As I’ve blogged before, someone having suicidal ideation does not always lead to that person attempting suicide, but it remains very dangerous. It is dangerous both for that person who has the suicidal ideation, and those who care about him or her. That is why I have absolutely no tolerance for it. None. When I say that, I don’t mean that I cast moral disapproval on those who experience suicidal ideation. What it does mean is that if someone I care about happens to display very prominent suicidal ideation, the ethical course is to intervene.
Michael Jackson Syndrome?
There is a common story about many self-sabotaging celebrities that goes something like this. The celebrity is on a very self-destructive path, which causes visible harm to him or her, as well as trauma for those who care about the celebrity’s well-being. The self-destructiveness can be manifested in substance abuse, eating disorders, self-cutting, criminal behavior (or falsely accusing others of criminal behavior), or symptoms of morbid mental illness.
Even though such self-destructive behaviors do not necessarily mean that the celebrity consciously desires to commit suicide, in this particular post I will place all such self-destructive behaviors under the category of “suicidal ideation,” “suicidal gestures,” and “suicidal imagery.” (A psychologist might dispute that as being too broad on my part.)
Because of the celebrity’s socially prominent status and because the celebrity acts outwardly confident in public, most people around him or her are reluctant to address this issue. Often, these people keep silent and pretend not to notice the disturbing suicidal gestures. Some members of the celebrity’s entourage go even farther, complimenting or at least explicitly approving of the suicidal gestures. Such a person who refrains from confronting the celebrity is not a real friend but a sycophant. By playing along with the celebrity’s self-imposed illusion that the celebrity’s suicidal gestures are safe and acceptable, the suicidal gestures are normalized and tacitly encouraged. Far from being conducive to the celebrity’s long-term happiness and well-being, this “accepting friend” amounts to a passive “enabler.” Think of Hans Christian Andersen’s famous story “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”
Once in a while, someone close (or who was once close) to the celebrity does try to confront the celebrity about such dangers, or urges other people in the celebrity’s circle to compassionately address the issue. When this happens, the whistleblower is often marginalized, ridiculed, and devalued. That’s terribly tragic, because the whistleblower has shown himself to be a real friend — exactly what those hangers-on, who have failed to address the issue, have not been. Those real friends — the concerned whistleblowers — are sidelined, and the self-defeating celebrity surrounds him- or herself with “yes” men and sycophants who play along with the illusion that everything is fine and normal.They then ostracize the whistleblower as the maladjusted troublemaker. (Again, it’s like “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”)
A Problem for Non-Celebrities as Well
As I do not know the celebrities personally, I cannot claim omniscience about them; my interpretation of them can be mistaken. However, from what I’ve read of their biographies, I think the scenario I just verbalized can be largely attributed to Michael Jackson, Charlie Sheen, and Lindsay Lohan. But it doesn’t just apply to famous entertainers.
For more than a year, I corresponded online with a very intelligent person whom I will call “Lucy.” Lucy expressed interest in looking beautiful, and, of course, in the beginning that sounded perfectly safe. Increasingly, though, Lucy would post pictures of bony anorexic women (this is not humorous hyperbole; they were literally anorexic-looking) and labeling them as the sort of people she wanted to emulate. She posted disturbing photos of herself looking ever-thinner and frailer. She then wrote status updates complaining about really odd physical ailments, like temporary blindness. Such physical ailments are rare in someone of such a young age . . . but common among people who experience starvation and malnutrition. Frighteningly, a large number of “loyal friends” (translation: sycophants) clicked “like” on the disturbing pictures and announcements and encouraged it.
Eventually, a minority of Lucy’s online friends — people much wiser and ballsier than myself — wrote to Lucy that they were concerned about her health. Not once did they morally criticize her or express full-blown rejection of her as a person . . . though she reacted as if she interpreted it that way. Lucy pointedly told these people that her self-starvation was none of their business.
If Your Suicidal Gestures Are Nobody Else’s Business, Why Do You Post Them on Facebook, LinkedIn, or WordPress?
The whistleblower friends thought that Lucy’s response was rather inexplicable. Their thought was, “If you think that your suicidal imagery is none of my business, then why are you putting it on display in front of me and other people?”
