Life. Life is a strange bird. Sometimes you can do everything right and things will still go wrong. And sometimes you can do everything wrong, and yes, things will go wrong, or maybe right, I don’t know. I don’t run the universe, or spin the windmills of destiny. But the key is to never stop doing right.
What drives a man or a woman to decide to end their life? What pushes a human being to the very brink of existence and nudge them into preferring the long dip into the unknown? And just what exactly makes us tick? Just how far can our limits go, how far can they really stretch? When do we know we’re at our breaking point, and do we ever really know? And is the process reversible?
Now, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) statistics, approximately 800,000 people die annually as a result of suicide. This translates into one person every 40 seconds. Every 40 seconds! The statistics also show that suicide is the second leading cause of death globally among the youth within the age bracket of 15-30 years. Now let’s narrow it down to Kenya. The good thing is that unlike corruption where we jealously guard our top ten global ranking, suicide rate is a bit different. The World Population Review ranks Kenya at position 114 among 175 countries with the highest suicide rate. But come to think of it, this is still alarming and a legitimate cause for worry. According to the WHO, the suicide rate in Kenya has been on the rise since 2008, with the highest number being recorded in 2017, at a total of 421 reported cases. 90% of this involved young people, and 330 of them involved men. Let’s ruminate over that for a second. Not really, a second won’t be enough. Take all the time you need. I can wait.
It’s the noon of Monday 10th September, 2018. Perchance, it finds me conversing with a colleague at work about life. But life is a broad subject. We are specifically talking about life in our digital age. Our new definition of life today, where we try so hard to make it look like we’re living perfect lives. In a thoroughly flawed imperfect world no less. How fundamentally vain! Where, armed with our keyboards and sophisticated social media filters…Filters conveniently designed for our unjustified insecurities, we painstakingly recreate what we’ve sadly decided as our flawed selves into what the world would define as a success. As the perfect life. And so out we go, seeking validation from strangers we don’t know and will never meet. Validation of a version of ourselves we don’t know and will never meet. Because it doesn’t exist. It never did.
We talk about how this charade falls apart eventually. You can only lie to you for so long after all. And how bad it can get, trying to live up to societal expectations of what defines the good life, what defines achievements, success, and how bad it is when you feel you can’t live up to them. How worse it is when the pressure comes from those closest to you. Your parents, your siblings, your partner, your friends. We talk about how unkind we’ve become. How intolerant, how materialistic, how uncompassionate to each other. How the travails of life have hardened us into the worst versions of ourselves. Versions of ourselves we wouldn’t want to have coffee with even in another life. And how we end up destroying each other in the process eventually, because we simply forget how to care. Then the conversation takes a swift nosedive. Without warning, he drops a bombshell. As a by the way no less.
Him: You know my cousin committed suicide this morning.
Me: Wait, what? Are you serious right now?
Him: Yep. My dad just called me a few hours ago to tell me he was found dead, with a note left behind. I’m still trying to process it, you know. He was so young, just about our age.
Me: I’m so sorry man. You know what makes this even more messed up? Today is actually World Suicide Prevention Day. I also just learnt that when I saw it trending on Twitter this morning.
Him: What?? Damn it. You know the last time I was home I saw him. We didn’t have enough time to talk and catch up, so I said I would call him but I forgot. So I never called. Now I wish I did, you know…
And on and on the conversation goes.
You know I’m writing this and wishing it’s fiction. Fiction with made up characters and well-imagined story lines. Except it’s not. This is real. This is the world we live in right now, and there’s no swapping places. Suicide is real, and it’s time as a society we talked about it, had open-minded conversations about it, and synergized our energies towards preventing it. Because yes, it can be prevented, and yes, it should never get to a point where someone prefers the uncertainty of death to the uncertainties of life.
After the somber conversation I had with my colleague, I would find myself four days later attending a Suicide Prevention Talk at JKUAT. The event was put together by a club in the University christened ‘MindYourMind’, a ‘by-students-for-students’ organization for everything mental health. It brought together students and expert speakers on matters mental health and suicide related cases. They were drawn from Kenyatta National Hospital Youth Centre, Befrienders Kenya, Ryculture Health, JitunzeKE, among others. I’m purposefully mentioning them so you know there’s always help out there. And that there’s no shame or weakness in seeking it. One of my main take-away from this event was the significance of mental health. Is the significance of mental health. I’ve come to learn that there are so many misconceptions around mental health, and so much shying away from addressing it, talking about it, and investing in nurturing it.
