Solid Flesh

This entry has been sitting in the queue since April and I only just decided to post it today.

The older I get, the more reticent I am to talk about my feelings and experiences publicly. There was a time when I was younger that I would readily discuss my mental health, or my personal difficulties without hesitation. I’m unsure how much is a change in my own attitudes — perhaps I’ve become more guarded or even ashamed of my feelings — and how much is a change in the culture around me. Social media has created a constant pressure to perform, to curate an online persona. The ability to review and revise every statement and photograph, the internet has created a phalanx of ultra-confident, self-assured geniuses all living their best lives. In that milieu, admitting to any vulnerability becomes all the more difficult.

Which explains why drafts of this particular blog entry have been written, deleted, and re-written for the last few months. But I have no real explanation for why I finally decided to talk about this.

I’ve struggled with depression my entire life. I’ve written before about being hospitalized for suicide attempts. I remember being in the second or third grade and feeling so alone that I took a survey of my classmates asking all ~25 if they’d miss me if I killed myself. You can expect a level of candor from a public elementary school student that you can’t get from anyone else in the world: only about four of my classmates said they’d miss me.

If I’d attended a rich kid school, I’m sure that someone would’ve flagged this behavior and tried to reach out to me to help. But I went to a poor inner-city school, and my parents were too busy with their drug habits to pay much attention to my mental state. A seven year old child was beginning to flirt with ideas of suicide and no one batted an eye. Most of us don’t view ourselves with the compassion that we have for others, but looking back across 25 years, I see a kid who really needed someone to reach out to him and couldn’t figure out how to ask for it. I have a need to reach out and help that kid in a way that I don’t usually feel toward younger versions of myself.

I moved to Philadelphia at the end of the summer, and it didn’t take me very long to realize that it had been a horrible decision for my mental health. Dealing with my depression often feels like being two people: my logical, rational, intelligent brain is always trying to anticipate the outbursts and mood swings of my faulty, diseased brain. I can’t simply do things I find exciting or interesting without having to wonder “how is this going to affect emotional triggers over which I have no control?” There’s a tipping point where I move to back of my own mind and simply watch the monster of my depression start doing self-destructive actions.

I am an introvert; I don’t need a lot of socialization to feel fulfilled. I find enjoyment and meaning mostly in things that I do alone, so it usually isn’t difficult for me to feel content in my social relationships. In Richmond I had a small circle of close friends, a largely-positive understanding with my colleagues, and a social job that kept me engaged with a wide variety of people. But when I moved to Philadelphia, I felt totally isolated. I felt like I had lost all my friends back in Richmond, and I couldn’t make new friends in Philly. Winter came early, I had trouble adjusting to my new job, I had some painful creative failures, and I began to feel like I had made a mistake from which I couldn’t recover.

So I decided to kill myself.

My last suicide attempt had been by an overdose of sleeping pills, but at the last minute I had panicked and called my friend Kellan who took me to the emergency room. I spent the night vomiting charcoal and hallucinating. When I decided to kill myself this time, I wanted to ensure that I wouldn’t have an opportunity to back out at the last second again, so I spent some time researching the fastest and most effective suicide methods. Unsurprisingly, gunshot to the head is the best way. I had hoped that wouldn’t be the case because guns are expensive and I had no idea how to go about buying one. But after looking into the logistics, it seemed unavoidable. So I searched Google for gun stores in Philadelphia and set out across town on my bike.

I’ve always been uncomfortable with hyper-masculine environments, and so when I showed up at the gun store, I was more nervous about talking to a giant meathead who smelled like Axe Body Spray and libertarianism than I was about putting a bullet in my brain.

If I had to guess, I’d say that the gun store employee was a former high school football player and future cop. The first thing he said to me was “calm down,” which predictably had the opposite effect. Having experienced both police interrogations and excellent sales service in my life, I can confidently say that his approach felt much more like the former than the latter. I was determined not to be upsold, and unabashedly asked for the cheapest possible handgun in the store. Obviously quality doesn’t matter much when you’re buying an item for a single use, and so I was ready to buy a used semi-automatic .380, but the salesman kept aggressively pushing me to buy a more expensive gun. He wouldn’t even let me touch the gun I wanted until he’d made me look at a more expensive gun, and raved about their layaway policy. More than once, I caught him exchanging a sarcastic look with the other employees behind the counter while I sweat and uncomfortably handled the small pistol.

“What is this gun for?” he asked abruptly about ten minutes into our conversation.
“What?” I stammered, uncomfortable.
“Why are you buying a gun?”
I hesitated and then blurted out the most honest answer I could, “home defense?”
“Well, think of it this way, when you’re buying a gun to defend yourself, do you want to go cheap? How much is your life worth?”

There was an irony in this particular exchange that I, as a Shakespeare educator, wanted to point out to him. But as intellectually satisfying as it would have been to have been to launch into lengthy quotes from Hamlet, I couldn’t really expect to still be eligible for a gun sale after soliloquizing about not setting my life at a pin’s fee or my too, too solid flesh, or shuffling off this mortal coil. If nothing else, he would’ve thought I was speaking in tongues and would’ve refused the sale on mental health grounds.

In the end, the environment in that gun store was so uncomfortable and embarrassing that I ended up making up a clumsy excuse about how I only just realized that I should ask my wife about bringing a gun into the house and how I would come back later after I’d spoken with her. I rushed out the door and sped back home on my bike.

So, that’s the story about how an aggressive gun store employee accidentally saved my life a few months ago. I’m still not sure how to feel about that experience, and I’m not sure, as a writer, how to frame the conclusion. Part of me thinks there’s an uplifting moral, a kind of Oprah’s book club type story about the fact that a pushy, greedy salesman did a wonderful thing without meaning to. That particular part of me wants to say that I’m grateful for a rude Philly jerk for saving my life. But am I grateful as a person, or only as the narrator of the story?

There’s also part of me that sees this story as the perfect bookend to another story of attempted suicide: I write in my book Honest Mistakes about how I accidentally broke a gun that my worst enemy later tried to kill himself with. I accidentally prevented the suicide of the person I’ve most wanted to murder.

There’s also part of me that wonders if my experience says anything about the psychology of suicide. Is self-preservation such a strong force that it takes utter desperation to overpower it, and only a small hiccup in the plan to bring a person back from the edge? Is my experience typical, or did I give up too easily? Was it bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple of thinking too precisely on the event, a thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom, and ever three parts coward?

Part of me dreads publishing this blog entry, and part of me is relieved to have finally talked about this experience and how I’ve felt lately.

Part of me thinks that I really need to end this by saying that this story took place months ago and I’m feeling much better now so that a good samaritan blog reader doesn’t send the police to my house to commit me to an asylum.