I always wanted to die
Amy Ferris has compiled a searing, sobering but ultimately uplifting anthology (with contributors such as iPinion’s own David Lacy and Debra LoGuercio DeAngelo) called “Shades of Blue: Writers on Depression, Suicide and Feeling Blue.” Reading the book I couldn’t help but think of my own experience with suicide and depression. They say still waters run deep. I must be a fucking ocean.
It was the end of April 1990. After a stormy relationship, my older brother Ken’s girlfriend moved out of his house. Two weeks later, after a Saturday night arrest for being drunk and disorderly, an arrest that would cost Ken his job as a correctional officer at the California Medical Facility in Vacaville, California, he was released from jail early Sunday morning. It was May 13, 1990. Mother’s Day. He donned his correctional officer uniform, carefully removed his nametag from them and drove to the bar where his ex-girlfriend worked. He sat in the parking lot drinking cheap vodka. A bit after noon he entered the bar with a 12-gauge Mossberg shotgun as patrons fled the establishment. Finding his ex in the kitchen area he shot her multiple times and calmly walked outside to the front sidewalk of the lounge where he immediately put the barrel of the shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
Our mother let out a hair-raising anguished wail when my oldest brother Orvis told her the news that no parent wants to ever hear. Orvis, our mother, my brother Tony, sister-in-law Patty and I were clumped together in the room in a quivering mass of grief. It was a nightmarish scene that I can never forget. Nor will I forget my father’s crimson face as he pressed a fist against his mouth as if to hold his pain inside and his sanity intact when we sat him down at the dining room table to tell him. His father, my grandfather, committed suicide before any of us boys were born.
I accompanied my mother to meetings of the Compassionate Friends and a suicide specific support group in Davis. I checked out books on suicide and depression from the library trying to learn as much as I could about the subject. When a Vacaville native started the Bay Area Survivors of Suicide, I was glad to sit on the board and I met many people with tragic, painful tales of loss.
So after living through all of that, seeing how it had broken my mother and affected my brothers, driven me to even heavier drinking and meeting so many people who’d suffered tragic losses of their loved ones to suicide, how did I end up sitting on a picnic table at Lake Berryessa one sunny day in early 1997 with a briefcase full of my pained journal-ling, a bottle of Jack Daniels and a loaded .357 magnum in my hand ready to end my life?
I could say it was the perfect storm of circumstances. My girlfriend had just callously dumped me by moving a new guy in and changing her phone number. One of my closest friends was moving out of state. Both of my parents had health problems. I was having health problems and knew something was seriously wrong but I had no doctor and no health insurance, and frankly was afraid of what I might find out if I did. It would be six more years until I knew what I was dealing with medically.
But the real problem was deep within. It was the dark depression I’d battled all of my life that I hid behind a wry smile and a sparkling intellect. My depression predated all of the current stressors in my life. My pain and inadequacies were laid bare in page after page of my private journals which referred to “the Beast,” that dark internal voice that told me I was less than, that I was unlovable. Then there were the horrible nightmares I’d been plagued with all of my life. They made me fear sleeping, fear the nighttime and disrupted my sleeping to this day. The Beast wouldn’t let me repress my experiences, my feelings.
For years after my brother’s death I’d been angry with him. While, of course, I was angry with him for killing his ex-girlfriend and leaving her two beautiful children, whom I babysat many times, without a mother. I was angry that he’d spent so much time talking with our mother about his relationship problems and then killing himself and ripping our mother’s heart to pieces so she had very little left to give the rest of us.
But I was really angry that he took my out. The fact that I would eventually kill myself was a given through most of my life. I knew that if my demons became insufferable I had the ultimate way to flee their clutches. To me, Ken’s death was as if we were in a doomed plane and he grabbed the only parachute and jumped out.
He took my death from me.
And when I’d think that, the Beast would chime in, “And your death would’ve been easier for your parents because they liked him more than you.”
When you’re focused on ending your pain you develop tunnel vision. Your life becomes one big example of confirmation bias where you look for everything that proves your life is shit. That you are nothing. Any information to the contrary is minimized or rationalized away. Depression robs you of joy. For me, relying on overeating or booze no longer did the trick. And now, I couldn’t even let thoughts of my family in.
I sat there with the gun between my thighs silently working up the resolve to shove the barrel in my mouth.
I didn’t even hear the man walk up. A man with a dog, a mastiff, walked up and said hello. It startled me but I met his gaze and made sure to bury the gun between my legs so he wouldn’t see it. We chitchatted about the lake and what a nice day it was. He’d been coming to the lake for years and liked meeting different people. It was the kind of meaningless banter you have with strangers all the time. Or maybe he knew what he was doing. Perhaps he could sense something was wrong. I don’t know.
It dawned on me that this man would’ve found my bloody lifeless body and instead of an exchange of pleasantries on a nice day at the lake I would’ve presented him with one of the most horrible days of his life. It was a small thing and normally I hate small talk. But this small talk made me hit reset. Or at least pause. I went home.
This is why counselors stress that speaking to a stranger alone on a bridge is often all it takes to get that person to abort a suicide attempt. Do not believe the commonly held notion that suicidal people will just find a different method. The evidence does not bear that out. Letting someone know that you see him, that you hear him can make a difference. It did for me.
A couple of months later I met Cathi and we’ve been together ever since. And ironically, getting sick and being hospitalized more than a dozen times with two stints in the ICU fighting for my life has given me a renewed appreciation for life.
I’m not going to blow smoke up anyone’s ass and say that I no longer battle depression and my life is perfect. I can’t even tell you that I’ll never find myself on the edge of the abyss again. I have to be vigilant to avoid the dark moods I’m prone to. I cover my ears on those few occasions when the Beast rouses itself awake and tries to tear down my self-esteem.
But I have a significantly better half, family that I’m closer to now than then, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, better health and eighteen years worth of profound and funny and whimsical experiences. At least now I have the knowledge of just what I would’ve missed if I’d ended my life on that day at the lake.
This book unleashed a tsunami of emotion when I read it. It’s certainly not pleasurable reading many of these stories but its authentic. I’m sure most people will find something they can relate to. Mental health is just as important and valid as physical health and we’ve got to remove that stigma. “Shades of Blue” is a good start.
“Shades of Blue” contributors David Lacy, Debra LoGuercio DeAngelo, Samantha White, Karen Lynch and others are appearing at a book reading/signing at 2 p.m. Sunday, November 8 at The Avid Reader, 617 Second St. in Davis, California. Please stop by and be a part of this special event.
You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-(800) 273-8255.