August 25, 2014

When the Pain Never Ends

I'm just so tired, he thought. And the pain won't stop. What is it people say? Everything ends eventually. But the pain doesn't. He stood looking through the window, his eyes seeing nothing. His face was expressionless; to convey even the smallest emotion now required too much effort. He felt that merely breathing was too difficult a task to be managed any longer.

The voice behind him wouldn't stop either. His lover continued his litany of complaints. "You just won't do anything to help yourself get out of this mood. At my job, you get three days off for a death in the family. That's it. Then you carry on. But you lie around and won't do a damned thing. When I get home at night, you haven't even moved the newspaper on the table, or your morning coffee cup. It's time for you to snap out of it. You could do it if you wanted to. But you don't. I never would have thought you could be so weak."

He could recite the complaints from memory now. He heard them every two or three days. Does he think I'm enjoying this? he wondered. Does he honestly believe that I'd choose this grim, bleak existence? Doesn't he realize I''m desperate to find pleasure again in something, anything? But I've lost the trick of it, and I can't get it back. And I'm so, so tired.

He tried to calculate how long the agony had been going on. It stretched back almost eight months. His closest friend, the woman who was the nearest to a true soul mate he'd ever found, had grown progressively sicker and was finally diagnosed with metastasized lung cancer. She was dead two months later, faster than anyone had expected. She was gone so quickly that he never had the chance to see her a final time, for she lived across the country. But he would have long phone conversations with her, even during the final couple of weeks when she was heavily drugged and increasingly incomprehensible. He would talk with her for an hour at a time, letting her take the conversation wherever she wished. responding as if she were expressing thoughts that were intriguing and worthy of close examination. But in those last weeks, what she said was gobbledegook. She was a brilliant woman: it was as if she retained the form of her intelligence, including the ability to construct a long, complex argument, offering many specific examples to demonstrate what she meant, but the content had been obliterated to be replaced with nonsensical gibberish. Other friends of hers marveled that he and his friend had these conversations at all, but it was all he could offer her, just to be with her in any way he could. She wanted to talk, so they talked. That was when the profound exhaustion first struck him; after these conversations, he would collapse for hours, more tired than he had ever felt in his life, unable to grasp how the world, how life could be so ungraspably cruel. She had just turned 61 when she died.

Exactly one week later, his lover announced that he had fallen in love with someone else, and he felt they needed to discuss ending their relationship. He pointed out to his lover that his comments about this miraculous new love mirrored completely the way he had talked about him when they first met. He explained why he thought his lover was simply repeating an old pattern of avoidance, of pursuing a fantasy and fearing the genuine intimacy that comes with a relationship that lasts more than a couple of years. They agreed they would go to a couples counselor, to examine their problems and what they might do. He paid for it, for he had much more money than his lover at that time. He still paid for the counseling as he listened to the repeated complaints, for he thought his lover was committed to working through their problems if they could. It subsequently turned out that his lover had lied about that (undoubtedly to himself, as well), for he lied about many things. His lover spent the weekend his soul mate died -- when they knew she would die at any moment -- with his new boyfriend. He had lied about that, too.

A few weeks after his lover had announced his new infatuation, one of his beloved cats got terribly sick. It appeared he would die. He was finally diagnosed with a heart murmur and cardiomyopathy; the medication the cat was given led to stabilization and substantial recovery. But for a few months, the cat was at death's door. During this same time, his mother was dying; her breast cancer had returned, and there simply wasn't much they could do for her any longer. As his mother was dying, he and his lover continued their faux-work with the couples counselor. He thought it entirely possible that his lover might disappear at any moment. As tension-filled and nervewracking as their relationship had become, he felt that he would die himself if he experienced another major, final loss. All this happened just as he was trying to start a business of his own. It proved to be much more difficult than he had anticipated. Luckily, he had enough money at that point to support them (with a small contribution from his lover).

His mother died five months later. The accumulation of losses finally paralyzed him almost completely. During all this time, he was seeing no less than two psychologists and one psychiatrist: the couples counselor, a psychologist for himself alone, and a psychiatrist whom he saw once a month, who oversaw the medication he was taking, including an antidepressant. None of it helped in any substantial respect. He simultaneously felt entirely numb, as if he would never experience a vivid emotion ever again, while he also felt assailed by a pain that was unendurable. He felt there was nothing left to hold onto, nothing left to support him in any part of his life. And he had no strength to take even the smallest step in any direction. He wanted only one thing: he wanted the agony to stop.

