Yesterday, July 5th, was the anniversary of Pamela Djerassi’s death. Her brother Dale joined us for dinner here in the hills, and moved some of us to tears with his remembrance. Pamela died by suicide when she was only twenty-eight, a tragedy that spurred the eventual founding of this residency program. Tragedy transformed into beauty, into a gift for twelve new people every month, twelve artists who can watch the fog rise over hills and walk the paths among the sequoias and experience a nurturing invitation to just be.
And yet, what other gifts might Pamela have created, had she lived?
At the dinner table I had just been talking about whether I wanted to be called a psychiatrist/writer or a writer/psychiatrist. The distinction suddenly seemed meaningless and irrelevant. But we are always trying to categorize. To divide.
In my work as a psychiatrist, I treat many people who think of killing themselves. I’ve treated people who’ve survived attempts. Many discover they did not want to die. Last night I wanted to share that observation, and at first I thought, I’m not here to be a psychiatrist. Here, I’m a writer. But I’m always both.
We each hold multiple aspects of ourselves. Sometimes they align seamlessly, and sometimes they conflict.
At dinner, we admire the soft green hills as the sky pinks, then turns inky; we marvel at the crescent slice of moon.
I kept thinking of this bright, creative, well-loved woman, and what her brother called the inexplicability of her death. He, we all, want to understand. Others in our group have also lost family to suicide. We talked about that. Suicide is usually the result of a confluence of factors, not all of them explicable. In my psychiatry work, I’ve come to see that the pain and impulsivity that lead to self-destructive acts can get better. That getting help works, treatment works, but some people are least able to seek help when they most need it. Especially in young people, suicide is the impulsive response to a very brief period of despondency. I’ve read the interviews with people who jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge and survived. Survivors are rare, since jumping is an extremely lethal method. The survivors all say that as soon as they jumped they regretted it. As soon as they jumped, the problems they thought they had paled and their biggest problem became that they’d jumped. And regardless of means, most survivors are alive many years later. Even when they continue to experience occasional depression or other agonies that lead to an impulse to end it all, most people given the gift of surviving an attempt discover ways to balance pain with joy; they feel engaged in their lives.
The Golden Gate Bridge is not far from our residency center. It’s a beautiful icon of the possibilities that exist in California. And it has been a magnet for suicide attempts. For decades activists have lobbied to put up suicide barriers. Ample evidence shows that stopping someone in the midst of an attempt can save their life; that those people do not go on to try different methods. That in places with new barriers, suicide rates decline. (Similarly, when access to guns is restricted, fewer people die by suicide as well as by homicide.) And yet for years, neighborhood groups in San Francisco and architecture enthusiasts resisted putting up barriers on the Golden Gate Bridge. Apparently, a big part of the resistance has been aesthetic: barriers might spoil the beauty.
People similarly shy away from talking about suicide, for fear of bringing sadness into happy moments, or incorrect beliefs that talking about it may give someone the idea to do it. That is not true.
Also not true: that someone with a life of beauty and bounty, like Pamela, can’t still experience pain, isolation, self-doubt, depression.
Talking, connecting, caring, are powerful deterrents to destruction. Even talking about hard or painful topics.
In 2018, construction began on a suicide barrier at the Golden Gate Bridge. and Engineers and artists are designing a net that can preserve views, respect the bridge’s deco contours, and still prevent deaths.
It’s not an either or. In this place of great beauty we have the solitude we need, and also one another.I’m glad that as we hike and write and paint and dance and taste the perfect plums on our table, we also can remember Pamela.
Every person deserves a nurturing invitation to just be.
(For free, confidential 24/7 crisis support in the US, text “HOME” to 741741.)