I want to die

But I don't want the people I love to suffer.


Cary Tennis
August 23, 2005 10:04PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

First things first: I enjoy your column tremendously. I've been reading it since you took over for Mr. Blue -- at first with skepticism, then grudging approval, then finally avid devotion. So, whether you decide to answer my letter or not, I'd like to thank you for writing so many thoughtful and interesting columns week after week.

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I'd hoped that if I ever had occasion to write in, it would be with something more impressive -- like one of those "I'm under 30 but have achieved everything I ever wanted in life, so what do I do now?" letters. My question is, well, sort of the opposite. I've spent this past year systematically wrecking various areas of my life -- causing a major rift with my few contact-worthy (read: sane) family members, dropping out of college, crashing on one generous friend's couch after another, performing a succession of abortive stints at minimum-wage jobs, sleeping with some people I either don't remember or wish I didn't, etc., etc. It's not a new pattern for me.

Far from being funny or glamorous or compelling, it's really sad, and kind of shameful. And I'm sick of it. I don't want to watch myself do this anymore. I spend a lot of time thinking about suicide, and that's the only thing that makes me feel happy or calm. But I hate the idea of putting close friends and family through the kind of grieving I've read about on suicide survivors' Web sites.

I'm wondering if there's any way to go about this without condemning my loved ones to emotional torment. You once wrote advice to an acquaintance of a suicide victim-perpetrator, and you brought up the lack of closure, the suddenness of the exit. Are there things I could do to mitigate that? While it would admittedly be fairer to notify them and say a real goodbye face-to-face, wouldn't that make them feel it was their responsibility to stop me? Would it be easier if I faded out of their lives gradually, lost touch, disappeared in a more abstract way before disappearing in a corporeal one? I'm willing to take my time to a certain extent if it would help. But I'm not willing to go on living a miserable life indefinitely. Don't we all have to decide for ourselves how we want to live and whether we want to go on living at all? Isn't suicide ultimately a personal choice each one of us has the right to make?

Before you tell me that suicide is never the answer, that it's a bullshit solution to problems that could be fixed in other ways, try to understand, this isn't about external circumstances; it's about who I am deep down, year in and year out, no matter how many cities I relocate to or makeovers I attempt. Think of a person you detest or used to detest. I'm sure most people have known someone they have found abhorrent in an all-around, pervasive way -- personality, lifestyle choices, mannerisms, face, body, the way they hold themselves, the way they walk down the street, the way they pronounce certain words ... you get the idea. I'm talking nails-on-chalkboard repugnance. Now, imagine having to spend 24 hours a day with this person, because this person is you. If someone's just that unpleasant a human being, always making things difficult for themselves and those close to them, wouldn't their decision to put themselves out of their misery be for the best?

I know these are kind of left-field questions, but I don't feel I can ask anyone else. If I were to bring it up with a therapist, they would be professionally obligated to do something about it. And I know how suicide discussions come across to the confidante with whom they are shared: melodramatic, manipulative, burdensome, distressing, or all of the above. So, writing to you seems the best option. I really need an unbiased outsider's perspective here.

Stuck

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Dear Stuck,

There is no way to finesse a suicide. You cannot duck out of life the way you duck out of a party. You know my objections to suicide -- that not only does it open a gaping hole in the lives of those left behind but that it also cuts short a life that could become happy and productive if only the pattern of self-hatred and depression that leads to it could be disrupted. And I do not think there is any way to minimize its effect on others -- that desperate fantasy of yours probably flows directly from your understanding of just how much damage your suicide would do.

So you know I do not treat suicide lightly.

Yet every letter about suicide is different, and so I must continue to think of novel ways to approach it. Sometimes one must find a way to embrace the violent anger and will to power that are turned against oneself, and befriend them, sublimate them, turn them outward toward the world where they can dissipate. In thinking of novel ways to do this, I may appear to jest. I assure you, if I sound crazy, I do not jest at your expense.

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So say, as you suggest, that there is an awful, irritating person that you have to spend 24 hours a day with. Say you are chained to this person. Say you hate this person. And say your choice is to kill this person, change this person, or change yourself to accommodate him -- or some combination of these. Say that separating from this person is impossible, and changing yourself is near impossible. Finally, say that killing the person, though not palatable, is an option on the table.

Let's also put the shoe on the other foot for a minute, just to get some perspective: Say you yourself are this terribly irritating person, attached to this other person who wants you gone. Say I am the one you are attached to. Say I find you insufferably irritating and I tell you I've decided to murder you ... in a fairly painful way ... right this instant. No choices, no thinking it over, here it comes motherfucker, ready or not. Wham. And I start carving. Would that be OK with you? And would it be OK with those who, as you suggest, might love this odious creature in spite of all his shortcomings?

I'm not too crazy about that scenario. It makes me a psychopathic murderer, for one thing. And chances are, though you are indeed at the end of your rope, you're not too crazy about being murdered by a psychopath who's attached to you, either. Maybe there are some better choices.

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So, just thinking it through, if you are the one chained to this annoying person, what would be a good outcome short of killing him? What if you could transform this person into a useful manservant? Now, the person might claim that he's beyond changing, but we know people can change. Usually they just don't want to. If you have no control over him, that's one thing. The reason we generally concede that we can't change people is that we don't have them on a leash 24 hours a day. But if you've got the person on a leash, you damned well can change him. Some of the methods might seem harsh, but if it's a choice of either killing him or transforming him into a useful manservant, I'd say it's worth a shot.

I mean, he's a real asshole anyway, right, so you don't really care what he thinks or feels. You just want to make him useful to you so you can go about doing what you enjoy. You could make him serve you coffee in the morning and get your paper, even take your exams. If you like chess, you could teach him the game but ensure that although he puts up a good fight he always loses to you in the end. All you have to do is train him to be respectable and to obey your commands.

Now, such odious people often claim, when we are trying to retrain them, that they're not the problem; the problem, they claim, is that we fail to accept them as they are. But I'm ready to concede that the odious beast attached to you is the problem. I say change the beast. Because consider the alternative: If you kill the beast, you'll be dragging around a dead body chained to you. It will be gruesome. There will be questions.

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So you have hit upon the solution: Take this awful person to a practitioner of behavioral change, of whatever stripe is available, and say, with a straight face, that you'd like to rehabilitate this awful person who's been tormenting you, because if you can't rehabilitate him, you're going to have to kill him. Then you and the practitioner together can hold this awful person down on the floor and teach him to polish the silverware.

I think you understand what I'm saying.

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