The Mystery of Suicide
How does a person with talent to spare and a deep, sincere love for his family decide to end it all?
Hey y’all – It’s Tim in for JVL today as he travels cross country for the Bulwark Live events this week.
For L.A. on Thursday:
For Seattle on Saturday:
See you there!
In the JVL spirit, I have a guest Triad that is a little dreary. I’d love to read perspectives, insights, and other essays on this topic in the comments, but please be respectful.
1. The Depression Continuum
Atypical depression is familiar, at times even cozy. It’s the days you can’t quite bring yourself to get out of bed. The sinking feeling in your stomach. The Sunday scaries. Gorging on ice cream straight from the tub. Laying in the fetal position next to the fire, trying in vain to warm your core. The words and the feelings and signposts are graspable for any human being with the most modest EQ. It even has its own color: the deepest blue.
Situational depression is brutal but comprehensible. It results from the disastrous life choice that catches up or the bad luck that is thrust upon you. Having to face a spouse and kids whose world is about to change after an investment goes belly up or a paramour is revealed. Dread over going into the office after you showed your ass at the holiday party. A lifetime walk of shame for submarining regular people’s savings with your pilfering. Crippling postpartum ennui. Lovesickness. Coping with the loss of a family member to an act of God or man.
These are the types of feelings or situations that are called to mind, for most of us, when we hear about depression. It’s what we know firsthand, or at least what we can wrap our head around.
So when someone writes about a “long and courageous battle with depression,” we process that idea through the prism of how we manage our own despair, and we presume their battle, while more severe, is somewhere on the continuum that is familiar to us.
But the reality is certain types of depression exist on a plane that’s entirely different from the one we inhabit. They are all-consuming, chronic, and irrational. A thief that robs at random. An intrusive image, a deathwish that floods your mind without warning. It is not sated by the covers or the comfort food. It persists, even when it lies dormant. It is so inexpiable that it can lead someone with boundless talent, widely admired, to do something unthinkable just to make it stop.
The difference between that person’s experience and ours is vast. It makes processing suicides like that of Blake Hounshell practically impossible. And yet we are called to try.
2. On Suicide
Many tributes have been written already to Blake’s talent, his wit, his ravenous consumption of information, his passion for human rights, his lovable mischievousness. They’ve touted his skill as an editor, a talent scout, and a chef.
But there is one element of his story that I just haven’t been able to get out of my mind in the week since his passing: Blake the father.
Some people wear the love of their kids on their sleeves, and Blake was one of those people. Last June I was delighted and rather floored when he came to cover my book event with his kids in tow. This is not really the M.O. in D.C., a town where careerism enabled by professional childcare is the norm. I can count with the fingers on one, maybe two hands the number of times a male colleague has brought his kid to a “grown-up” political event. When it’s happened, it has always made me appreciate them more. They must be one of the good ones, I’ve thought to myself—the softies with those dadly virtues.
At the party in June, our kids glommed onto each other and played, running amid the slacks and skirts, commandeering the front lawn. The next day during a lunch interview, Blake was giddy as he gave me the play-by-play of their interactions that I missed while kibitzing inside. Olivia Nuzzi recounted Blake smiling that day as he encountered his kids in the kitchen, eating ice cream at the counter.
This wasn’t a one-off. His neighbor, Aaron Kissel, said Blake just “beamed” watching his kids. “The honest joy he had as a father was infectious, beautiful and inspiring. Blake, in those moments, was fatherhood as it is meant to be,” he wrote. This fatherly instinct extended to other kids. My friend C.J. recalled that he never failed to ask about his own son. Another colleague said Blake was “especially kind to the children he interacted with, always willing to trade quips.”
In processing Blake’s death, I went to his various social media feeds to try to spark more memories, and I was reminded that he was the kind of dad who would recount the precocious, silly, anodyne musings of his kids on Facebook without any contrivance or performative BS.
February 6th: Astrid: “Daddy, I don’t think I can clean my room today. I bumped my head on the sink and cleaning my room would make it feel worse.”
December 14th: Astrid: “I wish people had six fingers.”
March 22nd: Astrid: “My worst enemies are mosquitoes. And also leprechauns.”
