Fifteen Stories about Suicide
I took a mental health day today. I haven’t been sleeping well. At seven, my wife patted my shoulder and said, “I’m sorry to wake you, but there’s something wrong with the dog.”
“What’s wrong with her?” I asked, already standing up from the futon mattress we now keep on the floor. I can’t stay asleep when someone’s breathing next to me anymore. Nine feet, I’ve discovered through trial and error. That’s how far I need to be from someone else’s functioning lungs.
“She’s not eating. There’s vomit all over the floor. I don’t have time to clean it up.”
“No problem,” I said. I’d been awake for a couple of hours anyway.
The Old Dog
It’s different when an old dog throws up than when a young dog throws up. This could be the beginning of the end, I thought, descending the stairs.
We’ve had the dog for fourteen years. When she was a puppy, the children were young and not yet clinically depressed. She’s the only one of all of us who hasn’t changed radically since that time, except to get older.
The dog was lying on her bed in the living room. She turned her sorrowful eyes toward me without moving her head from her paws. I waited for a pulse of fear, but it didn’t come. A twinge of guilt came in lieu of the pulse of fear.
When I came downstairs this morning to clean up dog vomit, Jenny, my wife, had already vanished out the door. Ethan, my younger son with major depressive disorder, shuffled out of the kitchen. “I woke up thirty-seven minutes late,” he said.
You have to weigh things. Is this child currently doing well enough that you can permit natural consequences to occur? A child needs to face adversity and survive it to form a conception of themselves as a capable human. The New York Times says this is how you cause your children to develop resilience. I thought we’d done this when they were younger, but apparently not. Maybe we should’ve sent them to the Montessori preschool.
I tried to judge how greasy Ethan’s hair was. For some people, you can get a rough idea of their current level of depression by how often they shower and change their underwear. Clichéd but true, for some people. His hair was unbrushed but looked pretty good. “Oh, well,” I said. “You better get a move on.”
“I’m probably going to miss thirty minutes of Chemistry.”
School is very difficult and unpleasant for him even when he hasn’t fallen behind. On the other hand, science and math come naturally to him. Also, it was heartening that he still intended to go to school. And plus, I recalled a typical complement of size S boxers in last weekend’s laundry. “Well, get going then,” I said.
This is good, I told myself. This will be good, ultimately.
I started to clean up the dog’s vomit, several circles of yellow liquid with a few chunks of undigested dog food, dispersed around the living room, about the size of silver dollar pancakes, which are not the size of silver dollars. The dog had deposited every one of them on the area rug instead of the hardwood, but I discovered that there was a protective layer of dog fur that made wiping up the bulk of the mess easier than expected. Still, I’d have to let a few rounds of enzymatic cleaning products soak in and then absorb them back up. We need a better vacuum, I thought. I don’t want to comparison shop for vacuums, I thought. I don’t want to repeatedly blot cleaning products, I thought. I want to shoot myself in the head.
My depressed son Ethan shuffled out the door on his way to school.
Mental Health Day
You might think it’s a bad sign if all transitory feelings of laziness are experienced as the urgent desire to die a violent death, but these are merely idle thoughts I have. Not only is suicide a terrible example to set for clinically depressed teenagers, but also being dead would interfere with the fulfillment of my responsibilities. Today, for example, I had the vomit of an elderly, possibly dying dog to clean up. I had depressed teenagers to see off to school. I had a house I needed to make tidy enough that it wouldn’t be overly conducive to depression. And I had a special task I’d set myself for my mental health day. My mother has been texting me increasingly frequent reminders that I’d agreed to go through my dead sister’s files for anything we might want to keep. I think she could sense that we were nearing the point where, if I hadn’t done it by then, I was never going to do it.
“What do you want me to save?” I asked my mother when she handed over the laptop six months ago.
She shrugged. “Whatever you find. Dad says look for photos.”
My parents understand how laptops work. This is something they’re capable of doing themselves, technologically, but I can’t understand what it’s like to lose a child to suicide. Not yet.
The Perils of Hope
My sister jumped off a bridge last year after giving a talk at Cornell. We don’t know if she agreed to this talk because she’d heard the gorges there are beautiful or if, on that day, she found the depths irresistible. I have bad genes, evidently. I feel guilty for reproducing. But it can take a while before you’re forced to stop denying the obvious—so long sometimes that the momentum of your delusion carries you through the roping of an innocent into the impending disaster of your life and the production of more doomed creatures, perpetuating the cycle of tragically naïve hope.
My sister never married or had children. She was two years younger than me. When we were kids, she used to say she was “good at math” when she’d help me with my homework, but we both knew she was much smarter in general.
