I shared Words That Kill to my personal Facebook page and got unfriended over it. I don’t post much of my blogging or poetry to Facebook. (If you don’t want to follow here, I do share links to most posts on Twitter @bendts2cents, for your convenience.) But I wanted to post that one because I feel it’s life-or-death important that we recognize threats as abuse. And I think I should write a little more on just how and why the suicide threat is particularly nasty.
First, I want to say that I have several close friends and family members who live with depression and have battled, even attempted, suicide. And not one of them uses their mental illness as a cudgel to browbeat other people. Not one of them is violent or dangerous or controlling to other people. I really, really, despise the narrative that mental illness causes violence, abuse, mass shootings, etc. It doesn’t. And I love these people who suffer and struggle dearly. Depression is a nasty demon and I strive to be the best friend/relative I can be for people in it’s grip. I’m always here if you need someone to talk to.
BUT no matter how mentally ill someone is I have every right to healthy and appropriate boundaries. So do you. So does everyone else. It isn’t my place to make anyone better or fix someone or force my suggestions or solutions on anyone. I’m happy to offer suggestions for anyone who wants them but after that it’s up to them. Dehumanizing someone already beaten down by depression is not going to help them in the slightest. Respect for their humanity and agency and intelligence and needs might.
NOW, back to the suicide threat. What makes this particularly nasty is that it gives the person hearing this threat exactly two options. They can acquiesce to it and let it manipulate them or they can, in one way or another, see it as a threat rather than a cry for help and behave accordingly. If they take this second option the abuser will still use it to paint them as a “bad,” cold-hearted, evil person. When this threat is used it guarantees that the person using it grabs and keeps all the power in the relationship. No matter what the other person does, no matter how careful or compassionate they are, they will lose. Suddenly the relationship is a game of no-compromise, all-out competition for control.
SO, here’s how I felt when I heard those words, “It would be easier to die!” I felt genuine fear and concern for his health and safety. This was someone I cared about. I felt guilty and dirty and bad for having dared to arrange this meeting, for having called in help, for having shared my own needs and feelings. I felt used. I was his emotional and spiritual crutch for a long time before this, something he relied on to prop himself up rather than someone he related with. I felt scared for my own, and my family’s, safety. Suicide is one step from murder-suicide. And this is a leading cause of death for American women. We die at alarming rates from the hands of the men who are supposed to be our partners. I felt confused and bewildered. I had thought we were going to have a conversation about communication problems but suddenly it was entirely derailed into another conversation about his issues, cleverly keeping the focus well away from the real issues I was having in the relationship. I left in tears. I cried the whole way home. And I knew that he was right, in a way, that someone or something was going to die. That’s how those threats work. I took what scraps of agency I had left and let it be the relationship that died. I cried my whole way home. Then I began contacting friends for support and devising safety plans.
To the man who spoke those words: These words literally killed the relationship. They killed something inside me. And they killed something inside you, whether you know it or not. The words we use matter and how we use them matters. You used those words as knife to my throat, promising that if I didn’t go along with your program someone would die. These are words of death and hate and hopelessness and power-over and control. And they hurt. They cut right through my heart. Remember, I couldn’t staunch the tears after you spoke them. But then, you didn’t even look at me. It was all about you. It was a relationship of one and only one, a relationship with no room for me to be my own whole, healthy human being created in the image of God.
And to the man who unfriended me for writing about this: Yes, I am a cruel, heartless person who chose her own life and health and safety. To quote a therapist I know, “he has a right to commit suicide.” And to paraphrase a wise older man I know, “suicide is a shame and there’s help available but it’s his choice.” And that’s the thing, if it really is easier for him to die I have no right to make his decision for him. And I have every right to insist on my own boundaries and safety. And every right to all my feelings and confusion about the threat itself.
Now, I should point out that context matters. This threat came at a crisis moment in a relationship that already had several major redflags for lethal violence. I was already feeling completely worn out and sucked dry by his neediness and manipulation and crazymaking. That was the background to being there for that conversation in the first place. If a friend confided to me that they were struggling with depression or suicidal thoughts I would have had an entirely different response. That’s another post on it’s own. The thing is that when someone suddenly has mental health issues to avoid responsibility for their actions or to distract from their bullshit and abuse it’s just another piece in the puzzle of violence and manipulation. People who love you aren’t going to try to make you responsible for their hurting you or for their feelings.
I want to leave off with two suggestions for those who might need them: