Twenty years ago, newly in possession of my first computer, I typed in to whatever passed for a search engine back then, “I want to die.”
This is not easy to write, today. I am a mother of young people on the cusp of adulthood, born a few years after this moment. I don’t want them to think life is that disposable. I am torn between telling you that I didn’t want to die, and that I did.
I suppose they’re both equally true.
I’ve always had a deep and terrible fear of the great vastness beyond death. I harbor no illusions that there’s a candyland after this. I think we’re snuffed out. I don’t begrudge anyone a different thought. In fact, I deeply envy them. But the thing that kept me on this side of the divide, for many years, ironically, is an abject lack of faith in anything “better” on the other side. As Hamlet would say, it “makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.” Or it did me, anyway. It was simply not worth the horrible gamble.
On the other hand, it wasn’t exactly that I wanted to die, either. I never went so far as to try to do anything in furtherance of the goal of dying, although I thought about suicide frequently in my teens and twenties. It would be many years before I realized that what I wanted was for it to STOP. Pain to stop. Self-loathing. Fear. The thousand paper cuts of trying to be a grownup after being hit a lot as a kid, being yelled at and insulted a lot as a kid, being told I was nothing, and then finding the world too vast and terrifying to maneuver once I was finally on my own. The labyrinth of trying to discern friend from foe was exhausting, and I was hit by wave after wave of shock when I trusted too readily and was blindsided, or trusted too slowly and pushed away those who might love me.
You might have wanted it to stop, too.
When I typed in “I want to die,” in that pre-Google era, I was mostly curious about who would have written the thing that would show up on that search result. I was on the early side of an absolute search engine obsession, and hopefully the gravity of having typed in that search term is somewhat lessened by the fact that I have since Googled thousands upon thousands of things, like what iron smelt is and how to shave a dog. If it is a fleeting curiosity, I have Googled it.
But that’s me defending myself from the vulnerability of telling you this story, again.
One of the first results of that search, circa 1997, was a letter from a paralyzed, young man in Turkey. He had hurt himself in a diving accident, and was bound to his bed. He often developed bed sores, and he hated the burden he had placed on his mother. He had determined the two drugs he needed to end his life, and didn’t want anyone in his family to know what he was planning on doing. He knew it would break them, but he also believed it was for the best. He just wanted someone to send him the drugs he could not get up and go get for himself.
He asked that no one write him to try and talk him out of it, please, or judge him. He listed his email address.
I wrote him.
True to his request, I did not try to talk him out of it. I told him I couldn’t help him get the drugs he needed, but that I could be his friend, even if only for a while. I told him about me, in my late twenties, unmoored, afraid, often sad, but with no real and honorable reason for the feelings, as he had. Or so I felt. I wouldn’t have really understood about depression, then, or about the mental burden of surviving a tough childhood. All I knew was that I was young, and healthy, and poor but not as poor as many, and still the whole world looked gray. Sometimes literally gray, like the color had drained out of everything long ago, and was never coming back.
It took days, but he wrote back. He was grateful for my friendship, and would take it, if I wouldn’t mind that sometimes he would sound sad, and tired. He described his room, his mother, his life before the accident. He told me that in his culture, he was seen as defective, not as someone to be cared for, and that there was a stigma for his mother in having a “damaged” son. I had no way of knowing if that was his perception or his reality. Typing was hard for him, he said – it was hard to move his hands, having only partial use of them – but that if I kept writing, he would, too. So I did.
I came to imagine that one day I’d visit him in Turkey, and that I’d bring him gifts, and he’d be popular for having an American friend. I seem to remember offering to send him medical supplies – and, yes, I did wonder if I was falling for an elaborate scam – but the details are hazy on that. Mostly I tried to offer hope while respecting he had made his decision. I tried to write him about what was beautiful in the world. I told him about books I read. Sometimes he told me someone somewhere – I seem to remember Scandinavia – had said they would send one drug but not the other. It made me unspeakably sad that someone with such spark, such sweetness, might yet carry out his plan and there was nothing I could do about it.
We wrote for a good chunk of time, maybe six months or so. I’d like to say that knowing someone in so much more pain than I was somehow “saved” me – that would be the Hollywood ending to this story. But the truth is that my first child would be conceived two years after the events of this story, and that it was having children that finally erased the better part of the angst in my life. As the great organizing force of my existence, nothing has ever seemed as bleak or as meaningless once they entered the picture. When they were small, they simply overwhelmed my ability to navel-gaze. Once they got bigger, they outlined a grander vision for my world. I’m not suggesting having a child as a cure for what was ailing me, but just recounting that that’s how it happened to work out for me.
No, he didn’t save me. And I can never know for sure, but I doubt I saved him, either. His replies got further and further apart, always with effusive apologies about how it was getting harder to type. One day, he never responded at all. I have no idea what happened to him. I don’t even remember his name. I have no access to the old AOL account with which I corresponded with him.
I often think of the many lives which brush with our existence, the glance on the train, the kind word to a stranger. Once, in Virginia Beach, I decided to not make casual meetings perfunctory, and I looked at the clerk in CVS – really looked at her – and saw some pain in her face. I asked her how she was doing, sincerely, not in that throwaway, distracted way we sometimes do, but as I might a friend. She started to cry and told me her troubles. I think of moments like that, but then others as well, like when a friend tells me that something I said twenty years ago changed the way she did XYZ, but I can’t remember having said that thing at all. What are the consequences of us each having been here? What have we changed? What have we made?
I typed a dark and scary phrase into a search engine some twenty years ago, because search engines were new, because I was curious if I was alone in wondering what would come up, because I wanted a touch of some sort I could not put into words. In these brief moments, I found one other soul. I fixed nothing, maybe, and found little, perhaps. But in the darkening wild, I reached a hand out, felt a warm one in return. There is joy in that.
Today, I contemplate my future, and my present, for that matter, and I feel a great excitement. I have lots of plans – travel, books, time with friends and family. I have no useful understanding of how I got from there to here. Life feels good, sparkly, joyous, full of possibility. I wish I could write out a roadmap, but it was stumble through an angry wood, not a thing I could chart in any meaningful way. Still, I wish I could find my friend, and tell him. I think he might like to know.
If you are having thoughts like this, you should reach out to someone immediately. My story is one, and it’s not a blueprint for anyone. Speak to a friend. Call someone trained to help you. Call today. You are worth it, you are important, and we all need you here. You will never regret deciding to go on. You really won’t.
Suicide Prevention Hotline: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
(they have a chat feature now too)