No room in the inn: Suicide survivors’ social, and emotional, wasteland

by Jeanene Harlick | December 23, 2015 10:27 am

I won’t be celebrating much this Christmas – even though I know I should. And the New Year will bring me no hope for fresh starts, resolute changes, nor a healthier life. Such hopes started dying long ago, and were permanently extinguished October 23, when I tried to take my life in a way I never thought I could.

The worst part is: I survived.

Let me tell you something about surviving a violent suicide attempt that nobody will. You don’t feel grateful you’re alive, or that you survived for a reason which suddenly returns purpose to your life. It doesn’t bring into sharp focus the things which really matter – you never cared about superficial ambitions in the first place.

The problems which drove you to be one of the .5 percent of people who go from thinking about pulling the trigger1, or dropping off the subway ledge, to actually doing it –  don’t just magically disappear if you survive. No, if I was going to give anyone a reason not to kill themselves it wouldn’t be some lie like, “This is temporary; you’re going to feel better,” or “You have a bright future, things will work out.” I’d tell the suicidal person not to pull the trigger because life afterwards – physically and mentally, at least in my experience – is even shittier than it was before. Because the fact is – as much as you’d rather not hear it, during this jolly holiday season – we live in a shitty and unfair world, and the promises presidential candidates are selling you about reducing income inequality, or so-and-so prejudice, are as illusory as the commercials which tie happiness and the American dream to a good-looking car.

Two months ago, confronting the force of my powerlessness and lack of agency in this fundamentally unjust world, I jumped off the roof of my apartment building. I broke bones and joints in every part of my body. I shattered my jaw and incurred fractures throughout my skull. I may never have full use of certain limbs again; the bones throughout my body are now tied together with metal rods and screws. Where once I was average looking, my face is deformed. I’m missing too many teeth to count, or chew, and have lost significant weight. I spent a month in the hospital undergoing a series of painful surgeries, and the past month sitting in a nursing home – a 41-year-old among elderly people, waiting desperately for my bones to heal enough to allow me to return home.

And there’s not a fu—ing person to talk to, who really gets what I – or anyone with a similar experience – is going through, if you survive the gun shot, or the jump. You search for support groups – and there’s  a multitude for family members of suicide victims. But for survivors? None. Because we’re the bad ones, the selfish and cowardly ones; we’re the social taboo that nobody wants to talk about because we speak – loudly – the reality of this American life.

And so you curse yourself for not having gotten the job done right in the first place.

There are many myths about traumatic suicide, as well as surviving it. One is that suicide is primarily a problem of the mentally ill; the second is that surviving leaves you thankful, reinvigorated by epiphanies that your life does have meaning and purpose, that you do have things to live for, and that your future’s full of hope. I feel none of those things. On the contrary, life following my attempt – thus far – is exponentially worse. I feel lost, and meaning and purpose of any kind is elusive.

The experience of physical trauma, intolerable pain, malfunctioning organs, oozing body parts, catheters, complete immobility, and a face swollen the size of a pumpkin has left me wondering whether existence is no more than the random interaction of cells and neurons, whether I’m really just a pile of flesh and bones stripped of what was always an imaginary, culturally-constructed soul.

The surfeit of passion I once had for so many things – the force which, in actuality (not my so-called “mental illness”) has driven the trajectory of my life, including the walk up my apartment stairs two months ago – is gone.

I’d like – and at first I thought I would – to believe my survival is proof that maybe what everyone’s been telling me for years is true – that I’ve got so much to offer”; that I’m “talented” and “here for a reason”; that I’m “special” and “loved” in a way many aren’t because of my “unique” heart and mind.

But I just don’t feel it and don’t know that I ever will. I don’t feel amazed at the body’s ability to heal or survive nor confirmed it’s a brilliantly-designed machine marking evidence of some higher order. All I feel is that my life is now more irreparably messed up than ever – but worse, because I’ve caused my family unspeakable agony and pain, ruined their Christmas, and become an even greater financial and emotional burden than I was before that October night. And that burden was already very heavy.

Suicide – and there is now an abundance of evidence to support this – is fundamentally a socio-political problem, and I’m tired of people blaming my head or genes for my problems when it’s prejudice, stigma, classicism, poverty, agism, and being denied the simple dignity of making an honest living, no matter how many resumes I send out, that made me jump off the roof. Not some DSM-V label.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the belief that suicide is confined to the mentally ill is one of the top myths2 about this complicated and growing “epidemic” – America’s most “untamed” cause of death, according to a 2013 Newsweek article3. The reality is many people who die by suicide have never been diagnosed with a mental disorder and – vice-versa – many people who have been so-labeled do not experience suicidal thoughts or behavior4.

Some people, including mental health professionals, like to say suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Well, that is bullshit. For many of us living with socio-economic or psychological distress – or both – suicide is a permanent solution to a permanent problem. It is our only path to peace, and dignity.

When Brittany Maynard, a 29-year-old woman with incurable brain cancer took her life a year ago, most didn’t fault her for ending an existence which was heading from bad to far worse. Suicide is no different for people like me – why should we not have the same right-to-die as a person battling something as painful and excruciating as Maynard? Because I can guarantee you – the psychological, financial and moral anguish I experience about my inability to obtain work; the ceaseless burden I am to my family; my suffocating loneliness; and that society’s prejudice blocks my ability to earn a paycheck and contribute to this world – is the emotional equivalent of dying a slow and agonizing death.

Due to financial circumstances and my sole income being SSDI, I am in urgent need of aid to pay for costs related to my ongoing rehabilitation, particularly dental repair. My injuries are so severe and complicated that not even my long-time, excellent dentist can help me; he has been forced to refer me to an oral surgeon who will not – as my dentist was – be willing to repair my jaw and injured teeth at little or no cost. Given my history of anorexia, my continued inability to chew is significantly impeding my recovery. If you feel moved by this difficult-to-pen article – which I was very hesitant to share – or find it illuminating, and are in the position to give – please consider donating at my GoFundMe[1] site. Please also consider sharing this post via social media.

Over the past decade, while life expectancy has increased and homicides have decreased5, America’s suicide rate has increased by almost 20 percent every year – that amounts to at least 400,000 deaths, nearly the number of people killed in WWII and the Korean War combined6. Death by self-harm hit its highest rate since 1987 in 2012 – 12.6 deaths per 100,000 Americans, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report released last year. The report also revealed suicide to be the only top-ten cause-of-death to rise during 2011-2012, in contrast to illnesses such as cancer or stroke, whose death burden decreased7.

And, for every suicide completion, there are many more attempts. A prior suicide attempt is the “single most important risk factor for suicide in the general population, according to WHO8.

Suicide is a global concern as well. Last year WHO released a landmark report on rising suicide rates, highlighting the need to recognize it as a worldwide public health issue, and emphasizing the imperative to increase prevention efforts in all countries9. Globally, more than 804,000 deaths by suicide occurred in 2012 – an estimated 60 percent increase since WWII – or 11.4 per 100,000 people; suicide accounts for 50 percent of all violent deaths in men and 71 percent in women. In developed countries, self-harm is the leading cause of death for people ages 15-49 – higher than cancer and heart disease10.

Said the WHO report, “There is no single explanation of why people die by suicide. However, many suicides happen impulsively… Social, psychological, cultural and other factors can interact to lead a person to [it], but the stigma attached to… suicide means that many people feel unable to seek help. Despite the evidence that many deaths are preventable, suicide is too often a low priority for governments and policy-makers.”

In the United States, a suicide occurs every 13 minutes11. Almost 40,000 lives are lost to it yearly – more than road accidents; it is the 10th leading cause of death overall, and the top cause of “injury death” in America12. Despite all this, far greater sums of research money from organizations like the CDC and the National Institutes of Health continue to be devoted to finding cures for diseases and social problems which kill far fewer Americans13.

If you don’t care about suicide after hearing statistics like the above – and most researchers believe suicide is widely under-reported – or because you mistakenly believe it’s the act of cowardly or selfish people (more on that later), maybe you’ll care about this: Every suicide costs society about $1 million in medical costs and lost work, on top of emotionally traumatizing at least 10 other loved ones and friends14.

Perhaps most importantly, the present suicide scourge is not simply a passing trend explained away by events like the Great Recession; according to a Rutgers University paper analyzing 80 years of suicide data, Americans born after 1945 show a higher suicide risk than expected, and everyone is heading toward a higher suicide rate than the age group most responsible for driving current statistics15.

