As I have wrestled with suicidal thoughts over the years, I have learned to remind myself again and again that there is no romance in ending my own life. Every chance I get, I want to reaffirm to the suicidal that this life is worth living for. It will get better! God bless all of you, my friends, who wrestle with this vicious demon of depression.
Please be advised: this is an unusually graphic post including a crime scene photograph, and other gory details of suicide.
They published your diary
And that’s how I got to know you
The key to the room of your own
And a mind without end
And here’s a young girl
On a kind of a telephone line through time
And the voice at the other end
Comes like a long lost friend
Read more: Indigo Girls – Virginia Woolf Lyrics | MetroLyrics
I met her in the fall of my senior year in college, a forest of trees ablaze in my manic brain. I didn’t know I was manic, and I didn’t know she was either. But I knew she was a friend to me like I had never known before.
But wait: there was another: senior year in high school. I fell in love with a young woman going mad over wall paper, inventing a world with no men. If she were alive, I would have hunted her down. Jack thought a world without men sounded nuts. Crazy talk. I thought she was genius.
After I was diagnosed, I became obsessed with them all. I felt close to them in a way I could only feel to someone who shared the bests and worsts of my illness. They were mad, and bright, and genius, and beautiful. They were misunderstood and shocked and psychotherapized and abandoned and written off. Still, they were a special class of genius.
I was hunting down the full set of Virginia’s diaries one day in a mega book store. I already possessed every word Sylvia had written, absorbed it, worshiped it. I was standing in the book store musing about just how fantastic my literary friends were: Sylvia, Charlotte, Virginia, Hemmingway, Sexton . . . How much I felt a part of a secret club, this puffed up lithium girl trying to find a reason.
And then, like an arrow shooting through fog, Truth stopped me in my tracks. I stood dead still and shot through as one, single sentence changed my trajectory,
BUT THEY’RE ALL DEAD.
Virginia filled her pockets with rocks and walked into the River Ouse near her home. He body was found days later.
Sylvia prepared breakfast for her children, sealed their bedroom off as they slept, and stuck her head in the oven.
Charlotte overdosed on chloroform, choosing “chloroform over cancer.”
Hemingway shot himself with his favorite shot gun.
Sexton drank a glass of vodka and started her car in the garage.
The list of creative geniuses who died by their own hands is astoundingly long. 94 artists pop up when you enter “Artists who committed suicide” in Wikipedia. 310 names appear when you enter “Writers who committed suicide” on Wikipedia. Three hundred and ten.
I discovered something else truly horrifying while researching for this piece:
CRIME SCENE PHOTOGRAPHS.
Yes, that is Sylvia dead with her head in the oven. Suicides notes and details are initially controlled by the sheriff or medical examiner, since all unnatural deaths must be investigated. Under the Freedom of Information Act–except in Washington and Ohio–these notes and details may very well end up in the hands of the press. For more information about this, see Slate.com.
As the details about Sylvia’s death were made public,
[Her ex-husband Ted] Hughes wrote to A. Alvarez [who wrote the first account of Plath’s death in The Savage God] of his frustration of the outlining the details of Plath’s death, which he didn’t want their children to know: “now you have defined the whole thing, and handed it to the public. In a real way, you have robbed them of her death, of any natural way of dealing with her death. This will add up through every year they live.” – See more at: http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2009/03/sylvia-plaths-s.html#sthash.YSfAs8HI.dpuf. Also see the article Ted, Sylvia, and Me at www.theguardian.com.
And, it did add up through every year they lived. Her son Nicholas, just one year old at his mother’s death, hanged himself 46 years later. To read more on this, see Nicholas Hughes, Sylvia Plath’s Son, Commits Suicide. Below is a picture of Sylvia holding baby Nicholas.
Children or teens who lose a parent are three times more likely to die of suicide, according to the May 2010 Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatyr (reported on by Hopkin’s Children’s Hospital. “Losing a parent to suicide at an early age emerges as a catalyst for suicide and psychiatric disorders,” says lead investigator Holly C. Wilcox, Ph.D., a psychiatric epidemiologist at Hopkins Children’s (www.hopkinschildrens.org).
All of the beautiful pictures of Sylvia’s life, all of the creative genius is undeniably tainted by these gory and tragic remembrances.
And please do not misunderstand me as I write this: I do not judge Sylvia and the others. They lived in eras in which psychology, psychiatry, and pharmacology were at best experimental nightmares for the mentally ill. They were shocked, poisoned, wrongly prescribed, and written off. They, in many ways, served as the guinea pigs for modern psychiatry.
They believed what they were doing was right and fair for those around them. Virginia wrote to her husband in her suicide note:
Dearest, I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that—everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.
But this is what I had to ask myself that day in the book store:
ARE YOU GOING TO CONTINUE TO ROMANTICIZE YOUR DEAD FRIENDS, OR SEE THEM IN CONTEXT?
ARE YOU GOING TO REALIZE THAT FILLING YOUR HEAD AND SPIRIT WITH THEIR IDEAS WILL LEAD TO THE SAME PLACES THEY ENDED UP: as bloated corpse floating in the river, as skull blown to bloody bits about the living room, as corpse in heels with head in the oven, as corpse in a car enveloped by poison gas, as corpse hanging from the rafters, bowels given way, rotting . . . with pictures smacked across the internet? Are you willing to leave your children, spouse, parents, siblings, nieces and nephews and cousins haunted by a legacy of death?
That’s what mental illness did to these friends of mine in an age where there was little to save them. Mental illness ravaged their own lives, haunts their legacies, and clings to their families. But we can stop it. At least, we can try our damndest.
So, that day in the bookstore, I said goodbye to Sylvia. I walked out without Virginia’s diaries with a new purpose: to find those who are fighting these demons, who persist at surviving. Their names include Kay Redfield Jamison , Marya Hornbacher, Terri Cheney, and John Nash, among many others.
Since that fateful day in the bookstore twelve years ago, I persist on living. And I am still here.
So, goodbye, Sylvia. I will honor you by living every breath God gives me as sanely as possible.