How did I survive, while others did not?
Words & images © Paul Ransom
Last month, someone I knew did the deed. I won’t pretend to have known him well or to have been devastated by his passing. Neither will I speculate about his reasons or pass judgement. However, I was spooked by it. I had all the usual thoughts – how fragile life is, how little we know of others, etcetera – but the tears I quietly and privately shed did not spring from grief. They were the tears of gratitude. The tears of the fortunate. For how close I once was. What this man did, I long considered. He went over. I held back. Why? How? By what mechanism do I still find myself here?
In truth, it remains a mystery. Yet, what I know for sure is that it is not because I am braver, wiser or more worthy. Indeed, on reflection, it was partly a fluke. It could so easily have gone the other way.
Despite the censure surrounding it, suicide is something many of us flirt with in moments of high emotion. Mostly, it is a drama that passes. However, some of us think of it in more detail. In the cool light.
For a number of years I pondered it in this fashion. My ‘suicidal ideation’ was couched in rational sounding terms, as a risk/reward proposition. I considered my remaining years – weighing up factors like ageing, worsening eyesight, prospects for future happiness, and the seeming inevitability of ongoing despair – and I was frequently drawn to the following conclusion:
- Given that death is a) inevitable and b) nothing to be scared of, and that the lead-up will surely involve reduced physical capacity, a decreasing likelihood of intimate relationship, and reasonable odds of painful and esteem-crushing disease and decrepitude…do we really want to consign ourselves to another thirty, forty, fifty years of habitual misery or…shall we just cut our losses and get it over with now?
The key here is the habitual misery part. It wasn’t that I considered suicide as a means to avoid possible cancer or the indignity of bedpans, but rather that when I looked forward I simply could not see a sustainable way out of despair. What’s more, I doubted both my capacity and desire to bear decades more of it. I was confident I could discipline myself to survive…but for what?
Though I cannot say what drove my former acquaintance to kill himself – nor indeed what finally decided it for countless others – my guess is that it involved a measure of misery, past, present and anticipated.1 In retrospect, there were signs. Cries for help and so on. I recall reading a social media post of his and thinking, does he mean this, or is this attention seeking?
Of course, in the days after hearing the news, there were several twinges of remorse. Even though I barely knew him and any approach from me would have seemed odd at best, if not intrusive, I suspect that between us we may have chanced upon a different way out. Because, to an extent, I had already walked his path and maybe – just maybe – I could have provided him with living proof.
Yet here, I hesitate; for I am not a poster child for suicide prevention, nor do I possess the magic key to survival. Neither do I wish to indulge in a virtuous display of survivor guilt. In addition, I refute the sentimental catechism of ‘you can make it’ and the smug moral control of the standard ‘selfish’ argument. (Yes, suicide is selfish, but so too is grief, not to mention the cloying emotional blackmail that so often swirls around it2.) I say this because, though I have thus far survived, I do not claim victory. I did not defeat suicide, I simply stumbled upon a way to avoid it; and I still cannot say with absolute authority how I managed this.
It is perhaps tempting to attribute my survival to a raft of noble and insightful interventions; and indeed I did take active measures to postpone or cancel the deed. Just get to the end of the day, I regularly urged. Divorce the drama, I instructed myself. Moreover, I took the counter-intuitive decision not to regard my sorrows as an illness, nor to regard myself as in need of fixing. Likewise, I abandoned the common conceit of you know you’ll be okay – because, the stark fact was, I didn’t.
Looking back, the most powerful decision I made was to allow for the possibility of nihilation, to say to myself that it was perfectly okay for me to choose suicide. It would be neither tragedy nor failure. Merely choice.
However, far from wishing to adopt the poses of wisdom or spiritual superiority, I am also aware that factors beyond my conscious choosing played a part. As indeed did a shortfall in conviction. It is no exaggeration to suggest that much of the reason I am still here is that I lacked the guts not to be. I trembled at the trigger point. Stepped back from the edge.
In addition, the unwitting actions of others contributed. These were not acts of conspicuous kindness – are you okay moments – rather, simple requests and mildly irritating oversights. Editors lining up interviews with artists I loved, project partners not bothering to book flights, friends wanting me to house sit. Sometimes, serendipitous intervention took the form of lies or selfishness, even cruelty. These behaviours nudged me towards the cleaning up of certain spills, the downgrading of false friendships, and the reappraisal of work plans. Each of them an effective postponement. After all, I could always kill myself next week. Oblivion, it turns out, is quite tolerant of delay.
