Thursday, June 25, 2009

Talking about suicide

Elizabeth Zelvin

Suicide is a highly charged topic that a lot of people are afraid to talk about, but that affects more of us than anyone would wish: 32,637 in the United States in 2005, according to the statistics at Real or apparent suicide is one of the staples of crime fiction: to disguise murder, mistaken for murder or accidental death, or as a killer’s way out on being apprehended. I’ve chosen to use a chronically suicidal character in my forthcoming mystery, Death Will Help You Leave Him, to carry a major subplot and support the theme of addictive relationships.

More than half of all suicides use firearms, and the state with the highest suicide rate is Alaska, where the winter nights are long, the days even in summer often gray, and depression and substance abuse flourish. My books are set in New York City, and I don’t write about gun-carrying cops or private eyes. As a mental health professional, I do write about depression and other mental health conditions, alcoholism and other addictions, and dysfunctional families in which violence and more subtle forms of abuse may flourish.

The suicidal character in Death Will Help You Leave Him is Bruce’s ex-wife, Laura. Without spelling out the backstory too much in the book itself, I’ve given Laura both bipolar disorder (what used to be called manic depressive disorder) and borderline personality disorder, which make her emotionally labile (in plain English, on an emotional roller coaster all the time) and terrified, on an unconscious level, of being abandoned. Laura uses pills, illegal drugs, and sex to medicate her moods. That was fine with Bruce when he was abusing drugs and alcohol himself. But when he gets sober, he can see how self-destructive Laura is. You’d think he’d drop her like a hotcake. But of course, he doesn’t, or where would my story be?

When I say that Bruce is addicted to Laura, I mean that sexual chemistry and an attraction to her dramatic ups and downs keep him hooked, and wanting more, against his better judgment. Laura has found a boyfriend who gives her an equivalent “high” by being emotionally and sometimes physically abusive. She’s hooked into him, but she doesn’t want to let Bruce go. On an unconscious level, she is so terrified of being alone that she has to hang on to anyone she connects with. As Bruce discovers, divorce is irrelevant in this relationship.

To get back to suicide, or let’s say suicidality (which includes ideation—thoughts—as well as gestures and attempts that fail), the way Laura keeps Bruce on the hook is by threatening to kill herself. This is a well established pattern that began long before we first met Bruce in Death Will Get You Sober. She calls him up in the middle of the night, tells him she has a plan and the equipment to carry it out (in her case, a razor and a bucket of water), and convinces him that if he doesn’t come rushing to the rescue, she’ll die—and it will be all his fault. This is powerful emotional blackmail.

I won’t tell you how the situation between Bruce and Laura turns out. (No spoilers here—you’ll have to read the book.) But I will say that nobody is responsible for another person’s suicide. There is nothing more cruel and unfair than saying, “It’s all your fault,” and making that the final message to those who love the person who chooses to die. As a therapist, I’ve seen plenty of pain and suffering caused by survivors’ erroneous belief that they are to blame.


Sheila Connolly said...

Sad. My husband was talking just yesterday about a colleague who killed himself. He was a Texan and always carried a gun, and one day he used it on himself. None of his friends could figure it out--they hadn't seen any signs.

You hint at an interesting point: there are addicts who crave an intensity of emotion, whether it is through sex or anger or danger, but they may also be the ones who self-medicate to dull that craving or minimize the intensity. There must be a lot of internal tension there.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Good points on a heavy subject. Thanks....

Mystery Writing is Murder

Mrs. Kravitz said...

Once had a suffocating boyfriend who threatened to kill himself if I broke up with him. He didn't. But even if he had, it would have been HIS hand that did the deed (he was a cop) and his body that died.

Instead, two weeks later, he married someone else! ROFL?