[SPOILER ALERT: I will be discussing details of series 10’s first episode. If you want to see it for yourself first, then stop here. You have been warned.]
Like so many others, I was beside myself to finally see a new episode of Doctor Who, after an entire year of absence from the small screen, save for the annual Christmas special. And the first episode of the new series did not disappoint.
In it, we see the return of Peter Capaldi, in his final season as the Doctor, along with the cheeky Nardole, who we have come to know from the last two Christmas specials. We also meet Bill Potts, the new companion played by Pearl Mackie.
In this episode, we meet Bill, who works in the university cafeteria. In addition to being inexplicably drawn to the Doctor’s lectures at the university, she also develops a crush on the enigmatic, but seemingly sad, Heather.
All Heather wants is to get away from everything. She sees herself as ‘defective’ and acts withdrawn toward everyone. Heather’s one place of solace is a mysterious puddle in a back alley on campus. She spends time staring into it, trying to figure out why her reflection doesn’t look quite right.
Eventually, the puddle (which turns out to be something else entirely) consumes Heather and leaves a ghost-like entity in her place. What follows are some delightfully scary encounters in the tradition of Japanese horror films like Ringu.
Heather wanted to get away, and she got her wish by becoming ‘the pilot’ of a liquid alien spaceship, but at the cost of her humanity. Her pursuit (haunting) of Bill is driven by her last conscious thought, a promise to not leave without Bill herself.
What the episode stirred up for me are memories of being a suicide survivor. For those unaware of the term, suicide survivors are the loved ones of those who take their lives. We are the ones who get left behind when someone decides that this world isn’t worth living on anymore.
I have known several such people, but the one who stands out most prominently is my college roommate, Rob, who took his own life in March of 2001, during my junior year at Appalachian State University.
The suicide of a loved one is a wound that never fully heals. With time and good inner work, it stops bleeding and becomes a scar, but the mark abides and the absence is felt forever. In a figurative sense, Rob’s ghost follows me across space and time.
Release only comes for Bill when she stops running, turns to face Heather’s ghost, and finally lets her go with the words, “I really liked you.”
Those of us who get left behind by suicide live with that same kind of haunting presence. I really liked Rob. Was I not a good-enough friend? What could/should I have said on that last weekend together, when he looked so pale and gaunt, but I dismissed it as a weight-loss routine? What questions should I have asked on the night he died, when we chatted via Instant Messenger, and I prattled on and on about my latest personal drama? I will never know.
All I remember is the next day, when Rob’s campus minister met me outside our dorm and told me that Rob was dead. Later that week, I attended my first Roman Catholic mass and began to fall in love with liturgical worship. I started going to mass regularly after that. Even though I never converted to Roman Catholicism, that journey has now led me to the Episcopal Church, where I am beginning the confirmation process and hope to pursue ordination to the priesthood. I’m grateful for that experience, but it still doesn’t redeem Rob’s death. I carry that scar with me to this day.
G.K. Chesterton once wrote that suicide is a worse crime than murder. “The man who kills a man,” Chesterton writes, “kills a man. The man who kills himself, kills all men; as far as he is concerned he wipes out the world.” (Orthodoxy, Ch. 5)
Now, let me be perfectly clear that I reject any notion of the belief that all suicide victims are necessarily condemned to hell for eternity. Such theology is indefensible from a moral or biblical standpoint. Rob was overcome by his bipolar disorder when he refused to take his medication. He failed to manage his disease, so it raged out of control and left the rest of us with a permanent scar.
None of that is fair. It was unfair that Rob had to live with bipolar disorder. It was unfair that he chose to go off his meds. It is unfair that his loved ones have to deal with the consequences forever.
But this unfair situation cannot be dealt with by assigning blame and running away from the ‘evil’ that is haunting us.
As the Doctor so keenly observes in the episode, “Hardly anything is evil, but most things are hungry. And hunger looks a lot like evil from the wrong end of the cutlery.”
The situation only finds resolution when Bill stops running and turns to face Heather’s ghost. In a moment of tenderness for the monster, she reaches out, takes her hand, and says, “I really liked you.” Then she let Heather go.
If I had one more face-to-face encounter with Rob, that’s all I would say to him.
If you are like me and Bill, suicide survivors, don’t waste your time with the blame game, which has no winners. That ghost will haunt you from here to the other side of the universe. The whole thing is patently unfair, but we can’t demand “a life for a life” when the life lost is the one that was taken to begin with. We have to forgive, to let go, in order to move on. With time, grace, and care, the bleeding will stop and the wound will become a scar. But scars are stories and can be useful in the healing of others.
If you are like Heather, wanting to end your suffering by running away from this world, I urge you to reach out and seek help before it is too late. Don’t seek a permanent solution to a temporary problem. There are more who love you than you realize. Don’t outsource your suffering onto others by becoming a ghost. In the words of Scripture, “There are more for you than there are against you.” There are people, some of them even strangers, who would rush to your aide if they knew how dire the situation was. Seek them out.