On the Subject of my Suicide
Norah Vincent wrote 'Adeline' and then tried to kill herself
There is no time. That is what I tell everyone who asks, and sooner or later everyone asks (it was my psychiatrist’s first question); why I didn’t call them, or someone, anyone for help on that March evening in 2014 before I took the largest carving knife from the kitchen drawer, locked myself in the bathroom, climbed in the tub, ran the water, and set about slicing my radial and femoral arteries. I soon saw that the knife would not accomplish this quickly—it had been dulled by overuse—and so I turned my attention elsewhere. Near the front rim of the tub, there was a large rectangular chrome plate that operated the drainstop. When sitting, you could see your face in it clearly. It was in this close and unexpected mirror that I fixed myself, eye to eye, scried the throb of the right carotid, and drew the blade across my throat.
I say that ‘I’ did these things, because I must use the first person pronoun if I am to take full responsibility both for what happened that night, and for the toll it took on those around me. But ‘I’ is not quite the right word, because the person who did these things, mechanically and without pause, and with a calm determination, was not me. Or at least that is not how it felt at the time. Someone—‘she,’ call her—took over—and this is the crucial detail—she did so in an instant without my knowledge or consent. She simply acted, without feeling, without judgment, and without thought.
Before I fully understood this, I used to say that she did what she did because I wasn’t trying to commit suicide. I was merely trying to get myself out of a situation I couldn’t handle. This is not altogether untrue. Actions almost always have more than one cause, and that night, mine were no exception. Some part of me knew that doing something so drastic while another person was at home, and doing the most indicative part of it—the march from the kitchen to the bathroom with a knife—in that person’s full view, would bring the police in a matter of minutes. They would then take me away and lock me away for a significant period of time. This is precisely what happened.
But, now that I am on the other side of the event, with the insight of afterthought, I realize that the way I once explained my behavior leaves out a large portion of the truth. It would be more accurate to say that ‘she’ did what she did because she was not thinking, and because there was no time. And though suicidal events are far too personal and varied to epitomize, this suspension of time and thought does, I believe, lie at the heart of the particular type of self-harm that I and so many other writers and creative people throughout history have felt driven to commit. It is also the main reason why those, like myself, who survive an attempt, often do so only out of what is so appositely called dumb luck.
My attempt to kill myself did not happen when it did by coincidence. It was a direct result of a process and a mindset that I had been steeping in for months. I began to understand this only when a close friend, who read the manuscript I’d been working on before I tried to kill myself said: “Whenever someone commits suicide, we always ask: Why? In Adeline, you’ve given us an answer.” She said ‘an’ answer, not ‘the’ answer, because there is not one answer. But there is, I believe, one answer to the more particular question that has pervaded the lives and legacies of so many artists, especially Virginia Woolf: Why has there always been such a close and obstreperous association between creativity and mental illness? A clash that too often results in death.
* * * *
The previous summer I had been through an obliterating depression. After months of dementing torpor, I accepted the need for new medication, took it, and by late September I began climbing out of hell. By October I had begun writing a novel about the mental illness, artistry and suicide of Virginia Woolf. The reason I did so has become as obvious to me as it must now be to you. I was not only writing but enacting what I knew: suicidal depression and its seemingly inextricable entanglement with making art. I called it Adeline, which, though it was never used, had been Virginia Woolf’s, or Virginia Stephen’s, as she was then known, given name.
The writing came in a devouring rush of a quality and kind I had not known in my working life. It precipitated in me an extended fugue state that pulled me further and further from the necessary touchstones of the outside world. I spent weeks alone in the country, in the midst of a frigid, snowbound winter, writing all day, and seeing no one but my dog.
The story, the scenes, the trajectory revealed themselves. I did not construct them, but watched their pattern spread like a stain on a tablecloth. I was merely their conduit; I put down what I received.
The novel begins with Woolf (in the bathtub) conceiving of To the Lighthouse in the summer of 1925, and proceeds through the next 16 years of her life. It explores other themes, but it focuses throughout on this nexus of creativity and suicide, both as Woolf discussed it with others; notably Dora Carrington, on the day before Carrington killed herself, and years later, with her friend and personal physician, Octavia Wilberforce, again, on the day before Woolf drowned herself in the River Ouse. All of this—except for the meetings themselves, and some of the stranger details surrounding them, which are documented both by Woolf and her best biographer, Hermione Lee—I created out of whole cloth. Out of myself.
Though I did not know it then, Adeline was not just a work of fiction, or an act of literary ventriloquism. It was my suicide note. Had I succeeded in taking my life, this would have been clear.
My first hint of this came from a friend who knows me well and never prevaricates or hyperbolizes about my work. He read the manuscript one weekend in early March, and said: “It’s astonishing, truly, but, I have to ask: You’re not of Virginia’s persuasion are you?” “No,” I scoffed. Yet even then, though I understood little else of what was happening to me, I knew this was a lie.
