Updated: Feb 11, 2020
I look back and dismiss it as wanting attention—wanting to be certain I was capital a “Alive.” Some kids got there through drugs, for others it was sex. I was doing neither. I read softcore romance fantasy novels about chivalry and watched every R-rated thing I could find on the HBO channels that my father had climbed a telephone poll to illegally connect. I was sitting alone in rooms playing Legacy of Kain on PS1 and passively wanting to kill myself.
When I was 13, I tried to hold my breath until I died. At the beach, or a pool. Or in the tub. A couple times in a sink. I would hold my breath and count, consciously calming my mind to slow my pulse and dull my throbbing lungs—privately hoping I could pass out and drown.
30 seconds. 45. A minute, minute ten. 90 seconds. Two.
I bounced up and gasped for breath, simultaneously psyched about how long I lasted and disappointed that it hadn’t been forever. It took a moment to recognize my surroundings and slip back into whatever conversation I had missed. To mask my behaviour, I often told people about feats of breathing where Navy Seals or Freedivers could clock times on the verge of causing brain damage. I don’t recall being suicidal exactly—I didn’t have a set plan. I must have known I would never be able to ignore my instincts to the point of danger. And though I had means readily available in my home (Beretta, Mossberg, Sig Sauer, Kalashnikov), I never had those thoughts around firearms.
I’d taken my father’s lessons on gun safety quite seriously. All guns are loaded. Never point a gun at anything you aren’t willing to destroy. Trigger and muzzle discipline. Be sure of your backstop. These things were repeated to me and by me before cleaning, firing, or even examining firearms. My father was a felon and had thus lost his right to bear arms. I found out later that the guns were in my name. During Clinton’s presidency, Congress passed a ban on assault rifles. In the months before, I had apparently stocked up. The following was purchased in my name: an AR-15 receiver (upper and lower parts separately to evade Big Brother—not a joke), stock, bolt, muzzle, barrell and whatever else you needed to build an AR-15 on the coffee table in my living room. We built it as if it were delicate. A ship in a bottle rather than a tool of destruction. We oiled and cleaned each part, slowly checked the assembly, listening for subtle clicks in the action like you might try to pick out the viola in a symphony.
So I knew where the guns were. And I think I wanted to think I was suicidal. But I never really entertained shooting myself. It seemed so messy, so crass. Inconsiderate. I had a recurring thought of a hanging—my father’s body dropping from a trap door in the ceiling of the bathroom as I entered, swing-bouncing from a noose. I think it was an adapted image from a clip spliced into A Clockwork Orange, which I must have seen on HBO. But I never really considered hanging. Drowning was elegant—everything was the same except now you’re dead. A part of me might have thought that would be true of the world I left behind.
Still, my distaste for guns felt cowardly. If you really wanted to, you could. Right now. Just boom and darkness. I’d accepted that suicide was a rational response to my situation, and to not do it, or not be able to even make a serious attempt, seemed worthy of ridicule. Looking back at that from a more healthy place (fully myelinated and medicated and working out, like, you know, sometimes) those thoughts seem absurd. I wonder how lucky I am, not just to have grown up with relative privilege surrounding my struggles, but to have simply never mustered the courage to inch toward that edge. I never wrote a note. I never bought or stole pills. I never scoped out tall buildings or busy intersections. Anyway, I’ve heard that jumpers who survive always report immediate regret rather than any sense of freedom in the fall. And I never walked across the hallway and slid open an unlocked drawer. A drawer whose movement was significantly more kajunkety than the grease-slick bolt on the 9mm Taurus within.
When my wife was in grad school, she showed me research from David Hemenway, the gist of which was that the availability of guns increases the incidence of suicide. American kids kills themselves with guns ten times as often as kids in other countries. Half of all gun suicides come from the United States. People who consider suicide with guns do not, in general, find another means if they do not have access to a gun. I believe these things, though my personal experience was contrary. I think having guns around made it clear to me that I was not determined to die. Even in that state, I could have, one day, just made a decision and let it stick. And what a mistake that would have been.
I am not reliably happy. I can be a real grump. In fact, I have often thought of happiness as sort of irrelevant. I am not a teacher because it makes me happy. Parts of it are wonderful and rewarding. Other parts are engaging and creative and exciting. Some of it might even make me feel happy, but I do it because it is the right thing to do. It certainly didn’t feel pleasant or happy for the first few years. Similar patterns describe my work as a husband and father. They are important and meaningful and at times help me feel accomplished or productive. They can be joyous. But I’ve never let myself behave as if happiness is the goal. Happiness always feels out of reach.
Despite the never-quite-thereness of it all, I am still glad to be here. I am thankful for this opportunity to appropriately respect the challenges I face on the way to happiness. That was a clunky sentence but I meant every word. Happiness is to be earned and enjoyed, in that order of importance and in that sequence. I am reminded of Camus’ outlook on this specific type of toil. “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Or at least happier than he had been at 13.