By Will Falk
I am an attempted suicide survivor. I tried to kill myself twice – once in April, 2013 and again in August, 2013. It has been over two years and I am still struggling to make sense of what I did. I just learned that September is National Suicide Prevention Month and for the last several days I have lost myself reading heart-breaking story after heart-breaking story of those affected by suicide – both attempted and successful.
The first time I tried to kill myself I was in Milwaukee, WI. I was a public defender in Kenosha, WI and was overcome with anxiety, guilt, and a spiritual kind of exhaustion when I came back to my empty apartment on a snowy, Wednesday night. Looking myself in the eye in the mirror, I realized I did not want to wake up the next morning. I put on my pajamas, brushed my teeth, and swallowed a whole bottle of sleeping pills.
I woke up in the emergency room – my throat coated in charcoal, the hair on my chest ripped from the monitors, my arms and hands pricked with needle marks where they missed my veins with the I.V. in the ambulance. A doctor asked me if I knew what happened. “I tried to kill myself,” I said. So, they involuntarily committed me to the psyche ward of St. Francis’ Hospital on the shores of Lake Michigan on the south side of Milwaukee.
It was a grey time. I spent each day sitting in a chair by a window looking out over Lake Michigan. A heavy, wet snow fell for the first couple days I was in the hospital. The snow was comforting – a wet blanket to shroud out the world. One morning, as the snow slowed, an ancient sea gull flew awkwardly to land on the ledge of the window I looked out from. I felt the curious urge to write that down, to try to describe the snow, to try to explain why I was in the hospital.
I have been writing ever since.
The time I spend writing always comes with a certain amount of guilt. I’ve written this before and I guess it is a question that will haunt me forever but, while the world burns what right do I have to sit at a desk, with pen and paper, writing? Shouldn’t I be out in the real world working in more tangible ways to save what is left of the world?
I know that writing is therapeutic for me. I always have a notebook and pen with me. If I do not write for a few days, I start to get restless. Therapy is necessary for my survival. But, because the world is truly threatened with destruction right now, I do not want my writing to be only therapeutic. Writing only for myself, during times like these, is simply masturbatory. It feels good for me, but does it help anyone else?
I would be lying if I said I do not suffer from the same despair that caused me to try to take my own life twice. There are many reasons why I am tempted to lie about the despair.
First, I know my loved ones really want me to be better. I know my suicide attempts came as a shock to many of the people closest to me. Most of them had no idea I was in such a dark place. I imagine the trauma my parents must have felt, for example, when they got a call in the middle of the night from a Milwaukee police officer explaining to them their only son tried to kill himself. I imagine what they must have felt when several months later – after I reassured them I was doing much better – they received a call from a doctor in San Diego telling them I tried again.
I never like to talk about these things out loud. I do not want my friends and family to worry about me. I do not want the people I love and the people I want to love me to think there is anything strange about me. I do not want to be a burden. Hiding the despair, however, is a lie. And that lie could lead me back to death.
After I tried to kill myself in Milwaukee, I quit the public defender’s office to spend some time asking myself what I truly needed to do in order to never try to kill myself again. I moved to San Diego to live with the woman I was dating at the time, but I tried to kill myself a week after arriving in San Diego.
I am still not completely sure why I tried to kill myself the second time. I think there was still a big part of me that was angry that the first attempt didn’t succeed. There’s another, more shameful reason, too. When I arrived in San Diego I saw the path to recovery and did not want to do the work to recover. The road was too steep, the work too real, and I didn’t have enough left in my tank. Another bottle of pills seemed like a better option.
As the months went by in San Diego, I decided I really did want to live and I really wanted to act to support life. One of the greatest sources of despair for me comes with the knowledge that the world’s ability to support life is seriously threatened by forces like climate change. I read about the Unist’ot’en Camp – an indigenous cultural center and pipeline blockade in central British Columbia keeping millions of barrels of fossil fuels in the ground – calling for volunteers and I decided that I was going to Canada to help. I felt like acting against the forces causing me despair was the best possible way to alleviate that despair.
I spent the next 18 months on the road supporting indigenous-led, land-based environmental movements. I stayed in Canada for close to 10 months, but simply could not support myself. I am not a citizen and could not find work. I came back to my parents in San Ramon, CA and after a couple weeks I was encouraged to come to Hawai’i to write about Kanaka Maolis’ struggle to keep a giant telescope from being built on the summit of their most sacred mountain, Mauna Kea.
While I slept on the cold ground on Mauna Kea, the old despairs started sinking back in. It started with the general displacement I felt being in Hawai’i. I was living on another culture’s most sacred site. I looked at the hills forming Mauna Kea’s shoulders, knew they each had a name, they each had a story associated with them, but I did not know their names and felt invasive asking Kanaka Maoli to tell the stories to me. I did not want to be another white settler demanding another Kanaka Maoli to indulge me with her people’s most sacred wisdoms.
I did learn the names of the beautiful, gold-flowering mamane trees and the ahinahina with their soothing scene in bloom, but in my heart, when I sat in silence with these plants, I felt a stranger to them. I fell in love, yes, but it was a bittersweet love knowing that the sacred plants of my people were thousands of miles away and, with my financial short-comings, forever out-of-reach.
