Suicide Is Not Selfish
I don’t want to hear another person say that suicide is “selfish”.
I am absolutely fed up and done with this idea that because someone took his or her own life, that someone acted selfishly and without consideration of the feelings of others and the impact such an act would have on the lives of others. Many of us were heartbroken after learning that Karyn Washington, blogger and founder of For Brown Girls, passed away in what appears to have been suicide. Those who were close acknowledged that she battled depression and was having some personal struggles. None of us will ever truly know what pain she was in, however, and that is why no one should refer to what she did as “selfish”. As a Black woman, I understand a lot of the unique burdens that we bear and have had to carry for generations. I have written about how we absorb so much pain, silently, because we’re expected to be “strong” and to endure everything and be the sources of strength for everyone.
In the days following the news of her passing, social media was, unfortunately, dominated by conversations about how selfish it was of her (and others) to commit suicide, and I admit that I was stunned at how careless and shameful the commentary has been in this time of grieving and reflection. The myth of the Black Superwoman plagues us to the point when any indication of hurt or pain is shamed, shunned, ridiculed, and belittled. Several months ago, Trudy of Gradient Lair facilitated an engaging discussion on how calling suicide “selfish” is victim-blaming. She and others explored how, for Black women, experiences with depression and trauma are often directly related to our being women and being Black and carrying the weight of this duality in a society that “others” both identities. Factor in religious expectations that require "more faith," intraracial expectations of loyalty and secrecy (when experiencing abuse), and the persistent disconnect between Black people and mental health care, there are so many things to consider when a Black woman takes her own life.
When Black women hurt, openly, we challenge others’ notions of what Black womanhood is—strong, fierce, unabashed, sassy, no-nonsense, caretaking, healing, saving, nurturing—and that makes many people uncomfortable. When we dare show “weakness,” we are blamed for being unable to be the mules everyone has come to expect us to be. We hurt. We feel pain. We struggle. And yes, sometimes in an act nothing short of revolution, we even put ourselves first. It’s a shame that too many find it hard to accept that we have the right to make decisions about our minds, bodies, and lives.
Karyn, I’m sorry for all that you endured that pushed you to the point of ending your life. I say, with great empathy, that I wish you eternal peace and hope that your suffering has ended, once and for all. My wish for you is that you’re enveloped in the loving embrace of our ancestors, many of whom made the same decisions and took the same actions. What you gave to us, purely of yourself, was more than you could ever imagine. You believed in the beauty of Black women and you did what you could to make us believe it too. Thank you.
Losing a loved one hurts. Most of us can relate to the feeling of losing someone who means the world to us, especially when it happens before we are ready to accept and process the loss. Are we ever truly ready, though? On April 19, 2007, I lost my mother to pancreatic cancer. She was only 51 at the time. While I knew the end was near, and had been preparing for her departure for several months, the loss still rocked me to my core and the shock and pain of losing her lingers with me still. There are always those “What if I had done more?” and “How could I have saved her?” thoughts that plague me from time-to-time, and I imagine that many people who lose loved ones experience similar moments of reflection and wondering.
There is something different about a person committing suicide, though, which elicits a different, almost angry feeling of betrayal. Many people think it is selfish to end your life when so many people love you, rely on you, need and want you around, and can’t imagine their lives without you. The angry feelings are often centered on what people need from you… for themselves. Some people make your life, your whole being, and your entire purpose more about what works to make their own lives better. People are concerned more about what they can no longer take from you and less about whether or not you were living your life happily for yourself. When someone takes his/her own life, that person is posthumously blamed for causing so many other people pain with little recognition or empathy for the pain that likely led to the suicide itself.
I attempted suicide when my son was a baby. My mother died 6 months after I’d given birth to a healthy baby boy, two weeks after my birthday, a few months into a period of severe postpartum depression, 6 months of my being unemployed, and in the midst of my marriage falling apart after the discovery of my ex-husband’s infidelity. I was at the lowest point of my life, which is saying a lot because I’d already been through a great deal. I felt completely hopeless and convinced myself that my son, and the world honestly, would be better off without me around.
That line of thinking was rational to me-- when you’re depressed, it becomes difficult to recognize which of your thoughts are outside of your personal “norm” and are actively eroding your ability to process anything positive. I constantly had thoughts in my mind that told me “Your life is never going to improve,” “You’re stuck here in this misery,” “You were born to suffer”, “Your son is better off without you,” “You’re doing him a favor by leaving this world behind”. I would wake up and ask, “Why? Why the hell did I wake up? Why couldn’t I have just gone to sleep forever, peacefully?” and I would become angry with God, for waking me up. Despite the façade I put on for everyone else, I couldn’t think of a single worthwhile reason for going on with my life for another day.
I tried and failed. I took an entire bottle of sleeping pills and my ex-husband happened to come home early and find me. I say that I “failed” because at that time, I’d decided that ending it was exactly what I wanted to do so I set my mind to it and made provisions to make it happen. I wrote a letter to my son, bought the pills, laid in my bed, and went to sleep, hoping that it would be the final sleep I’d experience. I went to sleep with a smile on my face because I looked forward to hugging my mother again in the Afterlife. My ideas about the Afterlife didn’t discount people who committed suicide as a means of ending torment and pain; suicide, in those instances, was an act of freedom and mercy, at least in my opinion. What kind of god wants people to suffer and endure pain, right?
I survived. I’m here. I think of the “failure” as indication that it was not my time and that maybe I did have something to contribute to the world at some point. That way of thinking didn’t come immediately, however. My marriage did end. I did have to go into treatment and I am still engaged in mental health care to be able to live as productive a life as possible. I do have a beautiful, healthy, compassionate son who loves me dearly (and needs me). I have rebounded in such tremendous ways, that I consider myself fortunate to have been to the bottom and to not only have survived, but to have learned important lessons about myself, my purpose, and what my life will continue to be about.
Today, I choose to live and do so, each day, with intent and purpose. It is not easy, especially when so many people expect so much from you. I get called “strong” so much, the word has completely lost its meaning on me. I’m told I’m an inspiration and I feel obligated to keep inspiring. If I share my “weaknesses,” I fear I will let the people who look up to me down. I fear people will use them against me to tear me down, as many have done before. I fear being exposed, being vulnerable, and being open to other people’s opinions about how I should live my life. My engagement in social media means being exposed to triggers that take me back to some of the most traumatic moments in my life and I find myself sinking in dark places and I must actively fight against the descent. Some people can’t fight like I do, though, and we should never blame them. Sometimes, I don’t want to fight, and that’s as real as it gets, folks.
No one has the right to determine what another person should endure. We don’t get to tell other people that “it will be OK” and they “need to have more faith”. We have no right to tell someone that their pain isn’t as bad as others, thus negating their experiences and isolating them further away from actually getting help that might make things better. We don’t get to make other people’s lives about US and demand that people live for us and our wants and needs. We have no permission to dictate the choices of others and expect that their choices consider our feelings before their own. That is the epitome of selfishness and we need to end that way of thinking.
I’ll leave you with this: When I hear “Suicide is selfish,” I think of every Black woman held in bondage, whose body was ravaged daily, whose womb was exploited for profit, whose children were stolen, whose back was lashed for not meeting the requirements of her owner, who was sterilized, and whose mind was irreparably destroyed after years of torture who took the only path of freedom for which her earthly body could not be further punished.
When you tell someone, "It will get better," how, exactly, do you know that?