Suicide And Our Many Personas

Over a decade ago, a friend of mine killed himself. As we, his many shocked and grieving friends, exchanged notes of commiseration and regret and nostalgic remembrance of a life we had all drawn pleasure from, one refrain made the rounds: “I guess I didn’t know him as well as I thought I did.” Indeed. None of us did. None of us know each other, our lovers and friends and parents and children, as well as we imagine we do. We have many, many personas; to ‘know’ someone is to have some measure of acquaintance–emotional, intellectual, physical–with some subset of these. These personas equip us to play the multiple roles we are required to play in the course of our daily lives; there is no one ‘real person’ lurking underneath all of these; the sum total–if such a concept can ever be meaningful–of these personas is, for better or worse, us. (As such, the most common complaint made against the online life, that we are not our ‘real selves’ online, that our ‘real selves’ emerges only in face to face encounters, makes little sense–for these supposedly authentic interactions, require the careful deployment of yet another persona, the one we use for social, in-the-flesh encounters. The immigrant, a master of many personalities, knows this all too well.)

A suicide reminds us, all too often, of this fact. (So does, on a much less tragic scale, the demise of a long-standing romantic relationship.) From the ‘outside’ we saw a life adorned with the usual indications of success or happiness, many of which we desire for ourselves and as such, may even envy; and then, abruptly, we receive the intimation that besides the personas we had been exposed to, there was yet another one that lurked alongside, not beneath, them, that of the suicidal person, the one determined to take their lives. Those external markers? Flags flown by one of the many personas that made up our friend; they are lowered to half-mast on other occasions, by other personas.

In the face of this fact, we often take recourse in claims like ‘mental illness can be so well hidden’ or ‘mental illness is a silent killer.’ But in point of fact, the suicidal person is more close to ‘normal’ than we want to believe. Many of us have entertained thoughts of wanting to bring everything to an end; some of us act on those impulses. The suicide is not a mystery; we would be more honest in our assessment of its supposed inexplicability if we would just ‘fess up the fact that you don’t have to be mentally ill to want to, or actually, kill yourself. You just have to be human, as perplexed as any of us about whether of any of this is worth it, about whether the effort required to move back and forth between our many personas can be sustained.

Many philosophers have held that a singular question that confronts a being like us–if we let it–is whether this life is worth living. Many of us, like us in all the relevant regards, take this question on, and answer it in their own way.

Of Therapy And Personal And Academic Anxieties

Reading some of the discussion sparked by Peter Railton’s Dewey Lecture has prompted me to write this post.

In the fall of 1996, I began studying for my Ph.D qualifier exams. I had worked full-time at a non-academic job for the previous year, saving up some money so that I could take a month or two off and study for my exams. I had notes, I had copies of the previous years’ exams. I was set. I began reading my way through an unofficial reading list.

As I worked, my mood swung between extreme anxiety and over-confidence. There were times I felt I would breeze through my pair of inquisitions; on other occasions, I would fight a rising tide of panic at the thought of sitting in a classroom, an empty blue-book in front of me. Sometimes, I would rise early, drink two cups of coffee, smoke a few cigarettes, look through my notes, and decide I could not read any more, just because the reading was making me anxious. Sometimes, I would check out, smoking pot all day before returning to work again the next day. Sometimes I wondered what the point of a long, endless pursuit of  a degree which would only guarantee unemployment at the end of it all was. I was lonely and isolated in my apartment; my girlfriend returned home late at night from her corporate job.

One day, I worked out in the morning, returned to my apartment, stared long and hard at the papers in front of me and burst into tears, sobbing on and off for about thirty minutes. The next day, I called a friend to ask for help.

