In the wake of the reported suicides of Anthony Bourdain, the celebrity chef and Emmy-winning TV star on CNN, and Kate Spade, the fashion industry maven, I have been thinking, as I often do, about Hamlet.
I have written and spoken extensively before, including at the Worldwide Suicide Prevention Day Conference at USC Verdugo Hills Hospital two years ago, about how we can glean wisdom from the Prince of Denmark, the most paradoxical character ever written, on so many matters, including his insights into depression, psychosis and suicide.
It, like Hamlet, the character, like the play itself, is “unlimited,” as Harold Bloom once wrote.
But Hamlet has indeed gotten a glimpse at the “undiscovered country,” and he has concluded correctly that he would “rather bear those ills we have than fly to others we know not of.”
Despite all the torment that Hamlet endures, the murder of his father by his uncle, the perceived wantonness of his mother, and despite his own terrible behavior, his killing of Polonius, and his psychic cruelty toward Ophelia, Hamlet believes in and chooses life.
Consider how he struggles with Horatio and wrestles the poisoned liquor away from his dear friend, even as Hamlet himself is dying from the poisoned tip of a sword.
Horatio, Hamlet’s friend, his only friend, cannot bear to live without the sublime presence of the Prince of Denmark.
Although we do not read any specific stage instructions from Shakespeare, we can read in Hamlet’s lines how the Prince of Denmark, true to his renewed faith in life, summons all his strength and yanks the poisoned goblet away from his chum, who is a Jonathan to Hamlet’s David, and saves Horatio’s life.
As Hamlet, dying from his mortal wound, says, “As th’ art a man, give me the cup. Let go. By heaven, I’ll ha’t!”
Hamlet recognizes the seemingly perverse attraction of suicide, as Horatio invokes the ancient Roman practice of taking one’s life. But Hamlet will have none of that.
Grappling with his friend, Hamlet says to Horatio, “If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, absent thee from felicity awhile, and in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, to tell my story.”
It can indeed be a harsh world, and as Hamlet suggests, some suicidal people may think that there is a “felicity” to taking one’s life.
Let me be very clear: There is no felicity in suicide!
In fact, suicide, as I have written before, is one of the most destructive acts that a person can commit (and I will use the word, “commit”).
How often do we have to hear people say that they hope Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade is at peace!
Yes, I hope they are at peace too.
But as someone, who has lost three family members to suicide and who himself was suicidal in the late 1990s, when I was diagnosed with schizophrenia and hospitalized at the USC and UCLA psych wards respectively, I do not want anyone to think that there is anything glamorous, acceptable or heroic about suicide.
A Cal-Berkeley study showed that more than 90% of those who had survived their attempts at suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge were still alive 20 or so years later.
And Dr. Edwin Shneidman, who co-founded the Suicide Prevention Center in Los Angeles, wrote in The Suicidal Mind that roughly 90% of people who are suicidal are ambivalent about taking their lives.
The only thing heroic about suicide is in preventing it and continuing to live.
As I have written before, my father, whose father hanged himself at the time of the Holocaust, may have saved my life in 1997 when he sensed correctly that I was suicidal after he and my mother had checked me out of the USC psych ward.
Later that night, he and my mother were planning on going downstairs to a hotel restaurant to have dinner, but my father picked up on my desperation.
I was still quite ill, deeply depressed, even more so than I had been as a child, when my depression started.
Still, as Dr. Shneidman wrote, I was ambivalent about taking my life.
On the one hand, I hoped that my parents would leave and go to dinner, so I could kill myself.
Yet I also hoped that they would stay so that I would not die.
Thankfully, my father intimated that something was wrong.
He had named me in Hebrew after his father perhaps due to the close proximity between my birthday and the date of his father’s suicide.
For years, I had felt as if I were cursed not only by biology but also by fate.
But I have learned that we can transmute what seems like a curse into a blessing, as I wrote and said in my speech at the Worldwide Suicide Prevention Day conference two years ago.
In the last 21 years, since I left the USC psych ward, I have been with my angel, Barbara, my wife of 17 years, who saves me every day.
She had worked at the Suicide Prevention Center in Los Angeles years ago, as she told my parents when they phoned her in 1999, when I was on the verge of my second psychotic break, my relapse.
In addition to being nurtured by Barbara, whom I also nurture, I have been working as a writer these past 21 years.
But work alone is not enough. We need love too.
At minimum, we need to interact with others.
If at all possible, the suicidal person should never be left alone.
If alone, he or she should reach out by calling friends or the national suicide hot line number or by checking himself or herself into a psychiatric ward.
We also need to have more conversations on this subject so that we eliminate the stigma.
Finally, we need to recognize that we should always choose life.
We have the free will, even as it tangles with fate.
As Hamlet says, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, roughhew them how we will.”
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.