The July sun glared through the living room window and onto the wood floor. I sat in a puffy old chair, leaned forward, elbows on my knees. I counted the floor boards that were bright in the sunlight. Twenty-four. Right to left. Twenty-four. Left to right. Twenty-four. Over and over.
On the outside it may have looked as if I were daydreaming, peacefully enjoying travels in my head to some far away place as I stared blankly at the floor. But on the inside churned chaos. My mind was a mess. My body was a wreck. Emotionally, physically, mentally and spiritually, I was a disaster.
While I counted, every department in my brain was assessing damage and calculating my next move. Each department was giving information at the same time, with no organization or priority. Critical thinking and linear thought were abandoned in favor of haphazardly throwing information onto a growing pile in the center of my brain. The overall message amidst all of the chatter was that my current state could not, and would not, continue. I was battered. I was tired. Twenty. Four. I stopped counting.
I stood up and continued to look mostly at the floor as I walked back and forth on the boards I had just spent the better part of an hour counting. The frenzy of information whirling in my head had finally ground to a halt. Chaotic and disorderly as it was, the information was in. It was time to make a decision.
This day was the end result of a three day drinking spree after a year of dry time. Dry, in that I didn’t drink or drug during that year, but I didn’t do anything else, either. There were no meetings, there was no self care, no counseling- no recovery plan of any kind. I just stopped using. I was hard to be around. I hated everything. I was frustrated, angry, and miserable. I was so miserable after that year that I returned to what I knew. I knew how to drink. I went back to it just as I had left it the year before, fully understanding the probable consequences.
That three days led me to sit in a chair, to count floor boards, and to arrive at an undeniable conclusion: Not only could I not live clean and sober in recovery, but I also couldn’t live anymore as a practicing addict.
As I paced the living room, in and out of the sunlight, the idea that I had failed so miserably at both addiction and recovery weighed heavily on me. I no longer felt the euphoria that chemicals once provided. I could no longer use to feel, or not to feel, and it was clear I couldn’t abstain from using in a consistent or predictable manner.
I could no longer even temporarily escape the mundane, painful, or scary. Earlier relapses had often lasted months, but not this time. In the past I would drink, use, and dig deeper holes, but there was always some relief. There had always been a trade off, in a completely irrational way that only an addict can truly understand. Of course, my using or drinking would almost certainly hurt people, especially those who cared about me. But it was all written off as collateral damage in the master plan of textbook insanity that is addiction.
For me, using was a self-medicating, self-absorbed break from anxiety, insecurity and the constant, consuming emptiness of depression. Even the partying portion of my using was smoke and mirrors; what was genuine was the disconnect it afforded. Substances provided a diversion from reality, and I was willing to pay an often considerable price for chasing a distorted, chemically enhanced version of peace. But even that was gone now, and it took only three days to arrive at the deepest, darkest place I’d ever been, and this time I couldn’t find a way out. I didn’t want to do it anymore. I’d had enough. I sat down and leaned back into the old chair. It was over, and I knew it.
It was then that two familiar inner voices stepped out from the shadows of my mind and joined me in the living room.
The easiest way to explain it, I guess, is perhaps you’ve seen a movie or a cartoon where a little devil pops up on a character’s one shoulder, and a little angel appears on the other. The appearance of those additional characters signals the back and forth battle between good and evil, hope and despair, and so on. These two sides of struggle and conflict are as old as life itself. For the sake of simplicity, and with apologies for sounding silly, I’ll just call them Sunny and Rainy.
In my head, Sunny is the quiet, patient, empathetic one, with the emphasis on quiet. Sunny never yelled. Sunny had never argued with Rainy, and never forced his views or acted in haste. It was because of these traits that I came to believe Sunny was weak. In fact, I blamed Sunny for not speaking up during some of the most crucial events in my life to that point. Sunny was more abstract. Parables and feelings, dreams and memories, rainbows and sunshine, all in the hushed tones of a whispering librarian.
On the other hand, Rainy had a tendency to be impulsive and easy to provoke. Rainy was the bull in the China shop. Where Sunny was a fine-tipped brush used to put the final touches on a beautiful oil painting, Rainy was the guy throwing gallons of paint at a huge canvas, buckets and all. Rainy possessed little patience, was quick to judge, and rarely used diplomacy during times of conflict. In a crisis, Rainy was the one who showed up first, and I could always hear him coming. But to be fair, and for all his faults, Rainy had served me well at times, and actually saved my life during a few dangerous situations I had walked into over the years. But on this day, Rainy was different.
“No,” Sunny said firmly. “This isn’t the way. Think about what you’re proposing.”
“Well, well, you finally left the circus. The other clowns must be heartbroken,” Rainy said, sarcasm on full display.
“This is absurd, you can’t be serious about this,” Sunny said, looking at me, and then to Rainy. “There is so much left to do. There is so much left to see. You have a lot of life to live. I won’t be a part of this.”
