Contemplating about death often bears quite a heavy tune. Which is probably not surprising for most, since we usually spend the better parts of our lives avoiding to ever think too much about ending the very same. Not necessarily voluntarily by force, just due to mundane matters like aging, illness or someone swatting us for beating him in a video game. You know, the usual stuff.
My goal with this essay is a bit different. I am not trying to deny the horror and pain of death or the loss of a loved one. These are very real experiences for many people and it’s not up to me, to convince them otherwise.
There is always a but, of course.
But instead, I want to provide a deeper understanding of one particular version of death, the plenty variables which may lead up to ending up six feet under and how we can draw strength from knowing as long as we breathe, there is hope. And yes, I am fully aware this sounds a lot like empty platitudes. But I promise I will try my best to fill them with meaning.
One Step Forward
I think it was Epicurus who once said something along the lines of
“Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist.”
Or to put it more bluntly: as long as you are alive, you have nothing to fear and afterwards it doesn’t matter anymore.
Sounds pretty easy, right?
If only life was always as simple as fancy philosophy quotes make it out to be.
I was on the verge of dying multiple times. I just needed that one tiny step forward and there would have been nothing left of me but a bloody pulp at the bottom of a bridge. For several weeks I sat on that bridge every night, trying to find the courage to free myself from all the pain and agony my whole life appeared to consist of. Whenever strangers passed by and asked me whether everything was alright, I just smiled and said “Yes, I just want to enjoy this beautiful night, thanks for asking.”
I did that a lot. Not only strangers but also acquaintances and some friends who weren’t so close to me asked me how I felt, and I just smiled and replied with a straight up lie. I somehow doubt that most people actually want to know how you feel, whenever they ask those questions.
And even if they care, what would the proper response be, if I simply answered “Well, actually I am currently looking for ways and enough courage to finally kill myself. How is your day going?”
Maybe this is one of the many reasons why a lot of people still have no idea how people with mental illnesses behave outside of movie contexts. Not every person with clinical depression is sad all the time; not everyone with an anxiety disorder activates panic mode at every social gathering; not every person with borderline or emotional dysregulation is diving into drama in every aspect of their lives.
Mental illness has a thousand faces. Mine usually smiled. Over the years, I became an artist in faking whatever emotion a particular situation needed. At the same time, I mostly felt nothing but an all-consuming void inside of me. Joy, pleasure, fulfilment – just empty words for me. Except some occasional trigger events after which I prayed to go back to the bliss of not being able to feel anything. I remember countless nights in which I lay crying on my floor, barely able to breathe, my whole body trembling by the emotional pain my brain released upon me. You start to hyperventilate, your brain doesn’t receive enough oxygen, it turns into fight or flight mode, and you are just pinned to the floor, barely able to move, your body, your heart, everything is nothing but agony and desperation. If you are lucky, you got some benzos somewhere next to the shivering mess what once was your body and take a couple to calm yourself down. If not, you look for other ways of releasing some of that emotional pain. For me, that alternative usually led me to a knife I used to cut my chest or arms, hoping the physical pain would numb the mental one. Often enough it helped at least partially. But you can only cope so much this way and eventually your mind catches up with you again.
Without emotions my life felt empty and pointless, with emotions it felt fucked up, just agony in its purest form. Ending it all seemed to be the most logical, least dreadful conclusion.
Apparently, as you can read these words, I never succeeded. But there were many, many times in my life in which I wish I had. Times in which I wouldn’t have minded to accidentally cut myself a tad too deep with the karambite I used to numb my emotional suffering. And just slowly let life flow out of my body afterwards. I can only guess why I never fully committed. Probably because I was too big of a coward. Or maybe some deeply hidden part inside of me still had some hope left. Maybe I never really wanted to die, even if my brain constantly tried to convince me of the opposite.
