In response to Amanda Lauren’s XOJane piece suggesting her mentally ill friend’s death was a “blessing.”
Content warning: suicide; ableism; mental illness; abuse; caregiver abuse; psychiatric commitment; violence; dead bodies
If you are in suicide crisis, please call the National Suicide Hotline at 1 (800) 273-8255.
If you are a victim of sexual assault in crisis, please call RAINN at 800.656.HOPE (4673).
The first time it happened, a stranger in Prairie Lights bookstore in Iowa City called me “the second coming.” He was pointing to a display of tote bags and t-shirts printed with Virginia Woolf’s portrait.
“That could be you,” he said.
He didn’t know I was a writer. He didn’t know I was sexually abused by a half-brother, just like Virginia. That I am Bipolar, just like Virginia. That I have tried to commit suicide, more than once, just like Virginia.
He meant second coming in body, not mind.
But I saw the dissociation in that portrait, how she floated out of her body. That’s what he sees, too, I thought. He sees I am not all here.
“I feel certain I am going mad again,” I say. I am reading Virginia Woolf’s suicide note to my husband, the one she wrote for her husband. I have been studying suicide notes–their art and craft, their rhetorical strategies, what it means to write them, to not write them.
I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and I can’t concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I can’t fight any longer. I know that I am spoiling your life, that without me you could work. And you will I know. You see I can’t even write this properly. I can’t read. What I want to say is I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that – everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer.
I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been.
“She sounds just like you,” my husband says. “You have said the same words.”
I wrote my first suicide note in 1990. Notebook paper, ballpoint pen, folded and hand-delivered to a friend at school.
“Read it later,” I said. She didn’t know it was an advanced directive: no life saving measures.
I wish I had that note now. I want to know why I did it. Or why I thought I did it. Or what I wanted people to think about why I did it.
Who doesn’t remember their own suicide note?
Lately I can’t think. I can’t read. My eyes skip around l-t-e-t-ers, fill in blanks like Mad Libs. I am dizzy. I can’t walk in a _______ ______. I stumble with my walking cane like I am ______. All day: an electric hum in my ear. bzzzzzzz bzzzzzzz bzzzzzzzzzz the appliances are talking to me.
“I feel like someone who used to be smart,” I tell an old writing mentor. He says I am still smart, but I think: He hasn’t seen me in a long time, hasn’t read my work in a long time. He doesn’t know. A seizure last winter cracked two molars, knocked tooth 19 out of place. Rattled my brains.
I start books and can’t _________. I start essays and can’t _______. I grind batches of bone black ink that go rancid before I can use them. I can’t control a pen like I used to.
My signature changes every day.
Look how the line from the H stabs at “Karrie” like a spear. I cross out my own name. Graphologists call it scoring, cutting. It means suicidal ideation, but how can I know, when I can’t control the pen?
I receive radio transmissions from Saturn.
(transcript at link)
Or is it the tinnitus? Or is it a seizure? Or is it mania?
I feel certain I am going ______. I can’t _____ this time.
I’ve a very low opinion of my writing at the moment. This comes of correcting proofs: it’s all bounce and jerk; I want to spin a thread like a spider.
— Virginia Woolf, 5 August 1927, letter to Vita Sackville-West
I can’t sleep without pills.
On nights when I swallow my amitryptiline, down down down the rabbit hole I fall, landing at the portal to apartment “A,” where my brother Greg died three days before facing trial for sexual abuse in the 2nd degree.
My brother answers, a Marlboro Red dangling from his lips. He recognizes me even though he hasn’t laid eyes on me for twenty-five years. He smashes out his cigarette, yanks me across the threshold by my wrist. Inside, he pins me against the wall, leans in, licks my teeth the way he always did.
Sometimes, I force my way in. “Shhh,” I say when he protests. “I am all grown up. You can’t get arrested anymore.” This time, I pin him against the wall. I leave the door wide open. “Nobody knows I’m your sister.”
Or it plays out like this: He suspects the cops sent me undercover with a wire tucked into my bra or a transmitter concealed under a tooth cap. I strip out of my clothes, shoes to bra, to prove I am not a secret agent. I open my mouth wide, let him swab my teeth with his index finger and yank on my root canal crowns. He kneels, wraps his arms around my legs, and cries. I stroke his cowlick and whisper, “Don’t kill yourself. Don’t die. Let me save you.”
“I am jealous of your tidy ending,” a friend says. “His death was a blessing.”
“He wasn’t a suicide guy,” his Airborne buddy tells me. “He would crawl through guts and nails and shit and still keep going.”
In the police report:
In the autopsy report:
Cause of death: undetermined.
