A painful event happened to me last September that I can’t really write about yet. I will someday, but not now. [Edit from the future: this event was my HIV diagnosis. I wrote this post two years before I came out as HIV-positive in The Advocate.] It was a hard blow — the hardest I’ve been dealt — and sent me into a heavy depression. I was probably not a very good friend during this time. I stopped eating, stopped socializing, and dropped a class. Then the holidays came.
Savannah is a summer tourism destination, but the city is beautiful at Christmas. Downtown looks like a storybook. People hang fresh garlands from the lamp posts in the squares. Holiday lights hang over Broughton Street. Last Christmas, I was working in a restaurant on River Street and it was very busy on Christmas Day. After work, I went to the gay club, got drunk, and sang karaoke all night until closing time. I woke up the next day and realized I was sadder than I’ve ever been in my entire life. That’s when I started thinking about suicide.
Over the coming weeks, I called some suicide hotlines and talked to strangers. They were very nice. I can’t say how close I was to actually doing it. I didn’t plan anything definite, but I did look up methods. I decided that if I was going to go through with it, I would do it on a Thursday, which has always been my favorite day of the week. There are many articles for and against suicide on the internet and I read several of them and thought most of them were ridiculous and terribly written.
As you know, I believe almost nothing, so I have no comforting tricks of faith to explain away the bad things that happen in life. Suffering is just suffering. There’s no meaning to it. I have to live with pain or give up. If I did the latter, I knew the people around me would grieve. My mother would spiral. My father would wonder what he could have done, what he did wrong. But I hope they would eventually pick up and keep going. Rebecca, my sister, would have a full life ahead of her, one filled with travel and probably children someday. My classmates would graduate and get jobs.
I thought about the universe without me. After I’m gone, white dwarfs will be born in star clusters as old as time. Nobody will see that happen, but it would still happen. After our world and all the people in it vanish, supernovas will burst and stars will die, and no one will see them. Are they any less majestic for not being seen?
The universe does not notice our presence and does not need our observation. What can a person be in its enormity? I’m just stardust — cosmic dirt recycled over billions of years. The romantic notion of returning to all of that thrilled me. A worldview rooted in science provides a great loop of life and death, a cosmology that feels very spiritual. I wanted to return to the stars.
Religious people claim that tragedy turns sufferers into believers, but I’m not convinced. The last thing I want to do is get down on my knees and ask god for help. I want to spit at god. I want to pay him back for everything he’s done to me, to everyone. He is responsible for all our suffering.
To keep my spirits up, I started going on long walks late at night. I threw on a black hoodie and walked for as long as I could, then turned around and went home. This helped me think. When you’re as sad as I was, living and not-living look like even choices, a coin flip, a pendulum that could swing one way or the other. One way is not implicitly more valuable than the other. Life doesn’t warrant itself or provide any reasons for it to exist. Death, too, is a moot concept. It’s just a shuttering of the senses.
Suicide is an interesting thought experiment for an atheist. Without any value assigned to life or an afterlife to worry about, the only thing I lose in death is my sensory experience — along with all potential, however small, to feel happy again.
Two weeks ago, I went for a long walk. I walked down Abercorn Street in the early hours of the morning. The road is lined with a canopy of Southern live oak trees. No one was out. I walked downtown, turned around near the Liberal Arts building where I have classes, and walked home. When I arrived at my doorstep, I knew I wasn’t going to kill myself. Something clicked in my mind.
Even the smallest potential for happiness was, I decided, worth more than nothing. And that’s all death is — nothingness. It’s not Hell or Heaven or any system of reward or punishment. It’s just nothing — the end of taste, smell, touch. I realized I didn’t want to trade the potential for something for the certainty of nothing. Pleasure will come again — I will eat good food, see good movies, have sex, and meet interesting people again. That’s enough. That’s life.
Like Christianity, hedonism is a death cult. They are, in many ways, the inverse of each other. Practitioners of both faiths believe in Heaven, they just disagree on its location. Both believe death is imminent, suffering can be beautiful, and agony and ecstasy come close to being the same. I think I came to hedonism in the most practical way — by assessing my life for what it is and deciding it was worth keeping, only because pleasure is real. I want more food, more sex, more people. If ever I feel sated or if the suffering gets too much, I can always reassess the situation later and choose differently.
I think everyone should assess their life this way. Once life becomes a conscious choice, a labor one chooses to undertake, a person becomes, perhaps for the first time, a willed agent. Seen as something that is decided upon, life is given a directive, a meaning one can return to on bad days. I will live for this reason. Life is no longer thrown on me, no longer something I have by happenstance. I have chosen it and must do something with it. What will I do? What do I want to do?
After that night, I started eating better, sleeping, and going back to the gym. Of course, I still think about death. But death is becoming a neutral thing, a certainty that gives resonance to every action. It makes orgasms better and kisses more deeply felt. Death makes me want more life. I can think of no better definition of life than a person’s ability to want.
I want a dog. I want to make peace with my parents. I want to get married, I think. I want to leave the United States and live abroad. I may not accomplish all this, but my hunger is there, and it feels, at this moment, like the antithesis of dying.
If you ever think about suicide, I don’t know if any of this will help. I won’t judge you for deciding differently — deciding that dying is the better course. There are many people with harder lives than mine, who struggle more than I do, and who have been given less than I have been given. I can say my pleasure outweighs my pain but I don’t assume everyone can say that. But here’s my argument for staying: If you reduce life down to pleasurable sensation and recognize that pleasurable sensation can be anything — light in a window, seeing someone you know, hearing music — you can talk probability, and it’s highly probable that pleasurable sensation will come again. That’s something, and something is greater than nothing.
Before deciding, I encourage you to read Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It’s a short, beautiful book. You can read it in one sitting. It is the best thing I’ve read in defense of staying in life even when it’s miserable — for seeing pleasure and beauty and deciding pleasure and beauty are worth living for. The book puts living and dying in clear perspective and is a testament to the beauty of the most simple sensations. For Bauby, experiencing butterflies and light and music — and little more — was enough to want more life.
If you’re interested, here are the hotlines I called:
The Trevor Project, a 24/7 hotline for young people who may be feeling suicidal or need of a safe, judgment-free place to talk: 1-866-488-7386.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, available 24/7 in English and Spanish: 1-800-273-8255
Someone’s life is better with you in it.