Now, many years later, I can appreciate being a coward back then. But at the time it absolutely didn’t feel like that. I hated myself even more for not being able to go through with it. Not only did I suck at living a somewhat coherent life, but I even failed to put an end to it. Too fucked up to live, too incompetent to just draw the line. Go me.
Or maybe it’s some sort of brutal irony that I forced myself to continue with life as some messed up form of self-punishment. Who knows? Life is mysterious.
I know how it feels when you want to die. Tragic examples like Robin Williams or Chester Bennington display far too well that no amount of fame or wealth will ever be able to save you from the inner demons haunting you every waking moment and sometimes even in your sleep.
I can fully understand why many people choose this way of ending their own lives. When all you can see in front of you is just more pain and suffering, putting an end to everything is a completely reasonable decision and I will never judge people, if they follow this path. Turning around is super fucking hard and often it seems outright impossible.
One Step Back
I am quite aware that this quick flashback into my own history took a couple of dark turns and does not really fit with the brighter outlook I promised at the start. But my current views and ideas are inseparably intertwined with the experiences I had earlier in my life. I am never going to pretend that life is going to be easy and all sunshine and butterflies if you just believe enough in yourself. I have been there, I tried, and I failed miserably.
If you ever end up at such a dark place, chances are you will not be able to pull yourself back from there again. I know I couldn’t do it. I had people in my life who were determined to help, whether I wanted it or not. I was extremely lucky. A lucky coward.
But despite my own experiences I am not qualified to provide any kind of general guideline on how to turn your life around and make the suffering stop. For once because everyone experiences pain differently and finds unique ways to cope with it. There is no panacea which I can guide you to which will magically solve all your issues. Each person needs a different approach and what worked for me, is probably not going to work for most people.
Furthermore, my suffering hasn’t stopped. It never faded away completely, it’s more like a background noise most of the time now. But I am still very susceptible regarding various situations and every time I encounter one of those, I must fight the overwhelming rush of emotions I feel.
So, what changed for me?
Over the years I became increasingly aware of the big why behind my reactions and feelings. I learned the reasons of why I perceived situations in the way I do and why I often reacted differently towards them than most other people.
Understanding reasons enables reflection, enables behavioural change. It provides you with the option to take a step back and analyse what is going on.
Note, I am not saying that by simply knowing what’s is happening, we are suddenly able to completely turn our life around. It took me years to get where I am at now and nothing about this journey was easy or simple. But I would argue knowing the reasons behind our experiences is a key component for implementing change.
Our brains love to connect the many dots we see in our everyday lives. This is one of the main reasons why conspiracy theories will always thrive since they provide simple answers for complex situations without giving us headaches.
But how do we get to a more thorough understanding of our own internal workings?
This is a question I have asked myself over the years many, many times. Previously, I often ended up being stuck in a self-destructive loop. My behaviour and rumination did everything to keep me away from becoming a somewhat mentally stable, functioning human being. I iterated the same thoughts and behaviour patterns over and over again, hoping something would change and I would find different answers and outcomes than the last 322 times I tried it. You know what the definition of insanity is?
Eventually I acknowledged being stuck and searched for ways to overcome this unfortunate situation. I recognized if I stayed in my own pond, playing with the same poisonous frogs and rotten algae, I would never be able to free myself and just stagnate until I withered and turned to dust.
Therefore, I began to dig. I needed to expand my tiny pond and connect it to a nearby river which would eventually lead me to the vastness of an ocean full of wonders beyond my wildest expectations.
I used two different kinds of shovels: people and people’s ideas, in particular books and research.
I figured, if I just dug long and deep enough, at some point I would find something which enabled me to jump-start the change I needed so badly. If not, I would at least not die as a complete idiot. That was already a win in my book.
Over the years I accumulated a broad knowledge in pretty much any area which I felt somewhat interested in, I wrote about them, talked, and debated key arguments of important concepts and theories I read about and slowly kept refining my own ideas and conclusions. Slowly, I was able to distil some kind of essence of the countless hours of gathering knowledge, some of it you can read here, other parts are still stuck in their refinement process.
