• The Superlative of All Alone Is All

    Jaxxon rests his hand on his father’s urn, a glossy black hole with a gold stripe, closer to the window than to his son, whose tattooed arm leads out of frame. His father, Bruno, had suffered setbacks, and after the loss of Jaxxon’s mother, took his own life. That left Jaxxon to raise his younger brother, and also to face transitioning into the trans man that he is without the support of his parents.

    Jacob has a tattoo on his forearm reading “Boys do cry.” He says it is there to remind himself that no one is strong all the time, that men, too, can suffer depression. Jacob felt he had to write it himself in order to see it, because the message has been deleted from our broader society.

    Georgie Wileman’s new photo series is named for the tat: “Boys do cry: Men, Depression, and Suicide.” A British photographer now based in New York, Wileman began the project when she learned of the high male suicide rate in the US today. Men are three and a half times more likely to die by suicide than women, and overall the annual number of suicides in the country has climbed to 48,000.

    I am writing this from NYC, in March/April 2020, where the COVID-19 numbers are some of the highest in the country.

    The last day I did anything social or rode the subway was when I met Georgie Wileman at a café chosen for its equidistance from our Brooklyn apartments — to talk about these photographs. That was March 5. Straight blond hair, deliberate manner. Freckles half-hiding under delicate face powder.

    She told me the poses were collaborative. Wileman herself has PTSD and shared with her subjects aspects of her own experience of depression. She asked the men to show the physical rituals they use when getting through the really hard times. When she explained to me, as she had with them, that her own rituals include biting her fist, she balled up her hand and closed her teeth on it.

    The men spoke to Wileman of their solitude, isolated by past trauma, by poverty, by lack of work commensurate to their skills, or by depression itself. Looking at the photos, I said, “Blue, they’re all blue.” She allowed that they were and laughed, saying that she’d noticed that and pushed back against it at first feeling that artistically “it’s too typical” but eventually had to concede to reality — she’d found the men in blue-walled rooms, wearing blue clothes, blue bedding, blue curtain. It’s the blue truth.

    Wileman told me the men’s stories of depression and I told her of my long-medicated melancholia as well. I haven’t written about that in prose. My book Stay tells the history of suicide, in both acts and opinions, and highlights the great arguments against taking one’s own life in despair. Through history and in today’s statistics isolation is a key factor in understanding vulnerability to suicide. The largest category of suicides across age, race, and gender is older white men. This is partly explained by the surprising fact that nearly two-thirds of gun deaths in the US are suicides — and it’s men who use guns, while women attempt suicide more but use less fast and fatal methods. But the other key factor is emotional isolation.

    Compared to women, men are slow to seek profession help. Men are less likely to share troubles with a friend as well. A recent study reported in the British Journal of Clinical Psychology included the finding that when severely depressed, the likelihood of a women seeking out someone to talk to about it was 67% compared to only 55% for men. And just as isolating can be dangerous for people who struggle with depression, it can lead to depression in the otherwise well.

    How is that going to play out in a pandemic? There’s been tragic sadness in recent months due to loss and loneliness, and it’s obvious there will be more.

    It is not obvious that suicide rates have to spike. Counterintuitive as it may be, suicide rates tend to decline in times of war and financial collapse. It seems that communally shared disasters are protective against suicide. Interviews with women after World War II are full of nostalgia for the “make do and mend” aesthetic of the era. The pressure towards competition palpably relaxed, and a pressure to be simple and of use arose, which many found a nicer way to spend this life.

    The great arguments against taking one’s own life in despair are that you don’t realize how much it would hurt the people around you, and that if you give your future self a chance to exist, he or she may be glad you did. Because of the finality of death, it is an illusion to try to escape life, to “escape” you have to somehow survive. The only place to get better is here, with us.

    I knew a lot of people would yell at me for contravening the atheist dogma that having lost God it is now our quintessential right to kill ourselves. Sociologists and epidemiologists have different rubrics, but it’s suggested that at least some 30 percent of suicides are people who have not been suffering long-term depression but were instead responding to a loss or humiliation within three months, often also compromised by drugs and alcohol. Some of these people would have chosen not to die that way, if you could go back in time and ask them.

    So why not invite people to set up at least the small protection of making a firm decision not to let your worst mood kill all your others? Why not notice how much it hurts when someone kills themselves and agree, as a public health measure, to consider it if/when suicide feels seductive? If teaching a bit of philosophy to undergraduates, maybe stop saying that rationalism means suicide is each person’s individual right.

