I’ve been thinking about suicide a lot lately.*
The pandemic, the election, loss of income, destruction of dreams, lonliness and despair have blanketed our consciousness all year, and now we are told the worst is upon us. People are suffering. People are losing hope. People are just hanging on. People need other people, yet we have been mandated to stay away.
Isolation is a common thread in most of the lives of the people I know of who ended it all. Suicidal people feel alone in a crowd, so it is near impossible to detect.
Ultimately, it is the responsibility of all of us to maintain connection to the world around us. The world will leave us alone if we do not participate, and it won’t miss a turn if we cease to exist. Firefighters and first responders are especially vulnerable.
It is vitally important to maintain family and friendships outside of the first responder world and have something worth living for when the shift is over.
The last person I knew who put a bullet in his head was much like the rest of us; a little sad sometimes, disappointed in his life sometimes, and angry at the world—sometimes. The rest of the time, he acted as if all was as well as could be expected. Nobody could possibly have known his intent because he likely did not know his intent until his final days or moments.
Lots of things have been written about warning signs and reasons: depression, isolation, despair, triggers, and how to intervene when we notice something just isn’t right with somebody; I don’t know about all that. The reasons behind a person’s choice to end his life are complex and private and nearly impossible to detect.
I believe that inside of all of us is a built-in escape hatch, a forbidden but alive place we seldom venture to, a place that exists, and scares us back from whatever cliff on which we find ourselves. Part of the human condition includes having a way out, and when things get heavy, and it seems as if they will just get worse, we will always have an option. Far too often, a person finds comfort in that place and embraces it; instead of running from it like usual, he runs toward it. And over it. And then, it’s over, and there wasn’t a damn thing any of us could have done to prevent it.
When someone we know takes his own life, we replay our interactions with them, and find the clues and the reasons, and beat ourselves up for not seeing them. But truth is, any of us who have lived, loved, and lost, when examined closely, show cracks in our stability. Parts of most of us have visited that dark, comforting place where there is no pain, shame, guilt, or sadness.
I know for certain that the thought has crossed my mind, and I never told a soul, until now. It has taken me a very long time to peel back the layers that make my life manageable and to expose the things that I don’t like to think about, and to look at those things objectively.
So, rather than obsess about what I missed and what I could have done to prevent my friend from dying, I choose to mourn his passing without guilt. His was a life well lived, until the end. There is absolutely nothing I could have done differently that would have changed his mind. However, there are a lot of things that might help the rest of us.
Being aware of the dangerous places to where our conscious or subconscious minds wander makes wandering back more likely. Knowing that thoughts of suicide are not reserved for people who actually do it makes those thoughts a little more manageable should they appear when life seems impossible.
*I’m not suicidal, I’m thinking of the people who are.
Updated version of a Fire Engineering article.