When Anthony Bourdain died by suicide and I told someone the news, he asked me, “Why?”
I was taken aback. “What do you mean, ‘why’?” I replied.
“You know,” he said. “Did he have money trouble? Break up with his girlfriend? Have some disease?”
That’s a common reaction to suicide and it’s uninformed. Real-life stressors can contribute to suicide, but they are almost never the whole story. People die by suicide when the pain of living seems greater than the pain of dying.
Gregory House, the misanthropic, genius title character of House, M.D., once said, “Living in misery sucks marginally less than dying in it.” People who kill themselves don’t believe that. They believe the opposite.
The best metaphor I ever heard for suicide was the plight of people in the World Trade Center’s upper floors on 9/11. There were the flames. There was the window. And that was the choice. Suicide happens when a person sees only two alternatives and both are equally horrible, or nearly so.
The bullied child does not take her own life because she was bullied. She was in pain, for a variety of reasons that included bullying. It was a factor, but it wasn’t the reason. She was hurt. She was isolated. She was depressed. She couldn’t believe that things would improve. She wanted the pain to stop. She believed she faced the choice between the fire and the window.
The politician who dies by suicide in the face of a major scandal does not kill himself because of the potential scandal. He dies because he sees his choices limited to shame, humiliation, despair, and ridicule. He believes that what happens to him will be as bad as dying. He is caught between what he sees as the fire and the window.
Mental illness can make it difficult to see that there are other choices. The distortions of thinking associated with serious mental illness can make us see only the fire and the window.
The one time that suicidal ideation got the better of me and I was close to making the choice, my thinking was just that twisted. I was faced with a choice that seemed to me would ruin someone I loved. I thought that I could not live with either choice. One was the fire and the other the window.
My thinking, of course, was severely distorted by my mental disorder. The thing that I thought might rain destruction on the other person was much smaller than I believed. There were ways out of the dilemma other than dropping a dime or killing myself. If we continue the metaphor, the fire was not that big, or that implacable, or that inevitable, but I couldn’t see that. In the end, I hung on long enough for my thinking to clear and for me to see other options.
I don’t actually know what was going on in the minds of the souls who were trapped in the Twin Towers. I don’t mean to lessen the horror of their deaths or wound their families by speaking of suicide this way. The reality of their choice is so far distant from the choices that other people who consider suicide face.
But that’s kind of the point. People who die by suicide don’t see any other way out. If they seem to be responding to what most people see as survivable hurts or solvable problems, people say they can’t understand how someone that rich, that successful, that beloved, that full of potential could have not seen that help was only a reach away.
The person who dies by suicide doesn’t see the hand reaching out. Only the fire and the window.
If you are considering suicide, call the National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255.