I tried to kill myself a long time ago. I know you’re not supposed to just come out and say that, but frankly, I don’t know many people who haven’t tried it at one time or another, or seriously considered it–even planned it, and certainly no one among the chronically depressed I’ve treated over the years can claim they haven’t swung by a thread over that pit at least once. There is not much I remember about the actual incident, except downing a bottle of blood pressure medicine and chasing it with a glass of orange juice, and then cleaning my house. I might’ve been folding laundry when I dropped. I remember the words, “You got anything?” and then, “I got nothing over here,” and then nothing else for a long time.
And then I drifted euphoric and weightless on tormented waves upon a bottomless ocean, washing skyward towards crests as high as mountains, and falling without fear into the troughs, free floating and ecstatic, and awaited the next crash. It was not the waves that guided my spirit, but my spirit which orchestrated the waves, and I was awash with a feeling of astounding ability. Occasionally my spirit took flight from the water and floated into the sky as light as an apparition where I could look down at myself, an organic stick figure, bobbing aimlessly on the green sea. I glided along in a foggy haze of Piscean wonderment and soaked up waves and sun like a satisfied sponge. After a hundred years of undisturbed buoyancy, a sea urchin began to nip at my arms and hands with trifling, needle-like bites and a thin, defined light crept like an eel over my eyeballs. I squeezed my lids shut against the intrusion and gave myself back to the ocean, offering myself up as a Neptunian sacrifice, proud and without reservation. Soon muffled voices arose from the depths, conglomerated like aggravated mermaids and then wafted away, devoid of human sound, as aimless as driftwood.
The first thought that came to my conscious mind was that though I was still afloat upon the water, and my spirit still reveled in its weightlessness, I could no longer hear the sound of the water sloshing around me. I could not hear the splash when my body was flung from the crest into the trough, and that no other noise, not the cry of seagulls or the occasional crack of thunder above the black sea, penetrated my ear. I strained to hear the clanging of the bells on the buoys near the shore. It seemed the ocean was becoming enraged at my presence there, and though I tried to offer it a prayer and begged it to keep me, it rolled madly, tossed me about and flung me against the incoming rush of my own destiny. Occasionally I was choked by gulps of salty water and I sputtered for air. My body was surrounded by vagrant seaweed, its undulating massage more irritating than relaxing, and I tried to kick it away. After a period of time I could not measure, the sea began to churn and its fluid slowly emptied clockwise like bath water down a drain. I swirled helplessly inside the waterspout until I was left, too bloated to be engulfed by the pipe, lying naked on a dry bed of white sand.
This is one of my most precious memories.
I will not attempt to explain or justify that statement.
I woke up four days later in the hospital on a renal unit in four-point leather restraints with a 24-hour sitter and an overly-excited brand new graduate nurse. She smiled down at me and said, “I thought you were going to wake up today!” She looked at my wristband. “Hey, your birthday is March 20th!” she said happily. “That’s the first day of Spring!”
“Yeah, well,” I said and closed my eyes, “it’s not easy being green.”
When I thought about all the suicides I have known over the years, a few stood out. There was Billy, a 52-year-old drug addict who had the bluest eyes I had ever seen. It wasn’t just the color I remember, but the sparkle, the mischief. I was lighting cigarettes for patients on the smoker’s porch of a private psychiatric hospital in Port St. Lucie, Florida when I met him. He was sitting quietly at a table, chain-smoking, trying not to notice the stares of the other patients as they surveyed him and his festering track marks. I was sizing him up myself. A junkie in his fifties is a pretty rare bird–they almost always die young–but the other patients wouldn’t have understood him anyway, or he them. It was the way of the ward on detox. Drunks didn’t get crack addicts. Crack addicts didn’t get pill poppers. Nobody really got meth heads. They all detoxed differently, too. Alcoholics had a hard time eating and sleeping during withdrawal. Crack addicts ate hand over fist and could fall asleep standing up in front of an open refrigerator. Billy stayed to himself most of the time he was on the ward but it didn’t stop the other patients from asking him questions. Where did he buy his drugs? Was he a pimp? Did he steal from his family to buy drugs? How much money did he spend a day? He usually didn’t answer. That day on the patio one of the younger male patients sat down across from him at the table and gestured towards Billy’s track marks with a nod. “I don’t get it, man,” he said and laughed. “I mean, how long does that even last?”
For a moment, Billy said nothing. He leaned back on the bench and looked beyond his smoking audience deep into the nether regions of the cloudy middle space. I watched him struggle for a truth that could not be born and thought he might cry or scream and I held my breath and waited. He turned his arms outward so we could all see the scars and said with a dead voice, “For the rest of your fucking life.”
The patients were jumpy for the rest of the day. Someone had fainted. Someone had thrown a food tray into the nurses’ station. A patient vomited in the dayroom. One of the other nurses asked, “What is it? A full moon?” A jumpy unit could be the result of many things–a fire drill excited some patients; a state inspection stressed out the staff and that energy was then transferred to the patients; a hated nurse on duty often caused the patients to engage in passive-aggressive staff manipulation. But I knew it was more than that. There had been a trial that day. They had been found guilty as charged and a life sentence had been handed down.
Two days after Billy was discharged, his brother called the unit and told us Billy had overdosed. He had been buying, but not using, heroin since he got out of the hospital. He had been stockpiling, and then he had used it all at once. The last thing he said to me was, “Tracy, you are a trip…with all the luggage.”
There was the little girl who had tap danced at the lobby door the day of her discharge and sang, “No siree, you won’t see me no more!” She fired a bullet from a 357 Magnum into her neck as soon as she got home. I can never remember if the last thing she said was, “I’m gonna take care of myself” or “I’m gonna take care of myself!” Was it the inflection that killed her?
There was Madge and Alfie. They were an elderly couple who had gotten sick–he with emphysema and she with esophageal cancer–who made the decision to end their lives rather than live a sick existence. “We didn’t want hospitals and doctors appointments and pills and scans and x-rays and medicine and oxygen and all that bullshit. We raised our kids. We’re old. We’re retired. We’re done!” They swallowed bottles of pills and were found a day later unconscious in a hotel room by housekeeping staff. They were still holding hands. He had been revived and came to the psych unit after a week’s stay in ICU. He knew without asking that his wife was dead. When I told him how sorry I was that she didn’t make it he said simply, “No, she did. I’m the one that didn’t make it.” His children came in and obtained guardianship, took legal action over his life and finances, sold his home and belongings, and he never said anything. One evening I sat with him in the dayroom and did my charting. This is where I learned that silence is its own language. Some patients don’t want to talk. They don’t want your advice. They don’t need you to tell them things will get better or educate them about their illness or teach them shiny, new coping skills. They just want you near. After an hour or so he looked at me and said, “The doctor told me today that I could live another 20 years!” I felt my face flush. “See? You know,” he said and then looked out the window. “If only we hadn’t forgotten that damn ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign.”
I remember a patient in ICU I saw during nursing school who had attempted suicide by putting a gun to his chin and pulling the trigger. He only succeeded in shooting off his face. I do not have the descriptive abilities to paint that picture, but it is a visual I see very clearly to this day. The problem many people have is that they think suicide is easy, but most successful suicides occur after years of practice, after several unsuccessful attempts, and many times, accidentally. There is no course on the subject. Suicide 101: Getting it Right the First Time might be a class that would fill up fast, but there would be no graduating, no certificate of completion. It’s a crap shoot.
It is not a taboo subject for me. I have sauntered down this path many, many times, both alone and as a guardian to a patient or friend. One of the comments that I hear most often is, “At least I’ll be out of pain (or misery or heartache, etc).” My question is always, “How do you know?” In the case of heartbreak, I can’t imagine that we leave that behind. And what about psychological torment or metaphysical grief? Where does that go? Does it get transferred to someone else? Do we bring it with us and suffer the anguish for eternity? The other comment I hear frequently is, “I just want to be happy.” This has always bothered me. Whoever said happiness was our only valid emotion? Why can’t we feel depressed or sad or lonely or disgusted or jealous or impatient or bored or any number of other negative emotions people tell us we shouldn’t feel? This is where the edges are. This is where it gets deep. Pain is where the poetry comes from. It’s what made van Gogh paint. It’s what made Hemingway write. It’s what makes you take pictures and draw on walls and strum a guitar and write a love letter…
I realize it’s also what made van Gogh and Hemingway blow their brains out.
But these wounds, these gaping, festering wounds. They will not be denied or ignored. They will not be snuffed out. They will not be drowned with alcohol or inebriated with drugs. They will not be stuffed with food or distracted by people or exercise or sex. The potions and lotions and medicine used to quiet their screams are ineffective and the conventional methods used to treat them are temporary. In the end, you have to face the demon. You have to face the pain. You’ve got to feel it, own it, wear it like a fucking badge and then, you’ve got to stitch up that bitch where it bleeds.