The Taboo of Leaving: Suicide and Choice

My son committed suicide. He killed himself because he was hopeless. These are words parents never want to say. Two years after the fact, having lived with the brutal reality daily, it still feels surreal. Those two short sentences symbolize a great deal, but they actually explain very little. How do we reduce such a complex explanation to a comprehensible sound bite? We can’t, and yet as humans we crave answers and meaning. I believe the more I try to understand my son’s experience and death from varying angles the more peace I will have.

Mental health experts often talk about survivors moving out of the “Why did they do it?” period to the “How do we survive?” one. I never stick close to scripts, can’t do linear thought and have wandered between these two stages of grief like a sleep- deprived toddler going between parents. I need to understand why Daniel left us. Here’s where I might diverge with typical grief counselors who say, “At a certain point we just need to let go of looking for ‘why’ answers.”

I need to understand as much about Daniel’s suicide as I can. The more I read, the more I realize our understanding of suicide as a society is inadequate and in the process of changing. As with the grief process and my understanding Daniel’s mental illness, I know we can’t bring Daniel back, but my hope is that expanding the conversation about the nature of suicide will help others struggling with these issues, and perhaps help mental health professionals reach more people.

I hold Daniel’s mental illness responsible for the “hijacking” of his brain. Discussing his exit, his leaving us, his murder of his own body and his ending of his life experience merely as a “choice” and moral issue, both trivializes his action and reduces it to the realm of a simple, willful act.

My position on my son’s mental illness is not a controversial one. He likely suffered from bi-polar disorder with schizophrenic features. Doctors were a little less willing to see the dissociative, psychotic episodes as schizoid, but no one I talk to about the profundity of his suffering, it’s duration and it’s depth, believe it could easily have been healed, erased or managed. The feedback I have received socially is concordant with my experience in dealing with the realities of my son’s plight. This openness in discussing mental illness (a big shift from 20 or so years ago) has helped me and my family process the grief related to Daniel’s death.

But the subject of suicide is much more understandably contested—and a feature of Daniel’s struggle that is the most tragic and troubling.

Very few people I know said or intimated that his mother Jennifer and I could have done more than we did to prevent his suicide. Fewer still suggested it was a “cowardly act” — the socially accepted/morally-mandated response and belief in our society for years that may have prevented/ shamed some people from killing themselves for fear of looking weak and selfish. By-and-large people have understood that Daniel’s death was a tragic perfect storm of a tenacious, cruel disorder, the fragility of a developing adult mind in wrestling with the onset of the beastly illness and inadequate systemic and knowledge features of our health system. No one says he made the “right decision.” Suicide prevention groups believe we should try to save everyone, and hope that though some will slip through the safety nets, if we continue talking about suicide, giving people access to mental health resources, we will reduce the numbers of suicides. I support their work wholeheartedly.

But I think society as a whole is in the throes of large-scale reframing of our understanding of suicide.

Jennifer Michael Hecht is leading the charge in a position calling for a greater sense of personal responsibility in our duty to the social contract to reject suicide. In her recent book Stay, she argues that Christianity in Western Civilization, while authoritarian and frequently xenophobic and violently hateful, created a bulwark of interdependence and taboo that made suicide a more difficult option. The Enlightenment with its celebration and institutionalization of individual freedom and questioning of religious authority gradually contributed toward a crisis of community, spirituality and a weakening of taboos about suicide. Her argument is historical, somewhat statistical and focuses on a number of artist suicides.

“As I examine the history of how, in the West, we have understood self-killing, I also will put forward what might seem to be a contrarian position, a nonreligious argument against suicide. It is a philosophical argument but parts of it can or even must be told in terms of history, and parts must be demonstrated through modern statistics. One of the arguments I hope to bring to light is that suicidal influence is strong enough that a suicide might also be considered a homicide. Whether you call it contagion, suicidal clusters, or sociocultural modeling, our social sciences demonstrate that suicide causes more suicide, both among those who knew the person and among the strangers who somehow identified with the victim. If suicide has a pernicious influence on others, then staying alive has the opposite influence: it helps keep people alive. By staying alive, we are contributing something precious to the world.”

