Some Days, You Just Want to Kill Yourself
The middle of the Golden Gate Bridge is 220 feet above San Francisco Bay. It looks higher than that in some ways. It doesn't seem nearly that high in other ways. The water, from 220 feet—the water that's straight down, at least—looks less like water and more like air. It looks more blue than green. It looks warmer than it is.
It looks softer.
People jump off that particular bridge for a lot of reasons. Maybe most important, it's convenient. Death is right there, waiting. The railing is only four feet tall; the fall is only four seconds long.
It doesn't hurt that it's such a pretty spot and it's romantic-feeling, and that maybe for the first time in their lives, the suicidal don't feel so alone there. On that bridge, they're finally part of something, this massive vanquished army, growing by the dozens every year.
Mostly, I thought about jumping off that bridge because it seemed like exactly the right thing to do.
And strangely, perhaps, many of them probably jump off that bridge because it gives them an outside chance of living. The bridge takes the matter out of their hands, as though it's not their decision anymore: If they were meant to live, if this were all some terrible mistake, then maybe they would survive. It's unlikely, but it's possible—it's possible for a man, even a man aiming to kill himself, to jump off that bridge at such an angle, at such a velocity, and not be exploded by the water but embraced by it.
The truth is, if you were totally positive that you wanted to die, if you were 100 percent certain, then there are better ways to guarantee it: shooting a bullet into your brain (not front to back, but side to side) or lying down on train tracks (not standing, but with your head resting on a rail) or jumping off something higher, with a harder landing. If you really wanted to kill yourself, you could do it. But sleeping pills, carbon monoxide, jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge—those methods, more peaceful, more serene, also provide that chance, however slim, that you might open your eyes and be alive. There's that tiny chance for a different kind of escape.
I thought all those things when I stood in the middle of that bridge one sunny, nearly perfect day in June more than three years ago. I thought all those things when I pulled myself tight against the railing and tried not to cry, choking on it so that no one would become suspicious or try to stop me. There were smiling people standing all around me, ice-cream-eating tourists thinking how beautiful everything was, pointing to spots on the horizon. I looked just like them, except that my eyes were pointed straight down. I looked at the water, and I thought about my parents, my wife, my sons back home, maybe having their dinner on their little plastic plates or playing in their inflatable pool, and more inanimate things, too: my suitcase in my hotel room, my glasses on the bathroom counter, my half-finished book on the nightstand with its corner folded over, page 164. Who would pack up my clothes and send them home? Would the police do that, or would it be a hotel employee, a maid or a concierge?
But mostly, I thought about jumping off that bridge because it seemed like exactly the right thing to do.
For more than thirty years, I had been the definition of steady. My friends used to joke about my lack of emotional range.
I can't tell you when or how the blackness started. For more than thirty years, I had been the definition of steady. My friends used to joke about my lack of emotional range. I was almost always in some benign, vaguely pleasant middle, even on that day when I was bitten in the face by a pig. When certain friends of mine talked about being depressed—and a lot of them did, which made me wonder whether I was the root of their collective problems—my reaction fell somewhere between incredulity and disgust. If you're a white North American male—if that's all you are—then you're already in some tiny privileged percentage of the world's population. My friends were smart and healthy and loved; they had good prospects, cute girlfriends, food in the cupboards, beer in the fridge. What did they have to be depressed about? The Habs game was about to come on.
"There are starving children in Africa," I would say, and my friends would always look at me and say something like, "Yes, but that doesn't make me any less sad."
Oh, spare me, I remember thinking. Stop listening to Joy Division and go outside.
Whenever it was that my own blackness took hold, I didn't feel a thing. It must have been sometime that past fall or winter, months before the bridge. It surfaced at first in little hiccups and tics, a life gone slightly askew. I developed obsessions, weird ideas of perfection. There was a period when I couldn't bring myself to leave the house, because I'd decided that there was one perfect time—when, if I left just then, my day would go smoothly, and every other departure time meant some disaster awaited. But of course it was impossible for me to know when that one perfect time was, so I never left. Something tripped in my writing, too. I sat down one day, and suddenly I had to have each line justified on the right-hand side of the page—not by some artificial, mechanical means, but by writing each sentence with exactly the right combination of letters and words and spaces so that they landed precisely on the margin. I wrote entire stories that way, writing and rewriting each sentence and paragraph until they fit inside these great long scrolls of intricate squares and rectangles. My stories looked like a serial killer had written them.
