CW: LOTS ABOUT SUICIDE. REALLY. A LOT.
This tip fucking sucks. It sucks in all directions. If you can only save your own life, that means that you can’t save anyone else’s life, and that sucks, because there are probably some people in your life you would do almost anything to save. And, if you can only save your own life, it means that other people, no matter how much they love you, cannot save your life for you. It means you have to do it your own damn self, and that is absolute bullshit. I do not want to be responsible for my own damn life. It’s very very hard.
When I say save your own life, what do I mean? I mean metaphorically, certainly. I mean in the way that Mary Oliver means it in The Journey, which everyone should go read. I have a copy of “The Journey” taped up inside my closet door so that when I’m locked in my closet writing and feeling like I’m neglecting other people I remember that I can only save my own life.
It took me a long time to understand that. For a long time I hoped that somehow something or someone outside me would fill the hole in my heart, and I made some desperate, stupid, painful, hurtful choices trying to get that. After trying everything I could and a whole lot of pain I accepted that nobody can fill that hole for me and I can’t fill it for anyone else either and it totally sucks.
I would particularly like to fill the holes in my children's hearts and as their mother it sure seems like I ought to be able to, but I can’t. The best I can do is to love them and teach them to hold themselves dearly, to be gentle with themselves that they have such holes in their hearts, because that is just what it means to be human, and, maybe, just maybe, not to go in search of something that doesn’t exist to fill that hole, because that search seems so important, like the only thing that matters, and yet it so often leads to self-destruction.
You wouldn’t think that trying to fill a hole in your heart would actually make the hole bigger, suck more of your life into it, but it does. It’s a black hole. It’ll eat up everything you’ve got, if you let it.
I digress. Honestly, I don’t even think I can impart this lesson to my children. I don’t think anyone can tell anyone else that that terrible void can’t be filled. We all have to give it a shot ourselves and see in what ways and how badly we fuck everything up in the process of trying to fill it. It sucks. Good luck with that.
Anyhow I don’t just mean this metaphorically.
I also mean it practically, and in a very specific way. I’m talking about suicide. If you do not want to hear me talk about suicide leave now. Also, probably unsubscribe. I won’t be offended, I’ve turned off my unsubscribe notifications because they’re depressing, so I won’t even notice.
Of course people save each others’ lives all the time. Paramedics save lives. Doctors save lives. Narcan saves lives. Vaccination saves lives. That’s all good and I am in favor of it. We should save each others’ lives as much as possible.
A small number of people have told me I saved their lives.
What they meant was that I was there at a crucial moment for them, mentally speaking. Something I said or did, some intervention I made, saved them. Kept them from killing themselves.
Here’s one of those stories: One day when I was at an outpatient psychiatric partial hospital program, years ago, a new woman showed up to the group. I invited her to have lunch with me, because she looked lost. At lunch she told me that the night before she had put a loaded gun in her mouth, just to see what it felt like. She also told me she had a young child. I said to her “however shitty a mom you are, killing yourself will fuck up your kid more.” Or something to that effect. I think I was more eloquent. Later she told me I saved her life that day. I’m not even sure that I believe the thing I said, anymore. Who am I to say what’s worse, a shitty mom or a dead one? But then here I was, having, supposedly, saved someone’s life.
Wow, I can save lives just by being kind and sharing my story? That’s amazing. Yes! I will save everyone’s life!!
What happens, though, when you do not save the life?
I had a friend who killed himself. He was supposed to come over to my place for dinner that weekend and he cancelled and then he killed himself instead.
I was actually worried that he might kill himself that weekend. When he cancelled I argued with him, I cajoled him, I kept texting him just so he would text me back so I knew he was still alive. I thought about going to his apartment and banging on the door. I thought about calling the police. I thought about a lot of things but I didn’t do them. All I did was keep texting, and eventually he got mad at me and told me to stop, which I didn’t, and then he stopped answering my texts but I kept sending them, and the last text I sent him said “Well I will just assume you are dead and if you are not then I will be pleasantly surprised.” That’s really what I wrote. It doesn’t even seem real, but it was.