Noble. Hopeful. But she doesn’t really attempt to explain the nature of mental illness as it relates to suicide. She doesn’t blame but she reduces suicide to a sort cost/benefit utilitarian rationalism.

In trying to understand Daniel’s suicide, the notion of “choice” is hard to escape. How could a young man surrounded by loving friends and family do this? How could a person so hyper-sensitive to other people’s and non-human animal feelings choose to end his life, negatively emotionally impacting so many and rupturing the social fabric so severely? He knew his sisters, whom he loved dearly, would be impacted for life by his “choice,” didn’t he?

I went through his computer after his death and saw in browsing history and tabs on his computer he had been visiting numerous suicide prevention sites…but he was also conferring with end-of-life mercy killing folks and websites and watching documentaries on suicide. He was weighing his decision, vacillating back and forth, wasn’t he? According to Hecht, Daniel chose to leave because staying was too hard. He lacked the will to tough it out, so to speak.

I find this framework inadequate for understanding Daniel’s death and for looking at suicide as a phenomenon.

Psychologist Thomas Joiner poses a new framework that argues that suicide is not simply an act, but rather it is a process. His research has focused on the brains of suicidal people. The capability of suicide requires fearlessness. Joiner sees a connection between the self-damaging behavior of anorexia and suicide. Individuals suffering from anorexia are essentially overcoming the fear of starvation and bodily harm, and their self-destructive behavior often has lethal results.

For Joiner the fear regulator in the brain, the amygdala, is the key to understanding the leap from thoughts of perceived burdensomeness by suicide decedents to the actual killing. Far from being an impulsive act, as suicide is often misunderstood to be, there is essentially a training of the brain’s amygdala to be unafraid of self-harm.

So here are the features (in no particular order) of Daniel’s state-of-mind, I believe that may have factored into his suicide:

  • A possible shift/alteration in his lymbic system, the amygdala fear regulator in particular, that allowed Daniel to lack the fear of death and self-harm.
  • A perceived sense of burdensomeness –Daniel believed he was doing the world, his parents in particular, a favor by leaving.
  • A perception that the only way to silence the evil voices in his mind was to kill himself.
  • An absolute absence of hope. I see this as a real existential factor. There was no cosmological explanations or religious/moral-ethical/spiritual tenets and frameworks that could help Daniel find hope. He read a huge amount in his last year about world religion and brain science. None of the historical wisdom resonated enough to keep him hanging on.
  • His mind had essentially been hi-jacked by progressive mental illness. Was it bi-polar disorder? Maybe early onset schizophrenic features? We may never know the exact nature of the mental illness issues Daniel was struggling with—health care professionals were very cautious in terms of diagnoses.
  • One other possibility was the medications he was on. I don’t really want to go down the rabbit hole of whether specific meds he used or refused to take had some kind of impact on his state of mind, but I think his refusal to take meds especially in the last year, or at least his spotty use of them, probably impacted the big picture. He tried a number of pharmacological options to deal with mood and behavior and found them all distasteful and unpleasant in terms of side effects.

These 6 factors help me to start to make sense of the complex mixture of environmental, potentially genetic/bio-chemical changes, internal psychological, and clinical/diagnostic issues around Daniel’s suicide. I think they also reveal the notion of patterns of cause rather than definitive easy answers.

All of the individual pieces are complicated—but in some ways the issue of hopelessness in the equation provides the most painful and vexing component of the big picture. Hope is the only thing that really stands between our lives and The Void.

Perhaps I will start to talk about this behemoth in the next installment.

Thanks for reading these dispatches as I process my grief and understanding.


