Image Credit: Wendy Small
We must have felt what it is to die, so we can appreciate what it means to live.
Alexander Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo
The room is dimly lit, the china red walls and high white ceilings covered in shadows. I am staring down, looking at the black leather furniture, the Buddhist sculptures, the mahogany bookcase filled with books covered in dust. Standing on the step ladder, my bare feet on the cold metal surface, I feel as if I am weighted down, that my feet could make a dented imprint on the step. The sensation of being under water, pressed down into myself, makes the simple movement of raising my hand feel exhausting. I take in my surroundings: the furniture, paintings, and rugs all seem meaningless and empty. All these possessions seem to belong to some stranger. They are distant, remote from my life.
I reach up slowly to tighten the roped knot in the ceiling bracket, then move to the noose around my neck. I am a good planner, always thinking ahead, so I bought a strong rope. I made sure to ask at the hardware store if it could hold a heavy weight.
The store manager, Roy, who I had been coming to for years, had looked at me curiously. “What are you lifting that’s so heavy, Mike?”
“Helping a friend with an upright piano,” I replied.
He brought out a coil of rough, braided rope. I could feel it scratch across my palm.
Roy smiled tentatively, “Be careful, you don’t want to hurt yourself. That’s why they have piano movers.”
I nodded silently, paid and left. I didn’t want to hurt myself, I just wanted to kill myself.
Back in the apartment, I tighten the noose around my neck, taking in the slack. I look at my bare feet again and I wonder, Should I write a note? I would, but I can’t think of anything to say. I look down at the wood floor: a single step, that should do it. I just have to take a single step.
How did it come to this?
My decision to kill myself was built like a house, brick by brick laid layer by layer in despair. The house had no windows; I could not see a way out of the darkness of my life. The brick and mortar of this house were drugs, alcohol, my wife and marriage, my mentally ill brother and, most of all, a deluded belief that I could save others when I couldn’t save myself.
My drug and alcohol use, once occasional, had become daily. By 2001, I spiraled into a depression that was so black it felt like the walls of my house of despair were closing in on me. I had been smoking marijuana, using cocaine, and drinking heavily for three years, but more than anything I had reached a crisis in my marriage, my career, my family life. I would wake every morning and see a day just like the day before and the day before that, no grace, no light, no way out. I would cry for hours at a time, huddled in a darkened stairwell in my apartment building or lying in a cooling bath, hiding from my wife, who sat for hours staring out a window. She would look dully at my tear-stained face like she was looking at a blank wall. She was too caught up in the scrambled dance in her mind to take me in and see me.
At times, working behind a crowded bar, I would convulse in tears and had to face away from the customers, my bartending partner covering for me until I got a grip on myself. I wouldn’t eat, I couldn’t concentrate on anything, and I isolated myself from friends and acquaintances. I would go to work, tending bar and acting in television roles, and feel dead inside my skin. I was numb to my life and the world around me.
It takes two people to destroy a marriage. By 2001 we had been married for 13 years. Looking back, maybe we each had something that broke inside of us that we couldn’t share with the other. Some splintered daydream of who we would be by this time and what our marriage would mean. I just kept trying to make it better and failed miserably. The woman I married was leaving me—mentally, emotionally, but not physically. Something had entered her and taken over. After September 11th, my wife’s ongoing paranoia ramped up two octaves and my brother’s drug use and mania increased. I began to burn out on taking care of her. I gave myself no boundary, no shut off valve. I knew I had done this to myself, taking on the role I had played with my mother, who, during my childhood, was constantly complaining of ailments both real and imagined.
I don’t know why I couldn’t see that my wife was mentally ill, although the drugs and alcohol did scramble my moods and thinking. It’s hard for me to believe the level of my denial, or maybe it was that the signs of her illness only became more apparent over time. She stopped working, stopped leaving the apartment, stopped seeing her friends. She refused to see a psychiatrist or therapist, even though we had mutual friends in the profession. For over a year, I worked each day, shopped, then came home to cook dinner for her. I was on a treadmill: work, pay bills, clean the apartment, shop, cook, come home and talk my wife down from her paranoia, repeat, repeat again. She would spend hours discussing her belief that her former employers were having her followed, or had spies stationed at the local Korean market, watching her every move. A friend would make an offhand remark or joke, and she would take offense; the phone would ring and it would be a wrong number, but she would argue that someone was monitoring her. Our cat would jump on her lap, and she would stare at her like she was some strange alien, with dull, loveless eyes. Forget about feeding the cat or cleaning her litter box. She made some attempts at finding work but mostly she stayed in the apartment, only staring out the window, lost in some train of thought I could not follow.
