(Content warning: The following piece deals heavily and explicitly with mental illness, suicide, and suicidal ideation. Reader discretion is advised.)
“And as much as we might like to seize the reel and hit rewind
or quicken our pursuit of what we’re guaranteed to find,
when the dying’s finally done and the suffering subsides
all the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind.”
—Purple Mountains, ”Nights that Won’t Happen”
I don’t expect most people I meet to know who the Silver Jews were. I mean, sure, if you’re reading this, the chances are a great deal higher, and it’s not like they were exactly “obscure”—for the 15 or so years they were active, they were one of the most acclaimed and adored bands in indie rock—but the band had that certain quality that made every fan feel like they were in on a secret. This gangly, ramshackle, sublime band tossed songs into the air that were as profound as they were slapdash, seemingly attempting to inoculate themselves of polish. At the center of their neon-light, dive-bar Americana was David Berman, the frontman and main songwriter, a man who could barely sing and sung his heart out about electric chairs, elephants, angels, ghosts, and the suburbs. He died, at the time I’m writing this, ten days ago, on August 7th, 2019. He killed himself.
Infinite Jest is as much a punchline at this point as it is the single most unanimously respected novel of the past 30 years, which is really a shame—no number of condescending English major bros who never even read the fucking thing can divest it of its resonance, can spoil its darkly hilarious trip into the deep sadness of modern living. But for my money, David Foster Wallace’s real masterpiece is The Pale King, an unfinished novel of almost unparalleled grandeur that just so happens to be about IRS employees. It is thuddingly, obsessively dull, stubbornly so, and in that boredom finds a sense of grace and beauty that nothing else I’ve read manages. It was published in an unfinished state, sorted and compiled and edited together by Wallace’s friend Michael Pietsch, because Wallace died before he completed it. He killed himself.
The first time I remember wanting to kill myself was in middle school. I don’t even particularly remember why at this point, and I definitely didn’t tell anybody. The first time I told anyone that I wanted to die was freshman year of college, in the hospital for a suicide attempt that even I had rationalized to myself, a day after it happened, wasn’t actually a suicide attempt. I spent almost a week there before they let me go. A few years later I almost checked myself into the hospital again for the same reason. And so on, and so on, and so on, so many thoughts, so many half-formed letters, so many plans aborted before the finish line. All failures, happy failures, but failures nonetheless. I’ve always thought of death like eating at a Perkins: some people go on purpose, but most people just kinda end up there. I’m one of the people who drives by and wants to go inside.
It’s hard for me to talk about suicide because it’s hard for other people to listen about suicide. Me, I could talk about it all day, but no one else seems very inclined to do the same—or if they are, it’s only to play the role of caretaker. So before we get to the rest of this essay, let’s get this out of the way: no, I do not want to kill myself. I am not a danger to myself or others. I haven’t acted on or even made concrete plans for five or so years at this point, and I am actually doing the best I’ve ever done. I’ve been in therapy for the longest stretch I’ve ever been. I’m actually happy, most days. I can go out and meet people, and I have some measure of self-confidence, of self-worth. I am not someone you should be concerned about.
Now, I will tell you the following: I think about suicide a lot. Like, multiple times a week. Usually every day. Whether I’m happy, depressed, excited, despondent, exhausted, sober, high, I think about it. It’s not so bad. It used to be, but it’s not so much anymore. It’s easier now, and often the thought of my own death is, if anything, soothing, relaxing, calming—not always, certainly, but often. To most people (and with good reason), suicidal thoughts are terrifying, unusual, signs that something needs to be done now, at this very moment. They’re alarms sounding in the night. Me? They’re just wind chimes. They make me look at the weather outside, and I like having them in the background. I’ve grown oddly fond of the ungainly music they make.
Most people can’t imagine this, waking up every day with the idea of killing yourself swirling around in your head. Most people don’t have this same thing, this constant low level hum of death in their every day thoughts. Most people don’t get familiar with it, and that’s good—I wouldn’t particularly recommend it to anyone. It’s a lot like being at risk of heart disease: it’s not guaranteed to be the thing that kills me, but it’s not a remote possibility either. Instead of a high-fat diet or a history of smoking, my risk factors are previous attempts, a history of mental illness, being trans. You monitor things and try to stay healthy, go to the doctor for regular checkups, try not to make it worse. And I’d say that most of the time, it doesn’t really scare me. But even with that, the numbers don’t always look great. Some days, your chest feels tighter than it should.
Tonight, I went to go buy vegan chicken nuggets at Target. Stepping out of the car, staring at the PetSmart across the street, I could see the “ming” portion of the “Grooming” sign was flickering on and off. I looked up into the sky, greyish black like a broken laptop screen, and I thought about driving my car as fast as I could into the brick wall of that building, flying through the windshield and dying instantly. I weighed the pros and cons. Pro: I’m dead. Con: easy to fuck up, might not work, someone else has to do a lot of cleanup, I have a lot of shit I gotta take care of at home, I have people who love me and would be upset if I died, and things aren’t really so bad for me right now. I thought about this for something like five minutes, turned and looked at the people in the car parked a few spaces over staring at me, and I walked inside, got my fake meat, and drove calmly home. This is not particularly unusual for me.
David Berman can’t help but be on my mind. I’ve thought about him every day since he passed. His lyrics keep coming to me—“Repair is the dream of the broken thing”; “I believe that stars are the headlights of angels / driving from heaven to save us”; “I could not love the world entire / There grew a desert in my mind / I took a hammer to it all”—and now I’ve sat and listened to “Nights that Won’t Happen”, the eighth track of his last album, about a dozen times in a row. “The dead know what they’re doing when they leave this world behind.” Did you know, David? How could anyone really know? And who can really leave? A person is as much their memory as they are themselves, and their memory ripples through time, never ending. “Something’s added to the air / forever.”
