Note: I normally keep to a post every other day, but I think this post deserves to come out now, instead my next post will be on Saturday rather than Friday.
Suicide is an intensely personal decision. What drives a person to kill themselves is a question often asked of those bereaved by suicide (grieving the loss of someone important to them by suicide.) This is a question as important to those left behind as it is to those who are in the throes of a suicidal crisis.
On February 9th, 2015 a popular food blogger named Wilkes McDermid ate his last meal at the Coq d’Argent restaurant in the City of London before jumping off. He posted a final suicide note, apparently penned a year earlier, detailing his reasons for suiciding. He also attached some scientific journal articles, a “Frequently Asked Questions” section detailing some common oppositions to suicide and a previous note he wrote two years prior when he made failed plans to suicide in Cape Town, South Africa.
I thought this post would be a good opportunity to go over some of those reasons, and to offer some interpretation of how he ended up in the predicament that he did.
While his writing is longer than any blog post I have written, at 4500 words, it would take much more than that for most people to truly elucidate every reason they have for dying and explore it in the kind of depth that would convince others around them it was the right thing to do.
I’ll be the first one to say that I am no expert in suicidal autopsies or psychiatric evaluation; I can only offer my opinions based on my knowledge of cognitive behavioural therapy and my interpretations of his writing.
If you haven’t already, I suggest you take a read of his post now, so that you can get a feel for it without my words biasing your interpretation. I’d love for you to share your thoughts.
The blog post opens by noting that McDermid would like to answer the questions of his friends and family but that doing so ‘live’ would be too great a risk because the medical community “values quantity of life over quality of life.” I think this is a reasonable view; disclosing imminent suicide plans would have led to his hospitalization. I don’t think it was reasonable that the quality of his life would have remained at it’s current level, however.
Next, McDermid declares the reason for his death is that women favour men who are tall (he gives 5’10+), of Caucasian or black races and who are wealthy or have “other manifestations of power.”
He goes on to list a number of research studies demonstrating that there is a preference in women for men holding these attributes. And to his science, I don’t disagree. All else being equal, many men will choose a woman with larger breasts over a woman with smaller breasts.
However, this is where I take my first qualm: all is never equal. Rall, Greenspan & Neidich (1984) notes that physical attractiveness is relative. You’re never competing against every other man in the world, only against every other man in the room.
Personality does have a strong influence on people’s physical attractiveness of us, particularly for women evaluating men. While it would be disingenuous to assume that women are not as visual as men – particularly when we have no other information to go on (see the disaster that is online dating for that in action), both genders consistently describe situations where they met a less-than-physically attractive person who “won them over” with their personality.
For some research support to that, see Tepper & MacDonald (2014) which notes that people are less willing to reject potential romantic partners in a real-world situation (e.g. participants in a research study who are not expecting it) than they are when given hypothetical situations.
Additionally, Murray & Holmes (1997) document a sort of “illusion” effect that occurs as you begin to fall for a romantic partner. Negative elements become less emphasized, and you see an illusory version of them. This gives hope and scientific backing to the idea that your personality really can help you get a foot in the door.
McDermid continues by citing a rate of 95%~ of the interracial (Asian/white) relationships he sees being with an Asian woman and a white male, while only 5% of the time is it an Asian male and a white woman.
This may be true (I haven’t evaluated the methodology of the formal and informal studies and surveys he cites but I’ll take them at face-value), but is that such a problem? He appears to be consistently seeking out interracial relationships and refusing to settle for anything but.
Considering that the Asian population in the US is 5-6% (CDC, 2013), it’s not surprising that most Asian women would end up with white men, because non-Hispanic white and black people make up a combined ~75% of the population. These rates are similar in England, and most western countries.
McDermid dedicates a surprising amount of his blog post on refutations of straw-men arguments (“you haven’t counted everyone in the world.”) He quickly dispenses with those arguments, as anyone with basic statistical knowledge should.
It is okay to be at a disadvantage. You can still lead a fulfilling life. Myself, at 5’6 with some physical health issues (retinopathy, scoliosis, exercise-induced asthma) have certainly faced my share of barriers but I have also had some success as well.
