Janée J. Baugher
It was not a body I asked for but a body I was given. This form called human, female, of European decent, of a single, solitary birth. As a soul, I had required no anatomy, was content with the cosmic drifting. Take back the night, take back the two who had lain. How to return to being an immeasurable, amorphous non-notion? Or, how to abide the form—the grey matter, rotting soma, and sex organs locked up like bodies inside a body where eggs surrender like tiny crumpled maps?
Where to begin?
I could begin almost anywhere, but the story that I have is not, perhaps, the story that you want or need. If you’re like most people, you’re dying for hope, like in the 2015 UK documentary, The Stranger on the Bridge, where a schizophrenic man walks to London’s Waterloo bridge, prepares to jump but is “saved” by a Good Samaritan, and in turn, the man pledges to live. Or, are you the type of person who likes stories that illustrate that, as humans, we’re bleeders, and so you prefer to know how and why we bleed?
Anne Sexton, in her poem “Wanting to Die,” wrote, “But suicides have a special language. / Like carpenters they want to know which tools. / They never ask why build.” According to the World Health Organization, suicide is the final solution for nearly 1,000,000 people annually. How do we make sense of our own species denying the primal instinct to live and, instead, choosing when and where to die? Some suicides die after one reactionary decision and some suicides die after a long existential struggle. What does it mean to be a “suicide”?
Should I begin the story with my dad, one of the nation’s preeminent death-and-dying specialists?
He never once lied to me about death. When I was seven, the phone rang in the middle of the night. A distraught student was attempting to save a suicidal friend. “Bob, can you come?” Dad thought it best to take Mom along, but my brother and I were too young to be left alone. “Someone needs help,” Dad said, as we quickly piled into the Honda.
Dad disappeared into the apartment for two hours while we slept in the car. Later he said that the woman was composed in her decision to die that night, something having to do with a breakup. Finally, in response to, “No one cares about me,” Dad replied, “Well I do, and so does my family.” “Your family? “Yes, they came here with me tonight. Do you want to meet them?” Incredulously, she followed Dad out to the parking lot. He tapped on the passenger window. I don’t remember what Mom said, but I awoke and asked, “Daddy, are we ready to go?” “Pretty soon, Daughter.” Even before they got back inside her apartment, the woman was sobbing uncontrollably. A few minutes later we were driving home, as Dad explained, “The lady was sad and angry and wanted to hurt herself with the knives in her kitchen, but now she’s doing better. She’s doing much better now.”
Or shall I begin the story with the scar?
When I was 14, I took a knife blade to the inside of my left wrist and then lied about it to my dad, telling him that I had gotten into an argument with a friend and so to embody that emotional pain, I sliced the flesh. The sting of opening myself up and then the task of dabbing up the blood were types of relief. Not everyone knows what I’m talking about. If you want to come close and if you know what you’re looking for, you can detect a small, hesitant scar here.
Ought I begin with the note?
One night when I was 16, I dressed in my flannel pajamas, crawled into my twin bed, swallowed a load of sleeping pills, and slept.
I had left a note, that much is true. I wrote it in longhand, with blue ink on ruled paper. While I suspect that the note included an apology and something about love, I cannot for the life of me recollect any specifics of its contents. I remember feeling heartsick while composing the note, especially when I pictured it being read. Of all the things a person could commit to paper, writing a note as one of her definitive acts of life, as a memoriam left for the people left behind, is the saddest. I dated it, December 31st, but I don’t recall how I signed it. Not my full name, surely, as it would have been my parents who would have read it after having returned from a week-long trip to California. I reckon I used the nickname my grandparents had given me, J.J. The final stroke of my pen, I imagine, was that irrevocable loop of the J and then a period.
Later, was it hours or days, I cannot say, I awoke. I opened my eyes, opened my mind to the reality of the moment: There I was still, in my basement bedroom. My parents and brother eventually returned home and of that event I told them nothing. For ten years, nothing. If I could go back and do it all over again, would I? What do you think?
Perhaps I should start with the funeral.
When I was a college freshmen in Boston, I was invited to a party by a kid I didn’t know very well, but he seemed to implore me, would I be there, it’s really important that I be there, please? He had taken the same tone with other guests and we thought he just wanted to ensure a good turnout. When my friends and I arrived, the host greeted us, served us beer, and cranked up the music. By all accounts, it was a typical college party. The next morning, news spread around campus: After most everyone had left, the host and two friends took some beers and climbed up to the apartment building’s rooftop. They were merry and drinking and then, suddenly, the host was gone. Five stories down he dropped.
