Lithium had always had the effect of deadening my spirituality, and it did so now. I kept going to Mass to escort Melinda, who needed my arm to lean on as we walked up the disabled ramp to Our Lady of Pompeii Church, a Dobbs Ferry church I joined in 2016. But if I didn’t need to take her, I wasn’t sure I would go.
New Hope, Pennsylvania, where I visited in 2017
Maybe it did me some good and pleased God, if there was a God, but I felt distant from God and bored during the liturgy. When the lector called on us to pray for our personal intentions, I always prayed for Martha, but I didn’t know if Martha still existed or if she had been blown to atoms. My book Cleave Land had corroded my faith, because it had made certain arguments that contradicted church doctrine—specifically, it had argued against original sin and the resurrection of the dead—and if the church was wrong on such essential points it was likely to be wrong altogether.
As the new year 2017 started, I was not depressed but I was not happy, just in that flat, mildly dysphoric state I associated with lithium. Life seemed pointless. The idea of another year of life made me say with Dorothy Parker, “What fresh hell is this?”
On the night of January 3, I dreamt about Martha. In the dream, a year had passed since her attempted suicide on the first night of Orientation at Columbia, and she and Melinda and I were still shaken and downcast, thinking she could never finish college or become a mature woman. But I realized there was still hope. We could matriculate her in college and put her back in John Jay, where there was now a safety barrier on her fourteenth-floor window. Martha became excited at the idea of trying again. “I’ve learned balance,” she said.
“What kind of balance?” I asked.
“And do everything you can to avoid suicide.”
Melinda and I were excited too. I didn’t know why I’d been so pessimistic for so long. Nothing was fated. Martha had a chance to live and grow up.
The alarm clock rang, waking me. I realized with horror that Martha was dead. She had not just attempted but completed suicide. She would never finish college. She would never grow up or live.
The dream left me shaken all day. I often had dreams like this, in which Martha was somehow resurrected or had never really died, and I felt flush with hope for her until I woke and learned all over again that she was dead and there was no hope. But this dream was so vivid that it finally made me wonder if I was living in denial about Martha’s death. Consciously I knew she was dead, but unconsciously I had yet to accept it.
I remembered reading long ago about the five stages of grief—denial, bargaining, anger, depression, and acceptance—and wondered where I was in those stages. It seemed to me I had a little of all of them, including denial. I dreamt she was alive; I created a website to keep her alive forever on the internet; I read her writings, listened to her music, rummaged through her files. I got mad at people for not talking about her, as if they had a duty to talk as much about her as any living person. I relived scenarios in which I saved her, or Columbia or Dr. Abrams or Melinda saved her, and felt anger at all of us for not saving her. I wrote a book positing triumphally that Martha was in heaven and I was still connected to her. I made a pact with God (bargaining) that I would not commit suicide if he would let me be reunited with Martha at my natural death.
What would my life be like if I weren’t in denial about Martha? What if I accepted—really accepted—her death? What did I have on which to build? How would I live? What would be my purpose? Could I make a life without Martha—a happy life? Instead of being a tragedy, could it be a comedy—not only in the sense of being sometimes funny and entertaining, but of having a happy ending?
As I pondered these things, my suicidal thoughts returned. Again I thought of flipping a coin to see if I should live or die. I saw a knife in the kitchen sink at work and thought of plunging it into my heart. I couldn’t die, not just because of my love for Melinda or fear of hell but because of a seemingly unconquerable will to live. Martha had conquered it, but I couldn’t. She was more insane than I was. I was insane enough to want death but too sane to go and get it.
I fell back into depression, not as black as in the fall, but pretty dark. It lasted weeks. I kept it from my shrink, telling her when I saw her that I was stable, not telling her about my suicidality. I knew she would just mess around with my pills, and I was tired of being somebody’s chemical experiment.
By March, I was feeling less depressed, but not happy either. I could almost accept that Martha had died, that I was having a post-Martha life, life after Martha. But that life was unsatisfying. I tried writing a mystery novel, The Christian Whore, but it bored me, and I disliked the suicidal father who was the main villain of the piece. It seemed I couldn’t write anything that didn’t have suicide as a main theme. All other pleasures besides writing were receding. The only things I really liked doing were sleeping and getting drunk. And those were mostly limited to the weekend. During the week, my sleep was limited by having to wake up early for work, and I kept my drinking for the weekend so I wouldn’t become an alcoholic. If I could, I would have spent all my time asleep or drunk, because that was as close to unconsciousness as I could come, and unconsciousness as close to death as I could come.
