Depression, Hurricanes, Suicide, Randall Jarrell

WritingKen Rumble

So for the last several months I’ve been suicidally depressed. I’m doing okay now, and I think the worst of these feelings has passed for now. I’ve had this experience before, a half-dozen or so times in my life, maybe more. This time, as in other times, I had the strong urge to write about what I was going through, thinking and feeling, experiencing. I wanted to document it; I don’t entirely know why. I’m a writer, and that’s a part of it, but there’s something more than that. The idea of writing directly, openly, and as honestly as I can about what I’m experiencing is an idea that scares me even as it excites me. I’m afraid of what people will think, even as I remind myself that people are thinking a lot less about me than I am thinking about what other people might be thinking about me. 

I don’t understand how to make sense of the experience of depression, and it brings me to existential places, both as part of the experience and as I try to understand the experience: what am I doing? What am I? Who am I? What is "me"? What is "I"? Who are these people? What am I doing and why? How do I decide what I want? How do I create the life I want? What is life? Is there a world? Am I alone? Does meaning exist beyond a meaning-maker? 

These questions appear to me in words, and so I am drawn, in part, to respond to them with words, to document these thoughts, their traces and trajectories. And I’m scared, and now that I’m feeling better, the urge has begun to ebb, but there’s still so much I want to say, even as I doubt my ability to say it or that anyone will hear it or that anyone needs to hear it or anyone wants to hear it. 

And I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Brooklyn and the table is too high to type on comfortably, and I’m living here with my wife Meg in my friend Aaron’s apartment on Graham Avenue for a month, a week of which is already gone. It’s a sunny day and a sweep of blue. Hurricane Matthew has passed over the Caribbean, Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas. At least 800 people are dead in Haiti, 25 or so in the southern US, homes, buildings, roads have been destroyed. Haiti is still recovering from the 2010 earthquake and now this. The sky above Williamsburg today is incomparably blue. Driving here two days ago from North Carolina, where we usually live, the sunset above Richmond and around the silhouettes of buildings and water tanks burned from a pale, red-tinged gold all the way to purple. We drove, and Meg and I argued about how best to be good parents to my daughter, how to avoid dumping our anxieties about parenthood and connection onto her, but it’s impossible not to, and it’s impossible stop ourselves from trying not to, and what I was saying over and over, really, was “I am afraid of the future.” My daughter is a great, wonderful kid who seems to have a pretty okay life, which is what I would hope for any of us.

I feel like there’s a little bit of truth I see most days, and most days I let it go, and I’m trying not to do that. I don’t want to let go so easily. 

The hurricane pulled all the excess moisture from the sky, so today and yesterday, and probably for the rest of the week, the weather on the US east coast will be the most gorgeous plum of fall, lows in the 50s and highs in the 70s, blue skies and perhaps a breeze, sweater weather in the morning and evening. The air feels smooth as satin. Post-hurricane weather is the best. 

And yes, I spent much of August and September thinking about how I wanted to die, kill myself, not exist. I’m not sure I can explain what that’s like right now, today. I’m not sure if I need to or want to or really what it would serve, who it would help. 

I think writing helps, I think communication helps, I think saying real things to each other is an unalloyed good thing, but I'm afraid of this project. It feels embarrassing and shameful to describe how awful I feel, the particulars of the thoughts I have. I want to talk about it, but I also don’t for anything in the world actually want to talk about it. I shut down; I withdraw; I am angry and irritated with people, unfriendly and abrasive, especially with those I love. 

Part of the reason I want to talk about it is because I want to believe that the anguish and despair has meaning, value, a purpose, something redeemable about it, something to make it more than dull, voiceless, possibly fatal, suffering. I want to transform it into knowledge or wisdom which might inoculate me, or others, from suffering like that again. I run over these questions over and over thinking an answer might help. What does sorrow mean? What am I? What am I doing? Why have I done it? What will become of me? And mostly the answers come back as nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing.

Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) in 1962, courtesy the UNC-Greensboro Special Collections and University Archives

Randall Jarrell (1914-1965) in 1962, courtesy the UNC-Greensboro Special Collections and University Archives

This struggle to make my experience meaningful is exhausting and often leads to more despair. I think of the end of Randall Jarrell’s great and terrifying poem “90 North,” “all the knowledge // I wrung from the darkness – that the darkness flung me – / is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing, / the darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness / and we call it wisdom. It is pain.”

That pain is the beginning and the end, the middle and all that is. I’m not trying to wring knowledge from the darkness; I’m not trying to surround the pain with words in hopes that I might choke it out forever. Or maybe I am. No one wants to feel this way, no one should. Randall Jarrell was hit by a car and killed October 14, 1965, in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, on Route 15-501 probably within several miles of my home. Many people believe he committed suicide — he’d made at least one previous attempt — but no one will ever know the truth, if he lunged purposefully into the road, stumbled under the influence of a drug, or simply tripped, took a wrong step as he gazed at the sky.

It would be easier to know, to say he killed himself or to say he didn’t and be certain. But we’ll never know and that’s why we tell a story about it, paper mache over the gap. Did he want to die or did he not? We want stories to be simple, to have a truth, but we’ll never know if he wanted to die or if he didn’t. The truth is too complicated, too complex. Life doesn’t follow the binary tendency of our language. Maybe he thought he wanted to die, but still felt regret, sorrow, and despair when control of his body slipped beyond him and the trajectory of his body and the car became unstoppable. Maybe he wanted to stop it then, and maybe he felt relief when he realized he couldn't. All the moments he must have imagined, the regret and the shame, sorrow and love, how heartbreaking, how terrible. By most accounts Jarrell, like David Foster Wallace, had the material of a good life. Friends, family, respect, admiration, work. And yet mixed in deep with all of that was a sorrow that perhaps killed him.

I’m afraid of what people will think of me if I write these things, if I write what’s in my head. I’ve spent my life not writing about these things. If I'm known, it's probably for my laugh, friendliness, outgoing nature, qualities I don't understand at all when I hate myself and want to die. Maybe it’s time to be someone else. But I feel ashamed of these feelings; I think I'm a failure, and I don't want anyone to know, even as I'm afraid that everyone already does.

There are so many terrible and wonderful things happening in the world, and I don’t particularly matter, my struggles don’t particularly matter. I want to live with an open heart, feel the world in its forms, and I think this might be a way to do that. I'm trying to understand even though I think there is finally nothing to understand.