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Standing at the precipice of death—and choosing to turn back

Illustrations by Greg Houston

On Monday, Aug. 6, 2001, at about 10:15 a.m., I tried to kill myself.

I didn’t succeed, or obviously I wouldn’t be writing this.

In recounting the story of my attempt—my first, and perhaps not my last—I am following in a long literary tradition. It has always been interesting to me that in books and articles detailing the self-inflicted deaths of the rich, famous, or ordinary, writers pay great attention to the last day, last hours, last minutes of their subjects. Often, they struggle to re-create a minute-by-minute countdown: “He made two phone calls. To each person he called, he gave no indication of what he was about to do. The conversations were short. After the second call, he never bothered to return the phone to the receiver. It was dangling on its cord when he was later found.”

Why do authors feel the need to reconstruct those last mundane details? Perhaps it is to try to determine that final reason, unearth that last clue, answer the ever-elusive “Why?” What finally threw the lever? What could have been so bad at that moment? What was she feeling?

But I can tell you that the answers to those questions won’t be found in those final moments. For most suicides, I think, the decision to kill yourself has been made weeks, months, even years before. Though it may seem that the final, completed attempt is rash and impromptu, it seldom is. By that time, you have long ago made up your mind and reconciled yourself to what you have to do. It’s like the stages of dying that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote about: denial, anger, bargaining, depression. Then comes the final stage—acceptance: You have made a decision to die. It is inevitable. You must do it.

The study of suicide has revealed that one of its final “symptoms” is sometimes deception. Often people with a history of suicide attempts, or those on a suicide watch in a hospital or jail, exhibit signs of “recovery” just days or even hours before their final, successful attempt. Their “sudden” last-minute “happiness” followed by a successful suicide attempt often leaves both family and therapists bewildered. But the explanation is clear: These people were never actually recovering, but had finally reconciled themselves to their decisions. That final acceptance was what made them seem better, or even happy.

Maybe, then, there is no answer to the question “Why?” As poet Anne Sexton (who killed herself in 1974) once wrote, “[S]uicides have a special language. Like carpenters, they want to know ‘Which tools?’ They never ask, ‘Why build?’”

It can be rather hard to kill yourself. Physically, I mean. That, they don’t tell you. It’s easy to think about killing yourself and easy to prepare for it, but to actually carry it out takes a great deal of guts—or a lot of cowardice. No, that they don’t tell you.

And you can’t exactly bring up the subject with friends or family for advice: “What method is fastest and cleanest?” “Which is the most painless?” And, of course, those who really know how to kill themselves aren’t around to be asked. If you want to die, you have to think about these things for yourself.

Perhaps that’s why so many people use guns, or jump from bridges or buildings. Those methods are quick and usually sure. One pull of the trigger, or just one leap, and it’s done. A split-second act. There is no time for second-guessing.

Odd, then, that pills (my choice) are actually the second most popular method. (Guns, for both men and women, are currently No. 1.) Pills take the longest time to kill you. So you have much more time to be rescued or, for whatever reason, change your mind (as I did).

So, I attempted suicide. But I’m alive. Thus, I am now, officially and evermore, a “failed suicide attempt.” I have joined that small, silent minority of unsuccessful suicides. I don’t know if we have a support group or a club or a newsletter or a Web site. I don’t know what happens now. I mean, we all know what happens when someone does manage to take his own life—the funeral, the grieving. But what happens when you come back, because either you changed your mind at the last minute and called 911 or you just didn’t succeed—the gun jammed, the bridge wasn’t high enough, or the pills didn’t take? There doesn’t seem to be any map for this journey, this life after “death.”

For years, I have been battling depression and fantasizing about suicide. In school, I wrote endless poems and short stories about death. I always envied those with incurable diseases, wondering, Why not me? When someone young died in an accident, I wondered why he or she was gone while I was still here.

My despair and secret longing were only ever partially secret. One of my closest friends once said to me that she always figured I would just up and kill myself someday. She would be shocked, but not surprised, she said, by the phone call from the hospital, coroner, or funeral home.

