Today I am angry. I am angry because I read an article by Martha Beck in O (Oprah’s magazine) that suggested that all a suicidal person has to do to avoid killing himself is to decide to change the way he thinks.
That, dear readers, is bullshit. Yes, I am getting profane because when I think about Tony and all he went through – all he struggled with every single day – that makes me absolutely furious. Is there anybody reading who really thinks, REALLY, that it’s just that simple? Possibly this sort of easy-peasy approach might work for someone who’s experiencing a bout of low-level pessimism, because that person’s just going through a rough patch and sometimes “fake it ‘til you make it” is just the ticket in those situations. But for someone who’s seriously depressed? Seriously mentally ill? That is an oversimplification so vast that I hardly know where to start refuting it. If trying were all that was required, nobody would ever choose suicide. But they do, Tony did, and part of the reason they do is because people go around saying and writing glib and ridiculous things like this about suicide:
“If you’ve reached this dreadful pass, please recall that suicide is logistically taxing, and (as Hamlet pointed out) may not even work as a pain reducer. Wouldn’t you rather steer away from the logical extreme of self-destruction and toward the conviction that your life is worth living?”
Maybe Ms. Beck has never known anybody who was seriously mentally ill. Maybe she is coming from a good place and really thinks advice like that would help someone who’s reached the kind of low point where they feel that ending their own life, stopping their own heart, is the best option. What I know, though, having loved someone who reached that awful place, is this: if my poor sad angry Tony could have done that, just flipped some switch, he would have. I know this, for a fact. I will never know exactly what he was thinking or feeling when he made the irreversible decision to end his own life, but I knew him. He wanted to be happy. He wanted to be relaxed around people. He wanted the world to be a good place, to feel safe and inviting and warm. BUT IT DIDN’T FEEL THAT WAY TO HIM. It never did. And no “give it the old college try” pep talk was going to change that. Maybe medication could have. Maybe extended, in-depth therapy and/or hospitalization could have. It was never as easy as a pep talk. If it were, the hundreds of thousands of words I used trying to help him see the world as a place that cherished him would have worked.
I can’t, right now, even discuss the reference to Hamlet. The one thing allowing me to get up every day is the thought that Tony is no longer suffering. I don’t need any suggestions that he might be.
I don’t know when I’ll reach a place where I can look back and feel that what I did, everything I tried, was enough. What I am realizing, more and more, is that I tried very hard. So hard, harder than I have ever worked at anything in my life. Harder than any job, harder than screenwriting, harder than any other relationship I have ever been in. Tony tried too. He fought so hard; oh God, he fought every single day against it. He fought in the best way he knew how.
The attitude expressed by Ms. Beck, that right there, is why he wouldn’t get help. Because we, as a society, have made it EASY for mentally ill people to stigmatize themselves. To feel shame about something they cannot control, did not choose, and would rid themselves of in a heartbeat if they could. We treat diseases of the brain, the ones that can’t be anatomically pinpointed and treated with a scalpel, like they are sideshow attractions. I am very careful not to use this word unless it is truly warranted, but this attitude is shameful. It is unacceptable. It is literally killing people.
If someone wrote a magazine article claiming that a chipper attitude was all a person needed to beat cancer or multiple sclerosis or epilepsy or heart disease, that person would be pilloried. Yet an article like this one shows up in O, and quietly breaks my heart on an April day.
I don’t know how, but I am going to change this. My relationship with Tony ended in tragedy, but my determination to make people understand why we need to rethink our attitude toward mental illness will not. It can’t. I won’t let it.