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Suicide Is Many Things

It’s an idea. It’s a dream. It’s a nightmare.

Illustration: Daniel Stolle

Everybody here’s got a story to tell,
Everybody’s been through their own hell.
There’s nothing too special about getting hurt,
But getting over it, that takes the work.

Glen Phillips, “Duck and Cover”

It’s just a matter of a time.

Seconds, really. In a matter of moments, all the pain will be over.


That’s what I’m hoping for, anyway. That’s what I’m drilling into my cerebellum: This will be quick. My brain is a fully sprung coil, stretched and useless. I lack any potential energy. I have no bounce, no drive. I wander the length of the Hoover Dam in Westerville, Ohio — a 3,000-foot concrete slab buffeting Big Walnut Creek — going back and forth over it, twice, in the dark. I’ve been out here countless times with my kids. I am drawn to its power, its fury, its constancy. I easily hop the chain-link fence and walk along the muddy banks of the reservoir, pissed that I didn’t bring dumber shoes for the occasion. The place smells like rotting fish, which is somehow closer to how I feel than I want to admit. I huddle inside my sweatshirt, drawing it close to my body, which does nothing to stop anything. My body temp is dropping by the second.

There’s a Frisbee golf course somewhere down in the pitch-black where I’ve lost a disk, or four. Part of me thinks it’d be more useful for me to search for the missing disks than try to end my life tonight, but I’ve had enough. In the span of just a few weeks, I have walked my sister down the aisle at her wedding, said goodbye to my father with a eulogy that absolutely gutted me to write, dealt with the day-to-day stress of a good job, felt inadequate and worthless on a regular basis, argued relentlessly with my wife, been overwhelmed by the chaos of three small kids, wondered why they keep delaying the next James Bond movie, and — hell, I don’t know. Just name it.

It’s February in Ohio. A cold, scudding wind cuts across the reservoir and flaps at my clothes. I’m not dressed for the weather, but I hate Ohio winters to the point where I purposely don’t dress appropriately for them — almost out of spite. Right now, I don’t care about clothes. I care not only about whether I can jump off the concrete divide, but also whether the fall will do the trick. I don’t want to land safely; I want everything to be over, once and for all. The incline seems steep enough; the rush of water sounds Fugitive-real enough. I want my body to get twisted up in the cascade of water and kinetic energy to take care of the rest. I’m hoping for a final smack that takes me out of the game forever, but then I hesitate.

I’m going to have to go head first to guarantee I don’t accidentally catch my temple and end up in a coma or something. I want this to be over.

I go back to my Jetta, sobbing, and type out 10 messages in my iPhone’s Notes app. Ten, exactly. (You’ll probably never know if you had one addressed to you.) The farewell notes get tedious, I find, and I keep repeating myself. Phrases and sentences. I just hope no one compares notes after the fact. What a stupid thought, I think. These are the things that occupy my brain: whether people are going to compare suicide notes from their lost friend.

I finish, toss my phone on the seat, leave the Jetta unlocked, and walk back to the dam.

Here’s what happens when you’re brought into the ER of a hospital after trying to commit suicide: You lose everything short of your identity. I don’t even have that, really. My first name is Carl, not Paul (my middle name), but everyone calls me Carl. I feel like I’m masquerading as a suicide tourist. Security guards wordlessly spring into action. Your cell phone, your wallet, your wedding ring, your shoes, your clothes — everything is bagged up, zip-tied, filed away, stored. You’re given rubber-matted socks and a blue hospital gown and pushed into a cramped, featureless room with only the barest light imaginable. The room reflects exactly how I feel. It’s remarkable how there’s so little in the room that it’s comfortable. Nothing is jockeying for my attention — just some low fluorescent lighting slanting through a high, narrow window.

Suicide is a germ of something larger — a spore of sadness that has been allowed to grow and fester in the darkest chambers of your being.