Three years previously, shortly after I had begun graduate school, I had met my friend at a student party. Over a beer, she had told me she was in ‘therapy.’ I was surprised to hear her talk about it openly, as something she ‘needed’, which ‘kept her from going nuts.’ Then, in the fall of 1993, it had not been even six months since my mother had passed away after a long struggle with breast cancer, and I knew I was still mourning. I had often felt in the months that had passed, a melancholia that was not easily dispelled by the immersion in school and off-campus work and the long hours of drinking in bars that were my primary modalities for treating it. I had flirted with the idea of seeking help for a mood that was stubbornly resistant to being lightened, sensing that I was not in the grip of a garden variety change in mental disposition.

But therapy seemed like a cop-out. Many of my male friends spoke disparagingly of it, of the culture of whining it seemingly created, the endless childish blaming of parents for adult pathologies. Therapy seemed wimpy, not manly enough; it seemed like a solution for those not strong enough to deal with life’s adversities, who wanted to wallow instead in self-indulgent pity parties on therapists’ couches.

So I had held back, hoping I would just ‘deal with it’ and get better. But I noticed little change; I easily descended into gloom and doom; I struggled with sleep, with drinking too much, with staying in romantic relationships; I found anxiety and panic to be constant companions. I never used the d-word to describe myself, but I often suspected I was depressed.

In the fall of 1996, with my qualifier exams creating many new opportunities for questioning my self-worth, and thus further compromising my fragile sense of being held together, I had finally broken down. I went looking for help.

My friend directed me to the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in Manhattan where, after intake interviews, I began therapy twice a week. A year later, I considered taking anti-depressant medication, and consulted a psychiatrist for an evaluation. The good doctor told me he could prescribe one of the most popular medications at the time–Prozac or Serzone. I agreed, but then, panicked, and said I didn’t want to start. I continued with my talk therapy. But it was a secret; I told no one, and continued to feel like I had ‘copped out.’ Sometimes this secrecy would require elaborate subterfuge; I would tell friends I had to leave them to ‘run an errand’, sometimes walking in the wrong direction, away from my intended train station.

A year later, I changed therapists. I had felt like I was going in circles. Much had changed; I had passed my qualifiers, passed my oral exam with distinction, and also ended my older relationship and begun a new one. It was time for a new therapist too.

I found a therapist and resumed therapy twice a week. I continued to keep my therapy a secret (from everyone except my girlfriend and my friend.) I finished my dissertation, and for the semester that I was in the US after completion, stayed with the same therapist. My move to Australia meant my therapy would be interrupted. I took this break in stride, telling myself that perhaps I could move on now, a new person in a new land.

But a few months after I had moved to Sydney, I was looking for help again. I found a therapist–a Kleinian interestingly enough–and began visiting him twice a week. I was struggling with the usual anxieties academics suffer from; these seeming ephemera jostled with my struggles with a long-distance relationship, with subterranean feelings of fear and non-belonging, and an anxiety that never vacated the basement. I crossed an important barrier when I told some good friends–including a particularly near and dear male friend–that I was in therapy; that openness felt liberating.

After I returned to New York to take up my current position, my therapy was interrupted again. Two years later, I called up my old therapist to find out if he would take me back as patient; he was agreeable, but he had moved. I gave up looking for therapists, unwilling to go through the process of finding a compatible one. Over the years, on several occasions, I would go searching for therapists, look through web pages, and even make a few phone calls. But I never went all the way. I stayed hesitant; finding a good therapist had been hard work, and I seemed unwilling to do it all over again. I wondered if a cognitive behavioral therapist might not work better for me, compared to the analytical types I had previously worked with. Some good friends of mine urged me to resume therapy, sensing from some of my pronouncements that I might need it. (My career moved along; I was tenured and became full professor, but I never stopped doubting that I belonged in this profession, never stopped suspecting that I was simply not smart enough, hard-working enough. And I never stopped missing my long-departed parents.)

I haven’t started therapy again. Perhaps I dread its ‘ramping up’ phase too much; perhaps I have convinced myself my ‘workarounds’ are adequate; perhaps I’m ‘cured.’ I’m not sure but whatever the answer, I’m glad my graduate school friend helped me out when she did, that she urged me to overcome my hesitancy and discomfort about seeking professional help, that I was able to speak openly and frankly with my friends that I had done so. I am now a father and my anxieties have not diminished; if anything, they have increased. Perhaps I will seek help again. I won’t be shy about telling my friends I’ve done so.

Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia And The Insight Of The Depressed

There is a moment during the disastrous wedding reception that kicks off Lars Von Trier‘s Melancholia that you suspect the reason Justine the bride is being so mysteriously, bafflingly, awkwardly morose, is that she is aware of an impending apocalypse, the one made imminent by a beautiful blue planet approaching the earth on a collision course. She has good reason to be so sad, so distracted, so rueful. The world is coming to an end; how do marital bliss or discord, or effusive praise, or haute cuisine, or elaborately planned weddings, or anything else matter?

A little while later, we are made to realize Justine may well be a life-long melancholic, clinically depressed, sometimes to the point of catatonia, and that she is not the only one who is aware of the proximity of Earth’s new neighbor. Still, she might be the only one who has sussed out that the absurdity of existence must now be reckoned with, and cannot be postponed or consigned to the margins as is usually done. Perhaps the depressed have always known this. Which is why they cannot allow themselves to be distracted like those around them, who rush around engaging in one triviality or banality after another. They rightly perceive these activities as mere diversions. Perhaps it is the depressed who, when the time for death is at hand, find an equanimity that all too many ‘normal people’ find elusive. The worst is here; they have felt its shadow for too long; this final reckoning is at hand.

It is no surprise then, that in the second part of the movie, Justine and her sister Claire, who is worn down and edgy after years of sibling encounters with a mentally ill person, undergo changes in personality.  Claire becomes frantic and panicky; Justine is calm, matter-of-fact, serene. And Claire’s husband, standing in as the ostensibly cool, detached, skeptical and rational man of science, the one who has previously subjected his wife’s anxieties to some scorn and some invocations about the power of science to get things right, takes his own life, not deigning to involve his wife or son in this decision. The end of the world is here; what matter such niceties?

End of the world movies can emphasize both the triviality and banality of our daily lives as well as the primacy of simple human gestures and relationships; they can offer caustic commentary on our shallowness and pettiness and obsession with material reward as well as make poetic statements about the beauty around us that is soon to be consigned to the ashes. Melancholia manages to do all of this. We are reminded the world is a beautiful place, that startling glimpses of sublimity may be found all around us; we are reminded too, that such splendor often showcases conflict and discord and strife.

In the end, as Melancholia, the approaching planet, becomes malevolent, we find ourselves encountering a familiar question, one whose answer can only be imperfectly offered in the present without the actual grim reality of the end of existence upon us: How would we face such an eventuality? Would we put away pettiness and rancor? Would we remain distracted or would this concentrate our minds wonderfully?

Justine knows the answer: hold hands with the ones you love.

The Pleasures of “Emotional Difficulties”

In his review of several exhibitions showcasing the work of Félix Vallotton, Julian Bell writes:

Vallotton is not so much an autobiographical artist as an artist who coolly and procedurally recognizes that his own emotional difficulties might supply him with viable imaginative material.

Vallotton wouldn’t be the first or last artist to recognize this, of course. Writers are among the most notorious exploiters of their autobiographies as source material for their works. So much so indeed, that many a writer has to strenuously object to critical assessments of their work that insist on viewing it as mere revisitation of their life’s previous narratives.

There is another kind of artist who draws on his “own emotional difficulties” to “supply him with viable imaginative material”: the neurotic.  Here, the afflicted soul, familiar–at unconscious, subconscious and conscious levels–of the many traumas and crises that have thus far impinged on his life, uses them to construct all manner of fantasy, again, at varying levels of availability to his conscious self. There are daydreams aplenty, many revisitations of conflict, and lastly, and most interestingly of all, the construction of an elaborate mythology around daily life, the events of which acquire a distinctive hue because of their coloring by these repressed and available memories.

The neurotic, or the depressive, can thus become a tragic hero of sorts–to himself. His past now has a value all its own; it is that which has made his present dramatic and invested it with a poignant quality. He can now conceive of himself as a traveler through a landscape of trial and tribulation, bravely weathering the many storms it sends crashing down on him. He carries a heavier burden than most, he tells himself; his steps are slow and measured in recognition of this crushing load. Sometimes he is Sisyphus, sometimes a composite mythical figure constructed from heroes and saints alike.

There is thus value in this kind of self-conception, this kind of self-portrait. The afflicted life is dramatic and heroic; the resolved and cured life not so much. Small wonder then, that when lovers urge their neurotic partners to get help, to seek palliation and cure, so as to bring relief to their troubled relationship, the neurotic resists. His afflictions, which torment him so, are what make his life not humdrum. They are what render him unique and set him apart from the boring, teeming masses.

The neurotic is aided in his endeavors by the artist. Novelists devote great works to the forensic examination of flawed characters, carefully dissecting, and yet bringing to life, the tormented and the tortured. Artists graphically depict the sufferings of the damned. Those in pain are the subjects of works of art. The neurotic sees his life, this limited span of time here on this benighted earth, as his canvas, his blank page. The materials with which it these can best be drawn and written and brought to life are at hand: his past life, his troubles.

Who needs a cure when an illness can give so much meaning to an otherwise ephemeral and transient life?

Boethius’ Philosophy as Therapist

Here is a common way to think about the psychotherapeutic experience: the therapist helps the patient construct an alternative narrative of his or her life. Why is this therapeutic? The patient has offered the therapist a recounting–via a series of archaeological, genealogical forays into his past–of his life’s events, and describes how these have contributed to the crisis currently being experienced. The therapist then offers a reconstruction of these into an account that lends itself to an interpretation different from the one the patient has made central to his assessment of his life’s fortunes. This displacement of the pathology-creating narrative is the therapist’s central function. We live by stories that we tell about ourselves; our therapist–aided by our willing, motivated co-operation–equips us with a new one.

This reconstruction can proceed by pointing out how a patient has, like any author, selectively emphasized and de-emphasized certain events, and more analytically, drawn faulty or mistaken inferences from them. Because such inferences are often based on ignorance, the therapist may also be called on to play the role of educator.

The relevance of the philosopher–and the philosophical attitude–to this task should be apparent.  This is demonstrated quite well in Boethius‘ The Consolation of Philosophy, where Philosophy, in offering her consolations to the miserable prisoner convinced of his misfortunes, offers just such a combination of new narrative, edification and argument analysis.

For instance in Book II of the Consolation, after hearing Boethius’ lament, Philosophy, as part of her description of the true nature of that fickle mistress, Fortune, says in Prose 3, which is subtitled ‘Philosophy reminds the prisoner of his former prosperity and of the precious gifts he still has’:

[You] ought not to consider yourself completely miserable  if you recall your many great joys.

I will not mention that when you lost your father you were adopted by very prominent people and were chosen to become closely associated with the most powerful figures in the city. You soon were more dear to them by love than you had been close before by relationship, and that is the most precious bond….But I want to stress the greatest of your joys.  If any mortal achievement can make a man happy, is it possible that any amount of misfortune can dim the memory of that brilliant occasion when you saw your two sons made Consuls and carried from their house in the company of the Senators and accompanied by the people?….You pledged yourself to Fortune while she pampered you and favored you with her gifts. You got more from her than any private citizen ever received–and now do you think you can bargain with her?

This is the first time she ever frowned on you with her evil eye. If you balance the number and kinds of your joys and misfortunes, you must admit that up to now you have been a happy man.

This is not enough for Boethius, of course, for Prose 4 is subtitled ‘Boethius protests that the worst sorrow is the remembrance of lost joys. Philosophy answers that the only true joy is self-possession in the face of adversity.

And so it goes. The outlines of a therapeutic dialectic are clearly visible here and remain so as we read on.

Note: Bertrand Russell‘s The Conquest of Happiness is another classical member of the Philosophy as Therapy canon.