One day, shoveling fifteen inches of snow from my driveway, my life felt so bleak that only thoughts of Martha gave me any consolation. Lying in bed, I called out Martha’s name the way I sometimes called the names of old girlfriends, though the girlfriends’ names were just the residue of passions that had evaporated, whereas when I called Martha’s name the passion was still strong. Yet in some way Martha too had mostly evaporated. Every year she became more of an abstraction, a receding set of symbols and dimming memories, not the living girl who once inhabited the bedroom next to mine. I no longer felt the piercing grief, the hole in the world I felt when she had just died. I had begun to fetishize her, to use her as a tool to make my life worth more, because the raw mourning was fading.
So I went on for months in a neutral state, not depressed, not happy, feeling bleak and purposeless, trying to accept Martha’s death, the time punctuated by stabs of remembering her. When I described this to people, they sometimes got confused and thought it was a good thing, like a Zen state of mind. Melinda thought I was trying to simplify my life. I wasn’t. I was trying to erase my life, to make it as much like death as possible. Often I prayed to God to kill me, but he didn’t, probably (I thought) because he didn’t exist, or maybe because he did exist and had some purpose for me he didn’t care to disclose.
Work was by turns intensely terrifying and excruciatingly boring. I would pass the time between deadlines by Googling things like bipolar disorder, suicide bereavement, is drinking alone bad, how do you stab your heart, and have you lost an only child. One day I stumbled on a concept I hadn’t heard of, complicated grief. Apparently, there’s a normal grief that happens when you’ve just lost a loved one, acute grief. If it proceeds on a healthy course, it becomes integrated grief, integrated into your normal life. But in certain cases, integration doesn’t happen, and you have complicated grief. This is particularly likely when you lose someone to suicide, particularly when you share the same mental illness as the person who died by suicide. The prognosis for complicated grief was not good. You might be cured someday, or you might suffer from it all your life.
I was pretty sure I had complicated grief. And, as usual, Martha was there before me. I didn’t know it then, but Martha had known about complicated grief and had used the term to describe her feelings about Aleksei.
On Martha’s birthday that year, when she would have turned twenty-three, I looked at pictures of her on her website and hardly recognized her. She was somebody out of my past, someone who hardly looked like the idealized image of her in my mind. Who knew how she would have looked had she lived, how she would have changed in appearance. She would always be bound by these photographs of someone eighteen or younger. She hadn’t achieved anything in five years and never would. All I had of her was this same old pile of feelings, memories, and relics. This now was my tangle of thorns.
Before Martha died, I had written a spiritual memoir about the interaction between my bipolar disorder and my relationship with God, At the Poles of God. I revisited this memoir in April, updating it with Martha’s suicide and the years since. That gave me some enjoyment at home, but my suicidality at work became worse. On April 27, I started what I called an excrescences diary on my work computer. I only wrote an entry when I was severely depressed, as a way of venting what I was feeling when I could tell no one else. This happened about two days out of five. It contained sentences like “I’m so broken,” “I’m miserable,” “I feel like shit,” and “I wish I were dead.” I talked about wanting to commit suicide, how I would go to VU46 and jump from the rooftop bar. I calculated that 2,500 days of work remained until I could retire on my sixty-seventh birthday in 2027. I started counting down the days until it seemed even to me too horribly depressing. Better not to know.
Sometimes when I am feeling low, a dose of religion can make me feel better. That happened in June. One morning after my shower I tried to figure out what was the most important thing I had to do—the one essential thing. It wasn’t living; one day I would die, and someday it might be rational to choose to die. So what was it? And it occurred to me: be friends with Jesus. That would be essential whether in life or death.
This idea drove me into a religious renaissance. I took the wooden cross that had been hanging in my home office and installed it at the base of my computer monitor at MedEquate. I knew people might think I was a religious fanatic, but I didn’t care. Jesus was my friend, and being his friend was all that mattered. It was the one thing needful.