I started to feel guilty, with a depleted bank account, for the way I had to rely on the generosity of others to support me. To get to Hawai’i, I had to ask for money. To pay for food in Hawai’i, I had to ask for money. To get back to my parents, I had to ask for money. It was true that I was writing my heart out, but I even began to feel guilty that I couldn’t figure out a way to make the writing pay for itself.
I have come to understand the mental illness really is an illness. The illness does not always respond to rationality. The common cold comes when you are susceptible. You can work to prevent it from coming, but once a cold sets in, there is no amount of pure thinking that will make it go away. Despair is the same for me. Sometimes I can identify no rational reason for the feeling. It’s just a presence. It sets in, and like a cold, everything becomes much harder.
As I write this, I realize I have made myself quite susceptible. I have been on the road for two years. I feel scattered across the continent. I gave up having one place to live. I gave up a job. I’ve spent more time sleeping on the ground, the floor, and on couches than I have in proper beds. I am also broke.
I have decided I need to slow down, regroup, build a sustainable income for myself, and build a sustainable community for myself. Even as I decide this, though, I wonder if I have failed the causes I set out to support. How can I look the Unist’ot’en Clan or Kanaka Maoli in the eye and say I need to slow down when their very homes are under attack?
The answer, of course, is found in the fact that I can help no one if I end up dead. I know what can happen if I hold on to those thoughts for too long. So, here I am in Utah, determined to finally stare down the ghosts that haunt me. I grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah and I am back in Utah to finally put the work in that is needed to not just cope with despair, but to thrive in its face.
I am in Utah for several reasons. First, I have a friend here, my oldest friend, who told me I am always welcome here. She was the first person, after my suicide attempts, to tell me I was still the same Will she knew all those years ago before depression set in. During National Suicide Prevention Month, these are the kinds of magics that those of us living with the darkness can hold on to. I hope she reads this and can feel how profoundly grateful I am for her words. I hope she knows how heroic her simple honesty was.
Second, I always say that the land is the truest source of my writing. The land is speaking and I am trying to record what I think it is saying. I rarely feel confident that I know what the land is saying. This uncertainty is rooted in the fact that my genealogy was not formed on the lands where I live. I am not from Turtle Island. My ancestral body was formed in Ireland and Germany. Growing up in Utah, however, I think I can say my body was supported by this land. Perhaps the parts of me that are still composed of materials formed by life’s processes in Utah will hear what the land is saying here more clearly. I want to find out.
Finally, as I think about my suicidal past, I begin to see a role for my writing that saves me from mere masturbation and allows me to contribute something valuable to the war against what has truly become a mental health epidemic.
I do think there is a war being waged against life on this planet. In the past, wars were fought people against people, nation against nation. Sometimes, and more and more increasingly in the last 500 years, whole peoples have been exterminated by wars. Right now, however, all of life is threatened. Many of us know the statistics, one in four women around the world will be raped in her lifetime. 95% of the United States’ old growth forests are gone. A quarter of the world’s coral reefs – one of the most essential natural communities to the planet’s ability to perpetuate life – have disappeared. Every mother on the planet has dioxin, a known carcinogen, in her breast milk. A growing number of scientists, citing runaway climate change, are predicting human extinction by the end of this century.
Yes, we are experiencing the scariest war the world has ever seen. This war has many fronts – the cultural, the social, the political, and the spiritual. The spiritual front is the one I have experienced most fully. This spiritual war starts in the real world. As natural community after natural community is murdered in front of our very eyes, the building blocks of life are destroyed. Despair is the inability to envision a future worth living in and while the building blocks of life are destroyed, the future topples with them.
Just as our bodies are infected with the toxins being daily pumped into the ecosystems where we live, our spirits are being infected with despair that comes with witnessing the murder. When they clearcut a forest, they also clearcut our spirits. When they rip the top off a mountain, they also rip something from our hearts.
If we are going to win this war, we are going to need warriors fighting on every front. Each one of us has particular skills and unique experiences that suits us for working in different arenas. Some of us might be better suited for standing on the front lines to stop the bulldozers when they come. Some of us might be better suited for healing the wounds already ravaged on the land. Some of us might be better suited to providing the material resources fighting this war requires.
I have visited many darknesses. I laid in what I thought was my own death bed twice. I know what demons can be found there. I know the chill existing there. I know how overwhelming the desire for numbness can be. I visited those darknesses and I returned. Many of us are going to face those darknesses in the future and if I can pass any wisdom on to those traveling those regions, all my writing will have been worth it.
As a writer, I can visit the dark places, and return with weapons to help us wage a better war against the despair. There is a magic in words. Prayer, poetry, song are all as old as humanity. I am convinced they are the original weapons against despair. I encourage all of us with a talent for expression to be honest about what we’ve seen, to strive with every creative impulse we find in ourselves to combat the forces destroying the world. There are dark times ahead of us and our spirits are going to need medicine to keep fighting. And, if you’re in that darkness right now. Hold on. Hold on with everything you’ve got. You might return from that darkness with something for all of us.