At the campus funeral at Marsh Chapel, I lingered a bit on the sorrow that his parents must have felt, having to bury their 20-year-old son. While it would have been natural to have a kinship with the grievers, for me I had a strange propinquity for a boy who did what I had aimed to do but had failed. I remember thinking how strong he must have been in that moment of deciding, doing, dying. Yes, I had been moved by the service and sorry for the bereaved, but also I felt glad for him, for having found a way to untie himself from this world.
Do you want to know about the gun?
Seven years later if you had peered into my Seattle apartment window, you would have seen me hunched over something on the green Oriental rug of my living room. You might have noticed the warm lighting, books on the coffee table, two red velvet chairs, and a Tabby sleeping on a cat perch. When you’d gaze back at me, you might be puzzled to see tears down my face, which you could follow as they slid from cheeks to the object below. What was it? You’d have to squint to see that the open phone book was marked in places with damp circles. You’d see no other person, no evidence of pills or alcohol; everything would appear to be in its rightful place. How would you feel then, knowing that each scanned entry was about me seeking the ultimate solace, and me knowing that the search was futile? For I was also painfully aware that Washington’s law of a five-day waiting period meant that that night, for me, there would be no gun.
Ought I start by telling you about the Zoloft?
A few months later, I was sitting on a bench at Freeway Park. A man who perhaps lived there approached me and asked, “You got a cigarette?” “No, but I got this prescription of antidepressants,” I answered, while holding up the white paper bag, “and I’m trying to decide what to do.” “Guess your doc wants you to take ‘em,” he said flatly and walked off.
I went home and dropped one pill onto my palm. The tiny blue pill loomed like a planet in the pink galaxy of my hand. After what felt like an hour, I reluctantly placed one pill onto my tongue, took a sip of water, and swallowed. Things went on in this manner for a couple of weeks, with each pill seemingly mocking me: “Congratulations! You have made the choice to live life today and forever! You are slowly but surely becoming one of those happy people! Happy, happy happy!” Finally, I just couldn’t take it anymore; I upended the bottle and watched the pills swirl down the drain. That made me happy.
I suppose I should really just start by telling you that this is the story I had no intention of ever telling. Mainly because telling a story sets up a relationship between the teller and the reader, and secretly I feel as though I’m not really here.
When I’m suicidal, I’m task-fixated and happily inconsequential. Depressives often describe their suicidal mindset as “tunnel vision,” but really it’s flow. Flow, as in single-mindedness, as in what happens for the runner when she runs or the writer when she writes. When I’m grief-stricken over wanting to die, I’m too myopic for any other thought. In that dark space, I’m suicide-possessed and I cannot entertain the notion that people might love me or that my life has purpose. Which tool is not just a thought, it’s the thought.
While my father taught me about grieving over the death of the human body, I don’t recall any discussion of God or the soul. He dedicated his life to helping those in mourning, but at home we rarely discussed religion or the afterlife or purpose. It was decades later that I realized that my father, the death expert, hadn’t helped me to cultivate a philosophy on what happens to us after we die.
My body has never betrayed me, so why have I desired to annihilate it? To merely liberate the soul? No. My mind and its capacity for obsessive thinking is what I’ve actually wanted to quit. Absent the blades and pills and gun, is there another way? A friend once suggested that I just breathe: Inhabit the seconds between the process of inhaling and the process of exhaling and center myself by reaching that perfect instance when my perfect body does its perfect miracle of the breath.
Without my fears shadowing me, who am I? Identifying as a suicide only helps me insofar as I’m strong enough to transcend it. Perhaps the answer is not about abiding the form, it’s about quieting the mind. It’s about being and letting the being be enough. How to accomplish this is my story, one without a beginning or an end.
Janée J. Baugher is the author of two poetry collections, The Body’s Physics (Tebot Bach) and Coördinates of Yes (Ahadada Books). Her prose and poetry have been published in The Writer’s Chronicle, Rattle, NANO Fiction, and Nimrod, among other places, and she’s held nonfiction residencies in Pennsylvania, Alaska, Idaho, and Vermont. “I’m Not Really Here” is an excerpt of her unpublished collection of essays, Who by Water, Who by Sword: How a Suicide Saved Her Own Life. Currently, she lives is Seattle is at work on an environmental memoir.