Reflections on Suicide: Living to Write About it.
Reflections on Suicide: Living to Write About It.
(By Steve Villano)
I tried to kill myself as a teenager, and I’m glad I didn’t succeed. Now, I want to educate others about my suicide attempt, and how to save the lives of those you love.
I’ve been thinking a lot about suicide lately. No, not committing it — I’ve already tried that once.
This time, it’s how I’ve become more committed to sharing with others the mysterious spiral toward suicide I traveled as a teenager, to the very ledge of taking my own life. Instead, at the last possible moment, I stepped back from the abyss, refusing to jump into it.
“Live, you asshole, live,” I screamed at myself. Suicide was not what it was cracked up to be. All I wanted was a different life.
This year, with the CDC reporting that suicide attempts rose nearly 50% in adolescent girls, ages 12–17, from 2019 to 2020, and the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry revealing that teen suicide is, currently, the second leading cause of death among adolescents, ages 10–24, I’ve become obsessed with shining some light into the dark corners of young psyches, by revealing what caused me to come close to abandoning all hope, at the age of 18.
The recent suicide of Congressman Jamie Raskin’s brilliant son, Tommy, during the height of his depression and depths of the COVID pandemic, has convinced me of the urgency of sharing my story, of my battle with depression and loneliness, and of not being accepted for all of my differences.
What slapped me hard across the face, when I read Raskin’s moving book Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth and the Trials of American Democracy, Harper/NY, 2022, was the section Congressman Raskin wrote about how his son Tommy behaved during the final week, when he took his own beautiful life:
“ …that rambunctious, loving, exuberant, combative, funny Tommy was absent the last week of the year. He was cool as a cucumber, patient and removed, inscrutable. He was unusually calm, even serene at points. Looking back, I see it clearly: he was acting logistically, methodically, precisely…He was stage acting. He was acting out the theme of I am not depressed and everything is fine because he did not want to alert us or activate us to undo his plans.”
That paragraph, on page 97 of Unthinkable stopped me cold. I had followed the same exact script as Tommy did, when I was in the final days of preparation for my own suicide attempt. Apparently, there was a predictable “suicide slide,” a stride we had gotten into, as we rounded third and headed for home:
“ . . . a lot of people who resolve to do it experience a kind of relief in their decision, instantly shedding anxiety and worry, and then a focused determination to execute their decision,” Congressman Raskin wrote. “Whatever compulsion drives suicidal ideation gives people, at least in some cases, a strange sense of direction. It is hard to reconcile an act of such shattering and destructive consequence for the people left behind with a commanding clarity of purpose, but it is apparently not unusual.”
I remembered reading a similarly chilling description in Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, written several centuries earlier, when, on the cusp of killing himself, the young protagonist said: “Everything is so still around me, and so calm within my soul.”
I was stunned by the pervasiveness of that predictable pattern of behavior when the decision was made to end one’s life. I had lived it. If only I had talked about it years ago, I thought, perhaps I could have tipped off the Raskins of what to look for, and could have saved Tommy’s life, and the lives of so many others. If only, if only….
This is not a clinical analysis of suicide and suicide ideation. That can be found in the research of the Brain & Behavior Foundation, where brilliant scientists and doctors intensely examine gene and other potential risk factors to gain insight into suicidal thinking. However, our purposes are the same: to educate ourselves and others to intervene as early as possible to prevent suicide attempts.
I don’t want to say “if only I had written or spoken more boldly,” I could have helped save lives, and alert families about the sometimes deceitful signs of deep depression — for which treatment is available, and from which rescue is possible. I don’t want parents, siblings or friends to regret not asking “what’s going on with you,” or to be afraid to dig beneath the surface calm.
That’s why I’ve decided to tell my story, in simple, unscientific language, of why I tried suicide as a teenager, and how I survived:
“Live you asshole; Live!”
I knew I was different from the rest of my working-class, Italian-American family; an outsider, determined to find my own way; a way out of the chaos in our lives that was a constant. At 16-yeas old, I already wanted nothing to do with anyone I associated with such disorder.
My way of making peace with constant crises, to survive, was to become preternaturally calm, almost catatonic, in the teeth of the snarling chaos that engulfed us. It was precisely how I reacted one night in high school when I was looking at some old books in the storage closet above my parents’ bed. I heard a car door slam on the street out in front of our house, and then could make out my sister’s voice downstairs, arguing with my father. After a few minutes, my father raised his voice. Suddenly, my sister ran back outside, slamming the front door of the house behind her.
