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:
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.