Suicide Story #1
Insights in Medicine and Clinical Neuroscience
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Suicide rates are up 30% between 1999 and 2016. 123 people commit suicide in the United States every day.
Recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain and Robin Williams have brought this issue to the front pages of the media and into our homes.
I recently had a conversation with a very bright but depressed 18 year old lad. He admitted that he’d had thoughts of suicide in the past. I asked him if he died, what would happen to him. He said that he would just “quit existing.”
I said, “So if you killed yourself, you’d just cease to exist like a rotten, dead tree?”
“How about if your mom died?”
“I don’t know. Maybe she’d be good enough to go to Heaven if there is one. I don’t know.”
Ignore for now the paradox of a mom with an afterlife while he has none whatsoever. I’ll get back to that later. Focus on his “life to dirt extinction” thinking. This response didn’t surprise me. It’s a conversation I’ve had many times with young people, and sometimes those not so young. If all we are is just an arrangement of organic material, like a tree, then there is really nothing unique about being human, nothing different than a plant. After all, that’s what we’ve been taught from elementary school through graduate school, where the science of biology alone among all the sciences defies the laws of thermodynamics. In biology, unlike physics, astrophysics, and chemistry, everything is NOT headed for disorder and entropy. Rather, organisms are becoming increasingly complex and of a higher and higher organization and order. So we are just complex, well organized trees.
And once we remove uniqueness of humanity from ourselves or someone else, it’s easy to kill them off like an animal…or a tree. Hitler did that. That’s how genocide happens. It’s the same with Armenians, or black people, or brown people, or red people, or fetuses, or old people, and on and on.
So, then, it’s also ok to kill ourselves if everything seems hopeless and we want to put an end to the hopelessness. If with death everything just ‘ends’, then we can just ‘end it’ with finality, and we are no more.
But what if we are more than a pile of organic debris? And what if ending our breathing does not end our consciousness…or worse yet, our misery? Let me tell you some stories-one a week.
Here is the first:
Eric 20 years old:
This is a delightful young man whom I saw in my clinic with his amazing mom and dad. He had been in a car wreck and had a massive brain injury. He was transported to the trauma unit and underwent surgery after surgery to save him. The neurosurgeons must have spent days in the OR putting his head back together. But this was only the beginning.
He coded…5 times.
He is truly a severe brain injury patient. His speech is slow and he has difficulty getting it started. “I died 5 times.”
“How do you know?” I asked. He raised his head from his downward gaze and gave me that, “what a stupid question” look.
“OK, so what was it like? Did you go anywhere? Did you see anything?”
“TREES!!! BIG TREES!!!” “And Grandma.”
“Grandma, huh? What did she look like?”
“Like Grandma!!!”, he said it like I must be some kind of stupid. Then he got a funny look on his face and said, “Except…except…”
“Except what?”, I asked.
“Except her teeth,” pointing at his mouth.
“What? Were they all straight?”, I asked. I had heard these kinds of descriptions before where the deceased family member looked young and beautiful but is easily recognizable.
“And gold streets.”
“Gold streets?” Now I’m thinking he may be starting to embellish a little.
But then he said, “Yeah, and I could see!!”
“What do you mean, ‘you could see’?” I asked.
“Streets! I could see!”, he said, pointing with his non-spastic hand at the ground.
Suddenly, I remembered how streets in Heaven are described as ‘transparent gold’.
That’s what I learned from Eric that day.