And which U.S. age group is that? The middle aged, according to the CDC and a 2012 Global Burden of Disease Report16. A more careful analysis of the numbers this past fall – by two Princeton economists – showed that mortality rates for U.S., non-Hispanic whites ages 45 – 54 suddenly stopped declining in 1998, while that age group in other rich nations has continued its post-1970, downward trend of a 2 percent, yearly decrease in deaths. Suicide and drug poisonings were identified as the driving forces of increasing, American mid-life mortality and morbidity. Wrote report authors Anne Case and Angus Deaton:

“No other rich country saw a similar turnaround… If the white mortality rate for ages 45 – 54 had held at their 1998 value, 96,000 deaths would have been avoided from 1999 – 2013… If it had continued to decline at its previous rate, half a million deaths would have been avoided…. [This all] points to increasing distress in this population.”

This isn’t surprising, when you consider the research emerging from sociology and psychology – some of it summarized below – and the day and age we Americans live in: The impossible, media- and social-media-driven criteria for success; increasing economic and class disparities; high rates of divorce; the stigma crippling the “mentally ill” (or, as I prefer to call us, people who make others uncomfortable because we threaten established norms); prejudice of all sorts; and the complete collapse of the American promise that you can make it in this world if you simply work hard. Problems, in other words, which tend to fall on the shoulders of adults and family breadwinners.

Suicide is a multi-faceted problem which can’t be boiled down to one factor – unemployment, mental illness, gun access, or whatever societal ill is the scapegoat of the moment. As Tony Dokoupil, in Newsweek, eloquently put it, “It’s a problem with a broad base and terrible momentum, a result of seismic changes in the way we live… We know, thanks to a growing body of research on suicide and the conditions that accompany it, that more and more of us are living through a time of seamless black… We’ve reached the end of one order of human history and are at the beginning of a new order entirely… The takeaway is darkly profound: we’ve become our own greatest danger.”

While psychiatry, mental health practitioners and politicians seem bent on treating and researching suicide as a mental health issue, sociologists and public health experts are recognizing the need to address suicide for what it is: the symptom of a very sick society – rather than of sick, deviant, or morally bereft individuals.

In a 2011 article surveying suicide research in the Annual Review of Sociology17, authors noted suicide often reflects disintegrating levels of social integration and cohesion; they emphasized the need to treat suicide as a “significant social problem in and of itself,” to embrace the complexity of suicide, and that sociological understandings of suicide “are not only relevant but essential to prevention efforts.” Nonetheless, sociological contributions continue to be mostly ignored in suicide prevention and research, with the act and risk factors reduced to individual problems surrounding mental illness –  even when social and contextual factors are obliquely acknowledged. In psychiatric research, allegedly hard-wired, biomedical predispositions presumed to be fundamental risk factors in suicide tend to ignore how brain processes are flexible, the result of dynamic interactions between neurons, genes, society and the environment, the authors said:

“Given this individualistic frame, biomedical and psychiatric perspectives have become paradigmatic, with… prevention strategies focused aimed at high-risk individuals… [The solutions] which flow from this framework tend to neglect social and ecological determinants… We argue the present situation is problematic for sociology, for the scientific research agenda on suicide, and for the creation of solutions to this pressing social problem. In an age when biomedicine and genomics tend to dominate scientific and public policy debates” a multidisciplinary approach to suicide research and prevention is paramount, the authors wrote. They called for greater collaboration between sociology and the fields of psychology, biomedicine and public health in understanding suicide; and they admonished their colleagues to put more effort into its study – of more than 30,000 academic articles on suicide since 1980, only about 400 (1.3 percent) were sociological in nature, according to a 2009 review.

In Suicide: The Hidden Side of Modernity (2006), social anthropologists Christian Baudelot and Roger Establet, surveying past and current studies, note how the failure of most suicide research or national prevention plans to examine the role shifting socio-cultural factors and values, as well as country wealth, plays into rates, factors into why many nations have made minimal gains in curtailing deaths.

“It isn’t society that sheds light on suicide, but rather suicide that sheds light on society,” Baudelot and Establet wrote, emphasizing a need to go beyond the limited set of demographic statistics most sociologists and economists rely on to draw conclusions about why suicide rates are what they are.

And In Suicide and Culture: Understanding the Context (2012),Eminia Colucci and David Lester argue the increasing domination of biological approaches in suicide research and prevention, at the expense of socio-cultural understanding, is severely harming the ability to stop people from killing themselves.

Sociological risks, according to WHO, include discrimination, a sense of isolation, conflictual relations, financial loss, irresponsible media reporting which sensationalizes suicide and increases the risk of “copycat” suicides, and stigma against people seeking help for suicidal behaviors. I’ve experienced all of these things.

The Newsweek article I’ve repeatedly referred to highlighted additional risks corroborated by realms of research – risks which rarely have anything to do with us “crazy” folks.

Some of the groundbreaking research featured was that of psychologist and leading suicide researcher Thomas Joiner, whose father killed himself and who’s devoted his life to finding commonalities among the dizzying array of risk factors for self-inflicted death. Joiner’s meticulous studies have succeeded in identifying three circles of risk which – when they converge in what amounts to a psychological Venn diagram – lift a person from watching to sitting in the eye of a suicide tornado.

“What’s alarming is that each condition itself isn’t extreme or unusual, and the combined suicidal state of mind if not unfathomably psychotic… Joiner’s conditions of suicide are the conditions of everyday life,” wrote Dokoupil.

It’s obvious why suicide is becoming America’s defining social and political act when you see the three conditions Joiner found: 1) An overwhelming feeling of not belonging  – with anyone or anywhere, exhibited through such things as social isolation, exclusion from social groups, loneliness, and lacking connection. This is why suicide rates are higher among amongst unmarried and divorced people. 2) Feeling one is a burden and liability to others, that they lack effectiveness, and are useless, non-contributing members of society – a feeling I, along with the first condition, deeply relate to. This second condition helps explain why suicide is higher among the unemployed – something I have long battled and berated myself for, as numerous attempts to find work over the past five years have proved fruitless.

And the final condition, when combined with the first two, which Joiner found creates a deadly vortex of almost insurmountably high suicide risk, is 3) Fearlessness, or the ability to die – an ability which develops with time and gradual acclimation to pain, because contrary to popular belief, it’s not easy or cowardly to kill yourself: It takes “a kind of courage… a fearless endurance,” Joiner said18.

While I’ve experienced extreme and incapacitating suicidal ideation for years – including several attempts to die by drug overdose – it’s always been this third condition, fearlessness, which has stopped me from doing something as concrete as jumping off a building. And I long considered myself a coward – and thus hated myself even more – for not having the courage to follow through with a sure-fire, violent attempt. Because I did, and do still believe, that my family and friends (and society as a whole) – while initially aggrieved – would be much better off without me.

I don’t remember much about the night of October 23, or the convergence of events, longstanding circumstances, and obsessive ruminations which pushed me past the edge of fear. I know the suicide attempt wasn’t planned, and the urge came on suddenly – which is unusual for me. All I know is once that fever struck, it was so overwhelming, so absolutely what I HAD to do, that I had to do it immediately, before I lost my nerve.

I had started making dinner when the feelings hit – I quickly tidied up so that my family wouldn’t find a complete pigsty when they learned of my death. I wrote a quick note. Then I poured a shot of rum – to help  stave off any creeping doubts or fear – carried it up to the roof with me, downed it, and slowly stepped over the ledge onto my tiled roof top, and jumped.

I fully intended to die that night – it wasn’t my usual, half-ass, suicide attempt. I was done with life, tired of life, and exhausted from trying to re-make myself over and over again. I was tired of continually attempting to navigate – and succeed – in this world; but always falling, and dragging myself back up.

I didn’t have the strength to pull myself up anymore. My psyche and my heart were broken, and hope – as mentioned earlier – had long vanished. I was tired of being alone; tired of being a burdensome daughter and shameful aunt; and tired of not having the writing career – in whatever meager form – that I once had and could never have again.

I never, ever foresaw or considered the scenario in which I find myself now.