Someone comes to tell me that someone named Adam is coming to visit me in a few minutes. My brain scrolls through the two Adams who would know I’m here. I’m blown away. What sort of telepathy conveyed that I’m in the ER? Then I discover it’s my sponsor, David, and I start to cry. David, I think. Of course. My sister has delivered the news that I’ve been admitted to a hospital, and my brain is so churned, like ocean surf, that it almost seems like magic that he has arrived. David takes a seat opposite me and doesn’t even ask if I’ve had a drink. (I haven’t.) He just listens. More than that, he’s just here. He wants to know the details of how I tried to swan-dive off a dam. He wants to hear about how I only hurt myself in the fall, bruising myself badly on the way into a sluice channel instead of careening all the way down into oblivion.

I realize I’m loved.

I had forgotten.

Four hours later, all I want is my Ambien. I want to shutter this experience out. I’ve been transferred to a mental hospital about a half-mile behind the ER. I want Ambien to swallow me whole, gauzy, so I can wake up the next day and find myself here. I don’t want to experience being processed. I don’t want to answer questions about my mental state. I don’t want to circle feelings on scales of 1 to 10. The staff quickly tells me Ambien isn’t possible. Instead, they give me a sleeping aid that produces nothing more than a dry mouth. I am assigned a room that’s about 72°F with a small, beat-to-shit desk and a twin bed. The bed is low to the ground, no frame, but I collapse on it anyway. Outside my window, the blinds are wide open. I can see freedom. The city lights bruise the clouds with reds and browns. It’s 3 in the morning, but I can still hear and see life. Cars on the highway, blinking phone cell towers, flickering downtown buildings. I yearn to be part of it all again, wondering how long before I can be.

It’s remarkable how beautifully suicide-proofed my room is. Everything has been thought out. You can’t hang yourself from the door, because it’s cut with a 45-degree angle at the top, sloping downward. There are no garment hooks. All the guardrails in the shower have little metal strips behind them that prevent wrapping something between them and the wall. Everything is housed in metal or plastic. You can’t even get to the A/C, as much as I want to. There are no edges anywhere. Not even on the windowsills. It’s as close to pillowed as I’m going to get. Nothing is sharp; nothing is edged; nothing is barbed.

Part of me still wants the danger, the possibility, and the chance of taking my own life.

I don’t have that anymore. That’s the quiet joke of a mental hospital: you’re allowed to live but not allowed to die.

I’m on the wrong unit. This isn’t a self-diagnosis. I’m told this almost immediately. I’m told that I’m on a floor dedicated to violent individuals and people who hear voices. There’s simply no room on the right unit. It explains a lot. There’s a dude in a hooded sweatshirt who does endless laps around the common area having full-on conversations with someone, laughing and chuckling and shaking his head like he can’t believe the audacity of what he’s hearing. He’s never had a better time with anyone. There’s a 20-year-old kid cloaked in a graphic Top Ramen sweatshirt who gets shot with Thorazine every few hours because he threatens people and breaks remote controls and punches the paintings on the walls. He even broke the TV to the point where my kids’ favorite show, PAW Patrol, was stuck on volume 100 for two straight hours. He now wanders about with his pants around his knees, dull-eyed and nudging into things like a low-powered bumper car. During this time, I also score a roommate: a 70-something homeless man named Harold who sleeps all the time when he’s not waking me up in the middle of the night with his sandpaper voice to tell me about how his work as God has changed the “confluence of traffic” and “whittled the wood of people down.”

New admissions to the hospital, like me, typically arrive at three or four in the morning, but they’re announced with primal screams and banshee cries. Between Harold and the new admissions, I get very little sleep: the sort of ragged, tenuous sleep reserved for people with appointments in the morning they’re afraid they’ll miss. I have nothing whatsoever to do, but I’m angry about every second of sleep I miss. I have no idea how long I’ll be inside, and that makes the space feel infinitely smaller. My sheets twist around my ankles and I flop around until I find a semi-comfortable spot on the mattress, and then someone whisks through the place with a blue-light wand, checking on us.

There’s always something going on, even when I wish there weren’t.

The sessions available to me are almost primitive: coloring books, music therapy, cookie decoration. There’s no talk of the future. Just talking about the now.

Do you like yellow?

Is G a better-sounding chord than E on this guitar?

