Bitter waters: “Whose Life Is It Anyway?”

To set the mood, let’s begin with a relevant hit tune sung by the late Bulgarian soprano, Ghena Dimitrova. Her character, La Gioconda (was there ever a greater operatic irony?–“The happy girl”?), is contemplating taking her own life (Plot Spoiler: she does it):

Whose life is it is the essential question from a play and movie from about 40 years ago. It dealt with the question of assisted suicide. The right to die. Really, of suicide itself, assisted or not. Sometimes we just assist ourselves. If we can. If we can’t, we may have to ask for help, law or not.

Suicide is a nasty business. Talking about it in the open is perhaps the last taboo. It’s worse than sex, bankruptcy, domestic violence, or drug addiction. Why? Because suicide is supposed to be a sign of cowardice, of having just given up, blah-blah-blah. I don’t know. Maybe that’s correct. Maybe it’s just acknowledging that this all has become ridiculous. Define all.

Oh, I almost gave it a shot once. Once. The last day of 2006 dawned as a day bereft of hope. Happy Fucking New Year. I’d lost four jobs in one An(n)us Mirabilis, not to mention the secure one I’d quit to enter this odyssey from Hell. I’d even been expelled from a training program, funded by New Jersey, to convert me into a therapeutic massage practitioner. The problem was that my ability to memorize and “book-larn” was pretty well gone. Profound depression will rob you of any intellectual ability you might once have possessed. As far as therapeutic massage, I loved the idea of bodywork but not of memorizing de thigh bone connected to de knee bone. So in the heavens there was a great chorus of Fuck You Stupid, Dump It, Why Do This Shit Anymore? La commedia è finita!

Yes, you can reach a point where it doesn’t matter anymore.

Each work failure fed into the next one. I’d walked in thinking, “Well, how can I fuck this up?” The Power of Positive Thinking could sit on my face. I resolved to swallow all the bipolar drugs in the house. Lithium, Klonopin, God knows whatever else. I was done. The usual feelings of on-the-ground abandonment returned, and the heavens were both empty and mocking. 

Re-enter the Life Force?

Swallow the pills, get it the hell over with. I was never the type to play with guns or knives, and although I lived around all these nice bridges on the Jersey Shore, I was somewhat afraid of heights (“Fear death by water,” etc., etc.). So it had to be drugs.

But then came the question. “What if there aren’t enough pills? What if I can’t finish the job? Then this will turn into some stupid Cry For Help gesture coupled with projectile vomiting and passing out. Hey, maybe I’ll burst a blood vessel in my brain! No, I can’t count on that, I’m not that lucky.”

Note what did not stop me. I’d had a relative who’d taken his own life in mid-2005. It had messed me up, and it had messed up the rest of my family even more. Oh, to be sure, I’d thought of him as I contemplated the sign in Barnum’s Museum that read This Way To The Egress. But I didn’t care. “It’s too bad, but they’ll get over it. Besides, even if they don’t, I won’t know because I will be quite dead, thank you.” That’s suicide for you. Sometimes. The want is a pain so intense that it alone could kill you.

Why do you think I wept for Robin Williams? It wasn’t just because he died. Milton Berle died, too, and he cracked me up forever. With Williams, I was projecting into the mind of a funny and tragic man who’d seen his end in a pain he could no longer manage. Everyone will be better off without me. And if they’re not, then tough shit.

The late Alfred Alvarez, British poet and literary critic, was a suicide survivor. He referred to himself ironically as a “failed suicide.” Right, you’ve failed at everything else, but this you can bring off with High Honors? No, not even that. Throughout the fall of 1960, he’d methodically doctor-shopped and collected barbiturates, and on Christmas Night 1960, he downed the whole stock with a lot whiskey. He was sick unto death, almost strangled on his own vomit, but he did not die. The police came to the hospital and interrogated him in a circuitous and deliberately half-assed way, not pressing too hard, because 50 years ago, suicide was still a criminal act in England. I know, that really defines “insanity,” but sometimes the Law is a bit slow to follow reality.

In any case, from Alvarez I learned the term “the closed world of suicide.” Once you enter that closed world, once you take it seriously, you have set your course. Nothing can interrupt you. You will either die or die trying.