In a message from his ex-wife:
“I can tell you .. that on two different occasions I had found Greg in the same condition, in the same position. Once in our family room. And the other time in our hot tub building outdoors. That time I had to call an ambulance because he was unresponsive. It was in the wintertime, and when they finally got him on the gurney & outside where the air was cold, he started choking, sat straight up & said, “What’s going on?” He refused to let them take him to the hospital & had to sign a statement to that effect. I told him the next day I was going to call his doctor about the medications. And (this is the first time he had ever “threatened” me) he shook his fist in my face and said “Don’t you dare. If you do, she’ll stop giving me the pain medications.”
“I know what I’m doing.”
The police mailed me crime scene photos of my brother’s body.
They let me see the putrefactive decay in his jaw.
They let me see the fixed lividity in his chest where the blood, no longer pumping, pooled like blooming bruises.
They let me see his penis, bloated with carbon dioxide, as ridiculous as a balloon animal.
But not the pill count. They redacted the pill count. Suicide is a medical record.
May 15, 1990, in the psych ward after I swallowed all my epilepsy pills, psychiatrists interrogated me for a precipitating event:
“He could never sleep,” Greg’s Airborne buddy told me. “He was up making peanut butter sandwiches 3 or 4 times a night. He just never slept. That will kill a person, you know.”
“Is there any chance in your mind that he committed suicide?” I spit the words out fast, afraid he will cut me off.
“Honey,” he says, “You could have pushed him out of the plane without a parachute, and he would have landed. Your brother was tough. He was a tough man. You couldn’t take the parachute off him.”
He means an Army parachute: Jump School, Fort Benning, 1975, my brother graduated top of his class, Iron Mike Award, the best of the best.
I don’t tell him about the Army records.
October 18, 1976:
March 24, 1977:
June 29, 1977, note in the Army medical chart:
I don’t tell him I practiced rolling off the couch the way the Medical Examiner described it in the autopsy report. Even the best of the best couldn’t stick that landing. No way he did it doped up on narcotics with a bad back and a bum knee. For weeks, my hips and knees bloomed purple. He got down in that position. He knew he was dying.
Or how, when the crime scene photos arrived in the mail from the Cedar Rapids Police, I stripped nude and crouched in front of my couch in an identical position to my brother’s body, the fetal position, the cops called it. I curled the fingers of my left hand—all except the middle one, which I extended almost straight, as he did in that last moment, one final fuck you on his way into eternity.
“What if he did it because he was afraid they would take away his painkillers in prison?”
What if my brother killed himself because he was disabled?
“That’s a real possibility.”
May 18, 1990, movie night in the psych ward.
Molly Ringwald as Lonnie, all ginger bob and pink scars on her wrist, sneaking out her bedroom window with boyfriend Rick. Star-crossed lovers, forbidden.
They ride and ride and ride on his motorcycle, past a car dealership, Pat Benatar soundtrack.
They almost crash head-on into a car.
They almost crash into a train.
“Rick you’re gonna kill us!” Lonnie screams as the train whooshes by.
“We could have kept going,” Rick says. “We could have done it.”
“It’s not that easy, Rick. We could have ended up crippled, or lost an arm or leg or both, and then we’d have to depend on our parents for the rest of our lives.”
It was better to be dead than disabled.
They sneak into Lonnie’s garage, hot-wire the family car, fall asleep on the front seat.
The next morning, their corpses are whole, beautiful, perfect, radiant, dead. Not disabled.
May 15, 1940, Virginia Woolf’s diary:
An appeal last night for home defence—against parachutists. L. says he’ll join. An acid conversation. Our nerves are harassed—mine at least: L. evidently relieved by the chance of doing something. Gun & uniform to me slightly ridiculous. Behind that the strain: this morning we discussed suicide if Hitler lands. Jews beaten up. What point in waiting? Better shut the garage doors. This is a sensible, rather matter of fact talk.
No, I don’t want the garage to see the end of me. I’ve a wish for 10 years more, & to write my book …
This idea struck me: the army is the body: I am the brain. Thinking is my fighting.
The ENT orders a balance test, spinning me blindfolded in a rotary chair in a dark booth. I lose all sense of space and time. I am a paratrooper, jumping from a plane in the dark of night.
“It’s not your vestibular system,” he says. “It’s your brain.”
The army is the body.
It’s not just my brain. I am losing on all fronts.
“It looks like a bullet shot clean through me,” I say to my husband, pointing at the silvery hole in my spinal cord. A syrinx, a cavity, like in a tooth.
Syringomyelia, caused by my Chiari I Malformation. A birth defect, like I was doomed just by being born. My brain is occupying my body now.
The syrinx is a scorched earth campaign, destroying neurons, burning up my spinal cord until it paralyzes me. It could take years. Could take days. I could wake up tomorrow unable to swallow.
I picture a nurse hoisting me into a bathtub, flash to my brother clicking the lock on the bathroom door, unbuttoning my pajamas.
Pistachio porcelain bathtub. Chipped plaster. Calk thick as toothpaste fresh out of the tube.