This therapy dog is named Meatball. Say hi.

It’s Day One and I’m praying someone of authority will say I deserve to be discharged on Day Two. Of course, when I finally meet the psychiatrists and the social workers and clinicians and everyone in between, my timeline is sized to at least seven days.

Lying on my tiny mattress, it’s as though I can feel someone injecting me with liquid dread.

There are no pens here. We’re allowed little golf pencils that wear themselves out faster than Top Ramen Guy’s welcome. I decide to ask Carrie, my wife, for a delivery of books instead of notepads. I’m going to read my way out of this hell.

I cry every morning. Hurricane-strength sobbing; rain-shower weeping. Before I go to bed, though, I’m actually optimistic. I’ve built enough confidence up to feel pretty good about making it to tomorrow. When I wake up, however, the distance between then and when I can tuck my children into bed — something I also, ironically, dreaded — seems interminable. Lying on my tiny mattress, it’s as though I can feel someone injecting me with liquid dread. Every morning around five, someone carts in a tackle box on wheels and draws blood, taking vitals. They’re not very good at it, and the crook of my arm starts to look like vampire porn: greens, blacks, brownish reds.

My medication list reads like the ingredients on a shampoo bottle, I think:

  • Albuterol, 90 mcg
  • Benzonatate, 200 MG
  • Bupropion, 100 MG
  • Doxycycline hyclate, 100 MG
  • Escitalopram oxalate, 20 MG
  • Zolpidem, 10 MG (as needed, not available here)
  • Trazodone, 10 MG

Am I really someone who can only exist on a cocktail of medication? My wife isn’t, and it pisses me off. Not going to lie: I’m insanely jealous of people who can get through life without the sort of balm I need. That’s probably why I’m a recovering alcoholic. I was born without the second skin necessary to get through life. Friends make fun of me for loving the 1980s-era show Halt and Catch Fire more than anything else, but there’s a quote from the series finale that sticks with me. I achingly identify with it:

You got a lot of love in you. More than anybody I ever met. It’s burstin’ out of you. You take in the world in these big gulps and you can’t help but to let yourself get drowned in it. It overwhelms you. Makes you feel like you’re ready to explode at any minute. They don’t see it. I do. It’s the burden you carry.

Love for the world apparently requires Lexapro and Wellbutrin.

Somehow, my Lexapro gets halved. This means that I’m only getting 50 percent of what I need, and the world is suddenly coming at me in electric jolts, like I’m being stabbed with a cattle prod. Doesn’t help that the left side of my body is bruised from not pulling off the dam-dive correctly. I can’t get the other half of the Lexapro fast enough, and my panic is rising. There are no nurses anywhere. They’re on break. I try going back to my room, but my roommate is in a “I’m God” mood again and wants to tell me about what he’s done lately to straighten out the status quo. I start to cry again and lie on my bed, shutting my eyes.

I officially accept that I’m having a nervous breakdown, even though the doctors here tell me there’s no such thing. That’s not a real disorder. No, I’m having a psychotic break.

Carrie drops off a wish list of books. She has come every day so far. This is all I can do to get through the next few days: read. You see, none of the treatment options — coloring, music, talking about what’s next on the food menu — are anything but optional. I can literally sit around and do nothing and my treatment will be the same, as will my unknown discharge date. So I become Reader Guy. That’s what some of the people actually call me when they circle past. One guy even stops and raises a crooked finger: “You know, they say the more you read, the more you read.” Somehow, this strikes me as bizarrely profound instead of hilariously wrong.

Sphere, Michael Crichton (1987): I last read this in high school, so it’s comfort food. Underwater nonsense. It’s surprisingly better than I remember.

The Best Nonrequired American Reading (2011): I thought an anthology of fiction, nonfiction, band names, headlines, redacted emails, etc. would do the trick. Instead, it gives me a headache. It’s not whimsical. It’s a lot of heavy lifting. I don’t need this. I fight against its 400-plus pages and occasionally find something valuable. I feel like an English major again, which is somehow worse than being alive.

