A family anniversary coincides with the day this column is due to my editor.
My father. 1990. Fifty-three-years old. Depressed and alcoholic. Smith & Wesson .38 caliber. Bathtub. Mom found him.
That’s usually what people want to know, but are too polite to ask. It’s like rubbernecking at that car accident on the other side of the highway.
Glad that isn’t me.
Anyone can be a suicide survivor–children, siblings, parents, lovers, and friends. When I encounter another survivor, it’s as if we speak a unique language, one grounded in a special reality.
A reality cloaked in stigma.
Let’s admit it: suicide is at the bottom of the death hierarchy.
After all, suicide isn’t like giving one’s life for their country (the word “honorable” attaches to that), or like dying from cancer. For sure, cancer’s a crappy way to go, but the awe factor for others who see one struggling at least gives that death some kind of meaning.
A bit lower on the hierarchy is dying from heart attacks, or strokes, or burst aneurisms, endings that people at least don’t consciously bring upon themselves.
Rounding out the “acceptable” deaths are accidents—car, plane, bike and work. “Too early,” or “such a tragedy,” are what people say about that kind of dying.
Suicide, on the other hand, gets no respect. First off, people don’t know what to say. They dance around it, not wanting to insult the survivor, but also not understanding what survivorship really means. In the end, it’s as if the decedent barely ever existed—if you don’t acknowledge the death, it’s not necessary to acknowledge that someone actually pulled a trigger, or strung a rope, or jumped from a bridge.
Then there’s pity—how awful for you and your mother! Or worse, suspicion. Once, someone asked, “So, tell me: does depression run in your family?”
I thought, Only when idiots like you ask such questions.
With my father, the issue wasn’t “could I have prevented it,” or “why didn’t he get help?” I accepted that Dad did something that I couldn’t control.
Instead, every time this year, I wonder whether I’ve got that suicide gene—a wiring defect that means it might be just a bit easier for me to follow in my father’s footsteps.
Some refer to it as a “predisposition.” I call it familial osmosis. Did I absorb too much of something bad?
No, I’ve never attempted it. Yes, I’ve thought about it, particularly in 2006 when my soul mate of thirty-some years found my replacement. I’ve always had a suicide scale of 1 to 5. Back in ’06, I ratcheted up to 4.75 one night after a particularly crushing incident. However, I remembered something that stopped me cold.
I’m not him, I realized. I’ll never be like him. How could I hurt those who love me? They’d forever wonder whether they could have prevented it? No. Never.
I forced myself to bed that night. Fate gave me a reprieve in the form of sleep. In the morning I felt better. I felt more better every morning thereafter.
I can’t promise that I’d never do it. If confronted with an Alzheimer’s diagnosis or the prospect of months of pain owing to something incurable, I’d pull a trigger, for sure. I believe all of us should have the right to end our lives with dignity and control. Since the government doesn’t allow for euthanasia, I’d take matters into my own hands.
Of course, before I did it, I’d have one extremely wonderful party.
Still, this doesn’t extend to checking out simply because you’re unhappy. That’s where I draw the line. Unhappiness can be changed. We have the ability to learn and grow, regardless of age or most conditions in life.
Which gets me back to being a suicide survivor.
In 1990, I didn’t understand the legacy that attaches when a close family member kills themself. I didn’t realize that it would scar me forever, or that I’d never fully get past the image of my father tasting the raw cold steel of a gun barrel pressing against his tongue.
Twenty-three years later, I’ve got a much better idea. It is, as I’ve written, like my father’s stood in the back of every room I enter.
Now I understand; his suicide will be with me forever.
Until I die.
Ellie Krug is the author of Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honesty and Gender Change (Stepladder Press). She welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org