Speaking of timing…if there was a single, dramatic turning point it came on a balmy Monday night, when I stepped out of a bar in the Chinese city of Lanzhou in time to help save a young man from almost certain death. This event not only shattered my jet lag but interrupted the cold momentum of self-destructive impulse – not because I had witnessed the proximity of finality but because, when I relayed this experience to my companions back in the bar, they brushed it off, too busy with drinking games and phone poking. Even if alcohol provided an excuse for this dismissal, the jar of it, the fracturing mismatch between mortality and triviality, switched something in me.
You could be excused for thinking that this would have deepened my despair, if only by amplifying a sense of isolation from others, (from people who, on the surface, were supposed to be my friends).
But no! To my delight and surprise, within weeks of this incident the dense fog of despair that had shrouded me since my early teens not only lifted but morphed into a clear-eyed calm and fortitude that soon manifested as a deep happiness I would previously have considered impossible or delusional. (In fact, it could still be delusional, but it’s convincing and practical, so I’m running with it for now.)
Yet let me be clear – I am not suggesting that saving a stranger’s life miraculously helped me save mine, nor am I attributing my survival to the cosy reductions of hero drama and pop-psychology. Likewise, I do not attribute the fruits of my post-misery existence to the laziness and inherent hubris of destiny narratives or the pass/fail binaries of karma. I am not alive because I deserve to be. Survival is not a reward. My being here is the by-product of a complex, co-entailed web of inputs. It did not come in pill form, spiritual or otherwise.
Thus, the death of a man I barely knew – a friend of a friend I met no more than two or three times – shocked me into remembering. Into a more conscious acknowledgement. I am here by the skin of my teeth.
We are accustomed to regard what we think of as happiness (contentment, wellbeing, good mental health, etc) as being diametrically opposed to what we call misery (depression, sadness, poor mental health, etc). However, in my experience the line between them is thin and porous. The distance from relentless suicidal logic to a place of grateful living was no more than a step; barely half a thought. Indeed, some days I cannot distinguish them. They frequently burst from the boxes of convenience our culture typically manufactures for them. I have learnt to allow this leakage. To give thanks for it. In the resulting fluidity there is freedom. The extraordinary liberty that comes from surrender3.
Bottom line…I am no tougher or smarter than my late acquaintance. He did not fail and I succeed. I too stood at the railings, looking into the turbulent river, knowing how little it would take. But I blinked – and perhaps that’s why I’m here now. The width of an eyelid, and the brevity of its flutter.
When I heard the news, I saw again how close I came. And I felt damn lucky. The gap between life and death, sorrow and joy, was so starkly revealed. A few salty tears, falling like gratitude. A sigh of profound relief. He and I lived on the edge of death – as indeed we all do – and now, in his absence, (and aside from the raw fact of outcome), I struggle to see the difference.
Here, gone? Him, me? Such a short walk.
1: We can probably consider cult members and jihadis, and others driven by extremist ideology, as a separate category of suicides. So too, murder/suicide cases. Likewise, in strong honour cultures, shame and fall from grace can be a trigger. Point being, despair, depression and mental illness are not the only precursors. Furthermore, I do not assume to speak for anyone else with regards to the mix of inputs that led to – or will prompt – their final decision.
2: In my view, the ubiquitous moralising drone around suicide not only nudges some people closer to the edge but is part of a control narrative steeped in denial, Essentialist dogma, and a fundamental misconception about the locus of so-called rights. I would further contend that if we do not have the right to die at a time and in a manner of our choosing, without the censure of gods or the restrictions of law, then we do not truly have rights. To be kept alive under moral or legal duress is surely a profound transgression against the agency of the individual. Life in prison. Life as obligation. You better not die, or else. The utter futility of this is perhaps matched only by its staggering selfishness.
3: I use the term ‘surrender’ in its more metaphysical/spiritual context. In other words, not mere capitulation or passive acceptance but an active allowance infused with gratitude. You can find more on this theme – and indeed upon the co-entailed topics of life and death – in my 2019 book The Pointless Revolution!