During the next several weeks, I’ll be posting sections of my upcoming novel/memoir tentatively titled Suicide Escape combining my early teen struggles with deep depression and suicidal thoughts with a story of how I share what I’ve since learned with another teen battling depression. The story is set in the year 2041.
I was catching my breath on a tree stump just below the Humphrey’s Peak tree line when I first spotted Clarissa, bent over in a remote spot well off trail and not even looking around to see if anyone could see her.
More than halfway through a long day of hiking, I hunched over on a long-felled tree trunk, catching my breath, rehydrating and chomping a chocolate orange fruit and fiber bar when my eyes were drawn away from the stark, steep white hills that served as monuments to all who ascended as far as I had come that day. While reveling in a view too simple to be art but too dramatic and majestic to be anything else, motion just hundreds of yards away grabbed my attention.
It was awkward, stilted motion, but motion nonetheless. Almost instantly, I felt compelled to find out what or who else would be up here, removed from the hiking trails that most follow religiously either to avoid getting lost or to avoid trampling on elements of nature that recover slowly, if ever.
It didn’t take long to rule out any animals that could pose a physical threat. Few of the most threatening fauna find food at a tree line more than 11,000 feet above sea level. While the form moved gawkily, it still appeared to move with purpose – human purpose my curiosity wouldn’t allow me to ignore. A person this far off trail almost certainly would have come here to be alone. I moved closer anyway, finally getting close enough to realize that the form was a woman. I watched intently as she stood up, picked up a long, thick wooden stick, set it back into the ground and bent back over it.
I couldn’t tell initially that she was only a teenager, younger than the children of my children. I like to assume I was drawn to Clarissa because the way she was acting just didn’t seem right. It’s funny how instincts take over our bodies at times, pushing an old man with high blood pressure and countless unwanted aches out of a state of exhaustion into action, even more than halfway through a long day of hiking.
I am by no means fearless. But the idea of death is far past frightening and approaches in an accelerated march in any case. I never guessed that I would have lived to see this year. Perhaps, I thought, my life’s challenges had as a purpose preparing for this test of every ounce of my humanity.
I certainly would not have expected to be alive today thinking back to the summer of 1979, when I woke from a drug- and alcohol-induced nap – I’ll call it a nap, anyway – along the metal ridge surrounding a water tower a few towns over from my home. I don’t remember how I got up there, but my dealer-friend and his buddy thought it was hysterical to watch the drunk and stoned little freshman climb up the water tower steps to reach the exterior walkway that ran a rim around the bulbous part of the tower.
This friend, who had become my dealer at about the time we discovered and started picking a wild-growth marijuana field in West Chicago, later told me they boosted me up so I could pull down the ladder to get started. They all bolted when it looked like I would fall off during the climb up the metal-ladder steps. The last they saw of me was as I tried to push open the metal floor-hatch to climb up to the rim. None of these convenient stand-ins for friends wanted to be around to take the blame when I fell.
But this temporary friend, who I’ll leave unnamed since he may have gone on to respectable life, came back hours later to see what happened. I don’t know if I fell asleep before or after they left, because to this day I don’t remember climbing up. But I do remember what it felt like to regain consciousness looking down through the metal grates to ground that seemed a long distance removed, particularly for someone like me who didn’t even enjoy standing high up on a ladder. I had enough of a fear of heights that I felt my stomach convulse, whether out of simple natural reaction or drug- and alcohol-induced nausea wasn’t quite clear.
At 14 back then, I was already at a point where I really didn’t care if I lived to see the next day, or hour, or even minute. Every moment of life simply hurt. The pit of my stomach often felt a depth of pain I only later recalled being equal to the agony of watching my father’s cancer-riddled body breathe in its last bit of oxygen. I didn’t realize how fortunate I had been to reach 14 with so little experience at dealing with death. With this depression, this shredding pounding a near constant at that age, I didn’t often think about whether I wanted to die. Instead, I thought about how to die, when, and whether I could make my body disappear so no one would have to actually know.
It’s not that I didn’t have a family who loved me. Looking back, I realize I was blessed, particularly considering the crap-excuses for families many others often endure. I look now at kids who survive continuous abuse, neglect and drug-addicted parents – or who live in surroundings containing all the physical threat of a war zone with no commensurate opportunity for glory – and wonder what it was that made me think I had a horrific life destined only for failure. But, over well more than a year, that feeling beat at me to create a relentless barrage of self-loathing, broken by only temporary respites of slightly more tolerable, but still intense self-doubt. The reality is that I didn’t want to hurt my family. But I hated myself and couldn’t see any chance that life would get better. I just couldn’t take how much it hurt to be alive, knowing, or at least thinking, my misery would just compound itself into eternity.