BY ELLIOT CONNORS
Finalist for the 2020 Adroit Prize for Prose
This piece describes suicide and suicidal ideation with graphic language. All names have been changed.
I have acquired a hammock. Don’t freak out. It’s just a normal hammock, except it’s gorgeous. It’s orange and shimmery. It wobbles in the wind. It looks like a mirage. It’s shimmery and a chimera. I only use it on hot days. Days so hot they’re asphyxiating. Days when the air has nothing better to do than curl around my neck like a belt.
Sorry. I know that’s violent. It’s just that I put a belt around my neck. I thought that feeling it would help me stop cerebralizing suicide and realize that I viscerally don’t want to kill myself. My mind can convince itself of anything, but my body is less gullible.
It had the opposite effect though, pushed all the thoughts up into my brain so that it bulged out of its socket, ribbed the cranium with little bulbs of pink tissue. Buffered the limestone castle with fleshy battlements. Crenellated cranium. Sounds nice, means nothing.
It’s like when you girdle a tree to stop the downward flow of sap so that the fruit at the top ripens quicker, except in my case, the fruit always just explodes. The garden is strewn with carcasses. Back to the hammock though. The cloth is cold against my neck and the backs of my legs. I don’t know what material it is, but it’s stunning in the sun. It sparkles like it’s lined with tiny diamonds. I think it might be bulletproof. I haven’t tested it. It’s a chimera, except it’s real, because I can feel it. I want to be naked in it, feel it against all my skin. I want it to be my skin. It’s like a womb.
Age doesn’t count until you’re out of the womb. Time passes but doesn’t count in the hammock, or at least it doesn’t count for me. It’s not a solipsistic enclave where I can stop time for everyone. Everyone’s waiting for me; I’m just not waiting for anyone. I’m not waiting for myself.
When I’m outside the hammock, I’m always waiting for myself. I feel like the anchor of a relay race, waiting for the baton pass, except the penultimate sprinter has died, he’s just lying dead on the track and no one is even looking at him. I’m screaming at everyone to stop the race, to fucking look at the kid bleeding out on the track, did nobody else see the pistol guy misfire and shoot him through the stomach, absolutely gut him, blow out his intestines like a shredded flag unfurling in the wind? Even the blood is lazy, curdling in the heat, and I’m screaming at it to sprint to the finish line, to race like it had in the body when the kid had the strength to will it to, but I’m also screaming at all the spectators to care, to mourn, to go up to him one at a time like you do at a wake and hold him—I’ve never seen people hold the body at a wake but why not—hold him hard and quickly, sixty to a hundred times per minute like a communal heart that might revive him, but mostly I’m screaming at the dead kid to get up, just get up so we can finish the fucking race, the pistol shot a blank you fucking idiot, you’re not dead, you’re not even bleeding, it hasn’t been a tough race, you just need to get the fuck up, crawl to me if you have to so I can finish and get the glory for the both of us. Ah, fuck, they’re taking him out on a fucking gurney. He’s milking it. He’s making everybody wait.
Which brings me back to the hammock, which is a womb where I exist but don’t age even though everyone else is aging because I’m not in the world because I’ve decided not to be for the time being. Does that make sense? I’m doing the best that I can. The key takeaway is that I need someone to love me as if I were their child. But also, the hammock packs up small like an ultrasound fetus curled into itself. When it’s stowed like this, the carrying case is the womb and I am the mother. I cradle it in my arms. I love it as if it were my child.
The hammock suspends me low enough that it’s safe but high enough that I forget about the ground. We’re only a part of the world when we’re conscious of the ground. Think about it: we’re not in the world when we’re floating in the womb. We’re not in the world when we’re floating in the ocean. We are in the world when we’re floating in lakes because we can usually see where lakes end in every direction, so we’re reminded that we’re at least in a world, if not the world, that is, something circumscribed, and even then, we can usually see the bottom of a lake so that we know we’re in the world, that is, the one with a ground, the one that is three-dimensionally circumscribed.
