Alas Babylon – the “Other” language of suicide

When someone you care about finally reaches out in their despair, will you hear that cry for help? How many really say, “Hey, I’m gonna go jump off the bridge now.”

Some thoughts on the less obvious indications you should consider now.

Alas Babylon

I recall a book I read in school years ago. About post apocalypse life in the nuclear age. The protagonist and his brother had developed a code phrase in childhood – a secret warning that if ever spoken, signaled impending catastrophe. When one brother recognized that the US and Russia were on the brink of nuclear disaster, he utters the phrase.

“Alas Babylon”

Shortly after, “The Day” arrives. The American way of life as we know it ends. The rest of the story is one speculative view how humanity could respond. Alas, Babylon was written by Pat Frank in 1959, and is still a relevant read. [1]

But the only thing that really stuck with me after all these years is the idea of that phrase, a literal life-saving trump card, is the arrow that pierces through everything into the psyches of those connected by it. That point at which all that matters is simply life.

The language of suicide is such a trump card.

While some insist that a suicidal person should make you a promise not to hurt themselves, it is unfair to force such a decision. Sometimes that promise cannot be made, especially by someone who has been affected by lies in their past. But to make you happy, they may feel they must lie, which is unfair. A betrayal.

Another option, perhaps fairer, is for you to promise you will respond to a word they utter. That you will be there for them, no matter what.

“Alas Babylon.” Please help me.

“I hear you – I am here.”

It is the words that suicidal people say – about their psychological pain and their frustrated psychological needs – that make up the essential vocabulary of suicide. Suicide prevention can be everyone’s business. [2]

The Scientific Language of Suicide

A man named David Webb, a suicide survivor, wrote a compelling article about the many languages of suicide…which happens to be the title of his work. He subsequently became a researcher in the field, a Suicidologist. He laments the chasm in lexicon used by researchers, and the language used by those contemplating or completing suicide.

The academic literature, in public health policy documents and in conferences … speak of my experience as some sort of exhibit in a glass jar to be pointed at.

The language of science, objective and rational, struggles to capture the dark mystery of suicide and our understanding of it suffers accordingly. [3]

Those contemplating suicide use different words than those studying it. Those contemplating are operating from a sense of logic that may be foreign to all but themselves.

Conversely, those studying it must provide concrete references, develop logical hypotheses, and pass peer-review for publication. <one wonder’s who are (or should be) truly the “peers” in this peer review.>

Furthermore “suicidology has to have some observables, otherwise it runs the danger of lapsing into mysticism and alchemy” (Maris, Berman, & Silverman, 2000, p 62-63). [3]

The language of direct, first-hand experience – intimately personal and subjective, sometimes irrational and paradoxical, often poetic and spiritual, and possibly frightening to some – must be included in our discourse to empower others to speak up and to dismantle the ignorance and stigma around suicide. [3]

Those contemplating suicide don’t read the scientific journals.

They are not “up” on the scientific jargon.

They need only call out for help, in perhaps the only way they know how. If they do at all.

A word, phrase, physical complaint – a “cry for help”. Many Suicide Assessment websites (example) present some useful information on what to look for, but for people you know and care about, it can (and should) be much more personal. [4]

Alas Babylon.

The “Original Voice” – the “other” voice of suicide

The researchers will do their thing. But where are the first-hand voices? The ones to tell the real stories? Those who don’t understand or identify with labels such as “suicide contemplators, attempters and completers,”and who don’t make the distinction among these labels anyway. As David Webb said, he did not. Whoever they are talking about in these research papers, he concluded, “were certainly not me.”

Suicide is not “logical.” To me, an engineer, it makes no sense that I would take all that I have accomplished – some college degrees, a successful career, advanced accomplishments in a variety of hobbies that bring me joy, and throw it all away. To take love of family and friends, and abandon it.

Well, I guess we can figure out I am not “a completer”. All I know is pain and my attempts to reach out. <Fck peer review. I proofread this post and provided references, shouldn’t that be enough? Or is my/our view less “valid”?>

Serious thoughts of suicide bring shame; thoughts you are crazy. You live in silence, not only self-imposed, but cemented by societies’ thoughts and the mental health’s system love of labels, pre-approvals, and lifetime limitations.

The feeling of suicide is reaching beyond the bottom of your soul.

The person actually experiencing this despair has become lost and invisible – so many trees but not a forest in sight. [3]

Suicidality is so hard to talk about when you are feeling it. Nobody wants to believe that this could be happening. You don’t even want to believe it yourself and you try so very hard to convince yourself that it’s OK, that it’s not really that bad. But it is. [3]

How do you hear that Other Voice? Sometimes it is more than words or phrases.

Art, music, dance, play and other creative methods of enquiry are required. We especially need to create safe spaces where these stories can be told – both to inform our enquiry but also and more importantly, as healing spaces. [5]

Amid the shame and taboo of suicide? Or well before?

