Conspiracy Theories in the Post-Truth Era

A reader asked my opinion on a conspiracy theory currently doing the rounds that a number of high-profile suicides, such as Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington, who I mentioned in my post Suicide Isn’t Painless, were, in fact, murdered. The theory, an offshoot of the Clinton Body Count and Pizzagate conspiracies, is that they were murdered to prevent them exposing a paedophile ring led by the Clintons and Jeffrey Epstein and composed of numerous politicians and celebrities. She asked why I thought people were so keen to believe celebrities were murdered, rather than committed suicide. This is my response.

I’ll start with the general and then move to the specific.

I think there are four main reasons people prefer to believe celebrities were murdered than that they killed themselves. The first is that fans tend to feel a kind of ownership of our heroes. We’ve had their songs, their movies, their images in our hearts and our living rooms for so long, and our lives have been so shaped by their words and philosophies, they’ve become our personal gods. So how could they do this to us? They wouldn’t.

The truth that we never knew them and they were never perfect and never owed us anything or actually cared about us is far too hard to accept, so we decide they didn’t leave us, they were murdered. That way, we pass the blame to an innocent party and our hero remains perfect and blameless. It’s the reason so many people claim Kurt Cobain was murdered. I mean, why would a guy obsessed with suicide, who told his mom as a kid that he wanted to join the 27 Club and wrote a song called ‘I Hate Myself and Want To Die’, go ahead and kill himself? Instead of hating Kurt Cobain and holding him responsible for the hurt he caused us, we can hate that evil Courtney Love, who had him killed because she’s a talentless hack (actually, I think there’s a lot of misogyny in these theories – it’s always the wives who are blamed, never the men themselves. Yoko Ono ended the Beatles, not John Lennon; Sharon Osbourne ended Black Sabbath, not Ozzy; Max Cavalera’s wife ended Sepultura, not Max Cavalera, etc.). And if your favourite celebrity was murdered to stop them revealing a paedophile gang, it transforms a suicide into a heroic martyr, so that’s even better.

The second reason is that, as vulnerable biological organisms, we’ve evolved to spot cause and effect in order to protect ourselves. While this has mostly served us well, we’ve developed an erroneous, instinctive belief that big effects must have equally big causes. The destruction of the Twin Towers was too big to be caused by a bunch of Palestinians armed with box cutters and led by a man in a cave, so it must have been a massive conspiracy; Diana was far too important a person to die in a simple car accident, so it must have been an assassination; our hero was too rich and famous and successful and talented to hang himself in a hotel bathroom, so it must have been murder. We don’t like to believe that our heroes are as vulnerable as ourselves, and that no matter how big and successful you are, you’re just as frail and insignificant as the next man, and could just as easily die from slipping in the shower as having a noteworthy demise.

The third reason, related to the previous and applicable to most (if not all) conspiracy theories, is that we’re terrified of chaos. Since the year dot we’ve invented gods to explain the mysterious workings of the world – why this volcano erupted or that year’s harvest failed. We want to believe that things happen for a reason, and if we can spot the signs, we can control our fate – if only we sacrificed more virgins, we could have prevented that flood, and suchlike.

I think the rise in modern conspiracy theories correlates with the decline of our belief in God – we’ve replaced a mysterious, invisible, vengeful deity with a mysterious, invisible, vengeful cabal, whether we call it the Illuminati, the New World Order or the Bilderberg Group. It’s more comforting to believe that someone, even someone bad, is controlling things – that it’s possible to control things – than accept that shit happens, there’s no grand plan behind it all and there’s nothing we can do to protect ourselves. Sometimes one man with a rifle can kill a president; sometimes the biggest luxury liner in the world can hit an iceberg and sink; and sometimes the people we look up to can kill themselves with little explanation. Conspiracy theories give meaning to the meaningless, and the illusion of control where none actually exists.

And fourthly, and most simply, I think believing in conspiracies makes people feel special. ‘You other idiots think they killed themselves, but know the truth, because I’m more intelligent, and more perceptive and better informed than you.’ You see this smug, superior mindset all the time with conspiracy theorists as they cherry-pick their evidence and twist facts to suit their political agenda – that’s why they always shout, ‘Wake up, sheeple!’ – because they’re better than us ‘sheep’. Reducing the complexity of the world into good vs evil, and aligning yourself with the forces of good, makes you a hero, and not a schmuck who lives in his mother’s basement. I can understand the appeal.

On the specifics of Cornell and Bennington, I have no doubt whatsoever that they killed themselves. You just have to look at their songs, statements, substance-abuse problems and mental health issues, and the massive death-rate among rock musicians and vocalists, to realise that their committing suicide is not particularly unlikely.

One of Cornell’s best friends, Andrew Wood from MotherLoveBone, died of drugs in 1990 (the survivors went on to form Pearl Jam), while the numbers of dead musicians surrounding the grunge scene, and therefore known to him, is staggering: Mia Zapata (The Gits), Kurt Cobain (Nirvana), Kristen Pfaff (Hole), Shannon Hoon (Blind Melon), Bradley Nowell (Sublime), Jonathan Melvoin (The Smashing Pumpkins), Layne Staley and Mike Starr (Alice in Chains), and Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots), to name but a few. It was a self-destructive, nihilistic movement. Cornell wrote loads of songs using death and suicide as metaphors, like ‘Pretty Noose’, ‘Like Suicide’, ‘Your Time Has Come’ and ‘Nothing Left To Say But Goodbye’, so his suicide isn’t that unbelievable.

Chester Bennington was similarly troubled. Most Linkin Park songs are about struggling with depression and addiction and self-loathing. From what I’ve read, it seems that Cornell was the rock that Bennington leaned on, a hero and a friend who helped him through the hard times, so when Cornell killed himself, there was little hope left for Bennington. He sang at Cornell’s funeral, then killed himself on what would have been Cornell’s 53rd birthday. Again, listening to Bennington’s lyrics, it’s not necessarily surprising that he killed himself.

Of course, the fact that their autopsy reports and inquests are a matter of public record should put this subject to bed, provided, of course, you trust the police, coroners, pathologists and jurors involved. You’d need a pretty good reason to doubt the institutions and mechanisms we’ve developed to make sure murders can’t be passed off as suicides, and you’d have to believe in an all-powerful and infallible group of people that can manipulate crime scenes, witnesses, family members, multiple law enforcement officials, medics, coroners, pathologists, courts, jurors, and the press, without leaving a single trace of themselves anywhere. I don’t think such an organisation, or even the capability, exists outside movies and the imaginations of conspiracy theorists.

Which brings me to the whole Pizzagate rubbish and the proliferation of online conspiracy theories. Back in the past, there were gatekeepers standing between nuts and a mass audience, and rightly so, because not all ideas are of equal merit or value. In the past, the crazy guy down the road who lives in a caravan and wears a tinfoil hat to stop the CIA from stealing his thoughts would just have been a harmless eccentric; now, with a keyboard and an avatar, that person can do some real damage.

The internet has been celebrated for being ‘democratic’, in the sense that nobody can monopolize discourse, the little guys disseminating their ideas alongside the big boys, but that freedom is a double-edged sword. People have been conditioned to believe that what they read is true, and this conditioning acts against them. While many content creators are conscientious, dedicated to reasoned argument, fact-checking and accuracy (I like to think of myself in this category, or rather, I aspire to it), many are not. Some are insane, some don’t realise what they’re doing, and some are deliberately untruthful. As is often the case, the extremists ruin it for the rest of us.

If you met someone in the pub who claimed that the first African-American President was actually born in Kenya, and was therefore ineligible to be President, you’d probably conclude you’re talking to a racist and dismiss it out of hand. However, if you put that in black-and-white on the internet, with some spurious but official ‘evidence’ taken out of context, people are going to believe it, particularly if it reinforces their prejudices about the kind of people they don’t like, and more so if it is ‘something The Establishment doesn’t want you to know!’

And then it snowballs. People copy and repeat the lie. They add more ‘evidence’. They link to other sites that support the same lies, making it seem as though a consensus has been reached. Then the mainstream media picks it up. Refuting it just makes you sound guilty. Like a game of Chinese Whispers, the lie takes on a life of its own. It gets so big, it seems impossible to deny.

That’s how you end up with Pizzagate. A white supremacist pretending to be a New York Attorney ‘leaks’ that the police are investigating evidence from Clinton’s emails that point to Hillary being at the centre of a paedophile ring. Before you know it, the internet is positive, without a shred of evidence, that there is a vast conspiracy of (Democrat) politicians and (liberal) celebrities running a child-trafficking paedophile ring using pizza restaurants as fronts to carry out Satanic rituals. All fun and games, until a man walked into the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington DC with an AR-15 and fired three shots while attempting to rescue non-existent sex slaves.

That’s why conspiracy theories aren’t harmless fun. They destabilise society and have real world consequences. They breed an atmosphere of mistrust. Large swathes of the Arab world deny the Holocaust happened, and accuse Jews of blood libel (murdering children and using their blood to bake holy bread). Anti-vaxxer hysteria is bringing back diseases that we’d almost wiped out. Second Amendment activists harass the parents of murdered children because they think high school shootings are performed by ‘crisis actors’ so the government can take away their guns.

And what happens? You no longer know who to trust. You no longer know what’s true and what isn’t. We live in a Post-Truth era, an age of Fake News, where people will believe and share whatever rubbish they’re told on Twitter and Facebook without checking a single fact. And when you no longer trust the government, the politicians, the media, who do you turn to?

You turn to populists. You turn to people like Trump.

The sitting President of the United States is the greatest example of the dangers of conspiracism. This is a man who kickstarted his political career with the birther conspiracy, who ran his campaign on the idea of combating a nefarious ‘Deep State’ that secretly runs America (in league with the ‘enemy-of-the-people’ news media, of course), and claimed Ted Cruz’s father murdered JFK. This is a guy who lies through his teeth while calling truth ‘fake news’, who claims that climate change is a hoax, vaccines cause autism and the Clintons murdered Jeffrey Epstein. When the head of the country tells you conspiracy theories are real, the truth goes walkabout.

And why? Because knowledge is power, and destroying the basis of knowledge – truth – destroys the currency of opposition. In a kingdom without truth, the best liar is king. And we all know Donnie’s the best of the bunch.

To quote the Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels,

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.

So what’s the solution? I honestly don’t know. I’m not in favour of censorship, and I think it’s too late for that anyway. On the other hand, I think more could be done to separate reputable news sources from the blatant liars. Perhaps there could be some body set up that you can submit your work to for fact-checking, and they could provide you with a tick or a digital certificate you can put on your website that shows your article has been verified. That way, you’re not blocking anyone, but you’re creating a two-tier system of verified and unverified data. Sure, there’d be flaws in the system, but I’m just spit-balling here. Wikipedia, once an incredibly unreliable source of information, has definitely become more trustworthy over the years, so perhaps crowd-sourcing is the way to go, although such an approach tends to prioritise consensus, mainstream interpretations over equally valid but less popular ones. I’m smart enough to know I’m not smart enough to solve this.

But three things I do know: nobody is infallible; three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead; and the Clintons had nothing to do with the deaths of Chris Cornell and Chester Bennington.

Suicide Isn’t Painless

“Who cares if one more light goes out? Well I do.”

                       Chester Bennington (1976-2017)

[*NB this post talks about subject matter that is disturbing and distressing. I think it is important for people to be aware of the facts about suicide, and de-stigmatise it as a topic for discussion, so what follows is frank, challenging and undoubtedly upsetting. If you are sensitive about this sort of thing, it might be best to avoid reading on. You have been warned.]

Everyone I’ve told that I’m writing a post about suicide has responded in the same way: ‘What? Why would you want to do that? You shouldn’t, what’ll people think? You need to be really careful. I don’t think it’s an appropriate topic to talk about.’

Without knowing it, they have all supported the central argument of this post and the exact reason I’m writing it: in our society, we are far too reluctant to talk about suicide.

A lady I worked with died a couple of years ago along with her twenty-year-old son. They had gone to stay at a cabin in the woods, so my natural assumption was carbon monoxide poisoning. The newspaper that initially reported their deaths went very quiet about it, as did everyone who knew them. It was only recently I discovered it was murder-suicide: the son killed his mother and then himself.

A few months back I looked up somebody I knew at school to see what he was up to these days. I found a memorial page – he died a few years ago on Valentine’s Day. There was nothing to say how he died, but among the dozens of tributes were repeated assertions that it was unexpected, along with the question ‘why?’, leaving little doubt it was self-inflicted. But no matter how much I scoured the newspapers, tribute sites, obituaries and Facebook, nobody was saying what happened, as though it was a dirty little secret that could only be hinted at in riddles.

I don’t think that this is helpful. At all. As someone who has suffered from depression all his life and was at the right age to be deeply affected by the self-destruction of the grunge movement, especially the suicide of Kurt Cobain of Nirvana in 1994, I considered suicide throughout my teens and early twenties. I imagine the tragic suicides of Chris Cornell of Soundgarden and Audioslave, and especially Chester Bennington of Linkin Park earlier this year have had as big an impact on later generations. Had I known more about the realities of suicide – had it been a topic we could discuss openly and honestly – I would certainly not have thought about it in the same way. The silence surrounding suicide endangers lives, and this is what we need to address.

Below is the information people need – parents, teachers, adults, teenagers, male, female, whether you’re considering suicide or not. This is the information I wish that I’d had years ago. Hopefully, by removing the shroud of mystery that surrounds the topic, it will help some people realise that suicide is not the answer.

Suicide is a human tragedy, not a moral issue

I’m going to start by laying out my position on suicide. I don’t think that suicide is either right or wrong in and of itself and I don’t think that preaching about the morality of suicide or judging those who have done it brings us any closer to finding a solution. Different societies treat suicide differently, making it more or less acceptable based on cultural standards. The Japanese, for example, long thought it more honourable to kill yourself than surrender, while even in Britain, suicide to save others can be considered noble – Titus Oates leaving Scott’s tent with the iconic line, ‘I’m going outside and I may be some time’, springs to mind. Feeling suicidal doesn’t make you a ‘bad’ person, any more than suffering from depression makes you a ‘weak’ one: it is just the way things are. 

On the other hand, while suicide is not a moral issue, I think that it is a tragic, heartbreaking, often unnecessary course of action typified by suffering – both of the one committing the act and those left behind. I think that if people were more comfortable talking about it, more aware of the facts about it, and better able to ask for and access help without the fear of being judged, there would be fewer suicides. No parent wants their child to commit suicide; no child wants their parent to either; and the only way to stop this is to de-stigmatise the issue of suicide and stop it being seen in terms of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. That is what this post aims to do.

Suicide stats

First, we have to understand the scale of the problem. Here in the UK, we have just over 6000 suicides a year (compared to only 1700 road deaths and around 500 murders). In a country of more than sixty million people, this equates to one suicide per every ten-thousand people. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but this figure is misleading as it relates to a living population. If you look at suicide as a proportion of the total deaths in the UK each year – just over half a million – 1% are from suicide. That is, one in every 100 people who die, kill themselves. That’s a substantial figure.

This increases dramatically if we screen for age. According to government statistics, the leading cause of death for 20-34 year olds is suicide (24% for men, 12% for women), and it remains the leading cause of death for men in the 35-49 age bracket (13%). You would be forgiven for thinking that the group most at risk of suicide are teenage girls since barely a day goes by without another suicide of a promising young person making the headlines, but while teen suicide is particularly devastating, suicide affects all age groups and genders.

Figures from The Samaritans show that in actual fact men kill themselves at a rate three times that of women. Furthermore, rates of suicide, whether male or female, tend to increase with age until peaking in the forties, then steadily drop until a sharp rise in the seventies and eighties. People are therefore far more likely to kill themselves during the ‘mid-life crisis’, when they look at their lives and wonder what it’s all about, or when they are tackling infirmity and illness towards the end of their lives, than as teenagers. Most at risk are men in their forties.

Unfortunately, we live in a society in which ‘real men’ are supposed to be strong and self-sufficient, admitting no weakness nor asking for help. Therapy and counselling are seen as ‘feminine’, and those undergoing it as somehow ‘broken.’ None of these value judgements are accurate or helpful, and as a whole this stigma has to change. As the statistics show, all people need more sympathy and support when it comes to their mental wellbeing. If we cannot create a society in which it is okay to seek treatment for very real difficulties, we will never reduce the rate of suicide and the suffering will continue unabated.

Suicide is often a passing impulse

Of course, it must be pointed out that people are going to kill themselves, regardless. It has always happened throughout human history, and it always will. Some people seem destined to kill themselves, as though drawn to it like moths to a flame; some suffer from various mental health conditions that predispose them towards it; some have painful, life-limiting conditions that make it the lesser of two evils; and for some, life circumstances make it appear the only option.

In many cases, however, suicide is avoidable because the desire to kill oneself is often a passing impulse. You might spend a lot of time thinking about suicide and considering how you might do it, but the actual decision to go through with it tends to be in a specific and transitory moment of desperation. In my lowest moment as a seventeen-year-old, if I’d had easy access to a means of ending it all (i.e. a gun), I’d have used it. But I didn’t, and the feeling passed, and I’m glad that it did. If you can get through that desperate, impulsive hour or two, suicide generally doesn’t seem like such an attractive option.

This is not just my opinion. It has been claimed that up to 80% of suicides are impulsive acts that wouldn’t have happened if the person had had the chance to reflect and back out before committing the act. Furthermore, in around 70% of cases, the time between deciding to commit suicide and actually doing it is less than an hour. If you can get through that hour, your odds of survival go up dramatically: a 1978 study found that of 515 people who were prevented from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge, only 6% went on to kill themselves later. The impulse passed and they lived.

In fact, one of the most upsetting aspects of suicide is that the desire often wears off either during the suicide or immediately after fatal steps have already been taken. Many people who survived jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge have reported that they regretted the decision the very moment that they jumped. From this, we can surmise that an unknowable number of the people who successfully committed suicide changed their minds after jumping, but it was already too late. This begs the question: how many successful suicides could have been prevented had the individuals been kept away from the means of killing themselves until the impulse waned?

This passing impulse might explain the reason why, according to the World Health Organization, the rate of suicide in the US in 2015 was 12.6 per 100,000 people, while that in the UK was 7.4: greater access to firearms. Indeed, firearm suicide in the UK is incredibly rare (hanging is the most common method), while in the US nearly half of all suicides are from firearms. That said, statistics are notoriously unreliable, and cultural factors need to be considered – the comparative rate of 17.9 suicides per 100,000 of the population in Russia, for example, has been attributed to high alcohol consumption.

Whatever the case, if anybody who is feeling suicidal can have the self-control or support network to enable them to wait it out for even an hour or two, the suicidal desire will likely pass. If you’re feeling suicidal, don’t be too hasty. And if you’re with someone who is feeling suicidal, don’t leave them on their own. A couple of hours is not a lot to ask to potentially save a life.

Killing yourself is harder than you think

People are very blase about suicide: this person killed themselves, that person committed suicide. Because of our reticence to talk about it, suicide sounds like something very quick and easy, removing yourself from this veil of tears in a neat and painless fashion. I used to wonder why people ‘attempted’ suicide – surely, I thought, if you were serious and it wasn’t a cry for help, you’d get it right.

In reality, killing yourself is much harder than this. Estimates vary, but it is thought that for every ‘successful’ suicide, there are between 50 and 200 suicide attempts. For centuries, suicide has held a dark allure that has inspired poets and artists alike, but suicide is neither romantic nor beautiful – successful suicides tend to be the result of violent trauma. For example, my parents knew a man who killed himself by swallowing razor blades with bleach – there will be no poems written nor pictures painted about that. While most people would never go to that extreme, it still requires far more unpleasantness to kill yourself than simply drifting off to sleep.

Below are the pitfalls of various common methods that, I hope, will convince people not to use them. There is no such thing as an easy death.

Slitting your wrists

I often considered slitting my wrists, and I think teenagers still see this one as a reliable method of suicide. It isn’t. Depending on how much of the vein you open, your blood will likely clot or reroute before you’re in any danger from blood loss. And you need to lose a lot of blood to be in danger – the way it’s depicted on TV is far cleaner than the reality.

To be effective, you’d have to cut down to the artery. However, if you feel your wrist, you need to cut through the tendons that control your fingers in order to reach it. This is incredibly painful, and if you survive you’ve lost the use of your fingers into the bargain.

During my time at the police, I did encounter a suicide by opening the radial artery. To say he ‘slit’ his wrist is far too polite –  it was more akin to butchery and the scene was a horror movie. I think if more people knew this, far fewer would ever attempt this method.

Drug overdose

I can understand the appeal of an overdose, since the idea is that you simply fall asleep and never wake up. The problem is that suicide by pills is an unpredictable method at best, especially since barbiturates have largely been replaced by benzodiazepines, which are far less toxic in overdose. It requires a number of factors, including your health, interactions with other drugs, and all manner of random chemical processes to actually kill yourself this way. Indeed, it is estimated that in the US, overdoses result in death only 1.4% of the time.

Oftentimes, a person will vomit either before or after they lose consciousness, ridding their system of the drugs and giving themselves an almighty headache in the process. Furthermore, they will often do significant damage to their internal organs, leading to a shortened life characterised by pain and regret. If you consider that, by taking an overdose, you risk screwing up your physical health and reducing your quality of life without actually dying, it seems to me a risk too great to take.

Of great importance, everybody needs to know that you should NEVER overdose on over-the-counter medication, especially Paracetamol. You certainly can kill yourself with Paracetamol – it’s often the drug-of-choice for teenage suicides – but it is not a quick or pleasant death. Instead of simply falling asleep peacefully, it kills your liver, leaving you conscious and alive but dying for hours or days. Time enough to regret what you’ve done, to have to face your family, and to encounter all the things you’d been hoping to avoid. I’ve heard enough stories of teenagers regretting doing this and vainly begging the doctors to save them as they slowly die to know this is possibly the most drawn-out, emotionally-wrought and horrific way of killing yourself.

Don’t keep this one quiet. Shout it from the rooftops: Don’t. Ever. Overdose. On. Paracetamol.

Hanging

While I mentioned before that this is the most common method of suicide in the UK, that doesn’t mean that it is without its pitfalls, which are fairly horrendous.

There are two main versions: the long drop (with a quick stop) or suspension. The former, as the name suggests, is where a person ties a noose around their neck and jumps from height, which, if done right, results in a broken neck; the latter involves the person putting a ligature around their neck and then suspending themselves until they’re asphyxiated. Neither is a pleasant option.

From my experience in the police, the long drop can result in decapitation, since the person’s entire weight and the force of the sudden stop are focused under their jaw. Oftentimes, people kill themselves this way in the woods by climbing trees, where they will be discovered by children or joggers or dogwalkers, which shows a blatant disregard for others. Worse, many people kill themselves in the spring or summer and it is not until the autumn, when the leaves fall from the trees, that their blackened and bloated bodies are discovered. If you want a dignified, ‘neat’ demise, without the risk of ripping off your own head, the long drop is not for you.

Far more common is the suspension method, but this is little better. When done ‘right’ – compressing the carotid artery – unconsciousness can occur fairly quickly, followed some time later by death. However, there is still pain, since your weight is focused entirely on your throat, and suicidal people don’t often do it ‘right’ – even professional executioners who did it for a living couldn’t guarantee a quick end.

When not done exactly right, it compresses the windpipe instead of the arteries, leaving you hanging, choking, spluttering, gasping for breath, for anything up to thirty minutes. Furthermore, if we factor in that many suicides are impulsive and the victim regrets it and changes their mind, imagine half an hour of hideous pain and terror as you struggle to free yourself from your self-inflicted death, desperate to take it back as the life is slowly choked from you. It doesn’t bear thinking about, but you must if you’re considering suicide – hanging is not the easy way out you might think it is.

If you want to see how awful it is to be hanged, you need look no further than Back To The Future III. Early in the movie, Michael J Fox’s character is suspended by the neck from a rope. During filming something went wrong with the stunt harness, and what you see on screen as Fox claws at the rope, his face turning purple and tongue bulging from his mouth as he struggles for breath, is the actor really being hanged. And it isn’t pretty.

Vehicular collisions

Stepping into traffic or throwing yourself in front of a moving train is an extreme method of killing yourself that is not for the squeamish. The forces involved mean that body parts tend to fly in all directions – arms, legs, head and torso ending up in different places and in various states of undress. Yes, victims of this type of suicide are often found naked, because if the impact is powerful enough to sever your limbs from your body, it’s powerful enough to rip off your clothing and leave you without a stitch on you.

That said, it is not necessarily a reliable method of suicide. Jumping under subway trains only leads to death around half the time since the train is decelerating as it enters the station and the depth of the pit means you’re less likely to get caught under the engine. Survivors from this type of suicide attempt often lose limbs and suffer massive injuries, dramatically reducing their quality of life without actually killing them. That is a pretty big risk to take.

While I said that I wasn’t going to discuss the morality of suicide as a whole, this is the only method that involves another person. Indeed, rather than kill yourself, you get an unwilling participant to kill you, implicating them in your death and often leaving them traumatised and suicidal themselves. No matter how you look at it, this is wrong.

That is before we mention that killing yourself in this way endangers other lives. In a road traffic collision you could very easily cause a fatal accident, while those who park their cars on railway lines can cause derailments. At Ufton Nervet in 2004, for example, a man committing suicide at a level crossing resulted in the deaths of the train driver and five passengers, along with 71 injuries. This is not suicide: this is murder. To feel like killing yourself is one thing, but to do it in this manner is indefensible.

Falling from height

I’ve already discussed this one in relation to the Golden Gate Bridge – many of the people who jump regret it before they hit the water, which is not an ideal situation in which to find yourself. There used to be a myth that people who jumped from great heights would be unconscious before they reached the bottom, but this isn’t true – you’re awake and aware the whole way down.

Jumping from height is a risky proposition. There is no actual height at which it can be said that somebody is guaranteed to die. Some die after falling twenty feet; some survive after falling a hundred, albeit often with major injuries and/or paralysis. Certainly, as a result of suicide locks on windows, suicide barriers on buildings and bridges, and reduced access to rooftops, people are jumping from lower and lower heights to try and kill themselves, with mixed results.

One thing is sure, however – killing yourself this way is not the equivalent of drifting off to sleep. Bones break; organs are ripped free; splinters of your ribs penetrate your lungs and heart; your head explodes like a watermelon. It is a traumatic, nasty, horrible way to go.

Firearms

Often seen as a foolproof way to go, there are surprising exceptions. I’ve seen people who have put a pistol under their chin or into their mouth and blown off their face, only to survive hideously deformed. A gun held to the temple will sometimes travel around the outside of the skull or take a part of the brain away that leaves you alive but brain-damaged. The author Joseph Conrad shot himself in the chest, only for the bullet to miss every major organ and his spine and pass out the back, though it left him critically ill for months.

Shotguns have a higher rate of lethality, but like other methods, it is a messy, destructive and very ugly way to go. If put in the mouth, the expanding gases from the gunshot rip out the sides of your eye-sockets while the shot evacuates your brain through the back of your skull. Photographs of Kurt Cobain’s body taken through the window show him lying almost serenely on his back; what is out of shot is the true horror of what it looks like when somebody shoots themselves in the face with a shotgun, and if that photo had become the defining image of his suicide, then there would be no way to glamorise his death at all.

Lastly, I would like to say that with suicide in this manner, there is no way of stopping at an earlier stage or having second thoughts. On a ledge, you have the opportunity of thinking things through; with an overdose, you can rush yourself to hospital; but as soon as you pull that trigger, all of your chances and opportunities are gone forever. Given the impulsive nature of so many suicides, don’t be too hasty, or you won’t be able to live to regret it.

Your suicide will probably ruin somebody’s life

I appreciate that when you’re feeling suicidal, you’re not always rational and your judgement can be impaired. You might think that nobody cares or would notice you were gone; you might think that people would be better off without you here; you might be lost so deep inside your pain that you don’t think about others; and you might even want to kill yourself to show someone how much they’ve hurt you. I don’t agree with calling people who commit suicide ‘selfish’, as I believe that it’s far more complicated than that. However, it is an undeniable fact that, no matter what you think about other people or how they’ll react, your suicide will likely ruin somebody’s life.

Parents rarely, if ever, get over the suicide of a child. Likewise, children rarely recover from the suicide of a parent. Even if you think you’re doing them a favour or that they wouldn’t care, I can guarantee that you’re wrong. For every suicide, there are reckoned to be around six ‘suicide survivors‘ – that is, people left grieving and struggling to make sense of it.

When a loved-one commits suicide, the grief of those left behind is often far more long-lasting than if the loved-one simply died, because it is tied up with feelings of guilt and responsibility. Indeed, when a loved-one dies naturally, some 10-20% of the bereaved enter something called ‘complicated grief‘, which leads to major depression and often suicidal ideation; when a loved-one dies by suicide, that figure is 43%. Furthermore, people who lose a loved one to suicide are 65% more likely to attempt suicide themselves.

This is because losing a loved-one to suicide is different from losing them in other ways. The suddenness of suicide is shocking, as is the trauma of discovering what you’ve done; even if they don’t see your death or your body, family members will often picture it in their minds, which can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The shame and stigma that surrounds suicide means your grieving relatives will often become isolated, unable to express or offload their grief because of the circumstances of your demise. For example, Gabbi Dix, mother of a fourteen-year-old suicide victim, said, ‘When Izzy died, I didn’t want to be alive but I didn’t dare tell anyone that in case I was judged.’

Your family will suffer painfully mixed emotions because of wondering if there was anything else they could have done. Furthermore, the lingering question of why you did it might never give them resolution. When you think about it, if you commit suicide you’re condemning your loved-ones to the same suffering and confusion that you’re experiencing. I don’t say this to guilt-trip you, but it is worth asking if this is something you want to put them through.

You might think that you have no loved-ones, and that is fine; but even so, your death can affect people you’ve never met in ways you can’t anticipate. Like a pebble thrown into a pond, you have no idea how far the ripples caused by your suicide will reach.

When my first girlfriend was eight, for example, she was crossing a pedestrian bridge at a train station when a man pushed past her and muttered something. She watched him as he continued down onto the platform and threw himself in front of a passing train. She was the last person he ever spoke to.

Traumatised by what she had witnessed, she underwent years of counselling and psychotherapy. At sixteen, she tried to kill herself with an overdose. She gravitated towards friends with suicidal tendencies – one of her best friends hanged himself. She got into drugs and ended up a mess, far away from the happy life she could have had, and all because a stranger chose to kill himself at a train station one day.

She won’t have been the only one affected. Train drivers often suffer PTSD after witnessing suicides. Some are never able to work again. When I worked at the police, the suicide of a woman who jumped in front of a train started me on the road towards a nervous breakdown from which I doubt I’ll ever fully recover. While you might think that suicide doesn’t hurt anyone else, you need to be aware that your actions may very well cause massive damage to total strangers who have to witness or deal with the aftermath of your decision. If you have any compassion for people, you have to think about that.

What to do if you’re feeling suicidal

Read about suicide – that’s possibly why you’re here reading this. Learn all the facts. Dismiss the myths, such as that suicide is most common at Christmas (it’s actually the spring and summer months), or that people always leave suicide notes (they’re actually somewhat rare, and mostly banal things like, ‘Please feed the cat.’). And then talk to somebody.

So often, the families of suicide victims are stunned because they didn’t know anything was wrong. Reading survivor testimony, you regularly come across lines like, ‘Why didn’t he say anything?’ and ‘I wish I’d known.’ It’s difficult to talk about something so personal and emotive, difficult to open up, scary to expose yourself like that – but it’s something you have to do if you’re going to be fair to yourself and others. Give yourself a chance; give others a chance.

You might be afraid of upsetting people, of being judged, or of power being taken away from you, and I can understand that. But you’ll cause infinitely more suffering if you don’t, and nobody can stop you killing yourself if your mind is made up – the decision to live has to come from you.

It doesn’t have to be a family member or even a friend. You could tell your doctor, or a counsellor; you could talk to someone anonymously over the phone or online. The important thing is to reach out and make contact.

I know that it can often seem as though your problems are insurmountable. At my most agitated moments, I could think only of death as a release from my difficulties. But to do so denies you the possibility of overcoming your problems, and looking back, the things I would have killed myself over twenty years ago are, in the grand scheme of things, nothing worth losing your life over.

As Ken Baldwin said after surviving a leap from the Golden Gate Bridge in 1985 while severely depressed: ‘I instantly realised that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable – except for having just jumped.’

Don’t make that same mistake. Talk to someone.

How you can help prevent suicide

Make yourself open to discussions about suicide. I’m not saying to raise it at dinner parties or family picnics, but letting your kids or parents, siblings, partner and close friends know that the subject isn’t taboo with you, and that if they ever feel low they can talk to you without judgement or consequence, can only help break the dreadful silence that prevents people seeking help for this affliction.

This only works if you truly can set aside your value judgements about suicide. The topic is surrounded by fear and emotion, and is more often than not brushed under the carpet and ignored until it’s too late. Only by confronting your attitude towards suicide, and treating its victims with compassion and not censure, can we effect positive change.

I’ve read several times that when they realise somebody is down or depressed, people are worried about mentioning suicide in case they put the idea into the person’s head. Don’t be. Odds are, they’ve already thought about it, probably a lot and possibly more than you could imagine. The fact is, while the decision to kill yourself is often impulsive and abrupt, most people who do so have already considered it, planned it, and incorporated it into their belief system long before they ever make an attempt – they simply haven’t reached a point where they have chosen to act on it.

Given the often impulsive nature of suicide, you don’t want to be talking about it with somebody and trying to change their opinion on it when they’re already at crisis point and actively suicidal. All the information above is no use at such a time as the information needs to be absorbed before a person is at the point where they’ll make an attempt. Hopefully, that will mean that if and when they reach the impulsive hour or so, they’ll have enough facts about the awfulness of suicide to delay it or seek help until the urge passes. Talking should be a first resort, not a last resort.

And lastly, if you think somebody is in that agitated, hour-long danger window, stay with them. There is a strange psychological duality that comes over a suicidal person, a desire to die alongside a desire to be saved. Jumpers stand on a ledge instead of just jumping; shooters ring the police as though asking to be talked out of it; the Ufton Nervet driver pulled on and off the train tracks several times, clearly unsure about it; and even people who cut their own throats have ‘hesitation wounds’ as the desire to die fights against the survival instinct.

Suicidal people often want to be saved, so save them.

Summary

  • If we want to reduce the incidence of suicide, we need to de-stigmatise it and become comfortable talking about it.
  • Suicide is not ‘wrong’, but it is tragic and often unnecessary.
  • Suicide is often an impulsive act, and if you can survive the first hour or two, things will normally get better.
  • There is no such thing as an ‘easy’ suicide – it’s hard and nasty, and anyone who tells you otherwise hasn’t done their research.
  • Suicide ruins the lives of those left behind.
  • If you’re feeling suicidal, don’t do anything rash – talk to somebody.
  • If you think somebody may be considering suicide, don’t ignore it – talk to them. You might just save a life.

Useful contacts

In the UK and ROI, The Samaritans can be contacted by phone 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, on 116 123, or by e-mail at jo@samaritans.org.

In the USA, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be contacted 24/7 on 1-800-273-8255 or through live chat (accessed from the website).

For other countries, please follow this link to find a list of other national helplines.

Final thoughts

In the late 1990s, on several occasions, I worked myself up into such a state that I thought suicide was the only way out of my problems. In those moments, I was a danger to myself. Yet those moments passed, and here I am, twenty years later, going strong.

Had I killed myself back then, I can honestly say that it would have been a mistake, done because I didn’t know the truth about suicide or how to go about getting help. I think many people who kill themselves are making that exact same mistake every day. This needs to stop, and if this post makes just one person think twice about killing themselves, it has done its job.

I apologise to my regular readers for straying so far from my usual topics – autism and parenting – but I felt sufficiently compelled to write this by seeing Nirvana, Audioslave and Linkin Park videos being played back-to-back every time I turn to the music channels, bringing the whole notion of suicide to the forefront of my mind, as I’m sure it has in many people’s.

Writing this post hasn’t been easy, but I have always believed we need to face our problems if we are to overcome them and grow as people. I once saw a plaque on a bench that read, ‘Keep facing the sun, and the shadows will always fall behind you.’ No truer words have ever been spoken.

I can’t promise you that life will ever be easy. But at least we have the sun.

Take care of yourselves and all the best.

Gillan

The Circle of Life

They say that life is what happens while you’re making other plans, and they’re definitely not wrong. I had this week planned out in fine detail. I have to: I’m getting married on Saturday. So there is an awful lot to do and I couldn’t afford any hiccups.

You can guess where this is going.

When you’re a dad, hiccups go with the territory. I expected a few things to crop up. I hadn’t imagined that life, death, birth, suicide and viral gastroenteritis would feature quite so prominently, however.

It started Monday. I was already up against it as I had my stag-do that night, when, driving home along a country lane, I saw a ball of white fluff wandering down the middle of the road. Since it’s a busy road and people drive like maniacs, I stopped to move it out of traffic, when I realised it was something I really couldn’t leave to get run over.

There were no trees about – just bushes – and those on the other side of a ditch, and if I left it in a random hedge there was no way it’d survive. Now I know you’re supposed to leave balls of fluff alone, but these were extenuating circumstances. So I did what I thought was best – I picked it up and I put it in my car.

I had no clue what it was, but given it had a hooked beak and long, sharp talons, I had a fairly good guess.

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Any ideas?

Since the last bird of prey I tried to rescue didn’t make it, I was determined that this one would. Luckily a few miles down the road is an owl, raptor and reptile sanctuary, so I took it there. Turns out it was a barn owl chick, far too young to be out of the nest. They’re going to get him well and then find a nest with similar aged chicks and slip him in, to be raised by a surrogate mother back in the wild.

My good deed for Monday was done – but it ate up a massive chunk of the day.

On Tuesday, I did a few wedding-related things like writing my groom’s speech, but I have to confess to being distracted all day by the wrens nesting two feet outside the back door. Every three or four minutes they return to the box with an insect, whereuopon three very hungry chicks lean chirping out of the hole. I guess I don’t have to watch them, but it’s hard not to when they’re so busy from sun up – around half-four in the morning – right the way through to after sunset – gone nine-thirty at night.

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Industrious little buggers

Part of the reason I couldn’t look away was this whole parenting thing. I couldn’t help feeling a kinship with these tiny little birds looking after their kids, sacrificing their time and energy to care for their young ones around the clock. I admired them their energy, and felt it needed to be acknowledged, if only through my observation. And if I’m honest, I wondered if I’d be able to cope if I had to expend so much effort on my child as they did on theirs.

The answer wasn’t long in coming.

I put the baby to bed as usual around seven Tuesday night. At ten came the most horrible sound, and when I rushed in there I found little Izzie soaked in vomit. I picked her up and, my god, she was burning up! With a temperature of 38.6, I gave her some Calpol, two hours of TLC, got her to bed shortly after midnight, and checked on her every two hours.

By six o’clock this morning she was 39.1 degrees and very unhappy. It’s awful, knowing she’s unwell but unable to do much about it. So many thoughts and possibilities run through your mind, and after so few hours sleep, you jump to worst case scenarios.

I spoke to a doctor at 8.30, saw her at 11, when Izzie was 39.3, and was sent straight to the hospital so she could be assessed. And that was just the start of six hours of shenanigans.

Izzie was the most distressed I’ve ever seen her, and Lizzie almost as bad. As the stable presence in their lives, I have to take it in my stride, act confident and calm, reassure them that everything’s okay and we’ll deal with whatever happens, even though inside I’m just as churned up. Watching Izzie get poked and prodded and howl like a banshee must rank up there as one of the least comfortable experiences of my life.

Well, worse was to come. They needed a urine sample to test, and despite this being 2016, guess how you get a urine sample from a baby? You sit the over-hot, kicking, squirming, screaming sweetie on your partner’s lap on a waterproof sheet, crouch between their legs with a plastic tub, and get ready to catch whatever comes out.

I always figured that since they’re incontinent, babies drip-drip-dripped, little and often. Nope. They pee just like normal people – when they need to.

So we waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And waited.

For an hour and three-quarters. Crouched, ready to jump into action in a split second to catch that pee! And true to form, Izzie waited for the doctor to arrive and the precise moment I looked away to make her entrance to the stage. In the event, I got it all over my hands, but managed to salvage enough to test.

Meanwhile, doctors and nurses and mothers and boyfriends came to visit the girl in the bed next to us, a teenager who took an overdose this morning, and, by dint of still being classed as a child, was placed in a bay surrounded by screaming babies.

It’s impossible not to overhear things in a hospital – the curtains aren’t exactly soundproof, after all.

‘Did you intend to kill yourself?’

‘Dunno.’

‘Are you happy you’re still here?’

‘Dunno.’

She gave her mother a pretty hard time, lots of effing and blinding. And as a dad, I thought how odd it was that fourteen years earlier, she’d have been like Izzie, a little girl, an innocent, unsullied, perfect creature. I can’t comprehend how I would feel if in fourteen years time it’s Izzie in that bed following a suicide attempt, telling me to ‘shut up, I just don’t care, leave me alone, I don’t give a f**k.’

The stark contrast really struck me, two girls in two beds, separated by nothing more than a curtain and a few years; one so simple and dependent and full of the joys of spring, the other so complex and cynical and utterly jaded. And I want to cling to Izzie and stop her growing up, retain her innocence at any cost, arrest the passage of time.

But I can’t.

In one bed, we’re planning our futures together; in the other, she could have been dead. She might still be – it was paracetamol and they were waiting to see how much damage she’d done to her organs.

The thing is, in my life I’ve been suicidal. I’ve self-harmed. I’ve always been a little bit crazy. My teens are a blur of high emotions and antidepressants, hidden knives and hidden scars. I’m not always rational. People tell me I’ve said things, done things, and I have no recollection whatsoever. At times of high stress I become paranoid that people can hear my thoughts. I am the girl in the bed beyond the curtain – at least, I was. But I got through it. Saved, as it were, by the love of my family, a stubborn unwillingness to give in, and by the miracle that is my daughter.

I don’t ever want her to grow up like me. Stay this side of the curtain, sweetheart.

Long story short, after I wiped the piss off my hands, we discovered she didn’t have a UTI, and they diagnosed it as viral gastroenteritis. Eventually we were allowed to go home, after eight hours away.

Things have calmed a little this evening – Lizzie and Izzie are both snoring, but the latter wakes up every ten minutes, has a little cry, and drops back off. I’m monitoring temperatures, wiping up diarrhoea, and preparing for another night of broken sleep. In the test of whether I’m as good a parent as a wren, I think I’ve passed.

All day I’ve acted tough. Now the world has gone to sleep I can be honest. I feel tearful. Seeing Izzie going through all that, not knowing what was wrong – I was more scared than anyone can imagine. Because Izzie is my world.

So much has happened this week and it’s only Wednesday! If tomorrow is anything like today, I don’t know what I’ll do. Did I mention I’m getting married in three days?

[EDIT: I have just discovered from the Barn Owl Trust that I did exactly the right thing. It says finding barn owl chicks out of the nest before they can fly is not normal, they are only fed in the nest and parents will ignore one on the ground and leave it to starve to death, they have very little sense of smell and will not reject it if you handle it, and leaving it well alone is usually not the appropriate course of action. On the other hand, if it was a tawny owl chick, you should leave it as it is normal for chicks to be out of the nest before they can fly and parents will feed them anywhere – even on the ground. Barn owl chick = intervene. Tawny owl chick = leave alone. Yay me.]