hobart logo
Leviathan photo

Every forty seconds, somewhere in the world, someone dies by suicide. As a collective, humanity cannot endure one minute of existence. From the time I was about fifteen years old, I believed I would eventually die by suicide. It sounds bizarre, I know, to live a life assuming depression would one day claim me, like waiting to be hit by a bus. 

Suicide used to be an aspirational end for me—not outside my valence of possibility, but I don’t know that I would have ever followed through. Still, I have always thought about how I would do it. I like to have an escape plan. After nine years in New York City, I bought my first car, and I realized I was finally in possession of a practical method of killing myself.  

 

An octopus is a living defense mechanism, built to ward off predators and protect its offspring. It can shoot ink to confuse attackers while it propels itself deeper into the ocean. But it will always return home; octopuses explore in circles, venturing away from their dens systematically. 

 

Jumping off a bridge is too terrifying—the instinct for self-preservation would kick in. I suspect this would be the same with a gun or razorblades—too much time to reconsider. Hanging is too complicated without readily-available rafters. Drano and antifreeze are easy enough to get, but painful on top of being slow and possibly ineffective. Pills always seemed the easiest method, but the margin of error is high. During the periods in my life when the possibility orbited closest, I wasn’t taking medication, so it was never a viable option anyway. I never wanted to stick a friend or roommate with discovering my body either. 

The best method available to me in recent years has been a train. But throwing myself in front of a subway car is also no guarantee.  The New York City MTA posts signs in train cars with statistics: 172 people were hit by trains last year. Fifty died. I think they're trying to highlight the danger of leering over the platform or diving onto the tracks to retrieve expensive, pointless items, but I’m surprised by how many people survive. I can imagine my failed suicide attempt, becoming the asshole who held up the A train and living to see the shame through. I’d return to the existence I'd hated so much, having failed at the most serious commitment I'd made and probably having deformed myself in the attempt…

But now, I have a death machine. I can drive it off a bridge or mountain road, steal someone’s garage and go peacefully in a cloud of carbon monoxide, or take it into the woods and drive into a snowbank to freeze. 

Driving again, after so long, I realized I had missed the way a steering wheel slips through my fingers, the smooth shushing sound it makes against my skin. I missed how driving takes every particle of concentration not to crash, how there is no leeway for my other anxieties to seep in. I missed the reminder that my hands are the only thing between my organs and the concrete walls of the RFK Bridge. 

 

An octopus can spray ink to distract predators and inhibit sea creatures’ senses of sight and smell. In lab experiments, octopuses have been known to squirt water at light bulbs and experimenters. Many octopuses simply don’t perform the task expected of them. They understand captivity and usually rebel against it. Some have been known to jam their arms into water valves to raise the water level in their tank, flooding the lab in the process. 

 

Taking your own life is a decision usually years in the making. It seeps into you every time depression hits, like ink stains on your bones. What if? It’d be so easy… 

Depression robs your mind of the future. There is no possibility in captivity. What’s the point of a life of probiotic yogurt and teeth-brushing and credit scores when all there is to look forward to is more credit scores and teeth-brushing and probiotic yogurt? Even if that captivity was forged in your own dark mind-matter, even if you know that captivity is only imagined, it’s captivity nonetheless. And the only way to free yourself from the imagined chains is to shut off the mind that makes them. Suicide may be the wrong solution, but it’s a solution. 

What I should be doing is confronting the monster. Instead, I try to outrun it. The anxiety helps. Anxiety obscures sadness, muddying it with immediacies. It’s a schedule of worries flashing in my cerebral cortex, prodding at me to go go go. Get out of bed. Move. Shower. Exist. 

I fill my days with work, where I lacquer on a smile and keep the endless reel of self-hate at bay by expelling my fears through tapping fingers on a keyboard or finding friends to drink with during the hours I know I won’t be able to sleep. I watch television, occasionally read a book—when I can quiet my own narration enough to retain words—to observe a world in which I don’t have to live. I write when I have to. When I can’t keep up with my anxiety’s expectations. When the water level floods.

 

Octopus arms are semi-autonomous. They can regrow lost tentacles. Their bodies are covered in neurons, lending them a similar intellectual capacity to vertebrates than their closer invertebrate relatives. Though a central brain controls most of their actions, octopuses’ complex body parts often ad-lib based on what they sense around them. As predator and prey, the octopus relies on its complex body to survive. In addition to crushing tensile strength, many species have venomous bites to paralyze prey.  

 

The crystal-blue reality is that the world isn’t fair. We don’t always get what we deserve. Depressed people understand this. Their bodies are imbued with it. Psychologist Martin Seligman called it learned helplessness: enough failures remove all desire to keep trying. Some people can handle setback after setback because they can blame the weather, or the world. But those with depression have a pessimistic attributional style. We believe every failure is a personal failure; each one is internal (my fault), global (every mistake is my fault), and stable (they will always be my fault). That’s when I feel most myself: when the sea inside me is calm. When the mundane worries vanish and my dark reality surfaces. When I’m no longer trying to help myself. Yet those are the times when I struggle to put pants on, one leg at a time or not.  My body becomes paralyzed, like I was hit with a lightning bolt of sadness. 

For me, depression is when I drop a dish and watch it crack and remember that I’m broken, too. It’s when I order chicken fingers for takeout and they forget all the dipping sauces and I’m so sad I’m missing the best part, but I think I probably don’t deserve dipping sauce anyway. I’ll cry a puddle onto the kitchen floor and from it summon a dark leviathan. I cannot function when I am myself. 

