A Review of How Not to Kill Yourself by Clancy Martin
A professor begins his classes by asking all students who have ever thought of killing themselves to raise their hands. But first he tells them he’s tried to do it ten to twenty times and how he deals with his suicidal thoughts now. Reassured that his class is a safe space, he says ninety percent admit to ever having thought of killing themselves. That’s the thing about suicidal thoughts, they’re much more common than anyone realizes, and having those thoughts does not make you dangerous, screwy, or exotic. Science shows that talking openly about suicidal thoughts reduces both the number of attempts and the stigma. It lifts the burden of shame, as well as the romantic appeal.
The professor is Clancy Martin, of the University of Missouri, a Guggenheim Fellowship author of more than a dozen books on philosophy, and a Pushcart Prize-winning fiction author. He’s also a recovering alcoholic and, yes, chronically suicidal. He just came out with a memoir that ninety percent of us should read if we want to understand our urges to die, How Not to Kill Yourself.
If you expect his book to be a self-help guide, or admonitions to have hope, you’d be wrong. Martin gives a raw and unflinching account of himself. Even though I’m a shrink who used to work in an emergency room and have heard hundreds of stories of despair, I found it hard to read. He tried to swim out to sea, freeze to death in the snow, jump out of a moving car, electrocute himself in the bath, and hang himself with his dog’s leash. Countless times, he looked down the barrel of his gun. He also talks about the humiliating panic that arrives at the last minute to save him. This book is not for the faint of heart, but I think people who have been there and done that would appreciate someone telling it like it is.
For all his attempts at self-annihilation, he’s failed; but that’s his success, and he’s ready to talk to anyone who is suicidal and help them think through what they’re planning to do. He won’t chide you for thinking that way, but he will want you to face some hard questions about what you think you’re doing.
Martin is tremendously relieved to have not succeeded in his suicide attempts. He’s lucky things did not go horribly awry. He’s discovered his kids need him and would be devastated if he died. He admits that, for all he knows, suffering would just continue after death. He explores the conclusions other gloomy philosophers like Camus, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche have made, to choose life over death. Even Schopenhauer, the most miserable of all, would not abandon his beloved poodle and hang himself.
Having decided to live doesn’t mean the thought of suicide never comes up for Martin. It used to be that, when the thought came up, he would debate it as only a philosopher can do, until he was ready to do the deed, if only just to end the tiresome debate. Now, when he thinks of suicide, he doesn’t call up the militia of his mind to defeat the urge. He just says, oh, it’s you again?
The key for him, he says, is to accept suicidal thoughts as an unavoidable feature of his mental landscape, but not act on them. He’s learned to stop thinking in a bivalent way, dividing everything into good or bad, desirable or undesirable, healthy or unhealthy. Suicidal thoughts just are. Don’t insist on hope. Learn to be happy without hope. You can always leave when you want, just wait for tomorrow and see if you still feel that way.
The book reminded me of my own suicidal thoughts, which haven’t called in a long time. When I used to work at a sawmill, I had a big blade nearby that could cut me in half if I jumped into it. One day I thought I would do just that. I didn’t, of course. I shut the thing down, went home, and went to bed for a couple days, having scared myself out of my wits.
I have since learned, like Martin that this kind of thought is very common. I’ve had something like it since, standing on the brink of a great height from which I could jump or driving in a car which I could crash into a tree. Many clients have told me similar stories, and every one of them was as rattled as I had been.
After a couple days in bed, talking with no one, I realized thinking of suicide doesn’t mean I want to do it. I didn’t want to kill myself. I only realized that I could. If I was going to dive into the saw and have it cut me in half, nothing and no one could have stopped me.
Dealing with suicidal thoughts involves coming to peace with freedom. If you never wanted that kind of freedom, the least you should do is read Martin’s book and see how he’s learned to handle being free. Better yet, talk to someone about it. Call 988, talk to a supportive person, or to your own therapist. If you’re in New York State, make an appointment to talk to me. No one can stop you from killing yourself if you choose to do it, but they can help you sort it out.