Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

The One Thing You Can’t Fix

June 5th, 2009 · 5 Comments

We’ve been so wrapped up with parenting and screenplaying these last two weeks, we’ve had scant time to ponder the tragic demise of former South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun. As longtime Microkhan readers know, suicide is one of our great topics of interest. And so we were struck by the means with which Roh chose to take his own life—by leaping from a cliff near his ancestral village. This is an extremely rare method of suicide, most likely due to the natural human fear of heights. It is also one that leaves the jumper with a few terrifying seconds to contemplate the wisdom of their decision. And for whatever reason, people who survive such suicide attempts tend to report that they changed their minds in midair. A classic 2003 New Yorker piece, about the suicide problem on the Golden Gate Bridge, contains the most haunting passages on the subject we’ve ever read:

Ken Baldwin was twenty-eight and severely depressed on the August day in 1985 when he told his wife not to expect him home till late. “I wanted to disappear,” he said. “So the Golden Gate was the spot. I’d heard that the water just sweeps you under.” On the bridge, Baldwin counted to ten and stayed frozen. He counted to ten again, then vaulted over. “I still see my hands coming off the railing,” he said. As he crossed the chord in flight, Baldwin recalls, “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped.”

We’re curious about this reaction’s relationship to the same neurochemical process that causes near-death experiences. The midair change-of-heart strikes us as a way for the body to keep struggling for life, unaware that virtually nothing can be done once the leap has been taken. Along those same lines, we suspect that NDEs help calm a victim of severe trauma, and thus increase their odds of surviving the awful experience. (For the record, the main character in Now the Hell Will Start experienced an NDE after being shot in the chest at point-blank range.)

All of which leads to a sci-fi question: Might we someday be able to stimulate Baldwin’s life-altering sensation in a safe (possibly pharmaceutical) manner? If so, that could be a mighty effective treatment for the gravest forms of depression.

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5 Comments so far ↓

  • Gramsci

    Various forms of Buddhist meditation, it seems to me, approach this question from the other end. That is, they try to make near-death a less traumatic feature of one’s consciousness, thus making it a slow-release motivation if you will. Not only is there quite morbid imagery (one’s own decaying skull), but there are also, at least in the Zen tradition, stories that try to recreate the enlightenment one can embody at the moment of death (the famous tale of the monk who, seeing mice gnaw at a branch holding him high in the air, plucks and eats a nearby strawberry before plunging into the maws of tigers waiting on the ground). Do such things produce what the physiology of the NDE and its momentary, traumatic rush can? (om mani padme) Hmm…

  • Jordan

    I wonder if under the proper circumstances, ibogaine might be useful to create the state you’re describing. From what I understand, it has a tendency to first bring forth extremely vivid memories along with the usual visual distortions and then create a state of forced introspection. With an appropriately trained therapist present to help guide and process the experience, it might be a helpful adjunct to therapy.

    There are other materials I’ve heard of (primarily phenethylamines) that also tend to support or force introspection. There’s a lot to be done to figure out how hallucinogens can be used to support and extend traditional talk therapy.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: Ten years ago, I actually wrote a piece about ibogaine for U.S News & World Report. Oddly archived here, on a listserv:

    http://listserv.kent.edu/cgi-bin/wa.exe?A2=ind9911d&L=addict-l&P=2218

    The thing I remember most from my reporting was talking to a South African ethnobotanist who’d tried the stuff. When I explained to him the potential use in addiction medicine, he sort of shrugged and said, “Of course.” Because, as he explained, it’s a drug that makes you confront your “true essence,” and the ugliness of that experience can compel you to change.

    He also said that the drug was absolutely no fun whatsoever, and shouldn’t be consumed by anyone intent on attaining an enjoyable buzz. Consider yourself warned!

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Gramsci: Envisioning one’s own decaying skull? Heavy, but makes perfect sense. The idea that through constant confrontation with death, we can recognize its ultimate insignificance.

    Probably not for me. But an interesting approach to Life’s Big Questions.

  • The Confidence Man

    Why go the pharmaceutical route? Presuming that we-slash-the-medical-psychological-establishment-slash-the-authorities can identify potential imminent suicides, why not just waterboard them?

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