And for years, I kept a secret stash of sleeping pills. I even moved with them a couple of times, packing them up with my other important possessions, transporting them to a new home. I didn’t want to be without them. They were my exit strategy. They were always there if I needed them, and that knowledge gave me enough strength to get up most days.

In some ways, suicide was my addiction. The addict or alcoholic reaches for a drug or a drink when life becomes too stressful. I got my fix just by imagining doing away with myself: I won’t have to deal with this job, this person, this class, this day, if I kill myself. Death was the perfect escape.

Since taking a new job about five years ago, hundreds of miles from friends and family, I had felt my depression deepen. I resumed therapy; I had last sought professional help six years earlier, when I was in grad school and desperately wanted to die. I was put on antidepressants—Zoloft was my drug.

But no amount of “talk therapy” or pills can stop you when you make up your mind to die. When you see no other solution. When you simply must do it.

On the morning of my suicide attempt, I lost my job. The firing wasn’t a surprise—it had been a long time coming. In fact, I had been expecting it, almost taunting my boss and the company to go ahead and do it. So when the inevitable came, I had already made up my mind what to do right afterward.

At my firing and “debriefing,” in the overly warm offices of the Human Resources Department, I even made the announcement of my impending suicide to the HR rep and my boss. They were trying to tell me what to expect in regard to final salary payments, benefits, my 401K, and so forth, but I cut them off. I told that I didn’t need to hear any of that. It wouldn’t matter, not in a little while. “I have every intention of going home and killing myself,” I said.

I don’t know, even now, why I said it; I just threw it out as a matter of fact—which, in my mind, it was. Maybe with my blunt admission, I hoped I could shame my employers—blackmail them, if you will—into reversing their decision to fire me. In reality, my threat was just the type of immature, extremist bullshit that I had been spitting out for months and that had gotten me labeled paranoid and difficult—that had now gotten me terminated.

So I said it. It was a simple disclosure, not unlike the matter-of-fact statement of a person with an inoperable tumor that he’s dying.

My boss and the HR rep didn’t see it that way. They saw it as a “cry for help.” One of them said I needed “serious” help. Then she continued with her recitation of my benefits package.

I didn’t listen. “I can’t go on—I can’t,” I said, trying to make them understand how I didn’t have the courage to start over again with a new job, new co-workers, in a new town. It had all been too exhausting. Thirty-three years of exhausting. I couldn’t face the next morning or the one after that, knowing that I had no place to go, no money coming in; knowing that I had been fired, labeled a loser and a failure—as if I had been adorned with a scarlet letter.

Then the excruciating firing ritual was over. I was told that, according to company policy, I was to leave then and there. I would be escorted from the building by security. First, though, I would be allowed to return to my desk to gather up any of my personal effects. They didn’t have to bother with that, really—after all, what did I need now? I’ll be dead in a few hours—didn’t I just tell them that? But, playing along, I walked back to my desk, avoiding eye contact on the way. My manager, quite helpfully I suppose, instantly produced a large, empty file box for me to gather my things. I wondered how long she had been saving it.

There was, obviously, nothing at my desk that I needed, not anymore, anyway. But there was one framed picture on my desk of an old family friend, and I tucked it into the book bag I always carted with me. I took the picture because I didn’t want it to be thrown into the trash with the rest of my things I left behind. My friend deserved better than that.

I gave another, cursory glance at my desk, which had already, conveniently, been cleared of all company-owned items. But I found nothing else that I wanted. My manager asked me, “What about your sweater? Are those files any of yours? What about these cups and plates?” I replied that I didn’t want them. Nor did I feel like walking out, defeated and ashamed, lugging in my arms a box of knickknacks and old party supplies. I surrendered my building key and turned and headed out.

Security was supposed to come and walk me out the door, but I didn’t see any reason to wait. I exited the building. Though it was still early, it was already hot and humid.

