Ten years ago a friend of mine decided to take his own life. He researched the local tides and the moon cycle to find the most ferocious outbound tides on the darkest of nights. He told no one of his plans, and never once reached out to his friends in a way any of us recognized. On a cold and dark October night, he walked into the biting cold waters of the retreating Irish sea whereupon he was pulled into the abyss by the retreating current. His body was recovered four days later.
I always wondered what he must have been going through as he made his way to the darkened beach that night. Clearly he was in a state of despair, but I could see nothing so terrible in his life that it couldn’t be overcome. I remember in the days that followed his death I wondered how I could have missed the fact that he was so depressed as to be suicidal. I was disappointed that he planned his suicide in secret and by doing so had denied any of us the opportunity to intervene, to be his friend when he surely needed us most.
I hadn’t thought of my old friend in a long while until last weekend when I watched a film called ‘The Bridge‘, a documentary about the large number of suicides that occur each year at the Golden Gate Bridge. By pure coincidence, and unknown to me at the time, the night I watched the documentary happened to be the tenth anniversary of his suicide.
Had I known more about the documentary beforehand I probably wouldn’t have chosen to watch it. The rather morbid subject is not one I have any interest or curiosity in. However, I found it to be profoundly compelling in the way that it unraveled this subject that is something of a taboo.
Eric Steel, a documentary filmmaker, made the film after reading Tad Friend’s 2003 New Yorker article entitled ‘Jumpers; The fatal grandeur of the Golden Gate Bridge.‘
The Golden Gate Bridge is a notorious site for suicide, some say the most popular suicide location in the world. The 220 feet fall takes between 4 to 7 seconds and leads to an almost certain death as the jumper hits the water at 75-mph. Of the estimated 1,400 people who have jumped or fallen from the bridge since it was opened in 1937, only 26 have survived.
Seeking to highlight the darker side of this awesome bridge, which on average claims the life of one jumper almost every two weeks, Steel and his film crew trained cameras on the bridge filming people day and night throughout 2004. Of the 24 suicides that were made that year 23 were caught on camera by Steel and his crew with some of those being controversially shown in the documentary.
While the idea of showing the tragic last act of those who jumped from the bridge is undeniably difficult to stomach, the film handles the subject in a way that seems to connect us with the reality of suicide which might otherwise simply pass us by as just another news story, if indeed an editor even deemed the event to be newsworthy. The sense of isolation is almost tangible, not just in those who jump but also in the fact that the unfolding tragedy often goes unnoticed by people who are just a few feet away.
Suicide is very much a crisis based decision, usually made at a time when it’s not unfair to say that, on the whole, the person involved lacks the ability to see their situation in a wider context.
Kevin Hines, who jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge and survived, said in an interview that he had made a condition that would determine his fate that day. “If one person comes up to me and asks if I am okay, if I need any help, I would tell them everything and I would ask for help.” He said. At the bridge, after crying for the entire journey there, Hines was tapped on the shoulder by a woman. Failing to notice his distress she asked Hines to take her picture. He did so, then as she walked away he turned and leaped over the barrier.
The sense of isolation and loneliness would seem to be a common denominator in those who choose to take their own lives. At the home of one man who had jumped to his death a note was found on his bureau. It read ‘I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.’ Presumably, nobody made that connection.
Though it’s difficult to gauge, people who have survived suicide attempts claim to have regretted their decision to commit suicide the moment they passed the point of no return. Speaking of his jump from the Golden Gate Bridge amid a serious bout of depression in 1985, survivor Ken Baldwin said. “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable - except for having just jumped.”
Learning this leads me to chillingly wonder if my friend had similar regrets ten years ago as he gasped his last breaths in the cold and unforgiving darkness of the Irish Sea.
Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem, though clearly he didn’t see it that way. Had he been able to get through the crisis he found himself in he might very well be alive today. He could have married, become a father, and essentially lived an ordinary life in which his depression was merely a chapter and not the whole story.
It seems like the cruelest blow of all that right at the moment when they cannot undo what they’ve done, the perspective which seems to be absent from the lives of the ‘jumpers’ comes rushing back in a fleeting moment of clarity that is soon over, forever.