I’ve been invited to give a keynote presentation to the Irish Association of Suicidology in October this year. Titled, “Why Can’t a Man be more like a Woman?” my remarks will focus on why men seem to do most of the dying by suicide and how we all need to rethink our social marketing approaches to the male of the species. Charles Darwin is my co-pilot.
I come by my interest in male psychology honestly. Back in the 1990s something of a men’s movement was afoot and as a psychologist, outdoor writer, and knowing something about suicide, I was invited to join a gentleman’s group in my community whose members thought we could do better as men.
In the first meeting we were asked to contribute money to offset emergent organizational costs, which donation would lead to our names being affixed to the masthead of the organization’s letterhead. I asked, “How much can I donate to keep my name off the list?”
I got a few laughs and as the evening progressed great plans were laid. Not exactly Lewis and Clark’s grand adventure up the Missouri, but we did have the poet Robert Bly in the intellectual lead boat.
When I got home that evening I attempted to explain to my newly-feminist wife that I had just signed up for a journey of discovery into the hinterlands of male psychology. A modern girl, she cracked, “If you ever have a meeting here, tell the boys to leave their drums on the porch.”
During that fitful but sometimes useful episode, I did publish an essay for a fledgling men’s magazine about men, women, and suicide. At the time, I was seeing a lot of suicidal men in my practice and trying to understand suicidal behavior within the dynamics of a relationship in crisis.
Having earned a reputation for my willingness to see suicidal patients, therapists all over town sent me their most scary cases: suicidal men. It was heaven; they knew why they were referred and I knew why they were there. My operating premise was that if you were suicidal and walked into my office, you still wanted to live; all that was left was to figure out how to do just that.
What I found again and again and again is that men cannot tolerate being left by a woman they want. Even the threat of abandonment makes them crazy. Most of men I saw were clinically depressed and didn’t know it, and their girlfriends and wives where leaving them precisely because their depressed behavior made them PMBs (diagnostic translation: poor miserable bastards).
As you know, men get pissed off, irritable, paranoid, angry, can’t sleep, and stop enjoying food, fun, football, and sex, but they DO NOT get depressed. Depression is what happens to economies, not men.
Here is that essay as originally published (minor edits only) in a now-defunct men’s magazine…
Some years ago I wrote a short story about a fly-fishing trip I took with my friend Al. It was supposed to be a quiet week in the mountains catching trout; it turned into a bloody mess. Because just as we started on the driveway, Al’s wife came out of the house, stopped the car, placed her hands on her hips, and said, “I’m done! I’ve found someone else and I won’t be here when you get back.”
Al stared at her for a long minute. Then he pointed to the gas pedal and said, “Hit it! I kind of thought this was coming.”
Rounding the first corner, he punched a fist-sized dent in my dashboard. “By God,” he groaned, “I hope the trout are biting.”
Thank God, they were.
Despite this opening scene, things didn’t turn out as badly as you might think. What with rising trout, tall mountains, campfires, and with the soft blessings of bright stars and dark whiskey, we got over the roughest patch in one piece, and I did not wake up one morning find Al floating face down in the river.
Instead, Al talked. I listened. As a highly-trained psychologist, I just shut up and listened. In my business, we call it “rapport” and are well paid for simply not butting in when people need to talk.
Later, when Al apologized for all the talk and tears and trouble, I said, “What are friends for?”
These many years later, my friend is alive and well, remarried, a book author, and a tenured professor, even if he still can’t cast a fly worth a damn.
Most men know you are supposed to mix God, death, sex and fly-fishing all together around the campfire and that no subject is off limits. Except killing yourself. Tell your best friend you want to do yourself in and the conversation sort of tenses up – which is why I decided to write this essay.
As a psychologist whose specialty is suicide prevention, I spend a lot of time with people who think about it, plan how to do it, and sometimes attempt to leave the planet before they really have to. I say “really have to” because the journey to suicide is generally undertaken for ordinary reasons; broken hearts, busted dreams, untreated clinical depressions, and is often the final price for the ravages of alcoholism and drug abuse.
Suicide is not an enterprise undertaken for extraordinary reasons, but rather ordinary ones. Except in combat to save your buddies, or to avoid terminal pain in the last stages of an expensive, final illness, all suicides are tragedy – plain and simple.
Just check your morning paper obits. Of the faces of men who died “unexpectedly” or “at home” with no cause provided, odds are they ended their own lives. Since men kill themselves at four times the rate of women, I ask myself “how come?” Is it in our genes? Do we have a crooked chromosome? Or can men just not take pain like women can? What gives?
