SYNDICATED COLUMN: Suicide? No. Society Is Murdering Us. But There Is a Way Out.

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They say that 10 million Americans seriously consider committing suicide every year. In 1984, when I was 20, I was one of them.

Most people who kill themselves feel hopeless. They are miserable and distraught and can’t imagine how or if their lives will ever improve. That’s how I felt. Within a few months I got expelled from college, dumped by a girlfriend I foolishly believed I would marry, fired from my job and evicted from my apartment. I was homeless, bereft, broke. I didn’t have enough money for more than a day of cheap food. And I had no prospects.

I tried in vain to summon up the guts to jump off the roof of my dorm. I went down to the subway but couldn’t make myself jump in front of a train. I wanted to. But I couldn’t.

Obviously things got better. I’m writing this.

Things got better because my luck changed. But — why did it have to? Isn’t there something wrong with a society in which life or death turns on luck?

I wish I could tell my 20-year-old self that suicide isn’t necessary, that there is another way, that there will be plenty of time to be dead in the end. I’ve seen those other ways when I’ve traveled overseas.

In Thailand and Central Asia and the Caribbean and all over the world you will find Americans whose American lives ran hard against the shoals of bankruptcy, lost love, addiction or social shame. Rather than off themselves, they gathered their last dollars and headed to the airport and went somewhere else to start over. They showed up at some dusty ex-pat bar in the middle of nowhere with few skills other than speaking English and asked if they could crash in the back room in between washing dishes. Eventually they scraped together enough money to conduct tours for Western tourists, maybe working as a divemaster or taking rich vacationers deep-sea fishing. They weren’t rich themselves; they were OK and that was more than enough.

You really can start over. But maybe not in this uptight, stuck-up, class-stratified country.

I remembered that in 2015 when I suffered another setback. Unbeknownst to me, the Los Angeles Times — where I had worked as a cartoonist since 2009 – had gotten itself into a corrupt business deal with the LAPD, which I routinely criticized in my cartoons. A piece-of-work police chief leveraged his department’s financial influence on the newspaper by demanding that the idiot ingénue publisher, his political ally, fire me as a favor. But mere firing wasn’t enough for these two goons. They published not one, but two articles, lying about me in an outrageous attempt to destroy my journalistic credibility. I’m suing but the court system is slower than molasses in the pre-climate change Arctic.

Suicide crossed my mind many times during those dark weeks and months. Although I had done nothing wrong the Times’ smears made me feel ashamed. I was angry: at the Times editors who should have quit rather than carry out such shameful orders, at the media outlets who refused to cover my story, at the friends and colleagues who didn’t support me. Though many people stood by me, I felt alone. I couldn’t imagine salvaging my reputation — as a journalist, your reputation for truthtelling and integrity are your most valuable asset and essential to do your job and to get new ones.

As my LA Times nightmare unfolded, however, I remembered the Texas-born bartender who had reinvented himself in Belize after his wife left him and a family court judge ordered him to pay 90% of his salary in alimony. I thought about the divemaster in Cozumel running away from legal trouble back in the States that he refused to describe. If my career were to crumble away, I could split.

You can opt out of BS without having to opt out of life.

Up 30% since 1999, suicide has become an accelerating national epidemic — 1.4 million Americans tried to kill themselves in a single year, 2015 — but the only times the media focuses on suicide is when it claims the lives of celebrities like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. While the media has made inroads by trying to cover high-profile suicides discreetly so as to minimize suicidal ideation and inspiring others to follow their example, it’s frustrating that no one seems to want to identify societal and political factors so that this trend might be reversed.

Experts believe that roughly half of men who commit suicide suffer from undiagnosed mental illness such as a severe personality disorder or clinical depression. Men commit suicide in substantially higher numbers than women. The healthcare insurance business isn’t much help. One in five Americans is mentally ill but 60% get no treatment at all.

Then there’s stress. Journalistic outlets and politicians don’t target the issue of stress in any meaningful way other than to foolishly, insipidly advise people to avoid it. If you subject millions of people to inordinate stress, some of them, the fragile ones, will take their own lives. We should be working to create a society that minimizes rather than increases stress.

It doesn’t require a lot of heavy lifting to come up with major sources of stress in American society. People are working longer hours but earning lower pay. Even people with jobs are terrified of getting laid off without a second’s notice. The American healthcare system, designed to fatten for-profit healthcare corporations, is a sick joke. When you lose your job or get sick, that shouldn’t be your problem alone. We’re social creatures. We must help each other personally, locally and through strong safety-net social programs.

