Columns > Published on October 14th, 2015

The Grim Specter of Writer Suicide

With Halloween fast approaching, our thoughts tend to gravitate toward ghosts, monsters, slasher villains and all the other things that terrify us. In the spirit of the holiday, I’d like to take a look at one of the scariest demons that continues to prey on us in the real world: suicide. Available statistics tell us that it claims a body count of over a million every year, about one every forty seconds, which means at least two people will have ended their own lives before I finish typing this sentence. It’s also quite likely that both of them were writers, as we are twice as prone to the myriad mental disorders that facilitate these acts of finality. Sadly, that last part is probably the least surprising. Anyone who suffers from depression, or knows someone who does, will readily recognize that the sensitivity, moodiness and obsession that are hallmarks of the disease also overlap with what has traditionally been labeled “the artistic temperament.”

Why is that? The Atlantic and The New York Times have produced some well-written and thoroughly researched articles on the relationship between suicide and authors, and if you just want the facts, the folks at the Karolinska Institute and the American Suicide Foundation have done exhaustive studies. What it boils down to is this: the tendency to dwell on darkness and fixate upon what’s wrong is a key ingredient for both suicide and literature. There’s also the fact that choosing a creative career path means committing yourself to an external locus of self-worth—if others do not appreciate your creative efforts, it  can be very difficult to make a decent living, and very easy to conclude that you, in turn, are worthless.

The tendency to dwell on darkness and fixate upon what’s wrong is a key ingredient for both suicide and literature.

I wrote my first suicide note when I was fifteen years old. It’s pretty easy to dismiss that as the simple melodrama of being a teenager, but I didn’t do it as a cry for help or even attention. I never showed it to anyone or even hinted at its existence. It was after a graphically violent story I had written (poorly timed just before the Columbine massacre) had earned me some very negative attention from my parents, my peers, and my school. The adults in my life opened an investigation into what was “wrong” with me, and I was sentenced to endless waves of analysis by counselors and psychiatrists all trying to determine how much of a threat I was and when I would go off. Regardless of their findings, the reputation of the crazy and dangerous kid was one that stuck to me for the rest of high school. Not only did this make me feel worthless, but also broken and defective, like I was a thing that shouldn’t exist. At that point, I became convinced, with a certainty I have never known about anything else in my life, that my story would ultimately end in suicide. It is the one conviction I have never wavered from. I still keep my final words in a hidden file, updating them whenever things get particularly bleak, just in case.

But suicide is not the exclusive domain of the unsuccessful. Ernest Hemingway, Hunter S. Thompson, and more recently, Robin Williams, all took their own lives despite the immense success and respect that their bodies of work enjoyed. Even if you weren’t a fan, there’s no arguing that their works were seen and discussed by millions of people, which is the best a creative can hope for. When these tragedies happen, the collective discussion always follows the same, unhelpful path: all variety of uninformed speculations get tossed about until we throw up our collective hands and shout “WHY?” Unfortunately, this is the point where the larger discussion about suicide and what causes it is abandoned in favor of less-depressing news, usually with the conclusion that it was just a sad inevitability that no one could have prevented. Society is all too quick to let itself off the hook rather than confront a confusing and terrifying problem it has no idea how to handle.

When I was in college, two of my classmates killed themselves. Both of them were students in the creative writing program. I was very nearly the third. This time, there were no external factors contributing to my melancholy. Things were going well—my writing was praised and respected by my professors and peers, I had a close group of friends, and I was a popular DJ with a residency at a local night club and a radio show. To an outside observer, it appeared I had very little to be depressed about, and yet I still was. That voice that had been nagging me since I was fifteen raised its volume, warning me that it wouldn’t last, that things would never be this good again, so I better punch out before it all went downhill. One night I partook of a wide variety of substances in unsafe amounts and wound up getting my stomach pumped. I laughed it off, telling concerned friends it was accident; that I had simply “partied too hard.” They believed me, because why would I try to kill myself? But to be honest, waking up to find I had survived a night of wild abandon that should have killed Keith Richards was nothing but a disappointment. I hadn’t planned on ever doing that again. That’s the scary thing about suicide—it doesn’t have to make any kind of sense.

