Ugly, Bitter, and True

After years of feeling hopeless and barely human, one talented writer manages to find her will to live.

Suzanne Rivecca | Zyzzyva | April 2018 | 84 minutes (16,714 words)

 

The most barbarous of our maladies is to despise our being. –Michel de Montaigne

 

There’s a tiny park on Hyde Street in San Francisco, on the cable car line, and for about a year I half-heartedly planned to kill myself in it. The park is slightly sunken, set off from the street, mostly concrete: one of those wedged-in, rarely utilized “mini-parks” common to this part of the city. There are a few rickety maroon-painted benches, a banner of tattered Mexican party flags, some scattered plants and trees. Sometimes, on warm nights, people sit there and eat ice cream cones from the famous ice cream parlor on the corner. Sometimes people take their dogs there to pee. But most of the time it’s empty.

I zeroed in on it because it’s near my apartment and ill-lit. I’d made only a cursory stab at formulating the logistics. Mostly I fantasized in broad strokes, visualizing the final result rather than the step-by-step labor. I knew this much: I wanted to put my California ID in my pocket, along with a piece of paper with my sister’s contact information, swallow a bunch of Xanax with alcohol, and hang myself from a tree. I didn’t think about what I’d use to hang myself, or what I’d stand on to reach the tree, or what kind of knot I’d tie. I didn’t even know which tree. My reluctance to hammer out these details probably indicated a lack of genuine resolve. Or maybe it was just indicative of the bone-shaking agitation that made it impossible to focus on anything intently enough to make a plan.

I walked by the park almost every day, but found it hard to enter. Sometimes I’d stand on the sidewalk and just stare into it, my heartrate accelerating. I knew this was the place, but I didn’t want to go in and scope out coordinates and vantage points. If it was going to happen, I didn’t want to be methodical about it. I was waiting for some trigger that would make it inevitable: some fresh humiliation, some galling failure. Something that would make it all fall into place, get the ball rolling organically, negate the need for foresight. I may have also been waiting for an irrefutable reason not to do it at all.

I didn’t tell anyone about the park. At the time, the only person I told about wanting to die was the therapist I was seeing, and it took me a while to disclose. I initially started seeing her because I couldn’t write anymore. Six months or so after I started, I asked her, “Under what circumstances would you be legally obligated to 5150 a patient?”

She explained that there is a complicated set of protocols and procedures involved, and that committing a person is not something she would do lightly. The theoretical candidate would have to have a specific plan and the means to execute it, and would have to express in no uncertain terms an intention to implement that plan, immediately.  Saying “I want to kill myself” isn’t enough.

So that’s what I said, in a rush of relief. I finally knew I could say it out loud, this weak and contemptible declaration, the source of such isolating shame. And I knew better. I’d known people who had killed themselves. I knew the devastation it inflicted on families and friends, the wreckage, the ruin. I was no disaffected teenager naively romanticizing my own morbid sadness. I was an adult. I knew better than to want this. I was ashamed. But I still wanted it, because it felt like the only dignified option available. Being awake was intolerable, and I couldn’t sleep.

I felt useless. I was convinced I’d end up homeless. It didn’t feel like an abstract fear. I worked with people who were homeless, and was familiar with the varied trajectories by which an ostensibly “stable” person could stray to the fringes. It isn’t always a dramatic all-at-once plummet: addiction, psychosis, bankruptcy, a family that disowns you. Sometimes it’s incremental, a slippage by degrees. You freeze, you hide; you abandon all responsibility in an escalating series of omissions. You don’t answer the people who come looking for you. You stop being able to support yourself because supporting yourself means having the capacity to interact normally, to answer for the consequences of your actions or inaction. You no longer feel capable of going through the motions necessary to navigate the world on legitimate terms. You become convinced that you’re exempt from these terms, that they were not written with you in mind. And you’re so ashamed of your failure, so afraid of burdening people, so terrified of being beholden to or controlled by whatever might save and contain you, that you just recede, and disappear. In its frighteningly cumulative accrual, its snowballing relentlessness, this imagined path was like that nightmare of being in college and having ten exams on the same day and realizing, too late, that you haven’t gone to class all semester. It’s one of those fatalistic hypotheticals that can seem, in the mind of a depressed person, both luridly surreal and utterly plausible.

