Are You Sure?

The Buddhists have a saying: “Are you sure?” There’s not a lot in life we can be one hundred percent sure of—many times our thoughts and ideas are actually assumptions rather than facts. This is not to say they are good or bad. But it never hurts to stop and question things we feel certain of.

Let me pose a scenario to you: someone you love—a sister, a friend, a lover—is alone in her home. She is preparing to die. For whatever reason, she no longer sees any point to living. Tonight is the night her life will end.

If that were happening, what would you do?

Different people will have different answers to this question. But I’m willing to guess that very few would answer “Nothing.” And I also believe that most will feel very sure that if this situation were really occurring, they would take some kind of action. I would believe them.

But how sure are you that this scenario isn’t happening or couldn’t happen?

Are you sure that if someone you love were suicidal, you would even know? How? Do you think they would tell you? Are you sure someone hasn’t already been trying to tell you?

The World Health Organization estimates that 121 million people worldwide suffer from depression. This figure may not be clear: many argue that people are misdiagnosed with depression due to the over-prescription of anti-depressants while others argue that many people with depression are never “clinically” diagnosed. It is likely that most of us know someone who has depression.

It is also estimated that 90% of suicides have clinical depression or another diagnosable mental disorder. Obviously (and thankfully) not all (not even most) people with depression commit suicide. But most suicides have depression. Sometimes people die because of their depression.

Think about the person you know with depression. Will their depression be terminal?

Are you sure?

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from Chapter Two

“I know who I want to be but doubt that I will become her.

As for friends, Alice seemed to feel a bit more in control of that situation.[1]  Alice seemed to choose a real variety of friends—this is something that almost all her teachers, family and friends commented upon. For example, although she maintained her friendships with the “popular group,” attending slumber parties and going to the pictures with them, one of her best girlfriends was a quiet girl called Mona from an extremely devout Christian family. Mona’s parents did not allow her to sleep away from the house and she could not go see any movies without supervision. Yet there seemed to be some kind of bond between the two girls that transcended their differences in social activities. They would go on bike rides to the top of the hill in the park and “discuss things.” Alice’s diary lists popular discussion topics as school, death, God, having babies and the importance of learning. They also played a game called “Right or Wrong,” which consisted of coming up with a difficult choice and then arguing over whether it was right or wrong. It began with more traditional scenarios such as stealing bread to feed a starving child, but Alice’s diary records a particularly difficult topic. She wrote,

I got Mona really good today. I said a man had killed Hitler when he was only five and therefore prevented all those people dying in the Holocaust. Right or wrong? She said it was wrong, that no one should kill anyone, especially a grown up shouldn’t kill a boy. I said, but Hitler killed tons of people and this man could have prevented that. Mona said but Hitler killed Jews, which really annoyed me, so I said, well if it weren’t for Hitler, we wouldn’t have had a world war and all those soldiers wouldn’t have died, including your grandpa. This was really clever since she is always saying how she talks to her grandpa in her prayers. In the end she said she couldn’t decide and we raced on the way home. I won.

Initially Alice’s family were suspicious of Mona, primarily due to her religious background. Deirdre told me that “although she tried to raise her children to be good Christians,” the truth of the matter is that the family never attended church nor were religious in any way, except when talking about death. When people died, they went to Heaven. In her diary Alice often wrote about “Joshua up in Heaven” or pondered what his life must be like as an angel. But this seems to be the extent of any religious influence in the house. This is not to suggest that the family was immoral or even amoral. Neighbours remember the family as very caring and compassionate. But organised religion played little part in the household. Eventually Alice’s parents accepted Mona. Deidre uses Mona as the first example of what she calls Alice’s “injured bird complex.” She said that Alice always liked to help people and sometimes she wondered if her daughter deliberately chose friends who were like injured birds she could then nurture back to health. Not all of Alice’s little birds was Deirdre willing to tolerate.


[1] Beth had moved away from Putnam before the start of seventh grade, which Alice described as “the best thing that ever happened to me. Maybe now I can do what I want for once in my life.”

Blame

Blame is an inescapable part of suicide. Sadly, it does not seem to benefit anyone.

Many of Alice’s friends and relatives mentioned that they felt to blame for what had happened. This is problematic for many reasons:

1. It does not help anyone. Nothing can help Alice at this point. I do not think feeling guilty helps anyone heal. It keeps them stuck in their grief.

