In advocacy training to work on a crisis line, one of the scenarios we studied, expecting to eventually encounter, was a suicide call. This call, when it comes, will most likely not feature a passionate soul extolling a dramatic threat to end their life – sobbing out wildly with a knife tempting their jugular or leering over the edge of the bridge. They will, on on the contrary, most likely be reticent – halting – frozen. They will apologize for your efforts and your time and insist on the diminutive nature of their problems. They may use a smattering of coded words that, once you notice them, are blazing.
The training teaches the advocate to, once you feel the pinging of those electric vertebrae, say outright: “Are you thinking of suicide?”
If you do not say this, it is unlikely that the caller will ever inform you.
The instinct of many, even most people, is to shy away from this bold, perhaps rude! declaration. Partially, of course, the shameful taboo of this crime is quieting enough. But what motivates this inclination toward trepidation and silence is mostly the fear that it is mentioning suicide which will remind the caller of the possibility of campaigning for their own death.
As the call continues, the advocate’s job is to help the caller temporarily disable any plan they may have in place. Then, later, they may bring up the only temporarily disabled plan again. “Are those pills still under your pillow? Maybe you could take them into the kitchen now and put them in the trash can.” Once again, we feel afraid: dare we bring them up again? Perhaps they had forgotten them. How could I dare to jump in and remind them of this instrument of death still laying at arm’s reach?
As if they would have forgotten. As if reminding someone of the possibility of suicide might be novel, and as if it would be enough to sway the feelings of a person formerly not considering self-harm.
Believe me, they have thought about it – carefully, intricately, and shamefully. And it is no easy thing to forget. They will not forget the pills while listening to some strange woman calmly talk them down. They have not forgotten they were there.
I bring up this small anecdote about suicide intervention not to talk about suicide, but to talk about the uncanny and marvelous fear that comes from a funnily untrue conception that by noticing reality, we might be providing a break from fantasy so jarring, horrifying and plain that our compatriot will have no chance of continuing survival.
There is a fraught, tight horror that dwells underneath this great misunderstanding about social reality in America – that describing a troubling reality is not describing it, but rather perpetuating it.
I’m talking, of course, about the color-blind myth of liberal white America, in which tearful, middle class democrats indignantly shout that people don’t belong in categories, and that by repeatedly insisting on focusing on these “categories,” we are doing nothing but fueling racial hatred, prejudice, and creating that terribly woeful, democratizing eraser of cruelty and power: “divisiveness.”
This myth does not believe that black and white people are equally responsible for the creation of race and racism, and yet it insists that the work of repairing “divides” is one of equal responsibility, as if there are two islands with a channel in between, as opposed to a valley and a mountain.
This myth suggests not exactly that we all “created” racism together by “focusing on differences instead of similarities,” but rather that while we must recognize we have lived in a prejudiced, unjust world, we can repair that injustice best by ignoring it. We can, supposedly, fix inequality simply by pretending that we are equal. To point out other is blasphemous, insidious, rabble rousing, negative, and traitorous.
If we ask them to take the pills out side and throw them off the balcony, they’ll remember they were there! They’ll lose themselves in hysteria once more, they’ll stab themselves, they’ll heave themselves off the stairwell first, they’ll die with blood on our hands.
If we mention the prisons, the murders, the schools, the laws, the cities, the restaurants, the sports teams, the movies, the colleges, the airplanes, the governments, the beauty pageants:
we were doing so well!
It was all going so great.
We had almost forgot.
Truly, it has almost slipped our minds!
But there you go again –
with your “diviseness.”
We have an insistence on the false conception that describing reality is both advocating for that reality and staking out its hold on another day. We insist that silent endurance will overpower all wait – eventually, in time. This is false. Even when we are silent, we do not forget.