The aftermath of a suicide attempt

In November each year, I usually attend an all-day conference in Louisville on the subject of depression. Some of it can become a little grim, but there is an especially tasty free box-lunch that I appreciate.

Suicide is a big subject at depression conferences. One might expect this to be true. The focus is on suicide prevention, which is as it should be.

The discussion is usually led by university professors, and in my view, young ones. Still, they are old enough to have earned their PhDs. Some travel to Louisville from far away, and I expect they are fairly well compensated for their participation.

I notice one thing about these experts: their knowledge never seems to include what philosophers have had to say over the centuries about suicide. Such as the German philosopher Schopenhauer, who writes that suicide is sometimes (often) a risk for the person who has everything going well in life. He contends that boredom is a red flag when it comes to suicide. Other philosophers argue similarly, but among these academics I listen to, there is no understanding of this aspect of suicide (and I have queried them to make this determination).

Of course, their jobs are to deal with suicide as it affects a population that is frequently mentally ill and often physically ill, plus being poor and all that suggests.

Yet if I were identified as an expert on suicide, and getting paid to speak on the subject, I would want to be familiar with the works of the philosophers of long ago (or not so long ago).

I would feel incomplete somehow without such an understanding of the ancients, which brings me to the subject of Harry Dawkins, a man I once worked for when I began as a social worker back in Boston. He was my immediate supervisor. He had suffered a mild stroke and sometimes used a cane. His blood pressure continued to be out of control, and he had a weight problem. His hair was gray, and he had a lot of it. He could be a very funny fellow, even when not trying.

Harry lived alone in an apartment on Beacon Hill. He was about 45. What with his various ailments, he struggled mightily to get to our offices at 20 Church Street each day. Not so far, really, but for Harry it was.

His booming laugh was legendary. He liked the writer Truman Capote, and when he learned Capote would be reading in Cambridge, Harry was there, probably in the front row. He liked literature, and plays, in particular. Capote was often amusing, and Harry laughed loudly, but so loudly that Capote would insist during intermission that the man with the annoying laugh not be allowed to return, and so he wasn’t. He got booted.

I guess his money situation and the attending health problems led Harry to consider suicide. It happened like this: Late one evening, he placed sheets and blankets over the door and windows on his small third-floor apartment. He then stuck his head in his kitchen gas oven and turned on the gas.

He didn’t say he was drinking when he told me this story, but my bet is that he was. He fell asleep with his head in the oven but was awakened suddenly by loud banging on his apartment door. He forgot where he was momentarily and sat up abruptly, banging his head hard on the oven top. He was dazed, but soon understood the situation and heard the banging on his door by neighbors who were worried about the smell of gas.

They became increasingly frantic, threatening to break down his door if he didn’t open it. As they were shouting his name, he ran to the bathroom, lathered his face with shaving cream as if about to shave, and calmly opened the door as if nothing was wrong. He told the small crowd gathered there that he was shaving and preparing for work — it was 4 a.m. — and said all was fine, and calmly closed the door.

He heard laughter in the hallway. If it had ended there, it would be one thing, he said, but it didn’t. On many evenings he frequented a nearby bar called Harvard Gardens. It is across the street from Mass General Hospital. Upon entering the establishment the following evening, where he was well known, a loud cheer went up and a crowd of people, some of whom he knew and some he didn’t remember he knew, lined up to congratulate him for surviving a suicide attempt.

It was a very happy bunch, he said, but he was terribly embarrassed by the outpouring, which included much handshaking. And it didn’t stop there. For days after, when at the Harvard Gardens, near strangers would approach his booth and want to shake his hand and sometimes want to sit with him and share their suicide attempt stories with him. When he would tell me this, he added as a by-the-way, several of them he knew eventually made good on their next suicide attempt.

He often spoke of how embarrassing the entire episode was, and he left me with the distinct feeling he would not repeat an attempt on his own life if only because it was much too hard to deal with the aftermath, should the attempt not be successful.

Raymond Abbott is a social worker and novelist.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com 

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