You’re catastrophizing, friends would say to me, when I talked about becoming homeless. They were right. But I’d reached that dark inner place at which a catastrophe seemed less outlandish than a reprieve.

I’d recently returned to San Francisco after an absence of almost three years. In the years I’d been gone, I was supposed to have finished a second book. That never happened. So I moved back and immediately began to inhabit what felt like an old and outworn version of my life, as if I’d gotten stuck in a Lost-esque time warp and couldn’t escape. I’d gone back to my old job as a fundraiser for a social services program in the Haight Ashbury: one that weathered, via the valiant grit of my boss, a constant succession of crises. We worked with homeless teenagers and young adults. In an average month, at least one client would commit suicide or try to commit suicide or overdose or get murdered. I’d left this job almost three years earlier, after I’d sold my book. I’d been happy to leave, because, despite my love for the organization, my boss, and the kids, working there was inordinately stressful and paid very little. San Francisco didn’t care about homeless drug-using youth dying, and I felt like it was my job to make the city care, to tell the story right, and I had to walk a fine line in order to do it: to tell the unvarnished truth about how desperate things were, but in a way that didn’t offend or accuse or beg too hard. The desired tone—verbal and written—was a kind of tempered, humble rationality, and the jarring dissonance between the tragedy and injustice I witnessed and the tepid equanimity with which I packaged it felt like a daily betrayal, of myself and of reality. When I resumed this job after my hiatus, I remembered how necessary the dissonance was, how it seeped into the daily fabric of my life and consciousness. It was a skill I had to relearn.

It was a skill that also came in handy for my freelance job: writing sprightly ad copy for a luxury makeup company run by a celebrity. In that circumstance, the contrast between my mental state and the manic-pixie-priestess persona I had to embody—“Turn your inner glow into an outie” was an actual line of copy that sprung, like a rogue spiral of silly string, from the blackened hull of my brain—was at least absurd enough to distract me, in a bleak, bemused way.

I would come home from the homeless-youth place and sit at my living room desk with a giant pot of tea that I kept refilling for hours, peering at photos of soap and hair serum in an attempt to evoke some pithy distillation of their true worth and meaning, emailing friends lines like Take instant hair repair on the road, and don’t forget to send a postcard to your split ends, and they’d write back What the fuck is happening to you, and I’d welcome their mockery as a kind of reminder that I was still me. There was reassurance in that, because it entailed interaction of some kind, a sort of reflective surface through which I could glimpse an oppositional incarnation of my true selfhood: my mirror-image, this distorted and compromised cosmetics-hawker. But when I wasn’t writing makeup copy or human services grants, all I did was shake and panic and weep; and when I wasn’t doing that, I would walk the streets, barreling up and down hills with the blinkered imperviousness of a phantom passing through walls. I thought I would never write fiction—or anything that wasn’t ad copy or grants—again. What’s worse, I didn’t want to. I felt an overpowering, disgusted aversion to the very thought. I didn’t see the point. I couldn’t even go in bookstores anymore. Everything related to books felt tainted.

But I didn’t know how to function without the practice of writing in the foreground: first and safest, the thing to which every other aspect of my life had always been subordinated. And I didn’t want to be in San Francisco. All my friends had left, and the city had changed enormously during the three years—one itinerant, one in Boston, one in Rome—I’d been gone. It was a shiny, soulless nucleus of venture capital and gentrification. My old stomping grounds—the Mission district, where I’d lived during my first year in the city; the Tenderloin, where I’d worked at a Catholic social services agency; the Haight, where my employer, the homeless-youth program, had recently lost its lease and been thrown out on the streets—were unrecognizable. Everyone who wasn’t rich and white was getting evicted from their apartments. Every day, home-grown businesses and nonprofits—the African-American bookstore in the Fillmore; the gay bar in Bernal Heights; countless art galleries and botanicas and bakeries and community centers and social service programs—got their leases terminated or their rent jacked up. The city was suddenly full of 20-somethings who looked like Patrick Bateman/Mark Zuckerberg hybrids and had more money than God. The gap between the very rich and the very poor was bigger and more distressingly obvious than ever. There was a strange, blithe, entrepreneurial callousness in the air, and underneath it seethed an ever-present threat of imminent exile: fit into the new paradigm, or your days are numbered. I had much more in common with the sidelined, the disrupted, than I did with the proud disruptors. I no longer knew my place there.