6 thoughts on “The Taboo of Leaving: Suicide and Choice

  1. Adam, thank you. You can articulate what I cannot. As you know, I too lost a Daniel to suicide. As you can imagine, reading your post was a powerful experience. My Daniel took his life just over 13 months ago. I have never imagined the issue as a choice, but you are the first person that has been able to put that to words. Thank you again for for your advocacy.

  2. Adam, I admire your willingness to delve into this topic so honestly and openly. It is appreciated by those of us who have loved ones suffering or having suffered from mental illness, depression and plagued by suicidal ideation. Your friend, in this life, Sherri Faye.

  3. Thank you for your insightful and enlightened viewpoint. Having recently lost a nephew to suicide I am also looking for answers.

  4. Where there is no vision the people perish Proverbs 29:18a. When you look into the definition of vision it states that it is the faculty or state of being able to see: to see what the future may or may not hold, something to look forward too, i.e. hope. From reading your blog, with the many different articles shared, there were some things that stuck out to me. The first thing was the statement at the bottom of the blog which read “A perception that the only way to silence the evil voices in his mind was to kill himself.” Those voices in which you speak about are very real Mr.Levy.

    When I was attending IPR I was introduced to what I thought was called “an ego” as soon I began to claim in simple terms “i was God”. Beginning to depend and trust in myself, do what I wanted even though I grew up around the knowledge of God my entire life. I am not implying that your son made up in his mind that he was his own god but the point I want you to see is that I have and still do have encounters with those demonic voices(temptations to sin). It gets to the point where ending your own life is the only option in shutting them up. It was not a brain issue because what was attacking me was not a natural tangible entity per’say but the intangible i.e. thoughts, things that could not be seen or handled. I tried using tangible means to stop an intangible problem and all it caused was temporary ease and as seem in your son’s case side effects that caused more discomfort. It was never meant in all of creation for man to use the tangible to cure/shut down the intangible and thats where man has fallen short. Speaking for myself and probably others for example, when I get stressed or frustrated I tend eat. Why because it takes the stress and brings temporary delight to myself but on the other side that creates bad eating habits, food choices,health issues etc etc. Not wanting to get to deep but simply wanting to bring forth that the mind and brain are separate entities. I still had logic and intellect but my thinking patterns or lack of being able to filter and replace my thoughts on whatsoever things were true.

    The second statement was that “He could have suffered from an absolute absence of hope” and that statement brings me right back to my opening statement of “where there is no vision the people perish. So for instance when driving at night, we turn our lights on because that gives up hope that we will not hit anything or be hit for the most part, but if we were to drive with our lights off our hope and confidence will surely be replaced by fear of the unknown and uncontrollable thoughts to say the least. So to make the analogy relevant to a persons mind or rather peace of mind, when we as humans don’t have something to hope in by experience or proof of existence by acting in our personal life and situations, it is like living with the headlights off i.e. lost. Adam I was lost, I had dreams of success and making it to the top as an engineer, pushing people forward and influencing the masses, being an awesome dad, just the all around good human, the one that society would be proud of but in my alone time I had voids and voices/thoughts that could not be silenced, I had questions, but no solid answers. Ideas and theories were given but there were not filling/satisfying. The bible talks about how Jesus walked in the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles: The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, And upon those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned (Matthew 4:15-16). I was that person who sat in darkness, smiled in the face of those who loved and cared for me, but on the inside my soul was crying/seeking/ and screaming out for help, for salvation. As a matter a fact many people in the world today fit the category of latter statement. This cry was was presented though my music, my actions, and my artistic views.

