The first time I tried to kill myself I was around 15 years old.
I took a steak knife from the kitchen drawer and pushed the tip into my wrist. I held the handle firmly and thrust the knife into my skin with what I thought would be enough force to make a cut; but the tip of the knife didn’t pierce the flesh. It barely even left a mark.
I didn’t press the knife any further. Instead, I rinsed it off, put it back in the drawer, splashed water on my face and started doing my homework at the kitchen table.
And that was the end of that.
Except it wasn’t.
There was the steak knife when I was 15, and then there were the handfuls of Tylenol nine months ago.
I was sitting on my couch when I swallowed a couple handfuls of extra strength acetaminophen. I didn’t puke or anything. No stomach pumping happened or any of that. All I ended up with was a terrible stomach ache that kept me up most of the night.
Total amateur hour, I thought.
But it was serious business.
Or at least “serious” was the word my psychiatrist kept using the next day.
I took the handfuls of Tylenol on Wednesday night and I just so happened to have therapy on Thursday. I have therapy every Thursday in fact.
I showed up for my appointment that morning, not intending to say a thing about the pills. But my psychiatrist started asking me some particularly frank personal questions in a way that made me think I could talk about what I did the night before without raising any professional eyebrows. So I reported some sparse details about my actions and his eyebrows raised.
They raised like hell.
“This is serious,” he said.
He beat that damn “this is serious” horse to death. But he had to beat it to death, because I was in denial.
“I’m fine! I didn’t really want to die! I was just experimenting,” I said. “I didn’t even take that many pills! There were still like three left in the bottle!”
But my psychiatrist didn’t believe that I was fine: “Tylenol can cause liver damage. And you can feel fine, but totally not be fine.”
I protested some more, but then he hit me with the bottom line and gave me two options: I could walk to the ER voluntarily with him or I could keep protesting while he alerted security. They would barricade the doors to the building before briskly escorting me to the ER.
So, fine. I went.
But as we were sitting with the nurse in the intake room, I had a change of heart and said, “Forget this. I’m going home.”
I started walking away. And then I started screaming.
“Stop! Get off me! Get the f**k off meeeee!! Let me go! F**k you! F**k you!”
That’s what I was yelling at the three guys in uniform who grabbed me by my limbs and dragged me to a hospital bed. I sat on that bed for five or six hours under police surveillance before I was admitted to the hospital’s psychiatric ward. It was there that I stayed overnight before I was admitted the next day to an inpatient psych facility that I stayed at for another eight nights and nine days. Or maybe it was nine nights and 10 days. I honestly don’t remember.
And I honestly don’t even remember what specific events led up to my swallowing so many pills in the first place. I don’t remember the specific moment when a suicidal notion became a suicidal action.
Like many folks, I live on an “I’m OK”/”I’m not OK” emotional spectrum.
But even my best “I’m OK” days bring some thought (or more than one thought) about how I might end my life.
So consider this tally: There were approximately 8,030 days between the time my 15-year-old self held a steak knife to her wrist, and the time my 37-year-old self swallowed handfuls of Tylenol.
Exactly 8,030 days, and I probably contemplated suicide on every single one of them.
I’m almost 40 years old and I’ve spent more than half of my life not actually wanting to be alive.
To Live Or Not To Live? That Is The Question
The language of suicide is tricky.
For instance, I keep re-reading that very first sentence, the one where I said, “the first time I tried to kill myself,” and wonder if I should’ve put it another way.
I generally loathe the word “try” in any context. Maybe my strong feelings about it are a consequence of watching Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back; specifically the scene where Yoda tells Luke Skywalker, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
I sort of subscribe to the “there is no try” school of thought. I believe that trying is for people who don’t mean business; if you really want to do something, you just do it. You don’t try to do it. You figure out a way to make it happen, then you just f**king do it.
So I think that trying to kill myself and not actually killing myself kind of negates itself, so it’s really not trying at all.
