It’s been a little over two months since my last suicide attempt, and on a cold and blustery February morning strangling the surrounding areas with icy temperatures below ten degrees, I feel compelled to touch on the State of Things.
Sixty days. Seventy, in all actuality, but for literary purposes, sixty. That’s how much time has passed since I slipped a small leather belt around my neck, attached the clasp to a dresser drawer handle, and leaned forward. I made it thirty seconds. The lights didn’t even begin to fade. That memory feels as far and distant as any of the stars you might see on a clear night. Still, my memory feels compelled to hold a haunting amount of clarity, almost to the point where it’s like watching the action play out in real-time.
Almost, but not quite.
See, Time’s a weird thing. Aside from the basic fact it doesn’t exist as anything other than a strictly man-made concept, it never seems to move as slow or as fast as our emotions prefer. I constantly hear people mention how quickly time seems to move the older we get. Before you know it, Christmas is three months past, Memorial Day is weeks away, and the New Year is a quarter over. Before we know it, those birthdays we put off shopping for are red circles on the calendar for this weekend, and the proposals we needed to finish for work are due tomorrow. Tomorrow. Time makes a funny point of getting away from people, the only organisms on the face of the planet, and perhaps in the entire universe, that follow its tenants, loosely or otherwise.
Things get in the way: emotions, deadlines, births, debt, baseball tryouts and hockey games, famine, murder. Time has a way of arresting even our best intentions and holding them for ransom. The cruel joke is that it never gives anything back. We get what we get and that’s that.
I know a lot of people who have a hard time with this concept. To them, it’s defeating. Every setback is just another tragedy handed down by the Big Hourglass; another shoulda, coulda, woulda, but can’t (just can’t). One thing it does allow is for humans to get comfortable. We get used to its rhythms, and with enough time passed, we can figure out how our lives can cause as few ripples as possible and avoid any real serious buck-backs. At least, that’s what we can tell ourselves. Time is going to continue to take whether or not we want it to.
I have a boss who’s deathly afraid of dying. Both of his parents have succumbed to dementia, and he and his siblings have had to watch this ugly disease eat away at their beloved family members until there’s been just about nothing remaining of who they were as people before the decline. His father died three years ago in May. His mother has been on the slow fade since. She can barely dress herself; sometimes they find her with her underwear on her head, smiling as if nothing were out of the ordinary. Normally, I would applaud this sort of social normative rebelliousness, but I know, in this instance, that’s not the case. Time has caught up to my boss’s mother, and it puts my boss in a constant state of panic.
About once a week he gives a speech about how we’re all getting to that Big Tipping Point, where the years ahead of us are fewer than the years behind. He acts as if it’s some cruel joke, like it’s a brand-new concept. His typical boyish and outlandish demeanors vanish completely. He’s the type of person who wears his heart on his sleeve, one of the many things I admire. But when the subject of death, dying, time, parents, or anything of the sort come up in conversation, the lights go out in his eyes, and the heart residing on his arm sheepishly slinks down to the floor, wounded. It’s to the point where he tells you to fuck yourself if you wish him a happy birthday. He’s only fifty-four. I’d hate to think that is old. I’m currently thirty, but I suppose a lot can happen in twenty-four years. Thinking back on my first twenty-four, it’s hard to imagine life being any longer than it already has.
I have another coworker who doesn’t want to live. She’s decided that at sixty, no matter where she’s at in life or who depends on her, she’s simply going to exit stage right. Her perceptions of Time are influenced by a Mennonite upbringing and raising a daughter on her own after she caught the father in the middle of an affair while she was pregnant. The two of them lived in Pittsburgh at the time, after a short visit home to Ohio, she opened the door of their house to find another woman and her two kids standing in the foyer. That was eleven years ago. Even though she hasn’t quite come out and said it in so many words, I get the feeling all of her hopes and dreams withered away and died that day.
In the short time I’ve known her, she’s told me she used to dream about death as an escape. She once admitted to throwing herself down a flight of stairs to kill the unborn child, as if she knew the stakes if it were born. All of those hours spent listlessly pining away for the great places she’d see and the great things she’d accomplish slowly dissipating into smoke.
But those are the exact caveats Time provides I’m talking about. There is no clear solution to the problem that is Time. It doesn’t even exist, and yet it can rule our emotions with iron fists; it can shape our entire lives, if we let it. I sometimes think people hold themselves to invisible standards, and I only say think because I can’t entirely be sure, but I’m pretty well convinced. Time and Death, these aren’t concepts. Granted, we all experience what it means to know Time is marching forward and the only guarantee we have in Life is the absence of it, but I think a lot of people miss the golden opportunity to feel empowered by both constraints. That this might be it, that we may not have anything other than this singular conscious plane called reality. Just one shot to do everything we’ve ever dreamed of. I think if more people put their lives and these two concepts into this perspective, we’d see a lot less heartache, or at the very least, less indecisiveness.