My temper came next. Normally, it would take me a long time to get angry, but now my anger rallied quickly and often viciously. A guy was clapping in a bar and his clapping bothered me, so I dragged him outside by his beard. Another guy dug his boots into me during a soccer game, and I'm sure he still talks about the time this fat keeper absolutely lost his shit. A tranquilizer dart wouldn't have been out of order. Three of my teammates had to hold me back, and not just for dumb show. After, I tried to find out where he lived.
Anxious and angry is a bad combination, turns out. For whatever biological, chemical, or spiritual reason, my brain had been stripped of all its usual defenses against life. I had some bad stuff going on, but none of it was bad enough to tip me over the way it did. Everything was suddenly more extreme than it had ever been—both my perception of the world and my reaction to it. Little things seemed big; big things seemed insurmountable. My life wasn't perfect, but it was still pretty sweet. In my messed-up head, though, I'd been backed into a corner, surrounded by giants dragging clubs.
I'd been sick for several years, plagued by a host of gut troubles. I'd just had a second surgery a few months before, another deep-fried section of me carved up and taken out; not long after, I'd ended up back in the hospital, filled up with drugs that didn't even begin to take away the pain. I'd just come out of writing what remains the most important story of my life, "The Things That Carried Him" (Esquire, May 2008), about how a soldier's body gets back from Iraq. After working on it for so many months, I'd lost my aim without it, coupled with the weight of so many visits to military morgues and grief-heavy kitchens. A book I wrote—the same paperback I was supposed to go to San Francisco to promote that June—hadn't been a failure, exactly, but it wasn't what I had hoped it would be, because nothing much was anymore. My first signing had been in a Houston bulk store. They sat me next to the huge bottles of ketchup.
For whatever biological, chemical, or spiritual reason, my brain had been stripped of all its usual defenses against life. I had some bad stuff going on, but none of it was bad enough to tip me over the way it did. Everything was suddenly more extreme than it had ever been—both my perception of the world and my reaction to it.
The toughest part for me, though, was what should have been the best: my new young family, my wife and our two young boys. Nobody likes to admit this, but the first few months after a child is born, especially a second child, are really, really hard. When Lee and I got married, we had decadent, blissful lives. We traveled to the South Pacific. We ate vanilla cake in bed. Then we started trying to have children, and we lost two before we finally had Charley, and we'd nearly lost him, too, to a racing heart. Then came Sam that perpetual winter, this sweet, perfect child. Like Charley, he was this little baby elephant, this amazing little thing. But I was already sleepless by the time he came along. I'd lie awake all night and feel my chest vibrate—this growing feeling that I'd never get anything right again, that the good half of my life was over. Now Sam's crying in the night sounded like cymbals crashing in my ears.
Today, I can say that my wife is the wife of my dreams, and we're the parents of two beautiful boys we fought so hard for. Charley and Sam are our victories.
Back then, though, I just saw a woman who didn't love me as much as she once did, maybe she didn't love me at all anymore, and two boys who would never have the father they deserved, and I saw everything else, including water that looked like air and green that looked like blue, and not just for days or weeks, but for months and months and months.
Looking back now at that man on the bridge, I can hardly believe that was me. It's as though I went temporarily Goth. Jumping was nothing like the right thing to do. It was as far from the right thing to do as is possible. I'm almost certain that I would have been just a few inches below that sun-warmed railing—that I would have felt that first rush of wind and that opening elevator drop in my stomach, the feeling that I'd imagined so many times—when I would have been overwhelmed by regret. For those four seconds it would have taken me to fall 220 feet, I believe I would have given anything in the world to be able to fly.
Or maybe, remembering that day now, from such a great mental distance, I just hope I would have felt that way. Maybe in reality I would have twisted myself around and tried to land flat on my back to increase the damage, to break my spine and blow my ribs out of my chest. Maybe even now, all these years later, I'm still trying to convince myself that it wasn't so bad, just a stumble rather than what it was. Because it was pitch black.
