The last time I tried to kill myself was in my basement with a dog leash. As usual, I didn’t write a note. I carried down a green leather and wood chair from my office while my dog watched from the stairs. She’s afraid of the basement. I took the heavy blue canvas leash, looped it over a beam, made a noose by snaking the leash through the handle, latched it, and checked it for strength.
I stood on the green chair and put the noose around my neck. Then I kicked the chair away like the gentle old institutionalized suicide Brooks Hatlen does toward the end of The Shawshank Redemption. I hung there, kicking. But I wasn’t dying, I was just in terrible pain. Hanging yourself really hurts. I had forgotten that, though I’d tried it before, because I’d recently spent some time reading about people hanging themselves, and it sounded so easy.
Other people manage to do it from a doorknob sitting down. I started to panic, I resisted the panic, I panicked some more, and in a moment that I can’t exactly recall, I lifted myself up and got out of the leash. I dropped to the floor and lay there on the dusty concrete for a while. I still haven’t moved that chair back upstairs. It’s too spooky, and I don’t want it in our house.
Later that day I spoke to my wife on the phone—she was away on a trip—and she asked me what was wrong with my voice.
“I have a sore throat.”
“Make yourself some ginger and honey tea,” she said. “It sounds like you’re coming down with something.”
“Uh-huh,” I said.
My throat hurt for another week, and several of my students asked me what I had done to my neck. The bruising was flagrant. I told them “Oh, it looks worse than it is,” and avoided the question.
I probably could have told them the truth. But it’s one thing to write about suicide and your suicide attempts and have those readily available to your students on the internet-students do google their professors—and quite another to look a student in the eye, with the black and blue evidence on display, and say, “Oh, I tried to hang myself a couple of days ago.”
Even if there were no professional consequences (and I suspect there may have been), I’d worry about laying that kind of weight on the minds of young people, and also about the possibility that it might encourage one of them who might already be suffering from depression or having suicidal thoughts to make a bad choice.
I’ve lived nearly all my life with two incompatible ideas in my head: I wish I were dead and I’m glad my suicides failed. I’ve never once thought, If only I’d successfully killed myself, I would have been spared all this living I’ve done. And yet when I’m feeling like my life has been a complete waste, my first thought is Okay then, go kill yourself now. Or rather, I tend to think along very concrete lines, such as I’d better just hang myself, because I don’t have any poison, and if I order some, I’ll have lost my nerve by the time it gets here. And it’s important that I do this right now, while my thinking is clear. (Which shows you how confused I actually am.)
In that moment when I am so convinced that killing myself is the right thing to do, I am as certain that I am finally admitting the truth to myself as one feels one knows, irrefutably, when very angry: now, at last, I can finally say what I actually always wanted and needed to say. Later, when calm, it’s clear this angry certainty did not necessarily reflect the truth at all.
Walt Whitman’s famous observation applies not only to life-affirming thoughts but to self-destructive ones as well.
Of course, I’m not always struggling with suicidal thoughts. As I write this sentence in the winter of 2022, for example, I don’t want to take my own life, and I’m grateful that I’m here. But in a way, gratitude misses the point. You can be grateful for something and still not be up to the task. And if and when the thought should return—Yes, do it, kill yourself, or simply, Come on now, it’s time, you ‘re too tired, end it all, get it over with—I’ll still be glad that I was previously unsuccessful, because all those failed attempts predate good things that have happened since then, including most important, the births of my children.
I realize how bizarre it sounds to be simultaneously thinking that I have to finally kill myself while also knowing it was lucky that my previous attempts had failed. If my prior lack of success allowed me to go on living and create and experience good things as a result, shouldn’t that logic hold true moving forward? Can’t I learn that giving in to this impulse is a mistake? Maybe I am learning, slowly. But in the moment I’m gripped by the desire to die, I don’t believe more good things are coming down the road. More to the point, regardless of what the future may offer, I’m convinced my still being here will only make matters worse.
Holding two incompatible thoughts in one’s head in this way is not so unusual, really: we often call it cognitive dissonance; it’s the essence of self-deception; and it is an example of one of the many varieties of deep irrationality that make human beings the extremely interesting creatures we are. “Do I contradict myself? I Very well then, I contradict myself/ (I am large, I contain multitudes).” Walt Whitman’s famous observation applies not only to life-affirming thoughts but to self-destructive ones as well.