The full answer would takes several books, but the short answer is, “who cares?” The fact is that men are killing themselves off in droves. Mature men, young men, gay men, straight men, men in blue jeans, men in three-piece suits and, most especially, old white guys. Alone, isolated, depressed and despairing, if you listen carefully you can hear the gunshots. But maybe we, all of us, just might be able to do something about it.
Here’s the drill. The most common dynamic for male suicide is this: woman leaves man; man leaves world. This has to stop. As I tell my male suicidal patients, “Women are wonderful, but they are not worth dying over.”
But since I can’t talk to all the men considering suicide as a final action plan following the real or threatened loss of the woman they believe they cannot live without, maybe you can help. Here’s how.
Too many men suffer from chronic loneliness. And I mean from other men. When they are dumped by the woman on whom they have been relying for food, sex, and emotional oxygen, and start teetering toward the edge where lethal loneliness pitches into the black, don’t just watch, do something.
Step in. Step up. Say something. Do whatever it takes to stop some guy from taking that terrifying plunge to oblivion. Simply being told, “this too will pass” is a priceless assurance that time, does in fact, heal all wounds.
Sure, some men hit the bars to find another woman. Any woman. And as quick as possible. A very few call shrinks like me or maybe even a crisis line. But most suffer alone and muddle in and out of whether or not to stop the pain themselves, hoping someone will care enough to lean into their misery and offer to listen – just listen.
Think about any male suicide you know. Was there a woman somewhere? Had she left him? Was she packing her bags? Had she found someone else and he’d just found out? If a gay guy, different gender, same questions.
We men may be depressed, angry, frustrated, embarrassed, broke, shamed, alcoholic or addicted – and own more firearms than James Bond – but these risks are all nothing compared to being left by the woman we love and believe we can’t live without. Or so we believe at the moment we are undergoing open heart surgery without anesthetic.
Now, gents, please consider the possibility that the woman who once loved you now despises you. She may even want you dead.
Don’t be silly. To quote an old line from Congreve, “Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, Nor hell a fury like a woman scorned.”
For a modern update, here’s a recent telephone conversation I had with a “woman scorned.”
Wife: He just left with a pistol. I don’t care if he comes back.
Me: Where did he go?
Wife: Who cares? Let him kill himself. Don’t you get it?
Me: Just tell me where he went. I’m trying to save his life.
Wife: Screw him! If he blows his brains out, it’s his business. Besides he has it coming. It would solve a lot of problems.
Me: Just tell me where you think he went?
Wife: And spoil his plans?
Me: Just tell me.
She finally told me, but not until I convinced her dead men don’t pay alimony or child support.
We got to the guy before he ate his .38, and he’s alive these many years later.
Two quick points and I’m outta here.
If the woman leaving bothers to look back at our plight, it is seldom with goodwill. Some men, the way I read them, interpret this undiminished anger as a request to suicide, as in, “My life would be even better if you knocked yourself off.”
This is the one time, gentlemen, you do not say, “Yes, dear.”
Second, any man who threatens to kill himself if she leaves is setting himself up for murder in the 180th degree. Because if she’s mad enough she’ll call your bluff and, being an honorable chap who backs up his threats, you just have to go ahead and pull the trigger.
Free advice: You do not want to live with any female you have to blackmail to keep.
It’s easy to say we men shouldn’t be wired like this. But it seems we are. At least for now…
In this time and place a men’s movement may save a few of us, but the guys most likely to kill themselves are not likely to join a men group. Or call a hotline. Or walk into mental health centers or offices like mine. So we have to reach out to them. We have to show some compassion, some understanding, and that we actually give a damn.
It’s amazing how my friend Al festered and fumed and raged and cried about his breakup, and it is also amazing that just listening to him breakdown his life and put it back together into a coherent story was like ground fog struck by sunlight.
Trust me on this, it doesn’t take much to save a life from suicide. But it does take something, some action, and sometimes professional care.
In the throes of great emotional pain and loneliness, thinking of suicide is the symptom, the fever. What breaks the fever can be as little medicine as just one of us leaning into the other guy’s pain and asking, “You look pretty banged up, pal. Anything I can do? I got ears, you know.”
To be useful you don’t have to have a Ph.D. or understand even a fraction of the mysteries of life to redirect a suicidal man stumbling alone toward the abyss. All you have to do is lean in and listen; just shut up and listen.