Did you make it through July 4 okay? I haven’t checked the news yet, so I don’t know how many palm tree fires or riots may have resulted. OC has a long history of holiday riots. How do they start? At least two in the 1980s—one in HB, one on the Balboa Peninsula—ignited after a couple of bikini tops came off. Guys get so agitated by nipples that it’s a wonder babies don’t riot at the sight of them.
The human mind is a strange thing. Since most of us have one, let’s talk about it. (Spoiler alert: We’re about to pivot from nipples to suicide here, so settle down.)
A few weeks ago, I woke in a not terribly good state at 5 a.m., having been with a friend at a hospital emergency ward until 1 a.m. because he’d shown up at my door hallucinating that hundreds of strangers were trying to murder him—the result, he guessed, of having vaped something dosed with something else. Five hours of de-apparating imaginary thugs is more exhausting than one might expect, so I woke frazzled and musing on the fragile foundations of human consciousness.
Facebook is not necessarily the antidote for that. The first post I read said, “Oh, no, not Anthony Bourdain!” At my age, any message like that, just like any phone call after 10 p.m., means someone has died. The news confirmed that, and I wept. Bourdain’s Parts Unknown was one of the most soulful and life-packed things I’ve ever seen on TV, and the chef struck me as one of the most assured, together, passionate and purposeful cats around.
What do we ever know about the battles raging inside someone else’s head, until there’s a casualty?
If you have not personally known someone who committed suicide, you almost certainly have friends or co-workers who have lost loved ones that way. Suicide has practically become America’s No. 1 indoor sport. I nearly joined the team myself when I was 19. Having spent a long time then thinking about existence and nothingness, I took it as a personal affront that none of it made sense, that consciousness was perhaps the worst gift imaginable in a universe that had no reason to be. Oh, and my girlfriend had broken up with me.
So I wired the wall socket’s 120-volt current to a Kustom guitar-amp footswitch, wrapped wires around either hand and put my favorite album on the GE Trimline stereo. When it hit the end of Pet Sounds, I was going to step on the switch. (Rather than death, I’ve since learned, the shock would more likely have given me a really bad perm.)
Before that happened, a friend called out of the blue and asked if I wanted to go get a hot chocolate. So I did that instead and never looked back.
If I haven’t killed myself, the rest of you sons of bitches don’t get to either, okay? It might not seem like it to you, but we need one another. No matter how much pain you are in, no matter how useless, unloved and inconsequential you might feel, there are almost certainly lives that you have touched in ways you might not be aware of, not to mention all the lives you might yet touch. So hang around for those people, if not for yourself. You might think it’s just you, the room you’re in and death, but believe me, when you exit this world, it’s through a hole torn in other people’s lives.
However difficult being you might seem to be, imagine being you, plus the added burden of having a mother, brother, sister or best friend who took his or her own life, of knowing your presence in that life wasn’t enough to keep them here.
Is that a burden you want to lay on someone? You might think there’s some satisfaction in the finality of your act making others realize how lonely/wronged/unique/pained/not-getting-laid you were, but you won’t be around to see that, will you?
And what if death is a whole lot worse than your unbearable life? Maybe you rise through the light into a pink cloud of puppies and mimosas. But what if it’s the Sunken Place, you tumbling through eternity alone with just yourself? What if, untethered from this world, your consciousness spews nightmares and dread for time without end?
Plus, you’d miss the next Thin Man marathon on TCM. If Stephen Hawking could hang around and make something of the cards life dealt him, you can, too.
Life hasn’t all been hot cocoa and marshmallows for me. In retrospect, I was depressed out of my gourd for years. One advantage of such a concentrated dose is that with time, friends, books, records and luck, depression gets so tedious and familiar that finding your way out of it becomes easier than staying. I’ve had depressed funks since then, but they seem self-indulgent to me now, since they sure do no one else any good. Plus, if life’s struggles and sorrows don’t depress you, you’re not paying attention. The Buddha wasn’t just generating memes when he said, “Life is suffering.” It is, and it will make sure you know that. The trick is adding your own spin to this world, so that the suffering gets roommates—like loving, sharing, partaking, joying and all other things we can imagine between us.
I have alienated friends who were offended by my “Pollyanna” attitude in refusing to give deference to the enormity of the pain and suffering that has kept them in and out of rehab for decades. Oh, their twisted childhood! Their neuroses! Their brain chemistry! I can’t fathom the hole they’re in!
Yes, I can. Probably anyone can. File it under “Life is suffering.” Part of the problem some folks have—I know I did—is that once you’ve invested so much time and effort into digging your well of depression, you OWN that effort. It’s the deepest, most special hole anyone’s ever dug, and it would take Jesus, the mighty Thor and the Trojan Marching Band to dig you out of it.
Or you could just take a couple of steps sideways. Consider Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning: He lived through a fucking Nazi concentration camp; he lost his wife and other family; he lived with survivor’s guilt; and he emerged from this with a new concept of psychotherapy, which I’ll oversimplify here: Sure, you could spend years in analysis going over your screwed-up past. Or, he posited, you could find or create something in life you cared enough about that it pulls you into the future.
I sometimes give friends this cheerful advice: “The universe doesn’t care how you feel. Why should you?”
My take is that happiness and depression are dials on your dashboard. Sure, you need to check them once in a while, but if you obsess on them, you’re missing the life passing by outside the windshield. You’re not feeling the breeze tickle your arm hairs. And you’re driving like shit, to the detriment of you and your fellow motorists.
Happiness is the thing that sneaks up on you when you’re not thinking about it, when you’re engaged with making the app work, playing the right chord, making your lover come, or when someone shows up at your door needing your help.
You won’t be there to answer that knock if you’ve offed yourself, so stay on this old planet. Give help when you can. Get help yourself when you need it. And suicide? You can do that 20 years from now if you really have to. It isn’t like the world is going to run out of death any time soon.