Within minutes, my father, cursing with each step, raced up the one flight of stairs to the bedroom where I was, and began furiously searching for something in the floor-to-ceiling closet in the opposite corner of the room. He didn’t see me, sitting up in the storage closet across the room from him. His face red with rage, my father emerged from the other closet with a shotgun he had stashed far in the back, behind hanging clothes. I froze.
With the shotgun in one hand, my father began tossing underwear out of his dresser drawer, looking for the rifle’s cartridges. I watched all of this in disbelief. My father kept muttering, “I’ll kill the son-of-a-bitch, I’ll kill the son-of-a-bitch,” referring to the news my sister just told him. Unmarried and in her late teens, she informed him she was pregnant.
Before my father could find the bullets he wanted, my mother burst into the room.
“Al! Al! What are you doing? What are you, crazy?” she hollered at him. She slammed shut the bedroom door, throwing her chubby body in front of it, her huge breasts heaving up and down in terror and courage and instinct, like a female lion protecting her cubs.
“You’ll have to shoot me first,” my mother cried out, blocking the door.
They remained frozen in place for what seemed like hours, staring each other down, my mother sobbing, chest pounding. She did not budge from her position in front of the door, knowing that my father would never harm her. I was invisible to them, watching in silence from the storage closet, holding a book in my lap and thinking, wishing, that what I was witnessing was not real.
My mother, immovable and blocking the only way out of the room, stood my father down. He lowered his head, then the shotgun, walking slowly over to the other closet where he got it and placed the weapon back behind the hanging clothes. I sat there, still motionless and silent, observing my father embrace my mother when he walked over toward the bedroom door, where she stood like a sentry. I watched them walk out of the bedroom together, without saying a word to me, and wondered how I had stumbled into the middle of all of this. I was an observer, not a participant, in this chaotic life.
Numb to what I had witnessed and unable to talk about the trauma with anyone until decades later, when I recounted what I saw in great detail to six different therapists, I gradually began removing myself from my family, wanting no part of it. I became obsessed with getting out, and living a different life. I was terrified of staying stuck in my father’s world, with no time to think nor calm down nor breathe. I feared falling into the same deadening pattern of his life, of just getting through each day, getting up, getting out to work; to earn, back home to eat, to rest, to sleep, to brace himself for more of the same the next day and for days and weeks and months on end, until something makes you snap. As a lonely and confused teenager, I had no idea of where I would go or what I would do, but one thing was certain: I had to get out of where I was.
One of my sisters-in-law, sensed my growing unease and remarked how different I was from the rest of the men in my family.
“You don’t belong in this family,” she said to me at one Sunday dinner where the entire family was gathered. She shook her head and laughed: “Are you sure you weren’t adopted?”
Meant as a compliment, her comment stung me. I knew I was different — in fact, I wanted to different — but didn’t think it was so noticeable to my own family. Education would be my escape hatch, as would the arts and public service. I became enmeshed in after-school clubs like student council and the school newspaper and kept speaking and writing, and, like Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Hamilton, “wrote my way out” of my circumstances and into a full, four-year journalism scholarship to New York University.
I was the first in my family’s history to attend college, viewing NYU as my way out; an all expense-paid ride to new and unfamiliar places and far different experiences, which came at me fast and furiously. In my frenzy to flee from my old life, I underestimated how unprepared I was for a new one.
Sitting on a bench in Washington Square Park, I took out a copy of Plato’s Republic to read for my first-year Politics course. In the late 1960’s, NYC’s Washington Square Park was not a gentrified place; drug dealing and bocce were the two most popular sports. Each time I tried to read a page of my book, I was badgered by some disheveled looking guy asking for money or cigarettes, or whether I wanted a blow-job or a prick up the ass.
“You want a nickel bag?” asked the raggedy guy, sitting next to me on the bench.
I edged away toward the end of the bench.
“No, no thanks,” I said, pretending to go back to reading my book. I didn’t know what a nickel bag was, assuming it was some kind of cheap condom, since his offer came on the heels of a few offers for quick sex.
I got up from the bench and went back to my dorm room at the old Brittany Hotel on East 10th Street, extra housing NYU purchased for its growing student population. I shared a room on the 10th floor with four other roommates, all wealthier and worldlier guys from far away sounding places like Scarsdale, Shaker Heights and Santa Monica. Embarrassed to reveal my ignorance about both sex and drugs, I kept my “nickel bag” story to myself, climbed up on my bunkbed and tried to continue reading my book. I read quietly, curled up like a cat in a corner of my bed for about an hour, wanting to shut my eyes, and the rest of the world.
One of my roommates, a handsome, broad-shouldered athlete, came striding into the room. He came over to the side of my bed and flashed a dazzling smile.
“You mind disappearing for about an hour, Steve? I’ve got this girl coming over for a quick fuck, and I need a little privacy,” he said.
