I am only capable of speaking on this subject for myself, but I am able to do so today with my own voice, despite trying countless times to throw myself away. Nothing carries the emotional gravity of those words a person would give their own life to say, even just to a single person.
But if she leaves us without ever taking the space to speak, how will we ever know what she needed to tell us? And how many women have to end their lives before we will listen to their wisdom and their experience, without prejudice or condemnation?
I have written about her before — the patient who took her own life while I was working for her family doctor. What I have rarely uttered more than a few syllables about is why her memory has stayed with me. I have enormous guilt for not realizing what was happening as it happened, and for once again saying something insensitive, while she experienced her last moments on Earth. I was on public transit during a sudden unexpected delay when the announcement came over the intercom. A fellow passenger started complaining that the medical emergency was probably someone “having a heart attack on the platform” or something to that effect, and that we should still be moving along. As if having a heart attack was something akin to tripping and skinning one’s knee. I said, and I recall saying it loudly, that no, when they say it’s a medical emergency, it’s because someone has committed suicide by jumping. I was upset because I had arranged to meet two people to help me move my apartment, and I was worried that they would leave before I could get home. They didn’t.
I came to work the next morning, as usual, and noticed a small pile of charts in front of the printer. After I finished turning on the lights, I went to look, and scribbled on a post-it note attached to the patient’s chart, I read “Patient committed suicide last night.” My heart stopped. My breath stopped. I knew in an instant what relationship this had to my trip home, and the last entry in the chart confirmed it all. But it wasn’t just that. She had phoned her husband for a pick-up moments before she did it. She was recorded on surveillance videotape, picking herself up and standing with her arms wide open immediately before impact. When the doctor came in and acknowledged the patient’s passing, she told me to fill out her death certificate. It took me three hours to work up the courage to ask her what to write next to cause of death, and she answered “blunt force trauma” in a tone of total apathy. It took me over an hour to work up the nerve to write it on the line. When her husband came to the office three days later, he smiled at me before he lost his composure and said “I didn’t see it coming.” And I didn’t either. While I will remember her name for the rest of my life, I have never been able to remember her face.
I don’t know how much she held back from him or poured out of herself in his presence (and in all likelihood, will never know). All I know is that she had a lengthy history of depression that was only monitored by her family doctor — who was also her husband’s family doctor. She has touched the lives of countless people in innumerable ways. I only wish she had been heard before it was too late to ever hear her again.
Bei Bei Shuai
I only recently learned about a woman by the name of Bei Bei Shuai, because of my recent involvement in pro-choice activism. This is a woman who, at 33 weeks into her pregnancy, became acutely overwhelmed by depression and attempted to take her own life. She survived after being rushed to the ER, having her baby delivered by caesarean section, and being given medical treatment for attempting to poison herself. The baby died four days later, and Shuai is now being charged with attempted feticide and murder by the state of Indiana — criminal charges that hold the power to put her in prison for 45 to 65 years if she is found guilty — despite a veritable flood of petitions and briefs from experts and medical and social justice organizations, calling for justice (and help) to be served to her. She spent a year and a half in jail before being released, but the trial continues. Don’t believe me? Read about it here.
If her attempt to do away with herself had been successful, what would we have learned? Would her estranged lover, who clearly aggravated her to make an attempt on her own life, be held on murder charges for her death? The reason is transparently clear to me, why he isn’t currently being held on those charges. The law –which has been written entirely by men — just isn’t interested in policing men’s bodies. After all, this is why the burden of proof in rape trials is placed on the women who reported their assaults, is it not? Yet another facet of systemic misogyny, which would scarcely see the light of day if Shuai had not survived her ordeal, only to be sent to the slammer. This is an opportunity for society to learn how to treat women better. That change starts with conversations you and I have in our respective social circles, and we have Bei Bei Shuai to thank for shaking us into action. We all owe her our sincerest efforts, and our most passionate arguments, that she might be the last woman in North American society who is pushed to make an attempt on her own life before anyone else will finally wake up and pay attention.
We all owe all women our attention, and the space they need to vocalize their experiences, whether it’s good or bad.
While I was minding my Ps and Qs alone in my home the other day, a woman by the name of Belle, who I have never met, contacted me on Facebook. She had sought out my acquaintanceship after seeing my demonstrations photos, and that day, she really needed someone to talk to. I am so grateful to her, that in that moment, she contacted me. She disclosed to me that the night before, she had made an attempt on her own life, but was stopped by her mother.
After being raped, she has been seeking professional help. But recently, when she began vocalizing her experience, she was met with hostility and denial by members of her local community. They didn’t think she was being sincere, because she wasn’t speaking as a helpless victim who is desperate to end the pain of her traumatic experience. Rather than ask her why she was treating this very serious subject matter in ways they thought inappropriate for someone who has survived the experience, or even acknowledge that not all rape survivors are in the same place in their healing and that a modicum of respect is owed to those individuals (who at any time, may or may not be present in such a conversation with her); they answered her by denying that her experience even took place. Rumours have been spreading far and wide, that she is just lying to gain attention for herself, and that she was never actually raped. She feels unable to trust her only support — her psychologist and her mother — and felt that the only way to end the spread of condemnations and accusations against her is to take her own life.
Sadly, I know in my heart that she is not the first, and is not likely to be the last. However, the entire reason I am thinking about this with sufficient clarity to write about it, is because she trusted me enough to share with me. I know that all the people who responded to her with hostility and condemnation for how she is addressing her need to pick herself up, heal, and move forward into the next phase of her life, are busy telling each other rape “jokes” when they aren’t gossiping about her. I know that they probably aren’t even remotely aware that by demonstrating that they aren’t willing to support her when she is most emotionally vulnerable, they are all acting in defence of a rapist among them. They are protecting him instead of supporting her through her healing, and that means they are exposing each other’s vulnerabilities in the company of a rapist — a decision that carries the very real risk of another person being raped. But she and I know what kind of a person he is and what kind of people are condemning her for speaking. And we both know her experience and her feelings are valid, and it is empowering to be conscious of them.
I know that the day will come soon, that she realizes that none of them ever deserved her in the first place, and she is a warrior because she embraces her vulnerability rather than running from it. I know one day she will hear or read Judith Butler telling her the exact same thing, and it will make every hair on her body stand up when that happens. I am proud to know her right now, and to be the person she felt safe disclosing to. That simple gesture took incredible courage, and she will be the kind of person who moves and shakes future generations of women into action. I have no doubt, because I was Belle once, and now I’m one of the people who inspired her to keep trying to speak.