There was a crawlspace in our basement, behind the washer and dryer, that hooked around in an L, and ended behind the staircase into the house. I know because I crawled in there once, while my parents were out, with a bottle of my mother’s pills, and a heart full of angst.
I must have been around fourteen, and I had just read The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath, in which the protagonist, Esther Greenwood, does exactly the same thing, though to greater effect. A precocious reader, I had already fallen under Plath’s dark spell, and, like many a bookish girl before me, I drew direct connections between Plath’s life and my own: we were both daughters of remote immigrant fathers who worked as scientists and academics; we were both good students and writers; and we were both prone to depression. How much this last was my emulation of Plath, and how much a true shared characteristic, is debatable. It’s undeniable, in Plath’s case, that she struggled with clinical depression her whole life, and that she tried to kill herself on several occasions before she succeeded. In my case, depression was a factor—I have been on antidepressants of one sort, or another, for decades—but my suicidal ideations were less sincere; I don’t think I ever really wanted to die, but I liked the dramatic trappings of being a girl who could easily invoke suicide, in the manner of a witch conjuring an animal familiar.
In true Plathian fashion, I wrote hundreds of tortured poems about despair, powerlessness, and death. One began, “If I were to die tomorrow, there will be no cause for tears or sorrow…” Pre-Goth, pre-Emo, I wore my long black hair like a protective curtain in front of my face, dressed in dark colors, and walked around school like a slouching prisoner, my gaze focused on the hems of my bell-bottom jeans, which were frayed and dirty from dragging, several inches too long, on the floor.
I don’t remember what prompted the crawlspace incident, beyond the fact that I hated my life, felt oppressed by my parents, misunderstood by my friends, and generally disregarded by the boys I liked. The usual teenage refrain. Reading The Bell Jar maybe upped the ante for me, the idea of using the cinder-block room behind the stairs seemed like genius—no one would think to look back there; Sylvia herself was “missing” for three days before anyone found her—still, I knew going in that I didn’t really want to commit suicide. I wanted, instead, to be known for having attempted to commit suicide, to establish the kind of street cred that would impress a certain community of people—a community to which I yearned to belong, that would feel my sincerity, understand my suffering, laud my creative abilities, and welcome me as one of their own. (Back then, this would have included people like Kurt Vonnegut, Leonard Cohen, Simone de Beauvoir, and George Carlin.)
I remember how dusty it was among the cinderblocks, how claustrophobic and dark. A thin sliver of sunlight penetrated partway, almost reaching the toes of my Jack Purcells. Haphazard pieces of insulation, like puffs of cotton candy, were coming unstuffed from the joists along one wall. I had forgotten to bring any water, and I dry-swallowed two pills before I gave up. And that was all I needed to excuse myself from my intended fate. I crawled back out, put my mother’s pills back where they belonged, changed my clothes, and went up to my bedroom to take a nap.
In my mid ‘30s, I suffered a mini-breakdown. I say “mini,” because I don’t think many people noticed. I was stuck in a small, conservative New Hampshire town, in an unhappy marriage, with two small kids, frustrated ambitions, and a messy affair that had erupted into something Grand Guignol and asphyxiating. Through mostly my own doing, I was so stressed and exhausted by it all that I contracted mononucleosis, and was in bed for about three weeks. Attending the wedding of some friends, I had to be led by the arm to a seat in the back, where I watched the whole ceremony, hunched against the wall.
What I remember clearly about this time, besides the overall noxious atmosphere of self-loathing and desperation, was a phone call I made, on a Saturday morning, to my primary care physician, a woman I liked and knew socially. I was experiencing a panic attack, common for me in those days, and had spent the morning in an agitated state in which I felt like I was going to have to gnaw off my own foot, rather than stay for a minute more in my life. I didn’t know what I wanted from this doctor, or, even if she’d given me permission to call her on a weekend, on her personal cellphone—but I called her, and she listened to me ramble on for a short time, and then she spoke, in a cold, detached voice—this woman who had confided in me that she, too, was thinking of leaving her husband, a dull man with good business sense and a bovine —and told me, basically, to get a hold of myself. I remember being stung by her dispassion, her high, clinical manner. And then she said something that shocked me. She said that the medication I was on—Klonopin, or Xanax, I can’t remember which—could cause death by overdose. Her voice was matter-of-fact. I don’t remember the context of her remark, but I recall feeling, at the time, that there was no context, that she was just offering me this information, as my family doctor.
