Note: This essay contains discussion of suicide that some readers may find distressing.
You think you might start with Shakespeare. That has always been your solace. You leaf through the battered Works of Shakespeare dated 1911. It belonged to your great-grandfather and is extremely impractical as a resource with its bible-thin pages and cramped text. You never met him, but your mother used to tell you that he would greet his grandchildren by encouraging them to punch his hard stomach.
Fred stayed stomach-punchable into his eighties. He would swim in the local pool every morning. He was so accustomed to it that he stopped checking the temperature of the water. One day the heating had been turned off. The shock of the cold nearly killed him, and he wasn’t the same after that.
After writing this down, you call your mother to check the details. It turns out you have entirely fabricated this swimming pool story. Your reality was always slightly different. Fred died of a stroke in his mid-eighties. Your brain had decided that the dramatic shock of the cold water was more appropriate for a death of such gravity.
You are not the only one who thinks this. A necessary denial of mortality has demanded that death be considered a plot twist rather than an inevitability. Death is Drew Barrymore being butchered in the first twelve minutes of Scream; Ned Stark’s head rolling away; half of the universe disintegrated at the snap of Thanos’ fingers. In general, an unexpected betrayal.
Shakespeare was killing off main characters well before Game of Thrones premiered. But those deaths were not surprises. Even if we set aside the fact that most early modern audiences would have been familiar with the stories he adapted, we all know how tragedies end. The movement towards conclusion is always a movement towards the death of the titular character.
You’re not supposed to say it, but the idea of death has thrilled you for a long time. You used to feel an absurd, existential rush you now recognise as euphoria when considering what might happen to you after death. If you made a mistake at school, or at home, or just in your head, you’d fantasise about pushing a button and starting over. At twelve, you wrote a story about an unnamed person deliberately jumping to their death from a cliff with no explanation. This passed by without incident, and you soon forgot. It is only when sorting through a box of old school books that you come across it again. By this point, you have attempted to kill yourself three times, and everything seems like an omen.
Tragedy is fundamentally teleological. From the Greek telos, meaning end. The business of tragedy is filling in the blanks from x to death. In one of the more direct examples of this, Romeo and Juliet opens with a prologue explaining the entire plot. If we didn’t already know the ending, we certainly do now. It hangs over every scene, distorting everything into foreshadowing.
It is this inevitability that people do not understand about suicide. Like death, it is often represented as a shock, a plot twist, a hack opportunity to add psychological depth. It is usually reactionary.
This has not been your experience. Suicide is not a response, it is a sickness. Suicide is a parasite convincing the host to attack itself. It turns every precipice into an opportunity and every object into a weapon. In It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey contemplates suicide after financial losses. This cause-and-effect approach unintentionally affords suicide a latent kind of rationality. It may be the wrong reaction, but it is a reaction nonetheless. You cannot deny the movement from A to B.
The torment of your life has never been the cause of suicide, though it can compound it. Suicide is the torment of your life. Its persistent, parasitic suggestion is most painful because you are aware of its irrationality. You have been suicidal when your life is in pieces and you have been suicidal when your life is full of joy. This terrifies you.
You have regretted each attempt on your life. But that regret is always attended by profound relief. Once you do the horrible thing, you can stop worrying about when you will do the horrible thing. For a moment, you can relax your vigilance. The spectre of suicide looms over you even in your happiest times. You are afraid to admit to your loved ones that you still believe it will kill you one day.
The mere mention of suicide in conversation, or its depiction in any medium, can derail you for weeks. You have not yet learned the difference between hearing about suicide and wanting to die. Your brain feels unprotected by your skull, its pink folds vulnerable to the slightest suggestion. When depictions of suicide come with no warning, you try to repackage your terror as fury. You are still afraid to acknowledge how dangerous and irresponsible you find it. You are embarrassed to give your sensitivity that power. To acknowledge that suicide is a tide that always floods back in. Even concrete sea walls erode with time. People accuse you of being “triggered” and you wonder if they realise how apt that is. It acknowledges that you are a fuse, a bomb, a finger the barest pressure away from firing.
Loud noises send you into a tailspin, and perhaps it is because your own mind has been a war zone. You have been the occupying force and the resistance.
One of the first things you remember learning is that honey bees die when they sting you. You can’t help but personify the bees, wondering if this fact is a constant weight in their bee-minds. Does the inevitability of it torment them? Do they choose now so they don’t have to keep worrying about when?
