In January 2012, two weeks after my discharge from a psychiatric hospital in Connecticut, I made a plan to die. My week in an acute care unit that had me on a suicide watch had not diminished my pain.
Back in New York, I stormed out of my therapist’s office and declared I wouldn’t return to the treatment I’d dutifully followed for three decades. Nothing was working, so what was the point?
I fit the demographic profile of the American suicide — white, male and entering middle age with a history of depression. Suicide runs in families, research tells us, and it ran in mine. My father killed himself at age 49 in April 1990. A generation before, an aunt of his took her life; before her, there were others.
Shame runs in families, too, and no one in mine talked much about mental illness.
The first time I was hospitalized for wanting to kill myself, as a teenager, my dad visited me a few days in. I made an effort to greet him with a firm handshake; he shared a few jokes with me. Dad was visibly concerned and told me he loved me. Only after his suicide a few years later did I learn that he, too, had been hospitalized, for depression, when he was in his early 20s.
Setting out to start my own life after college, I felt that suicide was a clear and present opportunity, one that glowed more brightly during my depressive episodes.
But I had an ambitious plan to beat it. I’d be a performer: work hard, keep my goals in the line of sight at all times, and make as much money as I could. Professional success would be my first line of defense to keep hopelessness at bay. In parallel, I’d find excellent doctors and be a compliant patient, take my meds and show up for talk therapy.
And for a long time, through my 20s and 30s, that plan worked.
Then, in 2008, a business deal fell through, and I couldn’t shake my disappointment.
I slipped into a low mood, unfamiliar in both its persistence and depth. The doctors tried different drugs, different combinations of drugs. There were re-evaluations and second opinions. A course of electroconvulsive therapy was ineffective. My diagnosis shifted from depression to treatment-resistant depression.
Three and a half years later, I was done. I’d stopped sleeping through the night; I’d go to the office before dawn to avoid being alone with my thoughts. If not for daily business lunches, a custom in the publishing industry, and the brownies and whole wheat biscuits my partner baked in loving desperation, I would’ve lost far more than the 30 pounds I’d dropped just in a few months.
I diligently planned my death, contacting a lawyer to finish my will and updating my health care proxy. In case I botched the job, I wanted to leave clear instructions that nothing be done to try to revive me or to prolong my life. I intended to hang myself in the garage of my upstate house.
When I told my brother in an email that I was giving him power of attorney over my affairs, he replied immediately: You must not leave us! He reminded me of our father’s dark legacy, and what it had felt like when he’d left us behind. I remembered that agony, didn’t I?