When retired NFL star Junior Seau killed himself this week, the speculation immediately turned to the question of whether he might have been suffering from some kind of brain damage brought on by many years in a sport filled with violent collisions. Did that long-term trauma lead to his suicide?
I’m not an expert on brain injuries, but I don’t doubt that athletes in high-contact sports suffer injuries that affect them as they age. I wonder, though, if there’s a more basic reason why a retired athlete — who’s spent his life as a hero to many — takes his own life.
What if he simply can’t find any reason to keep on living?
I can’t find the reference now, but I remember reading something in a psychology book that made this argument. It said that we all have something like a built-in “self-destruct switch.” The switch constantly flips itself automatically to “self-destruct mode.” If we have a reason to keep living, we keep flipping it off. But if we quit finding a reason to do that, we passively leave the switch set to that mode — and then we destroy ourselves in one way or another.
Have you ever found yourself driving and realized how easy it would be to let yourself drift off the road — into other traffic or over a steep slope or something else almost guaranteed to bring death? Or have you found yourself at a very high point at the top of a building and had fleeting images of jumping?
I’ve talked with many people who’ve experienced some form of this odd sensation. I’m not talking about people who I think are suicidal. I’m talking about perfectly normal, healthy people who find themselves scared by the sensations, even though they consciously know that they’d never act on them.
The first time I ever thought about this was when a woman I was dating years ago explained something that troubled her. She wasn’t depressed or suicidal. She didn’t have any history of those things in her family and she certainly never thought she felt that way. But she said there was a certain place on her drive home from college where there was something like a cliff. Every time she drove by it, she felt something like an urge to just veer over the side of the road and go over the cliff, even though she knew it would kill her.
The thought scared her and she never considered doing it, but the fact that this odd sensation kept occurring to her disturbed her.
In very small ways, I’ve experienced sensations such as those in the years since then. They always make me shiver and turn away from whatever situation briefly presented itself to me. And I’ve talked to many other people who’ve told me they have experienced the same thing.
I suspect that sensation is built into all of us. As long as we have reasons to live, we keep shivering and turning away from those things, terrified that they would cross our minds. But people sometimes reach the point that they have nothing they’re really living for — and they reach the point that they don’t stop the impulse. They don’t stop themselves from driving off the road. They don’t stop themselves from drinking themselves into deadly stupors. They don’t stop themselves from pulling the trigger on a gun.
Some people have spent their early years as wealthy and beloved heroes. For them, life is downhill after that early success. Football stars such as Junior Seau are certainly among those. When they’re retired and have little purpose in life, could it be that life starts losing its meaning? Could it be that they simply can’t find a reason to keep living?
Other people never experience that kind of success, but their lives end up in places of quiet desperation. Either they’ve failed in life or they’ve made decisions that they can’t live with, putting them into places where life doesn’t seem worth living — and they can’t find the courage to change things. Many of those people eventually quit finding reasons to stay alive. Could it be that they simply allow that self-destructive urge to take effect — and they kill themselves?
I suspect that we all have reasons to die. I suspect that we all have it in us to give up on life and destroy ourselves. The vast majority of us unconsciously keep finding reasons to live, but I suspect the self-destruct mechanism is built into all of us, just waiting for the day when we can’t.