When I was in sixth grade, the teenage daughter of one of my mom’s co-workers committed suicide. She locked herself in the garage, climbed into her father’s collector car, and turned the key in the ignition. Nobody found her for hours. She was buried in her unworn pink prom dress.
My mom decided to take me to the viewing, to teach me a valuable lesson. She was always a fan of the dramatic “scared straight” approach. Hmmm. I’m not going to lie…at the age of 11 I was moody and usually depressed. And self-destructive. And self-loathing. All of the teenage afflictions had arrived early.
I hate funerals. I guess most people would agree with that statement. I came to this conclusion in 4th grade, when I attended the funeral service of my Great-Aunt Janice. She loaned me romance novels and crazy crochet ponchos. She had a penchant for clogs and tea. She drove a VW bus. I was ceaselessly amazed by her large collection of eight tracks. Obviously I was sad. But the funeral itself was agonizing. My mother cried non-stop during the service (she had been very close to her aunt, especially during her allegedly rebellious teenage years). This was pretty excruciating for me, as I had long before decided that I was my mom’s extra-special caretaker/protector. But the worst was yet to come: I overheard another aunt (by marriage, and overall, a pretty heinous character) tell another relative that in the last few days before my great-aunt died (she was in a hospice), she wouldn’t let anyone turn off the lights because she was afraid that she would die in the darkness. This chills me even now. I’ve been forced to attend many funerals since then–and more are certainly on the horizon–but I try to go to only the most mandatory functions (like immediate relatives). No friends of friends or distant cousins.
So back to this allegedly educational viewing. Well, at least I had emotional distance from all attendees and the actual deceased girl. But her mother was inconsolable. She looked as if she had not slept or eaten in days. The father was trying to be stoic…but even to my prepubescent eyes, it was obvious that he would disintegrate at any moment. Teenage girls with too much makeup were weeping. Their male cohorts were uncomfortable and moist-faced.
My mother made me walk up to the open coffin. The body was charcoal grey, despite the thick waxy flesh-colored makeup applied by a frustrated mortician. The clownish cherry-red blush only accentuated the greyness.
The girl was a stranger to me, but even I could tell that maybe she didn’t have it that bad in life. The notes in the program described her as honor student going away to a decent college in the fall. Her parents obviously loved her. And judging from the horde of teenagers in attendance, she was somewhat popular. It was stunning to me that suddenly she was just a shell covered in bubble gum satin and poorly applied makeup.
I was aware that suicide was sad. On that day I began to see what I soon came to know intimately: the death of a young person can destroy a family. The more tragic and preventable (suicide, drug overdoses, eating disorders) the death is, the more the family is thrown apart. Marriages end. Self-destruction becomes contagious, spreading to every sibling and close friend.
But this awareness only made suicide all the more romantic/appealing to me. Imagine, my mom –who mostly just yelled at me about my bad handwriting and terrible dishwashing skills–spending the rest of her days pining away for me. My father would be sorry that he abandoned me, tormented by guilt for the rest of his life. The kids at school who laughed at my weird clothes and even weirder personality would be reformed, suddenly compassionate to all of the outcasts and unattractive kids. I would be a martyr for those with braces or bad perms or tragic skin or high SAT scores.
So I have to tell you: I attempted suicide three times in the span of time between age 19 and 23. In order: sleeping pills, a combination of Depakote and Xanax, and last but most painful: a grim mixture of heroin, Absolut vodka (bought in the duty free shop at the Mexico City airport), and assorted pills (some OTC).
Drinking charcoal did not teach me a valuable lesson. Being committed to a psychiatric facility made little impact. Stomach pumping? Eh. Painful and humiliating for sure. But it definitely didn’t cure my itch to do something to finally make myself feel better. Even the last time, with a week in the hospital involving all kinds of tubes and wires, didn’t really set me completely straight.
Yes, I had a score of psychiatric issues stemming from all sorts of fucked up trauma and bad genes. But even years later, I’m still ashamed of my behavior.
Without a doubt…the cure to my suicidal impulses came less than a year after my last, most dramatic attempt: Ryan’s death. Feeling my own pain, seeing the destruction of his family, the disintegration of our circle of our friends…this made me realize the full scope of tragedy. And realizing that an amazing, talented person with boundless potential would never open his eyes again…never have success or failure or love or ANYTHING ever again…well, once and for all I finally understood the foolishness and selfishness of suicide.
Why I am I writing about this today? Several reasons:
***This weekend my mom and I were talking about someone I once dated. She brought it up, asking if he was doing better. “Has he been drinking less? Taking better care of himself?” I replied that I did not know, but I was doubtful of any improvement. She shook her said and said something so (for lack of better adjective) cutting, that I gasped in pain. “Someone is going to find him dead some day. He’s just that kind of person.” She then added, “He’s at that age where people accidentally kill themselves.”
Whoa. I like to think that the truly self-destructive hang on for a long time, making themselves miserable for decades. It’s a punishment for their boundless selfishness. Then again…what if she is right? Is it my job to save him? I often wish I had gotten Ryan’s parents involved, so they could force him into a rehab program. But really: my own fear of further pain/frustration/rejection makes me want to STAY AWAY from any tragic situation with this individual. It’s really just another reminder that I should not have him in my life. Terrible, I know. But he has plenty of ex-girlfriends (that he hates less than he hates me) that would love to save him.
***Last night I dreamed that I was going to hang myself, but then I realized (with great frustration) that I actually don’t know how to do any of the complicated knots probably required for the act. When I woke up, I was super pissed at myself. For one, I’m not depressed. I am actually really, truly happy right now. And furthermore, I’m not down with suicide. I am attributing this dream to writing/reading a lot about depression right now. I think it would be impossible to write about depression/mental illness without any real experience dealing with it. But it’s also really, really hard to write about it, because it brings all of my sad memories to the forefront.
***Last, but not least…I found out this morning that David Foster Wallace hung himself. You can read a really fine obituary for him here . He was one of my favorite writers (even if I don’t mention him in the book section on MySpace). I am always especially saddened when older, supposedly successful individuals kill themselves. It just seems to defy logic. Haven’t they outgrown all of that stupid adolescent angst nonsense? And aren’t they finally achieving everything they wanted? It’s frightening to realize that no one is ever immune to desperation, hopelessness, and loneliness.