With two high-profile suicides this week, there’s been a spate of people posting the number for various suicide hotlines. I truly believe everybody who does it sincerely means well. If you have, that’s great. It’s normal to feel powerless in the face of such a thing. You can’t undo what’s happened, but you want to try to stop it from happening again. Posting a number is doing something. Anything. And something or anything really is better than doing nothing.
But just barely. I’m going to explain that, but the punchline isn’t some hipster “you’re doing it wrong” thing. You want to do something good. That meets all the requirements for “doing it right.” Consider this a FYI, not an admonition. Because you aren’t doing it wrong in the slightest.
What makes me qualified to pontificate on this (other than the fact it’s my damned blog)? I suffer from depression. More precisely, I suffer from existence and depression’s the brand name. I’m on medication. I’ll be on medication for the rest of my life. If you read that and say “that’s horrible!” I have only one thing to say to you: Fuck you. I’m way too goddamned in touch with my feelings. I have no interest in being miserable because you live in some fantasy world where everyone’s brain chemistry works just peachy. Mine doesn’t. And it sucks.
There are some behaviors that help. We have cats, and friends have dogs I socialize with when we go visit them. That’s right up there with the drugs for helping out the old brain cocktail.¹ Medication helps. It’s a little of this and a little of that. I manage, and I’m grateful for that. Not everyone does. And that makes me sad.
For those of you keeping score at home, being sad isn’t the same thing as being depressed. If you think it is, go read a book. Or a pamphlet. Just don’t try to explain it to me, m’kay? Pro tip: It won’t go well for you.
One behavior that’s helped me is to stop caring what other people think. There are literally billions of people on the planet. A vanishingly small number care I exist. The number who care you exist is just as small. I’m good with making it smaller. My life hack was figuring out that making someone irrelevant was a lot less work than actively disliking them. There will always be more assholes.² It’s the good folks you hold on to . They’re the rarities. The rest of em? Fuck ’em.
“Golly, Tom”, you say, “You sound like an awful person and I wouldn’t like to know you at all!”
To which I say “Hey! Thanks for saving me the time! My day just opened up! Much appreciated!”
I’m not all that terribly unique in this, by the way. I may put a few more f-bombs into my colorful bon mots. than many folks are comfortable with, but that helps thin the herd. It’s a win for me, really, and that’s what truly matters. But there’s a downside.³ OK, lots of them. But there’s one in particular that’s relevant to helping some one circling suicide: Picking up the phone and calling someone for help is way high on the list of things that aren’t going to happen.
Work with me here for a minute. You look at the world and it seems completely fucked. Everything’s pointless and will probably work out badly. I’m pretty sure I don’t understand a lot about the way you Muggles think about things, but I don’t see how you get from “Existence is pointless, things never work.” to “Hey! I think I’ll dial an 800 number and talk to someone who’s an utter and complete stranger!”
Let me stop here for an important point: it happens. And I’m glad it happens. I don’t understand it, but I’m thankful it does and that those phone numbers exist. If I ever find myself in a bar with someone who answers those phones, I can assure you they won’t be paying for a drink while I’m there. I’m not going to stalk them or anything. I’ll just buy their drinks. I will need to see some sort of proof of employment, though. So no telling me you work at one because you’re too cheap to buy your own booze. So, once again, I’m not saying you’re doing nothing if you post one of the suicide hotline numbers. It’s that you may not be doing the one thing that you’re uniquely qualified to do: be that person who’s there when you’re needed the most.
When I was thinking about how to kill myself many years ago (spoiler alert: I didn’t) I actually did call someone. I called someone I knew, but didn’t know all that well. Later I was gently chewed out by someone I knew somewhat better for not calling her. I’m not actively in touch with either person now. I have nothing but kind thoughts about both of them, but life takes twists and turns the longer it goes and you lose touch with folks. It’s the way it goes. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not grateful that at that time and place I knew them and knew I could call.
If you really want to help, be that person. The one who was there. Who said the random thing at the random time that made a difference when shit got real. Don’t go deleting the Facebook posts and Tweets that give out the phone numbers or anything, but think about how you’re using your time. You see people every day. Mostly the same ones. Ask them how it’s going. Listen. Really listen. And if something doesn’t add up, say something. Ask a different way. You’re not making a commitment to donate them your spleen, you’re just asking how they’re doing. No one’s expecting you to solve their problems. You probably can’t, what with not being omnipotent and all that. (You really need to work on that. I’m keeping a list). There aren’t any magic words. You didn’t miss that day in school. Just knowing someone gives a shit means more than you can ever know.
I’ve seen the aftermath of suicide. It’s personal to me. It’s why I can’t see me ever doing it. But that’s me and I’m lucky in that. I’m coming off a relatively bad stretch and I know damned good and well that I can never say never. My not giving a damn about what people think of me is actually a defense mechanism. I figure you aren’t going to hate me any more than I hate myself, so it’s OK to ask for help. But it’s hard. Because when you need it the most the effort seems all too much.
That’s why asking if someone is OK matters. Because when it matters, it really matters.
You have my number? Or Facebook Messenger? Then you got the number you need. Call me. I’m happy to help. And don’t be afraid to say something if I ask how it’s going. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help. It’s an occupational hazard of being human. Go with it. It’ll work out.
Just hang in there.
¹Ironically, actual cocktails have a decidedly mixed record on that.
²See: Planet, No Shortage of Assholes On.