On February the 11th 1963, the poet and novelist, Sylvia Plath took her own life. Her two children, Frieda and Nicholas were upstairs in their beds, as their beloved mother, downstairs, put her head in the oven and removed herself forever from their lives. We know Plath struggled with mental illness, perhaps none more so than in her critically acclaimed novel, The Bell Jar. She found mental illness to be horrific and hellish, something outside of herself, acting upon her, something bleak and treacherous of which she had no control over, as she so eloquently says “Wherever I sat – on the deck of a ship or at a street café in Paris or Bangkok – I would be sitting under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air.”
In death, Plath became a tragic heroine (or a feminist martyr, depends on your perspective). The beautiful, gifted young women, the poet and the storyteller, an ethereal creature laced with real-world expectations and uncharted hopes, doomed and destroyed by the unrelenting scourge of mental illness. As I suggested in my previous post, we like to romanticise mental illness – when that madness lies within the creative realm. We romanticise suffering, viewing it as a consequence of the artistic temperament, texturizing the madness so as to create our own acceptable dialogue around mental ill health and the outward expressions we are willing to accept.
I wonder how a mother would be viewed today in the same sad circumstances? Far from compassion or curiosity, the prevailing attitude tends to be one of disgust nowadays, the overriding need to demonise the mother, even though she would have been suffering, too. The very idea that having children will act as a preventive or perhaps a moral imperative to not participate in suicidal thinking (or suicidal ideation as psychiatrists like to call it) or at least not to act upon these distressing thoughts shows the lack of understanding of unbearable mental suffering and distress.
It also brings into question whether modern psychiatry has helped to increasingly stigmatise mental illness, even when it purports to be doing quite the opposite. In the 60s and 70s, Laing reshaped our understanding of ‘madness’ – he believed madness far from being separate from ourselves, was part of us, the great unexplored landscape of our minds. Another country perhaps with peaks and troughs yet to be understood. It feels, sometimes, that with the advent of the biological concept of mental illness, psychiatry has regressed. It has abandoned deeper insights into the nature of the mind, the complexity and messiness of being human, our internal narratives, our pasts, present and futures, the stories we tell ourselves and now lumps everyone under a banner of ‘no hope and unremitting chronic illness.’ It is like writing people off, whole swathes of the population who pepper the outskirts of life and then imploring others non-afflicted to understand.
Some argue that suicide is a selfish act – how can you leave children without a parent? – do you know you have increased their own risk of suicide? – how can you do this to your family or friends? The one constant in suicide is pain, a merciless sort of pain, unbaiting and intractable that impacts everyone at different stages and at different points in time. Often the one who is suicidal is trying so hard, they are holding on by their fingertips, they are persevering to find something, however nebulous, from somewhere. Often it feels like an ending before the end actually occurs. The something, from somewhere, is non-existent, the quiet hope things may get better distinguished like the teardrop of a flame. Without hope, as humans, who are we? To want someone to live, for ourselves, is natural, to expect someone to live for us, when they don’t want to live for themselves, is not so easy an argument.
Of course, many people who think about suicide and many who attempt (and fail) often go on to have lives they didn’t think possible. Not necessarily lives that anyone else would think remotely impressive, but for them, lives that amount to more than they ever expected, the gentle and simple composition of each new day bringing an awareness of the extraordinary in the humdrum of the mundane. We wish, of course, this could be possible for everyone, a turning back towards life at the last minute, the faint blink of light up ahead.
Is suicide always the result of an unwell mind is a question that many ask. I tend to think, perhaps controversially, that ending one’s life can be a rational act, in some situations. The idea that if one is depressed, they are therefore irrational is a myth adopted by society and perpetuated by psychiatry. Suicide is not a neat and tidy subject, it doesn’t have smooth edges and carefully rounded corners. It’s messy and misunderstood, devastating and heart-breaking, chaotic and confused. Therefore to sanitise it and adopt it in its entirety, under the ‘psych’ umbrella, helps people bring order to something unordered and difficult to accept.
Unfortunately, we cannot sanitise suicide, not really and we cannot make it go away, either. People will always suffer and eventually reach an impasse where they can’t bear to suffer any more. People will always feel there is nothing left to fight for when all their strength has been used up just trying to stay alive. I don’t have the answers as to how we can stop the internal struggle, often exacerbated by external situations, but I do know condemnation kills the possibility of compassion.
In my worst times, when I like many didn’t want to carry on, I wish I could have spoken to someone. A family member, a friend, someone, anyone. I wish I felt they would understand and not react emotionally. It’s hard when a person you love or care about talks of ending it all, but it’s harder for the person who feels the end has already begun. To reach out tentatively, take a hand, to be held when you can longer hold yourself and maybe, just maybe, believe, just for a moment, that there may be some light in the world where there had, sometimes for months, been absolutely none.
We can’t save everyone, how could we? but like the starfish story, every life matters and if we can stop a life losing its direction, stop it coming to a hard, saddening halt, I think it’s worth it – to try and think differently, to try and understand. After all, it could be any one of us.
“I couldn’t see the point of getting up. I had nothing to look forward to.”
Thinking of all the beautiful people we have lost, all those feeling frayed and unhemmed today and all those touched by suicide in a big or small way. All my love.
© Copyright Henrietta M Ross