Being divorced with children is an easy example of how this kind of thinking works. I regret my two divorces and feel a great deal of shame about them. If I could, I would go back and correct my mistakes and be a better husband. But at the same time, I am grateful to have been married to all three of my partners, and especially for the children who came from those marriages.
If I hadn’t divorced my first wife and subsequently remarried, I wouldn’t have my daughters Margaret and Portia. And if l hadn’t divorced my second wife, I wouldn’t be married to my wonderful wife Amie or be father to Ratna and Kali. Amie and my five children are my main reason for living. Often they feel like my only good reason.
Today I’m glad I am alive. I am thankful that, try as I might, I’ve never succeeded in killing myself. And that’s one of the reasons I wrote this book: I believe that for the vast majority of people, suicide is a bad choice. I deeply understand the desire to kill oneself. Not merely wanting to die but wanting actively to take my own life is among my earliest memories. And while the impulse ebbs and flows, there have been few days in my life, and definitely no weeks, when I haven’t been overwhelmed by existence and thought about ending it. Multiple times I have tried to kill myself and failed. (I’m a comical figure in the history of suicide, a perennial fuckup who seems to always get lucky and keep on going.)
I’m not alone in this. I have lots of friends who have daily suicidal ideation, and who have attempted to kill themselves, many more than once. There are certain secrets about killing oneself that are only known to those of us symparanekromenoi for whom the thought of suicide is familiar, especially to those of us who have tried to kill ourselves and failed, perhaps repeatedly. Anne Sexton tells a few of these secrets in her famous poem “Suicide Note”:
I could admit
That I am only a coward
Crying me me me
And not mention the little gnats, the moths,
Forced by circumstance
To suck on the electric bulb.
What is Sexton confiding here? First, that yes, there is some truth to what people say, that the suicide is a coward and that, more important, she considers herself a coward, and she wishes she were one of these brave hearts who could carry on marching despite the pain and discouragement and countless obstacles of life. She also confesses the connection between her cowardice, her suicide, and her vanity, with the “me me me,” when every suicide knows that she will be reproached for being selfish, because the life we have does not belong to us alone but also consists of our obligations to others.
“Me me me” is a terrible and humiliating thing to say, think, or feel, yet there it is, a voice that is loud in the experience of living for everyone—who hasn’t fearfully or defiantly thought, Well, if I don’t look out for me, who will?—and is screaming in your ear when you are deciding to end your life. The “me me me” makes the act possible—how could I kill myself if I were really only thinking about you?—and is also the thing we are trying to escape once and for all.
Finally Sexton is also insisting that—and I will have more to say about this—it’s not just cowardice and selfishness but also what Freud (following Schopenhauer) called the death drive, the very basic and primitive need to “suck on the electric bulb.” Sexton, who took her own life one month shy of her forty-sixth birthday, reveals a great deal about the desire to die in her poetry, and certainly her work should be recommended to anyone who wrestles with the desire to die.
But her poems should probably be read only by someone who is feeling pretty steady on her feet, suicide-wise, because in the honesty and despair of Sexton’s writing, there is also a kind of romanticization of suicide that is dangerous for a vulnerable person to encounter. If one of my students shared with me that they’d been struggling with thoughts of self-harm and asked if there were any books I could recommend, I have a few different ones I might (there is also quite a bit more I would want to talk about with this student, naturally), but one writer I would absolutely not steer them toward is Anne Sexton. Nor would I suggest Edouard Leve, David Foster Wallace, or Nelly Arcan: these writers, as we’ll discuss later, knew about suicide, wrote about it in intimate detail, and ultimately killed themselves.
The truth is we all know something about suicide, if we are willing to be honest with ourselves.
I’m always relieved and grateful when people bravely come to talk to me about suicide. It’s a tough topic, a taboo one even today, and most people are reluctant to discuss it. Alcohol and drug addiction used to be this way and in some ways still are (thus the anonymous aspect of AA and NA). Depression and other forms of mental illness used to be this way and in some ways still are (thus the justified celebration, for example, when world champion gymnast Simone Biles talked openly about her struggles with mental illness).
