This essay has been thirty years in the making, finally coming together one morning while reading a NY Times article titled “Midlife Suicide Rises, Puzzling Researchers“. Knee deep in midlife I could already confirm the facts of the story. I knew a lot of depressed people, moreover I knew a fair number of suicidal people. At one point almost all the women I consider close friends or family were suffering from depression, many had suicidal thoughts.
This bracing bucket of ice cold scientific-info-freak-me-out was based on a study from Centers for Disease Control. I’m skeptical of most studies, even from the CDC – these days so many studies are tailor made for selling detergent: “Women who eat broccoli 3 times a week are twice as likely to have a higher metabolism and a trimmer waist – details at 11!” These statistics, however were confirmed by my own experience. For men 45-54 years old the suicide rate jumped 20% from 1999 to 2004. For women the same age it jumped a staggering 31%. I had seen the women in my life bend to the breaking point beneath the burden of mid-life, and more than a few men as well.
Sometimes the suicidal feelings of those I knew arose within the context of our societies declining ability to care for its own – loss of health and healthcare, loss of work, loss of financial security, loss of home. Sometimes it came out of the blue, attacking those with prosperous lives. The study suggested that the rise of prescription drug use, both legal and illegal, was at least partly to blame for the dramatic increase in deaths. I read the article a week or so after a 43 year old friend of mine died of an accidental overdose on prescription drugs. He is only one of at least six friends from my youth who have either overdosed or killed themselves outright.
Whatever the details, something was clear, we as a culture are conjuring more death for ourselves. I can accept that the older I get, the more deceased friends and family I will acquire – thats just the math of aging. But when so many of those people are dying from suicide or accidental overdose, something inside me cries out a warning. A powerful presence is haunting our culture with increasing, devastating impact.
Like many people reaching middle age in the new Milena, I grew up with an awareness of depression and a developing understanding of the toll it could take in a persons life and the life of a family and community. Understanding depression is something we seem to have been working on for the last 40 years or so. Psychiatrists, counselors and pharmaceutical companies have been bringing it out into the light of day. Stripped of shame, invited in as manageable, we have seemingly domesticated this formerly hidden parasite.
Despite our modern perspective it has never felt right for me to me to say “that person suffered from depression and that’s why they killed themselves”. Depression feels like too small a word to describe what people who kill themselves go through, and what we are going through as a people. The deaths that spring out of depression and other extra-ordinary states of mind, are events unto themselves. Its not even clear that all of the people in the CDC study suffered from depression. Perhaps depression is just one of many veils behind which something tragically fatal hides. We may have only domesticated the parts of this crisis that we sense and can understand, leaving other forces to expand and find deeper purchase in our culture.
The forces that beget these deaths belong to all of us in some way, whether or not they are attached to a diagnosable illness. They are part of the story of our people, the story of our communities. Their energies influence us all in different ways. Some of us are simply put in the position of receiving the burden of their company directly. Perhaps these forces come from within us, perhaps they are a part of life itself. I have come to experience them as a single current that can be seen everywhere, if one is able to peer through the chatter of our modern world.
In a culture living more in balance with life, I imagine this current serves as a kind of gateway to other experiences. Perhaps there was a time it was ritualized within our various ritualistic traditions. It may have provided the energy behind rites of passage, yearly cycles of renewal, and the job of the psychopomp: shepherding the departed on to the next realm. Never contained, never bridled, none the less perhaps there was a time we had means of approaching it, techniques to empower us to survive its withering presence.
Perhaps it seems strange to think of the energy behind suicide as a mystical force. We are so habituated to think of the feelings that cause suicide as illnesses to be cured, and suicide as simply a tragic extension of those feelings. But surely for some people these darkly transforming states of mind have profound meaning and even sought-after value when held properly by the larger community. A mystical force worthy of our attention is not necessarily generous or benign.
We organize our relationship to these powerful forces of soul numbing sorrow and self-destruction, in part based on how our culture has grown to relate to them. Unfortunately for us Westerners somewhere along the way we dismembered the magical wisdom necessary to negotiate relationships with such lethal powers. I’m sure they are with us a thousand times in our lives, but we are blind to their presence. To the modern eye these forces can’t exist, and so we shiver when they pass close by and carry on with our day. Our vision is not properly focused to enter into a relationship with such things. We are left with a presence that appears so scattered and vague that it cannot provide a useful function in our lives, and so when it does impact us we battle it blindly with paltry results. It has become an accidental companion we stumble across, sometimes even impaling ourselves upon its finality.
I’ve been pressed by recent events to think more about some of my experiences with these anti-life forces. I don’t think they can be truly named, belonging to a realm beyond language. I catch glimpses, feel their presence. Too often I only know I’ve been close to them after they have left their permanent mark on my life. They touch my friends and family too often for me to ignore any longer. I’ve become desperate to discover something about nature of this presence in all of its dimensions that will help me to protect people against its full onslaught.