Trigger warning: This newsletter is on the topic of Suicide. I talk about having thoughts of harming myself. If I can be upfront with my intentions, they are ONLY for you to feel less alone in having difficult thoughts. We are not our thoughts. I am NOT advocating self-harm in any way. On the contrary, I am going to share my argument for why it is out of the question for me. And for you to know that you are not a bad person if you have bad thoughts. And that you are loved. There is data to prove it. Ok, let’s dig in.
Talking about Suicide is a tricky thing. For most of my life, it was a major source of shame. Upon reflection, I am not sure why. I feel like the general culture in the western world is that suicide is for crazy people. Like people who cannot be trusted. People who are self-centered. People who are weak. A burden to society. And everyone knows you only have value in this culture if you can contribute in a “meaningful” way. In which crazy people definitely don’t.
They live in locked-up prisons where they are drugged into submission. Around this time in the late ‘90s Girl Interrupted came out. Starring Angelina Jolie and Winona Rider. It was about a girl who tried to kill herself and was institutionalized for 6 months. In some ways, I feel like this movie was really brave for the times. In other ways, it exemplified the stereotypes around unruly women needing to be tamed. If I am being generous, it invited a conversation around mental health that society at large was not having at the time. And also a recognition that life is depressing. But also beautiful.
Stories are so useful as a reflection on underlying beliefs that society has. This, to me, at the time, was not something that I felt like I wanted to be. I wanted to be different. Artsy. Mysterious. I wanted to be cool. But not crazy. The line was clear. Or at least it was to me. These were my values at age 16.
I didn’t start talking openly about my thoughts of self-harm until college. And it was rare that I would share them. I only remember telling a guy that I was dating that I was depressed. He made a sign that he wore that said, “I love that woman.” With an arrow pointing at me. He had horrible handwriting. BUT it was so kind and so sweet and did make me feel better. We were alone. Not like at the grocery store. Sitting, me sobbing, on his dirty couch littered with cigarette buts and empty mountain dew cans I felt better. I felt loved. And I needed a literal sign to make me feel it. I was so in love with him. Thinking back to that moment, there is a weird joy that eclipses the pain that I remember. This is why delighting in painful memories can be so dangerous.
When I started graduate school in 2008, I started to be able to be more open about the status of my mental health. In art school, there are different rules than in the regular world. It is almost like you have to be counter-culture in ways to be an artist. I had one friend in grad school who was Christian who felt like she had to hide it. This was so interesting to me. In that all my life I had to hide that I was Atheist. And in art school, it was the norm. People claim art school doesn’t have any rules, but it does. Just they are not always the same as the general population.
Before grad school, my work was hardly any good. Which is to say, that it was horrible and no one should have let me into school with that portfolio. But SFAI took a risk on me. And I took them up on it. I took out all the loans that the government would give me, with my grandpa as my co-signer (this is important information for later…).
When I got there, I found permission to lean into everything I was feeling. It was almost better if you did. When I got there, I made a video where I told some guy I just met that I was attracted to him and have the recorded rejection still. I started writing down thoughts about having sex just because my partner wanted to. I started being more open about my sadness.
I made this card to give to my boss. I thought that was a good idea. I did like him. I really liked him. He was electric, but he was also my boss. And in the end, it was electricity that did not include sexual compatibility. I just knew I wanted to be near him. Early on when working together, he told me that he had enough girls who were “friends.” Apparently, this was a trend for him. That he would be close with people, flirt endlessly, and then they would never want to be intimate with him.
How do know how you like someone? I feel like we are taught that everyone we meet can easily be segmented into categories; friendship, family, dating, co-worker, etc. But this is never been the case with me. I have a hard time knowing how I like someone. Have you ever been so attracted to someone but not want to have sex with them? It is confusing, at least to me.
People seemed receptive. The more I shared, the more people would come up to me and tell me how they secretly felt the way I did. That the issues that we were facing were not always black and white. I started to feel less alone in my thoughts. Which was so comforting. I get into trouble when I forget that I am not that special with whatever I am feeling.