In the late 1960s, I loved a woman who combined being dumped by her current boyfriend with learning, at the same time, that I was over her. I was about to get married. So she downed a bottle of her father’s Seconals. She didn’t succeed, but women are notable for making more than one attempt. Men are less prone to suicide recidivism. Don’t ask me why: I just work here. I don’t know if she’s still alive. If not, the memory of her is just a trifle hard to bear.

In my case I was at the threshold of that closed world. I was near to crossing into a dark room that smelled like eucalyptus and jasmine. But that question–could I take enough?–stopped me. Another bogus cry for help? So I cut to the chase. I telephoned a local hospital crisis line and said “I don’t want to live anymore but I don’t want to kill myself.” I was bawling on the phone. I think that spells dilemma. In any case, the volunteer kept me on the phone while she called the cops and EMS. They carted me off to Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch.

In Rhode Island, there is The Samaritans, a group of trained volunteers dedicated to preventing people from taking the last step. Because The Samaritans know that the last step usually precedes a really long drop into some body of water. They post messages like “We can help. Call —–.” They usually post the signs on bridges over the many waterways in the State. (And thank you for this song, Leonard Cohen, who I’ll bet has tasted the Bitter Waters, maybe more than once. The song still makes me weep.)

So I spent four and a half days in a locked ward in the hospital, AP1, known as The Flight Deck, all drugged up with no place to go, escorted outside where they would not even let us zanies smoke (Do you think this shit matters?) surrounded by schizophrenics who hadn’t taken their medications, manic-depressives on the far manic scale, suicidal types like me, a kid like my roommate with such severe OCD that he’d done his wash four times in one evening. Jesus Christ, these people are crazier than I am! I think that so-called “flight deck” defined the proverbial Snake Pit. The sane go mad, the mad regain their sanity. I suppose I was one of the latter.

I had visitors, most of them emotionally impotent, some of them just plain angry and despairing. What do you say to someone who’s on suicide watch? “Be cool. Have a nice day”? You drop off the flowers, share the chocolates, and get out of there.

So Whose Life Is It?

I wish I could be ambivalent or 100% affirming. I can’t because I’m not wired that way, not anymore.

I wish I could buy back into the religious platitudes about how suicide damns us. I can’t. The Jews under siege at Masada in 74 CE killed their children and themselves rather than be slaughtered by the Roman legions or sold into slavery. Some faiths regard this sacrifice as a violation. I happen to find it both tragic and heroic.

Living with chronic illnesses, with physical pain on top of bipolar, will push you back to a kind of faith while it knocks some of the sanctimony right out of you. True, no one here gets out alive (so said Jim Morrison), but before that, we may be visited by a sense of hopelessness so profound that nothing on the Other Side can be much worse.

Is this a suicide note? No it is not. I’m sitting here nursing a cigarette (yeah, “slow-motion suicide”), but I have no intention of making an immediate exit. I’m simply suggesting that life may have come to us through God and our parents, but once granted, that life is ours. For the living. Perhaps also for the taking. I don’t know An Answer, except that for today the answer belongs to me.


About Ken Wolman

Sit still, shut up, and listen. We might both learn something.
This entry was posted in depression, hope and hopelessness, suicide. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Bitter waters: “Whose Life Is It Anyway?”

  1. One of my colleagues in Jewish Renewal wrote her senior teshuvah (rabbinic-legal responsum to a halakhic question) about suicide and the Jewish community’s response to it. She argued, quite beautifully, that we need to change halakhic thinking about suicide. It’s not a sin; it’s the last resort of someone who is hurting so profoundly that they’re no longer able to find another way through. And punishing them after the fact, or punishing their families after the fact by not reciting kaddish and so forth, is inhumane.

    In any event. I hear you, and I am pondering. Much food for thought here.


  2. kenwolman says:

    Oy, I don’t know what. I knew I’d have to write about suicide eventually. Even in a blog I can’t disclose all the things I learned. Other people get dragged in. But historically, when suicide was a crime in Anglican England, you could be prosecuted for the attempt. And I think the successful suicide were indeed buried outside church grounds. As for our tradition. I’m not sure I even know what the pure halakha is. Okay, I peeked. Very similar. But we share with Catholics the contemporary assumption (on faith?) that a suicide is presumed to be out of his or her mind, and therefore not responsible. I am writing to you privately.


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