The 007 Diaries (1973): Back in 1973, Roger Moore wrote a diary about taking on the role of James Bond for Live and Let Die. It’s a fascinating read (for me) and I’m shocked by the candor he shows. No way in hell would this be published today. I’m sad when it’s over.

Icebreaker (1984): I’m losing interest the more I read. I asked for more Bond novels, but they’re not doing the trick, either. This one is about some multinational consortium of agents double-crossing each other, which is kind of how I feel about what happens when all of us get in the breakfast line. Someone will pretend to go for the Chex but then dive for the Raisin Bran, emptying it all out so no one else gets any. Sometimes they get both cereals. One guy even uses a slurry of mayonnaise and tartar sauce on everything, including in his Cream of Wheat and his oatmeal and his eggs. I’m not sure if it’s because he’s afraid someone else will get to his mayo or tartar sauce before he does, but it freaks me out more than any Bond villain.

Role of Honor (1985): Bond pretends to be a bad guy up for hire. I’m over 007. I just want out of this goddamn place. I don’t finish the book.

Suicide, I discover, is many things. It’s an idea. It’s a dream. It’s a nightmare. It’s a germ of something larger — a spore of sadness that has been allowed to grow and fester in the darkest chambers of your being. You just don’t want to be here anymore.

I don’t want to be a participant. I don’t want to put myself out in the world anymore. I don’t want anyone to notice me. I want to go through life unknown and unseen. If I’m gone, life will move on, just like ivy will simply snake over stone edifices. My kids will grow up just fine. My wife will find someone more put-together. My mom will survive, even though she just buried her husband. It will all work out.

That’s until I realized how much I was using the telephone to call friends and family. I called everyone I knew (the numbers I actually, miraculously, remembered). Neal, Shawn, David, Mom, Cory. If I truly didn’t want to live, I wouldn’t be making plans to see them afterward or allowing them to visit me (and shuffling-sleepy Top Ramen Guy) in the facility. Checking out of your life is a fantasy you have to weigh seriously. It’s possible to do but impossible to undo. I never truly wanted to vanish, I’m convinced, but I certainly wanted to vanish from view.

Life is all too often too much for me. I sometimes feel like I’m tapping into a brighter frequency than I should, and it fills me with a nervous, haunting voltage that I can’t completely process. Even afterward, in my quietest moments, I feel numb from the experience. I feel untethered, distant, and disconnected from who I ever used to be — or dreamed I would be one day.

When I get home, finally emptying my hastily packed duffel bag, I find him: my teddy bear.

In my fugue state, just one week earlier, I had the presence of mind to grab my old teddy bear and jam him into the bottom of the bag. If you think about it, that’s where I started to pack. With my teddy bear from when I was three years old, like my daughter Mallory. He’s virtually faceless and featureless now (much like the ER intake room), with scarred eyes and a missing nose, and most of the time he sits in a display case my mom bought me years ago. Seeing him, however, broke something inside. Something good. (This, of course, is the same teddy bear that won a contest at the library when I was six for being “Most Loved.”)

Photo: Paul Fuhr

It reminded me of when I lost him when I was six, only to have my mom discover him wedged deeply into the couch. I involuntarily cried back then at the sight of him, just as I’m doing now. Past, present, now, tomorrow. Everything collides at the sight of this stupid teddy bear, and I realize I’m deeply tied to my past. I’m a 41-year-old man who, in his darkest moments, will always reach for something simple. Perhaps I’ve never attic-ked that bear for good reason. Maybe I knew one day I’d need him again. In many ways, that bear is all I have left of me. My dad is dead. My mom is learning how to live life. My sister is charting a brand-new course, too.

My children don’t need a teddy bear.

They need me.

All I can do is promise to be there — with infinite love — when their darkest moments come, even if it’s in the form of these words and not in, say, my physical presence. I can aspire to that because we’re never guaranteed the gift of life. I know that now, and I’m all the wiser for knowing that being here is much more rewarding, albeit terrifying, than the other side.

Author of the alcoholism memoir “Bottleneck” and many articles on addiction, as well as creator/co-host of the music & recovery podcast “Drop the Needle.”

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