I am eight years old. David Copperfield is on the television in the living room. Can David do it? Can David Copperfield make the Statue of Liberty disappear?
My brother’s ribcage crushing mine. His hipbones thrusting against my hipbones, hard as my father’s belt buckle, but I can take it because I figured out how to make pain move.
Straight line from the hole between my legs to the empty socket where my molar used to be. The socket only feels good when I stick my tongue in it. My brother is licking the socket, licking the socket, licking the socket. My tooth socket can take what I can’t.
And then one day it occurred to me that I could show with magic how we take our freedom for granted. Sometimes we don’t realize how important something is until it’s gone. So I asked our government for permission to let me make the Statue of Liberty disappear—just for a few minutes.
I thought if we faced emptiness where for as long as we can remember, that great lady has lifted her lamp, why then, we might imagine what the world would be like without freedom, and we’d realize how precious our freedom really was.
But nobody in that live audience is facing emptiness. People cheer. People applaud. One old lady shouts, “I have never seen a Statue of Liberty disappear like that one before!”
They are glad the statue vanished. They are glad for the empty harbor. Nobody cheers for getting tricked. Nobody wants to be a fool. Which means they believe the statue is really gone. They believe in magic.
They want freedom subject to magical forces.
Syringomyelia restrictions: No running, no jumping, no prolonged standing, no strenuous activity, no lifting, no overhead work, no push-ups, no pull-ups. “And no parachute jumping,” my neurologist jokes.
My neck burns. My shoulders burn. Vertebrae topple out of place like a Jenga tower. I can’t sleep. Can’t sit. Can’t stand. In syringomyelia speak, it’s called the cape. I call it my parachute harness. I am strapped in. The pain protects me, keeps me from falling falling falling. It reminds me: take my epilepsy meds. It reminds me: walk slow. tick tick tick tick tick goes the bomb inside my spine. The army is the body.
The doctors predict my future: gabapentin and morphine. Same drugs my brother took after his spine got crushed making the machines that harvest the corn to make ethanol. When was the last time you heard anything good about carbon monoxide? Down down down down the rabbit hole I will fall, into Apartment A.
Crouched in front of the couch in the fetal position. My birth defect is going to kill me. My birth is going to be my end.
Thinking is my fighting. Thinking is my fighting. Thinking is my fighting.
I begin to hear voices.
David Copperfield is casting magic spells through the Walker Center Weather Tower.
I think I think I think David Copperfield cast a spell on my spine.
My neurologist prescribes me a new epilepsy med. The pill of last resort, I call it. No generic. Poor insurance coverage. Sometimes thousands of dollars for a 90-day supply.
“I am sucking us dry,” I tell my husband. I have no job. No hope of a job. I made $50 last year.
Sucking us dry: that’s what my father used to tell me every time a new hospital bill landed in the mailbox. Now I say it, like something I inherited, something in my genes that makes me turn on myself.
I am afraid of being disabled under President Trump.
Do you know what Nazis did to people like me?
They put us to sleep with our own medications. They put us to sleep.
“How terrible that you never got to grow up and live your adult life,” an anesthesiologist says, when he asks if I have a ride home from my root canal, and I tell him I cannot drive because of epilepsy.
When the Propofol hits, I feel myself floating out through my tooth socket, the same way I did with my brother, the same way I still do when I have sex. I tug at the oxygen mask, wriggle in the chair. This feels just like—
Baby Grows Up. I despised that doll. She grew when she sucked her magic baby bottle and shrank back to baby size when you yanked a cord from the base of her spine. I knew it was a lie: adults could make you all grown up by sticking things in your mouth, but they could never make you a baby again.
I fed her bottle, yanked her spinal cord, fed her bottle, yanked her spinal cord, over and over like a hex.
The dentist stands very clean and impersonal in his long white overcoat. He tells one not to cross one’s legs and arranges a bit under one’s chin. Then the aneasthetist comes in with his bag as clean and impersonal as the dentist and only as black as the other is white. Both seem to wear uniform and to belong to some separate order of humanity, some third sex … These are the people who manage the embarcations and disembarcations of the human spirit; these are they who stand on the border between life and death forwarding the spirit from one to the other with clean impersonal antiseptic hands.
–Virginia Woolf, “Gas”
“Do you know why I love Propofol?” I tell my husband. “It doesn’t make you high. It doesn’t drag you down. It doesn’t make you feel anything. It’s like the coffin lid slams shut, and–” I snap my fingers. “You’re dead.”
Every time I see the dentist now, I hope for a root canal. I hope for any procedure that justifies Propofol. My dentist is my dealer, and he doesn’t even know it. “If I could buy that shit over the counter,” I tell my husband. “I would have a problem.”
Later, I learn that survivors of sexual trauma are attracted to the dissociative state it induces. I love a drug that feels just like sex with my brother. I love a drug that feels like abuse.