“Oh-uh-s-s-sure, sure,” I stammered. Of course I’d leave. Here was a cool, confident college man about to have actual sex, a subject about which I knew nothing. I’d want someone to offer the same courtesy to me, if ever I could imagine what a quick fuck entailed, or any fuck, for that matter.
I left the dorm and headed down to the Loeb Student Center to try to study some more. I watched sophisticated and self-confident couples embrace and kiss and laugh with each other. Their easy intimacy underlined my loneliness. I felt like an outsider within my own family; a misfit in Washington Square Park; and, a weirdo in relation to my rich, college roommates who saw me as the token poor boy, taking up their time and space in an overcrowded dorm room.
A few hours later, I slowly walked back to the Brittany and found the room empty. All of the beds, except mine, were unmade. I looked out of the window down to East 10th Street to see if I could find my roommates coming or going up the block to grab some dinner. I didn’t want to eat alone, but there was no sign of them.
I stared down at the sidewalk from 10 stories up and imagined what it would feel like if I jumped; what it would look like to passers-by; my head smashing on the concrete, arms and legs splayed in every direction, like the scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz when the Flying Monkeys attack, and toss his straw asunder. The thought of strangers leering at my crumpled body parts, tsk-tsking in sympathy, and of my roommates giving each other the smug “we-knew-he-wouldn’t-make-it,” look, repelled me. I stepped back from the open window, knowing it would be impossible to grab a passing ledge, if, somewhere along my journey down to East 10th St., I changed my mind. I wanted to hedge my bets. Instead, I took the elevator down from the 10th Floor of the Brittany, stepped out into the crisp, fall night air of NYC, and walked past the spot where my body would have landed.
Without jumping out of any windows, I was tumbling out of control, unable to catch my breath. At night, I was too frightened to leave my dorm; in class, I was intimidated by how self-confident everyone appeared to be. I was awed by the Orthodox Jewish students, dressed alike, traveling together, gesturing to each other with passion, arguing, and sounding so certain. They knew who they were, where they belonged, and that they belonged.
Overwhelmed by my surroundings and the people in them, I cut classes, and spent days wandering around the City. I fell behind in my readings and class assignments. I isolated myself from my roommates and wandered the streets for some solace, and found myself ducking into St. Anthony’s Roman Catholic Church on Sullivan Street, just below Washington Square Park. I needed a quiet place to get away from the sounds of the street, and the even louder noises of my mind. I knelt in a pew at the back of the church and looked up at the ceiling.
“Sanctuary, sanctuary,” I said quietly, remembering the scene in the Hunchback of Notre Dame when Charles Laughton, playing Quasimodo, defiantly rang the church bells. Like the Hunchback, I felt deformed, totally different, out of place; someone being stared at because I was so unlike my classmates at NYU in the late 1960’s. Unrecognizable and invisible to everyone, even myself.
I sat inside St. Anthony’s and thought of my father, sitting next to me in church on Sunday mornings. I had grown to despise the Catholic Church, for the hold it still had on me, the fears it fueled about sex, it’s hypocritical condemnation of gays when so many of its priests were gay, it’s degradation of women, it’s insane support for the War in Vietnam. Yet, it’s predictable regimentation kept me tethered to all that was familiar. All that the Church still held for me was a quiet place where I could be with my father, alone — a rare moment in time.
I looked to my right, and caught myself wishing my father was there to tell me that I could make it at NYU; that everything would be fine. I wanted the Church, or better still, my father, to offer protection from the callous City which shrugged me off each time I tried to look it in the face.
I stared at the flickering memorial candles behind the altar rail. My eyes fixated on the flames dancing wildly, side by side, catching each current of air as someone walked by; licking up, over the edges of the shot-glass sized candleholders, with wax filling their red-tinted bottoms. I stayed in the church pew throughout the afternoon, watching the flames burn down to the pool of wax at the base of each candleholder, until finally, the candles quietly closed their eyes, ending their short, bright existence.
In that soft, darting light, and the twists of wispy black smoke that followed the flames’ disappearance, the outline of a simple plan emerged. I would quietly snuff out my own flickering little light. I would know when the time was right.
Less than one week later, I gathered on a Sunday afternoon with my brothers and sister and their families to celebrate our parents’ wedding anniversary. As my mother cooked in her tiny kitchen, the rest of us made small talk around the dining room table. My father abruptly turned to my older brothers and brother-in-law asking if they wanted to go out to grab a drink at a local bar before dinner. To them, and especially to my father, I was invisible again, as I was the day of the shotgun incident, two years earlier. All the other men in the family jumped up and followed my father out the door. I was an observer again, not a participant. I wanted to be invited, not excluded. My sister, noticing the hurt look on my face, asked me if I was okay. I lied, assuring her I was, pretending that I’d rather be home anyway. It was that final, small slight, the last gasp of my own quivering light, that convinced me there was no other way out than the one I had chosen.
