Choosing death over life
By Ambeth R. Ocampo
Philippine Daily Inquirer
June 13, 2018 at 5:05 am

Suicide is something that only happens to other people. Suicides, reported on the news or in social media, don’t seem to matter until someone you know or know of has taken the final solution to a disturbed life.

Comments and commentary on the recent suicide of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain made me wonder why people who did not even know the victims personally could be so affected. Spade made cheerful women’s bags that bore her name and style as an iconic international brand. However, her success hid her depression, and what was diagnosed as debilitating anxiety.

Bourdain’s was felt keenly in the Philippines, because he made the country proud by his endorsement of lechon and sisig as world-class food. How could someone so famous be that seriously unhappy? How could someone who ate the best food and visited every corner of the globe be depressed, when others would sell their soul to attain even an ounce of his life and lifestyle?

Their deaths focused attention on depression as a medical condition that takes many lives each year. There seems to be no cure in sight, so timely intervention and proper medication make a big difference.

Spade, like comedian Robin Williams, ended her life by hanging herself on a doorknob with one of her branded red scarves. At first, I found the story incredible, because it did not have the inevitability of jumping onto a speeding bus or off a skyscraper. With this method, one could simply chicken out at the last minute, stand up and live. But nothing is impossible to the determined.

My high school Pilipino teacher, Pedro San Pedro, memorable for his unusual name and the dirty jokes he spiced his lectures with, once advised the class that if anyone ever contemplated suicide, he should employ an approach that allowed for a change of mind. His procedure was to dunk your head in a pail of water and stay there till you drown to death. Instinct, he assured us, would prod one to choose life over death anytime.

But, like hanging from a doorknob, nothing is impossible to the resolute.

One of my distant cousins attempted suicide after being scolded by my aunt. She went to the medicine cabinet, downed an entire bottle of ascorbic acid, and lay on my aunt’s bed with a suicide note beside her to await death. Her stomach growled, but she did not die, and was scolded again when discovered by my aunt, who explained that Vitamin C—despite the word “acid” on the label—was not lethal.

Funny on the surface, this story made us reflect on what drove her to even attempt taking her own life. She is now happily married, with children she adores.

Some stories are tragic. A former student used a very complicated method: He went into a small room, closed all the doors and windows, covered all the air openings with duct tape, arranged a bag of charcoal into a small pyre, and lit it to die by asphyxiation.

Another student hanged himself on their gate at home. The grief-stricken mother asked to see me, and my colleagues all asked if I had flunked the student. My class record bore his exceptionally high grades; he participated in class discussions and often spoke to me after a lecture. He was sociable and well-liked, making it hard for me to understand his suicide.

Coming face to face with his mom made me imagine how hard it is for a mother to bury her child, and how she would wish, if she could, to give her own life in place of her child. That afternoon in the wake, I remembered antique images of the Mater Dolorosa with the crystal tears and the seven gilt silver daggers that pierced her heart.

The son liked my class and shared what he learned from my lectures at their dinner table. I was one of his favorite teachers, said the mother. Did I notice anything wrong in the weeks leading to his death?, she asked.

He shone in a big class, I told her, though I recall he skipped class, but I didn’t give it much thought because Dean’s Listers were allowed an unlimited number of absences. In denial, the mother insisted her son did not commit suicide.

He had gifted me with a book that I had not opened till he died. Inside were inscribed photos for me to remember him by.

I did not see this coming, and the knowledge that I could have, should have, given him time, a gesture or word that might have kept him living, is guilt that remains forever. It took a suicide to make me a more caring teacher.

Comments are welcome at aocampo@ateneo.edu

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