But it wouldn't stop. And now his lover's complaints wouldn't stop. "You could change if you wanted to! You can snap out of it, but you won't. It's your fault! You're weak. And selfish." Finally, his lover stopped talking. He still looked out the window, unable to move, terrified that the next moment might bring still worse pain, seeing nothing, expressionless, feeling nothing but the desire for all of it to stop. After a few moments, he quietly murmured, strangely aware that he was choosing his words with great care, even though they seemed to come from someone else, "Sometimes I feel that the only thing I can do is kill you, kill the cats, and then kill myself. What else is there to do? What else can I do to make this stop?"

The words hung in the air for a minute or two. His lover said nothing. I've finally shocked him into silence, he thought. Good. He felt an odd moment of clarity, as if saying the words defined the issue in some way. After another few moments, he murmured, still more quietly, "But I can't do that, of course. So ..."

He couldn't complete the thought. So ... so what? What was he going to do? What could he do? He had no idea. He knew he was incapable of becoming a murderer, at least he hoped he was. So he prayed, a man who had never prayed in his life -- and it was the only thought that remained to him, and he clung to it with all the fierceness left in him -- that the pain itself would finally kill him, relieving him of all choice and responsibility, forever and ever.

Maybe tomorrow, he thought. Maybe I'll die tomorrow.


I have been painfully aware for a very long time that most people understand next to nothing about suicide. I view this particular ignorance as a derivative issue: it is a narrower expression of most people's ignorance about psychology in general, including their own. Nonetheless, the avalanche of heedlessly aggressive and cruel ignorance following the suicide of a celebrity, as in the recent case of Robin Williams, always takes me aback. It isn't simply that most people understand almost nothing about the subject. It's that they know nothing -- and their unblemished ignorance doesn't cause them to hesitate even for a moment before offering diagnoses cribbed from lousy books and crappy movies, or picked up from their favorite phony guru of the moment. All that would be sufficiently deplorable, especially when, as is usually the case, these pretenses at scientific understanding are announced in the loud, brash tones of an overbearing sideshow barker offering his latest secret patent medicine that will cure you of all ailments, present and future. "Drink Dr. Schmoo's Magic Elixir, and not only will you never think of suicide again. You'll be dizzily, deliriously happy!" These days, the barker can add that, if you still harbor violent thoughts, you can go to work for the U.S. government and kill countless people around the world. Not only can you do so with utter impunity; you will be celebrated for it. At present, if you work for almost any government entity at any level, you can murder innocent people at home, too. Truly we are blessed to have such a beneficent government, so devoted to our well-being that it provides numerous outlets for the repressed rage that is so widespread in our culture.

But no, all that is not enough for the amateur geniuses in our midst. It's the goddamned moralizing that so many engage in, and with such feverish glee, that horrifies me. What is this irresistible compulsion that so many people feel to pass judgment on someone who has just killed himself? In the case of Williams, as in every similar case, including those involving non-celebrities, we're offered a choice between sympathy for someone who suffered from "mental illness," or condemnation for someone who was weak and selfish. Some try to combine the alternatives; the result is only a monstrous hybrid destined for an early death, a hybrid that is singularly unconvincing during its brief life.

I find it difficult to convey how bizarre I find this need to pass judgment on the person who kills himself, whether the judgment is positive or negative. When I say "positive" in this context, I do so simply to stress the distinction between the "understanding" and "condemnation" approaches. And for most people who utilize the understanding-"mental illness" approach, the understanding is frequently heavily tinged with tones of forgiveness. "He committed a horrible act, but we understand why he did it and that his action was not truly voluntary. Therefore, we cannot blame him for it." The clear implication is that we should "forgive" him for an act that was not within his control. But to preach sermons of forgiveness or condemnation at a dead person is a singularly odd way to pass one's time. I often wonder if such people actually grasp what death itself is. Some polls suggest that many people do not. A few years ago, a poll found that just over half of people around the world believe in God and an afterlife. A Huffington Post poll focused only on the afterlife question had a similar result. The Huffington Post poll employed a dubious methodology, in that readers voluntarily selected themselves to participate. Regardless of the methodology, the result tracks many other polls on this and similar issues. Many, many people choose to believe in fantasies that comfort them in some manner. People can believe whatever they want, but they should not expect to be taken seriously when there is not a shred of evidence to support their delusions.