    I know that your son no longer lives, I know that your son was crying out and looking for salvation,peace, comfort, completeness and I don’t know what he had been exposed to fully except from what you were able to find in his computer, but somethings I do know is that it is not the will of God that man perish but have everlasting life John 3:16. I don’t know if Lord Jesus Christ was presented to him in light of the Gospel, but I do know that it is God’s will every man be saved and come into the knowledge of truth 1Tim 2:4 and that God is not man that he should lie, nor the son of man that He should repent Numbers 23:19. I wrote that because sometimes what people do not understand they either fear or become angry with. And God’s intent isn’t for man to be upset and angry with Him but come into an understanding of Him and at peace with His ways, to know He does understand all that man has gone, is going, and will go through. I mean man, God saw His only son killed because He was completely different and misunderstood, but nevertheless Christ said as he hung on that cross “Father forgive them for they no not what they do.” when He had every right to hate,despise, and leave us to be condemned to death.

    Sir, I am writing this for so many reasons, I write because I know where the hope lies, because it found me, I write this that you may find comfort or pray and ask God to truly comfort you by bringing you into the light of his Son if you have not already, that you may receive more clarity on the why. I write this let you know that I was one of those people who have been attacked and offered suicide as an option by those evil voices of deceptions and hopelessness, not only before I accepted Christ Jesus but while I am follower and believer of Christ as well. I write because many people have written off God completely as the answer without getting to know Him for themselves but from what others have said and what they have seen from a select few. I write because I know now that the wages of sin is death, but he gift of God is eternal life throughout Christ Jesus. The nature of man is weak without Christ, there is no way possible to live fully in joy, contentment, and true hope of promised redemption, salvation, and hope without Him. I’ve come to find out that Christ is the true LIght which gives light to every man coming to the world John1:9.

    Mr. Levy my mind wanders as well as yours does. Why, How, Who, When all cross my mind, but also what crosses my mind is that the hope of Christ comes to you and those who are reading this. That I am a living testimony of how suicide has knocked and knocks at my door to tempt me in ending my life at my own authority and without allowing the Lord Christ to carry His words out in my life saying, “I will never leave, nor forsake you” or “For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, 39 nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8:38-39 ” amongst other promising scriptures that the Lord keeps his eyes on to fulfill to His people. Man Mr. Levy I was a student at IPR at the age of about 19 who thought I knew what I wanted and where I was going, but had no idea just fantasies of what was shown to me. I did everything deserving of death and complete separation from God, his grace, his mercy, his Son, his Spirit, but when I hit rock bottom it was only Christ who showed me my inabilities and sinful nature, that drew me to his ability, holy nature, and compassion that has me going the way I am today. Christ is always waiting to save the souls of mankind.

    If you have made it to the end of this just know that the offer of Salvation through Christ is always available for the receiving right now. Jesus died and rose again that man could also live for eternity, but Jesus doesn’t want you to live when you make it into eternity but right now. If you happen to be someone who is lost, trapped in darkness, living a sinful lifestyle, knew, heard, or have been hearing about Christ Jesus, you know that you can’t go on in this life without truth in every area of your life, then your opportunity is now to ask God for yourself to make himself real to you, to make Christ real to you specifically. The bible says in Romans 10:10 for it is with the heart that man believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation”. With your heart and mouth you can be saved today, by confessing to Lord that indeed you are a sinner in need of savior, in need of hope, restoration, and relationship. That you do indeed believe that he was killed and rose again in order to save you. That you indeed want and need Christ in your heart. Then ask God to forgive you and to allow Christ to come into your heart and life.

    You don’t have to say this verbatim, talk to the Lord yourself ask him in your words and from your own convictions, repent to God and ask for forgiveness. Christ is still alive and is our only answer for this world.

    I pray for your strength, comfort, and peace of mind Mr.Levy

    Lanardius Palmer

  5. Adam, This is a tremendously worthwhile discussion. Thank you for sharing it. The complexity of your search for understanding is almost cosmological – like looking for the god particle to make sense of a chaotic universe. The nature of searching is a hopeful act and at the same time there is the existential element in that the universe simply exists. Your search is the eternal question : Why?

    I can’t do this discussion justice in the space of a reply box but thank you once again for sharing your thoughts and sending my mind off on such an intriguing path.

    love to you,

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