Being awake was intolerable, and I couldn’t sleep.

I’d always relied on writing as a way out. Since childhood, it had been my vocation, my primary relationship, my religion, my insurance, my contingency plan, my justification for taking up space in the world. If I was desperately unhappy somewhere, it would take me somewhere else. I followed it from place to place, grateful that it had so often been my ticket out of a rut. And it was gone. Every day in San Francisco felt like an ingestion of slow poison, and I’d lost the antidote. I was getting a little sicker all the time.

In the therapist’s office, I tried to present some cohesive semblance of personhood for her to assess and respond to, some reconstruction of myself that made sense. But when a person who defines herself by writing stops writing, she becomes a compilation of leftovers, the disjointed sum of the rest of her parts. And those remaining parts were undeveloped and mangy from neglect. When I told her the truth about my death wish, it was the first time in months I’d been able to articulate anything that didn’t feel forced. It just came out of me, the way writing used to. That felt like a relief.

But saying the words out loud—“I want to kill myself”—didn’t make the preoccupation go away. I wrote the therapist a check for an amount I couldn’t afford and left her office that day and walked past the manicured mansions and $60K-a-year private elementary schools of Pacific Heights and descended one steep hill and trudged up three more until I was home, and when I got inside I wished I was outside again, because I didn’t know what to do with myself once I was alone and contained by walls, and I hyperventilated and wept. I thought of how the therapist had peered at me with a kind of consternated compassion, almost tender, perhaps moved, as she said, “You really thought if you told me how you were feeling I would lock you up?”

The therapist was a beautiful and stylish woman, discerningly empathetic or analytical as circumstance dictated. She never talked about herself. Throughout every session she’d stay laser-focused on whatever I was haltingly weeping or ranting about, and there was something fortifying in the refined, streamlined intensity of her concentration, something that reminded me of the rope-pull on a ski slope, the muscular, vibrating inexorability of it, how if you cling to it hard enough it’ll strong-arm you up, up, up to some level, cold plateau. The therapist was waifish and wore a lot of black drapey things, like the chic girls I used to see when I lived in Rome, lining the cobblestone streets and wolfing down squares of pizza in wax paper with a kind of ingenuous relish. I once googled her and found out she used to be an actress. She was in a couple movies with some big names.

One time, right before a session, I ran into her at a market. She was looking at the sandwiches in the deli case. At first I didn’t realize it was her; she was a slight dark blur in my peripheral vision, and so I just stood alongside her, both of us gazing at sandwiches, and then I walked away, oblivious. On my way out, I saw her in the check-out line. I started, rattled, and said hi.

“That was kind of weird,” I said during the session that followed. “In retrospect, I realize that was you next to the sandwiches. But it didn’t register until I saw you in line. I didn’t deliberately ignore you.”

She said, “The general rule is, if we see each other in public, I don’t engage unless you engage first.”

“Like a vampire?” I said. It was one of the few times she laughed.

Whenever I was flippant or mock-petulant or facetious, she seemed pleased—not so much from genuine amusement as from relief at the detection of vital signs. Much of the time, I just stared into space, or wept in a panicked frenzy, or asked her things like “Do you think I’m psychotic? Do you think I’m dysthymic?”

She said I was neither. She said it with such pained, deliberate conviction that I believed her. But I knew there was something wrong. It wasn’t normal to feel perpetually hunted, or to scream into thin air like a cursed banshee when I missed a bus, or to never eat, or to wake at dawn every morning swarming with a maggoty unease, as if I’d amassed some foreign matter in the night that had thickened, phlegm-like, with prolonged recumbence, and now jumpily simmered inside me with the skittish, sinisterly quavering motion of bacteria under a microscope.

“There is something wrong,” I told her. “What is it? It’s never been like this before.”