Robin Williams (or any other suicide victim) is dead. He doesn't give a damn whether anyone forgives or condemns him. There isn't a small collection of "Robin Williams" particles floating somewhere in the universe, and who is now comforted by the voices of forgiveness or tormented by the condemnations hurled at his (somehow conscious) atoms. Here, most people's tangled attempts to grasp the nature of suicide run straight into our culture's inability to face death squarely and maturely, as well as colliding with most people's failure to grasp the idea of nothing. Death isn't followed by another form of being. You may hope it is, but hope does not constitute evidence. I frequently have the sense that many people believe their own deaths will be followed by a few of their atoms (or "spirit" or whatever they wish to call it) sitting around (or whatever such atoms or "spirit" do when they relax) thinking about how terrible it is that they died. Your death is followed by nothing, by the void. Not a single piece of evidence exists to suggest otherwise, in however inchoate a manner.

Judgment of whatever kind cannot be offered for the benefit of the person who is now dead. So, for whose benefit is the judgment being announced? Some will say -- usually those people who strongly condemn suicide -- that they do it for the sake of those who might be considering suicide themselves. But this cannot be the genuine reason, not if one thinks about it seriously and honestly for a few minutes. I'll come back to this issue.

When I hear about a suicide, anyone's suicide, my first thoughts always concern what a horrible and horrifying tragedy it is. Life -- and the fact that we are aware that we are alive, with everything that entails -- is a miraculous gift. I am an atheist, but I consider the gift of life, and conscious life in particular, on the order of a miracle. Yet the person who kills himself has chosen to wipe himself out of existence for all time, to obliterate himself absolutely. Do you have any idea how unbearable the pain must be for a human being -- who is aware of the incredible fact that he is alive, and how precious that is -- to commit such an act?

I wrote the story that opens this essay in the hope that readers might understand the nature of that pain more completely. Attentive, regular readers will have realized that it is an autobiographical story; it's about me. It describes my life from roughly August 1993 through March 1994. And, yes, I was the person who thought that the only way to end the torment was to murder my lover, my cats, and then myself. Does that shock you? Do you condemn me for it? I'm sure some people will. I'm well aware that revealing this much about myself carries certain dangers, but I concluded that the dangers were outweighed by the importance of shedding more light on certain matters, and by a large margin. I left out many details, some of which were hardly insignificant in terms of adding to my torments. As just one example, in the midst of all these calamities, the Northridge earthquake occurred on January 17, 1994. It was terrifying, and it caused a lot of damage to the apartment my lover and I then shared. So when I write: "He felt there was nothing left to hold onto, nothing left to support him in any part of his life.," I am referring not only to the psychological agonies I was experiencing, but literally to the earth under my feet. And the aftershocks from that earthquake went on for weeks, even months. Experiencing that on top of everything else, I sometimes felt I would truly go insane.

Regular readers know how devoted I am to my cats. Perhaps you're horrified that I could even think of killing the cats that I had at that time. I would suggest that you should first try to understand the psychological process involved. My life was nothing but unendurable pain. I couldn't imagine any kind of life that would be free of that pain. If I were to die, what would happen to my cats? At that point, I realized I couldn't depend on my lover to see that they found good homes; this was especially true of my wonderful Elyot, who was still recovering from his brush with death and would require special care for the rest of his life. And I doubted that any of my friends would exert the effort required to see that they were safe and happy. So I thought it most likely that they would be taken away by the animal control people, to live in cages, to be miserably unhappy and terrified, until they were finally put down. More than anything, I wanted to spare my cats that pain and unhappiness. So I would kill them to protect them. There is a terrible, inexorable logic dictated by depression that is this severe. I raised this issue with the psychiatrist I was seeing during that period. He told me that he had testified on several occasions in the cases of mothers who had killed their children, and then tried to kill themselves. When the mothers survived their attempts at suicide, they were prosecuted for the murders of their children. The psychiatrist explained that the mother was attempting, in a cruelly, horrifically distorted way, to protect them from future pain and suffering, which she viewed as an absolute certainty. (Please note that this issue is entirely separate from what might need to be done to prevent these people from inflicting harm on others. Once a person has actually committed such acts, clearly certain steps are required to prevent them from committing similar acts again.)

As I say, I've known for a long time that most people have very little understanding of these issues, which admittedly are especially difficult and painful. But in the aftermath of Williams' suicide, we were all treated to a variant on the general cultural ignorance that was new to me. I first heard it from an outstandingly awful Los Angeles radio talk show host, Tim Conway, Jr. I have sometimes found his father very funny, on the old Carol Burnett show, for example. But my appreciation for the senior Conway's work has been entirely negated by the fact that he raised such an ignorant and bombastically offensive son. (Conway, Jr. employs only two modes of speech on his show: a normal conversational tone and screaming. I don't refer to talking loudly: I mean screaming. And with regard to the proportions of each, screaming wins in a knockout.) Conway, Jr. often talks of his reverence for his father, and about how his father was "tough" in the way he raised him, teaching him the value of hard discpline. All of this is directly relevant to what follows, as we shall see.

