My incessant procrastination in revising for my Criminal Law exam on Wednesday was cut short when I saw this devastating piece of news. Since I had seen it while scrolling through Facebook, and the report was from a not-so-reliable page, I had hoped that it was just a gossip in extremely poor taste. When this was confirmed in BBC (below), it was as if I had received news of the passing of someone I knew personally – it took hours for the information to sink in, and when it did, it left me an emotional wreck.
While I am no longer as big a fan of SHINee as I had been in the past, they were the very first group that got me interested in K-Pop. That was back in 2008, in May, just days after my 12th birthday. SHINee debuted with Replay, a song that remains extremely sentimental for me. Naturally, because it was the first K-Pop song I ever heard and K-Pop is still something I am interested in today, Replay and that first mini album has come to represent my gateway into K-Pop.
For years that followed, I was a huge SHINee fan, performing all those routinely fangirl things that has now become customary for all K-Pop fans. I purchased merchandise – from necklaces, to cups to poker cards – anything that the nearest Comic Connections in Singapore could offer. I watched all their variety shows and, in the process, felt as if I knew these idols personally. This sort of connection is one that K-Pop fans often feel with their favourite groups, as I do now with BTS. By exposing us so frequently and intimately to the unique and genuine behaviour of each member, we become much more invested in them.
This is why the news of Jonghyun’s passing was so devastating to not just me, but any K-Pop fan that has ever been fans of SHINee. I know many friends who have left the K-Pop scene years ago, but returned when the news spread – being a K-Pop fan is, whether for the better or worse, a part of life for many.
Channel News Asia was the first source that I saw revealing the circumstances of his death:
Many sources also acknowledge that he had sent a farewell message to his sister.
Here, I point to 2 things that stood out to me:
(1) He had messaged his sister, a figure that, as a past fan of SHINee, I had heard about several times. As I had previously mentioned, K-Pop has this uncanny ability to make their fans feel deeply connected and personally involved with their idols, and this includes their family members. I remember that Jonghyun had mentioned his sister many times in different variety shows.
(2) He had died by self-inflicted carbon monoxide poisoning. As someone who has suffered Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) and has entered into a recovery stage with Recurrent Brief Depression (RBD), suicidal thoughts and planning is not unfamiliar to me. My own experiences has made me realise, with an uncanny insight into his train of thoughts, the kind of suffering he had been going through. I will elaborate on this first.
Depression leading to Suicide
Depression often leads to suicidal thoughts and can cause an individual to excessively plan their own demise. However, while 80-90% of suicide cases had depression (Shahtahmasebi, 2013), the reverse correlation is untrue. From personal experience, I had suicidal thoughts about 4-5 times a week, with a serious one (I actually started making steps towards realising it) weekly, during my worst times. Yet, coming to the end of 5 years of living with depression, I had clearly never went through with it.
Why does this matter? It serves to highlight the extent of Jonghyun’s despair.
Self-inflicted carbon monoxide poisoning is fundamentally different from other methods of suicide. Personally, the 3 I have always contented with were – leaping off a high place into an isolated area, cutting or hanging. How all these 3 methods differ from carbon monoxide poisoning is the immediacy of death. If I chose to leap off a cliff to my death, the moment of waiting would be the time it took to hit the floor and bleed out – that can happen in minutes. I had planned to cut myself while sitting in a tub of warm water, because that accelerates blood flow. That too, would take no more than 15 minutes. Hanging is even quicker, although the chances of failure are also higher. As morbid as that sounds, it goes to show that when committing suicide, many prefer the death to be as swift as possible so that they either don’t suffer as long or so that they don’t have a change of mind.
Carbon monoxide poisoning is very different. You need to wait for the material to burn and the air around you to become saturated with carbon monoxide poisoning. It is much more akin to drowning, because the time between the initiation of the cause of death and the moment of passing is much longer. That is also why many who commit suicide by drowning tie a rope to a heavy rock. The longer that period of time, the more likely your natural survival instincts come in. Similarly, when the air becomes suffocating, such as when a person is trapped in a glass tank, their natural instinct would cause them to madly pound at the glass around them.
