Sunday, June 23, 2013

a death by drowning.

A few weeks ago I read an article on Slate - it was all over Facebook that day - about how drowning doesn't look like drowning. Unlike the wild thrashing you see in movies, it's silent, and motionless, because you are physically unable to cry out (because you're trying to breathe) or wave for help (because you're straining to keep your body upright). When people finally notice your struggle, it's usually too late.

The next day, a friend of friends committed suicide, and the news hit my Facebook with the speed of sound. I'd never met him, but I knew of him, recognized his name and his face. Some friends had seen a status update that alarmed them enough to call his place of work, and then the police, who found him in a local park late that afternoon. A few days later I saw their anguish as they told the story, wishing they'd called the police sooner, wishing they'd reached out to him a day earlier, wishing they could have saved him. They felt that they'd failed him, and it broke my heart.

It came to me quite suddenly that committing suicide must be a lot like drowning, no matter how death is finally achieved. The ones who can still cry out from the pain of the world are the ones who have some hope left to save themselves, or be saved. The silent ones slip away and drown, weighted down by the numbness of a despair so deep it can't even be recognized. I can't begin to imagine what it must feel like, this "fucked-up brain chemistry," as my friend Matthew once called it. That's what it is, brain chemistry, neurons firing and misfiring, a delicate balance that, if broken, sends a person spinning into the darkness. I thought of the writers Virginia Woolf and Elspeth Thompson, who, nearly seventy years apart, filled their pockets with rocks and walked into deep waters. I thought about Mike Daisey, who has talked about trying to kill himself, if I remember correctly, also by drowning. If the thought is unbearable to the rest of us, what must it feel like to those pulled under?

Another friend talked about her late brother-in-law, who had a long history of depression, in and out of hospitals and treatment centers, before finally committing suicide. She told us it was like watching someone dying of cancer. The end was almost a relief. It wasn't like the sudden, shocking death of this friend found in a city park two days before. There wasn't any sense of peace, only the guilt of being unable to stop him in time. I don't honestly think anyone could have stopped him, could have recognized that he was drowning. But it doesn't help. You can only hope that the end brought peace to a man in pain. It is so much harder to find for those left behind.

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