When I'm in my usual good spot, I think of the planets or I think of the moons that circle Mars, and they make my problems disappear. They're my version of God, those little lights in the sky. But when I was depressed, Phobos and Deimos had the opposite effect on me—actually, they had the same effect, but on my joys rather than my sorrows. Then, I thought of something as massive as the Stickney Crater, and I remembered that it's just one crater on one moon orbiting one planet, and it wasn't my challenges that vanished but my aspirations. That's why depression is so dangerous. It makes a mockery of faith. It turns belief against you. All the little lights go out.
Jumping was nothing like the right thing to do. It was as far from the right thing to do as is possible.
I can't really explain why I didn't jump that afternoon, why I eventually returned to the ranks of tourists walking along the Golden Gate Bridge. Maybe, in part, it was my need for everything to be perfect. There were too many loose ends. The publisher had paid for this book tour, and I was supposed to go to Denver next. I should go to Denver. It would be unnecessarily complicated for Lee to get my body back, if she wanted it. I hadn't done our taxes yet.
"Looking back now at that man on the bridge, I can hardly believe that was me."
But mostly, I was saved because I was a coward. Killing yourself—committing death—is a difficult thing to do. I can't speak for all those impossibly brave men and women who made that jump before me, but I would guess that most of them made a number of soft attempts—exploratory, reading up on knots or taking half a bottle of pills—as though they were preparing for a fight, looking for the tender spots. I imagine they got a little bit closer each time until they finally did it, and then they were dead, and then they were buried or burned, and everyone so fortunate as to still be happy and alive talked about how sad and selfish everything was, when for so long the soul that had been in that body now underground or reduced to ashes had been suffering, suffering so much that death—this thing that we're hardwired to fear more than anything else—had become relief instead.
Somehow I still harbored this small filament of self-preservation. Some part of me had not been in agreement with my plan. It had refused to fall in line. I found my way back to my hotel room and read page 165 of that book and carried my own bags home.
But it didn't get better after that.
The shower was much worse than the bridge.
One night, a few months after San Francisco, I went to see an outdoor concert with my best friend, Phil. The Weakerthans were playing. It was a perfect night. I stood in the crowd and looked up at the stars and sang along to all my favorite songs, and all the while I engaged in a weird kind of internal conversation, explaining to myself that I was happy: Here I was, with my best friend, seeing my favorite band on a starry night, when I might have otherwise been a corpse floating in San Francisco Bay. Wow, that was kind of nuts, wasn't it? Close one!
But I've learned that if you're truly happy, you don't need to convince yourself that you are. You can't employ logic or relative calculus to make yourself happy. You're either happy or you're not.
That night, after the concert, Phil and I began walking home. We were on a bike path along the river, nearing the bottom of a steep hill. It was pretty dark. I was telling Phil—to whom I'd confided my depression, but nothing about that day on the bridge—that I felt like I was finally coming out of it. When suddenly, I heard screaming: a really high-pitched, horrible wail. It took me a second to realize it was coming from someone behind me, and it was getting louder. I jumped off the bike path, my heart in my throat. And then some prick kid whizzed by us on a bike, laughing like a witch. He'd just been trying to scare us, which he had; my asshole actually howled. I yelled at his disappearing shape, screaming an incomprehensible sequence of terrible words at the top of my lungs. My chest heaved after. I imagined what I would do to that kid if I caught him. I imagined all sorts of violent, broken-teeth thoughts. I was as angry as I'd ever been—angry enough that I couldn't hear properly, the blood was so thick in my ears.
By the time we got to the bottom of that hill, I knew that I was still in a very deep hole, and I was never going to get out of it.
By the time we got to the bottom of that hill, I knew that I was still in a very deep hole, and I was never going to get out of it.
Not long after, Lee and I really fought for the first time, ever. In the eight years we'd been together, we'd never raised our voices. I can't remember what we fought about, but whatever it was, it wasn't just a fight. It was confirmation of my worst paranoid fears: She was going to leave me for a better man, I thought, and she was going to take Charley and Sam with her, and I was going to end up stripped of those few things that still mattered. I thought that I might as well save her the trouble.