Sometimes, it feels like I’m hallucinating while watching myself hallucinate—like I’m standing in a corner, trying to tell myself the sea monster circling me is just that, a myth. I know I am not hated, not completely alone, not completely worthless. But knowing has never been a prerequisite for believing. It is my fault. It is always my fault. It will always be my fault. 

Of course, my brain orchestra returns, my anxiety regrows me. The leviathan swims away, and my mind invents new distractions: a new dress, a creative project, a frantic scramble for a promotion. 

Though I can’t see a future—any future—some part of me keeps fighting for it. The part that needs to be liked, that needs not to fail. The part I wish would release me into the deep. The part that hasn’t learned helplessness yet. Or maybe, that part just likes probiotic yogurt. 

 

An octopus can change color to camouflage itself.  Octopus skin contains photoreceptors that detect the environment around them, allowing the animal to blend into the sea floor. The closely-related cuttlefish frequently changes color in response to perceived attackers. Sometimes, they change colors—bright shades of red and orange and yellow—for what appears to be no reason at all. 

 

Like the immaculate house I grew up in, my amiable sheen and outgoing gloss deflect suspicion. It only takes a coat of lipstick and a dab of concealer to hide a bruise. I learned by watching my mother. I learned to feign authenticity, to fit in from the outside. But I am a shy person who learned to wear bright shades of pink and yellow to hide my internal black and grey. I am a depressed person trapped in a happy one. Sometimes I think I am the opposite of a pod person.

 I was in therapy for three years. Two, then three times a week. My therapist would always ask me about my feelings, but I couldn’t wade beneath the anxiety to find the answer. We’d brought up medication as a possibility early on, but I never followed through. The anxiety seemed to be working then. Eventually, my superhuman workload outswam me. And the black seeped through.

“I know you made an appointment, but the psychiatrist wasn’t available for over a month from now,” she said. “You said yesterday you didn’t feel like it was urgent. Are you feeling differently today?” 

I didn’t want to worry her. But I didn’t have a smile left in me. “Honestly?” I said, “I don’t have faith anything will work, so I’m not sure it matters when I go.” 

“That’s really important. I’m glad you said that.” 

“I mean…it’s been a long time since I was on medication. Maybe if it’s for the anxiety, it’ll be different. But the anxiety is also what keeps me from…giving up.” 

“It keeps you living.”

“Yeah.”

 “This is the most I’ve ever felt you talking about your feelings. Like this is really you, living under the surface.”

I nodded. “I’m definitely more myself when I’m like this." I paused. "But I also can’t function like this.”  

“How does it feel to talk about it?”

I searched for an emotion, trying to pay attention to my hands, my feet, to analyze and process. I tried to formulate a correct answer, something true, but perhaps insincere. Instead, something else rolled out: 

“Honest.” 

 

Because it lacks bones, an octopus can flatten itself, fitting into cracks to hide and lay eggs in. While defending their eggs, octopuses sometimes forget to feed themselves. Most species live only two to four years, yet they continue to reproduce, living just long enough to make more octopuses. More octopuses that will live for two to four years, living just long enough to make more octopuses. 

 

When the anxiety evaporates, it’s like I can see the world with total clarity. Total probiotic clarity. I understand how little it all matters and ask what the hell I’m doing. The depression surfaces again and again, reminding me I am flawed, again. It oozes like ink. It stains me. 

Although I never attempted suicide, I’ve come close, but something has always pulled me back. Tiny things: my cat, a text from a friend, the thought of making my roommate find my body. When I was closest, enveloped in my own dark—once, alone on a hotel room floor; once, crying on my own foam mattress—I thought of razorblades. 

It wasn’t the method I expected to choose.

Suspended in nighttime, wishing for the safety of sleep, I saw flashes of blood, slices of flesh erupting in red. The images of opening myself were beautiful and freeing. As I convulsed in tears, my cat Marzipan’s rubber paws pressed on my back like stamps marked URGENT. 

I cried myself paralyzed. My body ad-libbing, refusing to listen to my complex brain. I cried new lines into my face one night. Not even makeup covered them. I was out in the light, above the water. 

 

***

 

While making a sandwich one day, a couple of years into my meds, I realized I hadn’t neared the line in almost three years. I’m here, I thought. I’m here. I’m in this life. For good. I had made so many sandwiches, merely to move the hands of the clock that ticks away my existence. Suddenly, there were many more sandwiches to make, not the sandwiches of an indefinite death march, but sandwiches for the sake of sandwiches. 

So many with depression slip from that narrow isthmus that exists between being able to see trying as a possibility and succumbing to the ease of giving up. Depression is isolating and self-fueling: the more alone you feel, the more alone you become. The barrier is most often impermeable; once you sink, you drown. When you’ve spent so long hiding your depression, the smallest crack will reveal you. Like most monsters, it doesn’t like the light. Talking about it helps. Three years in therapy and several months on the right medication were enough to lock the escape hatch. As much as I want to take a battering ram to it, I can’t. I’m stuck in my tank, with no light bulbs to squirt or filters to block. I can’t move backward anymore—as much as I still don’t want to move forward. Here I am, wearing yellow in the yogurt aisle, wishing I could be an octopus, living only two to four years. Here I am, driving over a commuter bridge with an unbreakable concrete barrier, heading toward some other side I can’t see, and yet I know I’ll get there. Here I am, unchained and emerged from the deep.

image: David Wright


SHARE