I write Dr. Omar Manejwala, an expert in Propofol addiction. I ask, “Is it suicidal ideation?”
“I think that this is a primitive defense,” he writes back. “It allows for self-denial without the moral implications of suicide.”
“You’ll feel it first in your fingers,” the neurologist says, making a C with one pointer finger and thumb and rubbing it with the other.
How do I kill myself if I can’t use my hands?
December 1983: My brother Jimmy fired a bullet through his heart. Temperature: 30 degrees below zero, cold enough to crystallize diesel, clog fuel injectors, slow school buses to a creep. Cars were scattered like abandoned toys in the streets, as if the Rapture had translated their drivers straight out of the bucket seats.
At AAA: distress tickets piled up three inches thick. Mom & Pop towing services turned callers away.
Jimmy’s horoscope in the Cedar Rapids Gazette: a phone call brings good news.
His father—his real father, I was told— rendered his tow truck a super vehicle: tank filled with Diesel 1, impervious to cold. All night, every hour on the hour, he flipped the ignition to heat the engine.
Jimmy knew about the pile of distress tickets. He knew his father could save the cars or his son, but not both. He knew, and he pointed the gun barrel at his heart and fired.
Jimmy died because the cars stopped.
(When was the last time you heard anything good about carbon monoxide?)
Etched into his gravestone: If I go to heaven I earned it; If I go to hell I deserved it.
“I knew your brother as Jim Higgins first,” his elementary school friend tells me. “Now this is where it gets sketchy because he had his name changed and he talked about him having other toys at his other house so I don’t really remember the details … I think if anything messed him up was a series of name changes because that became a stumbling block for a lot of the kids in our class in fact when we speak of him still we always mention the name changes.”
He means when my father rescinded his adoption.
“Why did dad do it?” I asked my mother.
“Child support,” she said.
Jimmy was a burden, too. Jimmy was draining my father dry.
May 20, 1990: a psychiatric nurse told me to be kinder to my father, to show support and love for him, to be reasonable.
He knew about my black eye, the one my mother lied about to cover up:
He knew about the cuts all up and down my arms, scoring from dull butter knives I sawed back and forth across my skin.
He knew my father was under investigation for child abuse.
He knew that, and he told me: you are the burden. People who swallow the pills are always the burden.
May 20, 2016: I sign a last will and testament. I want my papers in order before I lose control of my hands. I want my father written out of it.
Thy will is not done, I say out loud to my psychiatric chart. My will is done.
I message my old writing mentor a letter from Virginia Woolf to Beatrice Webb, April 8, 1931:
I wanted to tell you but was too shy, how much I was pleased by your views upon the possible justification of suicide. Having made the attempt myself, from the best of motives as I thought – not to be a burden on my husband – the conventional accusation of cowardice and sin has always rather rankled.
He messages back with a quote from Christopher Isherwood:
There is one question which we seldom ask each other directly: it is too brutal. And yet it is the only question worth asking our fellow-travelers. What makes you go on living? Why don’t you kill yourself? Why is all this bearable? What makes you bear it? … You did whatever was next on the list. A meal to be eaten. Chapter eleven to be written. The telephone rings. You go off somewhere in a taxi. There is one’s job. There are amusements. There are people. There are books. There are things to be bought in shops. There is always something new. There has to be. Otherwise, the balance would be upset, the tension would break.
We talk through other people.
I can’t say, I want to _______ ________.
He can’t say, please don’t _______ ________.
I don’t know why I dump this on him. I don’t know why I choose him. I have always been like this. I choose the wrong people. I intrude. I send inappropriate messages. I do social media all wrong. I do social all wrong.
A friend says my Facebook posts are too sad. I don’t sound right. I am becoming a burden.
“I look at everyone’s Facebook feed,” I tell my husband. “They take vacations. They go to concerts.”
“We can’t do that,” I say. “Because of my medical bills.”
If I die, you can take vacations. If I die, you can live.
I don’t know whose thoughts are mine and whose aren’t anymore.
Last year, I got the paperwork to donate my body to a body farm, but I got stuck on one checkbox:
____Trauma and advanced research request: Your initials indicate that you permit your remains to be used for trauma.
“It’s too sad,” a friend said. “Haven’t you had enough?”
“But I’ll be dead,” I said. “Does it matter?”
But it does matter. The act of donation means it matters. I want my body to be a blessing to somebody. Solve a murder, maybe. Put a killer behind bars.
I think of Virginia Woolf’s body, tumbling in the current of the River Ouse after she loaded her pocket with rocks and waded into the water.
I think of Greg, his balloon-animal penis.
Jimmy turning blue in air so cold it crystallized diesel.
I want my death to be a blessing to somebody, but I want it to be a blessing to me, too.
No initials on the ____.