I hope that my state of mind, and my depression lifts. But do you know what surviving a suicide attempt has taught me so far? That I was right all along. That the world is irreparably messed up. That it doesn’t matter how hard you try – some people are born into good fortune, another few just get lucky, and a few somehow get the job, the family, and the sense of purpose they deserve when they work hard. As for the rest of us – an increasing lot, in a marketplace where even a Bachelor’s Degree means almost nothing; where powerful connections, beauty, money, pedigreed families, high class, fame, or thousands of Twitter followers are the true social currencies – we toil like hamsters in the proverbial wheel knowing our lives will always be struggle, poverty, more bad days than good, more heart ache than happiness, and living with the pain of talent unspent. We want to support ourselves; we don’t want to live off the government; we desperately want to contribute to society and help others.

America’s suicide problem is the penultimate expression of the growing multitudes of the hopeless; people who used to feel great passion about the possibilities of life, this world, and their potential to be part of its ongoing creative, cultural and spiritual evolution – but who are continually denied this humble right. Suicide attempts are individual citizens speaking, in the only way now available to them, that: “We give up. We will never be heard; our ceaseless work will not pay off – socially or financially. We’re tired of working so hard where others succeed simply by posting an eye-catching selfie. We’re really, really tired, and see no point in playing a game we – finally – realize can’t be won. So you win, the one percent. You win.”

We know that our lives pass unnoticed; we’ll die alone; our obituaries won’t grace any newspapers; and that politicians’ chess games will never translate to change in our own lives.

I now wonder whether all those “intimations of immortality” I used to feel, all those groundswells of passion and fervor and other-worldly purpose were all just straws of purpose I grasped, vapors that were never any more real than the masses’ comfort gods. I wonder whether art and words, subtle beauties and gestures, and the children of this world – the things which used to be my source of “higher being” and grounding, weren’t just as much hokum as the other, so-called “sacred.” Because even though I’m lucky in many respects – no brain damage, no paralysis, excellent, Medicare-covered surgeons – the short, frail life of the human body, and the culturally-constructed, storybook lens through which we view and experience life, and falsely imbue it with meaning, haunt me. I wonder if scientists and atheists and matter-ists and all those folks haven’t been right all along – there is no beauty or love, no greater, hidden messages encrypted on the surfaces of our life and nature and family, coyly waiting to be found – as I used to think. All there is of human existence, it seems now, is atoms. I always knew this was a possibility but had hoped my art and my Dubliners moments indicated otherwise – but now it appears that may not be so.

Maybe I’m still suffering from trauma-induced brain fog, combined with great difficulty and reluctance to process that October night. Nonetheless – this is not how I imagined things going down; like I said, that dive off the roof was supposed to work. If I had ever considered an afterward, an alternative ending – this feeling of nihilism, this complete bewilderment as to where the hell in the world do I fit now – most certainly would not have been one of them.

Due to financial circumstances and my sole income being SSDI, I am in urgent need of aid to pay for costs related to my ongoing rehabilitation, particularly dental repair. My injuries are so severe and complicated that not even my long-time, excellent dentist can help me; he has been forced to refer me to an oral surgeon who will not – as my dentist was – be willing to repair my jaw and injured teeth at little or no cost. Given my history of anorexia, my continued inability to chew is significantly impeding my recovery. If you feel moved by this difficult-to-pen article – which I was very hesitant to share – or found it illuminating, and are in the position to give – please consider donating at my GoFundMe[1] site. Please also consider sharing this post via social media. 


1“Why suicide has become an epidemic – and what we can do to help,” by Tony Dokoupil in Newsweek, May 2013.

2“Preventing suicide: A global imperative – Myths,” World Health Organization, 2014.

3See Newsweek, May 2013.

4See “Preventing suicide: A global imperative – Myths.”

5“U.S. suicides hit highest rates in 25 years,” by Casey Leins in U.S. News & World Report, October 2014; and,“40,000 suicides annually, yet America simply shrugs,” by Gregg Zoyoya in USA Today, October 2014.

6See Newsweek, May 2013.

7See U.S. News & World Report, Oct. 2014.

8“Preventing suicide: A global imperative,” World Health Organization, 2014.

9See “Preventing suicide: A global imperative.”

10See Newsweek, May 2013.

11See U.S. News & World Report, Oct. 2014.

12See Newsweek, May 2013.

13See USA Today, Oct. 2014.

14See USA Today, Oct. 2014.

15-16See Newsweek, May 2013.

17Wray, M., Colen, C., & Pescosolido, B. (2011). The sociology of suicide. Annual Review of Sociology, 37, 505-28.

18See Newsweek, May 2013.

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