Reaching people in the later stages of suicidality is, at best, problematic. For many reasons – shame, denial, stigma etc – we tend to ‘go underground’ once our suicidal contemplations start to become serious. We are also adept at hiding it and quite likely to turn our backs on those who try to reach out to us.[5]

Even if you try to reach out, society may screw it all up for you. Not on purpose….but from it’s own ignorance and “science generated improved treatments and interventions.”

If you are brave enough to seek help your ‘psychache’ will likely be denied. ..[and then you have] to get past the ‘pull yourself together’ school of therapy. [3]

A crisis

Contemplating suicide is like no other feeling.

Webb continues with a discussion of “self” and that our understanding of “self that is at the core of suicidality.” That his suicidal dilemma revolved around the question:

‘What does it mean to me that I exist?’. [3]

A common aspect of suicidology is the sense of hopelessness. Lack of meaning in one’s life. Without the feeling of meaning or purpose,

…then suicide becomes a progressively more and more logical and attractive option. Why put up with this pain when there is absolutely no point? [5]

Suicide is a crisis. A crisis of self. The lack of meaning, the feeling of hopeless, whether ANYONE ELSE believes that feeling is logical or warranted.

But what they think or want is not relevant.

So What

When I finally reached the nadir and recognized where I had ended up, I uttered my Alas Babylon. The friend who said they would come running did not. I was devastated. It is so incredibly hard to trust anyone else with the thoughts in your head, and that trust is so easily shattered when you need it most.

If you make that commitment to someone, be there. If for some reason you cannot be there in person, be there by phone, email, text message, whatever.

If you are not sure now bad it really is, ask. Or just assume it is.

That lack of feeling, the ebbing away of life force, is beyond the ability of you to do nearly anything. Other than maybe, perhaps, to reach out for help. In whatever way possible.

Suicide prevention can be everyone’s business. [2]


[1] Frank, P (1959). Alas, Babylon. Philadelphia, Lippincott.

[2] Shneidman ES (1996). The Suicidal Mind, Oxford University Press.

[3] Webb D. (2002). The Many Languages of Suicide, Suicide Prevention Australia Conference, Sydney, June 2002, accessed from

[4] Silverman MM (2005) Suicide Assessment, Intervention and Prevention, The Doctor Will See You Now, November 2005, accessed online from

[5] Webb D. (2003). Self, Soul and Spirit – Suicidology’s Blind-Spots? Finding meaning to sustain life: The place of spirituality in suicide prevention. Suicide Prevention Australia (SPA) Conference – Brisbane, June 2003



  castorgirl wrote @

Having uttered my “Alas Babylon” in different contexts to different people over the years, I thank you for this entry.

Sitting here with tears in my eyes at work hoping that no one sees me – they may ask questions and may want truthful answers. Shame of suicide, suicidal ideation and suicidal intent is immense in this society. I work in a supportive environment, but there have been suicides of friends of co-workers and the real acceptance of suicide is shown at that point. The most common responses being smug laughter, horror or anger that the “idiot” who committed suicide didn’t reach out for help.

I don’t work with monsters. I’m a librarian. Librarians are usually accepting of differences and empathetic. But suicide is a concept that crosses boundaries.

My one vivid memory that shows the problems with speaking out about suicide is having a family dinner. A previous husband of my sister-in-law committed suicide. She spent the entire dinner talking about how brave she was for surviving the self-fish pathetic act of this weak man. We collectively sat there frozen. The reason for the family dinner was that we’d gone home as we were so suicidal that it was either go home or be sectioned under the Mental Health Act.

Sorry this has turned into a rant/ramble.
Thank you for this reasoned entry. It helped us feel something – at the moment that is amazing.
Take care

  camigwen wrote @

Sophie – I am sorry that you have had suicide touch your life so often – a real heavy on the heart. It pisses me off – the people who say that they “didn’t reach out for help.” There are so many people who are just too busy with their own lives to be in touch with others. How many people anymore have such strong ties that they would drop EVERYTHING to rush to a person in such a bad place? It is a very sad statement about us as a society.

And I see myself to blame as well – I am afraid to reach out when I am really in pain because I feel like I don’t want to burden people – that they are too busy and I don’t want to “inconvenience” them. Isn’t that sick?!?

Your SIL – OMG. Yes, I agree that the survivors are hurt tremendously. But to state that the reason was because of a weak man….listen dear, where were YOU (the wife) for him? (I don’t know the situation and that is okay – but it just sounds so “look at me.”)

I am very glad that anything I wrote helps you just a little bit. But as much as I “reason” when I write, it is often my need to get “permission” that what I need to feel is okay to feel. Sick in a way. But it is hard to allow myself to feel and need something/someone.

Do not apologize for rambling…sometimes just writing what is in your heart helps bring the stress down just a bit. And that is good stuff.

Be well and dig for that hug deep inside.


  Vague wrote @

thank you for this… it brought to mind some things i wrote about in my blog. thanks for the spark. 🙂

  Emily’s Camigwen wrote @

Hi Vague

I am glad that this brought some thoughts to your mind. I had not read this post in a while, and reading it now, it feels so clear and obvious. I just wish those *normal* people out there could see it.


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