Contemplating Suicide: A Practical Reflection
Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you. – Friedrich Nietzsche
I spent the past hour reading through this post and the comment section and two pieces that are linked in the first comment. It has occurred to me over the past several months as I’ve tried to fight my way back to something resembling healthy, and spent the past three or four weeks struggling just to maintain something a bit better than full-fledged recurrence of the depression with which I lived through the winter, that there are so many confessionals about depression and the emotional content – and the two from Hyperbole And A Half capture exactly how I lived in the months up to my decision to seek help – but very little detailing what it is like to work through the the decision to end one’s life. I’ve heard a few, including one from a man who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived, talking about how once he was off the ledge he instantly regretted it; that kind of thing isn’t really informative or helpful. It is, in fact, yet another desire to seek a happy ending to a story that may or may not have one.
What follows is deeply personal. It is also difficult, if for no other reason than in revisiting a part of my very recent past in which I lived in near-constant interior agony that is impossible to communicate to others, it is much like battling Nietzsche’s monsters: I do not wish to do so because those monsters can take over your life way too easily. It is also difficult to do because I have family members who might read this. Finally, it is difficult because it is deeply shaming. Ours is a society that does not tolerate sadness, let alone an illness like depression that makes sadness look like a small cloud briefly in front of the sun. To advertise that one spent several weeks trying to work out the logistics of self-caused death is to exclude oneself from American society in a way that violates so many unspoken, unanalyzed taboos, it is frightening. Yet, it is a reality with which I lived, and about which I have not spoken except in generalities – “I’ve been contemplating suicide” – but should be talked about. I’m not doing it in the hope or desire for sympathy; I’m not even doing it for understanding. I’m doing this to help someone, even just one person, who may well be standing at the edge, looking in to that darkness below, thinking how wonderful that darkness will be, especially considering the hellish pain that is each living moment, and let them know (if it is possible; it isn’t always possible) they are not alone.
As February passed to March, I found myself more than once staring at Facebook, contemplating what to put as my status, and wanting to just shout out my pain. Other times, I just wanted to type, “FUCKFUCKFUCKFUCKFUCK!!!”, and would start to giggle, thinking, “That’ll shock ’em.” I backed away from doing either only because I wondered about the reaction I’d get: “He’s sick.”; “Something’s wrong with him.” The last thing I wanted, at that point, was anyone to know just how lost I was. Locked inside myself, reaching out even in some extreme way, was not what I wanted.
Once the word “suicide” entered my head and I stripped it of any and all negative connotations, it almost immediately became a matter of logistics. As the father of two children, I only really has one rule: I did not want my children either to find me, or to see me in death. Even in the midst of my depression, my love for my children was so profound I wanted to make sure they never had the experience far too many children of suicides have. That ruled out a death at home, or at least a death at home that would be discovered by them rather than my wife*. Since we do now own any firearms, I think I was fortunate, because a quick trip up Perryville Rd. to Rock Cut State Park, a walk off the path, and the whole thing would have ended quickly, messily, and far enough from home that in all likelihood a member of law enforcement would have found what was left. At the same time, not owning a firearm forced me to be creative both in doing what I desperately wanted to do – end the pain that was my life without causing additional pain to those closest to me. Such creativity led to experimenting.
My commute to work included a roughly 10 mile drive down one particular stretch of country road that is little used. This past winter, much of that road was ice-covered, or pack-snow-covered, making it slick in a variety of places. It would be easy enough, I thought, to make it look like I hit a patch of ice going a bit too fast, and that would be that. All it would take is unbuckling my seat belt before doing so. Sure, the car had an airbag. An airbag without a seatbelt, however, wouldn’t be much help, especially if the car rolled, which I learned how to do by thinking about things like angular momentum. With the front wheels turned in to a skid at, say, 65 or 70 miles an hour, hitting a large, packed snow embankment – or even better, a ditch full of snow – almost completely sideways, the car would probably have rolled several times, bounding me around inside quite nicely enough to do severe damage. Being on a seldom-used country road would mean not being found right away. In the deep cold of this past winter. With help in the form of an ambulance crew, with a fire crew to help get me out of the tangled up mess of my car even further away. Time, in cases like this, is always of the essence. It would look like an accident. Even if I survived, I was guaranteed weeks if not months of recovery time, during which I would have medications at my disposal that, if taken in large enough doses, would finish the job with the simple expedient of falling asleep.