You look it up online and find an article titled "To sting or not to sting?" The riff on Hamlet’s famous contemplation of his own suicide is almost too explicit. Hamlet is paralysed by his indecision. He is trapped in an extended adolescence, as evinced by the fact that he has not inherited the throne—this is never explained. His ineffectiveness is dramatised by this torment over the honourability of his own death. Of course, we know Hamlet’s fate is sealed by the unfortunate fact that he is the titular character in a Shakespearean tragedy. It is notable, then, that Hamlet does not die by his own hand. Hamlet foreshadows his death but is impotent enough not to be the author of it. Whilst he muses over the possibility of endings, we already know what is coming. It is only the means that remains a mystery.
Both Shakespearean comedy and tragedy depend on this dramatic irony—on the audience knowing more than the characters. Romeo and Juliet’s happy moments are made all the more poignant by our knowledge of their impending doom.
You go to a gig at Valhalla where your younger sibling is performing. Three minutes into the opening act you start crying and have to run outside. When your partner asks what is wrong, you find it impossible to articulate the tangle of feelings in your chest. You are happy to be alive. You are grateful to have survived. You are furious with your past self for trying to take this moment away. You wish you could apologise. You wish you could go back to yourself at nineteen, at twenty, at twenty-one, and explain that it will get better. You also know that it will get worse again, and you will forget the good parts for a while. That is the danger of this kind of transactional thinking. If positive experiences weigh the balance in favour of your life, then by extension every bad one might be an argument against it.
All of this is only your experience. You tried to research it, then realised you didn’t want to. This is not a study of suicide. It is personal. It is a confession. It is a response to depiction after depiction of suicide as a shocking plot point from an outside perspective. Suicide is not a plot twist. It is not a surprise and it is not even interesting. It is banal, repetitive, exhausting. It wears you down to tissue paper.
In Antony and Cleopatra, Antony decides to end his own life rather than be taken captive and brought back to Rome in shame. Unlike other tragic heroes, he fails. The moment is disturbingly comic; bathetic, from bathos, rather than pathetic, from pathos. In contrast to Hamlet, Antony’s failure to kill himself is physical rather than psychological.
You’ve been very lucky not to have caused significant damage to yourself through your suicide attempts. The support of your family has afforded you help that is not available to everyone. You have seen professionals who have significantly improved your condition and you have waited months to be told you don’t fit the criteria. You are not alone in having learned that hospitalising yourself is often the fastest way to get treatment. A lack of funding has meant that those suffering from mental illness must present with effect, rather than cause.
We are often fed the line it gets better. The sentiment is admirable and also a bit like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. It will indeed get better, and it will get worse, and it will get better again, and again, and again. Suicide cannot be rationalised with. We do not negotiate with suicide. It has no interest in whether you have had the best week of your life or the worst. Suicide is an equal-opportunity suggestion. When we present it as a reaction we afford it a legitimacy it does not deserve.
The inevitability of death is a built-in feature of humanity. We don’t need a prologue to know this. As Hamlet’s mother Gertrude reminds him: “All that lives must die.” Of course, there are ghosts in Hamlet, which complicates things. Ghosts—a problematically Catholic phenomenon in early modern England—most often show up in Shakespeare because they have been murdered. They represent unfinished business and are determined to mire the play in the events of the past rather than allowing progression. Tragedy’s preoccupation with endings is not in conflict with this retrospection; it is propelled by it.
Sometimes you think you can feel these ghosts around you. You are not a murderer, but this is not for lack of trying. These spectres of selves you tried to excise should protect you from future attempts, but you know this is not how suicide works.
You cannot converse with suicide. It is slippery and underhand. There is no point indulging it with a thirty-five line soliloquy weighing up the pros and cons. You cannot say no to suicide, because that engagement, however passive, is still acknowledgement.
Tragic heroes never have a choice. Any resistance only seals their fate. Running from and running to are indistinguishable. You try to cut the prepositions and just focus on running, but you are only ever hurtling towards a conclusion perpetually outside of your control.
You stop. You pause. You take a breath. You take seven. You let it catch up to you. Suicide starts by coaxing. Like a superhero villain, it offers you the world if you would only take its hand. Think of what we could do together. We’re not so different, you and I.
When you are silent, its words turn venomous. When you are unmoved, it starts swinging. Instead of blocking the punch, you step aside. Suicide stumbles. Suicide falls. Suicide will get up again. Suicide will mutate and your antibodies will be useless. The word no only strengthens it.
You stop saying no. You stop looking at suicide. You set your gaze on life, which has been watching all this time. Life is fickle. Life is unpredictable and messy. But life negotiates. Life bends and snaps and heals and breaks. Life has more than one suggestion. So you rinse the word no from your tongue, and instead you say yes, yes and yes to life, and all the arguments for and against it, and the sun rising and the cold hurting and the laughs that open your chest and the anger that burns it and the right choices and the wrong choices. All the world’s a stage, but no one ever said it had to be a tragedy. You don’t write the script. You improvise. You choose uncertainty. You choose life. You choose.
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