Updated: Jul 14, 2018
This is an excerpt from a non-fiction book I’m writing, My Year of Sleeping Dangerously: A Memoir, which covers a period of 339 days, between August 2016 and July 2017, when I stopped sleeping entirely. This section occurs after six-and-half months of no sleep. I can’t claim to be an expert on suicide. I only know what I know. Maybe this might help someone else who’s in trouble.
It started with a list. Ernest Hemingway and Virginia Woolf and John Berryman. David Foster Wallace. Hunter Thompson, Jerzy Kosinski, Sylvia Plath, Arthur Koestler, Yukio Mishima, Hart Crane, William Inge. Perhaps Jack London, depending whom you ask. Writers and poets were easy to find.
Other artists, too. Robin Williams, Phil Ochs, Diane Arbus, Spalding Gray, Kurt Cobain, Van Gogh. The countless methods. Gun, rope, overdose. Drowning, plastic bag. Automobile, either idling in a garage or driven over a cliff. Knives and arteries. Electricity. Fire. Household cleaners.
By the middle of April, I’d grown quiet and had begun to take long drives in the car by myself. The rains had tapered, the valley decorated in various shades of green, the Russian River returning to its regular meandering banks.
“Going out for a drive,” I’d inform Janet, who’d recommend taking one of the dogs along for a ride, and I‘d say next time, that I kind of just felt like being by myself and taking in the scenery. I headed up to Ukiah one day, to a gun shop and shooting range, where I tested the heft of several different revolvers in hand. I told myself I was just doing research. I didn’t share this with Dr. F, who would have been the logical person to talk to. I was tired of talking. I was keeping my thoughts a secret now.
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 for some reason. You’d think the middle of the night, but no. External darkness isn’t a requirement. Only, it seems, secrecy. In suicide, “the privacy of the mind,” as the Pulitzer-prize-winning psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison remarks, “is an impermeable barrier.”
I’d often thought of the famous six words Shakespeare penned for Hamlet. Really only four words. He repeats the first two twice. So utterly beautifully prosaically simple, the complexity of existence captured in a combination of four of the English language’s most spartan words. To be or not to be. Me? I’d muck it up by reaching for a supple turn of expression. I’d also make the mistake of putting the sentence at the end of the paragraph, build up to it. Kind of ballsy of Shakespeare—or whoever he was—placing it right out front.
The contradiction of statement for me is the crowning achievement. It made me think the great man himself had contemplated this question off the page. 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. To not think of anything else in the world. Close my eyes and the problem would be solved once and for all.
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 couldn’t strand Janet alone in a house we built for the two of us. In all likelihood, it was a combination of that and other things left unlisted, the countless minor considerations that outweigh the final choice. 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, not civil sod, but a tilted pasture of wild horse grass. Except for the house, everything’s canted at a sixteen percent angle. Sixteen might not sound like much until you try to walk or ride a bike up it. The steepness was a crucial selling point to me when we bought the land. For an aging diehard cyclist, it seemed fitting.
On the heels of our record-setting el Niño winter, the grass was at least as high as a baby elephant’s eye. The usual tools of mowers and clippers don’t cut it. The grass is mountain-grown, stout, with a protective outer sheaf if left untended for too long. We have enough acreage that a riding lawn-clipping device wouldn’t be a luxury. Maneuvering at that incline becomes the challenge: tipping often results. Cleats instead are a good investment. Also an implement known as a weed wacker or string trimmer. Basically, an electric scythe. At one end, a rotating head spins two lengths of nylon cord, which serve as the cutter. At the other end, the operator swings it back and forth like you’re bringing in the sheaves.
It’s slow, heavy work. Too much for Janet, the vibration and weight of the trimmer. After our wet winter, the dogs disappeared into the thickets whenever we took them outside, giving chase to deer we couldn’t see either. Before I was going to do what I wanted to do, I had to take care of the lawn. I intended to be as considerate as possible with the inconsiderate act I was hatching. First the lawn and then the other thing. I’d fire the engine early in the morning, 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. Often I had to attack the grass twice, the first swing lopping it off at its knees, the second taking it all the way down, leaving a mound of droppings, which I further mulched with the spinning head of the trimmer.
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, the soil saturated from the winter’s downpours. It was Sisyphean, except substitute ungainly lawn implement for boulder. I began anew from where I’d started a week earlier. Back and forth, up and down. Seldomly used muscles throbbed. My sinuses congested from grass particles and pollen and I acquired a wicked sunburn across the back of my neck along with suburbs of insect bites on any exposed skin. 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 could cover a bit more ground. It had stopped feeling like I was swinging a steel pole against an iron curtain. The grass was yielding. Only the most stubborn blades and orneriest, thorniest weeds sprang back up.
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. The conventional association of rebirth with spring. I was too far gone for such well-trodden tropes. It was much more subtle and ambiguous. The need ebbed, the voice grew quieter. I could reason with it. 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. I could postpone it. 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. Our marriage is imperfect, just like everyone else. Somehow, despite it all, the two of us have managed to line up like metal filings on the important decisions. Where to live. Not to have kids. The kind of movies we like watching. What constitutes a good joke. We’re both lonely, by nature and choice. We treasure language and all the things it’s capable of doing.
Loving someone is a pretty straightforward enterprise. Allowing yourself to feel the love back I’ve found is 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. From an upstairs window while she’s outside throwing sticks for the dogs or digging a hole in the garden. She’s calm, usually smiling. 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. She’s an inveterate procrastinator, forgetful and unbothered by such minor sins. Gullible—or perhaps just too willing to give you the benefit of the doubt.
When I watch Janet secretly from a distance, I invariably reflect how lucky I am that she chose me as a suitable husband. It’s a much more respectable station than stalker. After I was done with my lopping and chopping outside she’d fix a glass of lemonade for me. I’d sit on the seat wall covered head to toe in nettles and thistles and droppings while she’d walk down the hill to survey my handiwork with a trio of dogs orbiting her. At a certain point the land dropped off and I’d lose sight of her. I’d wait for Janet to reappear. Sometimes she’d take the long way around and it could be minutes. 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. If this was a story, it wouldn’t end here. Something else would happen and something else after that and then probably something else. Were it a manuscript submitted in a workshop, I’d tell the writer to go back and come up with a more resolute and better earned ending.
I realized I’d been looking at everything else through a distorted lens 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, which is to say I chickened out, too cowardly to do the cowardly thing. Is that like a double negative? Did it make me courageous? Hardly. I was just waiting for Janet to come back up the hill so I could see her again.
All rights reserved. Roy Parvin 2018.