Conway, Jr. announced a moral principle that had escaped my notice until he enlightened me: it appears that, once you have children, once you have even one child, you forever forfeit the right to kill yourself. When a parent kills himself, he visits irreparable damage on his children, subjecting them to a lifetime of unending psychological torment. A parent must never, ever injure his children in this way. When I first heard this, I was struck by how strange it was to select this one issue to focus on in as single-minded a manner as Conway, Jr. did. As the week following Williams' death wore on, Conway, Jr. returned to this theme repeatedly. I must have heard him deliver this sermon at least three or four times. One question about this message presents itself immediately. What is the justification for carving out an exception for parents, and only for parents? We certainly would not wish to condemn young children for killing themselves, but such suicides are very rare. If we confine the argument to children aged 18 and older, isn't it true that a child who commits suicide subjects his parents to immense suffering and torment in precisely the same way? We know that it is. What about people who are married or share their lives with a partner, especially if the relationship is one of many years' duration? Isn't the person who commits suicide visiting terrible suffering on his spouse or partner? We know that's true, as well. For that matter, what about any of us? We all have friends and acquaintances, people who care about us, sometimes very deeply and for many years. Aren't many of those people going to be devastated by our suicide? But spouses, partners, and all the rest of us apparently retain the right to kill ourselves. To this way of thinking, parents constitute a unique class, set completely apart from everyone else.

If Conway, Jr. had been the only person I heard offering this view, I probably would have let it go. But then I heard several other public voices proclaiming the same notion: parents are a breed apart. When you become a parent, suicide is permanently off-limits. And then this column by Henry Rollins intruded into the cultural conversation. It is one of the most profoundly ghastly pieces I have ever had the misfortune to read. The concluding section is a monument to the obliteration of understanding, compassion and empathy; it is also an astonishing and shocking psychological confession. But the final section and those particular issues require a separate discussion, which I will get to in the next article.

Earlier in his column, Rollins offers his version of the position put forth by Conway, Jr. and others I heard. Here is Rollins' version of this theory:
I am sure some will strongly disagree with what I’m about to say. And I also understand that his personal struggles were quite real. I can’t argue with that.

But I simply cannot understand how any parent could kill themselves.

How in the hell could you possibly do that to your children? I don’t care how well adjusted your kid might be — choosing to kill yourself, rather than to be there for that child, is every shade of awful, traumatic and confusing. I think as soon as you have children, you waive your right to take your own life. No matter what mistakes you make in life, it should be your utmost goal not to traumatize your kids. So, you don’t kill yourself.
It was when I read the Rollins article that I finally grasped what was happening here, and the source of this bizarre argument. It was then that I knew that I would have to write about Williams' suicide and some of the many issues it raises.

The source of this argument is what I will refer to as the Fable of the Good Parent. To put it another way, it rests on an inaccurate, false idealization of parents in general, of the parent as parent. The argument only makes sense if one assumes that the parent, any parent, is, at least for the most part, supportive and nurturing: that he or she deeply values the child as a unique human being in his own right, and that the parent is dedicated to encouraging the child to find and develop his own, genuine sense of self. But all of this is precisely what the majority of parents do not do. In fact, the goal of most parents' methods of raising their children is entirely and profoundly opposed to these aims. The simple, awful fact is that most parents inflict terrible damage on their children, damage that is often irreparable and that always leaves, at a minimum, wounds that last for the child's lifetime. And most parents do this in the name of "good parenting" and "responsible child-rearing."

The truth -- the truth that most people vehemently deny, the truth that most people will not seriously consider, and the truth that Williams himself could never face (as we shall see next time) -- is that most parents behave in ways that are "awful, traumatic and confusing" every day, and usually multiple times a day. Most parents "traumatize [their] kids" with a frequency that would shock us to the core, if only we had the courage to acknowledge the truth of the parents' actions. Much of what happens in the world, including in our politics and foreign policy, is explained by the fact that many parents regularly and consistently teach their children that cruelty, and even violence, are love. New horrors erupt in our country, and around the world, every day in very significant part because this is one of the primary lessons parents teach their children.

To single out suicide as a uniquely traumatic event that a parent visits on his children strongly testifies to the enduring power of our cultural denial about this subject, and to the unending delusions with which we seek to falsely comfort ourselves.

All of this requires a lengthier explanation, to which I will turn next time. Until then, you might want to read this article, particularly Part I (and look at some of the linked articles, if you wish), which will provide some of the background for my argument.

UPDATE: This discussion continues here.