See the cat? See the cradle?
February 28, 2017
While I stood at the window of my dim apartment deciding how best to kill myself, my peers were two miles away, working under fluorescent lighting on campus. They were doing research, brewing their afternoon coffees, grading homework assignments. While a therapist talked me down over the phone and assessed the safety risk that I posed to myself, my peers were in meetings discussing their research with each other, assessing the best techniques to advance their work. While I was gingerly coached to drink in long cool breaths of oxygen to slow my heart rate, my peers slurped hot sips from their coffee mugs to hasten their pulses.
The graduate student offices occupy a dense hallway and pack a few people to a room. We don’t close our office doors, and sometimes we talk to friends in other offices while seated at our respective desks, from rooms apart. We’re an academic community, and a geometrically compact one. There are a wide variety of relationships between the graduate students, but we tend to split the difference between coworkers and friends. We try to be relatively respectful and professional in our offices, like good coworkers. Then we go to the pub together at the end of the day and skillfully spin groan-worthy puns and innuendos from academic jargon.
For years, each day I arrived at the office between 7-8:30am, and left between 4–5pm. Irregularities in my routine were scant, and usually were accompanied by some kind of public self-shaming for my departure. If you passed my office door and I wasn’t there to spin about in my chair and smile to greet you, I imagine my absence might go unnoticed at first, like if a houseplant disappeared overnight. Fixtures become part of the background.
It wasn’t until about a month of absence that someone checked in. Only one person asked me if I was “ok”, via a text message. When I gave a response that indicated that I wasn’t ok, I never heard back.
In the weeks that I’ve sat in the silence of my apartment, coping and coming to terms with what’s happening to me, I’ve been haunted by an old thought that I first had amidst my first serious grapple with suicidal intentions. A chill runs over the skin of my neck as my internal voice whispers to itself,
No one would have stopped me in time if I had followed through.
When these echoes return, they shatter my sense of safety and leave me with stabbing shards of implications to digest. No matter how long they churn and tumble in my head, they are never rounded out, never dulled.
Is my network of friends and acquaintances insufficient to protect me from myself? Are the nodes in the net too sparse or too weak to support me? Or was my charade of a healthy person (preceding my sudden disappearance) so convincing that no one thought that anything was wrong? Shouldn’t my disappearance have elicited some more communication? Shouldn’t there be some communal alarm?
These thoughts drudge up old images in my mind. The kind that are too unsettling to place anywhere but the distant depths of memory. As the torrent of questions above cascades through my head, the once-imagined scene erupts back into the light.
I see my friends gathered a few days after my death, mourning over drinks, discussing what “warning signs” they might have missed, how they could have protected me. I hate doing it, but I can’t stop myself from imagining that my story would get wrapped into the narratives that we often hear: “it always happens to the ones you wouldn’t expect,” or “but he was successful, always smiling, I could never have imagined…” In my imagination, that rationalization would give my friends some comfort, and help to stymie the guilt they might put on themselves for not “seeing the signs”.
I think that’s how I would feel if a friend of mine committed suicide tomorrow – like I should have known, and could have done something. But I don’t think my friends would deserve to feel that guilt.
Suicide Prevention Lifeline gives us a list of warning signs to look for in someone who might be suicidal. The two signs that I presented among their list were: “talking about being a burden to others” and “withdrawing or isolating themselves”, but these are common behaviors among self-effacing academics. Did no one notice my state because there was nothing to notice? Suicidal people don’t outwardly appear different from anybody else. I know that’s partly why I’m not grieving in real-time for my crisis, as I wrote about earlier. The severity isn’t externally detectable, it’s not even obvious to me when I look at myself in the mirror.
In some of my darker times, the invisibility of my mental illness is one the compelling motivations I feel for harming myself. I sometimes wish for a scar to give a locus to my pain. To drive a pylon into the Earth, to make the crisis visible above the surface. I wish I could watch a wound heal and feel the arrow of time dragging me away from that pain.
This wound is continuous in time, and has no place.