At this point it should already be quite obvious what I am going to say next but in case you missed it, I don’t want to leave you hanging.
I too was searching for a panacea which was never to be found. The idea of “If I just search long enough, I would for sure find something which is going to provide the answers I am so desperately looking for” was so deeply ingrained in my head that it took me a very long time to realize what really happened.
There was, of course, no magical pill I could take, no simple answer I was looking for, no clue which I had missed. Instead, I started a journey of constant trial and error. I read books, I talked to normal people and medical professionals alike, I tried different concepts and ideas, abandoned them altogether, attempted something else and repeat. I had no concrete goal in my mind because I didn’t even know what I was looking for. I just collected information, knowledge, the ideas of the people I talked with, basically all sorts of data which could prove useful in some way or another.
In short: I increased my available options.
A Reliable Moral Framework – To Survive
In a recent essay on meta-ethics, I developed a reliable moral framework for myself which attempted to provide me with moral guidelines, even when I am at my darkest, most fucked up places. One key argument was the following:
“Reverse opportunity costs, or simply opportunity gains, if you will, are an increase of optionality instead of a decrease.
A reliable moral framework should always strive to increase optionality. Meaning an increase of possible available opportunities in the future. We cannot know if our choices could have better alternatives. We can assume but without actually pursuing them, there is no certainty.
Now we are able to answer the question: Why should you avoid killing someone?
The answer is obvious by now: by removing another person from society you actively decrease the number of possible opportunities. Said person could have been beneficial to you in the future, even if it might appear the other way around in the present moment.
People or other creatures provide the option of serving you for a specific purpose you are not yet aware of. By choosing to enhance their possibility of survival and prospering, I increase my own optionality and might gain future advantages.”
It should be blatantly obvious at what I am hinting. We all are part of a society which benefits from cooperation more than from destructive behaviour patterns. And you know who else is part of said society. You. I. We, as individuals and not only as some abstract ethical concept. People like you and me in flesh and blood. If the removal of someone else leads to a decreased degree of optionality for you, where would that degree be, if you remove yourself?
At zero, obviously.
With my introductory flashback into my own history, I tried my best to showcase that I can fully understand why some people consider this a valid way out. If all the available options look like shit, increasing that number does not seem like a convincing way of going further. I get that, I really do.
The problem is: we cannot predict the weird paths life might take us, nobody can.
If you asked me two years ago about where I would be now, my answer would have been completely different compared to what reality actually had in store for me. Five years ago? Eight? It almost seems like the life of a totally different person to me, although these are indeed my memories.
But I was able to get new experiences and memories because I didn’t end everything when I had the option and willingness to do it. If someone told me back then what I am trying to convey now, my response would have been most likely among the lines of a wholeheartedly “Fuck you and piss off!”
Because in this messed up state of mind you are probably not going to listen to anyone who is trying to tell you that things can and maybe will be different someday. Heck, I know I definitely didn’t want to listen to that crap.
I cannot make promises. Life doesn’t work like that. Maybe things will turn out for the better, maybe they won’t. I still have to fight my own fears that one day I might wake up and suddenly everything turned to shit again.
At the beginning I wrote about hope but maybe this is the wrong word to accurately describe what I am trying to say. Hope is tainted by too many idealists and con artists. If you have hope and believe in yourself, everything will turn out for the better. Fuck that. Self-confidence and a healthy dose of faith in your own competence can never hurt but they are no magical pill, no panacea.
Instead of an empty attempt of hope, provide yourself with the opportunity to have a degree of optionality above zero.
I cannot and will not promise you that life will be rainbows and butterflies. I have no idea, what is going to happen, the only thing I know is that change is inevitable. Something will happen. Whether for better or worse – I don’t know.
But as long as you are alive, at least you have the option of a shot for the better. I think it is worth trying, even if you currently don’t see it that way. Maybe someday you will. Maybe someday you will be grateful for having the option to live.