There is a clarity and a certain quiet that comes when you decide to end your own life. All chatter stops — in your mind, from others, from other sources. A shroud of silence envelops you, which nothing and no one can penetrate. Everything moves in slow motion, and the tiniest action — the movement of a finger, the parsing of lips, the fluttering of an eyelash — is magnified. I was dumbfounded how I had not seen the simplicity of the solution before: the way out for an outsider is to leave; one way or another, just leave. During dinner, I watched my brothers’ lips moving, my father’s eyes glistening from a few drinks too many, but I heard nothing. Nothing anyone said mattered anymore. My decision was made; the scar tissue had hardened. I was immune to any more slights or pain.
That night, after everyone left and my parents were asleep, I slipped quietly into the bathroom. Carefully, I opened the medicine cabinet and picked an everyday poison as easily as I picked a pair of socks to wear that morning. The poison was a common household ointment collecting dust; a small tube with a tiny skull & crossbones on the back of it, warning against swallowing the white stuff that could be mistaken for toothpaste. I squeezed a small section of the contents of the tube on my left forefinger, placed it on my tongue, and ran back into my bedroom to wait for it to work. I pulled the cover up, tightly against my chin, expecting my body to suddenly get cold.
I wanted my death to be painless and quick — -no muss, no fuss, no blood — unlike jumping out a 10-story window at NYU, and unlike those suicides you read about in the New York Post where some poor soul blows his brains out by sticking a loaded gun into his mouth. Too messy, too violent; I wanted clean and quiet, like the wick of a candle, whispering itself out in its own wax.
I lay in bed, every sense on alert, my heart knocking hard on the inside of my chest as if it wanted to get out and have no part of what was going on. I stared at the shadows which moved across my ceiling, sometimes gliding slowly, sometimes fast, as cars passed up and down the block, headlights piercing the darkness of my room like giant searchlights slicing through the night sky, looking for anyone trying to escape.
I slid down under the covers to get free of the spotlights glare, all the time hoping the searchlights would find me and make me part of whatever it was they were doing. I closed my eyes tightly to make visions of my parents disappear. I touched the soft lump of poison on my tongue to make sure it was still there, and hadn’t slid down my throat. I imagined seeing the walls, moving closer to my bed; almost touching my feet, now my arms, pushing in on the headboard, driving me deeper under the covers in a tight fetal curl; giving me a few more seconds of life, a few more quiet breaths before I suffocated. Everything was silent.
“This is crazy,” I said aloud. “I don’t want to die. I just want a different life. Live, you asshole, live!” I commanded myself.
I threw the covers off my head, gulping for air, desperate for some saliva for my dry mouth, forgetting for a moment about the blob of poison on my tongue.
“Shit, Shit, Shit, Shit.” I felt the poison slide down my throat. I jumped out of bed and, wearing only my underpants, ran downstairs through the darkened house into the kitchen. Swinging open the refrigerator door, I fumbled among the beer and soda bottles and orange juice containers and found a nearly full half-gallon of milk.
“Induce vomiting,” I babbled, “induce vomiting,” remembering the instructions on the tube of ointment in case it was accidentally swallowed. Milk. Milk; drink more milk than your stomach can handle.
I ran back upstairs, clutching the cold milk container to my chest, careful not to trip or make too much noise that would wake my parents. I ducked into the bathroom, locking the door behind me. My heart was pounding against my chest. I tore open the milk container and started swigging huge mouthfuls from it; one after another, with milk dribbling down the sides of my mouth, dripping down from my chin and neck and chest and onto the tiny, square white-and-black tiles covering the bathroom floor.
I watched the reflection of my mouth and throat and the milk carton in the medicine cabinet mirror. I swallowed and swallowed again, not coming up for air until I felt my stomach swell. I placed the milk container down on the floor next to the sink, grabbed onto the side of the toilet with one hand, and thrust the fingers of my other hand deep down my throat, frantic to reach past my tonsils and pull out the poison. My hand, reaching into my mouth, helped the heaves begin, and they did not stop until there was nothing left to bring up.
“There. There it is,” I said softly in a weak declaration of triumph. I watched the white lump float to the surface of the milky water in the toilet bowl. I stared at it for a few seconds; just long enough to be certain of what it was, and then, I flushed it away. The white, cloudy toilet-bowl water was replaced with a small, clean whirlpool of clear water; a fresh start, a rare chance to begin again, and start building a new life.