cancer claims lives, heart attacks claim lives, strokes claim lives, diabetes claims lives, Alzheimer’s claims lives. Depression is every bit as much an illness as any of these. Bipolarity is, PTSD is, and so on. So is addiction.
Addiction and depression tell lies—it’s part of their symptomology. So does bipolarity. As someone who suffers from several mental illnesses, I know as soon as my head says, “You’re doing better, stop taking your meds,” that that is the disease talking.
Depression (and to be clear, I do not mean sadness, or the blues—I mean clinical depression) and addiction have the ability to smother rationality and the ability to ask for realistic help. Just as Alzheimer’s takes away the memory piece by piece, depression takes away freedom, hope, the ability to seek help piece by piece. Just as cancer little by little eats the body away, so does depression and other mental illnesses eat away at the ability to think clearly and rationally.
Saying someone chose to take their own lives—in addition to being inaccurate, is harmful to everyone involved. It puts us in the power of blame, of judgment, and of the ability to slide into the need to protect ourselves from pain and the reality that depression is real, that depression stalks people, that depression is fatal. Some people would much rather believe suicide is a choice because it separates themselves from the possibility to being devoured by a monster. Lastly, it is crushing to the family of the victim to say they choose such a thing. It implies deep self-centeredness, it implies they loved themselves more than their families and friends. It implies they didn’t care about others. People who die from cancer are not abandoning their loved ones or choosing their own lives over theirs. They are not being selfish by dying.
When someone we love is claimed by suicide, the world collapses for the survivors. It is devastating. And people close to them often say things like: “Well, at least they are not suffering anymore,” which is exactly what one says when a loved one dies of cancer. Inside we know suicide is a disease. And combined with depression can be fatal.
People whose disease compels them to attempt suicide are not crying for help. Attempting suicide is an expression of mental illness—a bursting of a cyst, the manifestation of a sickness. And, also tragic, is the fact that many people cannot afford mental healthcare before its too late.
Suicide is also not a sin just as dying of cancer is not a sin.
Compassion, understanding, and an ability to listen openly and face reality is what we must offer when someone we love dies of suicide. No blame, no judgment.
And what of someone like me who suffers from depression and suicidality and is still alive? Before my symptoms became overwhelming, I was able to seek and accept help. My mental cancer was advancing in strength and severity, but it hadn’t gotten to the point of no return. I was still able to have just enough measure of mental clarity and freedom of choice, to get help.
And that is the only difference between my friend’s brother and myself. I am not better than him, stronger, I am not less selfish, or anything of the sort.
I am lucky. I simply don’t have as severe an illness as him. And that is of no credit to me. Some people survive cancer. Many don’t. I survived depression and suicidality. He was taken—claimed—cut short. He was murdered by a cruel disease.