I feel like I should preface this one with the disclaimer that no, I’m not currently suicidal. Nor do I endorse suicide as a means of escaping temporary issues. I do fully support the right of the terminally ill to self-terminate, but, well, we’ll get to that in a bit.
Anyway, this piece arose from a strange discussion with a strange person the other night. What with the chaos in the world today, and the ongoing suicide epidemic within the veteran community, it’s only natural that a couple of bottle-bottom philosophers would turn to dark topics, and it’s hard to get much darker than this: Is suicide ever the ethical choice? If so, where does one draw the line?
This is a difficult topic to talk about, even today, in western society. The stigma surrounding suicide is largely rooted in Christian doctrine and morals. The exact flavor differs, but the general opinion in most denominations seems to be that life, being a gift from God, is sacred. To end life in an unjustified manner is therefore a sin. The exact definition of “justified” is a whole ‘nother can of worms that I don’t particularly feel like opening up, but the consensus is that to throw away one’s own gift by one’s own hand is a particularly grave sin.
Catholics hold that doing so is a mortal sin. That is to say, something worthy of eternal damnation. The Baptists I grew up among held that once someone has been saved, they can’t be unsaved, but there will still be an accounting in the end of days. Whatever the case may be, our days were numbered from the moment time began, and to end them prematurely is to thwart God’s plan.
These days, I’m not exactly the religious sort, but even among those who don’t believe in or don’t care about the existence of God or Gods or whatever, suicide carries about it an air of cowardice. While there is life, there is hope. To throw that hope away is ultimately a cowardly and selfish act.
But is it always?
I don’t think it is. I think there are circumstances in which taking one’s life can ultimately be the more ethical choice.
Take, for instance, the aforementioned terminal illness. There are a number of diseases, conditions, and injuries which can cut short someone’s life without necessarily ending it immediately. With the heroic effort of doctors and a not-insignificant amount of willpower on the part of the victim, death can be averted for months, or even years, but the end result is all too often a slow, painful, and humiliating decline from healthy human being to bedridden wreck. If the decline is inevitable, the agony guaranteed, and death a certainty, is shortchanging the reaper really the worst thing that could happen?
That’s something that, if you haven’t talked about with your loved ones, you probably ought to. Living wills are every bit as important as the normal kind, and the last thing you want to do is leave them guessing in the unfortunate event that it happens to you. I can’t tell you how to answer the question, but me personally? I’d rather someone take me out back and handle things Old Yeller style. I’ll do it myself if necessary. A life where I can’t wipe my own ass and every day is a new adventure into the depths of misery the human body can endure isn’t one I care to live.
But hey, let’s extrapolate from there. Let’s say you’re fighting on the front lines, you’re about to be captured with no hope of escape, and the only thing left to look forward to is torture, degradation, and execution. Do you save a bullet for yourself?
That’s not nearly as much of a hypothetical as you might think. ISIS did some seriously, grade-A, fucked up things to prisoners. I was fortunate enough never to see the bodies firsthand, but some of the reports I read from the teams who recovered bodies of captured SDF soldiers were straight-up horror movie shit. No one really talked about it much while we were over there, but I would be willing to guess I wasn’t the only one who gave the subject some thought. Ultimately, I figured if death was inevitable and the only difference was a few hours or days of torture, I’d handle things myself, if for no other reason that to deny the bastards the pleasure.
It was here, in my opinion, that the waters got a little murky. Both of the above scenarios are pretty cut and dry, at least to my thinking. But what about severe, persistent, and chronic mental illness? My friend argued that there’s not a whole lot of difference, in the end, between terminal cancer of the body and cancer of the mind. If your issues are so persistent that there’s no quality of life to be had, why not end it all?
On this one, I came down on the other side. As someone who deals with moderate to severe depression on a daily basis, I can certainly see the argument. There are days when simply existing is exhausting, and getting out of bed to perform the bare minimum of tasks necessary to sustain life feels like Sisyphus rolling that boulder up a hill. I can’t even imagine something like schizophrenia.
One could argue that there’s not a whole lot of difference, in the end, between chronic severe mental illness and cancer, save for the length of time one suffers. Although mental illness can have numerous negative effects on one’s physical health, however, it’s rarely directly responsible for one’s death. That’s usually a secondary or tertiary effect, often from substance abuse, neglect, or yes, suicide.