I had to take public transportation home—normally I carpooled, but because my carpool partner hadn’t been fired and I had, and it was his car, I was out of luck. I walked quickly and kept my head down, half-pretending that what had just happened hadn’t really happened, and flip-flopping back and forth about what to do next. You said you were going to kill yourself, I thought. You promised. You must do it.

The train arrived in the station quickly. During the ride, a trip of about 20 minutes, I went over yet again what I had to do once I got home. I thought, too, about living, and what I could do for the next hour, day, week, that would keep me busy, or at least alive. But it didn’t last. Death, I knew, would be much easier.

From the station where my train let me off, I had to take a cab home. I remember almost nothing of the six-mile trip to my building. I said nothing to the driver besides the address. I paid him when we got there. I told him he could keep the change.

I was home. I went into the building, unlocked my door, and let myself in. Closing the door behind me, I turned the deadbolt but purposely left the chain undone. They will have to come in and find me, I thought, so there’s no need to make it hard on anyone. This way, they’ll only need the landlord’s pass key. I was practical and thoughtful to the very end. See? I didn’t deserve to be fired.

At first, I considered any preliminaries: Should I call my parents several states away and tell them I’ve been “downsized”? Do I call a friend for sympathy and a pep talk? I dismissed both ideas.

I went in and emptied my pockets onto the kitchen counter. I took off my glasses, folded them, and placed them in their case. I went to the bedroom to change clothes. I wondered what the “right” attire was to die in. Most people, of course, don’t get that choice. I had thought about this before, yet I still didn’t have an answer. A part of me said, Just wear your pajamas—death is like sleep, isn’t it? So let’s pretend.

I finally changed out of my work clothes into a comfortable pair of flannel pants and a short-sleeved T-shirt. I even carefully hung my other clothes back in the closet.

Unlike a lot of suicides, I didn’t make any other effort to tidy up my apartment. If you are going to kill yourself, what do you care about leaving your home as neat as an oven? Let them clean up the mess.

I wrote no note, either—I had never planned to. My death would be statement enough. What more did I have to add?

I returned to the kitchen. There, sitting on the counter, was a small glass bottle, like a vintage medicine bottle you might find in an old-fashioned pharmacy. I kept all my medications in a series of these glass vials, topped with corks. (Because I didn’t have children, I didn’t have to worry about safety caps.)

Some bottles had handwritten labels on them. This one didn’t, though. This one didn’t need it. I had been looking at this bottle for days. I had known my death was in that bottle, the release from this life that I didn’t want, and I had wanted to be constantly reminded of it, to know that it was handy at all times.

The pills. I had been buying and hoarding sleeping pills for several months. They were cheap, generic, over-the-counter tablets, bought on my weekly trips to the grocery store, tossed into my cart with all my other purchases. Each time, I had just picked them off the shelf and paid for them, not really thinking about what I ultimately planned to do with them. Denial was at play here, for I bought only one box at a time. If I was buying only one box—surely not enough to kill me—I could pretend that I wasn’t taking any risk. Never mind that I knew I already had 10 boxes at home.

In the kitchen, I noticed that I had forgotten to put the orange juice back into the fridge when I left that morning. I poured about half a glass into a plastic tumbler and stood there for a moment. I was surprisingly calm. I decided that it was time to carry out my threat. This was it. After 33 bloody years. Long enough. Now or never. If nothing else, I had earned this.

I poured some pills from the bottle into my palm, maybe 10 or 12, mostly small and blue and diamond-shaped, though some were white and oblong. I threw them down my throat quickly.

The first handful wasn’t the hardest. Neither was the second gulp, 10 or 12 more. Those few pills, I figured, probably weren’t enough to kill me. The third and fourth handfuls—that’s when it got hard. To head off any second thoughts, I knew I had to keep going, faster and faster, shoveling the pills into my mouth.

I paused for a moment. What am I doing? Do I want this? I looked at my palm full of pills. Well, too fucking late now, I thought, and swallowed some more.

By the time I stopped, I had taken probably 50 or 60 sleeping pills in all. There were more pills still in the jar, but I figured I had taken enough, and I didn’t want to activate a gag response in my body that might cause me to vomit up the pills I had already swallowed.

I put the carton of orange juice back in the fridge and went to lie down in the bed. It was unmade from that morning, and the sheets were surprisingly cool for an August morning. I lay flat on my back, uncovered. I crossed my arms over my chest, as if I had been mummified, prepared for a coffin.

What are you supposed to think about as you wait to die? This I didn’t know. Do you think about the people who hurt you? Who “caused” this? The people you want to hurt? Yes, those things I did think about: how everyone would be sorry.

A couple of times I tried halfheartedly to pray—calling on God to forgive me, not punish me. I wondered if there was a heaven or a hell. Would I make it to heaven? And if I did, would God understand that I had to do this?

Throughout my life, I have spent a lot of time thinking about God and heaven and hell. Of course, many people believe that suicides automatically go to hell. Even I, a Christian but no biblical scholar, could see that suicide must be a sin. “Thou shall not kill”—you can’t get more straightforward than that. And He must have meant not killing yourself, as well.

But I bargained with God. If depression is a medical illness, as diagnosable as multiple sclerosis or cancer or anything else, then God can’t blame a suicide for killing himself any more than God can blame a cancer victim for dying, right? I conceded that suicides have more responsibility for their own deaths than do the critically ill. But, you see, I had to do it.

I don’t know how long I lay there before the phone rang—maybe 15 or 20 minutes. But it rang, and, as if being pulled from the drowning pool, I leapt up from bed and dashed to the phone in the kitchen before my answering machine could pick up and the caller, assuming I wasn’t home, could hang up. Who could this be? I wondered as I ran. Is it Mom and Dad? But they wouldn’t call me at home in the middle of the day. They didn’t know I had been fired and had no reason to think that I would be around. Maybe, I thought, with a sudden mad optimism, it’s my old job—they’ve changed their minds and want me back. Yes, that could be it.

I answered with a weak “Hello.”

It was a male voice. “Mr. ———?” he asked.

I said yes. He identified himself as an officer from the county police department. “How are we doing today?” he asked.

I didn’t really regard this policeman on the phone as anything other than a phone solicitor wanting me to buy some tickets or make a donation. Sorry, I had other things on my mind. I said nothing, and, as I usually do with telemarketers, I hung up.

I returned to bed. And I waited, again, for the pills to take effect. Even on the brink of death, I thought, the telemarketers will try to find you.

Again, I don’t know how long I lay there. Maybe it was only another five minutes, but it seemed longer. Then the phone rang again. Realizing now, in a stray moment of logic, that my old bosses weren’t going to call me back and no friends or family knew I would be home, I just let it ring, waiting for the machine to kick in or the caller to hang up.

The machine picked up, and I heard a voice speaking loudly in the distance. The voice called me by name and identified himself. It was the same police officer. “I’m calling to check on you. We received a call that earlier this morning you had threatened suicide. If you don’t talk to me now, we will be sending officers out to your apartment. If you do not answer your door at that time, we will, by force if necessary, make our way into your apartment. It is therefore in your best interest, if I were you, to pick up the phone and speak to me.” He spoke loudly, abruptly, distinctly, almost as if he were reading from a prepared statement.

Wanting to head off a police raid that would thwart my suicide, I got out of bed again and walked, wobbly and dizzy, to the phone.

“Yes,” I said. It was difficult to talk. I was upset, on the verge of crying, my throat sealing off, and I was feeling groggy.

I proceeded to lie.

The actual words of the conversation are, not surprisingly, foggy to me now. But I remember that he asked me if I was OK.

I said yes. I didn’t tell him that he was already too late.

He was blunt, compassionate, commonsensical. “I know you are upset,” he said. “But you lost your job—that’s nothing. It’s just a job. That’s no reason to kill yourself.”

Somehow, I allowed that I agreed with him. He asked me if I had any family to come over and stay with me.

“No,” I answered. “All my family lives out

of state.”

“What about friends?”