Of course I can be wrong, but I think I know the reason. I suspect that on some level the suicidal gestures did disturb Lucy, and that is exactly why she shared images of it on Facebook. She did not want other people, however, to confirm her fear that she was placing herself in a dangerous situation. Insofar as a “cry for help” refers to the crier wanting other people to acknowledge the problem, this was not a traditional “cry for help.” Rather, it was like some kind of game of “chicken” in which Lucy implicitly dared other people to comment on the dramatic and alarming change in appearance.
Insofar as people refrained from negative comment, or even complimented the disturbing images, Lucy felt vindicated that her suicidal gestures were actually safe and acceptable, and that her painful health problems were completely unrelated to her self-imposed starvation. The sycophants granted Lucy this short-term gratification, giving her “social proof” that the starvation wasn’t a form of self-harm. As for the whistleblower friends who raised the issue, the sycophants reprimanded them and piously told them that they were the assholes.
I blocked Lucy on Facebook because I did not want to lend tacit support to that self-destructive tendency. I envy those who wrote to her about the issue, though, as they were the ones most helpful toward her, even though such positive effects are not obvious in the present.
I have known someone who is similarly self-destructive and who similarly exhibits “hints” of the inner pain. This person has informed me that this person has a long history of self-injury and of contemplating suicide. Almost two years ago, this person started posting a lot of suicidal imagery on Facebook, LinkedIn, and WordPress. In this case, I did confront the person.
How to Compassionately Address a Self-Destructive Person Without Forcing an Argument
If you are in a similar situation, and you strongly care about that person — the “Lucy” in your own life — I urge you to address the issue. If you notice something is going on, and you say nothing, that helps normalize the suicidal ideation and self-defeating behavior. It implies that the self-destructiveness is normal and acceptable.
If someone has routinely displayed suicidal gestures to you in person or online (like on LinkedIn or Facebook), then it doesn’t really fly for that person to say, “This is none of your business!” When someone has, on more than one occasion, shoved his or her suicidal imagery in your face, he or she has made it your business. If he or she fully believed that the suicidal imagery was not your business, he or she would not have put it on display in such a conspicuous fashion.
Often people are reluctant to confront their “Lucy” because they have this rationale: “My friend can be very scary and temperamental sometimes; even my friend’s great height is physically intimidating. If I mention that I notice the suicidal imagery, it will just start a big argument. She will hold a grudge and not seek help, and nothing good will result from the confrontation. It will only make our relationship awkward.”
In the past two years, I have become very familiar with that feeling — that fear, that feeling too intimidated to say something. Quite frankly, though, if someone is exhibiting suicidal ideation and expects you not to address that, then the relationship is already awkward. More importantly, I think there is a way to compassionately address the issue without forcing an argument. I suggest that to your own “Lucy,” you say something like this:
I strongly value your friendship; you mean a lot to me. When I see the [here, make a brief list of the disturbing gestures you’ve witnessed, such as the dead-body imagery or the defensive insistence on wearing the exact same clothes every day –S.H.], I can’t help but think that you must have a lot going on. You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to. But I want to let you know that if you ever do want to talk about it, I am here for you. :’-)
I think that gesture is even more powerful when it comes from a close relative, like an uncle or aunt.
If the person you care about — your “Lucy” — happens to respond to you in an abusive/bossy/devaluing fashion, I recommend that you ignore it and reaffirm, “I know what I know. If you ever want to talk about it, I am here for you. :’-) ” And if that person provides no response, or responds dismissively, that’s OK; at least you showed where you stand.
Note that that approach does not force an argument, demand that the person change, or cast moral disapproval. It does, however, let the person know that you are aware of the suicidal gestures and that that is not something you condone. It conveys, through action, that you reject the suicidal gestures but still value the person qua person. Hence, it shows the person that you accept him or her while you refuse to play along with the ruse of normalcy — that you refuse to help normalize the pathology. I concede that the person who needs help might resent it as patronizing if you take this approach. But all in all, it’s the best available alternative.
I think that everyone has a right to their own harmless eccentricity. That is not the same as being an idle bystander when noticing a friend’s suicidal gestures. This cannot be emphasized enough: Suicidal gestures are not a lifestyle choice.