Dying to Stay Alive
Standing in the morgue, looking down at the chill steel slab, I see my own face. It looks exactly like me, the way my sister’s looked exactly like her when I viewed her body eighteen months ago. Exactly the same, but utterly alien too. Not her, not me at all.
Lest anyone believe me fully healed, beyond the reach of misery, know that a week ago I felt closer to suicide than at anytime in the past three years. Thoughts of ending my life pass through my mind often, but on this occasion they felt compelling, insistent. That’s when I flashed forward and saw myself as my own murder victim.
The sorrow I felt was crushing. “Will is dead!” Oh God. Tears raining down my face. And this is what surprised me. How much grief I felt at my own passing. Not the relief I expected.
How did I sink so low? I can’t say. My doctors would call it bipolar disorder. I don’t dispute that, but it felt more like demonic possession. All color trickled out of the world, leaving only a gray, sticky cloud of complaints. I felt haunted by every mistake and trapped by every circumstance. I felt driven to escape, and there was only one door.
The new element in this mood crisis, as opposed to all the others that currently afflict me on a biweekly basis, was a sense of urgency. Death no longer beckoned like a distant siren; I felt propelled toward it, bayonet at my back.
Because of my periodic depressions, my psychiatrist had suggested I try taking one of my old antidepressants on an as-needed basis. I don’t need one all the time, because I usually feel fine. So I had started the pills as my mood began its familiar forty-eight hour collapse. I believe, but can’t be sure, that it was the medication that dialed up the volume of suicide’s call. It’s well known that antidepressants can increase suicidality when first started.
I felt held to the earth only by my ties to my wife, by my knowledge of how much my death would upset her. It was hard staying grounded with so few tethers. And as I watched myself withdraw ever further into darkness, further from connection and marriage, I began to wonder if maybe she wouldn’t be better off…
I know the sequence. First suicide is a whisper, then a shout. Then a decision to act is made, and the howling inside quiets. Relief reigns. From then on one’s actions play out as in a dream. Not quite a nightmare, but not reverie, either. Like sleep-walking while awake. Like a zombie. I was a good ways through this process before ending up in the psychiatric ward back in 2000, shortly after the end of my surgical career.
Luckily, during this recent episode I held on without harming myself or needing institutionalization. The next morning I called around to get help, and I tried to keep active. I met with a close friend, my therapist, and my psychiatrist. I attended two meditation groups, leading one of them. I taught a yoga class at a homeless shelter.
I learned that my connections to Earth are more robust than I usually think. My friend told me how hard my death would hit him. My therapist said the same, with different language. Even my psychiatrist, whose training promotes a more objective posture, told me she truly cares. Other friends who heard the story chimed in too. And I caught glimpses of myself making a difference in the yoga and meditation settings.
This post isn’t the place to detail the historical reasons for my trouble feeling connected with others. Let’s just stipulate that it’s hard, nearly impossible, for me to believe in my heart that anyone cares about me. I can feel it with my dogs, and I see evidence for it in my wife’s behavior, but the idea that I might actually matter to others is hard to grasp. It feels presumptuous. Preposterous and undeserved.
And terrifying. To feel loved is to feel so very vulnerable.
But the irony is that to exclude love from one’s consciousness leaves one feeling vulnerable too. Only now it’s combined with loneliness and isolation.
Life has ever been hard for me. Perhaps that comes across here? But it’s also been electrifying, fascinating, remarkable. And I’ve tried really, really hard to make it work for me.
Now that the crisis is past, I can see how the hardship opened me to new understanding, as always. I can see how more love surrounds me than I admitted before. I can see how much effort I’ve put into resolving my many psychiatric quirks, and how in spite of occasional embarrassing meltdowns, I’m more solid than before. The fact that I’ve made some progress might even count as a major accomplishment.
It’s a difficult world, and the human mind presents a varied and hazardous landscape. At least mine does: sickening gorges of depression, vertiginous peaks of ecstasy, boring salt flats spreading to the horizon, lush jungles, and meadows ringing with wildflowers and bees. And here I am, stumbling like a drunkard from nation to nation, only dimly aware that it’s all one country, one globe. The divisions, the changes, are but marks of nature’s artistry. It can all feel so blessed, and so dammed.
More and more, between brief bouts of agony, I can see this vast panorama spreading before me, behind me, above and below. It surrounds us all, embraces us all, sweeps us into the future, pulsing with ruin and promise. It’s this vision of creation as a seamless, roiling whole, that motivates me to delay, as long as naturally possible, the moment I meet myself in death.
Meecham, W. (2016). Dying to Stay Alive. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 28, 2016, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/happiness/2013/05/dying-to-stay-alive/