I was never alone. I never had space to sit quietly by myself, or pray, or sing to myself, or scream, because she was always there, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Weeks passed, months passed, nothing changed in our static relationship. To escape, I used more drugs and alcohol, and my spiral of depression deepened.
Maybe I missed my wife’s decline because I was so focused on my brother’s mania and rage. We grew up in sunny California in a textbook dysfunctional family. We were estranged in childhood, partly from sibling rivalry and fighting for our father’s attention, partly because he had bipolar disorder that was undiagnosed, so his rages, beating up kids at school, and running away from home were seen as his being undisciplined and basically no damn good. He was sent to live in a residential center for troubled boys in Chino, California. He was fourteen and I was eight, and that was pretty much the last time I saw him until my mid-twenties.
Steve moved to New Jersey in my early thirties and we found each other and started over. For about seven years we bonded, then it all came crashing down. He was a loving father but a terrible husband to his fourth wife, an insecure, pretty ex-alcoholic he had met in rehab. He was verbally abusive, and reluctant to travel or do anything new and unfamiliar. He had to take massive amounts of lithium, which made him sleepy and lowered his sex drive. My visits were entertainment for him and a buffer from abuse for her. Steve had a heart attack when he was fifty and was in the hospital when his wife walked into his room and told him she was leaving him. After nine years of marriage, of trying to hold on, she was done.
After that moment, his life of sobriety and mental health collapsed. He began using heroin and cocaine in tandem, cycling rapidly to mania. I would work during the week and go to him on the weekends, trying to get him to a sober house, trying to convince him to voluntarily check himself into a mental hospital. Mostly I would listen to him rage against his wife’s desertion. I felt outmatched against his addiction and mania, and I pushed myself harder, not taking any window of time to breathe, to slow down. Every day was filled with solving another crisis.
I was bouncing back and forth between my wife and my brother, both of whose mental stability were melting like snowballs in a rainstorm. Finally, after two years, he got it together enough to sell his house and move back to California. He was the only family I had on the East Coast. I was both saddened and relieved as I packed his moving van and watched him drive away. My taking care of him had been second nature, and I had nothing to fill that void.
I was forty-three standing on that ladder. I had been acting since I was thirteen, having worked in theatre, television, movies, and commercials. I had a very good run—I was never famous, but I was able to pay my bills with the money I made. That seemed like a charmed life to me. But the charm had worn off. Being an actor had been my passion, my reason for living. I had given all of myself—years of sacrifice, financial insecurity, my whole sense of self-worth and identity—to be an actor. Like plaster falling from a wall, my love of my art shrank and began to die inside me. It was not just that work was scarce. I was tired of trying to get casting directors to like me. Most actors are constantly hustling for work, and I lost the drive to hustle anymore. I also started feeling that playing other people seemed empty and useless. But I had no image of myself other than being an actor. That led me to think I had no options, no choices for the future, no way to change my life.
Everything came to a head: my substance abuse, my wife’s mental illness, my brother’s mental illness. I had affairs with other women when my wife became ill, and I felt overwhelming guilt and disgust with myself. It may sound like some feeble justification but picking up women while I was bartending was less about sexual pleasure and more about being seen, being taken in by someone. A few were kind, and they told me to leave her—they would love me, be my partner. I knew that would never happen; I owed my wife too much for the life we had shared in years past to leave her for another woman’s bed and a shiny new love affair. And I think some part of me knew that when I left, I would leave alone, without the safety net of a new relationship. At the same time, the terror of not knowing who I was without acting filled me with dread. It all sat inside me. I tried to think of a way to reinvent myself, to find a new vocation, but my mind was blocked. I was staring into the future and it was a brick wall. I just couldn’t see a better life.