Looking at it from an economic perspective, people born in poverty certainly have a harder time accessing social mobility than the rest of us. But many of them do overcome those barriers. Jealousy is okay. You can want what someone else wants. You can be frustrated that you don’t have it! That is a natural, expected, human emotion.
When you’re done getting all your frustration out, though, you have to begin to move forward. If you’re 20 metres back at the starting gate, it can make the race seem pointless, because others have an advantage. But you need not concern yourself with where other people are, only with where you are yourself.
This is not easy. But it takes cognitive energy to continuously ruminate on how others have it better than you, and that energy is far better spent accomplishing something worthwhile.
It’s the latter half of the note (and I call it a note rather than an article or a post because it is a suicide communique to all who knew him, and many who don’t) that I found most interesting.
To everyone who says “why don’t you just accept it”, I ask you this. What if your girlfriend/boyfriend/wife/husband was taken away from you through no fault of your own? How would you feel? What if you were then told “it doesn’t matter, just learn to live with it”. Then what if you were told, “it’s your fault, it’s your personality that has caused that” and “stop being so negative”. How would you react. That’s what I’m faced with continuously. I can’t stop people lying to me for the rest of my life… but I can control how long my life will be and therefore how long I will have to suffer.
He equates his pain, of not being able to find a romantic partner, to the pain of someone who has lost their partner through death. In this moment he is mourning his future, the loss of hopes and dreams. These are an extremely strong hook for those experiencing suicidal thoughts, and McDermid had laid his to rest.
He seemed to feel his entire life was suffering, because of his lack of romantic companionship. His entire life, the rest of him was meaningless and valueless because of his inability to negotiate this one element of life.
This reminds me of the classic “Six Stage Process for Coming Out”, also known as the Cass Identity Model (Cass, 1979) In this model there are six stages for a person who is coming to terms with their sexuality:
Essentially, the person finds themselves confused by their sexuality, then realizes they are different from others. They tolerate these differences, then begin to celebrate them. Next, they feel proud and wish to let everyone know, and finally they synthesize their sexuality into their broader identity; it becomes merely another part of them.
Applying this to McDermid’s situation, he had passed through Confusion and was stuck on Comparison. He could not see past the advantages that others had in their life, to move on to tolerance. He was miles away from tolerating being alone, accepting it, being proud of it (if that would ever occur) and certainly nowhere near his romantic life being a single piece of his identity.
Indeed, loneliness had become his identity. It consumed him. He was not English. He was not a food blogger. He was alone. That was him. And it didn’t have to be.
At the end of the “letter” portion of his note, he signs it “Goodbye, I wish you all the best Wilkes McDermid, 03-Feb-2014”; nearly a year to the day that he wrote it, he finally pushed through his innate self-preservational instincts.
The rest of his note consists of a Frequently Asked Questions section, a biblbiography and a draft of a similar note he authored in January of 2013, where a variety of factors including the weather conspired against him. In that note, he discusses his belief that what he is doing is euthanasia, not suicide. My opinion, pro or con on that belief is not helpful, but I truly don’t believe he had exhausted all options yet.
I’d like to go over each of his frequently asked questions, because I think they make a good read for helpers talking to suicidal individuals and the kind of thinking distortions that can be present, as well as to help those considering suicide themselves realize their distorted thinking patterns.
I’ll list them all at once to make reading the page easier:
- “Aren’t you being selfish?”
- “But people care about you”
- “But ‘Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem’”
- My boyfriend my [sic] be caucasian and over 5ft10 but he’s ginger… so you’re wrong…”
- My boyfriend my [sic] be caucasian and over 6ft2 but he’s overweight… so you’re wrong…”
- My boyfriend is Chinese so there, you’re wrong.”
- Stop being so negative”
- You’re talking shit, that’s simply not true”
- OK – You only find those results because you’re in London (Soho/Mayfair…[insert any random geographical location]).”
- Lots of people lead long fulfilling lives without a relationship.”
- I have a friend who is Oriental with a Caucasian girlfriend… so you’re wrong.”
- One of my female friends is white and really likes Oriental guys. So you’re clearly wrong.”
- You are clearly mentally ill? Why don’t you go to a psychiatrist?”
- But you will burn in hell! Suicide is a sin! The afterlife is real!”
- Remember you always have a choice”
- So what? You might be right… be an exception!”
