Sometimes suicidal impulses catch you off-guard when you suffer from chronic depression, any mental illness, really. They seem reasonable when you’re at the bottom of the well as suicide promises an end to misery, your own anyway. And by misery, I don’t mean run-of-the-mill-woe-is-me-head-under-covers-misery, I mean the misery that empties you of feeling, of any imaginative possibility of maybe-there-is-more-and-this-can/will/surely-change. Misery that has you researching the methods and means of suicide in the middle of the night on your cell phone, back turned to your husband, who is fast asleep, and to your children, who are curled up and asleep between you both: how to tape a plastic bag around your head, how to attach a hose to the exhaust pipe, how to self-poison with booze, pills, cleaning products. Plans, plans, plans.
That misery is dogged. Many many years ago, I was sitting at our yellow Formica table across from my young children who were eating giant slabs of my double-layer chocolate cake. Two feet of yellow sunshine between us, but it might well have been an ocean because their appetite for more and now and tomorrow was voracious, and my misery had chewed me up and spit me out and not even my dog would scarf up my tasteless leavings. I felt it was impossible to ever be inside their joy, to be part of the living, the loving, the longing for now and tomorrow and more of this life and so I ruminated over the plans, plans, plans while they licked icing from their fingers and then from their plates.
But the plans never materialized, not in those moments because I had to get up from the table and herd them into their baths, and help brush their teeth and comb their hair, and tuck them into bed and read stories and rub backs, so that by the end of the night I was bone tired just from moving from one minute into the next, from keeping myself alive and with them. I put off the plans: “There’s always tomorrow,” I’d say to myself in a kind of grotesque reframing of that optimistic song from “Annie.”
But the real danger is inside moments of happiness, when happiness feels fleeting, feels heartbreakingly fragile, when the world’s beauty hurts because you know you won’t be able to stay inside of it for long, when your own happiness and lightness of being is undercut by the knowledge that the fall will come again―that’s often when suicide seems most reasonable: “This cannot last,” your demon whispers, “so get out now with this one perfect beautiful happy moment.”
Such as: a perfect morning, waking up without the alarm to birdsong and early sunlight filling the room, and not burning the pancakes and not yelling at the kids to Stop and Hurry and singing along to the radio on the way to school and kissing their foreheads goodbye and watching them disappear into their classrooms and thinking, “Now. No need for plans. Just drive your car into a tree.”
Do you know how hard it was to drive the ten blocks home, not press the accelerator and aim my car at the enormous maple tree at the bottom of the hill? And then, just like that, as I passed the maple, its orange leaves turning in the sunshine like fingers beckoning me forward into now and tomorrow, I drove past my sure and possible death and went to the grocery store with my lengthy list for tonight and tomorrow and the next day: milk, eggs, bread, orange juice, yogurt, granola, Fruity Pebbles, salami, provolone, brie, stilton, toilet paper, tampons, apples, bananas, mangoes, peanut butter, Nutella, Gummi Bears, M & M’s. All the things necessary to sustain life, though not just survival’s austere needs, but joy’s greedy wants, too.
Even now, six years after my last dive into Bipolar Depression’s well, my brain can very occasionally light (yes, like a chimney swift on a branch!) on suicide (as if deciding between a purple or red nail polish!) as the answer to ordinary, transient difficulties: one dreadful day, one bad hour, one bad moment and the brain can revert, momentarily, to the old, unshakeable, seemingly preordained solution—just end it now― because in my darkest days I believed that my life could and would only end in suicide. Once, in a moment of fleeting though acute pain, when I just happened to also be driving down a back road in Georgia, the accelerator and the tall pines that flank the road lulled me into suicidal, contemplative complacency: Easy, easy, easy, just let your foot get heavier. But I kept my eyes forward on the road, and foot steady and switched on the radio and sang along to The Clash, so that by the time I reached the end of “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?”, I was in right alignment with the universe again.
I cannot light on suicide’s branch, not even for an instant. Vigilance keeps me from surprising my own self with a happenstance suicide. An active, daily recommitment to life and living it and living through the misery and through the happiness in a world predicated on now and tomorrow. But vigilance is exhausting, and I don’t pretend to know why anyone eventually does end their life except to say this: when you are flying long distances toward the light, trying to outstrip the dark, that branch waiting right in front of you might feel like rest, like the only place to land.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.