    I’m a poet as well as a historian and I first wrote about this in a poem, “The No Hemlock Rock” (Garrison Keillor added the subtitle “Don’t Kill Yourself” as the phrase repeats in the poem) — it was only after years of people liking and sharing the poem that I tucked into the historical and sociological research. The statistics put robust facts on the poetic bones: suicides can lead to more suicides, especially for people of similar age, gender, ethnicity, and to a lesser degree profession, school, or proximity. A suicide in a family means two generations of dramatically increased suicidality, even for those not yet born when it happens. The words social scientists and journalists use to describe these relationships tend to be disease metaphors, especially “contagion” and “epidemic.”

    I just wanted people to know that it does other people good when you reject that option. Anyway, by now a lot of people have told me that my work has been helping them stay alive, including some people who were pretty angry at me first, so I guess I shouldn’t care anymore about the ire. Personally, these ideas — of rejecting suicide on principle — have made my life happier and easier.

    These photographs of isolation are poignant in a new way now. When I looked at them before, they were making visible a private world, closed in by feelings. Now all our lives are boxed in and worried. In NYC, boxed up and watching it roll in feels awful. The soundtrack is sirens.

    The whole idea of what “public health” is, or should be, tends to come from epidemics and from wars — measures get established in times of shock and sometimes they stick. When infectious disease was rampant in the US, i.e. the whole time prior to the early 20th century, endemic diseases killed more people than the dramatic flares of epidemics, but proactive health measures came into being in response to epidemics. When we downplay the novel coronavirus by quoting seasonal influenza deaths, it might be a moment to awaken to the flu and other top hits of the actuarial table that might respond to a bit of catastrophizing.

    Another crucial lesson from history is that while epidemics can bring communitarianism, part of that reassessment of “us” often entails a villainized “them.” The medical disputes in the 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic in Philadelphia ran in tandem with the formation of our two-party system. Thomas Jefferson and his Democratic Republicans, including most doctors in his camp, and nearly all foreign born doctors, holding that the disease was local, meaning it cropped up here, somehow; while Alexander Hamilton and his Federalists were “importationists,” meaning that lay people and the doctors sharing Hamilton’s politics generally held that foreigners were bringing the pestilence to these shores. Note too that for the rich, fear of the foreigner overlaps neatly with fear of the poor.

    Meanwhile the shameful 20th-century Tuskegee syphilis experiments help explain the suspicions that people of color have regarding medical authorities. Which further widens the gap of health outcomes.

    Epidemics have always made us reassess the meaning of community. My parents and their generation hid from polio in the summer, cities closed the pools, but you were hiding from getting it yourself. Now we are hiding inside for the group. This is all yet more about what we mean to each other than I could imagine, without experiencing it firsthand. The idea of public health that is so difficult to make visible when discussing suicide is suddenly all too easy to see. From that angle, we are living in a metaphor that’s been on my mind for over a decade.

    Now I’ve been essentially locked down with my little family and dog for several months — looking out the windows of my many screens and watching all the terrible old familiar issues arise, the madness of people when they start blaming people unlike themselves. The conflation of medical and political belief. We have to fight against racism and xenophobia with vigilance and likely without end — and nurture the disaster’s impulse to communal feeling. We are one body, and need each other’s health for our own.

    My husband was furloughed from his job when the bars closed — he was head writer for a pub trivia company. I was struggling to finish my new book before I had two kids at home at all times. I would be utterly terrified about our financial situation if it weren’t happening to everyone. We’ve been just getting by since the 2008 recession, anyway. Things have been better this year, enough so this feels like we’re being punked, but being broke for over a decade was good practice for mentally living in the very short term.

    Wileman’s photographs close in tight and it’s stunning to see huge national numbers shattered down by mere attention, to singularly human moments. It’s a risk to put other people’s pain into the open but it is also a risk not to. It’s a risk to show our own struggles, but it helps. That goes double these days, as we reach out through ideas, art, and outrageous circumstance and try to suss out how we mean to each other and what we are.

    How am I doing? I guess I’m okay. I was already doing therapy by phone session, so the only problem there is to remember what day of the week it is. I mean, I’m not great but it’s okay. My 14-year-old daughter said, “It’s funny how well the Zoomers are suited to this,” meaning her generation, and put back on her headphones. So I’ve got that going for me.

    We are living in a liminal time. It is a historian’s truth that when big things change all sorts of unpredictable other things change too. It’s hard not to worry depression and despair will get worse in the pandemic, with its deep economic stress and isolation. But I think if we have a realistic idea about what we mean to people — exactly the weird and par-baked shape we are in — it can lower our suicidality. I think when our hearts realize that humanity is under siege, a group gut instinct turns away from individual striving, and toward the value of all hands on deck, scrubbed clean, but otherwise, as they are now.


    Top images courtesy of Georgie Wileman.

    This essay and photography were supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.