When most people hear mental health, they equate it to being crazy, or losing it, or being psychotic, et al. But here’s the thing. Your mental health is the epicenter of your entire existence, and when it is threatened, your existence is threatened. And so it must be nurtured. Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. So you see, it’s basically everything because after all, we exist in our minds. It’s where everything starts and ends. Our perception of life, how we live it, how we should live, what we aspire to, our definition of right and wrong, where we draw the line, and what our boundaries are. So then we can all agree, that our attitude and understanding towards mental health is badly wanting.
Most suicide cases result from unresolved mental health issues. You see, in our imperfect world, there is never a shortage of threats to our mental health. From diseases, disappointments, to relationship problems, to family related predicaments…some so hard to bear, to traumatic experiences, to the burden of living up to expectations, some self-inflicted, some societal, and others from those closest to us. This, basically, is the cycle of life. The list is endless. And so the pressure builds, and in most cases it finds us all alone. Most hard times have that habit. They find you without an anchor. Sometimes we don’t even realize it. That we are stressed, depressed or going through a rough patch. Other times we realize it but deny it, nonchalantly wishing it away because the society doesn’t give us an avenue of being weak, feeling week, or looking weak. And before you start thinking of society as some big bad overlord, the society is you and me.
When the famous Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade died of suicide, the world was in shock. Not because they died, but because people felt they had no bloody right to die like they did. He was so successful. He had it all, why would he kill himself? She had a perfect life, what’s wrong with some people? And on went the ignorant rants. We equate good life to material success. We don’t realize someone could be so rich and yet so sad at the same time. And so, we wake up every day, work our asses off towards achieving material possessions, having more money, getting the ‘perfect’ life, and in the process, we forget to live. Because we don’t have enough time for that. So we merely exist, and when we realize that existence has become worthless, we opt out. We take our own lives. Worse still, in this desperate pursuit of material life, we forget those closest to us. We forget to check on our friends and family, except when we need something from them. In our self-induced myopia, we fail to see when they are going through a rough patch, when their eyes and actions are loudly screaming for help, and then we feign shock when they die of suicide. Permit me to hold this thought for a moment,
Now, how do we feel about someone who’s depressed but won’t get help? Or has no means of getting help? What about someone who blames all his or her problems on someone else? Who emotionally terrorizes and blackmails the people he loves? Is that okay, too? Who do you fault when they end up dead? I’ve heard people say that those who die of suicide actually don’t want to die, they just want the pain to stop. But how does it get to that point?
There are people who will tell you, convincingly even, that depression is so dark that it blots out reason, perspective and all other survival mechanisms. And yes, that’s a fact. There are experts who will tell you suicide is rage turned inward: A desire to kill becomes a need to die. I’ve even read someone attempting to make a dark joke out of it. That suicide is man’s way of telling God that you can’t fire me. I quit.
This is what I will tell you: Suicide is the last word in an argument, maybe an argument you never even knew you were having. It is an unceremonious grand exit, one guaranteed to make everybody stop in their tracks, pay attention (momentarily) and feel bad. It is meant to be the last scene of the last act of life. Curtain down. Lights out. End of story.
Except it isn’t. It never is.
It’s a terrible failure of imagination. And maybe this brings me to one of the main reasons I decided to pen this piece.
Number one, we have to tackle the issue of parenting. Our parents, and parents in general, need help the most. They need a change of tune. We are a product of society, and that stems mainly from how we are brought up, the view of life our parents and guardians instill in us. The understanding of what we should aspire to and how our success should be defined. The understanding of what defines us as useful or useless members of the society and in the eyes of those we care about. Parents must stop instilling in their children a one narrow-sided view of life, one that they have to conform to otherwise they are deemed failures. A view of life mostly pegged on material prosperity as the ultimate definition of life’s value. We must expose our children to both sides of the coin. They have to know that in life there’s good and there’s bad, victories and false starts, disappointments and biting failures, smooth sails and ship-wrecking storms.
