An Attitude I Wouldn’t Have Expected

I’ve written before about the different ways that people talk – or don’t talk – about suicide.  Often it’s treated as something shameful, secretive and not to be discussed in polite company.  Sometimes it’s treated almost as a figure of speech: If this happens one more time, I swear I’ll kill myself! 

This week I encountered a new sort of attitude – new to me, anyway – not once, but twice in the same twenty-four hour period.

The first happened at a lovely restaurant with my friend Liz.  We were talking with two retired teachers sitting next to us at the bar.  When one of them found out where Liz lived, she struck a gossipy tone and asked Liz if she’d heard about the man who “went bonkers and committed sui (sic) in the basement.”  Liz shot me a look, and I found myself doing a quick mental calculation about whether to address my personal history with this total stranger, or to just let it go.  Raising awareness about mental illness is, as anyone reading this blog knows, really important to me.  This, though, hardly seemed the proper venue.  This woman knew that the dinner was a birthday celebration because she’d joined in singing Happy Birthday to me, and lecturing her when she clearly would have felt terrible had she known about Tony seemed inappropriate at best, cruel at worst.  So I didn’t.  I signaled to Liz that I was okay – we’ve been friends for thirty years, so the smallest movement of my eyebrows was enough to let her know that she didn’t have to worry about me.  It didn’t stop there, despite Liz’s numerous and valiant attempts to change the topic.  My inner debate continued, but I stuck to my decision not to make an issue of it.  Liz and I talked about it in the car.  I was fairly stunned by it, truth be told.  What a thing to joke about, gossip about.  On the one hand, she wasn’t afraid to bring it up, and I don’t want people to feel they can’t discuss suicide.  On the other hand, her attitude was odd and flippant and could have been deeply hurtful.  It was a strange experience.

The next day we were poking around in shops in Northampton, and I came across the following book:

bunny suicide book 

This, I have to say, floored me.  The woman at dinner meant no harm.  Her attitude was unusual, certainly, and probably more of a mask to her own discomfort with the topic than anything else.  This book, though, is another story.  This is haha, isn’t suicide funny and wouldn’t it be great to draw cartoons of bunnies killing themselves and won’t people laugh?  And won’t we – the author and publisher – make money out of mocking something that kills one million people annually?  Something that kills more people each year than breast cancer.  Can you imagine, even for a second, any store carrying a book that mocked people with breast cancer?  It’s October, and almost every store we went into carried some kind of pink bracelet, necklace, scarf, hat, whatever, meant to remind people how horrible breast cancer is.  No mockery.  Sympathy, support, dialogue and money.  That’s what breast cancer gets.

I am not minimizing breast cancer.  My grandmother had breast cancer, and we lose way too many wonderful women and men to that disease every year.  But this, to me, is illustrative of a divide I have written about before.  A deep and dark divide that separates our perception and treatments of those things we consider medical problems, and those we have chosen to label as mental problems.  It’s okay to mock those, you see, because those are things that are just in people’s MINDS.  I think maybe it would help if we stopped using the word “mental” because it implies something controllable.  “Mind” is not that helpful a word either, because we can make up our minds, can’t we?  If we can make up our minds, why can’t we control so-called mental illnesses via sheer willpower?  The reason that we can’t, of course, is that they are not in our minds.  They are in our BRAINS.

Part of me wishes I could go back to that restaurant, back to that moment, and find a way to gently yet firmly let that woman, whose name I do not know, that more people are affected by suicide every year than she probably has imagined, and that talking about it the way she did is thoughtless.  I truly didn’t want to hurt her feelings, but at the same time, her attitude is as much of a problem as the air of secrecy and shame that most people adopt when they are discussing suicide.  I made my choice in that moment, though, and I think it was probably the right one.  That wasn’t the place for a lecture.

I will, however, write a letter to the publisher of that book and give them a piece of my mind.  I can at least do that.


5 thoughts on “An Attitude I Wouldn’t Have Expected

  1. I think you made the right choice in the restaurant too. It’s not always our place to lecture others, no matter how much we disagree with them. Plus, that particular day wouldn’t have been the best day for a debate. (Happy Birthday!) As for the book, that is terrible. Why would someone want to make money off of something like that? Suicide is not something to be laughed at or joked about. How would they feel if one of their loved ones fell victim to such a tragedy? I doubt they would be laughing then.

  2. Aimee~right decision made on both counts. The woman’s attitude most likely arose from her horror…the book is a HORROR and horrible. Bless you for even thinking about the difference in your pain. ❤ Madre/MD

  3. I am so sorry that you had that experience with this rude and thoughtless woman. When she couldn’t take a hint to let it go, I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have exhibited the restraint you did.

    The book is appalling and an all too sad indication of the “anything for a buck” mentality that continues to thrive in our culture. It seems that very few people know the meaning of “respect” these days, not only for others, but for themselves.

  4. I too am appalled there is a book out there mocking suicide and will also write a letter informing the author it is utterly wrong. Thank you for your courage and words of wisdom. As always, Godspeed.

  5. What a horrible situation to be in (in the restuarant).

    As to the Bunny Suicides – I don’t know. I’ve been aware of the book for years, and with my family’s experience of mental illness, it always makes me flinch. But people do often laugh at things that frighten them. Those books (actually there is more than one) are very popular with a certain sort of person, often younger people. I’m not condoning their ghastly sense of humour, but at the same time I think they’re often the group most scared of suicide. These books don’t seem to me to be laughing at mental illness or at people who commit suicide – it’s more like they’re making it safer to have these horrible dark and uncontrollable thoughts, by making them ridiculous.

    But the conversation in the restaurant does make me feel more uncomfortable: the woman was being entertained by the suffering of a real person, and that’s pretty horrible.

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