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Gazing out of the abyss

How to live, in spite of everything

Clancy Martin is a suicide addict. 

With varying levels of commitment, the Professor and author has attempted to kill himself over ten times, a habit spanning his teenage years well into middle age.

How Not to Kill Yourself: A Portrait of the Suicidal Mind, Clancy Martin (Pantheon, $27)

“I’m a comical figure in the history of suicide,” Martin writes in How Not to Kill Yourself: A Portrait of the Suicidal Mind, “a perennial fuckup who seems to always get lucky and keep on going.”

It’s difficult to imagine any adult, particularly by middle age, who has not been tempted by the abyss at some point — even if the solution is found in drink rather than death (Martin, unsurprisingly, is also a recovering alcoholic). 

As the title suggests, like an old timer in rehab (a place he has been multiple times), Martin writes to rebuke every tired excuse used to justify killing oneself, a set of lessons which first appeared in a viral 2018 essay on the topic. “If I’m bullshitting you, you’ll smell it,” Martin announces in the book’s opening chapter, and he keeps to his word — this is not some milquetoast sermon about the virtues of living. 

Martin is empathetic, but never coddling, in urging readers to consider their actions wisely, particularly the impact of their choices on others. Dark urges are understandable, but actions have consequences.

Unique in its construction — part memoir, part self-help guide and part academic treatise on the literary and philosophical history of suicide — How Not To Kill Yourself seeks to unveil the core features of the suicidal mind by reflecting on various celebrities, intellectuals and lay people who made the leap (including Martin’s older brother and, speculatively, his father).

A succinct appendix of resources is provided for those standing at a cliff’s edge, but the intended audience is much broader than the actively suicidal. Even if you’ve yet to actively circle the drain, part of Martin’s thesis on suicide is that the urge to kill oneself has a habit of sneaking up on all of us at some point in our lives.

“I believe that the drive to self-annihilation is one that we all share,” he writes, although admittedly he is an especially chronic case. 

The reasons for suicide are rarely exceptional. Loneliness, melancholy, heartbreak, physical pain and even just persistent boredom are all cited as good reasons to off oneself in the books and letters left by literary and philosophical greats who ended it all.

Martin describes wanting to kill oneself as “like an extreme version of the relief you find after drinking a few glasses of wine, and the pungent smell of yourself seems to drift off into the breeze” — all that’s really required is a means and an excuse.

Once the urge takes hold it can be difficult to shift, particularly for the chronically inclined. As Martin makes clear in his discussions of the deaths of celebrities from Anthony Bourdain to Robin Williams, neither money nor fame protect oneself from temptation.

The ubiquity of suicidal thoughts has not translated into candid conversations, however. Whilst clinical diagnosis of everything from autism to OCD have been destigmatised to the point that people stick labels in their Twitter profiles, suicide is still spoke about in whispers.

Media reporting on suicide skirts around the act itself, speaking only of “no suspicious circumstances” following a death. This policy, in Martin’s view, “adds to our collective feeling that there’s something shameful about this kind of death”.

Far from being a marginal tragedy, to live or not to live is one of the most important questions we could ever ask ourselves in life. It is, to quote Camus, the “one really serious philosophical problem”.

So, why shouldn’t you kill yourself?

In many ways, it is the biographical details in How Not to Kill Yourself that provide the strongest case for sticking around. Despite his determination to end it all, Martin’s life has been (and is) exceptional. From high school dropout to world renowned scholar, his story is one of passionate loves and enviable adventures. It is, ironically, a tremendous life worth living.

A meaningful life need not be a one filled with constant jubilation

Part of what Martin wishes to show by telling his story is that a meaningful life need not be a one filled with constant jubilation. “Happiness and security are notoriously tentative and fragile states,” he notes in one chapter, adding, “good mental health is not our default setting” in another.

The term “toxic positivity” may be one of the few useful concepts to come from internet culture — describing our obsession with “looking on the bright side of life”. Often, life sucks, but even in this melancholic mood one can still find meaning.

As Martin notes throughout his book, his children are a big reason for his staying alive. For others it may be friends, family or even a pet. 

Whilst we live in an individualist culture that valorises a person’s “right to choose”, this ignores that we are embedded in a network of people who will be harmed by our death, regardless of whether we believe it’s good for us:

Our lives are fundamentally reciprocal sorts of things. We live from, for, and with each other, and none of us lives truly alone — especially not those of us who have parents or children who are living. So although our lives may well be our own, they are deeply interwoven with others, which might make us wonder whether those people, too, have a stake in us continuing to live

One doesn’t have to “imagine Sisyphus happy” to justify existence, only that he has a job to do, which others are relying upon. Even a cynical “fuck you” to those who have harmed you is reason enough to keep on living. As Martin writes “stubbornness is important when it comes to the question of staying alive”.

So how do you, as the title suggests, not kill yourself?

Martin’s advice is more than the standard mental health platitudes about mindfulness and exercise, ranging from the deeply philosophical (reflecting on the Nietzschean and psychoanalytic model of the self as a series of conflicting drives) to the fittingly pragmatic (“absolutely don’t keep a gun in the house”).

There are, of course, also extensive forms of professional help available, from phone lines to therapists. Martin speaks frankly of his need to be involuntarily detained for mental health treatment on multiple occasions, experiences which he loathed in the moment but is grateful about in retrospect.

There are insights from Buddhism as well as from giants of Western thought ranging from Goethe to Schopenhauer to Freud. Ultimately, Martin settles on the inevitability of change as one of the most effective tools of suicide prevention. There is a reason for the saying “suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem”.

At nearly 500 pages (plus appendices), How Not To Kill Yourself is much more than a suicide prevention resource. Although its length along with its idiosyncratic mix of philosophy, advice and autobiography may be off-putting for a casual reader, Martin’s goal seems to be to cover as much ground as possible, so that the right insight finds the person who needs it most. 

If you are having urges that concern you, or you want to be better prepared should they arise, there is no better guide to thoughts of self-destruction from an insider who knows it all too well.

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