* * *

I knew what depression was. I’ve known what it was since I was at least sixteen. That was the first year in which I unequivocally wished for death: not in a melodramatic emo-kid way, but in a lumpen, constant-state-of-passive-suicidal-ideation way. I did not act out. I didn’t drink, do drugs, sleep around, or even date. I abhorred physical contact and wondered if I might be asexual; that’s how disinterested and disgusted I felt at the thought of anyone embracing me, kissing me, taking my clothes off. I was an underweight overachiever with no school spirit. “You’re so laid-back,” my friends would say. I wasn’t; I just had zero affect.

In junior year, I told my best friend, “I wouldn’t kill myself. But if someone came at me with a gun, I wouldn’t plead for my life or anything. I’d just tell him to shoot me.”

“Jeff said exactly the same thing,” my friend exclaimed. Jeff was her very depressed boyfriend. Many years later, when he was the mayor of a small town close to where we grew up, married with two kids, he killed himself with a gunshot to the head.

Jeff’s dad had killed himself the same way, when Jeff was a little kid. Jeff’s fate made some kind of horrible genealogical sense. Mine didn’t. Why was I so constitutionally predisposed to a state of corrosive melancholy? I didn’t know. I’d been an optimistic and remarkably steady child, always the covetous sentry of some inner bedrock of sane, clear-eyed contentment that felt like an unearned gift, one I was loath to squander, one I was committed to preserve. Things like lilacs and peonies and books and bike rides and kittens and baby rabbits made me happy, even euphoric. I was shy almost to the point of mutism, but given time and space I could make friends; I could play. I had always been a happy kid: determinedly, defiantly, onerously happy. It was a point of absolute pride that I didn’t cry and succumb to despair and capitulate to my family’s tendency—a tendency I now recognize as typical of first-generation immigrants, even though they were second-generation immigrants, but ones whose Southern Italian familial credo of don’t-trust-anyone-outside-the-family was tenacious and ingrained enough to withstand decades of assimilation undiluted—to view the world as a dangerous place and the worst-case scenario as the most likely one.

I skipped around the house. I said things like, “Can you feel a poem?” I went to Catholic school and believed wholeheartedly in God, not in a way that did reverent justice to His terrible mystery, but with a whimsically anthropomorphizing fondness that called to mind Snow White’s regard for the songbirds that helped her with housework. I was performatively devout, militantly cheerful, and incredibly annoying. A few years past puberty, though, all that hearty, sunny insufferableness and piety curdled. And I calcified. Maybe it was a classic Reviving Ophelia situation. Maybe my number was up, like a kind of genetic draft. People on the Italian side of my family sometimes succumbed to this sort of thing, eventually, and then repeatedly. These family members were the hardest-working people I’d ever seen. They were warm, empathetic, altruistic, brilliant, but plagued with bouts of crippling anxiety that seemed to ebb and surge without warning.

But my malaise had always been different. Up until the age of sixteen, I believed I’d escaped this familial propensity by sheer force of will. And even when I started fantasizing about death all the time as a teenager, my inner fixation didn’t outwardly impact my life. I functioned; I got A’s; I had after-school jobs; I got into college. I wasn’t shaky; I wasn’t jumpy; I didn’t count things or wash my hands compulsively. I could sleep. As a high schooler, I just felt utterly unmoved, to the extent that my family nickname was “The Stone.” As I entered college, it got worse: I felt immured in a kind of congealing, imperturbable sullenness, as suffocating and immobilizing as a plaster cast slowly drying around me. Halfway through freshman year I went to my family GP and asked to be put on medication.

“It doesn’t mean you’re crazy,” the doctor told me, writing the prescription.

“I know,” I said. I knew it was all chemical; everyone in my family said so.

I took antidepressants over the next decade and a half. It was a productive decade and a half. I got stuff done. But every few years or so the plaster cast would return, and I’d get off whatever I was on and start taking something else.

