Wednesday, September 12, 2007

We all have many faces

I didn't know industry veteran John Watson, so I'm not going to talk about him specifically. But there's something that comes out in the remarks surrounding his suicide that I'd like to comment on.

As is often the case with suicides, nobody who knew him personally expected him to take such a tragic action. We should learn from that, because odds are that we will all eventually know someone who has contemplated suicide at some point in their life. In the hope that one of us might one day have a chance to turn someone away from suicide, but also so that nobody's feels like they should have known and acted but didn't, here's what I know about the subject.

Depressed doesn't equal suicidal
We don't expect it even when people are obviously depressed. When one of my sisters became bipolar (a family gene was triggered by a lot of stress), she didn't smile for over a year. It was devastating to watch. But even with such deep and obvious depression, our parents couldn't imagine that she would be considering suicide. She didn't try, thankfully, but the thoughts were often with her. When she finally admitted to our dad that she had thoughts not only of suicide but also self-mutilation, he was shocked beyond words.

A strong and recurring urge to commit suicide is something so foreign to common experience that those who don't experience it are always shocked. People often think it arises only after some tragic experience -- like a death of a loved one, a rape, bottoming out on drugs, or a war experience -- but many suicides aren't preceded by any great tragedy. Sometimes, it's the result of just looking back on one's life with regret and shame, looking forward and seeing no hope of a better life.

We're all judging our own lives by different standards. Our frame of reference is shaped more by our individual experiences than by experiences we know someone else, somewhere, has had. Don't believe that just because a person isn't experiencing tragedy on a deeper level than others that that person can't be more sad. Experiences alone don't determine our emotional reactions, but also our individual references and our individual ways of internalizing those experiences.

Lastly, keep in mind that a person only has to consider suicide once, and perhaps only for half-an-hour, in order to go through with it. The people who think long, deeply, and frequently about suicide are not likely to go through with it. Spontaneity is required to put those thoughts into action.

You don't see the whole person
I don't care how close you are to a person... you'll never know them completely. Different aspects of a person's personality surface depending on who that person is around, what that person is doing, and countless other conditions. If they're all smiles at work or school, that doesn't mean they're all smiles at home.

I've had deep, lasting thoughts of suicide and self-mutilation since I was at least 13-years-old (I'll be 28 in January). I know I was troubled even before then, because I had nightmares nearly every night into my teens. In hindsight, I can say it's mostly a reaction to my Asperger Syndrome (autism).

My family has always been very close, yet nobody -- not them, not friends... nobody -- had any inkling of my suicidal thoughts until I finally told them. And the only reason I told them was because my sister was new to those thoughts, while I was experienced, so she needed to hear that someone understood and that it could be overcome.

So if someone close to you does kill himself or herself, don't think that you should have known. It's likely that there were few, if any, warning signs.

Unfortunately, I think the most any of us can do to prevent suicides is to simply be open and available to everyone around us. And remember that even the smallest slights against other people can be very harmful if that person is already down.

Rest in peace, John Watson.

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