- Suicide is the cowards way out”
- You’re clearly racist”
- You’re a Nazi. What you’re promoting is ‘Social Darwinism’”
- The reason why you don’t find Oriental guys with Caucasian girls is cultural”
- Why don’t you just use a prostitute every few weeks?”
- “So what would you tell someone else in the same position?”
They seem to fall into four categories:
- Anti-Suicide Cliches (1, 2, 3, 14, 15, 17)
- Denying The Evidence / Pointing Out Exceptions (4, 5, 6, 8, 9, 11, 12, 20)
- Dismissing The Problem (7, 18, 19, 21)
- Miscellanous Attempts at Helping (10, 13, 16, 22)
As you can see, the bulk of his writing is spent on trying to convince people that the evidence is as he says it is. On the other hand, those born in poverty don’t spend a lot of time trying to convince others that being in poverty makes it harder to have a middle class lifestyle; it is merely accepted as a truth. And once we’ve accepted that truth, we can begin working on other areas of ourselves so that we can cultivate hope.
I don’t believe individuals who noted that lots of people live fulfilling lives without relationships were being facetious or trying to dismiss his pain as much as they were trying to provide a role model for McDermid. He was well-liked and his blogging was well-known in his niche, but he couldn’t see past the idea that life was not worth living without someone else in it.
#13 mentions that he is mentally ill, and he should see a psychiatrist. I reject the idea that he was mentally ill; at least, I don’t think he had a DSM-IV/V mental illness. He seemed relatively rational and lucid, despite the suicidal tunnel vision.
Unfortunately, it was his rationality, his equation that was faulty. Dating and relationships are only one part of your existence, they are a piece of life. They are not all of life, and if you’re dead, how will you ever be able to find that person?
He did note that he had spent some time in a psychiatric hospital (where, coincidentally a number of patients formed relationships.) He describes the treatment he received there as pseudoscience; he doesn’t elaborate on the particulars (beyond noting that one exercise required him to “stare at an orange for an hour”) but CBT has been well-proven to help eliminate the kind of faulty reasoning that he was experiencing.
#16 discusses the idea of being an exception. This is what we all aspire to. To work hard, to get lucky (pardon the pun), and to fight against the odds. The investment advisor Chris Gardner (whose life was famously the inspiration for the film The Pursuit of Happyness) and the former US Senator and motivational speaker Les Brown, to highlight two individuals came from humble circumstances and did amazing things with their lives.
Instead of being known as the man who fought the odds, McDermid will be known as a man who gave up. Who resigned himself to a self-fulfilling fate. This is to speak nothing of the ways he could have made himself a more attractive potential mate:
- He could have taken steps to lose the weight and to build muscle
- He could have relocated to an area where he would be more in the median range for height rather than the lower end
- He could have poured his efforts into his blog in an attempt to build the wealth or status that he claims is important
But instead, he chose to take his life. I am not judging him harshly, for he took the route he thought most rational in his mind at the time. But I wish he had been able to hold on, to see that his life could be more than having a partner. As a man who has struggled with romantic relationships I have been there, in that pit of despair, but you can get through it if you don’t give up.
Your life can be bigger than your disadvantages. You can rise above them. Keep your heads up, gentlemen (and ladies.)
“Asian American Populations”. (2013) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. United States Department of Health & Human Services. May 7, 2013. Retrieved February 12, 2015 from http://www.cdc.gov/minorityhealth/populations/REMP/asian.html
Cass, V. (1979). Homosexual identity formation: A theoretical model. Journal of Homosexuality, 4 (3), 219-235.
Joel, S., Teper, R., & MacDonald, G. (2014). People Overestimate Their Willingness to Reject Potential Romantic Partners by Overlooking Their Concern for Other People. Psychological Science (Sage Publications Inc.), 25(12), 2233-2240. doi:10.1177/0956797614552828
Murray, S.L., Holmes, J.G. & Griffin, D.W. (1996) “The Self-Fulfilling Nature of Positive Illusions in Romantic Relationships: Love Is Not Blind, but Prescient” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 71(6):1155-1180
Rall, M., Greenspan, A., & Neidich, E. (1984). Reactions to eye contact initiated by physically attractive and unattractive men and women. Social Behavior & Personality: An International Journal, 12(1), 103-109.