This is an earlier draft of a piece that appears in my collection of essays and other random stuff, Raised by Turtles: A Book in American. Some day, I will take the final version and reformat it and paste it in here, but for now it is only available in print for $4.95.
You go to bed at 9:00. You set no alarm. You wake up at fourteen hours later, feeling defeated. It takes you an hour more to get up.
It’s noon when you stumble into the kitchen, boil some water and throw in some oatmeal. You turn off the burner to let the oatmeal cook in the residual heat while you shower. You stand in the luxurious hot water for a few minutes. Now your legs are too tired to hold you up. You sit in the tub, stop up the drain and let the warm rain fall over you as the tub fills. Your legs are so tired. Everything is so tired. You don’t want to stand anymore, so you lie in the tub until the water cools.
It’s one o’clock when you finally make your way to the kitchen in your bathrobe. The oatmeal is cold. You make your way to the living room to eat your cold oatmeal out of the pot. You turn on the television and the stereo both, belt and suspenders for your mind, and sink into a chair.
Breakfast done, you pick up a magazine. The stereo and the TV are still on. The key is redundancy. If you lose your concentration on the magazine, the television is there to fill the void. If it happens to be on that same stupid commercial again, the background music is there for you.
It doesn’t work. The thoughts keep coming. On a good day, you think about how unhappy you are and how meaningless life is. On most days, you run through your ideas on how to end your life. You can’t hold out like this until you’re thirty. It seems unimaginably far away. The last couple years have felt so long.
Ending your life is tricky and you know it. You’re not looking to make a suicide attempt or a suicide gesture. You are not trying to get attention. You do not want your suicide to be a cry for help. You do not need to gain the love and attention of your parents. You know they would do anything for you, but what can they do about this? How can they fix you mind?
You don’t want to show them. You don’t want them to be sorry. You just want this to end.
You remember when you were home last summer. You sat in your room with music on. Nobody could hear you as you cried, but downstairs your mother could smell it as only your mother and your dog can. Your mother can smell this from a great distance.
You went downstairs, put on your very best face, a smile even, and said you were going for a walk. Your mother looked troubled. You walked and walked and walked. Four hours. Five hours. The sun went down and you walked. You felt somewhat better and walked home in the darkness. When you opened the door, your mother was still in the kitchen. Worry distorted her face. She saw you and relaxation washed over her. She came to you and hugged you and cried and said, “I was afraid I was never going to see you again.” You had tried to hide it, but she knew. She knew about the crying. She knew about everything. She didn’t have the words to talk about it and neither did you. You hugged in the kitchen and never spoke about it again.
Now you’re back in your apartment. You sit in the chair, with your breakfast pan in your lap. The spoon feels heavy. You leave half of your oatmeal in the pan.
A movie runs through your head. Not the one on the television. A policeman comes to the door of your parents’ house. Your mother knows what this is and starts to cry before the officer says a word. Just four months from now, your uncle will die on a ski trail. You will be there with him. When you tell your grandmother, she will make a sound that you will never forget. The sound a mother makes when she hears that her youngest child has died.
When the officer speaks, your mother makes this sound. Your father comes running. Your mother can’t speak so the officer repeats himself. Your father’s face hardens like stone. His jaw tenses. Your parents will stay this way for many days. They will grieve in their different ways. Their movie will have a short soundtrack that repeats on an endless loop: “I should have known. I should have known. I should have known.”
They should not have known. You are hiding it from them. Why?
Yesterday you took your journal and went through it to rip out the pages where you talk about depression or suicide. You know that if you die by choice, you will destroy this journal first. You do not want them to think they should have known. You want to at least spare them that agony. You are afraid that you will die by accident, they will find the journal, and they will think it was suicide and they should have known. You do not want to take that chance.
You rip out the first page, the second, the third. You skip forward and realize that’s all you write about except for the day after the day you resolved not to write about it anymore. You realize you should burn the whole thing, but instead you find a random dumpster and throw it in.
You know that you can’t do this thing. It will hurt your siblings and friends, but it will be with your parents daily for the rest of their lives. This is the cruelest thing you could do to them and you love them so much. This isn’t about that.
Love has become a burden. You see it as a bad thing. Because you love them and do not want to hurt them, you find yourself wishing that they would die in a car crash so you would be free to die in a car crash. Somewhere inside of you, this line of thought seems wrong. A wire has gotten crossed in your brain. You are ashamed of this thought. You tell nobody, of course. You are vaguely aware that your mind is distorting the world like a funhouse mirror, but you can’t find a plain mirror to look into. Everything is curvy and distorted. In in that cruel curvy mirror, you think things would be better if the people you love the most, and who love you most, died in a car crash. You know this is madness. You know this is wrong. Still, you have this thought.