The more we are addicted to experiencing only support, ease, pleasure, positive and fantasy, the more likely our depression when trouble knocks, and the more likely that our daily life challenges will overwhelm us. But if we understand that life has both sides — support and challenge, ease and difficulty, pleasures and pains, positives and negatives, we’re less volatile and we’re less likely to be depressed. We have to stop raising our children to expect perfection from an imperfect world. The non-fictional world we live in has no space for our fictional expectations of it, and life doesn’t owe us a fulfillment of our fantasies of how it should be.
Secondly, and perhaps most important, is that we have to learn to be more kind. If we could look into each other’s hearts and understand the unique challenges each of us faces, we would treat each other much more gently, with more love, patience, tolerance and care. I’ve heard it said over and over, that everyone you meet is going through something you have no idea about, well hidden under the guise of ‘I’m fine’. So be kind. You may not necessarily solve the problem, but a little kindness goes a long way. In the man-eat-man society we live in, people often never look beyond their own interests, but we need to. We have to stop finding pleasure in bringing each other down. We need to.
Online behind your keyboards, and offline alike, at home, at work, at school, don’t treat people like trash, or children of a lesser god. Be kind. Always. In everything. To everyone. Especially the ‘strong’ ones. It costs absolutely nothing, and it could save a life and restore its sense of meaning. Most of those who die of suicide struggle with their mental health, and often they do it alone, oblivious to a world that probably thinks they are happy and they have everything going for them. So reach out to your friends, families, strangers. Check on them even when they insist all is well, when you can clearly see otherwise. Many are the problems in this world, and none of us can ever shoulder them alone. We all need each other. And the best part? Kindness has a ripple effect.
It would be an injustice if I failed to mention also that we have to remain true to ourselves, and stop going through the needless painful process of seeking validation from people. It’s you who hurt in the end. They say fake it till you make it. I say do what you can until you make it. And if you don’t make it, that’s still okay.
And now to conclude. What to do when you feel the world has let you down? When you feel dying is the only way out? What other option is there? Because here’s the fact. Anyone of us, right here, right now, when pushed to the wall, can have suicidal thoughts. But what do we do about them? What do we do when our problems have become too much to bear? Have a support system, an anchor.
Reach out to a friend, reach out to someone. It is easy to assume that in a selfish world, people are not capable of caring, but that’s not true. Someone out there cares, and can listen to you. You can always get some help unpacking your burdens. Invest in good productive friendships, not just ‘friends’. Ask yourself this, do you have even just one friend you can call right now if you were in some crisis and they would show up without an excuse? Do you have a friend who really knows you and knows exactly what’s going on in your life? Forget about the filtered version of it. Everything. Do you have any? If you don’t, then you have to do some review.
It’s easy to give advice and write about how people should handle what. But you never really know what someone is going through in their lives, or how bad it is. But what I’ll say is this. It’s okay to cry, to be weak, to be down. Whether man or woman, it’s okay to fail, or lack the strength to handle what life throws at you. It’s called being human. You can’t have it all figured out all the time. But what you can do, is sail through it all, and yes, that takes time. Won’t happen overnight. I have seen people overcome unimaginable tragedies, sail through life’s worst hurricanes, and that gives me the conviction to believe in the resilience of humanity, and of our very nature. So never give up hope.
And yes, some situations are hopeless. Some situations make you lose even faith. People go through unimaginable tragedies, life-shattering experiences that sometimes leave behind little desire to keep going. Little to live for. And in most cases, it’s impossible to even be empathic enough, to feel their pain enough and even be there enough for them. Sometimes it’s impossible to make them feel better. So yes, sometimes even hope can fail you. Even faith too can grow meagre no matter how strong-willed you are. And that’s okay, it’s only human. But the one thing that must never be lost is the resilience, the courage.
And no, courage does not always roar like a lion. Sometimes courage is the quiet little voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.” So no matter what, listen to that little voice. Always give yourself another shot tomorrow. After all, nothing is permanent in this world. Not even our troubles, and definitely not our suicidal thoughts. If you ever feel your sun has gone down, cry alright. But try your best not to let your tears blur your vision of the sky. Because up there somewhere in the dark sky, there is always a star. Or stars, or the moon. And then there will be dawn, and the sun will rise again. You can survive the night.
So yeah, life is a strange bird. But it’s still a bird, and it belongs in the sky. Don’t clip its wings. Keep flying.