“Maybe I should just kill myself.”
“If such-and-so happens, I’ll kill myself.”
We’ve all said it. Every single one of us. I’ve said it too. Those words make an impression, don’t they? What could be more dramatic? If your favorite restaurant closes; if the line at the supermarket is too long; if your friend cancels dinner plans; if your relationship ends; you will kill yourself.
Tony said it all the time. He shared with me fairly early on in our relationship that he had come very close to attempting suicide as a young man. The only reason he didn’t is because he had bought some scratch tickets, and he told himself that if he won any amount of money, no matter how small, it would be a sign that he should live. He scratched. He won. He lived.
I don’t remember if Tony said those words, or any variation of them, before he shared his near-miss with me. I only know that after he shared it, those words were a sure-fire way to upset me. A guaranteed way of getting me to stop talking in the middle of an argument. He said them so often that, on some level, I stopped taking them seriously. They never once stopped upsetting me – those words always resulted in some degree of panic in me. Sometimes I kept it in check, sometimes I didn’t. When I didn’t keep it in check, Tony’s go-to response was that he was just blowing off steam. He needed to say things like that, he said. It made him feel better.
You can imagine how I look back on those words now. How I wish I had known that he really meant them. How I wish I hadn’t believed his easy reassurances that he didn’t mean it, that he would never, not really. That he cherished me, cherished what we shared, wanted to live. I believed him because I wanted to believe him. Because even when things got really bad, toward the end, I needed to believe that he would never take that awful, permanent, irreversible step.
I was wrong.
That is the thing that haunts me most often. Should I have known? Should I have sensed that he really meant it? If I had, what could I have done? I couldn’t have forced him to get help, I know that. It’s not easy to do that. How could I have proved that he really meant it? The truth is, he didn’t want me to know that he really meant it. He wanted me to think that they were just words. Only words. He knew the power of words, as I do; and yet I let myself be convinced that those words – the scariest words in the world – had no power. No truth. No threat.
Why do we throw around those words so easily? The truth is, most of us don’t really mean it, it’s just a way of expressing frustration, annoyance, anger. Yet the statistics are daunting. I just learned from a woman who started the Alliance of Hope that worldwide, one million people a year commit suicide. ONE MILLION. That is one lost, sad person every 14 seconds. Those who collect the statistics suspect (and are probably correct) that those numbers are underreported. I think of Tony’s cousin, who had schizophrenia. His death was not ruled a suicide, but may have been. With Tony, there was no question. But how many Tonys out there die, and how many of those deaths are classified as accidents or something else?
Each one of those million known suicides every year leaves behind an average of six survivors. Six people who are, themselves, seriously impacted by the suicide. To me, that number seems small. I think of all the people who have been stunned and saddened and irrevocably changed by the fact that Tony is no longer here. It’s not just me. It’s Tony’s sister and mother and all of his aunts and uncles and cousins. It’s my sisters, my mom, my nieces and nephews, my dad and stepmother. It’s our friends in San Diego and in Massachusetts. It’s dozens and dozens of people that we knew professionally, other screenwriters, directors, producers. To some degree, all of those people have been changed by what he did. Those who were closer – family and friends – have indeed borne the brunt of his decision. But so many of his friends, our friends, have said to me that they fear that something they did, or didn’t do, contributed to his suicide. One friend said that maybe if he’d called Tony to get together more often, he wouldn’t have done it. Another said she was afraid that the fact that she’d spelled Tony’s last name incorrectly on her wedding invitation had been a factor. Tony had proposed going back to Massachusetts to help his sister care for their mother, who is terminally ill. His mother fears that because she didn’t welcome the idea with open arms, it’s her fault. She said that to me the day after he died. It broke my heart.
I fear that so many things I did or didn’t do led to Tony’s decision to kill himself. The fact that I didn’t lose weight sooner. My failure to understand how lonely he was, working at home. My inability to recognize the fact that his depression, which I was accustomed to as much as one can be accustomed to such a thing, had taken a turn into something much more malicious and serious and insurmountable. My need to hear the words that he said so often, and believe his easy dismissals instead of heeding my own adrenaline-fueled panic.
In the end, we are all wrong. The only person who made that decision – the only person who took those actions, kept his intentions a secret, dropped me off at work that day as if nothing were wrong – is Tony. He did this. It’s easy for me to write those words, yet so difficult to believe them in my heart and in my gut. My intellect knows that it is true. So why, so many nights, last night among them, am I lying in bed with my stomach churning and tears leaking from my eyes and begging for forgiveness? Why can I not feel what I know? Maybe part of it is because I cannot escape from those words. They are everywhere. One night I fell asleep with Season One of The Office playing on my computer. I woke up in a full-on panic to Steve Carell screaming at the top of his lungs, “Maybe I should just kill myself! I’m just going to kill myself!”
Those words are dramatic. They are effective. And they are sad and scary and dangerous. The people who throw those words around so casually probably never imagine the profound impact they could have on someone like me, or any of Tony’s relatives or friends or business contacts. Those words are not just words. They are a terrifying threat of the worst thing I can imagine, the worst thing that has ever happened to me. They are part of the reason that we don’t talk about suicide honestly. They diminish the reality. They turn it into a joke. Trust me, it’s not a joke. You don’t want to be in my shoes. We can only start talking honestly about mental illness and suicide and shame and things like that if we stop treating them like they are merely words.