Gambling debts and talk of ending it all: Should I intervene?

I barely know this guy, but he seems to be hinting at suicide.

By Cary Tennis
Published October 13, 2008 9:40AM (EDT)

Dear Reader,

After watching the morning's financial news, I have been thinking about ways to manage the stress and worry that come with economic hardship and uncertainty. If the stock market crash is making you feel that the future is bleak, if you feel jittery and unable to concentrate, let me know by writing to Perhaps together we can find ways for each of us to keep a positive outlook and a clear head through this mess, even if we can't do much about the mess itself. --ct

Cary --

Night before last I played poker in a home game.

At the end of the evening, I was in the kitchen chatting with one of the other players. I asked him how everything was going and he said: "Not great. It's been a bad couple of years. I keep thinking it's going to get better, but it never does, it just gets worse." I gave a standard sort of reply, something to the effect of "That's too bad, I'm sure things will turn around soon for you."

That's when he shocked me, saying, "Well, that's what the gun is for." "What do you mean?" I asked. "It takes away all the pain" was his reply.

At that point, I wasn't sure what to say, but I finally got out, "Permanent solution to a temporary problem, dude." At that point, someone else came in the kitchen and, a few minutes later, the party broke up.

I have no idea what challenges this man faces in life. I know he has a somewhat major, but not life-threatening health issue that is probably going to require a second surgery to correct. Other than that, I barely know this guy. I don't know if he was just being overly dramatic, seeking a reaction or looking for sympathy, or whether he was truly crying out for someone to help him. In poker terms, was he bluffing or preparing to go all in, so to speak?

Do I have a duty here? If so, what is it? He used to play in the game pretty regularly, so I'd see him maybe four times a year. But he hadn't been coming as much, so it had been well over a year since I'd seen him last. He's in a relationship, so he has someone looking out for him, though his partner has health issues of his own.

What do I do, Cary? If I told someone, whom would I tell? His partner? Or do I just butt out?

Looking for a Tell

Dear Looking,

I'm not sure you have a duty, but you have an opportunity. It's of course an opportunity you can take or refuse. There are many opportunities to become involved in other people's lives and try to help them. We can't take all of them.

But because, as you say, suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, each opportunity to help does have a heightened significance. If the worst were to happen, you might look back in horror at your inaction.

That is not to say that therefore we must always intervene at the mere mention of suicide. That would imply that we all, however lightly acquainted, bear some responsibility for the suicides of all others -- a terrible burden that we could not carry and do not deserve. We cannot cure people. We cannot reliably stop every awful chain of events that leads to suicide. To believe we can would imply that we therefore must, and then every suicide would be on our conscience. That would an insupportable burden.

Rather, let's say that this is an opportunity not so much to prevent a suicide as simply to practice compassionate friendship. Compassionate friendship benefits everyone. We do it not because it may prevent suicide but because it is a human ideal. It brings out the best in us. It tames us and centers us and makes us whole.

You witnessed a person in deep psychic pain. You have an opportunity to reach out to that person.

I am no expert, but I think that killing oneself in order to relieve one's pain is a special kind of murder. It is a murder of which we might be said to be innocent by reason of self-defense: There is a person inside us who is torturing us and we want to kill that person. We have split into two. There is the torturer and the victim, and the victim buys a gun. Unfortunately for both, they are in the same body.

If we think about it in this speculative way, we might say that suicide is not really aggression toward ourselves, but aggression toward the person who has invaded us and is torturing us, the murderous, sadistic imbecile who is calling us names, belittling us, bludgeoning us.

The problem is not that we want to murder this person within us in order to stop our torture. The problem is that we confuse physical action with symbolic action.

We must murder our torturer symbolically.

This is scary stuff, is it not? Perhaps that is why people commit suicide rather than enter psychoanalysis; what we are actually contemplating is on the order of what William Blake called spiritual warfare, a kind of inner Armageddon, the spirited conduct of which might make us feel quite mad, indeed. Blake did not seem to mind terribly the occasional feeling of madness. Not all of us have such faith as Blake in the imagination and its angels.

So anyway: What if this torturing intruder, this sadistic madman within us that tells us we are worthless shits and should be shot and stomped on because we have not lived up to our promise, that we are hateful scourges who don't deserve to live, that we are hopeless morons, that we are shitty little thieves, that we are ugly stinkers and cruel, stupid cheaters, that we are ungrateful bastards, worthless moochers and incompetent losers ... what if that voice could be smothered into silence and we could walk away innocent and free without having to put a gun to our heads?

How would we do that?

First,  we locate and identify those voices. We create a contrasting background against which they can be sighted.

This is why compassionate engagement with others is so lifesaving for ourselves: By learning compassion for others, we create a contrasting background against which those hateful, self-murdering voices can be seen distinctly. We make of compassion a habit, so our moments of internal torture become clearer by contrast. We notice the voices that are torturing us. Once we notice them, we can begin to dismantle them; we can begin to murder them. Yes, murder them. Show them no mercy. Delete them. They are worthless. They mean us harm. They have no business here.

In this putative split relationship of the suicidal person, we have posited a weak self driven to suicide by the hectoring, sadistic, hateful voices of a dominant self. The weak self finally buys a gun and lashes out, resulting in self-murder. But perhaps the reverse could also be true: that the one whose suffering is intolerable is in fact the domineering, hectoring, powerful, perfectionist one, who cannot abide weakness, who must destroy the weak, needy side because it so threatens disintegration or powerlessness. In this scenario -- and perhaps this is going on with your friend -- the dominant voice with the gun sees the failure, the pipsqueak little failure, as deserving of death, as intolerable because vulnerable and weak, and so must exterminate the weakness, and in so doing again exterminates himself.

I'm not sure, of course, that either of these scenarios is exactly the point. What I am trying to get at, though, is that you can do something good in the world by giving this person a phone call. If you have his phone number, call and see how he is doing. If his sense of well-being is closely linked to his financial status, he might be having an especially hard time right now. He may also be a gambling addict. There is help available for that. So you will have plenty to talk about.

I hope you make the call.

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Cary Tennis

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