November 3rd: Astrid: “How do you spell, ‘David can you please stop bothering me?’”
October 2nd: David to Astrid: “Do you like this picture I drew? It’s Gandhi.”
Astrid: “Not really.”
His posts go on like that, sharing his childrens’ bon mots and wisdom every few weeks, year after year, delighting Blake and, at times, his friends—but let’s be honest, mostly Blake.
Reflecting on this part of his life is what most makes me wish I could hug him, and it’s also what most makes me want to scream. Because if all you know about depression is the manageable atypical kind or the weatherable situational kind, then it just makes no goddamn sense that someone who loved their kids that fully, that openly, could do something like this to them.
It might seem ill-mannered to say it so plainly, to them, but how can we achieve anything remotely close to understanding or learn how we might help others dealing with the same trauma without staring straight at the reality of it all? Without accepting that others in our lives, people who also seem to have so much tenderness to give, might be suffering in the same fashion?
His kids—those beautiful, beloved little creatures with everything in front of them, every milestone—are now going to journey through life without him. What type of pain could lead a man to accept that?
In On Suicide, Enlightenment philosopher David Hume wrote that “no man ever threw away life while it was worth keeping.”
I fucking hate that sentence so much that I want to spit it out. It offends my every sensibility. It is an affront to Blake and to every person who had so much worth keeping. And it is an affront to the only things I am certain are true about the world: that life is precious and the future is unknowable.
But in the course of Hume’s rhetorical assault on a belief in life’s fundamental sanctity, he shows a subtler understanding of the suicidal mindset, one that I revisited as I tried to comprehend how Blake and others with such promise can be driven to such an act:
“Anyone who, without apparent reason, has had recourse to [suicide], was cursed with such an incurable depravity or gloominess of temper as must poison all enjoyment, and render him equally miserable as if he had been loaded with the most grievous misfortune.” (Emphasis mine.)
“Equally miserable as if he had been loaded with the most grievous misfortune” is a notion that pulls suicidal depression down from that unknowable, incomprehensible plane and puts it back into our continuum. While it may still be different in kind or cause from more familiar kinds of depression, it gives rise to a mindset that is not actually all that different from that of a person whose depression was thrust upon them by tragedy, because as far as the afflicted is concerned, they are experiencing tragedy. Put another way, suicidal depression tricks the mind into thinking that the type of pain caused by their death already exists in life. Or as David Foster Wallace wrote of people who leapt to their deaths from the burning World Trade Center towers: “When the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors.”
That’s the kind of torment you wouldn’t wish on anyone, least of all someone with a heart like Blake’s. It’s devastating to think he and so many others are experiencing something like that away from the rest of our field of vision. He will be sorely missed.
Colleagues of Blake at The New York Times & POLITICO organized a GoFundMe for his wife, Sandy Choi, and his two young children, David and Astrid.
Support the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention: https://theactionalliance.org/donate
3. VA Takes Action on Veteran Suicides
Official estimates indicate there are 17 veteran suicides per day in America, a horrifying rolling tragedy in our country with no end in sight. That data might even be low because of undercounting deaths from drug overdose.
Well this week the Biden administration implemented legislation that advocates for veterans have long called for: providing free treatment for vets in suicidal crisis.
The VA already provides emergency suicide care, but with the new benefit, veterans will not have to pay any copays or fees for their care. If the veterans receive care at a private facility rather than at a VA facility, the government will cover the costs. The VA will also reimburse veterans for ambulance rides to hospitals.
“Veterans in suicidal crisis can now receive the free, world-class emergency health care they deserve — no matter where they need it, when they need it, or whether they’re enrolled in VA care,” VA Secretary Denis McDonough said in a statement. “This expansion of care will save Veterans’ lives, and there’s nothing more important than that.”
The VA has about 9 million veterans enrolled in medical care and an estimated 9 million more who are not enrolled and are potentially eligible for care. Under the new policy they will be eligible for the same care at no cost.
The VA reported that 6,146 veterans died by suicide in 2020, or an average of 16.8 per day. While that number was 343 fewer than in 2019, suicide and veterans in crisis remain the VA’s top clinical priority.
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