“Not really,” I replied. That, at least, was the truth. I knew I had to end this call. I didn’t want to lie anymore, and I didn’t want to get caught.

“Well, what are you going to do for the rest of the day?” he asked.

“I haven’t really made my plans yet,” I replied, as if casually looking over an empty social calendar.

He gave me a few more affirmations and then said, “Do you promise me that you won’t do anything to yourself?”

I lied again. “Yes.” But he seemed to believe me. We agreed to end the call.

I returned to my bedroom and once again stretched out on my back. I hoped I had persuaded the cop, though I worried that I hadn’t. I worried that he would send a squad car anyway. Maybe I would be dead by then.

When I was dying, my thoughts were odd, random, pill-induced. Songs (Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” Marianne Faithfull’s “Sister Morphine”) played in my head—which I thought was good because it would eat up time and keep me from changing my mind. I thought of the firing, how degrading it had felt. I thought about what TV shows I had watched the night before, the book I was reading but would never finish. And I tried to justify what I had just done. This was no dream. My life would soon be over. I would soon know what death was like.

Suddenly, my thoughts turned. I thought of jobs I could apply for, careers I could attempt, places I could move, favors I could call in. I was far from destitute, I reminded myself. I could always call a friend who owned his own company; he always said that if I ever needed anything…My résumé was up-to-date and stored on my computer’s hard drive, and I had recently purchased a box of résumé paper. I would just have to print it out and mail it. I could do that later in the day. When does the post office close? I could bounce back from this….

But I quickly talked myself out of each half-baked plan. No, it’s just easier to lie right here, I rationalized. And each time I made that decision—to just lie there and die—I felt a strong sense of relief. I would not have to deal with the embarrassment of filing for unemployment, of getting rejected from jobs I didn’t want, of having to face family and friends. Yes, this—dying—is the right decision.

I waited for the pills to kill me.

Artificial sleep isn’t like natural sleep. It began to feel as if only my head were falling asleep. My mind felt heavy, cloudy, and confused. But my body knew it wasn’t time to lie down again so soon. It seemed to fight the pills. My heart began to beat surprisingly hard. Aren’t sleeping pills supposed to slow it down? All sorts of thoughts began to play in my mind. What if I didn’t take enough pills? What if the pills don’t kill me? What if they just cripple me? What if they leave me brain-dead? Can that happen?

My arms and legs began to twitch. The twitching, the sudden shakes, actually hurt. This dying was turning out to be painful. The fantasy of death was proving quite different from the reality of it. Where is the softly floating toward the light?

No, they don’t tell you about that.

My body continued to shake, my heart pounding so hard that I wondered if it were hitting against my ribs. My mind was thinking a thousand things, but all in slow motion: No thought could be fully formed and finished. I thought of useless details, weird ideas, meaningless trivia. I tried to force them out of my head. I didn’t want to die thinking of stupid things.

All at once, my eyes snapped open and my heart abruptly slowed. The room around me appeared oddly clear, as if the air had been cleansed and I were seeing everything in sharp detail.

I wondered if I were dead. Had I, in the popular vernacular, “crossed over”?

I sat up, throwing my legs over the side of the bed, and then stood. Slowly, I twisted around to look back onto the bed, thoroughly expecting to see my own lifeless body lying there. I knew, or thought I knew, that some form of myself had parted with the rest of my body. Call it a soul, if you want. But somehow I felt as if I had gotten up and left behind my physical body. Am I a ghost? Is this what death does to you?

But when I looked, the bed was empty. Still, drugged and confused, I wasn’t convinced. My panicked brain began to race. How do you know if you are alive? Somehow, I walked to my bedroom door and gripped the doorjamb tightly. If I can feel this, I thought, then I’m still alive. I touched other surfaces as I walked toward the phone, dizzy and weak. Who can I call?

In that instant, in my fogged and fevered brain, I decided not to die. There was just too much uncertainty, too much fear, too much to fight physically to die. Though that didn’t mean I wanted to live. No, it was not because I wanted to live—it was just that I didn’t want to die. And there’s a difference.

So I called 911, my fingers trembling, my vision so blurred I could hardly see the buttons on the phone.

“What’s your emergency?” the operator asked, as I remember.

I tried to stay calm. I didn’t want them to think I was hysterical or crazy.

“Hello,” I said, and I gave my name. “I need someone to come to my house. I took too many sleeping pills.”

The operator switched me over to the EMT service, and a gruff, older-sounding male voice picked up. “I took too many pills,” I said again.

He asked a series of questions: “How many did you take? What kind?” And then: “Was this accidental or on purpose?”

“On purpose,” I replied calmly.

I gave him my address and name again. “OK,” he said, “we’ll send an ambulance out. Are you able to answer the door when they arrive?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have any weapons there?” he asked.

“No, I don’t have any weapons.”

I hung up the phone. I even managed to change my clothes. I would have to go to the hospital, I reasoned, so I would have to take my keys and wallet, but I had no pockets in the pants I was wearing. (Should I take a book to read? I honestly wondered.)

I was still nervous and jumpy—I didn’t know if it was the pills or just the fear. My legs were almost useless. I could barely walk or stand. But I made it to the living room and peeked through the curtains, waiting for the ambulance to arrive.

Very quickly, a large ambulance pulled up. Two men, both younger than I, got out. They saw my face in the window and I nodded at them. I met them at the door, the way a good host should. Never having attempted to kill myself before, and never having had any dealings with ambulances, I didn’t know the protocol.

I walked out of my apartment on my own, though my legs kept threatening to give out underneath me. I grasped the railings of the stairs to steady myself on the way down. I was taken on a seemingly endless ride, strapped down in the back of the ambulance, to the local hospital.

In the emergency room, I was placed behind a curtain. Many doctors and nurses came in to ask me the same questions over and over again (“How many pills did you take?” “What kind?”). They took my blood pressure, listened to my heartbeat, looked in my eyes with a darting flashlight. I was hooked up to an IV, a blood-pressure gauge, and an EKG. I was given a cup of charcoal and water—it looked like tar—to make me vomit. I drank it, coating my lips, tongue, and teeth jet-black, and then promptly fell asleep, waking up only long enough to puke into a plastic tub they gave me.

No, they don’t tell you about that, either.

Later that night, after sleeping for much of the day, I was transferred to the intensive care unit. The doctors kept waking me for evaluations, again and again. I remember feeling surprised that the doctors and nurses wanted me to survive. They didn’t care that I had just lost my job; they just wanted me to live.

Mostly, though, what I felt was guilt, and embarrassment, and shame. (Earlier, in the ambulance, I had made a point of telling one of the EMTs that I was sorry to have troubled him.) The hospital was full of people suffering from heart attacks, strokes, cancer. And then there I was: I had done this to myself, simply expecting everyone else to deal with it afterward. I was so sorry.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

Postscript, Sept. 23, 2001:

Obviously, my suicide attempt, and the writing of this account of it, took place before the cataclysmic events in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11. Though depression is in many ways about extreme self-absorption—sometimes I wonder if it is not this self-absorption that eventually drives the depressed to suicide; you are just so sick of being you—I know that those tragedies were not “about me.”

Like all Americans, I’m now working through myriad emotions: anger, sadness, fear, helplessness. But some of us who also suffer from depression, or who once tried to take our own lives, perhaps feel the Sept. 11 tragedies even more keenly, afflicted with even greater sadness, further hopelessness, and a sense that there is just too much pain in the world for it ever to all go away.

Most of all, though, I have additional feelings of shame and embarrassment and guilt. In light of so many victims—so many people who wanted to live and are now dead—it’s hard to reconcile myself to the fact that, only a couple of months ago, I cared so little about my own life.

A part of me wishes I could exchange my life for just one of the Sept. 11 victims’. What I feel is akin, I suppose, to “survivor’s guilt”—I wonder why I’m still here when so many others are gone. CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustrations by Greg Houston.