How Not To Kill Yourself (Book Review)

Clancy Martin is a philosophy professor, author, and the survivor of ten suicide attempts. Even as he describes the onset, his mind state, and yes, even the methodology for some of these attempts, the book is full of unexpected hope and I daresay lives up to its title. He does for suicide what Andrew Solomon, whose work he praises, does for depression. He demystifies it a bit by digging into some of its historical roots, religious aspects, and literary significance. He delves into what different cultures believe happen after we die, the idea of Freud’s death drive, and the romanticizing of suicide in literary history such as in the Sorrows of Young Werther. He speaks to current specialists in suicide. Most of all, he interweaves all of this with his personal experiences to help us understand the continued epidemic of suicide.

The book is also very much about addiction and the author’s personal experience with addiction and AA, and how it tied into his suicide attempts. He posits that suicidal thinking itself can be a kind of addictive thinking, often tied up with a skewed perspective of yourself. I loved his analysis of David Foster Wallace and his fiction about suicide, and how a continual theme in his books and in Wallace’s own conversation was that he was a phony and a fraud. Clancy suggests that many people walk around feeling this way a good deal of the time, and the error in thinking could be that this feeling is unique to you.

Not all suicide, though, is caused by mental illness or distorted thinking. Seemingly inescapable chronic pain and suffering, or catastrophic events, or other unknowns, can change life quickly and unexpectedly. Clancy’s attitude toward suicide is similar to mine. He understands and empathizes with it, while still hoping to prevent it where necessary. This delves into some tough territory because of the massive what-ifs surrounding suicide. We’ll never know if the people who died by suicide regretted it. We’ll never know if their pain would have gotten better. We’ll never know what would have eventually happened in their life. However, you can also spin these very same questions toward reasons to live.

There is a large section toward the end of the book devoted toward resources–both to official support lines and groups as well as practical tips to use in the moment, like taking deep breaths, a walk, or having a favorite song or movie queued up. It all sounds very trite and simple, but sometimes you just need something to break the spiral for a moment. Go somewhere. He said sometimes he would go get an ice-cream cone at McDonald’s. Just getting out in the world for a minute can sometimes remind you that you’re a part of something bigger than yourself.

When we choose life, we know what we’re choosing over the unknown. The author posits, as suggested by the title, that suicide can be something you actively choose not to do every day, just like you might choose not to drink every day. He said one thing that might actually be helpful is to think of suicide as a door that is always open. It’s always an option, but it doesn’t have to be one that you take today. Give it some time—a day, a month, a year. He even suggests that if the United States offered legal assisted suicide and it was tied up with the same level of bureaucracy most health care was, the suicide rate would drop while people were waiting and considering it. Again, he’s dealing in hypotheticals—but they’re interesting hypotheticals, and not the ones you always hear in discussions about suicide. His first-perspective observations are unique and refreshing.

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