2. It takes away the power of Alice’s decision. From what I’ve learned from Alice’s journals, it is clear that Alice did not place blame on anyone for her own decision. Of course, many people and experiences influenced her life and she sometimes wondered how differently she would have turned out if those influences hadn’t happened. But she was who she was and recognised that she was actively making a choice–a choice she made simply for herself and not as revenge or to harm anyone else (though she was aware others would be hurt by it).

3.  While no one but Alice could give a specific reason for her choice, her journals do not point to one cause: nothing seemed to say this caused her to do what she did. There is also nothing to indicate whether or not her depression had a physical cause; therefore, she may have ended up as she did regardless of her experiences.

I did not know Alice, but I’ve found nothing but evidence through her journals and my interviews that she was a reasonable and intelligent person. A hurtful comment or a bad break up does not make a reasonable and intelligent person decide it’s better to end her life. As much as it’s possible for anyone to say, I want to say to Alice’s family that they are not to blame.

However, part of the purpose of this project is to help others learn from Alice’s life. Taking responsibility for being kind to others is not the same as taking responsibility for others. Sometimes a nice word, a phone call and invitation or inclusion in an activity can make a difference to someone. A man who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in a suicide attempt said that had one person smiled at him as he walked to the Bridge, it would have made a difference. Does that mean those non-smiling people were to blame for his choice? No. Absolutely not. But what an opportunity they missed. How often do we miss those opportunities—with our family and friends or even those we pass throughout our days?

Diary Extract Helpful Suggestions

From Alice’s diary:

I wish there were a way to help people understand.

People know that I am depressed. I hide my worst but can’t hide all. They know; I know they know; they know I know they know. We all know. Everyone wants me to be happy, and many of them want to help me be happy. They have suggestion upon suggestion: chin up, think of people who have it worse, try to focus on positive things, try to meet new people, get involved in activities, eat more healthfully, exercise, get some sunshine, take supplements, work on projects that you’re proud of.

These are all realistic and appropriate suggestions. But they bother me for two reasons. First, what makes you think I haven’t tried those things? It’s as if they think, ‘Exercising cheered me up. If Alice is down, she must not have tried exercising because it’s really as simple as that.’ Second, I have tried all those things. I’ve tried everything single one of them, honest, earnest, committed tries. I’ve got notes in my diary, emails, photographs, receipts to prove I’ve tried all those things. And they haven’t worked. I am not happy. If I knew how to be happy, I would do what it takes. You suggest how I can be happy, I try your suggestions.

What does anyone suggest when the suggestions have been exhausted and I’m still empty inside?

from Chapter One

“I think I am not like many other children—I only wish this were a good thing.”[1]

Alice was born into a family which had already suffered loss. Three months before she was born, her older brother Joshua, almost two years old at the time, drowned in a pond on the property of a family friend. Her mother Deidre was naturally so distraught that there was concern about the welfare of the baby, and she was taken into Putnam General Hospital to recuperate. Alice’s father Henry was able to bring Deidre home after a month, and Alice was born safe and sound. She had, according to her mother, “blueish eyes” and “blondish hair.” Her family thought she was lovely, and she was healthy and responsive.

Although Deidre confesses that the death of Joshua more than devastated her husband and herself, they were determined that Alice not be put under any pressure to replace the child they had lost. Because Alice was already on the way (though her gender and name were not yet known to them), they felt that she was by then an individual member of the family. They never hid their memories of Joshua from their children (Amelia and Abigail were to follow in the next few years), and it appears that all three of the daughters dealt fairly well with the death of the sibling they never knew. Alice’s early journals mention him a few times but primarily in reference to the anniversary of his death, which the family always marked but not in an overly gloomy way.[2] At one point in her teens, she wrote that she liked a boy named Joshua at school and wondered if that was “weird” but he apparently turned out to be a “jerk of the highest degree,” and she did not contemplate any incestuous complications again.

 


[1] Chapter titles come from comments Alice made in her diaries.

[2] At age 12, Alice wrote “Today we all went out on a walk to the lake in the middle of the town to think about Joshua. It’s weird that he drowned. Even though he was older than me, he’ll always be small in his pictures. He will always seem like a baby to me. That’s weird.”