Well, what the fuck was I supposed to do with a thing like that?
What I did was lose my fucking mind, and then I wrote around 23 poems about his suicide and I’m still writing about it, obviously, I can’t even remember if I’ve told you all this story before but it’s one of the bigger and more important stories I have to tell so you’ll forgive me if I repeat myself.
It took me nine full years to understand that I could not have saved that guy’s life.
Nine years in which I would make people promise not to kill themselves before I would let myself love them, nine years in which when people went silent I panicked and texted them desperately until they said they were still alive, nine years in which I thought it was my responsibility to save the lives of everyone I knew and everyone they knew and every call out of the blue at an odd hour from a friend was always about someone’s mental health crisis, and I always took the call, that’s what I did, and every time I went offline or out of cell phone range I posted suicide hotlines on all my social media so people would know I wasn’t there to save them, but just temporarily, just not there for just one week. I was a one- woman suicide hotline because I was never ever going to let that happen again.
I was never again going to get ghosted like that, ending up at an actual grave.
It’s exhausting, trying to save everyone’s life. I had to give up, finally.
Yes, there are moments in our lives when we touch other people in ways that give them hope or seem to save them, move them. It’s because of those moments that I continue to write. Writing is one of the ways I invite more of those moments to happen in the world. I’m glad to do it.
Those are moments of grace. I’m grateful for the moments of grace in which I have given to someone something they needed that they maybe didn’t even know they needed. I’m grateful to everyone who has ever given me something I have needed, somehow, at some important, crucial moment.
But, and forgive me if I get a little bit spiritual on you, grace is very different from responsibility. Grace is a gift. I make no claims about its source. But grace is outside of our control. The lives that I have ‘saved’ were saved by grace, they’re not my lives to claim, and hence, blessedly also not my burden to bear forevermore.
And the life I didn’t save wasn’t my fucking life to save.
It was his. I don’t know why there was no grace for that man on that day. That is between him and wherever the grace comes from, which I don’t pretend to know.
Here we arrive at the problem of suffering, the question that all religions and worldviews must somehow address. I’m not quite a theist and not quite an atheist and not agnostic either but basically my answer for you is to point at the unknown. Why did grace not come for him that day? You could answer “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” or you could answer “I am that I am.” Or if you want, you could answer with a roll of a titanium D20, a flip of a coin, a deal of the cards.
I don’t know why things played the way they did. But I do know that his life was not my responsibility and his death was not my fault.
I have plenty of things to pay for in my life, hard things, things that haunt me, that I’ll never be done paying for. But his death is not one of them. I know that now. I want you to know it too, in case it helps you give yourself some grace for maybe something similar that happened to you.
(Actually many of the things I have to pay for in my life came out of my attempts to fill the hole in my heart. That’s what I meant when I said that something about that quest is inherently destructive.)
You can only save your own life. Maybe grace can save you, maybe once or twice in my life I have been an agent of such grace, but that’s it. I can’t save you, and you can’t save me.
It’s a terrible burden knowing that I have to save my own life, but it’s a huge relief to realize that I don’t have to save everyone else’s too.
PS If you or someone you know is suicidal, try www.crisistextline.org or if you are in the Boston area and it's a real emergency take them to the Acute Psychiatry Service at Mass General Hospital or call B.E.S.T. don't call the police, it's dangerous. Nothing I said in this email is meant to imply that we should not try our best to save our friends' lives or aid people in need. Of course we should. This is about survivor's guilt and about responsibility, it's not about cruelty and abandonment. I know it can be hard to tell the difference. I wish I had an easy answer for that. Sometimes I come to know a thing for sure, such as that I was not responsible for the death of my friend, but there are many things about which I remain unsure. Such is life.
PPS Let me know if you want to read the poems.