So, I decided to end it.
There are a few lights on in the apartment, but it’s mostly dark. My wife has been invited to visit a friend of hers in New Paltz and I have cajoled and pressured her to go until she reluctantly agrees. In our living room, we have a steel hook on the ceiling where we have hung a Balinese wood sculpture, called a Singha, which looks like a floridly painted wooden dragon. I have the small step ladder and tie the rope securely to the hook.
I stand there looking around the room. I look at a bookshelf filled with my books and plays, I look at the photography and paintings in the room, the leather furniture I have worked for and saved to buy, the Oriental rug, the CD player and stereo speakers. The moment seems like it should be substantial, the last beat of life. I picture family and friends in my mind’s eye. I can’t bring up any emotion, any sense of loss or regret for the people who loved me, who would miss me when I was gone. It’s just a black void. I’m going to hang myself: I’m ready, I can do this, I can end it.
Just then, our cat, Tara, walks into the room, and we share an awkward moment. She’s coal black with gold eyes, a real feline femme fatale. She looks up at me, cocks her head and meows in an upper inflection, a question. I imagine she is asking, “Daddy, why are you on a ladder with a rope around your neck?” I loved her, and she loved me, always sitting on my lap the moment I sat down. She would wake me up in the morning by putting her paws on my nostrils, stopping my sleeping breath until I fed her. She was sweet, but willful. Standing there, I feel a little embarrassed, annoyed at my reluctance to hang myself in front of my cat. I ignore her. She begins to pace, looking up at me severely and continuing to meow and make noises. I get mad. “Tara, knock that shit off!” I say. The urge to get this over with increases. Suddenly, she starts circling the ladder and howling, crying in this keening, wailing kind of way, looking at me with eyes that looked frightened and alarmed. I tell her to stop but she only cries louder, running from one end of the room to the other, crashing into furniture, knocking over a lamp, jumping up on chairs to get me to look at her. Then she does something I could never have imagined: She jumps up on the ladder and wraps her paws and legs around my calf, looking up at me. I feel her claws dig into me through the fabric of my pants, drawing blood. It startles me—the razor claws in my thighs shoot through me like an electric current, waking me from the dead.
I take the noose off my neck. I get down from the ladder and sit on the sofa, holding her. I cry for so long I cannot remember stopping.
That day was an inflection point, a shift, although I was not aware of how profound it was until I reflected on that moment years later. The closeness of death woke me from that ghostly sleepwalk. I had to change my life. I left my wife and all my treasured possessions that I had scrimped and saved to buy and walked out with only a duffel bag and backpack. We both cried, holding each other, but she knew that I had to leave. I think she sensed without understanding that our life together was killing me in small doses. I left my desire for fame as an actor, a lifetime of making that my identity and reason for living. It all just washed away. I left some part of me that was afraid of change. I told my therapist about that night, and we made a safety plan. I saw her twice a week. I gave up drugs and alcohol and began attending Twelve Step meetings. I asked those who I had hurt—women I had used for sex, friends I had rejected while high—to forgive me and, amazingly, they did.
Little by little, day by day, my depression lessened, and in its place was an internal motion, like a compass needle moving to a new magnetic pole. I traveled. I fell in love. I gave myself without losing myself. But more than that, having come through a period of pain, I felt a sense of compassion and some understanding of how others suffer in this world and I didn’t want to look away from that suffering. I even felt that I might bring something of myself to ease the pain of others, or at least be present with them.
About a year later I made the decision to go to graduate school in social work. I graduated, was hired at New York Presbyterian Hospital, and began a new career. I changed; my life changed. I could never have seen it coming. I just knew that I was not the same person who had stood on that ladder. That I was taking a single step toward becoming someone new. It was like some movie where I walked through a door and became someone else.
Some years later, I buried Tara—this spirit animal, this dark feline goddess who rescued me from extinction. Her love saved me in a mystical and miraculous moment that grabbed me back from the brink. When this black cat crossed my path, she saved my life and taught me to love again. Lucky me.