This afternoon I listened to the ‘Revisionist History’ podcast episode titled Burden of Proof. It’s Malcom Gladwell’s show, so it’s intriguing, packed, and persuasive in ways one should be careful about. (That’s my Gladwell-bias, at any rate. I love his stuff, but I have to be verrry careful that I keep thinking for myself and don’t just consume his thinking whole.)
This episode ostensibly covers, “What makes proof proof?” but is really about chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and tackle football. Listen to it—it’s good journalism, good persuasive communication, and in this case (as I have done a little reading of my own on CTE before coming to this work) spot-on. Enough that my deep-Southern, Pittsburgh-formed self is squirmingly uncomfortable about my own enjoyment of the game and considering contacting her alma mater to ask them to relinquish their hard-fought national ranking.
What caught me most was not Gladwell’s arc, or even the subplot of how he was invited to speak at a prestigious thang at a prestigious university… and used the moment to harangue them about how they were willingly killing each other. (Essentially a test run of this material.) I guess we all should caveat emptor when it comes to inviting Malcom Gladwell to speak.
It wasn’t even the interviews with the families of two collegiate football players who committed suicide due (extremely highly probably) to CTE. Though as a suicide survivor I hurt deeply for them, and as a parent I ache for the unexpectedness of their losses.
I was caught when the head football coach for one of the deceased students notes how different it is to be the friends and colleagues of a student who’s killed themselves rather than a student who dies of cancer, or even in a car crash. “The kids wonder, ‘Was there something I could have done?’”
I thought, they also wonder:
Was there something I missed? Surely there was a clue I should have acted on…
There’s nothing different between that honored, excelling student and me. That suicide could be mine. Why isn’t it?
The students who die due to the CTE-invoked demons in their heads are even more eerie in this way than my suicide attempt was for my friends and colleagues. But in real time, it worked about the same way.
My friend Steph kept fielding comments like, “She has everything going for her! What does she have to feel depressed about?” and “How can someone who makes the grades she does want to kill herself?”
It’s worth noting that Steph, left behind to carry the can for me, was also struggling with depression and suicidal tendencies. We would spend afternoons together mapping out our various death options. When I got home from the hospital, she told me how invalidating and painful the default comments were. “You don’t get to feel what you feel!” is what we heard.
It’s not until lo these many years later that I can hear the fear.
If one can’t discern a difference to shift that other from an “us” into a “them,” suicide starts to feel contagious. Sometimes becomes contagious, in fact. And in certain ways I wouldn’t want to change any mentally ill person into “them.” We still struggle with mental illness individually and culturally far too much to make distancing ourselves a wise choice.
At the same time, as one who lived I can categorically answer: why isn’t you? We don’t know. But it’s not, and that’s good. It’s okay to hang onto that goodness in the ripples of another’s despair.
To the other question(s)—they’re essentially one question—the answer is: nope. You did the things that you could in the moments that were available to you. Suicide makes obliterating everyone’s social/emotional boundaries and agency seem like a noble choice, but it’s not. Personal agency is exactly that, so, even if you’d known things you didn’t know and had skills you didn’t possess, the dead person might still have died. Almost certainly would still have died. Responsibility for their death is that person’s burden to carry, and no one else’s.
If one wants to prevent these deaths, one has to start back much, much earlier. For emotionally-caused depression or for CTE, one’s responsibility to the suicidal begins long before any signs manifest. It begins the moment one is aware of a potential hazard, particularly a hazard one can adjust or remove.
Maybe for some families, it’s forgoing their tradition of high-impact sports. Maybe for me it’s hearing the sounds of perfectionism in an extremely small person, taking her into a hug, and saying,
“Your brain is lying to you when it says that you need to do that better. It’s fine the way it is. Tell your brain to shush.”