It seemed like a clean enough plan. I am a thorough person, however, so, about a week before I confessed to my wife and started seeking help, I did what I called “a trial run”. I didn’t unbuckle my seat belt, I drove much more slowly, and on a spot on the road that was clear enough of ice that, if I wanted, I could regain control of my car. Off to work I went, down the road I drove, I started to drift ever-so-slightly to the right. Almost immediately, driving instinct took over and I forced the car back on the road. Damn it, I thought. A few miles further up the road, I tried again, and sure enough, driving instinct took over and I yet again regained control of my car. I pulled over to the side of the road and started crying. I couldn’t even do something as simple as this right, without my instinct to save myself taking over from my far deeper need just to end my pain, the misery of each moment of my life. It served as an occasion to berate myself even more: I was a failure at all else in my life; I was now a failure at ending it, even though I had reached the point where death seemed so welcoming.
I spent a few days running through new options in my head. I realized all I had left would violate the one rule I had set for myself. Then came the moment when I decided to tell my wife what was going on. One of the things I said was, “I do not want to hurt myself or anyone else.” The first part of that sentence was a lie. Not only did I want to hurt myself; I wanted to die. The second part, however, was true. Not in the sense that I would have killed the rest of my family along with myself. No, I realized that the only suicide options open to me were to do so at home, always risking discovery by my daughters. I did not want to do that. In a very real sense, my love for my children saved my life, although at the time it felt far more like my existence as a failed human being – I couldn’t even do suicide right, for Christ’s sake! – was the reason I had that talk with my wife and ended up seeking help.
In the months since then, I have replayed those last couple weeks over and over in my head. When I told my wife and my doctor I was “no more than a week or two away from a suicide attempt”, it was the thought that suicide had become my goal and I might just say, “Fuck it,” to my rule about my kids finding me and do something at home that explained that phrase. I had been contemplating suicide, in a practical way, for weeks. It was the reality that I couldn’t do so without my kids probably being the ones to find me that made me realize I had to do something. Not some desire to live. Not a desire to get better. Not some inkling that I had something for which to live. It would be weeks before I thought I wanted, or could, get better. It would be weeks before I had any desire to live. No, my seeking help was not from some spark of hope in some part of my psyche. It was a sense of utter failure, even at killing myself, that prompted me to confess in general terms, about my condition.
I am on the far side of the worst of all this. I no longer think about killing myself, at least not much. The past month or so has taught me that recovery is neither linear nor, despite what both my physician and therapist have told me, within a reasonable time frame. Depression, like cancer, can go in to remission only to emerge again, insidious and violent as ever. The difference now is I want to live. There is still a lot of pain. I am fighting it now, though, because even though I’m not sure what the word “hope” refers to, I do want to continue living, even with the pain, to watch my daughter graduate from high school next spring; to go to Disney World again next spring; maybe – just maybe – to see something I’ve written get published by someone else. I want to wake up next to my wife, feel her warmth, the softness of her skin. And of course there’s music; for me there is always music.
Which reminds me. I was going to post a video for Metallica’s “Fade To Black”, but that’s really more a piece of juvenalia. Then I considered Lunatic Soul’s “Summerland”, a song about that supposed twilight zone between life and what comes next. Then, I realized, no – that’s not where I’m at. Instead, here’s Felix Medelssohn-Bartoldy’s setting for Psalm 100, which begins: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. /Worship the Lord with gladness;/ come into his presence with singing.”
*Yes, I know, allowing my wife to find my dead body would have been horrible. I rationalized that by insisting that, as an adult, she would recover from the experience in a way my children would not. Being depressed is not rational.