Learning to Live with Death: A Q&A with Clancy Martin, author of How Not to Kill Yourself
TW: Depression, suicide
In How Not to Kill Yourself, Clancy Martin takes an intimate, insightful, brave, powerful, and, at times, wry look at suicidal ideation—why some are so drawn to the idea of killing themselves, why those of us who aren’t should have compassion, and why these urges, no matter how strong, can be calmed. We were lucky enough to sit down with Martin and get some further insight into his book, why he wrote it, and what he hopes readers will get from it.
Reading Group Center: Why did you write this book?
Clancy Martin: Someone I very much respect told me to write to try to help people. The response to my essays about suicide from people all over the world made me realize people craved and wanted more, and that maybe I could benefit some people who were struggling with anxiety or suicidal thinking.
RGC: What did you learn while writing this book, about yourself or about suicide?
CM: I learned that my suicidal thinking is teaching me to be a more open, less judgmental and less fearful person. I also learned that there are a lot of people throughout the world and history like me, who have always felt the attraction of death. I learned many good ways and reasons not to take my own life. I learned there is nothing shameful about a suicide attempt.
RGC: Coming out of the pandemic, frank and open conversations around mental health and suicide are more important than ever, especially with kids and teenagers. Do you think your book is more needed now than ever and why?
CM: Isolation really led to people not taking care of themselves mentally. People are more fearful, more isolated, and more prone to panic; at the same time, the mental health care system in this country (and worldwide) is totally overwhelmed. Young people are attempting suicide at the highest rates in recorded history. So yes, we absolutely have to talk about how we can help each other and help ourselves.
RGC: Why did you decide to share your own suicide attempts with the reader?
CM: Sharing with a trusted friend is the best medicine for so many mental health problems, and especially for suicidal thinking. We need to talk about all of this and go deep to understand ourselves and share with others. Feeling suicidal should not be a dirty secret and we must bring it into the light—which is also simply more honest. This is perhaps the most important part of how we help people and ourselves.
RGC: Why did you choose to make this book more than just a memoir? How and why did you come to blend in the work of different philosophers and writers on the subject?
CM: Every great philosopher and so many of our best writers have deeply considered suicide—and many have attempted or died by suicide—so I relied on their wisdom. These are people like Seneca, David Foster Wallace, Yiyun Li. I wanted to learn what they have to teach about the desire to die and why to live.
RGC: How does your book complement and differ from Kay Redfield Jamison’s classic Night Falls Fast?
CM: Jamison is a brilliant psychiatrist and explains suicide mostly from the outside looking in, relying on a lot of objective facts. I use her book to inform mine, but try to explain suicide from the inside out. I think both approaches help to under and sympathize with those who attempt or die by suicide.
RGC: In the book, you talk about how you’ve been dealing with suicidal ideation your entire life. What is your personal experience of suicide like? What do you wish people knew about suicides that they don’t understand?
CM: When I was growing up I thought everyone wanted to kill themselves, all day long, and it was a total revelation to find out that wasn’t the case. At first I thought everyone was just lying. I wish everyone knew that the desire to kill yourself isn’t a rebuke of the people you love, or even really failing the people you love—it’s much more like a submission to a foe you’ve been fighting all your life. It’s like saying, I’m too tired, you win, I’ll kill myself. You hate yourself for letting everyone down when you make an attempt.
RGC: What was it like to share this book with those you know well and those you love?
CM: It’s scary. I especially want my children to know that I am going to stay alive as long as I can to be there for them. I believe I can die a natural death, a good death, after caring for the ones I love as I should. I also fear that my friends and colleagues will never view me quite the same—suicide is stil so harshly judged in our culture. But this book is my attempt to try to change that, a little bit.
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