We Who Are Left Behind

thumbnail“Why’d you let go?” Conrad Jarrett shouts at the ceiling, in a climactic scene in Ordinary People. Conrad’s family has unraveled after a boating accident took his older brother, and after his own attempted suicide. In flashbacks we see the Jarrett boys gripping a rope slung across their storm-tossed, capsized sailboat. Conrad’s brother loses hold, is swallowed by the water.

Conrad’s psychiatrist elicits from him the truth beneath his survivor’s guilt, which is that he is angry. Angry his brother didn’t head for shelter sooner. Angry he couldn’t hang on. “Did it ever occur to you,” asks his psychiatrist, “that you might have been stronger?”

Seventeen years after Ordinary People garnered four Oscars, Robin Williams received an Oscar for his role in Good Will Hunting, as a psychiatrist much like the one played by Judd Hirsch in Ordinary People. In a similarly dramatic counseling scene, Williams helps the film’s protagonist find the beginning of peace.

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Losing the Thread

27Guest post by Michael Leary

After someone commits suicide you begin to filter through everything you know about them in the hope of gleaning all that remains good and beautiful and true.

At first, this proves difficult: there isn’t much left but murk and silt. But you find yourself returning again and again, panning in the stream of memories because flecks of gold begin to appear and the mere weight of them feels so precious.

I became familiar with this habit of disinterment long before my brother chose suicide. I say “chose” because in David’s case it was an idea he had talked about and lived with for some time, the act becoming a final expression of personal agency in a world that had seemingly closed all of its doors on him.

And yet, despite his choice, his memory, our kinship, abides. [Read more...]

Medicating the Religious Mind

I’ve been taking an antidepressant for six months now. Psychiatry wins: I’m a more functional human. I don’t feel so isolated and restless. The tasks of daily life don’t seem impossible. Even the feeling of shame that I need to be on medication has been lessened by the medication. But it’s a dry season, God seems distant, and some days I don’t recognize myself.

I wonder how much higher the dosage would have to be to silence that little voice that wonders with every shift in mood and emotion—is this me or Celexa?  Is the real me revealed when the medication suppresses my anxiety, or am I suffocating her with an SSRI?  Is there a drug that can quell this stubborn refusal to be well—even though I feel well—the belief that peace is just a chemical haze that clears as soon as the bottle empties?

At the risk of sounding like a religious freak, or even just a garden-variety freak, I confess I’ve often worried that this voice inside is the devil. Except it’s the same voice that urges me to write and to throw myself at the foot at the cross—two good things I’m decidedly less inclined to do now that I’m on drugs. Physically, mentally, I’m waking up, getting well, returning to life. Why do I feel so spiritually and creatively dead? [Read more...]

The Cave of the Heart

caveNot long ago a young man announced on a video chat site that he intended to kill himself, and that he would let people watch, if only he could have help setting up the video feed. Someone gladly complied, and so the boy positioned his camera, sat in his chair, and washed down a handful of pills with alcohol. Afterward he set a fire in the corner of his room. Then he crawled into the darkness beneath his bed and waited to die.

Hundreds watched, while others who were being excluded complained that the site’s bandwidth was inadequate. Ideas were tossed back and forth in the comments section about how to include everyone who wanted to enjoy the show. One of those who was able to watch griped about the smoke. He couldn’t see the boy dying. He logged on to watch a boy die, and the stupid smoke was getting in the way. [Read more...]

The Truth Told Slant

Every winter I plunge into darkness.

As Seattle days shorten to eight hours with clouds covering most of the sky and the city readies for ten months of showers, my inner world becomes as bleak as the world outside. I burrow through three seasons like a shrew mole through the mud, tunneling deeper to cry, surfacing only to complain.

Born and raised in New York, I’ve not adjusted in twenty-seven years.

I suppose this isn’t surprising. All my grandparents were natives of Sicily, a place where even in winter daylight persists for ten hours with nary a cloud in the sky. The people of Palermo wake to sun 228 days per year.

When my grandparents immigrated to the US, they did well to settle in Manhattan, where the sun shines over Central Park 235 days each year. The Space Needle basks in sun rays only fifty-eight.

My doctor calls my melancholy SAD (seasonal affective disorder), a depression caused by lack of sunlight resulting in low serotonin. Those who experience it suffer desolation, petulance, anxiety, and social strain.

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