16 October 2021: Empathic Suicide
A Book Review: How Animals Mate, by Daniel Mueller
*Trigger-Warning: this post describes my experiences with suicide – both fictional and real. If suicide is a trigger for you, please consider not reading this post.
**Disclaimer: I do not, nor have I ever, had suicidal ideations.
The other day was the first time I was conscious of a book drowning me in a whirlpool of emotions.
After a long day, I promised myself that I would set aside all social media and screen distractions to finish reading my book: How Animals Mate, by Daniel Mueller. Mueller is another one of the creative writing instructors at UNM, and I felt compelled to read his book to learn the style and possible expectations of me, should I enter UNM’s creative writing MFA program.
The book’s stories are all bleak. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; I’m not opposed to reading some very dark shit. It sits well with my psyche, calls to my darker nature, and brings me a sour kind of joy.
The problem was that the two stories I read that night, “Ice Breaking” and “Birds,” both end in double-suicides. And the very last suicide, in “Birds,” is about a girl, Amanda, who is trying to make it as a poet, but none of her poems get picked up for publication. One thing leads to another, and – Amanda throws herself in front of oncoming traffic.
Earlier that day, I’d sent ten of my poems out to a handful of publications for consideration. Thus, Amanda’s situation struck far too close to home for me. In that moment, as I was inside her head, and as I was in the same vulnerable place as Amanda, her decision to commit suicide seemed likely. Reasonable. Rational.
And Amanda’s choice sucked me down…down…
I set down the book and wandered restlessly around the kitchen island. Suddenly, I didn’t want anything. I didn’t want to be on social media. I didn’t want to listen to YouTube videos. I couldn’t force myself to finish the book. I was having difficulty talking to the kids. I didn’t want to sleep. I couldn’t eat. Nothing would satisfy the molten inferno at my core.
I realize it now. It is my empathy that absorbs others’ emotions. It was my empathy for fictional Amanda that made me anxious, unable to stop moving, unable to sleep, and left me frantically texting my bestie for emotional consolation. And I realize, also, the second suicide in the previous story, “Ice Breaking,” was motivated by empathy as much as Amanda’s was. Mueller’s stories illustrate a concept: suicidal empathy.
This – empathy – for the depressive suicidal state…my bestie and I discussed it the other day. Her family is reeling from her nephew’s suicide. He was only 17. I told her on the phone, “You need to wrap your love around your nephew’s younger siblings because there’s something about being so close to suicide. It engenders more suicide.” This family lost their 17-year-old; but their 15 and 13-year-old are so close to that…and…empathy.
I’ve seen it before, too. One of my closest friends from high school committed suicide in her early twenties by placing a gun to her head. It was her third attempt. Her mother struggled with depression and suicidal ideations as she and her sisters were growing up, and it is my understanding that her mother attempted suicide multiple times as well. Her younger sister also committed suicide. It’s facile to chock all this up to some genetic trait, but the truth is, I believe it is as much a product of empathy as genetics. Would my friend’s sister have attempted suicide if her mother hadn’t attempted it first? And would she have attempted it, had she not been so emotionally close to her sister’s suicide?
Perhaps people don’t understand empathy the way that I do…empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is attempting to understand someone from your own point of view. It’s often associated with feelings of pity. Empathy, on the other hand, is walking in someone else’s shoes. For me, empathy involves becoming that person for a moment. It involves experiencing their experiences, feeling their emotions, thinking their thoughts. Thus, when I read Amanda’s story, I became Amanda. When Amanda chose to step out in front of traffic, waving to people across the street to make it seem like an accident, I made that decision with her.
…after that, just as I was about to lay my head on my pillow to sleep, you’ll never guess what happened: I received the first email rejection of my poetry.
But it was OK at that point. My bestie had reminded me about the light of life, and I knew I would not drown in darkness. She had also reminded me that this is the beginning of something amazing: my becoming a writer. No one succeeds without rejection. This rejection meant that I was finally taking concrete steps toward my goal.
I cannot over-emphasize the value of a good friend who understands your mind and who is there in your darkest moments to remind you of the light – and throw you a life preserver.
I also cannot over-emphasize the power of empathy – for the bad, but also for the good.
Hug your people. Tell your friends you love them, today and every day.
…and maybe steer clear of this book if you’re a vulnerable empath.