A painful event happened to me last September and I can’t talk about it yet. I will someday, but not now. [Edit: this event was my HIV diagnosis. I wrote this post two years before I came out as HIV-positive in The Advocate. My life has gotten so much better and I’m glad every day that I stayed.] It was a hard blow — the hardest I’ve been dealt — and sent me into a bad depression. I stopped eating and dropped a class. Then the holidays came.
Savannah is a summer tourism destination, but the city is beautiful at Christmas. It looks like a storybook. They hang garland from the lamposts in the squares. 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 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 a few hotlines and talked to strangers. I can’t say how close I was to 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 is my favorite day of the week. There are many articles for and against suicide online and I read several of them and thought most of them were a bit ridiculous.
When you believe nothing, you have no comforting tricks of faith to explain why bad things happen. Suffering is just suffering. There’s no meaning, no justification to any of it. You have to live with pain or give up. If I did the latter, I knew the people in my life would grieve. But they’d pick up and keep going. Traffic would be the same the next day as it is any other day. My classmates would graduate and get jobs.
After I’m gone, white dwarfs will be born in star clusters as old as time. None of us would see that happen, but it would happen just the same. After our world and all the people in it are vanished, supernovas will burst and stars will die, and no one will see them. The universe does not notice our presence. What can a person be in all that? What am I? I’m just stardust — cosmic dirt recycled over billions and 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 almost spiritual.
Religious people claim that tragedy turns people into believers. 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 and to all of us.
To keep my spirits up, I’ve started going on long walks late at night. I throw on a black hoodie and walk for as long as I can, then turn around and go home. It helps me think. When you’re this sad, living and not-living look like even choices, a coin flip, a pendulum that could easily swing one way or the other. One choice 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 very moot concept. It’s just the end of life.
Suicide is an interesting thought experiment for an atheist. Without any value assigned to life or an afterlife to worry about, the only thing you lose in death is 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 into downtown, turned around near the Liberal Arts building where I have classes, and came home. When I arrived at my doorstep, I knew I wasn’t going to kill myself. Something clicked.
The potential for happiness is worth more than nothingness. And that’s all death is — nothingness. It’s not Hell or Heaven or any system of reward and 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 perfect inverse of each other. Both practitioners 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 came to hedonism in the most practical way — by assessing 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 the suffering of life gets too much, I can always reassess the situation of living later and choose differently.
I think everyone should assess life this way. Once it becomes a conscious choice, a labor one decides to undertake, you become an agent. Seen as something that is decided upon, life is given a directive, a subjective meaning you can return to. I will live for this reason. Life is no longer thrown on you, no longer something you have by happenstance. You have chosen it and must do something with it.
After that night, I started eating better, sleeping, going to the gym. I had no idea that New York was coming to me, and this is before San Francisco, before Los Angeles. Sitting here on this table in the East Village, I similarly have no idea what to expect, but I can take my guesses: Amsterdam, Berlin, London. And of course, I still think about death. What else is there to do on quiet afternoons? But death is this neutral thing, this unwanted guest, this certainty that gives resonance to every action, every choice. It makes each orgasm richer, each kiss more deeply felt. I can think of no better definition of life than an organism’s ability to want. I want a dog. I want to take care of my parents and somehow repay them for a life of love. I think I want to get married. I want to leave the United States. I may not accomplish all this, but the hunger is there, and it is the antithesis of dying.
If you’re considering suicide, I don’t know if any of this helps. I don’t judge anyone for deciding that leaving is the better option. There are many people with harder lives than mine, who struggle more than I do, and who have been given less than I have. I can say my pleasure outweighs my pain but I don’t assume everyone can. But 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 probable that pleasurable sensation will come again. That’s something, and something is greater than nothing. (Before deciding, read Jean-Dominique Bauby’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. It’s short, you can read it in one sitting.)
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