Loneliness and isolation are likely leading causes of suicide; technology is alienating us from one another even from those who live in our own homes. This is a national emergency. We have to discuss it, then act.

Life in the United States has become vicious and brutal, too much to take even for this nation founded upon the individualistic principles of rugged libertarian pioneers. Children are pressured to exhibit fake joy and success on social media. Young adults are burdened with gigantic student loans they strongly suspect they will never be able to repay. The middle-aged are divorced, outsourced, downsized and repeatedly told they are no longer relevant. And the elderly are thrown away or warehoused, discarded and forgotten by the children they raised.

We don’t have to live this way. It’s a choice. Like the American ex-pats I run into overseas, American society can opt out of crazy-making capitalism without having to opt out.

7 thoughts on “SYNDICATED COLUMN: Suicide? No. Society Is Murdering Us. But There Is a Way Out.

  1. The collapse of an Empire abroad, the collapse of a functioning polity at home. Those who run the country attempt in vain to shore up the former by ever greater military and (un)intelligence expenditures ; as to the latter, they’ve got their own salted away and thus simply don’t give a flying fuck. Sic transit gloria mundi….

    Henri

  2. I suspect that Ted didn’t intend this to be read in the fashion I’m about to, but this really sounds like a combination of the mindset that informs the Hillary Clinton-end-of-the-Democratic-spectrum mindset (i.e., what’s best for ME?) and the victim-scuttling-away-and-letting-the-bastards-get-away-with-it mindset (i.e., I give up.).

    Of course, the two aspects have a fairly large intersect point. The HRCers lecture those who want single payer universal healthcare about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. Of course, the ones saying this HAVE the perfect. I guarantee you, the next time Hillary Clinton stumbles on a flight of stairs and is raced to a hospital, she will receive the closest thing imaginable to perfect-level care, and her waiting time will be approximately 1/10th of a second. The rest of us? Fill out the form and have a seat in the waiting room for three hours next to that guy who keeps coughing without covering his mouth.

    And what happens? A huge pointless argument back and forth about Hillary vs. Bernie that completely ignores the crucial point: only one candidate was pushing for universal healthcare. So why is the other side opening their mouths to defend the morally bankrupt “two-tier” system? Why don’t they shut the hell up and work toward something that will be an actual benefit to all? For the same reason that working-class people vote for Republican tax policies that screw them over: because they all think they’re going to be rich one day. The HRC people all think they’re Hillary: rich, privileged and worshiped by people who think they’re going to one day be rich, privileged and worshiped.

    I wouldn’t mind leaving the country in their hands but the problem is that they’re vampire locusts. Once they finish sucking the life force from one place, they’ll move to another. When they completely destroy this country they’ll fill all of Belize with eco-villages that offer yoga and past-life regressions (but only to the rich).

    You don’t want to jump off a bridge? Confront these knobs on their hypocrisy.

  3. Damn, Ted – I can relate.

    My girlfriend got pregnant on purpose when I was 16, my house burned down, my parents went through a bloody, bitter divorce, my mother crawled into a bottle and stayed there. Oh, and a lot of other bad shit went down as well. At 17 I attempted to end my life – needless to say, I botched it.

    Several years later, I pulled my head out of my ass, finished school, married a wonderful woman and had a long, successful career. Right up until my best old ex-friend boss lied to my face and stabbed me in the back – effectively ending that career early (not to mention the friendship)

    So, those were some dark times too. I did consider suicide, never got there though – and guess what? Things are looking up today.

    One of the philosophies that carried me through was exactly what you said, although The Dead said it better, “Such a long, long time to be gone, such a short time to be there” (From ‘Box of Rain’ – the last thing Jerry ever played on stage) You’re gonna be dead some day anyway, might as well see what’s around the next corner.

    Keep goin’ man – your friends, family, and fans all would be very sad at your passing.

  4. This reminds me so much about how death rates went up in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union. I fear we are in a similar situation in this country, but being in the thick of it, we can’t see this clearly. I call for anarchist self-help groups, like local mutual aid for various needs. I was also thinking after the drip by drip stripping of abortion rights, that women need to form local self-help abortion underground groups like was done in pre-Roe V Wade America.

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