In the hammock, though, there is an orange vacuum on either side, like when you close your eyes after looking at the sun and all you can see is a fathomless, pixelated orange. This is exceptional because there are only three things that are fathomless: the insides of your eyelids, the ocean, and the sky. These are the three places where the world ruptures at the seams. This is why we love closing our eyes. This is why we love the ocean. And this is why we love the hammock, with its burst-open view of the sky. Blue cupola. Sounds nice, but it’s not a cupola. It’s fathomless. It’s not an observatory, either, because that would be a tautology, though it is glass. Delicate, blue glass. Don’t shatter!
In the hammock, with the sky arcing past, you are the Earth’s axis of rotation. It’s nice to have the world spin around you instead of having to traverse a world rocking off its unidentifiable spindle.
It’s like when you were a kid and you were lying in the soft grass at the top of the hill behind your grandmother’s home in Quebec where her cows grazed—she was a butcher—except then, for some reason, you decided to roll down the hill. This was reckless, because then you and the world were spinning out of control and perpendicular to each other. You’re too big for that now. There’s too much inertia, not to mention too much room in your head. What if your brain got sloshed around? The space between your brain and your skull is terrifying, like the space between the heart and the ribs, or the space between the mother and the fetus. I know I keep coming back to the mother and the fetus, but it’s a really important dialectic.
These evolutionary gaps leave room for self-destruction. Just think of the Death Star. It seemed like an external attack, but it wouldn’t have been destroyed if not for the exhaust port. I think that’s how the Death Star got destroyed. I’ve never seen Star Wars. Also, on the topic of aircraft, we are in the world when we’re in airplanes because we never actually lose contact with the ground; the ground just changes altitude. This is why everyone still dreams about flying, real flying, the type that takes you off the ground and out of this world.
Trees tether the sky to the ground. They are the bronchi between two lungs, which is fitting, because trees breathe. They breathe oxygen into us and we breathe carbon dioxide into them. You should know this. This is basic. The outside of us is just the inside of us turned inside out. Don’t quote me on that. Quote me on this: the world and I are like socks turned into each other so we don’t fall apart. This is gravity. It is also the attraction between people who love each other because they both love and hate themselves, and so need someone who is them turned inside out to cradle them so they don’t drift away. This is called “spooning.”
I’m saying all this because in the hammock, you can look at the tops of trees, in relief against the fathomless sky. It’s one of the few things that makes me happy. Flowering things have all the beauty of exploding things without any of the mess. Flowering things have all the beauty of exploding things except in slow motion. The tops of trees rocket through the air like skeet shooting targets before suddenly being shot through with life. Their petals blossom like shards. The pollen hits your face like shrapnel. Everything is violent because everything is about rupture at the atomic level. The push and pull of electrons. Things breaking away from each other. I don’t have a source for this, but it sounds right.
Though the hammock’s not high enough to be dangerous, it feels dangerous. Something like sixty percent of people who hang themselves are found touching the ground. It’s amazing that in all the chaos of finding someone hanging, people remember whether the body was touching the ground, enough at least to get a statistic. My mother’s father found his father hanging. I don’t know whether the body was suspended or grounded. In my mind, it was suspended, because I’ve never visited my great-grandfather’s grave, but I’ve often imagined his body dangling above my life like an ornate chandelier. It’s not morbid. It’s very literary. His suicide is a family heirloom.
You can hang yourself on a doorknob. That’s why I couldn’t be in my room that night. I had a doorknob and a belt. Everything felt very far away. My window blinds are always shut because I live on the street. My room is cavernous. It is two hundred and thirty eight square feet. It is a massive space between me and the world. It is circumscribed and so it sometimes feels like the world. I pace around in circles to get it to spin but it won’t fucking move. Time stops for everyone. There is no one left but me. I haven’t seen the sky in days, years. It is a tumor where bad things fester, where everything inside ruptures but you can’t tell it’s bad from the outside because sometimes they’re benign, for most people they’re benign, calm down, you’re going to be okay, and then I’m out. I’m out and I’m walking. I feel like I’ve exploded all over New Haven. I’m just a shard hurtling towards the student health center. The city is littered with me. I am the payload, detached from the rocket, sailing through a fathomless night. No, my brain is the payload and I am the rocket. My brain is the precious cargo. Every other part of me is fragile and cold. All my other organs have given themselves up in service of my brain, and so my brain feels loved and cared for.