In other words, Jonghyun had his survival instincts kick in, scream at him to get out and get fresh air. He had to actively defy the powerful human will to survive in order to see his suicide attempt through. That was how painful life was to him at the moment of his death. That’s the depth of the despair he had felt.
If someone asked me what depression feels like, I would say ‘drowning’. It is like an endless sinking into a cold water, as you gradually feel yourself being swallowed by the darkness and the light above you grows dimmer. The deeper your despair, the more it seems impossible to grasp that light and the more vast the body of water feels. Depression brings that feeling of being utterly alone. As someone who also had severe social anxiety, that is a very different feeling. Social anxiety makes you feel like there are eyes always watching and judging you. Depression is the feeling of cold emptiness. In fact, in moments of depressive episodes, I feel so cold that the ends of my body would actually become freezing.
The K-Pop Industry
As someone who did actually grow up with K-Pop, the industry’s flaws have always been apparent to me. K-Pop, unlike other genres of music, is a very constructed and established industry. SM Entertainment, especially, has a terrible reputation of mistreating their idols. They are also known to pump out groups yearly, so much so that it has been said that the maximum lifetime of a group is 4-5 years. It transforms music from a form of creative expression, embodying the genuine human spirit, and dehumanises it to a machine.
In this machine, an individual does not produce his music for himself. It does not embody his soul or his emotions. This is why I have taken to liking BTS over other bands. Since Big Hit Entertainment is still relatively smaller and BTS is their first big hit, the band is allowed to write their own music, choreograph their own dance and in essence, make their music their own. This is something that is clearly lacking in the bigger companies, such as SM Entertainment, which owns SHINee. Music loses that key ‘human’ element, and with it, K-Pop idols lose their individual personality to a group identity.
What follows is that an idol is no more and no less than the group he is in and the industry he is hired by. Coming back to Jonghyun’s case, what this means is that if he had cried out for help on social media, as many Western artists have done, his career would have been endangered. His fans might not even back him up. In 2013, follow his declaration of support for the LGBTQ community, he was bullied on social media by SHINee’s own fans. As part of a huge, successful commercial business, he also has no possibility of revealing his depression without risking his job. In other words, he was trapped in a situation where, everyday, his depression was driving him closer and closer to committing suicide.
Usually, fellow members are the remedy, but even then, they cannot consistently and completely solve the issue. SHINee is one of the oldest K-Pop groups out there and what this means is that they have, long ago, moved beyond purely group activities. As with all SM Entertainment idols, as the group matures, they take up more and more individual activities. Jonghyun, for example, had been releasing solo albums for a while. What this meant emotionally was that he was no longer as close to his members, and thus, his main support system. Think of it like losing a best friend who you lived with in the same place of years having to leave because they got busy.
Why I choose not to make an even bigger deal out of this is because this is very well understood, at least by the Asian community, i.e. the main consumers of K-Pop.
What I felt that I could contribute to this issue is to provide an insight to what he might have been feeling. When I feel depressed, I get this sense of being utterly alone. Your mind takes on this view where everything optimistic gets bloated out. I do have one of the best support system in the world compressed into the blessing of the single best friend a person could have, but even then, moments of depression can raise that to doubt. In those moments, that depressed individual needs just one trusted friend to slap them (not physically please) as hard as possible to snap out of their pit of despair.
What depression feels like is drowning in a huge pit of cold water as your vision becomes increasingly darkened. Yet, when I snap out of it, I realise that I have just been staring into this one small yet deep pool of water, so focused on its depth that I was mentally drowning in it. Depression narrows your view down to that one spot of pessimism and then enlarges it to encompass your entire thought process, bloating out your ability to see beyond your tunnel vision.
Yet, in those moments, it felt like the world was closing in. Being alive felt painful, suffocating, so utterly lonely and cold that death becomes an alternative. I can truly imagine how it felt for Jonghyun in his last moments. As the air around him became increasingly suffocating, it mirrored that closing-in feeling he had felt with life. The loss of life is a tragedy, but in my opinion, what was even more tragic and regretful was that in his dying moments, he had passed feeling utterly alone and in the deepest pits of despair. It certainly helps put a perspective for me on my own depression and suicidal thoughts.