Ernest Hemingway. Kurt Cobain. Marilyn Monroe. Vincent VanGogh. Sigmund Freud. Spalding Grey. Frida Kahlo. Shakir Stewart (Def Jam). Cleopatra. Junior Seau. Roy Raymond (founder, Victoria’s Secret). Socrates. Sylvia Plath. Hunter S. Thompson. L’Wren Scott. Virginia Woolf. Abbie Hoffman. David Carradine. Wendy O. Williams. Mary Kay Bergman (SouthPark voices) Robert Enke (soccer).
These are the suicides you hear about in the media. Because of their accomplishments and talent, their suicides supercede the hushed rule in newsrooms throughout the land: We don’t cover suicides unless it’s someone famous or caused a public spectacle.
Why, you ask, when journalists are so damn ruthless about ferreting out and publicizing the most private and embarrassing moments of other people’s lives do they not cover suicides? Publicly, editors will tell you that they do it out of respect for the families and loved ones of those who commit suicide. You can decide whether you want to believe that.
Here is the problem with that logic: It covers up the prevalence of suicide and mental illness. For every celebrity who commits suicide, there are countless others who have suffered just as much and took their lives, too.
For example, in 2012 there were 205 suicides in Palm Beach County, where I live. At the local newspaper, where I work, we covered two: a murder/suicide and a teenager who shot himself on a bench near his exclusive, private school.
As a reporter I have had to interview the parents, husbands, wives, children and friends of murder and accident victims. It’s not easy and most of the time they don’t want their loved one or themselves in the news. I get that. I respect that.
The last thing I want to do is call the parents of a teenager who hung herself or stepped in front of a train. But are we doing ourselves a disservice by not covering suicides? Are we stigmatizing suicide and mental illness even more by keeping it off the evening news unless the person is a celebrity?
We often write about people who die of breast cancer. Occasionally we report that someone died of AIDS. But people who are …
The thing about suicide is that once you are touched by it, it’s always there.
For people like me, who have attempted suicide, suicide is always in our back pocket. Yes, I got well. I got treatment, therapy, medications and unfailing support. I now have a life beyond my wildest dreams but suicide is still in my back pocket. I am as far away from suicide now as I can be and the thought of it is absurd to me now.
When my drinking and depression were at their worst, I would awaken in the middle of the night, lie still in bed and listen to my thoughts: “Oh, you didn’t hear? She killed herself.” Over and over I heard someone explain my death. I no longer awaken to those horrible thoughts. Today, my middle-of-the night thoughts are of stepping on damn dog toys on the way to the bathroom.
Suicide is not an option for me now but it’s still in my back pocket. Most of the time I don’t even realize it’s there. But it comes rushing back when I hear about someone who has done “it.”
It’s probably even worse for someone who has had a parent, brother, sister or loved one kill themselves. They say those people – the true survivors of suicide – are more prone to take their own lives, too. But that’s just a statistic – which is what a lot of the chatter about suicide is: data and statistics. We don’t really get to hear about it first hand because we don’t know how to approach suicide survivors.
I once went to a fundraiser for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and struck up a conversation with a couple whose son had killed himself years ago. They had shared their story often and were as comfortable as parents can be sharing their child’s suicide. They encouraged me to ask questions.
All I wanted to know is, what’s the best thing to say to someone who has lost a loved one to suicide? Much of the information we get about a suicide is …
I live in Florida. Land of the profoundly weird and frequently stupid. Like the guy charged with illegally feeding an alligator after the gator bit off his hand. Or an image of the Virgin Mary appearing on a grilled cheese sandwich. We have wild pythons big enough to eat deer and a wanna-be plastic surgeon who injected women’s derrieres with Fix-a-Flat (Don’t try this at home.)
On July 30, we learned that the Florida Department of Health – with the blessing of Gov. Rick Scott – would appeal a federal judge’s recent ruling that blocked the implementation of a new law that barred physicians from asking their patients about guns. With this appeal, Florida has set the gold standard for government-sanctioned waste and stupidity.
Why would a doctor ask a patient about guns, you ask? There are a lot of reasons. Maybe a doctor wants to know if there are guns in a patient’s home because 2,793 children and teens were killed by firearms in 2009. About one third of those deaths – 938 – were accidental or suicide. Maybe the doctor wants to know if the guns in a child’s home are trigger-locked or safely stored in a gun safe.
Maybe a doctor stitching the busted lip of a woman abused by her husband wants to know if there are weapons in the home. Or maybe a patient has depression and the doctor knows that about half of the 36,000 people who commit suicide every year do so with a gun and most of those people have a mental illness. There are many good reasons for a doctor would ask these questions.