The Profits of Hope
We had some good times though, Jenny and I and the kids.
I was cleaning up dog vomit when I heard the shower start. My stomach sank. Sam, the older of my depressed sons, takes a lot of showers when his depression is in full bloom. Before he dropped out of school two years ago, he started hopping in the shower whenever we asked him if he’d done his homework. That was the first sign, or, I should say, the first sign we noticed. He has a GED now and is taking classes at the community college, keeping up, as far as I can tell. But he usually showers before bed. I wondered if this was a shower.
My wife Jenny, thank Christ, is not depressive. I don’t tell her that I fantasize about putting a bullet in my skull, but I do occasionally tell her I feel down. Even that doesn’t seem fair, since she has the same problems I do. She says healthy things like, “It’s normal to be unhappy when your children are sick,” or, “They’re going to be okay.” They have psychiatrists and therapists. “We’re not in this alone,” Jenny says.
Sometimes I feel like acknowledgement of the professionals’ bare existence is the most we can say for them. Sam’s psychiatrist wants him on three different unexplained medications and doesn’t respond well to questioning, according to Sam—Sam doesn’t allow us to talk to the doctor ourselves. Ethan’s psychiatrist keeps forgetting that he’s already tested him for ADD. Their therapists give them the same advice that we give them, repeatedly: you have to keep putting yourself out there, have a variety of experiences, exercise vigorously, eat healthy food, get plenty of sleep, scrutinize your negative thoughts with skepticism and objectivity. Is it better or worse to hear this from multiple people? Does forced activity combat or reinforce learned helplessness? Are the medications helping or is the improvement a coincidence? It’s not the kind of thing you can afford to experiment with, but there are no alternatives.
I sat down at the dining room table with my dead sister’s laptop. The sick old dog’s stomach gurgled by my feet. She always follows me around the house. She really is a sweet dog, even though she only obeys commands when she thinks she’s going to get something out of it. I found my sister’s diary right away when I opened her Documents folder. It was titled “diary.” I dragged it into the trash and emptied the trash before I could have a second thought. It might’ve been password protected anyway, I thought. It might’ve just been her daily schedule. Her other files seemed to be things she’d downloaded for work: research articles, drafts of her colleagues’ papers. I deleted everything so I wouldn’t think I had to go through it again before I flattened the machine. I went through her few photos and deleted everything that didn’t have her in it or someone else my parents would know. I don’t know her friends and had no immediate way of getting them the pictures she’d taken. I was prepared to suppress all emotions during this process, but none appeared.
My son Sam passed by, clean, trailing the scent of shampoo, on his way out the door. “Have a good commute!” I called cheerfully. He takes the train. He refuses to get a driver’s license.
He grunted and left.
After he dropped out, shortly before his first hospitalization, long before Chloe plummeted to her death, Sam expressed an interest in bridges and overpasses. I wondered if preferred method is part of the genetics. I wondered if my younger depressed son Ethan has inherited the bridge gene or the gun gene. I wondered if Sam’s daily commute brings him near any bridges or overpasses.
Against my better judgment, I went into my sister’s Spotify account. We hadn’t been very close when she died, but one thing we liked to talk about was music, which we mostly did by text, sending each other recommendations and discussing our current favorite songs. I’d thought she was doing okay up until the end because her enthusiasm hadn’t wavered. Maybe I’d been too distracted by my own problems to notice whatever subtle changes had been there. Maybe they hadn’t been subtle. I’d deleted our text chain months before so I couldn’t check.
Today I found, among the proto-punk, punk, post-punk, alt-jazz, and experimental hip-hop, a playlist of unchallenging, catchy, sentimental songs from our teen years. A dopamine playlist, I thought. Chloe had named it “playlist.” The kids play a lot of video games. Sometimes I stop at a drive-through on my way home from work and buy a hamburger or milkshake and eat a little bit of it until it stops working, and then I throw the rest away where my wife won’t find it. I thought about my sister making the effort to build a dopamine playlist for herself and felt a faint stirring of something: gratitude, maybe, or forgiveness. For almost five minutes, I managed to look through her non-dopamine playlists for a few last song recommendations before deleting her account.