There is an easy eternity to Berman’s words that makes them feel simultaneously earthbound and ethereal. “My ski vest has buttons like convenience store mirrors and they help me see / that everyone in this room right now is a part of me.” He moves casually from stoner-esque navel-gazing wonder at the tiny details of his jacket to the spiritual resonances they imply. Shiny buttons, ego death—why do we keep them separate? There is something powerful in everyday things, something religious and wonderful—that we might frailly exist in space and time like motes of dust in a sunbeam before a passing shadow cuts us off. “There is a place past the blues I don’t ever want to see again”. I’ve seen that place too.
But the lines I keep turning over in my head are the ones I opened this piece with. “When the dying’s finally done and the suffering subsides / all the suffering gets done by the ones we leave behind.” Those lines gut me, and they scare me, knowing that one can be so self aware of their state and of the consequences of that state while being unable to make use of that awareness. I didn’t even know David Berman, and I am left with this hole in my heart, the constant thoughts of him, the spells of bleak sadness that make me take a seat for a while, stare at my hands, rub my knuckles, feel the loose skin move over the bone. Will I make someone else feel like this? The greatest chroniclers of depression are so often its most obvious victims as well.
David Foster Wallace seemed to map every inch of the space of the depressed, of the suicidal, of the modernly anguished. His work, beyond all its other accolades, is most noticeable (and most consistently moving) in his deep understanding of the contours of contemporary ennui, the ways in which our lives feel so endlessly trapped, contained, and sick. He could describe a Toblerone like its sickly sweet chocolate was rotting the psyches of late capitalism, and even in his smiles there was a gallows humor wink. There’s a passage from Infinite Jest that I think of often, that I need to quote at length:
“Listen,” she said. “Have you ever felt sick? I mean nauseous, like you knew you were going to throw up?”
The doctor made a gesture like Well sure.
“But that’s just in your stomach,” Kate Gompert said. “It’s a horrible feeling but it’s just in your stomach. That’s why the term is ‘sick to your stomach.’” She was back to looking intently at her lower carpopedals. “What I told Dr. Garton is OK but imagine if you felt that way all over, inside. All through you. Like every cell and every atom or brain-cell or whatever was so nauseous it wanted to throw up, but it couldn’t, and you felt that way all the time, and you’re sure, you’re positive the feeling will never go away, you’re going to spend the rest of your natural life feeling like this.”
The doctor wrote down something much too brief to correspond directly to what she’d said. He was nodding both while he wrote and when he looked up. “And yet this nauseated feeling has come and gone for you in the past, it’s passed eventually during prior depressions, Katherine, has it not?”
“But when you’re in the feeling you forget. The feeling feels like it’s always been there and will always be there, and you forget.”
—David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest
That Wallace could know these moments so precisely, that he could describe, in plain and piercing language, what the feeling is, and yet he didn’t make it out—how do I interpret that? What’s worse: that he forgot, just like Kate, that his precision of description just fell apart in the sheer hellish miasma of those moments, stretching out to a phenomenological infinity? Or is it worse that he knew, but he just couldn’t take it anymore? Knowing that a pain will pass can only mean so much when you know it’s coming back around, when you are constantly bracing yourself for impact. It feels like a natural disaster, like I’ll be unable to stop it when it decides to come and hit me again. I’ve been forced into the role of tornado chaser, and I may know better than almost anyone what this feeling is like, but that doesn’t suddenly give me command over it. How long do you put off the inevitable?
Of course, of course, I say to myself, it isn’t inevitable, and I have some amount of control. I eat right, I do yoga, I communicate, I go to therapy, I talk to my friends and partners, I slowly start to learn what cloud formations signal storms, how to predict and map them. I build better shelters. But the storms don’t stop, they don’t ever come to an end, and on my worst days, it feels like I’m one slip-up from my shelter collapsing, from facing that green air and grey sky again, alone, without a tether or a guide. Often, we go to art for explication of our emotions, for reassurance, for sympathy and insight. Art has kept me alive when other things couldn’t, and it allows us to touch something else, something outside ourselves, something that feels Greater Than. Its disruption, proof that it isn’t so mystical or magical as it might feel to us, is shattering. What does it mean when the artist who made the art that kept us alive falls to the same problems that we find ourselves facing? What comfort can I find that they didn’t?
There are a lot of pat answers to that question, but I don’t care to entertain them. The real answer is: I don’t know. I don’t know what to do with that feeling, with that instability. I will mourn David Berman for months, and every time I put on American Water I’ll have to find somewhere to sit and think for a bit. But that can’t be everything I do. I have to talk to my best friend. I have to record a podcast. I have to go buy the goddamn chicken nuggets. For now, I hope to echo Vic Chesnutt, talking with Death, in his song “Flirted With You All My Life”: “When I lost a friend of mine / I thought I would lose my mind / but I found out with time / that, really, I was not ready.” I’m not ready yet. I hope to be unprepared the rest of my life. So thank you, to all those artists, for helping me to remain unprepared, for unpacking my bags before I get up to leave. I’m sorry you ended up packing your own after all. I wish you hadn’t.
Thank you David Berman, and thank you David Foster Wallace, and Philipp Mainländer, and Spalding Gray, and Chantal Akerman, and Sylvia Plath, and Walter M. Miller Jr., and Mark Rothko, and Virginia Woolf, and Kurt Cobain, and Robin Williams, and Nick Drake, and Sarah Kane, and Guy Debord, and Gilles Deleuze, and Vic Chesnutt, and so on, and so on, and so on.