When you get in a plane, you find yourself praying like the fearful passenger two rows up. But you are praying that the plane will crash. You believe this would be easier for your family and it is with minor disappointment that you realize that you have taxied safely to the jetway. You know this is wrong. Still, you have this thought.
You have heard stories of young basketball players who have heart attacks and die and you wonder whether you can just run hard enough to die. You run up the steepest hills you can physically run. Your heart aches, your chest heaves, your legs burn and you can’t keep your lunch down. To your disappointment, you just get strong legs. You think that maybe you just have to run a little harder and maybe your heart will fail. You know this is wrong. Still, you have this thought.
The evening resembles the morning. Your day is compressed. By going to bed at nine o’clock and sleeping until eleven, you only have ten waking hours to deal with, but the day seems long.
You sit once again with the stereo and the television and the magazine and, despite all these precautions, your thoughts.
You wish you had one single friend who you could call so you could just have a normal evening. Go to a movie, talk, not think. Just a movie. But there is no one to call. No friends. Your dark thoughts are interrupted by a phone call. A friend asks you to go to a movie.
You say no.
He says that you say no all the time. He badgers you and you relent and reluctantly agree to go to the movie that 20 minutes ago you really wanted to see with a friend. You resent him for forcing you to go. Instead of thinking, “I was wrong, I do have a friend,” you think, “Asshole.” The curvy funhouse mirror has warped everything in your world. Nothing appears to you as it is in reality.
As you are walking up to his apartment, you will realize this. You will see how profoundly your mind has distorted your reality. At that very moment, you will learn truly and deeply, not just as an abstract philosophical principle, that you cannot trust your own mind. It will take many years, but one day you will come to think that this call, this moment, this insight, may have saved your life. At least it was a step toward getting out of the funhouse.
Later, as you are walking to his apartment, you will realize that your friends, the ones you don’t have and this one in particular, call often. They ask how you are. You say fine. They ask you to get together and do things. You say no. Your mind says, “You have no friend. You are alone.” It is a lie.
You get up from your chair and start walking to the closet to get your coat. The closet is so far away. Your legs are so heavy. On your good days, you can run for miles and miles, but still the closet seems far away.
Twelve years from now, you will go to Colorado and within 24 hours of leaving sea level, you’ll hike up Pike’s Peak in under three hours. Two days later, you will drive to Jackson Hole, arriving at 11:00pm, sleep in your car for a few hours, get up and climb the Compleat Exum Ridge on the Grand Teton in a little over eight hours, including an hour for napping and an hour on the wrong trail in the dark. You will do long hikes and climbs and ski tours in the Alps.
Twenty years from now, you’ll be older and slower and in your forties. You’ll still hike fifty-five miles with 16,000 feet of elevation gain for fun on your birthday. Near the end, you will briefly lose the trail in the growing darkness and have to backtrack uphill. Your legs will feel depleted and forcing them uphill will be hard, but not as hard as it is, right now, to force them to carry you to the closet to put on your jacket to go to your friend’s house and from there to the movie that you want to see.
Your legs will never feel as tired as they do tonight, willing yourself from the chair to the closet. Twenty years from now, people will admire your endurance. They will not understand that nothing you do in your thirties or forties will take as much of your strength as crossing your living room takes today. You think that if you can make it to the closet and put on the jacket, the rest will be easy.
You think “the rest” means getting over to your friend’s house and going to the movie. You don’t realize that, having made it across the living room tonight, and tomorrow and the day after and the day after, nothing in the rest of your life will be that hard. When you are tired and lost in the mountains, you will not be this tired. When you have climbed most of the night, through the day and into the next night, in the winter, without stopping, you will not be this tired. When you lock yourself up for sixty-two sleep-deprived days to finish your doctoral dissertation before your advisor retires, you will not be this tired.
When you come through this, you will be a reed, not an oak. You will always know how easy it is to cross the threshold into darkness. You will always fear the darkness at least a little. But you will be resilient. You will adapt and bend and never break.
Much later, twenty or thirty years later, you will understand this. You will realize that everyone has their struggles and their pains. As a result you will be slower to judge. You will be better at seeing what matters to you and what doesn’t. You will realize that you do not need permission to love. You will learn to accept a compliment without flinching. A hard lesson, but once learned, you will be able to give them. You will realize that you do not need to seek the approval of others but, let’s be honest, that may be the hardest lesson. You will still have a lot to learn.
It will take you twenty or thirty years to look back on what’s happening now and understand it.
When you do, you will write this.