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The Weight Of The Unspoken Word
Talking Carefully About Suicide Is Good. Avoiding The Subject Isn’t.
Well-chosen words can move me, but so can words left carefully unspoken.
Too often, the news brings us stories of people who have died or gone missing. Some of these stories have missing words with their own gravity, like miniature linguistic black holes. When the news presents an adult gone missing from their family without an obvious explanation (like “hiking alone” or “nighttime swim”), I scan the article for words like “depression” and “troubled” or for other signs that the family’s fear is a very specific one about suicide. When an apparently physically healthy person dies without explanation, I look for the same words, or for the discreet circumlocutions that sometimes replace them.
We’ve gotten more careful with language. That’s good. The media has listened to expert advice about how to report on suicide, and has outgrown traditional terminology that carried ancient judgments. Those judgments — that suicide is a crime, that it’s sin, that it’s shameful, that it’s an act of violence against the self and against family, are pernicious. They deter people from seeking help, because they tell people suffering from depression and anxiety “you’re a bad person for even thinking about that, you’re a bad person for feeling the way you do.” That message, that lie depression tells us, is genocidal. More Americans died by suicide last year than any year on record, probably more than car crashes, around 16 nine-elevens. Good messaging on this subject saves; bad messaging kills.
Good messaging isn’t easy, especially in the context of reporting deaths. The media is also understandably loath to invade the privacy of the deceased or their loved ones, or jump to conclusions about a death in a way that could simply stigmatize suicide further. So when someone like Sinéad O'Connor dies without explanation and without “signs of foul play,” the media implies, but doesn’t ask. Stories about O’Connor mention her history struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts, her efforts to de-stigmatize those afflictions, and the excruciatingly tragic death of her young son by suicide and her recent vocal anguish over it. But when it comes to her death, they don’t ask the questions, they don’t say the words. The missing words hang there, heavy, like lead weights.
Could the media do that better? I’m not sure. I suppose the media could hold off on implying anything about the cause of death until and unless one is announced. But stories like this hit hard if you struggle with depression, if you’ve ever been plagued by thoughts of suicide yourself. Those feelings don’t wait until the full story is in. I remember when I learned Robin Williams died by suicide. I was in an elevator, riding up to the psychiatrist who would see me for perhaps a hundred and fifty seconds, a few months into recovery from a profound and near-fatal surge of inexorable depression. It felt like a blow to the head. I stopped the elevator between floors and gripped the railings hard and breathed deeply several times and over the snotty blattttt of the elevator alarm I thought Jesus. If he can’t hack it, how can I? I am certain O’Connor’s death landed the same way for millions.
But I could hack it, I can, I do. It’ll be ten years next year, and here I am, still going, doing pretty well most of the time, more confident in the tools I’ve collected to weather the bad times. Our moral imperative of depression and suicide is to get more people from there to here. That’s hard. It’s hard because it involves asking suffering people to make a kind of leap of faith — to ask for help even if they can’t and don’t believe it will work, even if it hasn’t worked before, even if they are unable to imagine (because depression lies) that it could work. It’s describing light to one born blind.
Maybe that’s not the media’s job, at least not when it wears its news-reporting hat. I suppose there are ways the media could finesse it. Reporters could say “while no cause of death has been reported for Sinéad O'Connor, her history of frankness on the subject of depression and her recent anguish about her son’s death by suicide has led to fans expressing their fears and anxieties on the subject. Here are resources for people struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts, and here’s an expert to talk about it.”
But maybe helping our fellow humans is primarily the job of people who have been there, not the news-reporters. Maybe it falls to survivors, and their loved ones, to say this: I feel it too. When something happens like that in the news, when we lose someone to suicide or what looks like probable suicide, when it appears that someone lost the fight, I still feel it. I remember wondering if it would happen to me. I remember such a death making me wonder “if she couldn’t fight it, how am I worth fighting it?” But there is hope. You can’t see or feel it, but it’s there. It exists on the other side of you asking for help. Please let me tell you about it. Please believe that you can have bad depression and anxiety and manage it — that you can get to a place where you can have a job, have a family, have success and responsibility, feel joy, and still be a person with depression and anxiety. It can get better, but you have to ask for help.
Maybe it’s our collective responsibility to fill in the missing words, and to help others carry the weight.
I’ve talked a lot about depression, anxiety, and suicide before. But recently I realized I haven’t talked about it here on Substack. That’s changing now. This will still be a newsletter mostly about the law. But now and then it’s going to be about harder things. I hope it will be a space where you feel comfortable discussing those things. And I hope it will help convince even a few people to be open about what they feel. In preparation, let me re-introduce myself for these proceedings. I’m Ken. I have a success career as a law firm partner, a successful avocation as a writer and podcaster, a family, a mortgage, and occasionally debilitating major depression and anxiety. I have all those things at once because I learned to manage that last part [I’m not claiming to have learned to manage the family or law firm part]. Ask me how.
Every time I talk about this subject caring people ask if I am okay. I am right now, thanks for asking. Someday, sooner or later, I won’t be; that’s the way the disease works. When that happens, I’ll ask for help. Please join me in that promise.