Fifteen Stories about Suicide
Having accidentally let slip yesterday that I was planning to take a mental health day today, I’d agreed to meet my writing partner Kevin for coffee. At some point during the period when the children were getting diagnosed with major depressive disorder, I started writing very bad fiction and trying to improve it to force myself to sometimes think about something else; my job is undemanding, I could no longer focus on television, and ruminating obsessively about a problem I couldn’t solve with my mind had started to become counterproductive. Before walking to the coffee shop, I smoked some weed to try to make the experience of talking to Kevin slightly interesting. Kevin is a twenty-eight-year-old personal trainer who’s writing a memoir about his extensive experience with psychedelics. It reads like an ‘80s self-help manual. I’m trying to help him, but you can’t retroactively cause someone to have had interesting acid trips. We talked about his latest chapter for a while, in which he supposedly unearths a repressed memory of being ignored in his crib as an infant and advises the reader to be kind to their inner child. Then he said, “Do you realize your last fifteen stories are about suicide?”
I tried to think of the stories I’ve written since hooking up with Kevin a few months ago and remembered some, in no particular order.
#1: A suicidal man is suicidal for a while and then shoots himself in the head.
#2: A woman flees across a post-apocalyptic landscape with her young daughter thinking about the fact that, if she does lose her child to cannibalistic rapist zombies, she can then shoot herself in the head with the single bullet she has reserved for this purpose, until she ends up, to her infinite regret, in an unironic and predictable “twist”, having to use the treasured bullet to save the child from one of the zombies. (This one I never showed to Kevin because I realized it was too similar to The Road.)
#3: A ghost floats around, reluctantly terrifying people, wishing he knew how to pass on to the afterlife so he can stop bothering them.
#4: A self-loathing woman gets married to a domineering asshole, changes her name, and seeks to eradicate all of her personality traits.
#5: Two children playfully discover an old fallout shelter and accidentally save themselves from the surprise nuclear annihilation that befalls the rest of the world.
#6: After a horrific encounter with an out-of-control semitruck, which he doesn’t remember but which people discuss in graphic detail in his presence, a man wakes up with locked-in syndrome. He hears a medical professional telling his family that he may be able to communicate through eye blinks and possibly even learn to spell things out. He’d like to say goodbye to his loved ones, but if they know he’s conscious, they’ll think they have to visit more, they’ll act cheerful, they’ll stop describing the gruesome injuries of his fellow pile-up victims, and they won’t pull the plug even if he asks.
#7: A yuppie couple self-righteously adopts a rescue dog, who fatally mauls their baby in the nighttime. They off the dog and wonder whether to do the same to themselves. (Kevin scolded me for irresponsibly writing a story that would discourage people from rescuing adult dogs. I told him he was overestimating my influence. He’s literally the only person who reads my terrible stories, and he already has two dogs.)
#8: A father learns he has a fatal genetic defect that causes one’s body parts to slowly detach themselves from one’s body one by one starting around age fifty. He wonders whether he should tell his children they are also doomed.
#9: A young girl, after getting her first period, discovers that she has developed a “superpower” wherein all of her emotions, when expressed, are instantly contagious. Horrified by the prospect of interfering with other people’s autonomy, she quickly learns to suppress them.
#10: An inexperienced messenger is dispatched with a critical message for the king, which will avert a large-scale deadly war. Despite his comic incompetence, he comes through several self-induced close shaves with body and message intact, only to trip and fall into the moat on the threshold of success and get eaten by an alligator. The bloody scroll floats to the surface. Will passerby fish it out in time?
#11: A suicidal woman is suicidal for a while and then jumps off a bridge.
That was all I could think of. Barely stories, less than fifteen, and not all about suicide.
“Hello?” Kevin said, and I realized I’d forgotten to respond.
“You’re exaggerating,” I told him. Is he going to tell me to get help?, I wondered.
“They’re kind of morbid. And, bro, you’re too old to be edgy. Why don’t you write about your life? You must have some funny stories about being a dad.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” I said. “That’s a good idea.”
Every one of my stories is about being a dad.
The Old Dog, Part Two
When I came through the door, the dog was ominously shaking her head from side to side. She got unsteadily to her feet and sniffed me while I gave her a pat. I started dinner. The depressed teenagers came home and grunted before shuffling upstairs to their rooms, which was a good sign. The dog lay by my feet as I sat on the couch with my laptop, working on fifteen more stories about suicide. Jenny came home and asked how my day off was. “Good,” I said. “Relaxing. Productive. Do you think we should take Sally to the vet?” The gurgling seemed to have stopped.
“Let’s see how she feels in the morning.”
I got up to go stir the soup. The dog followed me. She scratched at the cupboard where we keep her food, a cupboard, after fourteen years, scratched down to the bare wood, and looked up at me expectantly. I paused for a moment before filling her bowl—before finding out whether she would eat her dinner—wanting to feel for a few seconds more a feeling that had become unfamiliar: maybe this day is not the day that everything goes to shit.