This predictable cycle—incipient paralysis followed by re-animation, as if I was a robot in need of periodic upgrades—comprised my only understanding of depression. I knew how to recognize the signs. Depression was turgidity. It was ponderousness. It was a feeling of being mired in some cement-thick joy-blocker. It was a guilt-ridden hatred of oneself, an exhaustive, tallying hatred in which you took stock of every time you’d disappointed or hurt someone or something, and obsessed over every aspect of every such situation with a forensic and lacerating fervor that left you paralyzed, sweating impotent remorse. It was an incurious, trudging rigidity, an insurmountable estrangement from anything honest and unfeigned. It made sleep the only tolerable state of being. It’s boring to live with and boring to describe and boring to read about. It’s just monotony, in the most magnified, eternal, and damning sense of the word. In its most severe phase, after any storminess or tears have been spent, it makes you unknowable, wraps you in a kind of insulating and blank opacity, like that of a taxidermied owl: you have no expression, and neither, through your lens, does anyone else. It is, above all things, enclosing. And there’s a horrific protection in that.

What I was dealing with during the Hyde Street suicide-park days, however, was utterly foreign to me. It was not enclosing at all; it was a perpetual sensation of jittery, flayed exposure. I didn’t understand why it was happening. I didn’t think this was depression. It was such a novelty to feel so flinchingly raw, so laid bare; and the very newness of the feeling made it seem significant and ordained, something I had reaped. I thought it must be some necessary rite of passage, some trial by fire, long overdue. I thought I could work through it, engage with it, come out the other side.


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A few months before my confession to the therapist, I’d stopped taking antidepressants, cold turkey. I’d never done that before. It had been almost twenty years since they’d first been prescribed to me. No one advised me to stop. I just did. I’d convinced myself that it had been a horrible mistake to get on them in the first place. I’d decided that all of my problems—my tendency to isolate myself, my “black-and-white thinking,” my magnetic pull toward unwitting self-sabotage, my ascetic coping mechanisms, my writers’ block—were the opportunistic spawn of a criminally unexamined psyche.

There was, I’d decided, no chemical imbalance. There were just a bunch of issues I’d never bothered to acknowledge or deal with. And my avoidance of them had allowed my entire consciousness to devolve into a wilderness of reactive maladjustments. The bad parts of my personality, I’d concluded, were just one massive conditioned response.

There was a grave, reconciliatory faux-masochism inherent in this revelation. It actually felt good. I felt humbled in the same way an actress feels “humbled” when she wins an Oscar. That is, I felt solemnly overwhelmed by my devastating and heretofore-undiscovered impact on the world. This is pretty much the opposite of humility, but it gets labeled as such: always with a hand to the heart, as if in homage to some flag.

I catalogued my crimes: I was a terrible steward of my friendships! I drifted out of people’s lives! I was guilty of countless acts of omission! I sought comfort without giving it! I was incapable of intimacy! I was a cowardly, retentive asshole, denying everyone the pleasure of my company and love! And the world was the poorer for it!

This somberly exhilarating barrage of self-excoriating indictments set in a year prior to the suicide-park phase, when I was living in Italy. I was still on antidepressants then, but becoming increasingly resentful of the daily pill routine. I started titrating—lowering my own dose—to stretch out the time between refills. I figured it wouldn’t make any difference.

* * *

I’d gotten a fellowship at the American Academy in Rome to work on a second book. But as soon I got there I couldn’t stop thinking of Constance Fenimore Woolson, the American novelist who died in 1894 after falling from the third-story window of her house in the Dorsoduro neighborhood of Venice. She was a Michigander who, like me, spent her childhood summers swimming in the Great Lakes and her winters walking on them, trudging toward a violet-grey horizon on water frozen in stiff peaks. She hated the “pretty, sweet writing” of many of her female contemporaries, and aspired to a style that she described in a letter to a friend as “ugly and bitter, provided it was also strong.”

It was January when she died, cold and rainy, and she had the flu. She left no note, which led some to speculate that her death was an accident, the result of influenza-induced dizziness. Others, however, maintained that she had a depressive and morose constitution, which was exacerbated at the time of her death by the fact that she had just published a book and was under the crippling impression that she would never write another. She was buried in Rome’s Protestant Cemetery.