The renaissance lasted a few days. Then I was back to fighting off suicidal ideation every day. In July, I tried a psychological renaissance, reading peer-reviewed articles about suicidality and developing a new pledge: not to use suicidality to cope with negative affect. With that, I pledged not to try to disinhibit my three inhibitions against suicide (i.e., love of Melinda, love of God, will to live), but to try to reinforce the inhibitions. Martha, I thought, had somehow disinhibited her inhibitions against suicide; I pledged not to do the same.
My will to live seemed to me the key inhibition against suicide. Melinda I could forget; God I could forget. But if I could maintain my will to live, I would live. It was the most vital of my vital organs. But how to reinforce it?
My will to live, I realized, amounted to my love for life. Right now my love for life was weak and my longing for death was strong. Was there some way to build up my love for life?
I could not think of it now. The more I thought about it the more reasons I found to die. My whole problem, I thought, was that I had to wait until 3:00 p.m. to jump from VU46. By then, it was late in the day, and work would be over soon, decreasing the pressure to die. If only I could kill myself at lunchtime. On my lunch hour on July 10, I went to the Marriott Marquis in Times Square to see if I could jump from the forty-fifth floor balcony. I remembered that the balcony used to be unblocked, with a clear leap to the first floor far below. But no longer; they had installed a grate above the balcony, probably precisely to block any would-be jumpers like me. It is amazing how far society will go to frustrate the will of people who simply want to exit that society. It is like they are erecting a Berlin Wall against dying.
On Wednesday, July 19, I was so depressed and suicidal that I called in sick to work. It was the first time at MedEquate I had called in sick because of mental illness—the first time I had done it since I was an English teacher at a high school in Brooklyn in 1986. I found out calling in sick didn’t make me feel better; all I did was suffer depression at home instead of at work, all while dreading coming back to work the next day.
After that, I slowly got better. I not only tried to love life more; I researched ways to do it. During slow moments at work I Googled how to love life and made a list of the many tips I found on various self-help sites—singing, travel, exercise, etc. I ranked them in order of how often they were cited. The top 5 (most often cited) of 104 tips were:
Live in the present moment.
I made an effort to follow as many tips on my list as possible, especially the top five. Since travel was a big one, I actually traveled somewhere on my August vacation. Since Martha’s death, I had not traveled anywhere for pleasure. The obligatory annual visit to see my father in Florida didn’t count, since I took no pleasure in it. But, in my effort to love life, I organized for myself a day trip to New Hope, Pennsylvania, a hundred miles away. There I visited an old friend, Wendy, a woman I had once loved (seeing old friends was another tip), and also Sarah, who had moved there in recent years. I had a good time with Wendy and an uncomfortable time with Sarah, who seemed still not to have forgiven me for the story I wrote about her. But at least I made the effort, for the love of life.
Another tip I tried to follow was to listen to music. While Martha was alive I had built up a big collection of CDs, but since Martha died I hardly ever listened to them, partly because some of them reminded me of her, partly because grief had robbed me of the taste for most pleasures. Every night the house resounded with the absence of music. Now I discovered iTunes, the system for accessing music that Martha had used. I uploaded all my pop and rock CDs into iTunes and started regularly buying songs from the iTunes Store, including current Top Ten songs, so that I could stay in touch with the living musical tastes of the young. I listened to music on evenings and weekends, and sometimes I would even dance, making the jerky rock and roll moves of my youth, partly for exercise, partly for pleasure.
I had read that one sign of denial of death was hanging onto the clothes and other possessions of the dead. In my home office was a stack of five white cardboard boxes containing the clothes Martha had taken with her to Columbia. They had cluttered the office for the five years since her death. In the spirit of accepting her death and embracing life after Martha, Melinda and I, during my vacation, went through that tower of clothes, giving away most of them, keeping a few items as mementoes.
Through steps such as these, I felt better by the end of my vacation. I worried that when I returned to work I would crash back into depression as I had the year before, but I didn’t. For one thing, I had recently been promoted to director of communications, more or less the title my office-mate Ted had held, but he was on his way out of the company at that time. That fall I got a bigger office with a nicer view (though I still shared it with someone). I also was assigned a subordinate, a senior writer, to help me. I still had bad days, but mainly good or neutral ones. Some days I even found that, for one or a few minutes, I could say I loved life.
An outside observer might say I was becoming saner. But I knew better. All the time that my mood improved, I was making a transition toward embracing madness.
Copyright 2020 George Ochoa.