Other People's Reasons and Our Narratives: On the Appropriation of Suicides

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[trigger warning: suicidal ideation, description of suicide methods]

In October of 2010, I wanted to kill myself. I started plotting, on a daily basis, how it would happen. I’d stare up at the roof of my apartment building as I walked up the hill toward class, wondering who would spot my body first when I hanged myself using the loose wires up there. Or perhaps I would use one of those toxic bug bombs I still had on hand from when my apartment had become infested with roaches during the summer. I was living in Japan at the time and mercifully didn’t know enough Japanese to buy myself enough drugs to overdose.

2 months later, I quit my job, returned home, and began the slow road to recovery.

It was a dark, terrifying place to be. It’s not something I talk about easily or openly – few people, to this point, ever knew that this was the case and that this was the real reason I left. At the time, I said it was because I had a lack of Christian community around me, that I wasn’t getting the spiritual food I needed and it was leaving me hopeless. This was only a small part of the truth – the real problem was that I was deeply, deeply unhappy, and deeply, deeply broken. Even three years later, I can’t truly tell you what went wrong, other than a pervasive sense of being entirely unmoored from any reality I’d ever known.

I tell you this not to garner pity or to elicit sympathy for my case – I am recovered and I am in a much better place now. The fact that I can even talk openly about it is a sign of a good recovery.*

No, I tell you this because I was triggered – trigger is the only way I can describe it – by an offhand reference in a piece I read this morning, a sublimation of the story of a person who committed suicide into an anecdote about submission.

And I am furious.

Emily Wierenga wanted to talk about servanthood, submission and the feminist conflict. I understand where the piece was attempting to go. But the piece derailed for me when she chalked up her grandmother’s suicide to her grandmother’s inability to submit properly:

My dad was a pastor but when I was a little girl, the church was the only place he was a leader. At home, my mum made the rules. She told my dad when to punish us; my dad would always tell us to go to our mum when we asked for permission, and she ultimately made any decisions affecting the family.
And my dad let her. So I not only didn’t fully respect my dad growing up, because he didn’t stand up to my mum, but I didn’t really trust him to protect me. To come to my rescue if I needed him to. And when I first got married I treated my husband the same way; I bossed him around and got annoyed when he wouldn’t listen to me.
My mum’s mum was that way too. My Nanny and her husband divorced, because he couldn’t please her, and in the end, she committed suicide, because she wasn’t able to get her way and so I come from a long line of willful women.

“In the end, she committed suicide, because she wasn’t able to get her way and so I come from a long line of willful women.”

Perhaps I am too close. Perhaps the memories of lying in my bed at night imagining the different ways I could end my suffering are too stark in my mind. Perhaps those afternoons of pajama clad vegging on the sofa, being utterly and totally incapable of even getting dressed to walk to the grocery store are still too close in my memory. Perhaps I am biased. Surely, that is the pushback I will get here, for telling this part of my story – that I cannot see the forest for the trees, that I’m unable to separate one line from the thesis of the piece as a whole, that her grandma’s suicide isn’t the story she’s trying to tell.

Valid.

But consider this: whose story is it to tell when a person commits suicide? What right do we have to ascribe a meaning to their personal tragedy?

Surely, the appropriation of another person’s story – especially to support a point about selfish willfulness – has to be considered, has to be weighed, and has to be understood. Surely, this distilling of a person’s story – complex, multi-faceted, and ultimately tragic – into one line is a microcosm of everything wrong with how we tell, appropriate and understand each other as people, as complex human beings, as sisters in Christ. Surely, we need to discuss how we talk about and handle suicide and depression.

I cannot begin to imagine how Wierenga’s grandmother felt in her final days. I didn’t know her, and I don’t know her story. But as a person who has been in that dark place, and who managed to get out by the skin of her teeth, it horrifies me to think that someone would use my story to malign me, to paint me as someone who “couldn’t get my own way,” to pretend to understand all the reasons that go into such decisions and such thoughts – reasons I still don’t fully understand myself.

This one line matters because this woman’s story matters. We can talk about the abuse apologism (reflective of John Piper’s “enduring wife” ideas) and the idea of servanthood until we’re blue in the face, but if we’re not willing to honor another person’s story, if we’re not willing to give tragedy the weight that tragedy demands, if we are not willing to see others as human beings and their stories as valid stories that cannot be boiled down to one sentence, then we have failed – miserably – in our duty to be like Christ. When we appropriate another person’s tragedy to build our personal thesis and ascribe our reasons to their actions rather than listening to the stories themselves, we are doing a disservice to our church family.

I will not stand by and watch people who claim the name of Christ shame those who contemplated or committed suicide. I will not be silent in the face of those who would call suicidal people selfish. Because my story, this grandmother’s story, and the stories of countless other people, matter. They are complex, they are human, and they are not ours to play with.

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*If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts and depression, please get help. Here’s a hotline or chat-line you can use.