It wasn’t so long ago that admitting to being gay was also taboo, strange though that may seem to us now (and, depending upon your cultural context, perhaps still is). A close friend’s son recently took his own life, and even I have trouble talking to her about it despite having spent 13 years reading and writing about suicide, and the last few years writing this book.
But suicide is all around us, and we must talk about it. And the truth is we all know something about suicide, if we are willing to be honest with ourselves. I used to tell my students that if we had a switch on our bellies that we could flip to end our lives, no one would make it to age 18. That’s why it’s particularly important for me to be as honest with you as I can about my own desire and attempts to kill myself. If I’m bullshitting you, you’ll smell it.
Because of course on some level it must be easier not to live. It doesn’t help matters that the most negative emotions are also the most sure of themselves. Happiness and security are notoriously tentative and fragile states. But anger, depression, fear: what could feel more certain? (Yet this is of course mistaken: emotions, like thoughts, come and go.) Life is just so fucking hard so much of the time. Many of us have moments of panic. And we all get tired.
Which brings me to the main reason I wrote How Not To Kill Yourself: to sincerely and accurately convey what it’s like to want to kill yourself, sometimes on a daily basis, yet to go on living, and to show my own particular good reasons for doing so. Since I began talking and writing about this subject more than a decade ago, I’ve had numerous interactions with people who identified with my darkest feelings of self-loathing and despair and told me that hearing my story helped them.
Realizing that you are not alone with these feelings does something important. You start to understand that you’re not a broken person, you’re not the one fuckup in a world of smooth successes. Knowing others feel this way—and realizing it’s okay to feel that way—helps us to understand that maybe there’s nothing wrong with us. It’s often the very thought that there’s something wrong with us that threatens to push us off the edge.
There is a group called Suicide Anonymous, and I encourage anyone who is reading this and feeling suicidal to attend one of their meetings. (They have Zoom sessions.) Similarly, suicide helplines and, more recently, online chats are available. But in my personal experience this kind of assistance isn’t as compelling as one might hope.
I myself don’t want to call an anonymous helpline—particularly since they’re not as anonymous as they’d like you to think, which is part of the problem, because they can and will send the cops to your house if they think there is cause. (I’m only speaking for myself, here: suicide helplines save lives every day, and they are an indispensable resource in our collective attempts to help people who are in danger.)
I also don’t want to chat with a stranger or group of relative strangers about my desire to kill myself while the urge is actually pressing. What I can do, and have done, is read something that will either help the impulse to pass on that particular day or, better yet, help me to pause and even start to rethink the appeal of killing myself. I don’t expect my suicidal thoughts to ever go away, though I’m happy to report that they may be diminishing.
But I do believe that my attitude toward those thoughts can change, that they can feel both less appealing and less insistent; and indeed my attitude toward suicide has changed, in part through writing about it, but mostly through my exchanges with other people who are or have been suicidal.
Suppose a friend comes to you and says, “I’ve bought a gun, I’ve decided to shoot myself in the head later today.” (The friend is not suffering from some incurable disease and seems otherwise like her ordinary self.) Is there any situation in which you would agree that that’s a good idea? Of course not. When someone else is thinking this way, the fact that suicide is a bad idea is clear and obvious. And yet when we ourselves are thinking in this way, we’re somehow incapable of seeing the conspicuous truth that suicide is not the best solution to our problems.
Ken Baldwin survived a suicide attempt by leaping off the Golden Gate Bridge, then later famously remarked that, immediately after leaping, “I realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped.” Or as Joel Rose said of his friend Anthony Bourdain, not long after he died, “I’ve always had, since it happened, this overwhelming feeling that he committed himself to this, the act of taking his own life, and then said, ‘Oh fuck, what have I done?”‘
It’s my hope as well that this frank accounting of a chronically suicidal person may help those who have or have had such a person in their lives to be gentler both with that person and with themselves. When we think and talk about suicide, we should try to do so tenderly.
How Not To Kill Yourself by Clancy Martin is available now from Pantheon.