On the suicide front, there was some really bad news and a shred of good news on the front page of my local newspaper last week. The bad news: 154 active duty, American troops killed themselves during the first 155 days of this year. That’s nearly one suicide every day. What this means is that more troops are dying of suicide than bullets or IEDs.
The shred of good news is that this story ran on the front page of our local newspaper – above the fold. Even Aljazeera ran it as the lead story on its homepage. Unfortunately, the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times did not run the story on their front pages.
But at least some editors around the country thought it was important enough news to get on the front page. Which is really good news.
Newspapers generally don’t cover suicides unless the suicide has inconvenienced our lives, has a high rubber-necking score or you are famous. I know this is morbid, but I have been a journalist for 30 years and I know about these things.
For example, if someone jumps from a highway overpass during rush hour causing a massive traffic jam – that is news. Or person shoots himself at the local shopping mall – that’s news. When famed NFL linebacker Junior Seau puts a gun to his chest and pulls the trigger – that’s news.
You never forget the ceiling after a suicide attempt. You finally open your eyes and there it is. An expletive follows, then you assess the physical damage. If you are like me, and your attempt involved pills and alcohol, the physical fatigue, nausea, remorse and anger are beyond words. I know. I was a sick, troubled young woman. It was the 1970′s – decades before the discovery of many antidepressants and the founding of Facebook.
I am now on both.
I am devoted to my antidepressants and Facebook. I am on both daily. I have spent a lot of time researching my antidepressants – how and why they work and their side-effects. As for Facebook, I watched a movie about its young founders.
In my experience, the only connection between Facebook and suicide were the tragic stories about young people who had killed themselves after posting their intentions on Facebook.
One of my girlfriends called last night and left a message. I played it this morning. Her boyfriend killed himself. He was such a great guy. Probably one of the kindest, gentlest men I had ever known and equally manly – a commercial fisherman.
He was only in his 40s but his rheumatoid arthritis had gotten really bad over the last few years. He had an ankle replacement and picked up one of those horrible infections in the hospital that nearly killed him.
He was in constant pain. Unrelenting pain – non-stop fuel for depression. He didn’t bring it up unless you asked but you would see it in his face and the tightness of the muscles in his back and shoulders. He couldn’t work. He couldn’t do any of the activities he loved to do. My girlfriend, a saint, became the sole provider. It was hard on her. It was hard on him. Throughout it all there was the physical pain. He hated taking the pain medication but without it, the pain was too much.
I won’t go into the details but he was thoughtful to the end, leaving a note and doing “it” far from their home.
I take responsibility for managing my depression and sobriety. Yes, I take meds. Yes, I go to 12-Step meetings. Yes, to therapy, getting enough sleep, eating right, exercising blah, blah, blah.
But seriously, it really comes down to honestly answering one question: Is what I am doing right now bringing me closer or further from a depression and a drink? Going to a sports bar and watching Michigan’s football team get clobbered by Penn State – again, is going to bring me closer to a drink. Not taking my meds is going to bring me closer to a depression. Listening to Sarah McLaughlin and pawing through old photos after I break up with a guy is going to bring me closer to both.
Florida lawmakers are considering a bill that would prohibit emergency room doctors, psychiatrists and pediatricians from asking patients if they own or have access to a gun. Doctors would face stiff fines: $10,000 for the first offense; at least $25,000 for the second offense and up to $100,000 for the third offense.
I’m not making this up. In fact, on Tuesday the Florida Senate’s Criminal Justice Association voted 4-1 in favor of the bill. The initial draft of the bill made it a felony to quiz a patient about gun ownership and included fines of $5 million.
“What is the point?” the woman asked me in a text message.
Instantly a drum-roll of trite responses popped into my head: “You’re so smart and help so many people.” “With all you’ve been through you are such an inspiration to others.” “You have so much to live for.”
True, but those responses are monkey dung, all of them. The point is, I don’t know what “the point” is for this woman. What I do know is that it is okay to not know “the point.” The lack of “a point” does not mean there is no point. It simply means you don’t know what “the point” is right now. And that is okay. I don’t need to know everything all the time.
I’m not sure I know what any of this means or if it means anything at all.
I am on vacation. I am back home – a home where I have not lived for decades. Still, it feels more like home than any other place I have ever lived. It’s in southwest Michigan, about 30 minutes from “The Big Lake” – Lake Michigan.
There are memories here. Some good. Some very bad. Many, many memories – I am sure. I am trying very hard to remember. For some reason – and my therapist has many – I have very, very little memory of my childhood. Many of the memories I still have stir up “icky” feelings. That’s the best way to describe them. Icky.