On Celebrity Suicides and Alternative Father’s Day Celebrations

My father would have turned 60 today had he not died nearly 25 years ago. Because both Father’s Day and my father’s birthday are rough for us, my mother and I went to the Walters Art Museum (in Baltimore) together. We ended up parking near their old apartment in Mount Vernon, and we were even allowed to walk through the Merritt Downtown Athletic Club to see the racquetball courts where my parents met. It was a lovely day, except for the fact that the person we were supposed to be celebrating wasn’t there.

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I got the news that Kate Spade, and then Anthony Bourdain, had died via notifications on my phone. I was at work; each buzz reminded me first of the upcoming anniversary of my father’s suicide (July 1993) and then of Robin Williams’ suicide in 2014. Two co-workers mentioned the news in conversation—in the kind, sympathetic manner of people who have never had to deal with this sort of thing—and I discovered that I must have thrown out the earplugs I thought were in my desk drawer.

A flurry of media articles followed, progressing from bare facts about what happened to information about the individuals’ lives to analysis of suicide rates, methods of prevention, attempts to make sense of why people, generally, kill themselves. I was reading one such article—a very kind piece from The Washington Post that nevertheless was written by someone who has never been suicidal—and I wanted to throw my phone across the room.

The most salient point of the article was that people who commit suicide often believe they are performing a selfless act. They believe that killing themselves rids their families and friends of dead weight without which everyone is better off. Like my mother, the writer of the article had lost her husband to suicide. She was trying to promote compassion by looking at things from her husband’s point of view, and she was right: this is how many suicidal people think. My father talked about feeling like he was a burden that my mom and I would be better off without in his suicide note.

The article may have prompted compassion within outsiders with no personal experience with suicide. I hope it did. However, to someone who has lost a parent to suicide and experienced suicidal thoughts, the article was kind but frustrating. It treated suicidal people as victims—which they are; depression is horribly painful—but it did so in such a way that it took away their sense of agency, as most sympathetic articles tend to do.

There is a danger in downplaying the selfish nature of suicide. Suicide hurts people: it hurts the dead person, and it hurts their loved ones. I was suicidal for more than a decade and probably would be dead now had I not seen firsthand how much my father’s suicide hurt my mother. The depression was telling me that I was worthless; the only thing strong enough to counteract that was my mother telling me how much she missed our father, how much his death hurt us, and how she wouldn’t be able to take it if anything happened to me. I love and respect her enough to believe her when she articulated her needs, and so I took her words at face value despite the depression telling me I knew my own worthlessness better than she did, and I didn’t do anything to myself that I couldn’t undo.

If you’re reading this and suicidal, seek help. At the very least, reach out to a friend or family member and talk, even if you’re not ready to talk about the pain you’re in. Your brain is lying to you; your life really can get better, and there is no litmus test to prove you “deserve” to be here. (Picture your least favorite politician or another person you hate. If that piece of trash “deserves” to exist, then you do, too.) And don’t ever think your death will be “selfless”—there are people somewhere who will miss you, and you do a disservice to them (and most importantly, even if you can’t see it right now, yourself) if you choose to leave this world too early. I’m not big on the argument that people in pain should be forced to stay alive solely for the benefit of others, but I can say from experience that it can get better, and that living for others can, with work and help, make way for living for yourself as well.

If you’re not suicidal and have no idea what it feels like, the best way you can help someone who is suffering is to make clear early on to everyone you encounter that you can listen to another person’s point of view without passing judgment. The people I’ve opened up to without prompting had explicitly made clear during earlier interactions that, even if they disagreed with me during a discussion, they were willing to look at things from my point of view and respected my ability that make my own decisions.

Conversely, I would never open up to someone who talked, even offhand, about how they just didn’t get why people would do that to themselves, or about how suicide was a sin. If you have a friend suffering quietly, you have now told them that you are unwilling or unable to try empathize with them and/or that you have decided that vocalizing your own beliefs about morality matters more than considering their pain.

Also, in my experience, if someone appeared to be paying special attention to me specifically because I seemed depressed, I would push them away out of paranoia. My depression would tell me the other person didn’t really care or couldn’t understand or was being patronizing.

Now, again, it is true that people who commit suicide often believe suicide is a selfless act, and it’s good for others to know this. The article that I mentioned earlier rubbed me the wrong way not because it was trying to empathize with people who are suicidal but because I’m tired of the conversation consisting of only of people who have never been suicidal telling other people who have never been suicidal what to do. It gets trickier because no member of a minority group can perfectly speak for all the group members (i.e., take what I say with a grain of salt).

After celebrity suicides, everyone asks how best to offer support. My answer is to just listen and offer support—to everyone you can, because you never know who’s hurting and exceptionally good at pretending they’re not. And if you have lost someone to suicide, know that it’s not your fault. Whoever you lost made that decision, and the fact that depression was probably a major factor doesn’t make your loss any less significant. Don’t try to force yourself to view your loved one’s suicide through rose-tinted glasses; treat it like the messy thing it is, sadness and anger included. Doing so might save someone else’s life.

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The MARC Train Saga of January 2, 2018

5:02 a.m.

The flashing lights and rhythmic clang of the train bells cut through the ten-degree air as MARC train 403 approaches the Halethorpe (Maryland) platform. I jog, awkwardly and lop-sidedly due to the bags I’m carrying, to the first car all the way at the opposite end of the platform to get a seat close to the Union Station entrance when we eventually disembark. Despite my relatively late arrival, I get the exact seat I want. Half of D.C. is still on vacation. Things look promising.

