Should I tell you what I know about Sylvia Plath’s suicide? I watched her do it, but I couldn’t say a word. It was always going to happen in 1963. She gave herself half a chance at another decade, but despite this I do believe she intended to die. She knew that she was due for a death that year, and the thought must have had a grip on her she couldn’t shake. In the poem Lady Lazarus you can see it develop – at 10, it was an accident she narrowly survived. At 20, she tried to do the job herself, but was discovered in time. At 30, she died.
I can see the superstition, the compulsion, and suffering as we do, it’s only natural that she would acquiesce to the patterns she saw. She knew, no matter how hard she tried, that she would be found with her head in the oven, refuse to apologize, and come back into the air for another decade. Then, in 1973, she would try harder. She knew, at the same time, that she would certainly die in that sealed kitchen, leaving two children to die at a more ordinary pace.
Personally, I’ve never considered suicide. I always say I don’t want to be alive, and that much is true. But I don’t know of any decent alternatives, and every supposed variation of death is terrifying. When I was a teenager there was hardly a night I could fall asleep for fear of that inevitable discovery. As young as seven I can remember lying wordless and awake in the bed I shared with my brother until three or four in the morning. Still, I can’t tell whether life is a decision we make for ourselves, or a compulsion we suffer from.
I’ve never been much for talking about my depression. By the time I recognized it for what it was, I also knew it wasn’t something anyone could help me with. It was old news, anyway, and if they were paying attention to me they would’ve known all about it already. Well, it turned out the first part was true, the second part wasn’t, and I shouldn’t have trusted my own conclusions – but it’s a little late for regrets on that front now.
I have a friend who occasionally cracks, and spreads his death-wishes through long, electric threads to those he can afford to reveal it to, and the barbs of that contact mystify and terrify them as much as any tragedy. These normal people think it is an outcry, a pronouncement designed for them, and they don’t know how to take it except as an offense. It seems so sudden and extreme to them that it couldn’t possibly be real. I can’t help but laugh. It’s my daily, or near-daily experience, and they act like they’ve never been so horrified as they are the moment they get a glimpse of it.
That’s why people always say they missed the warning signs, or didn’t know that things had gotten so bad – nothing has really gotten any worse. There are waves. It gets better, it gets worse, it gets better, but it never stops. I’m a frog in a pot. The water has been boiling for a long time, I’ve gotten used to it. I don’t recommend you trying to stick your hand in now. Today, at least, I’m lucid.
People characterize depression as something sad because it does sometimes lead to death – but it really rarely is. It’s more like a mental fog. A blanket that covers everything. A compulsion that sometimes culminates in desperation, but we can’t imagine being desperate for anything, and are pulled in every direction.
So, when I read Lady Lazarus, I know that Plath was led towards her fate by a will’o’wisp that had been shining in her brain for ten years at least – a sort of magical feeling that she would introduce herself to death once a decade, until he offered to keep her. He accepted much sooner than she probably expected, but that wouldn’t have fazed her. She was just doing what she was compelled to do, the consequences were out of her hands.
I have too much family to talk too long about suicide. They all get worried, I can feel them sweating over my shoulders, as if I were at risk. I suppose it’s lucky that I’m not. But the death that compels me is more mundane and, in my opinion, more ludicrous. I get to sit here developing ambitions for six months of the year, and when I bring myself to work towards them, I get to watch the shadows descend and find myself climbing out of a hole six months later, with no idea what happened.
I get to go on living, all the time pulling myself out of a pit I don’t remember falling into. Sometimes I think about Sisyphus. I can imagine falling in love with pushing a boulder up a hill.
Then I imagine looking around for the thousandth time, seeing myself at the bottom with a resting rock, yet knowing that I never took a break from pushing, and never once saw that monstrous burden roll an inch downhill… And that first rotation is always so hard.
I have done it again.
One year in every ten
I manage it——