Sometimes I take a great notion
To jump in the river and drown
Can we talk about suicide? I actually ask the question technically. What I am wondering is: is suicide a unified topic? Sure, all those self-inflicted deaths we read about often have circumstantial similarities but do they share a common and exclusive meaning? Consider the following four scenarios:
- A woman dies of a heart attack after a prolonged struggle with an eating disorder
- A young man hangs himself a week after the break-up of a relationship
- An alcoholic succumbs to cirrhosis of the liver
- A ‘boy-racer dies’ in a single-car accident
It is highly likely that only one of the above tragedies will be counted in the statistics which we frequently see reported in the media. I would submit that it is quite possible that all four people may have wanted to die and may have indulged in behaviour that was likely to produce this result. The difference is the degree of consciousness or unconsciousness which they brought to their actions.
The young woman with the eating disorder and the alcoholic man may have wanted to ‘live’ but the conditions they imposed upon themselves made this impossible. The ‘boy-racer’ would possibly be described as someone who loved life and lived for cars. It is pure hypothesis on my part that there may have been an unconscious death wish within him. But in the absence of proof to the contrary we must allow the possibility that at least some of these types of deaths have a suicidal component, be it conscious or unconscious.
Maybe we can talk about suicide – except our own, of course. It is easy and perhaps even enjoyable for some people to talk about the prevalence of suicide amongst certain types of people but it is rare enough to hear anyone talk about their own suicidal wishes. When we do hear them it is very often somebody who has felt suicidal or attempted to kill themselves but ‘I’m cured of that aberration now’. Or we hear of someone who is very seriously ill travelling to Zurich to avail of the services of Dignitas.
When I was a teenager we studied a poem at school by Keats where he wrote that: ‘for many a time, I have been half in love with easeful Death’. One day, when a friend and I were in an empty classroom bemoaning the amount of study we had to do, I scribbled these lines on the blackboard. I felt a certain relief, a knowledge that someone had had a similar feeling before me and had taken the time to express it with style. I believe that in that moment I was expressing what Freud would call the death drive. He believed that it was there in us all. I believe we need to find ways of owning it and expressing it.
Yet, instead of encouraging the expression of the death drive, we try to eliminate it, to strangle it before it manifests. We euphemistically exhort people not to do ‘anything stupid’ and what we often convey is: ‘Your current wish to die is stupid and, anyway, I can’t cope with it, so don’t articulate it to me – or I’ll call you ‘stupid’ again’. (And then we say young men should talk more about their feelings.)
Sorry, but I feel it coming on again – I’m going to go political – I knew this blogging would make a ranter out of me.
A well-heeled politician comes on the radio beating his breast about suicide. He talks about how we need to provide more counselling, more alcohol awareness programmes, more youth facilities, more psychiatric beds, more apple pie. He says we need to study the problem in more depth and how he is going to attend the Suicidology(!) conference over the weekend and, really, if only young men, especially, would talk more about their feelings ... I wonder if the death drive is really a rejection of life at its most toxic - because these guys bring it out in me like hives. In my case, it emerges as an aggressive tendency to beat it into ‘Mr Jones’ that he and his ilk have created a society where many people are permanently disempowered with no hope of getting fair play or of leading a truly creative life. If I were marginally less healthy or resilient than I am, I might turn my aggression the other way and if I were slightly less educated than I am I might not use words to express it. The Gestalt therapists describe a process called ‘retroflection’ where, usually due to abusive environments, I turn my anger aggressively on myself.
If Freud was right and there is such a thing as the death drive, then we had better be careful not to drive it into the unconscious completely, from where it will undoubtedly return to haunt or sabotage us, possibly fatally. We need to stop giving out the fantasy that life can be lived straightforwardly and negative states of mind can be avoided. We need to accept the fact that we are twenty-first century beings with complex psyches existing in complex social structures. And we are contrary.
Contrary like the recently deceased Liam Clancy, and the not so recently deceased Tommy Makem:
Oh look at the mourners
Bloody great hypocrites!
Isn’t it grand boys
To be bloody well dead
Let’s not have a sniffle
Let’s have a bloody good cry
And always remember the longer you live
The sooner you bloody will die