Sleepless, but Dreaming of Suicide
How I walked away from the abyss.
Posted November 7, 2019
It began with a list. Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf and David Foster Wallace. Hunter Thompson, Sylvia Plath, Yukio Mishima. Writers and poets were easy to find.
I’d gone without REM sleep for 200 days by then, and my doctor’s pharmaceutical treatment had gotten us nowhere. The sleeping pills didn’t work, and the benzodiazepines only addressed the rampant anxiety of not sleeping during my waking hours.
I didn’t share my despair with my shrink, who would have been the logical person to talk to. Instead, one day I drove to a gun shop and shooting range. I told myself I was just doing research.
About suicide, Andrew Solomon in The Noonday Demon writes, “I know when things are getting worse because the kinds of suicide I imagine become more various and to some extent more violent.” Springtime is the most popular time for doing it, between late morning and noon. External darkness isn’t a requirement. Only, it seems, secrecy.
I found myself often thinking about the famous six words Shakespeare penned for Hamlet. To be or not to be. So utterly beautifully prosaically simple, the complexity of existence captured in a handful of the English language’s most spartan words.
The contradiction of statement is, for me, the crowning achievement. Suicide, if nothing else, is an act of contradiction. It requires a flash of boldness the very moment you wish to recede forever. I had half of that equation. All I wanted was to just close my eyes and I believed the problem would be solved once and for all.
But I didn’t do it. It’s not fair to say how close I came if it didn’t happen. That’s like a twisted form of bragging. Either I chickened out or I couldn’t stand my wife, Janet, alone in a house we built for the two of us. Perhaps I was only a tourist who’d flirted with the idea of becoming a resident, but hesitated because of the long-term commitment.
Or perhaps it was something as mundane as the lawn. We live on two and a half acres on the side of a mountain. Every year it needs to be beaten back, a tilted pasture of wild horse grass.
The grass was at least as high as a baby elephant’s eye. Before I was going to do what I wanted to do, I decided I had to take care of the lawn. I intended to be as considerate as possible with the inconsiderate act I was hatching.
Early in the morning, I’d rise, before the sun would take over the day, clearing pathways through the growth that was over six-feet tall at the ravine near the corner of the property.
It took a week to complete the task. By the time I was done, the first section I’d cut had grown right back up. I began anew, back and forth, up and down. Seldom-used muscles throbbed. After the week was over, it was right back to the beginning yet again for a third assault, the growth sparser, not quite as tall.
I somehow lost the need to do what I wanted to do after that. It would be facile to attach some accrued lesson from this dogged grass-cutting. An Aesopian morality play in perseverance. The indomitable will of the undying growth. My determination to see a task through. Or the conventional association of rebirth with spring.
Except for the fact that my change of heart turned out to be much more subtle and ambiguous. The need ebbed; the voice grew quieter. Nothing had changed in my squalid circumstance. I still carried myself around like a bag blown about in the wind, but I’d lost the imperative. It didn’t have to be today. Maybe tomorrow or the next day.
Janet is the biggest reason why I didn’t do it. I don’t live in a vacuum. It would have been much more doable if I did. I’ve found that loving someone is a pretty straightforward enterprise. Allowing yourself to feel the love back has been the trickier feat.
If you’re like me, you’re too hard on yourself most of the time. You sometimes hate the many things you are and aren’t. Maybe you don’t feel lovable, so you disappear into a place where there’s only room for you.
I like watching my wife when she doesn’t know it, such as from an upstairs window while she’s outside throwing sticks for the dogs. On so many fronts Janet is the anti-me. She lets life come to her and is happy with whatever her rations are. She worries neither about the future or the past.
As a rule, after I was done with my lopping and chopping outside, I’d sit on the concrete seat wall covered head to toe in nettles and thistles and droppings while Janet would walk down the hill to survey my handiwork. At a certain point the land dropped off and I’d lose sight of her. I’d wait for Janet to reappear. She’d always emerge over the rise, slowly ambling in my direction to praise my labor.
One day at the end of April while I sipped lemonade at the top of the hill, I understood I wasn’t done watching her. I realized then I’d been looking at everything else through a distorted lens of not sleeping where I only saw the present.
The future scared me because it only portended further decline. “Though suicide assuages present suffering,” Andrew Solomon writes, “it is undertaken in most instances to avoid future suffering.”
I decided to try not to worry about what hadn’t happened yet, to settle for smaller hopes and exist on tender mercies in the meantime. I chickened out, too cowardly to do the cowardly thing. Did it make me courageous? Hardly. I was just waiting for Janet to come back up the hill so I could see her again.