Italy used to be full of people like her. It was where the rudderless, the consumptive, the artistically blocked, went to die: not only Woolson but Keats and Shelley, as well as fictional wanderers like Thomas Mann’s Gustav Aschenbach and Henry James’ Milly Thiele and Daisy Miller. The Protestant Cemetery, a brick-walled oasis overrun with massive cats, is full of such people. Some died of fever or mishap; some took their own lives; others were already dying when they arrived. Italy was once a place of dissipation and last gasps, a burial ground for people who belonged nowhere and to no one. Against a backdrop of relics and ruins they drifted. They were moved by what they saw. They were striving to be moved. But by coming at all, they had already made the choice to turn their backs on the future, to confront the origin myths of art and civilization and religion, as if in a fatalistically clear-eyed, eleventh-hour reckoning. They came to stare down the stony immortal patriarch, to solve the mystery of their foundational, primeval paternity, to claim heir to some fabled collective memory before they died.

In a way, these displaced deceased belonged to everyone, to the world at large, embodying as they did the eternal struggle of feckless humanity to seek out a source, to find the communal fount from which we all drink and from which we all are fashioned. And to the defeated spirit, Italy’s treasures are a torture, cruelly titillating one’s capacity for emotional and artistic receptivity, teasing it only enough to exquisitely sharpen the sting of its futility. As a foreign writer who found herself unable to write, I was tempted to conceptualize Italy as a country of expatriate casualties, underdogs in a hopeless facedown: our puny lives willingly or unwillingly renounced, and set against the stadium-staggered overlap of centuries and centuries and centuries. The centuries always win.

I took antidepressants over the next decade and a half. It was a productive decade and a half.

There is a different myth of Italy, less morbid but equally sentimental: that of the scenic backdrop for self-actualization. It worked for the German writer Goethe, who recovered from a nervous breakdown in Rome, looking at art and hiding from star-fuckers. Fictionally, the perception of Italy as rustic refuge may have first entered the collective consciousness via E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View and its portrayal of Tuscany as a sun-drenched oasis of sensualism, a destination for well-bred Anglos to dissolve their inhibitions.

My experience of Italy was a hybrid of these two myths. I was painfully blocked but convinced that my inability to write was just a front, like a revolving bookcase, that would eventually reveal a secret room of sternly beautiful treasures. I told myself that my paralysis was a gift in disguise; I just had to figure out how to unwrap it. Every time I sat down in my red-tiled, hilltop apartment to work on my book, I panicked and froze. It had to mean something. I strained for signs and symbols and balked at the ones I got: harbingers of a thousand terrible, legless epiphanies. Living in a bubble with thirty other Americans, I was afraid to learn Italian lest it act as a diluting agent, as if starting from scratch with a new language would corrupt my extant dexterity in English, restoring me to factory settings.  For the first few months I just wandered around and looked at things in a haze of slack, doleful stupefaction. I examined statuary in the Capitoline Museum and the Borghese Gallery, admiring the rigorous anatomical exactitude with which toenails were rendered, layers of keratin simulated, shale-like in perfect, dun compression; the eye-rolling terror of abducted Sabines; the brutish elegance of male forearms, tapered veined planks tensed to wield weaponry or hoist an unwilling woman off her feet. I went to the Pantheon and stared straight up into its lidless oculus. At dusk I stood on various bridges over the Tiber and watched the starlings’ kaleidoscopic heavings, oceanic and billowy, ripe for interpretation, the morphing black Rorshachs of their massed-together bodies coagulating and thinning, waxing and waning, never resting, and I knew I was supposed to find meaning in their aerial designs but I couldn’t. The birds kept shitting on my head, and everyone around me was already composing odes to them. I felt weary and outlived, like a faded copy of a once-legible, once-accurate map.

I was there, I was fortunate to be there, I was surrounded by deathless monumentality, and I had never felt more ephemeral and unnecessary to the world. I found myself unfit even for small talk.

Living in a villa with other lucky Americans, under conditions that were not only exceptionally idyllic and privileged but absurdly, artificially prolonged, there seemed to be a strange, dazzled, sterile tenor to my every interaction. I could not transcend hollow pleasantries. I was in the same boat as thirty other people, and it was a luxury liner.

I tried to make sense of it. I developed theories on the fly. I decided that any alliance formed in this rarefied vacuum would have the stunned inertia of King Midas’ gilded roses: incapable of giving comfort, exempt from the cycle of life, and radiating an unnatural and unnervingly optimistic sheen. It was, I told myself, like some Stepford vision of heaven: no joking, no irreverence, just a horde of pleasant people milling around in beautiful surroundings, stupefied by gratitude and awe.