Either you do. Or you don’t. There is no try.
Look, I’ll save you the trouble of calling me out here: I know that this is my own bulls**t thinking, and that this thinking is especially dangerous when it comes to contemplating suicide. But when I say, “I tried to kill myself” about that day in the kitchen when I was 15 or that night on my couch last year, I feel like the word “try” suggests that I was unsuccessful somehow.
Yes, I absolutely did not die that day. But I’m not so sure that death, specifically, was what I was really after.
The Unbearable Light(less)ness of Being
In her memoir, The Prisoner’s Wife, Asha Bandele describes her suicide attempt this way:
I didn’t really know another way to leave except by dying. But it didn’t mean that that’s what I wanted, to die, only that I didn’t want to live in emptiness. That’s the difference between wanting to die and not wanting to live.
I was 23 years old when I first read Bandele’s book and I clung ferociously to that line, The difference between wanting to die and not wanting to live.
I parsed those two phrases over and over again.
Wanting to die….
Not wanting to live.…
Hot damn if there wasn’t a fine line between the two!
I had spent most of my young adult life tiptoeing around that line.
I had longed like hell to be absent from the world. Yet, with all that desperate longing, I had also been a little reluctant to completely and irrevocably leave the world by means of death.
But there are other ways to die besides death. Any person who’s ever been seriously depressed will tell you that. So over the years I’ve left the land of the living a lot, without actually dying: disappearing from social media; completely withdrawing from friends and family; not answering calls or text messages for weeks; not showering or leaving the house for days; unceremoniously and unapologetically bowing out of all work obligations; and cutting myself off from anything that had to do with writing or my career. Those were just some of the metaphorical suicides I chose to commit when I had otherwise mixed feelings about not wanting to live, but also not wanting to die.
And those mixed-feelings I’m referring to, therapists call it ambivalence. It’s not exactly a desirable emotional state.
Feeling ambivalence about whether you want to live or die casts a murkiness and lowness around your days. On many days, ambivalence was all that I managed to hold on to when I couldn’t muster up anything as confident as faith or hope. I say all that to say that I think ambivalence kept my a** alive.
Where there’s ambivalence and mixed feelings, there’s indecision. And where there’s indecision, there’s indifference. And where there’s indifference, there’s inaction.
Think about it: What would you do if a hamburger and a cheese steak are the only two things on a menu, but you really don’t want a hamburger and you also really don’t want a cheese steak? You’d do nothing, that’s what you would do. At some point, you might take your appetite to another restaurant, but for a little while or a long while, you’d just feel stuck. You’d glance back and forth between those two lone options and you’d never make up your mind, because you don’t want either one.
Well, I am very often (and very intently–sometimes incessantly) weighing the following two menu options: do I want to live or do I want to die? And to be honest, I typically don’t want either one. So I get stuck. And stuck sucks. But stuck is still alive.
So people can say what they will about ambivalence. I know it gets a bad rap in these goal-driven, go-getting times of ours. But I could get real Madea up in here and do a saved and sanctified “Hallelujah!” Holy Ghost shout about ambivalence.
I’m mighty grateful for ambivalence. I’m also grateful for ambivalence’s little ashy-elbowed cousin: apathy.
Ambivalence and apathy might not be at the mountaintop, but they’re a step up from that dirty, dogged, downright gutter of a feeling: despair.
Despair is eager, clawing, forthright and aggressive. Despair is the nightmare creature that wants to run me down and wrestle me to the ground. Despair chases me right out of my skin, if merely by chasing me out of my soul.
Remember when I described ambivalence as “murkiness”? Well, if ambivalence is murkiness, then despair is dark as hell. Despair is utter darkness. No, it’s even darker than that. Multiply all that darkness to the gazillionth degree, multiply that by infinity, add one hundred thousand million, and then multiply that by infinity again.
Then multiply everything by π. And solve for x.
That’s how dark despair is.