At around this time last year, I attempted suicide. I was facing too much pressure at work, my anxiety attacks had kicked up a notch, nothing was making sense in this life and I just couldn’t take it anymore.
Objectively speaking, it probably wasn’t all that much pressure. But there is nothing objective about anxiety — especially for someone already on medication and therapy for clinical depression. What matters in the moment is the feeling that the weight of the world is bearing down on you and you can do nothing to stop it from crushing you.
So I attempted suicide.
No, I didn’t take any pills, or rat poison. Neither did I tie a noose on a rope that could bear my weight. It never even occurred to me to jump off a building or onto a busy highway. My suicide was less typical than the episodes that make headlines online.
I quit my job.
Suicide is not a moment
With no plan B, no savings to fall back on, no side-gig to bring on the occasional bacon. When I tendered my resignation, the only thought on my mind was not “how will I make a living?” but “I have to leave this place or I will die.” To me, leaving the workplace was a matter of life and death.
So why do I characterize as suicide, my decision to torpedo my career? Because for all practical purposes, it was. In fact, I believe that by the time people carry out the physical act of ending their life, they have committed a thousand suicides leading up to that moment. Suicide is not a moment, or even the last moment in the life of people dealing with mental health challenges, it is usually a way of life.
Today, September 10, is World Suicide Prevention Day and I figured I should bring to our awareness a type of suicide that many of us dealing with and campaigning about mental health rarely think about.
According to WHO, nearly 3000 people on average commit suicide daily. For every person who completes a suicide, 20 or more may attempt to end their lives. About one million people die by suicide each year. But these numbers are only a shadow of the real tragedy.
What I did when I left my job may easily be considered “career suicide”. This is especially if it was done in a way that would make sure you never get a reference for future jobs. You see, many people who leave their jobs due to mental health issues rarely leave it on good terms. They are often not sober enough to give notice, let alone serve it.
Many departures are explosive, with the leaver sometimes creating a ruckus on their way out. They may shout about the toxic work environment and, for those dealing with ( for instance) bipolar disorder, some may even be physically violent and hurl insults at bosses and colleagues on their way out. Their future work prospects therefore largely depend on how much awareness they and the people around them had about mental health issues.
But there are also the other invisible, more subtle suicides. For instance, there is the communication suicide. Many people dealing with depression often stop picking calls and replying to text messages. They ignore and shun all attempts by others to be there for them. They just want to be left alone.
Ironically, when people give up on them and stop calling or texting, they end up worse. Some may see and dismiss this behavior as attention seeking, but it is often more complicated and deeper than that.
There is also the general relational suicide. People dealing with depression start cancelling appointments and stop showing up for social events. They prefer staying by themselves, locking themselves in the house and shunning all social interactions. In doing this, they deprive themselves of the human contact that is critical to the psychological health of all human beings.
Relational suicide also manifests itself in broken friendships and divorce, severed family ties and social club no-shows. All these are suicides. What makes us human is not just the fact that we have a beating heart or air flowing through our lungs; animals have that; what makes us human is the meaning we find in relationships, in being part of a community, doing and making sense of life in relation to others.
So, as we reflect on the statistics of physical suicides on this day of awareness, I hope that we will also make an equally concerted (if not more so) effort to be aware of the suicides that lead to the final one.
More than a metaphor
I also hope that we will not make the mistake of dismissing things like “career suicide” or “relational suicides” as mere figures of speech. We should not make the mistake of thinking that the physical taking of one’s life is the real tragedy while the other suicides above are mere metaphors.
Everything that makes life worth living can easily be reduced down to a metaphor: God, religion, purpose, vision, meaning… all these can easily be dismissed as mere metaphors. But these are the very things that make flesh and blood worth more than that of animals.
People end their lives because they have already ended all other aspects of life that make physical life worth living. We cannot simply focus on the edge of the cliff and ignore the road the led us up to that cliff. We cannot just secure the window ledge, fence the bridge, or keep ropes out of reach, and think we have solved the problem.
For many of us dealing with mental health challenges, suicide is a way of life as much as it is a way out life.