Two suicides this week (Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain) prompt me to think about all the days when suicide was not my answer. I do not fault those who choose suicide, even though the anguish which they leave behind weighs as greatly on survivors as the despair which led them to take their life. I will not judge them by what they cause others. I seek only to understand what prompted them to choose escape.
I’ve had several conversations about suicide which inform me, two of which I will recount here. A third must remain confidential because I honor the still-living person with whom that conversation took place.
The first conversation occurred in 1997. My brother Stephen had tried to kill himself the previous year. He had taken an overdose. He sank into a deep sleep. By coincidence, he had a common cold. Once his body began to die, the virus attacked his kidney which then failed. He became toxic and his legs swelled. He awakened in this debilitated state, and called 9-1-1. He lived, though his body had permanent damage as a result.
Months later, at a family gathering in a restaurant in St. Louis, I said to him, “What I don’t understand is calling 9-1-1. You try to kill yourself, then call for help?”
He looked over his shoulder at me as he hunched by the bar. Then he lit a cigarette, took another pull of his drink, and replied.
“I took those pills to end the pain, not make it worse,” he said, in a voice still as death itself.
A few months later, he used a gun to try again. He succeeded.
In 2014, my life careened so far out of kilter that I decided to kill myself. I’ve never felt good about myself and still don’t. By November of that year, I reached the point at which I could not see any chance of salvation on this earth, in this body, within the situations that had congealed around me. I won’t describe them, because I don’t think I could do so without seeming to blame other people for my choices. Accept that I had suffered a series of losses between October of 2013 and November of 2014 which I could not reconcile with continued existence.
I sat in the parking lot of a public library, sobbing, pounding on the steering wheel of my car. I fumbled for my phone, called a few people for comfort, and talked to their voice mail boxes. That told me all I needed to know in that moment to reinforce my despair. My friends had lives. I did not. I had lost people whom I loved. I had tried and failed to make a new life for myself in the aftermath of those losses. I decided that a fitting end, the only viable end, was death at my own hand.
My phone, my guardian angel, the Universe, and, I suppose, the Divine Entity whatever he/she/it might be, conspired to intervene. The phone served as instrument and redialed Paula Kenyon-Vogt. She heard my sobbed lament. I no longer recall whether I actually responded to her or she heard my raging in the confines of that small space. But she understood my state.
She called her husband, Sheldon Vogt. He found me. He took me to get food and we sat over dinner at which I barely picked. Tears streamed from my eyes. Snot rolled out of my nose and gathered on my mouth. I paid no heed to my pathetic appearance.
I don’t remember what Sheldon actually said. But sound of his voice as he articulated reassurances of their love has never left me. Paula and Sheldon acted together to save my life. Their support has been among the powerful truths which have sustained me.
I do not like myself. I acknowledge that. I recognize some of my virtues — I can write; I care about others; I can be kind; I can be helpful. My list of failures grows daily. My biggest faults loom dark and heavy over me. I rarely learn from the clumsy choices which I make. Over and over, I fall into the same traps.
But I can tell you this:
What stands between me and self-inflicted death each and every day is the knowledge that I am loved by others. Nothing else. I understand that if I loved myself, the gap would widen. I’m working on it.
Every day when I walk outside my house, into a store, down a street, across the paths of others, I tell myself that any one of them might face the same short span between life and death that I have seen. My brother stepped across the path. I did not. I know how close one can come to taking that last, irrevocable leap. I remember that moment for me. I remember my brother’s look that day when I questioned him, a silent statement that I did not, and could not, understand his grief.
Every day on this earth provides me with another chance to save someone else’s life, to find them in a parking lot and lead them away from the final anguished act. I might have little for which to live, but the chance that I could do for someone else what Sheldon and Paula did for me seems to be enough to keep me going. At the same time, the memory of my brother opens my eyes to the silent, hidden desperation that any of us might feel, on any given day. In his memory, I watch for the rise of that despair in others, and for my chance to pay forward the saving grace which sustains me.
It’s the eighth day of the fifty-fourth month of My Year Without Complaining. Life continues.
IN LOVING MEMORY:
STEPHEN PATRICK CORLEY
12/25/1959 – 06/–/1997
YOUR FRIEND AND MINE, STEVIE PAT. REST WELL.