For those of you who can’t even fathom ending your own existence, I’ll try an analogy. Surely you’ve all had a song get stuck in your head. It can be irritating, especially if it’s a song you hate. Suppose this terrible song drills into your brain and never goes away. Nothing you do will dislodge it; it’s on a loop 24/7, for weeks, months, years. It’s the first thing that goes through your head in the morning, and you dream about it at night. Sometimes you’ll even find yourself starting to hum it, or tap out the rhythm on your desk before you catch yourself. Every other song, even your all-time favorite jam, now sounds like shit because that terrible ear-worm is always playing in the background. If you try to drown it out, your brain just turns up the volume. Your inability to free yourself from this nuisance is a source of constant frustration, and that feeling will begin to seep into every other area of your life, until you are unable to enjoy anything due to this tune’s unending intrusion. That’s how suicidal thoughts work—they sap life of its pleasures and magnify its problems until you’re willing to do anything to make it stop. Everything makes you think about killing yourself; every time you pick up a sharp object or stand too close to a ledge your brain hollers “THIS IS OUR CHANCE! LET’S GO!” In Darkness Visible, William Styron describes how even the pull-strings on the blinds begin to resemble nooses. Ignoring it is a full-time job, and not in the “40 hours a week” sense, but more in the “every second of every day” sense. Many sufferers do not “choose” to commit suicide; they are simply too exhausted to resist it anymore.

After college, I had difficulty finding well-paid work (like many writers) and had to move back in with my parents. I spent two years bartending, working retail and security gigs while writing articles and trying to finish my novel on the side. Despite my efforts, my life seemed to lack any forward momentum and my hopelessness grew to Brobdingnagian proportions. When I confessed this to my parents, they immediately set me up with professional help and paid for the many medications I was prescribed. While this was enough to get me out of bed and acting like a human being for most of the day, I once again started plotting to kill myself. The only reason I didn’t do so immediately was because I did not want my family to come home to my corpse. I didn’t want to hurt them like that. So I started saving all my money towards moving out, with the idea that if I executed my plan as intended, they would only know that I had disappeared one day, until they finally stumbled across the note hidden on my computer. But then I met a wonderful woman who threw a monkey wrench into that plan by making me fall in love. Curiously, while I did not want to continue to live, I did want to spend all the time I could with her, and I have ever since. That would make a nice ending to the story, but in real life there are no “happily ever afters.” Even though love has kept me from committing suicide, I still think about it every day, and am no less certain that eventually, I will. Sadly, having a reason not to kill yourself is not the same as having a reason to live. If you have a loved one you fear may be suicidal, reminding them how much you care about them can help, just understand that it’s a crutch, not a cure. Demonstrate how much they mean to you. Don’t just tell them they matter and life is worth living. They can get a complete stranger to say that over the phone 24/7. If you don’t show some effort, that will only reinforce the notion that they are not worth it.

Normally this would be the part of the article where I start offering solutions for the problem I’m examining. Unfortunately, if I had any of those, there would be no need to write this article. There would be no need for a suicide hotline, or a National Suicide Prevention Week, and a “suicide watch” would just be another antiquated term that was known only to academics. The fact is, there’s no cure. The treatments we have are stabs in the dark that are sometimes effective, but “results may vary” is not a phrase you want to see on a product your life may depend upon. Most antidepressants actually increase the volume of suicidal thoughts during the week or two it takes them to get into your system. Which is not to say you shouldn’t use any and all of those things if you are having serious difficulty fighting the urge to die—a pointy stick may not be an ideal weapon against a grizzly bear, but it’s still better than your fists. My point is that we still understand so very little about such an incredibly dangerous thing. My hope is that I have raised your awareness by even the slightest degree, so that the next time a friend, family member, or famous writer ends their own life, instead of wringing our hands and asking “Why?”, we can skip straight to asking “How do we stop this?” That is the question that needs an answer.

About the author

BH Shepherd is a writer and a DJ from Texas. He graduated from Skidmore College in 2005 with degrees in English and Demonology after writing a thesis about Doctor Doom. A hardcore sci-fi geek, noir junkie and comic book prophet, BH Shepherd has spent a lot of time studying things that don’t exist.  He currently resides in Austin, where he is working on The Greatest Novel Ever.

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