I spent a couple of hours today watching the documentary, The Bridge, after a friend suggested I see it. Although it is well done and captivating in a voyeuristic I-can’t-believe-I’m-watching-this sort of way, I felt sick after I saw it. The bridge in question is the Golden Gate Bridge; the subject of the documentary is the 24 suicides that occurred there in 2004. Apparently the Golden Gate Bridge is the most popular spot in the world to commit suicide. People have been known to fly into San Francisco just so they can jump off the bridge there. The documentary shows footage of a number of people just moments before they plunge to their deaths. Initially, as I watched, I instinctively covered my eyes. Later, I sat on my couch in a state of surreal disbelief watching as regular people fell like stones into the waters of the bay below the bridge. As they took their lives, these desperate souls were nearly always surrounded by others walking their dogs, pushing baby strollers, and snapping touristy photos. Without fanfare, they simply climbed over the bridge’s rail and jumped. One young man stood up on the railing and fell in a backwards swan dive to his death. I cannot shake those images. Friends of several of the individuals who died at the bridge that year were interviewed as part of the documentary. Each one of them expressed their surprise, sadness, guilt and disbelief. Fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers, friends and colleagues of the dead wondered collectively what “went wrong.” As the documentary continued, I began to wonder why each one of these lost souls found their way to that particular bridge at that particular moment. What drove them to take such a drastic measure?
Although I cannot and do not claim to understand what drives one to suicide, I have had personal experience with it. Twelve years ago, a close friend of mine committed suicide. At the time, I felt tremendous guilt and sadness over the choice she made. Part of me romanticized her decision and part of me was angry about it. I thought about the selfishness that it entailed in terms of her three-year-old daughter. She wrote in her suicide note that she felt her daughter, “would be better off” without a mother. She felt that “no mother was better” than a mother who suffered from relentless black moods caused by her bipolar disorder. My friend was also a heroin addict. She’d been clean for 4 years when we met, but she fell off the wagon about 9 months before her death. She circulated through another round of rehab, but she was never on track again. She’d ruined her liver and run up an exorbitant amount of credit card debt, using cash advances to feed her habit. Her mother took her daughter once she figured out my friend was using again. I think the bleakness she felt over losing her daughter, along with the break-up of a romantic relationship she was in, drove her to take an overdose of over-the-counter meds containing codeine. She knew that the codeine would attack her liver and kidneys causing them to fail, but just to be sure, she followed up with several speedballs of heroin. She wrote a sometimes incoherent suicide note in which she admonished her family not to keep her alive: “If this doesn’t work, pull the plug.” Despite a valiant effort including dialysis and blood transfusions, she never regained consciousness after her intial trip to the hospital. She died ten days later in the ICU, just six weeks before her 29th birthday.
I often remember silly things about her: the smattering of freckles on her nose; her love of crumpled linen outfits; her fake fur zebra car coat; the brazen way she didn’t apologize for her drug addiction or her days as a “working girl” to support her heroin habit. She was prone to a kind of depression that cannot really be put into words. Winston Churchill tried, when he called it “the black dog.” All light in the world is gone. Everything is black. Nothing matters. Nothing ever will.
Although I have experienced severe clinical depression, I would never consider suicide. I may have had momentary flashes of imagining my own death – we all have – but I could never act on those feelings. As a Buddhist, I believe that life energy cannot be destroyed by me or anything else. I see death as a moment of transformation. I will leave one form and enter another. Leaving my life before the universe wants me to go is something I can’t get my arms around.
Still, I think about the excruciating pain my friend was in, and I imagine those lost souls throwing themselves off of the Golden Gate Bridge, and I wonder if there are limits to what the human heart can endure. Maybe there was no other choice for those people. Maybe starting over in an “unknown country” is preferable to enduring another day of hopelessness. How can I – a woman who has deep faith in the inner workings of life – possibly know?
I guess I am left with more questions than answers.
© 2008 Shavawn M. Berry
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