I realized, of course, that this is precisely why I had called. Because, in the back of my mind, and sometimes in the fore, I thought about all those pills I had stockpiled over the years, those brown plastic vials, with their child-proof tops, and their neatly typed pharmacy labels. I had been thinking of them that morning. It was like a flirtation with someone you vaguely knew, the pull as thin as gossamer, where there are no promises, but plenty of unspoken suggestions. Somehow, my doctor’s stating of the obvious, broke the spell; it was like she called my bluff, or popped the bubble on my death wish, but I began to rethink my hitherto sloppy use of benzodiazepines. And I thought less and less about using them as a vehicle for my own demise.
“He jests at scars that never felt a wound.”
— William Shakespeare
When I think back on a youth spent romanticizing death and suicide, posturing pain and depression, trying it all on, like some literary/rock-n-roll masquerade, I get furious—furious over my disingenuousness, my callow mimicry of real suffering; all the time I wasted in manufactured despair, wallowing in emotions I had read about in books, and listened to on albums. I was a monumental fraud: a privileged kid from a middle-class suburban home, with a penchant for drama, and a clamorous longing to be seen as deep, hip, and dark, some superbly sensitive creature, capable of transforming her suffering into capital A Art.
In fact, all I had felt was a camera-on-the-wall self-consciousness that followed me around like a documentary film crew. Ah, there’s Katherine contemplating the desolation of the world! Here she is taking up the pills! Here she’s listening to Pink Floyd, and reading Camus! Such pensive sadness! Such sensibility!
And it only got worse in adulthood, where my capacity for self-absorbed dramatics hurt other people besides myself. Amy Hempl captured it perfectly in her one sentence story, “Housewife.” “She would always sleep with her husband and with another man in the course of the same day, and then the rest of the day, for whatever was left to her of that day, she would exploit by incanting, ‘French film, French film.’” Early on, I had absorbed the myth of the tortured artist, with visions of living in a garret in Paris, chain-smoking Gauloises, and having scores of lovers, and I had not outgrown it. I don’t discount that I suffered from depression in my early adulthood, but so much of it was exacerbated by deliberate attempts at self-sabotage, which were, in turn, brought on by a perverse inability to let go of the feeling that I was a heroine in a novel. Emma Bovary in New Hampshire. Eustacia Vye in America.
Now, when my despair is real, when my suffering is real, when there is true cause for heaviness and depression, I feel so far from suicide. Funny how your survival instinct kicks in, once your life is imperiled. When you know that your life will be foreshortened, how fiercely you cling. How silly, even blasphemous, become earlier flirtations with death.
Pessimism is a luxury I can no longer afford, as I’ve said. And one of the surprising benefits of my diagnosis is how thoroughly it has changed me from a brooding, darkness-seeking, romanticizer of suffering, into a live-every-moment-in-gratitude, celebrate-the-small-stuff, Pollyanna evangelist. People scratch their heads when I tell them that I am happier now than I have ever been. I scratch my own head. Perhaps it’s a self-fulfilling proposition: I am happier now because I have committed to being happy, not in what James Baldwin called “the infantile American sense of being made happy,” but in the laying down of old grievances, and petty burdens, and in the attuning to what, simply, is. The turkeys outside my window. The wind fanning through the cottonwoods. My breath. My heartbeat. Invoking gratitude and attention, instead of distraction and annoyance. Maybe committing to happiness is something I could never have done within a theoretical timeline of thirty more years, whereas a few years seems manageable.
I think about the girl in the crawlspace, poised between light and dark, with her mother’s pills and her Jack Purcells. With my newfound benevolence, can I not forgive her her self-aggrandizement, her frothy adolescent angst? And the 30-something woman, leaning against the wall. Is there a way to feel some compassion for her yearning after something bigger, for something more remarkable in her life?
I think there is. For, if I can no longer feel the pain of being a fourteen-year-old—a gawky, gangly, Asian fourteen-year-old, at that—if I compare it to the hierarchy of all human suffering, and find it rates low on the scale, it doesn’t mean the pain was any less acutely perceived. And when Buddha said, life is suffering, he meant mostly the suffering we inflict on ourselves, by our desires and attachments, so the suffering in my 30s, as self-imposed as it may have been, was no less suffering.
This is an intellectual exercise in compassion, though, not the thing itself. There is still a part of me that is angry at these former selves for wasting my time with their sniveling, their punk-ass first world problems, (not that my situation with cancer is not itself a first-world problem; me with my health insurance, my resources, my top-notch medical care). I am not a Christian, so I cannot so definitively draw the line between sin and sin-no-more. What has it cost me to have spent so much of my life lost, flailing, feeling sorry for myself? Is my happiness now, in spite of my past, or is it the result of it? These are the questions I have yet to resolve. I seek synthesis, a gathering up of selves into a singular identity, some definitive, knowable whole, that I can then put to bed. It feels important to me, but also difficult. There is so much I wish to disavow. I carry these past lives around with me like bad pennies, unable to spend them, but equally unable to slough them off. They are entitled to their suffering, but are they entitled to me?