After everyone went to bed and the house was dark and quiet, I went down to the kitchen, and I pulled a long knife out of the rack we kept on our counter. I didn't want to make a mess—the kitchen floor was cork, and it would soak up my blood like a sponge; cork is very absorbent—so I decided to go down to the basement, two floors removed from my sleeping wife and my sleeping children. When I walked down those stairs, I was certain that I was taking the last steps I would ever take. I climbed into the tub of the little bathroom we had down there. I turned on the shower, to help wash everything away, and I stood under the water, and I ran the knife over my wrists. I did that several times, dragging the knife between the bottom of my hand and the crook of my elbow, the way I had read that I should do it if I really wanted to get the job done. I was just scratching my skin rather than cutting it, but I was surprised by how much it hurt. For some reason, I thought that bleeding myself out would be painless. It wasn't. I turned the water to ice cold, to try to numb my arms, and I dragged the knife, scraping myself maybe a dozen times, and I sobbed, sobbed like a man who had just lost his dead father's watch.
I'd like to say that I saw a light, that I saw the faces of my sleeping wife and my sleeping children through my tears, that I saw how much I had to live for, but that's not what happened. I just couldn't force myself to cut my arms deeply enough. My body saved my soul that night. I turned off the shower. I dried myself off. I looked in the mirror. I was closer to death than I'd ever been. But I'd failed again.
I've never told anybody about the bridge or the shower. I never wanted people to know, not because I feel ashamed about it—that would be like feeling ashamed for having bad eyesight or loving jazz—but because I didn't want people to treat me any differently, like I was fragile. Even my dad—who has worked for years in suicide intervention, who has saved however many lives with his gentle words—has only an idea. We were having dinner together one night just this past winter. We were sitting in the middle of a Chinese restaurant when he asked me whether I'd ever thought about killing myself. I nearly choked. I told him I didn't want to talk about it, which I didn't, at least not just then, over spareribs and sticky rice. And my dad nodded, partly because he didn't want to force the truth out of me and partly because he already knew.
Besides, the blackness had receded by then, almost imperceptibly, the way it had arrived. It wasn't like a finger snap, the birds singing through my open window one sunny morning; it was more as though I'd been gradually released from its grip. Today, I'm as happy as I've been in years. Coming out of depression feels like surfacing from deep water. Colors are true again.
In the end, I just waited it out. I never went on drugs or saw a therapist. That was proud and stupid. I needed help, and I should have asked for it. Now I know better.
Nearly a year after the shower, I felt myself going under again, my temper getting shorter and running hotter, my faith wavering. I hadn't been able to sleep for several nights. Early in the morning, at maybe two or three o'clock, I got out of bed, slipped out of the house, and walked through the empty streets to the Royal Ottawa—the psychiatric hospital, a pile of glass and light several blocks away.
I walked very quickly to the hospital; I was almost running. There was a bench, and I sat down to catch my breath before I checked myself in. I was struck by how many people there were outside, even though it was the middle of the night. There were maybe a dozen patients, some of them having come out for a smoke or just to feel the cool of the night, propped up against the walls or wrapped up in their wheelchairs. I sat among them, and I felt stronger for their company. I felt as though we were all in this together. There are so many dead, but there are so many of us still alive; there are so many of us still in love. I sat on that bench and realized that I'd walked so quickly to the hospital because I was scared of dying. My heart nearly burst open. It was the best feeling in the world. I felt so good that I never did go inside; I spent a few hours on that bench, in that company, and that was all the help I needed. I watched my breath turning solid in the cold, and I looked up at all those little lights in the sky, and I made a wish for me and my friends: I wished that we would always be terrified of death, every last one of us, that we would spend the rest of our lives running from it, that we would dream about dying and wake up screaming, that we would be pathological in our fears—scared of heights, scared of bullets, scared of trains. Oh, spare us, I remember thinking. Spare us, please spare us, because there are so many ways to die.
If you need help, call Hopeline (02) 804-4637; 0917-5584673; or 2919 (Globe or Touch Mobile).
This story originally appeared on the November 2011 issue of Esquire and was reposted on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.