Tuesday, October 18, 2011


Last week, I learned that the friend of a friend had taken his own life. 

In the middle of rush hour traffic, he stopped his car on a bridge, and according to an eyewitness account, without hesitation, climbed the rail and jumped. 

The news traveled quickly from his city out west to me in the east. Without the secrecy and shame that so often imprisons the mere mention of suicide, his friends relayed news of his death honestly. As I checked in with people I knew cared for him to offer my condolences, I was told he was depressed to an extent that he vibrated with that agony. He was ill and it finally killed him.   

My direct connection to the man on the bridge was slim. I borrowed his couch for a few months when I lived in his city and when I left town, he reclaimed it. He was kind enough to donate and move furniture for a newcomer. Maybe I chatted with him at one gathering or another, but I don't have any specific memories of that. I remembered his name and his face enough to know I'd met him and napped on that pink couch.

I can't speak to the details of his life. The people that knew and loved him and are grieving his absence can speak to the enormity of his loss, and surely have been over this sad week.

I find that I continue to think about him on that bridge.

I keep imagining the one moment when he was sitting in his car on the bridge -- maybe having planned well in advance, maybe discovering the idea in that moment -- and when the idea flipped into motion. I think about his hand reaching for the car key and then the door handle of the car.

However many times he had contained the impulse for an ending, that day on the bridge, he acted on it.  He did not choose any of the multitude of other things that might, or might not, have eased his pain. In all likelihood, he could no longer see any of those options.  All the possibilities for him narrowed down to this one moment, this one space, this one action to take. 

I see the small steps when he could have changed his mind. He could have turned off the car -- and then restarted it and driven to safety on to the other side of the bridge. Two steps from the car, he could have turned around to get back in. He could have paused and looked down at the water, and then walking away, abandoning his car but his feet steady on pavement, walking away, and feeling the wind move his hair, listening to cars honk behind him.

None of those things happened.  He didn't hesitate, the witness said. 

I wish that I could tell him to wait.  I wish that he could have still been able to hear all the people on that bridge, in that city, out west and here out east, that would have said to him: wait. 

Easy for me to say, you say, you didn't live the way he had to, trapped in his own head, deafened by the roar of depression. 

True, I don't know what horrors played over in his mind. 

But I do know what have been in mine.

Anyone who has read through this blog has perhaps surmised by now that depression is something with which I have a more than passing familiarity.

That I am now, and have been for quite some time, in a good space, gives me the weird amnesia of wondering how it could ever have been otherwise. 

And yet, I know for a fact from hospital records from 24 years ago that I have made similar decisions to those of the man on the bridge.   

My luck, and continuing life, turned on choosing a less immediate method and strange happenchance.  I took pills and had I not spent the four days in the hospital that I did drinking a foul-tasting medicine, those pills would have left my liver irretrievably damaged.

But in my dorm that day, some anonymous, probably drunken soul, pulled the fire alarm, as had been happening off and on for weeks, much to the annoyance of the fire department who had to haul out to check for nonexistant fires. That blaring alarm roused me from my stupor, led to my discovery by a girl down the hall who wanted to borrow shoes, and set off a whole different course of events. 

I think about that man on the bridge, knowing as I do from his friends how terribly long he had felt, not just bad, not gosh,-a-rough-day bad, but a despair that hurt so much that it felt like a physical injury, a wound that constantly reopened to fresh pain.  I know that he was not an 18 year old, but decades older, and had been carrying the weight of his despair for much longer.

While we like to package up suicide as something to do with teen angst or with the physcial diminishment of old age, the statistics speak otherwise. Those age 40 to 59 are most likely kill themselves. Women are three times more likely than men to attempt.  Men, however, are four times as likely to be successful in those attempts. 

Nearly 1,000,000 people a year attempt suicide.  And yet we continue to speak of it in hushed tones, wrap it up in a package of shame. 

I don't know the life circumstances of the man on the bridge, but I can guarantee that he tried many ways to find a path out of his depression and as each approach floundered, his hope dimmed further.  I know it got harder for him to try, to believe anything could change for him.  I know about downward spirals that suck you in, turning you faster and faster in tighter and smaller circles.

I want to tell the man on the bridge, or anyone who feels as he did and I have, to wait. 

Something you haven't seen yet, something you haven't felt in a long time, may bring you back.

You may, for no reason at all, wake up and feel good one day.  Maybe there is a therapist or a drug or a religion or a book or a friend or an exercise or a trip or a lover or a dog or a clear glacial lake that will give you back that wonder, that awe, that lost, distant gratitude.

Maybe it won't last -- but then again, maybe it will.  Maybe it will start a spiral in the other direction, opening you out to the world.

Sylvia Plath, before her death by suicide, wrote in the poem "Black Rook in Rainy Weather":

A certain minor light may still/ Leap incandescent / Out of kitchen table or chair / As if a celestial burning took / Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then - / Thus hallowing an interval /Otherwise inconsequent / By bestowing largesse, honor / One might say love.

The man on the bridge could no longer wait for that incandescent light and now he is gone.  I hope he is enveloped in a peace he couldn't find here.

He leaves behind a crew of friends in shock, friends he once believed he could never do this to.  Obituaries use the term "survived by" and that seems apt; the living are still scrabbling, still finding hope and meaning and joy, still waiting for the good to come around, can still see the good when it arrives.

These friends have to deal with his death in the complicated aftermath of suicide, a tragedy that, even though the death is the culmination of a losing battle with illness, feels preventable in a way that cancer doesn't.

While the stigma of mental illness has lessened to some degree in the last twenty years, suicidal thoughts, gestures, attempts and deaths still tend to get hidden away, spoken of obliquely. Old uncle Alvin was "just cleaning his gun" when it went off.  Aunt Bessie had a case of the nerves and had to go away for a little while. Little Lacey tripped at the top of the mountaintop.

A decade ago, it took a friend of mine months to piece together that his friend in another country had actually killed himself and that his family chose instead to spin it as an accident, his pills magically morphing into a much more socially acceptable car accident.

I wonder about the wisdom of making my history public here. Suicide attempts give you a record, and so from a mental health perspective, I'm a felon, no matter how reformed I am, no matter how I paid my debt to society and myself, no matter the dumb luck that let me survive and flourish. I'm marked by my own statistical tattoo that having attempted, I am more likely than those who have not to eventually die by suicide. 

I think about the nature of secrecy though, and the more I do, the more I think that's what leads us, any of us, when our lives spin out of control, to be standing on a bridge, isolated by our thoughts. 

The man on the bridge is out of reach.  You can't undo death.

For me, and for anyone alive and reading this, all the possibilities are still out there. For this, I am immensely grateful.

I wish the man on the bridge could have experienced that.

Incandescent Light


  1. Lovely, very important piece. Thank you for being willing to discuss this....

  2. What a beautiful--and brave--piece.