(I also had people tell me I was crazy. One guy commented in my comments book at graduation, “You are properly nuts. Best of luck.” I watched him do it. When I saw what he wrote, he just looked up at me and smiled. Or tell me I am a horrible person for say, for example, having sex with someone when I didn’t want to. My excuse is that being in a long-term committed relationship takes compromise—and that was something that I was willing to do at the time. I wanted to examine and accept what it meant to be human, have these thoughts, do these things, without the layer of judgment that was imposed upon us.) (As I age, I am a bit more careful about how I share things and how they affect the people I love. There is a line that I think I crossed with sharing some of the things I did when I was young that I don’t think I would do again. I am sorry if I hurt you.)
After grad school, I was lucky enough to have been a part of the Facebook Artist in Residency program. It had just started and was the first of its kind as far as I know. It was a true luxury. I got paid 10k to just make art that I wanted to. In their space. They provided the supplies. I just showed up every day and made things. Can you take a moment to imagine what it would feel like to have the space, time, and supplies to make the work that you really believe in without expectations? This program doesn’t exist in the same way as before. There are now expectations. Goals for outcomes. Production schedules.
It was coupled with a time where I had decided to stop taking my meds. And fell into a deep depression. One where I would be driving to the HQ thinking about ways that I could accidentally drive off the road, into the salt marshes and end it all. I spent my days there in two states; crying over the weight of the world and having extreme social anxiety. I had to pretend to be ok. So I spent my time there writing this zine called, “You Will Feel Better.” Which was a series of drawings that gave ideas on exercises to basically waste time until you felt better. I made 500 copies without showing anyone. Which is a bad idea. But I couldn’t help myself.
The program director at the time gave this feedback, “There are too many vaginas. And I am not sure about if we should leave the suicide page in it.” He was right. I mean, there were no penises present in the book. At the time, and still, I was really interested in pushing the boundaries of what we can and cannot talk about in public. There was a page in the book about masturbation. Which I think is really interesting and has been proven to be a mood booster. I thought, why not mention it? But on the flip side, we didn’t want to have a byproduct be that people would feel uncomfortable and bad when reading the book. What would you have done?
We took the vaginas and masturbation out. But kept the spread about suicide (I will show it later…)
I sent a copy of the zine to my editor at Chronicle. She was super supportive. And made an offer to expand the zine into a book. A book without vaginas or mention of suicide. And I understood. Around that time I had been reading about how talking about suicide was a tricky topic.
Homicide is certainly a lot more prominent; it’s constantly in the headlines and in our public consciousness. But the fact is that suicide is more than twice as common as homicide. The preliminary numbers for 2009, the most recent year for which we have data, show there were roughly 36,500 suicides in the U.S. and roughly 16,500 homicides. —From The Suicide Paradox by Stephen J. Dubner
That there was this ripple effect when suicide was mentioned in the news. Take the Kate Spade suicide. Or the Anthony Bourdain. Both spurred a series of unintended deaths just in the fact that reporters reported on them. It has been shown that suicide is contagious.
I wanted to talk about it. To be honest that I had had thoughts about killing myself throughout my life. But I didn’t want people to do it. I didn’t want the act to become normal in any way. Or to glorify it.
So how do we talk about suicide? Without people thinking it is a good thing to do? A relief of the current pain we seem to exist in? To feel things deeply, to know true joy, in my opinion, does require stepping one’s toe into the abyss of sadness.
Your staying alive means so much more than you really know, or that anyone is aware of at this moment. —Jennifer Micheal Hecht
I am not brave. Not in any way shape or form. I just really believe in the power of vulnerability. The way that it can connect us as people. And how having the luxury of being open creates an intimacy that I really value and take great comfort in.
It is tricky to say that I value honesty. In that, I don’t know if I believe in an ultimate truth in any given situation. I just have my doubts that humans are capable of true objectivity… but that is another topic. When I use the term honesty here I mean acknowledging your feelings and emotions. Using them to guide you, to know what your needs are. To create meaning and understanding in this possibly meaningless universe. For me, they are all that we have to go off of. They are the root of why we do anything. They are the root of all pain and suffering and yet also, for that to be true, they are the root of joy.
Suicide is off the table for me. It is guilt that holds me in this world. And I am ok with that. I cannot think about the pain and suffering my death would cause the people I love. That my grandfather at age 95 would suddenly in his grief inherent 100k+ in student loans. We cannot ever really know how many people will be saddened by the loss of our lives. But by my calculations, I am not willing to find out.