Or, I knew and I didn’t want to know—and there is a very good reason for this. When you have spent the better part of your adult life vigorously entertaining and just as vociferously disavowing thoughts of self-harm, because you know that acknowledging them can be used as a pretext for committing you to a locked psychiatric facility against your will, over time, something very odd happens to those thoughts. In your mind they constitute a substantial portion of the decor, like well-worn wallpaper, so familiar as to be invisible. They are always there, and you never talk about them with anyone—not honestly.
Still, getting lost, sometimes dangerously so, in my work is nothing new. I began my writing life as an immersion journalist. I put myself inside other people’s lives, and I purported to write from their perspective, but inescapably, I did so by means of my own. I then moved to fiction, but I did not leave immersion behind, or the agenda of my hidden self. Adeline is the culmination of that process. It is both fiction and non-fiction, novel and memoir, blended so thoroughly as to be unrecognizable to anyone who doesn’t know me well. In Adeline, I did what I had done so often before. I disappeared into someone else, and I emerged as myself.
* * * *
Albert Camus once said that a novel is never anything but a philosophy put into images. Virginia Woolf fulfilled and exceeded this dictum. Her most difficult and arguably greatest novels, To the Lighthouse and The Waves, are autobiographical, versions of her lived experience. But because so much of that experience was phantasmagorical, so beyond the norm, her fiction became, to use Camus’s terms, not just philosophy, but metaphysics put into images. To the Lighthouse is a memoir of the childhood summers Woolf spent with her family in St. Ives, but rendered in the dream language of what her friend Aldous Huxley would later call psychedelic apperception. Huxley achieved and described this condition more than a decade after Woolf’s death, but he did so by taking mescaline and LSD. Woolf did so naturally. It was simply how she perceived the world.
As I learned while channeling Adeline, this hallucinatory frame of mind is often both the essence and the compulsion of artistic experience; the chief reason why creativity and madness are so often treacherously intertwined.
The real world, as some philosophers have observed, is not what it seems, and though mystics have taught this for thousands of years, now even physicists are bolstering this view with hard data. Our world is the version of reality that our limited brains, bodies and capacities can assimilate. We can only take it, if we take it at all, in very small doses. Otherwise, we are liable, as we so often say of the mentally ill, to lose touch with reality; to go mad with overstimulation in the transport.
The artist, however, sees through the veil of illusion, beyond the mirage that constitutes the so-called real world, and entertains the wondrous, yet terrifying spectacle that lies beneath, and it is this liminal consciousness that the artist must induce and cultivate if he is to practice his art. Yet, doing so, as became so abundantly clear in the life and work of Virginia Woolf, means balancing on the high wire of sanity. Many fall; many jump, and this is not only because the practice is inherently decompensating to human beings, but also because, harrowing and intoxicating by turns as this awareness so often is, once you have partaken of something that feels so meaningful and so real, the everyday world just can’t compare. It becomes harder and harder to come back to drudgery, and at some point many decide that they either won’t or can’t.
Woolf differentiated these two types of consciousness when she wrote of what she called ‘moments of being’ and ‘moments of non-being.’ Moments of non-being were everyday events, the humdrum duties and chores you performed to get through the day (think of Mrs. Dalloway); your share of the collective agreement that all human beings make with each other and the world we inhabit to live by the rules, because we understand that abiding on this planet means staying in bounds—or else. Moments of being, by contrast, were the visionary, mystical, heightened flights of perspicuity that Woolf experienced and transcribed in her novels, or, as she once put it, the eternity she saw peeking through skirts and waistcoats.
* * * *
But—and this is a critical addendum—courting this domain need not always be fatal. Not by a long stretch. There are many artists, philosophers, mystics, seekers and other visionaries who have lived long, productive, contented lives well into old age, and died of natural causes. Samuel Beckett, for instance, who contemplated some of the grimmest visions of the human condition since Dante, and who withstood the ravages of debilitating depression and anxiety all his life, died of emphysema and a degenerative neurological disorder at the age of 83. Many of Beckett’s characters express some version of what for him had become a personal conviction: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
And yet, living so long and not dying by his own hand does not in and of itself make Beckett or anyone else a hero or a success, any more than succumbing to suicide makes Woolf or anyone else a failure. It bears remembering something that Robin Williams mentioned in an interview that he had given years before he committed suicide in August, 2014. He was discussing addiction, but the import of what he said, which was wisely cautionary and profound, applies equally to depression and suicidal intent. It never goes away. It lies in wait for the moments when we are weakest. Managing it is a constant battle. We must be ever vigilant. Even so, we do not always prevail.
I lost myself in writing the story of Virginia Woolf, and I did something very foolish that night in March, but doing both of these things taught me the most thorough lesson of writing and living that I have ever learned: Go on. It also made me intent on saying something useful if I can about what I did and why.
Feature image: detail from Edward Hopper’s Lighthouse Hill, 1927.