What’s more, unlike terminal cancer or an inoperable brain tumor, most mental illnesses can be successfully treated. The process is rarely easy or straightforward, but it is possible to live a relatively comfortable life if one is willing to put in the effort to seek treatment, and follow the treatment plan. It helps to work with shrinks who are genuinely willing to listen and help, but there are more out there than one might initially think. The hard part is letting them.
If you’re still reading this far in, you might be wondering what the point of all this is. After all, suicide is a grim subject matter, and in light of the fairly grim world we live in these days, wallowing in darkness for the sake of it may seem like an awfully self-destructive choice for a conversation.
Well, the simple matter is, despite endless suicide prevention briefings, well-meaning Facebook posts from folks insisting that anyone who’s hurting simply has to reach out, the fairly startling array of resources available for folks in crisis, and articles that insist life is worth living, veterans are still killing themselves at an alarming rate.
Clearly, something isn’t quite clicking.
Beats the hell out of me. I’m not a psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor, or anything else that might potentially be of use in helping talk someone off a ledge. I’m just some random dude behind a keyboard who someone was foolish enough to give a small audience. What do I know that they don’t?
The two possible answers are Jack and shit, and Jack just left town, so that kinda narrows it down. I don’t have any facts or hard data (is it pronounced data or data?) to work with. At least, nothing that can’t be found on Google, or hasn’t been drilled into my head along with that godawful Good Charlotte video the Army used for years in its suicide prevention briefs.
What I do have is a dark, twisted view of the world, and an assortment of mental health issues that have, in fact, led me to consider the question of whether or not suicide might just be a worthwhile endeavor.
Spoiler alert: I decided it wasn’t. See the bit about mental illness. Ultimately I chose to get help rather than taking the quick way out. In my mind it wasn’t a matter of “being strong” or any of that other crap. If nothing else, I’m just being spiteful. I can annoy more people for longer and with a greater deal of precision on this side of the grave. Sorry, folks. Y’all are stuck with me until my lungs or liver give out. At this point, I reckon it’s a race between the two.
Where was I? Oh, right.
What occurred to me was that, if we’ve tried all this stuff and nothing really seems to be making a dent, maybe we’re looking at the problem all wrong. Instead of trying to throw random shit at the wall and see what sticks, why not actually consider the point of view of the people who have or might want to pop a Skittle into a hollow-point and taste the rainbow?
We all know the risk factors for suicide. Or at least, anyone who knows which Good Charlotte video I’m talking about does. We’re told all about the signs that someone might be considering it. And hell, we’re told how to intervene if necessary. What you can’t know, unless you’ve actually been there or someone who has decides to talk about it, is the thought process behind it. And those that do typically don’t do a good job of talking about it. Either they’re dead and thus limited to a Ouija board for communication, the experience was deeply traumatizing and as a result difficult to talk about, or whatever. There are a number of potential reasons, and I’ve rambled on enough.
The point of this rant is, maybe we ought to try a different approach. Fuck the platitudes and pithy sayings. To hell with spamming the suicide hotline on Facebook. If you really want to get a handle on this suicide thing, dig into the why. And not just on a national scale. If you’re bored and have had a few to drink, why not sit down with your buddies and talk it out?
Have that talk that my friend and I had the other day. Figure out where you draw the line, and where they draw the line, on if and when suicide could be ethical. What would drive you to take your own life? Get specific. Dive into the nitty-gritty. Don’t let them off the hook and evade the discussion.
If you ask me, this whole veteran suicide thing ain’t gonna be solved by the VA, or anyone at the Pentagon. No amount of bloviating by one’s chain of command is really gonna make them change their mind in the moment. Maybe the best way to prevent it is to know what might drive each individual person to kill themself in the first place. That, and have their buddies know what to look for. At the very least, if you have a conversation that frank with someone, it gets a little easier to open up if you’re down in a deep dark hole.
But hey, that’s just my way of thinking. Could be I’m completely wrong. No way to know but to try. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m craving Skittles for some inexplicable reason.
Kevin Wilson is a thirteen-year veteran of the North Carolina Army National Guard, with deployments to Egypt and Syria. He was going to be a lifer like you, but then he took a staircase to the knee.
If you or anyone you know have thoughts of suicide please get help. There are numerous resources, some of which are listed below:
Suicide Prevention & Loss Survivor Resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline