‘Why Are You Alive?’ The Role of Suicide Survivors


Consider these statistics:

One person dies from suicide every 40 seconds.

Every year, over 800,000 people die from suicide, exceeding the number of deaths due to homicide and war combined.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death (globally) for people ages 15 – 29, the fifth leading cause of death among persons aged 30 – 49.

For each adult who died of suicide in 2012, there were over 20 others who made suicide attempts.

World Suicide Prevention Day in 2014 is significant because it marks the release by the WHO of the World Suicide Report “Preventing Suicide: A global imperative.” The report follows the adoption of the Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan 2013-2020 by the World Health Assembly, where the target was set to reduce the rate of suicide in countries by 10% by 2020. It is the most comprehensive, up-to-date record of the current status of suicide prevention internationally and will prove to be an invaluable resource for those working to prevent suicide.

I used to doze off whenever I’d get to a bunch of numbers in a report or blog or book. The figures didn’t get relevant until they started representing people I knew and loved.

At age 16, when my aunt and godmother took her life in my grandmother’s garage with a mere turn of the ignition, I learned a hard lesson that bipolar disorder and severe depression will kill you if they are not treated and managed effectively. I learned that if you’re not paying attention a few “bad thoughts” can spiral out of control like Gremlins, taking over your head and rendering you disabled, that there is no such thing as a “cruise control,” a relaxed state of limited responsibility, in the mind of someone who is genetically predisposed to mood disorders.

We need always be on call.

Those of us who have been there, to the brink of life, where you lift up a few bottles of pills to see if there are enough to flatten your pulse, are charged with the task of giving or reminding others of reasons to stay alive. I gave that assignment to the members of the depression forum in which I participate.

“Why are you alive?” I asked them.

This is what they said:

“I now know that I have a purpose for living and with the help of my friends I can get through any problem and can maybe help someone else.”

“What has kept me alive in those years is a lot of work, realizing I can’t rely on others to make me happy, that only comes from within. I choose to look for the good in people and the world. As long as I do this I have been able to survive.”

“What keeps me going now is the prospect of changing my life. I have inspirational photos and sayings as my computer background, reminding me that this isn’t the end, it’s just a rest stop.”

“I now have a child I truly never thought I would have. My husband has been a huge support and I have grown even more love for him. They both give me the courage and ammunition to keep fighting for peace.”

“The support and understanding of this group keeps me alive today.”

I am inspired by them, my fellow ex-suicides.

Walker Percy uses that term for serious writers, including himself, who overcome despair by emptying oneself unto the page in order to create communion with the reader. In his article, “Walker Percy and Suicide,” John Desmond writes: “For author and reader, literature that honestly names the truth of being can reverse—albeit temporarily—the death-in-life of alienation and despair. Writer and reader become ‘ex-suicides’ in humility before the truth.”

I think of ex-suicides as those of us who have crawled up to the very edge of life, peered down to the depth of the space below—water, grass, rock … we don’t know—and wondered if we should (or maybe even tried to) tip toe off the ledge and free fall. In so doing, we have looked death square in the eye. We have ambled up to the Lion King, pulled its tail, and whispered into its ear, “You’re not that scary.”

In so doing this rite of passage, all ex-suicides can communicate in a language incomprehensible to the normal Joe on the street who is spending his fortune on plastic surgery, synthetic hormones, brain teasers, and every other possible way to extend the length of his life. Having chosen to go on with our lives–to exist in this messy world at this time–we can access a peace that is not available to those who have never traversed the terrain of deep despair.

In his book, “Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book,” Percy distinguishes between an ex-suicide and a non-suicide. He writes:

The difference between a non-suicide and an ex-suicide leaving the house for work, at eight o’clock on an ordinary morning:

The non-suicide is a little traveling suck of care, sucking care with him from the past and being sucked toward care in the future. His breath is high in his chest. The ex-suicide opens his front door, sits down on the steps, and laughs. Since he has the option of being dead, he has nothing to lose by being alive. It is good to be alive. He goes to work because he doesn’t have to.

On World Suicide Prevention Day, I remind all ex-suicides that “there but for the grace of God go I,” that we have critical work to do in connecting with those souls who are running dangerously low on hope, that the peace experienced on this side of death comes with acts of compassion, selfless efforts to reach out to the person in despair.

As ex-suicides, we need always remember that we find our strength in each other.

In communion we discover truth.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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5 Responses
  1. Stephen

    All the more reason to not silence people in the group about how they truly feel. It may save someone’s life.

  2. I have survived two suicide attempts in the past 10 months. I don’t really know how I managed not to die except for God’s intervention. I have 7 grandchildren ages 9 months to 13 years. But in the depths of despair one can only think of relief from a pain that’s inexplicable and has strength enough to separate a logical mind from one’s being allowing this unthinkable act. It’s not selfishness or an act to get attention (I have had people suggest this to me…after having just been removed from the respirator in the ICU and had been in coma for a week not being expected to live. Really? Those of us blessed with bipolar disease live a precarious existence and the death tolls are high. So why is it so hard for people to rally around us and support us like they appear to do with “acceptable” diagnoses like cancer? I am an RN and have witnessed the biases from the healthcare workers themselves who are “caring” for these very ill individuals. I am at a loss as to how to change this stigma. It seems to be hard wired in society’s perception of mental illnesses in general. It is just that one’s being bipolar is uncomfortable for those who don’t suffer with the illness to grasp the gravity of the devastation it causes not only to the individual themselves but to their families and friends as well. Most bipolars end up losing their jobs, often their marriages and friends. It is a monster of a disease and should not be taken lightly. Let us, please, educate and advocate for the ones who are too ill to take up this torch for themselves. Thank you for keeping this issue in the limelight, Therese.

  3. lambethgal09

    I contemplate just drifting out of this life all the time. What has stopped me this far as having elderly parents. I have caused them enough pain and I will not cause them what would be the worst pain I could inflict on them. When they go I am not sure I have anything to hang around for. I wanted to have a child, and if I had had a child I would fight for my life. When one of the ex-suicides above talked about how her child gives her courage to go on, it made me feel that there is even less reason for me to go on. I try to find other reasons for me to keep going, perhaps in advocating for disabled or the vulnerable members of society. But day to day, I wake up feeling hopeless and feel I am just waiting til I can really let go and give up.