At the health center, I write on a little slip of paper that I’m suicidal and that I have a sore throat. They take my vitals to make sure I’m not already dead, and then they put me in a room while they figure out what to do with me. A nurse keeps offering me drinks. I can have any drink I want because I’m suicidal and have a sore throat. They tell me that the on-call psychiatrist is driving in from twenty minutes away, and I’m like, fuck, sorry to trouble him, but they tell me it’s his job, that he lives for this shit. They move me into a bigger room with two soft-looking beds I can’t sleep on even though I’m desperate to sleep, I only came here to sleep, I don’t want to talk to anyone, I just want to sleep in a place with no belts and no doorknobs. There’s a big-ass window with a pretty view of New Haven. Whenever I see glass, I imagine it shattering, except this time, instead of the shards falling dead to the street, I imagine them floating straight out and shrouding the view, refracting the light into thousands of pixels, like rain suspended, like low-hanging stars.
I talk to the on-call psychiatrist. He doesn’t want to make a decision about what’s best for me, because there’s only one person who can do that: a second on-call psychiatrist, from the Yale-New Haven hospital, who decides I need to go to the emergency room. She is soft-spoken and has short, purple hair. She straps me into the gurney like it’s a car seat. I text my friend and she catches me in the health center as I’m about to leave. She gives me chocolate-covered raisins and I grip them really tight as if they are the pills that are going to save me.
They send me in an ambulance with no sirens and no lights because it’s not a real emergency. Looking out the back window of a moving ambulance makes it seem like you’re vomiting out the street, or like the street’s being unspooled from you like an intestine, or like you’re going back in time to when you were better. The guy in the back asks if I want to kill myself right now, and I don’t want to offend him, so I say no. But also, if I really wanted to kill myself, wouldn’t I be trying? After a week in the psych ward, I’m still confused about the space between wanting to kill yourself and just doing it.
This liminality is called suicidal ideation. Sounds pretty, I like all the long vowels, makes it sound floaty, I bet a lot of writers kill themselves because suicide is such a pretty word—except the ambulance guy tells the emergency room receptionist that I’m in for S.I., not giving me the satisfaction of hearing the pretty words in full, but it’s okay because the emergency room receptionist is beautiful, beautiful enough to make me happy for good, if only I could look at them forever, but they’re wheeling me away, goodbye, I’ll love you forever!
So I’m lying on a gurney in the hallway of the emergency room when I realize I’m not only prone to depression, I’m also prone because of depression. It’s hilarious, but it’s also the title. I’m tugging at the nurses’ scrubs as they walk past. Can’t they see? It’s the fucking title. They think I’m crazy. The title of what? My memoir? And I’m like, no, my memoir is going to be Practicing Smiling because I was self-conscious about my smile as a kid and I was also depressed, but this piece isn’t about my childhood, it’s about my nostalgia for a time when I wasn’t depressed, which isn’t categorically my childhood, though it’s parts of my childhood, but also this piece is about my nostalgia for a time when I felt loved and cared for, when I didn’t have to worry about anything, when time didn’t count, a period so distant it feels even earlier than childhood, but also this piece is about caring for myself in the way that I feel like I was once cared for, so that the dialectic of caring and being cared for keeps me together, keeps the gaseous part of me from spinning away from the solid part—the solid part is just the gaseous part that has compressed onto my skeleton and fossilized over time—long enough so that it becomes solid and then all of me is solid, but also this piece is just the gaseous part of me which has leaked away and petrified on the page, the part that is too late to recover.
