I first fell half in love with easeful death at the tender age of four. As the last child in a large family I felt ignored, so I would hide under the coffee table. Hiding is actually not a good way to draw attention to yourself. After a while I learned to enjoy lying under there, alone. It was like having my very own coffin in the living room. I crayoned some flowers under the table top. I folded my arms over my chest and pretended I was a corpse. It was peaceful.
Eventually they pulled me out, combed the knots out of my hair and sent me to school. Surprise, I didn’t like it. I resented being bossed around by the man, also known as Miss Goodman. Let’s face it, who wants to be told when they can pee.
But instead of fighting the good fight, I took the weasel’s way out and became a malingerer. I would scream at my mother, “I’ve got a headache and you can’t prove I don’t!” When she failed to be convinced I would hold my breath in class hoping to pass out or even pass away. But no matter how hard I tried my last gasp was always followed by another.
As an older child I was a misanthrope. All social interactions appeared to be about establishing and maintaining rank in the pecking order. People were no better than chimps, shaking sticks and grimacing at each other so they could get first pick at the bananas. Disgusting. I felt superior, but I also knew that if I ever did throw myself into the violent competition of life I was sure to lose.
Around this time I started thinking that maybe I wanted to be crazy. Society doesn’t expect much from the insane. They get to sit on the sidelines and enjoy the show. It was the ‘70s and the fad was on for psychos. Charlie Manson and Sybil Dorset had their own TV movies.
Sybil’s personality split into 16 different people because of childhood abuse. I would imitate Sally Field in a scene from the movie where she mutters into her hand unintelligibly. But it was Sybil’s psychotic mom was my hero. She was a genius of torture. I mean, if I was going to abuse my kids I’d just burn them with a cigarette and shove them in the closet. Sybil’s mother would fill her daughter’s bladder with cold water and then tie her to a piano leg. Then she’d play vigorously, the resulting vibrations giving her daughter excruciating spasms. In the movie, Sybil’s mother commands in a terrible voice, “Hold your water!” I would shout this accusingly at my mother when nagged to clean my room
As a teenager I practiced being a schizophrenic but I didn’t have much talent. I’d stare at candle flames trying to see the face of Satan. I’d listen for voices in the dark. Sometimes I would hear them just before I fell asleep but they never said anything interesting. No CIA plots or alien encounters, just two people having an ordinary conversation. “How was your day? Okay. What did you have for lunch?”
No, all I could muster was ordinary depression with suicidal ideation. I slept with a knife under my pillow trying to work up the courage to stab myself in the heart. But it wasn’t all fun and games. Sometimes I wasn’t sure I wanted to die and then I’d get worried. I was still a virgin for God’s sake! But I couldn’t tell my family about my problems because I knew they would just tease me.
A few years after that my mother died and I became even more depressed. I saw a psychiatrist at my college who told me I was manic depressive, which was the hot diagnosis in the ‘80s. Nowadays they call it bipolar disorder which doesn’t sound nearly as romantic. I had finally made it, I was certified.
But my satisfaction was short-lived, my doctor put me on lithium, which wasn’t a good drug for me. It didn’t help and it had a lot of side effects. The worst was that I couldn’t have an orgasm. I’d just started having them! So I stopped taking the pills and I stopped going to head shrinkers. And things got a little better. I graduated school somehow and I took various secretarial jobs. When I felt bad I drank and smoked, which works pretty good actually. But I kept the pills, as a souvenir.
My doctor had told me the pills were dangerous. That they would kill me if I took too many. I figured if I ever needed to check out that would be a painless way to go. Believing I could easily kill myself was comforting, the same comfort a Nazi spy must have felt knowing he had a cyanide capsule sewn into the hem of his jacket. I didn’t need to kill myself now because I could do it at any time. Why not wait and see if things got better.
Then in New York things got much worse. I was in my 30s with nothing to show for it. My friends were all failed artists and alcoholics. I had become a cartoon character, a low-rent Dorothy Parker, who if not consistently witty could at least be depended on to take her blouse off at parties. And I couldn’t find a publisher for my novel. It seemed really unfair. It knew it was good, damn good. The fact that I hadn’t actually written a novel didn’t seem to matter.
I tried to find meaning in my life. I applied to volunteer for the Big Sister program but was told, don’t call us we’ll call you. Evidently young African American girls don’t need to be mentored on drinking and sleeping around.
One night I came home late from a party. I’d had a good time but it seemed like the same party I’d been to a couple of hundred times before. While soaking in a hot tub I decided it was time. I rummaged around until I found the pills, filled a glass with water and climbed up the ladder into my loft bed. There I downed as many pills as I could and squeezed out a couple of tears. With the ceiling so close it was a lot like lying under the coffee table again. I crossed my arms over my chest and waited.
Five minutes, nothing. Ten minutes, disappointment. Fifteen minutes, abdominal cramps …. and an unmistakable urge. I climbed down the rickety ladder as fast as I could. Minutes previous I was okay with my roommate finding me with a purple tongue and flies feasting on my eyeballs, and now I was worried I would shit my pants.
Over the next half hour everything but my life was forcefully expelled from my anus. Then the vomiting started. I thought about going to the emergency room but I didn’t see my suicide attempt as any kind of cry for help. In my mind it was a cry for death. So I waited it out and the next morning I was dehydrated but otherwise fine.
For a while afterwards I wondered why I didn’t die. Well, probably lithium isn’t poisonous in the way I had thought it was. Or maybe I didn’t really want to die. But on a deeper, cosmic level, I think I didn’t die because I didn’t deserve it. I hadn’t really done anything with my life. I’d spend most of it hiding, loafing and feeling sorry for myself.
So, I made up for lost time. I went out and found myself a decent man, who I seduced away from his wife. Which sounds worse than it really was but whatever, I don’t have to explain myself to you people. And I had a couple of kids and I went back to school to be a nurse. I work hard now. And I’m going to write that unpublishable novel.
And one day, in the not too distant future when I’m exhausted, the grim reaper, who looks an awful lot like my supervisor at the hospital, will say, “You can clock out now. And I’ll say, “Great, I’m really bushed.” And the grim reaper will say, ‘Want to work another shift?” And I’ll say, “No thanks,” and the grim reaper will say, “Time and half…” And I’ll say, “Yeah but it’s taxed at a higher rate so it’s hardly worth it” At this point this bit is in serious danger of breaking down, so let me in end with this… You can cheat death but you can’t cheat life, you’ve got to live it.