Last summer I took a two-week camping trip through South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado on my own. I was dating someone at the time; we’d been in a relationship for over a year at that point, but I made the decision to go by myself anyway. She didn’t have any vacation days left and I wasn’t about to waste the last summer of my twenties twiddling my thumbs in Stow, Ohio, a small, suburban badlands bastardized by urban sprawl and characterized as neighboring municipality Akron’s leftovers. But, to be perfectly honest, I was terrified the entire time I was gone. Not only was I over 1,000 miles from anyone I even remotely call family, I drove a Smart Car, and for the majority of the trip, my cell phone didn’t have a signal.
Five years ago, in December, I was hospitalized for a severe mental breakdown. I stayed for eight days. I punched my computer screen and trashed my bedroom because of a little miscommunication with my ex. Even years later, the event seems ridiculous, dumb. But back then, in the midst of those moments, Time had me prisoner, my emotions the inmates. I could have called it quits. I met a guy named Joe, who was admitted for slitting his wrists, because the woman he loved decided she’d rather leverage his love to benefit her kid, and it drove him mad. Joe was a mere five-foot five, and couldn’t have weighed more than 115 pounds. One look at him made you wonder if he had a hard time walking in high winds. I wondered where emotions so big as to drive someone to slice their own flesh open with a letter cutter could hide in such a small body.
Joe and I had marvelous conversations together in our shared stays. We took a liking to each other almost instantly, probably because we were roughly the same age. I was twenty-four and he was twenty-one. We also didn’t have a choice; we were roommates.
One night, I couldn’t sleep and left our room to sit in the common area. I couldn’t stop thinking about all my wasted opportunities, basically smoked away, with my drug use and inability to admit I had a serious mental illness that needed addressing. I thought about how I had just run my first marathon and qualified for Boston in improbable fashion, having never run competitively in middle school, high school or college. I was in the middle of training when the police hauled me out of my house like a pest raccoon and threw me into the ambulance kicking and screaming.
It was hard. I thought the psych ward was the end of the road.
I had it in my head that I was on this preordained path and there wasn’t any room for error. I was convinced I blew my shot to race, let alone disgraced my family, and made it impossible to ever find a decent job or be taken seriously as a person ever again. I was just going to be Crazy Chad, a black sheep, another World’s Forgotten folded and tucked away into the strange corners of Time. I must’ve cried for an hour that night, just sitting in the half-glow of the nurses’ station with my hands in my face, and the world becoming a liquid-crystal scene of sadness trickling down my face.
All of a sudden, I felt a hand on my back, and when I looked up, I saw Joe’s watery outline, and he had this concerned look on his face, as if the fate of the universe was somehow hanging in the balance. I told him about my aspirations as an athlete and a writer and a person in general.
“What’s wrong?” he asked cautiously, even though I’m pretty sure he knew the answer was going to be “everything.”
“Everything,” I said, still blubbering. “I’ve let everyone down.”
“You haven’t let anyone down,” he said, taking his hand from my back to fold into the other in his lap.
But I wasn’t having any of that.
“Of course I have,” I said, wiping my nose, “I blew my only shot at ever becoming something, and what’s worse is everyone is fed up with my shit. My girlfriend won’t talk to me, my parents are embarrassed of me, and I can’t do anything right. I punched a hole in my computer, for Christ’s sake. I’m fucking worthless.”
He took a moment to consider everything I had to say, buying Time, and then he turned me and said, “You’re the most passionate person I’ve ever met, and that’s saying a lot because I just met you yesterday. Even in the short amount of time I’ve known you, I get the feeling that nothing holds you back and nothing brings you down. And based on what I’ve seen, I’ll admit you’ve hit some hard times, but I believe you.”
And that was that.
Years later Joe and I met up at a Chinese buffet to catch up. I had finished my second Boston Marathon, and he had smoothed things over with his girlfriend. They were engaged. Here we were, two former psych ward patients released and roaming on the Outside, gobbling down crab Rangoon, broccoli stir fry, and chicken lo mien as if they were the last portions of the dishes ever to be served. We joked about how much emphasis people place on birthdays, to the point where “birthday weeks” are real things. We talked about music festivals. We talked about running. We talked about gaming. But I don’t think we once mentioned the hospital.
It’s been sixty days since my last suicide attempt, and in that time I’ve run 500 miles, had a publisher nibble at a novel, and have kindled a new sort of friendship with a special someone that could turn into more. As far as I’m concerned, the number of days between the attempt on my life and now, whenever now is, will never be enough.
I’ve lost track of Joe over the last couple of years. I still think about him anytime someone mentions “birthday week” celebrations, and can hear us howling in our booth at the restaurant about what we dubbed as “Birthday Years.” It was that conversation with Joe in the fifth-floor common area of St. Thomas hospital in Akron that made me realize all of our frets and anxieties and worries are pointless. Setbacks aren’t death sentences, they’re just speed bumps, or perhaps detours if they’re large enough. Emotions come and go. Some linger longer than others, but with enough patience they eventually lift and we can see things clearly, or at least clearer. Time, in this case, is an ally, not an enemy. Sure, we’re all here on borrowed leases, but that should be motivation. We’re only ever as far off our paths in life as we think we are and choose to be, and we’re never so far removed from the things that we can’t find redemption.