I explain all of this perfectly but they still take me to the psychiatric observation unit. They take me in a gurney. They take me everywhere in a gurney because I’m a liability. My body is the precious cargo. They don’t care about my brain as long as I can breathe.
The psychiatric observation unit is a gray hall in a basement. It’s like the movie Us where the people underground are tethered to those above, except I am both. I am above and below, real and imagined, fiction and nonfiction, controlling and controlled, happy and sad, mother and child. The only thing I am not is black and white. I am so white. There are no mirrors in the psychiatric observation unit because they don’t want people shattering them and cutting themselves with the shards, but I see myself in every white, shiny surface. I see myself in every dead-eyed patient in scrubs. All the patients are white and all the nurses are black. All the space between us is an amorphous, depressing gray.
You can see the resonances between people. The vibrations make the air blurry like a mirage. It’s hard to tell what’s imagined and what’s real. These spaces between people are sad, but not as sad as the spaces inside of people.
Eventually, I move to the psychiatric ward. My parents visit me every goddamn day. On the first night, a guy tells me he got admitted for threatening to kill his parents in their sleep. Some people haven’t seen their parents in months. Some people haven’t seen their parents in years because their parents killed themselves. We’re in a group therapy session about leisure activities, talking about whether we prefer summer or winter sports, when a woman named Grace says that her dad killed himself when she was two. Then, a veteran named Harry says he prefers summer sports because he’s a scuba diver. He has a thousand dives under his belt. Grace says that the only thing in the world that’s completely unpredictable is the ocean. She misses the ocean. She used to go with her niece and throw bottles filled with letters and plastic jewels into the tide. Then she’d come back early the next day and bury a bottled response in the sand so that her niece would believe in mermaids. Grace says she was enchanted by mermaids as a kid. From the way she talks about her niece and the ocean, I guess she still is.
All this is called Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, or DBT. The idea is that you can hold two truths at once: that you can accept who you are while also recognizing that you need to change. Grace is depressed but she can still remember things that bring her joy. The memory of joy is dialectic to depression. Grace is scared of the ocean but she also loves the ocean. A fear of the ocean is dialectic to a love of the ocean. This is what makes the ocean sublime. Another important part of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy is observing things objectively, without judgement. A girl named Lisa gets a call on the second day that her ex-boyfriend has killed himself. Everyone is killing themselves. The psych ward can’t save everyone. I can’t say whether we’re lucky to be here, because that would be rendering a judgement.
We go to music therapy, where we listen to four songs and draw what we feel. Someone requests “Young Love” by Chris Brown, which would never fly at Yale. Then, we listen to something I don’t remember. Then, we listen to “20 Something” by SZA which I’ve never heard before but I love. Then, we listen to “Make You Feel My Love” by Adele and I want to cry. I draw a circle in the center like a nucleus, and then a space, and then the valence electrons. I connect the electrons to each other in a complex network. The nucleus is completely untethered, even though it’s at the center of everything. Sometimes the space between people is sadder than the space inside of people. This is how I tell sadness from depression.
I could say a lot more about the psych ward. I took a lot of notes, but then I lost them, which is probably for the best, because it was voyeuristic and made me feel like a sociologist. I put a page between me and them so that I could feel like I was at an outer valence, always on the cusp of breaking back out into normal society.
The key takeaway is that we played a lot of foosball. There was a shitty table in the cafeteria, set against a big window where we could see the outside. The table didn’t look like much, but when we were playing, it was gorgeous: spinning little red and blue people, all on different axes, pitted against each other, but not really, just for fun, all in perspective, we could see all of them at once, see how they worked together, a ball, the shared nucleus, rocketing around, lodging itself in lots of hearts, so fast it was blurry, this was the resonance between the foosball people, this was how we would stay connected forever. It was a spectacle. We loved the whirring colors and whirring shouts like sirens. We loved each other. The staff yelled at us if we got too rowdy. We didn’t hold it against them: if we were happy, they were out of work. They yelled at us that it was time to go back up to the unit and so I turned my players parallel to the tabletop and the sky, hoping they would get some rest before the next bout.