5:12 a.m. or so

I am half-asleep and can’t really tell, but the train seems to be moving more slowly than usual. Did we pass BWI yet?

Sometime between 5:15 and 5:20 a.m., probably

The ever-lovable, occasionally awkward, and eternally talkative conductor on the 5:02 announces that we are holding due to a disabled train at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Continue reading

Triple Liminality

If my Facebook feed is any indication, then the six days between Christmas and the new year are a liminal space for a lot of people. For those who have or take off work, the days dissolve into one another (today is Thursday, don’t you know?), and the effect is more pronounced due to the fact that both the solstice and new year are themselves liminal events: the former marks an astronomical shift, the latter a sociocultural one. I never really thought about it before, but it’s kind of fitting that SyFy always plays episodes of The Twilight Zone from New Year’s Eve through New Year’s Day.

In honor of this evening (or tomorrow morning?) marking the midpoint of this six-day blur, enjoy some lovely magical realism courtesy of Salman Rushdie. I read Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights back in the fall (and highly recommend it), and I remembered the following making me smile:

The influence of the jinn was everywhere, but in those early days, before they fully revealed themselves, many of our ancestors did not see their hidden hands at work, in the collapse of a nuclear reactor, the gang rape of a young woman, or an avalanche. In a Romanian village a woman started laying eggs. In a French town the citizenry began turning into rhinoceroses. Old Irish people took to living in trash cans. A Belgian man looked into a mirror and saw the back of his head reflected in it. A Russian official lost his nose and then saw it walking around St. Petersburg by itself. A narrow cloud sliced across a full moon and a Spanish lady gazing up at it felt a sharp pain as a razor blade cut her eyeball in half and the vitreous humor, the gelatinous matter filling the space between the lens and the retina, flowed out. Ants crawled out of a man’s palm.

I got the Ionesco, Gogol, Magritte, and Dali references straightaway. I had to look up the Beckett one, and the bit about Romania seems to be from a folktale, although I couldn’t find anything specific. Let’s hope the January 1 supermoon doesn’t leave anyone’s eyes leaking vitreous humor, although full moons are another example of liminal astronomical events, so you never know. Anything could happen.

Epitaph on a Tyrant

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,

And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;

He knew human folly like the back of his hand,

And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;

When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,

And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

                  — W.H. Auden, 1939

Podcast Recommendation: Ars Paradoxica

I haven’t been posting as much on here because I: 1) got a promotion last May and 2) really have been writing that novel that I’ve mentioned maybe once or twice before. (I had about 15,000 words, then I started over and am back up to about 12,000.)

In the meantime, because I’m usually too tired on my commute home to write much, I’ve continued to listen to podcasts. The latest I’ve started is Ars Paradoxica, a science-fiction podcast  about a physicist who accidentally travels back to 1943 during one of her experiments. I highly recommend it so far; the characters are interesting, and it grounds its story in a layer of realism with the mention of theoretical particles like tachyons. The protagonist, Dr. Sally Grissom, reminds me of Dana Scully, only more personable and more discombobulated.

I haven’t tried to crack the numbers station messages at the end yet, although I might try next weekend…

 

Book Review: House of Cards by Michael Dobbs

House of Cards (Francis Urquhart, #1)House of Cards by Michael Dobbs

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

*Note: I’ve only read the American version of the novel, which is different from the original.

If you haven’t seen the eponymous [American] TV series: This novel is a well-written, tightly plotted, account of a fictional UK party whip’s political ascent. Reading about Francis Urquhart’s rise to power is like watching one of those complex domino setups where the pieces sometimes cause multiple lines to fall, but they all come together neatly in the end. The ending is incredibly satisfying even though you probably won’t want it to be. It’s also no small accomplishment that Francis Urquhart’s actual party is never named—there’s the Party and the Opposition**—and the novel still flows smoothly, relying on just enough description of issues such as health care funding to provide a sense of context without getting bogged down in it.

If you have seen the eponymous [American] TV series: Read the book. I love Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in the TV series, but the book is better. Francis Urquhart’s schemes are more plausible and involve fewer obvious loose ends or room for error than Frank Underwood’s; Urquhart’s relationship with the press, especially one particular member, makes more sense in that it benefits him more directly (and comes across as something he would be more likely to actually undertake). The book’s Mattie also comes across as more clever than the TV show’s Zoe; Claire Underwood’s counterpart is, unfortunately, largely absent (always out at theater productions of Wagner) and not shown to be half as formidable.

**You can still tell from the way the characters talk about Thatcher that the Party is likely meant to be the Conservative Party, but it’s written in such a way that whichever party it is has no bearing on the reader’s enjoyment of the text.

View all my reviews

It’s that time of year again…

…the time for me to tell you all that no, I’m really not dead, I’ve just been doing other things, and have I mentioned my incredibly long commute and its lack of wi-fi?

In other news, I ran the Frederick Half-marathon in 1:36:20 (PR!) and ended up placing first in the female 25-29 age group. So that was cool. Since it really has been that long since I’ve updated, I also ran the Baltimore Marathon last October with a time of 3:41:33.

I have been doing other writing (i.e., that novel I talk about occasionally), and I just got a promotion at work, which will mean longer hours on that front. That said, I have some ideas for posts in the works, so I’ll try to get them queued during the long weekend.