“You’ve been filling his head with this garbage for years,” Rainy began. “Sobriety and relief from depression and the beauty of life and all that other crap. When does that finally happen, Sunny? Never, that’s when.”
I sat quiet in the chair. Sunny stood quiet in the corner. Rainy stood in the middle of the living room like a speaker at center stage. The debate was on.
Rainy continued, “What would you know about anything, Sunny? What would you know about life? Haven’t you seen the suffering, the mistakes, the failure? When you finally say something, it’s always the same old nonsense. It’s over. This will never, EVER get better, and you have only yourself to blame. Leave. We have a job to finish.”
Rainy then turned to me while Sunny stood, still quiet, in the corner. “There is no shame in admitting defeat. This has gone on far too long. You’ve hurt everyone you know. You’ve tried this addiction stuff for fifteen years only to get your ass kicked. You’ve been depressed your whole life. You have been thinking about this for a long time and it’s not coincidence that we are in the same goddamn spot today that we’ve been countless times before,” Rainy went on, his voice becoming more stern and his body language more aggressive. “What you’re doing is not living. You, my friend, have been dead for years, you’re just too stubborn, or too dumb, to admit it. Today is the day.”
“That’s just not true,” Sunny said.
Rainy spun around and stomped toward Sunny in the corner. “Sure it is, and you know it as well as he does,” he said, now almost nose to nose with Sunny while pointing back at me. “How many times have we followed him to treatment? How many times have we gone to detox? Psych wards? How many tickets? How many nights in jail? How many times have we gone days without knowing what the hell was going on? How many times have we been talked to by cops, priests, counselors, doctors, neighbors, friends and people we don’t even know? Do-gooders, well-wishers and the like? Sob stories, calls to arms, pep talks, threats and a boat load of other advice and care, and here we sit. It’s time to get this over with.”
As Rainy finished with Sunny, he maintained eye contact as he backed away.
Turning again to me, he said, “Too damn many.”
“What?” I asked.
“You heard me. Too damn many. That’s how many times you’ve been to treatment,” he replied. “That’s how many times you’ve been to detox. That’s how many times people from all walks of life have tried to help you. And for what? It makes me sick. Doctors and lawyers and counselors and hurt friends and family. Bad relationships and dead end jobs because you can’t get your head right. We could be living the good life, but you insist on messing things up. You’ve taken beds at treatment centers that others could’ve used. You’ve been in detox so many times they know your name. You know every cop in the area because of the crazy things you’ve done during your career in the lunatic business. You aren’t even trying anymore. This is over, and if you don’t follow through with this, so help me, I’ll do it myself.”
Rainy sat down on the arm of the couch on the other side of the room. He took a deep breath and paused, trying without success to calm himself.
Leaning toward me, he said, “I think you’re making the right decision. Life is hard. It’s unfair. You’ve done your best. All that pain? The depression? The disappointment? It will end today. It’s time.”
Rainy wasn’t wrong about a lot of what he said. His delivery was harsh and crude, but he was quite accurate about it all. We had been at this crossroads together before.
It was hard not to admit what I at least half-believed most of my life. It was time.
For what it’s worth, I never really used the word “suicide” in my head. For me, suicidal ideation had never been a constant cycle of thought, but more of a nosey neighbor that occasionally stopped by unannounced. I always used words like “escape” or “relief” or something more comforting and less… final. But the idea, complete with planning and attempting to project the resulting fallout for those left to deal with the aftermath, was a subject that was visited more often than I’d ever felt comfortable admitting to anyone.
It’s not a smooth subject to talk about, ending one’s own life. There’s just no easy way to make it comfortable or attractive, because it isn’t. In fact, I struggled a lot with not only the idea of writing this, but during the writing itself. Not because I’m afraid of my own demons, but because it is such a heavy subject, and due to concern over how it may impact those who read it. It is always final. It is always tragic. It’s more common than anyone wants to recognize or admit. And no matter what, those left behind are always, always, always, left with questions that will never be answered during our time on Earth. There are some things we just don’t talk about, yet each of us knows someone…
I walked over to the secretary and shuffled through the drawers to find a suitable paper and pen, and went back to sit down on the old chair. Rainy stood up to come closer, while Sunny remained in the corner.
As I looked down at the paper, Sunny asked, “What if?”
It was a quiet, almost unnoticeable question, as if he had mumbled it to himself. Rainy looked up from the paper to turn and smirk at Sunny, rolled his eyes, then turned back to focus on the paper.
“What if?” again Sunny asked, a little louder.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Sunny, don’t complicate this with your silly, hypothetical bullshit,” Rainy snapped. “You’ve had your chance. For years you’ve had your chance. Today’s the day this ends. Sit down and shut up.”
Again, “What if?” Sunny asked, calmly.
“Stop it, Sunny,” Rainy said. “All you’ve ever done is delay the inevitable, trying to sell hope like there’s a market for it here. Hope is for fools. Hope is for those with nothing left, and we are beyond nothing now. You are grasping at straws and you sound like an idiot.”
I looked up from the still blank paper to Rainy. “Hold on. What did you say?”
“Inevitable? Fools? Grasping at straws? Idiot?” Rainy recited the bullet points from his rant.
“Hope,” Sunny said, stepping out of the corner. “You said hope.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me, this is a joke, right? Are you serious?” Rainy was beside himself.
“Do you mean to tell me that this is your solution? That somehow all of this can be solved with something so intangible?” he continued. “What in the hell is hope against the fact that much of your life has been a miserable, lonely, messed up experience? A miserable, lonely, messed up experience, may I remind you, that will continue until you’re a miserable, lonely, messed up old man? This craziness needs to stop. Don’t screw this up.”
“The least we can do is hear him out,” I said. “It’s not like we have any place to be.”
“This should be good. Sunny the motivational village idiot. Perhaps we should print up posters and sell tickets for this,” Rainy said, dripping with disdain. “Two minutes. Do you hear me, Sunny? You’ve got two minutes, then we get on with what we should have done years ago.”
“What if,” Sunny repeated, “What if you could learn to ride a bike, or to swim?”
“This is just embarrassing,” Rainy cried dramatically. “He rode a bike when he was five! He swam across the lake in middle school! Big deal. Since then it’s been pretty much downhill. What’s next? First tooth? First pee on the big potty? Hell of a pep talk, genius. Can we just finish this now?”
Sunny ignored Rainy and continued, “What if you could memorize multiplication tables or learn how to high jump?”
“Have you lost your mind?” Rainy yelled at Sunny.
“What if you had to get your driver’s license,” Sunny said, “or climb the tallest tree in the neighborhood with the older kids? What if there is a reason you have lived long enough to become a father? What if you’re supposed to stay around to help people who need you?”
“This dreadfully random trip down memory lane has been brought to you by the letter S, as in SSSSSTUPID,” Rainy snapped. “This is so dumb, it’s painful. Are you done?”
“Please let him talk,” I said, feeling more now like a referee than someone in the middle of trying to make life’s biggest decision.
“What if there is a reason you survived long enough to make it to detox? What if you needed each and every treatment, each and every talk, from each and every person, to get you to this point,” Sunny asked. “What if these are not failures, but lessons or cornerstones? What if every other time we’ve been at this point, you’ve chosen to go on?”
The items Sunny mentioned were all things that at one point in my life I never believed I’d be able to do, or get through. I never thought I’d be able to ride a bike. At one point, I stood on the shore of the lake or the side of the swimming pool believing that I’d never be able to do the things others were doing. Living through addiction as long as I had was against the odds by almost any measure. The tallest tree may as well have been a never ending tower to the heavens, at least before I climbed it. And there was a time in my life where I believed I would never live long enough to become a father. Hope surely must have played at least some part in it all.
I began to believe that when I listened to Sunny, there was hope. Hope, at least in part, made some of the good things in my life possible. Hope also made some of the not so good things bearable.
“What if,” I sighed, shrugging my shoulders.
“Maybe it’s just that simple,” Sunny replied.
“So that’s it? Hope is the magic plan and the cure to all our trials and tribulations for the infinite future,” Rainy exclaimed in disbelief. “We just hang our hats on hope and all will be okay? Where is the resolve? Where is the defiance and the declaration that life, and all of its baggage and wreckage, is just not worth it anymore?”
“It’s not infinite, Rainy,” Sunny replied. “In fact, maybe it’s just this moment. Maybe it’s this hour or this day, one little piece of time connected to the next. What if we miss something great? What if this can turn around? What if?”
“I give up on you guys. Next thing you know,” Rainy said, “you two will be singing praise songs, selling all our stuff and leaving to join some cult. It is my hope that when you do, they shave your heads and make you sell beads at a mall.”
Rainy then stormed off, back to the corner of my mind from where he came. I listened to Sunny talk about the plan of continuing the journey that is life. We discussed the role hope could play in another attempt at recovery from addiction and in surviving depression. I came to realize that Sunny was always there, and that he wasn’t weak. Sunny just wasn’t as loud as anger, despair or frustration. Sunny was more subtle, but not any less present. I just had to be willing to listen and patient enough to hear what was being said. Sometimes it really is that simple.
That July day was almost 19 years ago. I talk to Sunny a lot more now than I did before that day. We meet first thing in the morning, and agree that we will see this day through to the end, come what may. We make that commitment daily, even if we don’t talk about much else.
That’s not to say that Rainy doesn’t still show up now and then. He has to, he is a part of me. But if he’s around too long, there’s always some kind of trouble. Admittedly, some days I seem to spend as much time with Rainy as I do with Sunny. It’s not a perfect system, and I don’t fool myself into believing it ever will be, but I work at it.
Hope is a powerful thing, if sometimes more quiet or less visible than anger, frustration or despair. For me, hope has been an invaluable tool in my recovery from addiction, an irreplaceable weapon in my war against depression, and a consistent companion in the now almost two decades of life I wouldn’t have had without it.
In memory of warriors at rest, In honor of those who still fight.