Of course, it wasn’t really like that at all. The problem wasn’t that the place was too fancy, or too intimidating, or too cloistered, or that its divine comforts somehow rendered it spiritually or psychically corrupt. The problem was that I was irrevocably shut off from all creative and interpersonal communion. I was desperate to attribute some revelatory reason to this sudden decline: something that would not only justify it as a rational response to the circumstances, but would also, in its diagnostic wisdom, serve as a panacea for the existential crisis it purported to explicate.

I didn’t want the answer to be easy. I wanted to earn it, I wanted to be enlightened by it, and then I wanted a reward. The reward: to never feel like this again. To write the book. To love writing again. To never stop loving it. To love people, or at least to feel worthy of being loved by them. To be entranced and horrified and rocked by what I saw and heard and touched, and to want to do justice to it all. And to be immunized, by dint of my perseverance and triumph, against future internal dissolutions.

Rome was where I first decided to see a therapist. I was ready to bite the bullet and fix this shit. I was on a deadline. I was falling apart while living for free in a fucking Italian villa. It was time to take myself in hand. The therapist came recommended by the American Academy. She had an office in Testaccio, once known for its complex of slaughterhouses, which had been reconfigured into outdoor markets. Farmers lingered outside the market stalls, selling produce and eggs streaked with dirt and stray feathers, and sometimes puppies crammed squirmingly into cardboard boxes.

The therapist I saw in Rome was a no-bullshit woman in her sixties with a strong Jersey accent. She’d make tea for me. She often ate from a bag of cookies throughout our sessions. When I told her I felt like I didn’t deserve to be at the Academy and that I was petrified of wasting the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that had been granted me, she said “Every single person at the Academy is convinced they’re wasting the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that’s been granted them.”

This was reassuring, but everyone still seemed to be adjusting much better than I was. There was something uniquely wrong with me, and I was sure of it. I told her my mental-health history: I’d been on SSRIs since I was 18; I hated psychiatrists, who I’d always found brusque and arrogant and reductive; I deeply resented my dependence on antidepressants and the genetic predisposition for major depression and anxiety, encoded in my DNA, that made it necessary to take them.

“Depression isn’t encoded in DNA,” she said.

“But almost everyone in my family has it,” I protested. “It’s a chemical imbalance, right?”

She said, “The brain changes chemically all the time. Trauma changes the brain. Stress changes the brain. Fear and love and connections change the brain. Intergenerational trauma and stress can correspond with intergenerational depression. Some of these responses are learned, not predetermined.”

She said this casually, as if she’d said it countless times to countless medicated Academy fellows bemoaning the tragic exceptionality of their innate neural shortcomings. She munched a cookie.

This probably wouldn’t have been an astounding revelation to most people. But it felt like one to me.

I took the long way home. The starlings were surging in their fluid odalisques, as if a giant lava lamp had cracked and spilled its gyrating blobs of liquid across the sky; there were wine corks wedged between the cobblestones of the winding streets of Trastevere; olive trees seemed to curtsy with the gawky, poignant grace of Degas ballerinas; turtles clambered over the melting statues in the Villa Sciarra; everywhere were people who looked related to me. All I wanted to do was go to bed.

It was the weirdly contradictory nature of my maladies that confused me: I was dully, leadenly unreceptive to everything and everyone around me; and yet I panicked and wept constantly, which implied a hypersensitivity to stimuli, a capacity to be affected by…something. I had no idea what it was. I had no idea what was happening to me.  Before the therapy visit, I would have assumed the panicky weepiness was unrelated to any particular circumstance or context, that it merely indicated a flare-up of an unpleasant chronic condition, like herpes, and could be fixed by upping my dosage or switching to a different SSRI. But now I was convinced some long-overdue reckoning was being visited upon me, in the guise of these tears and nightmares and palpitations, and that it was trying to teach me something.

I tried to learn what it was.

I started amassing stories of Italy-induced breakdowns. One of my favorites involved a former director of the Academy’s School of Classical Studies, a giant in his field, who, at the end of his tenure and in the throes of a mental decline, assembled all the antiquities dug up from Academy grounds that did not meet his exacting standards, and threw them into the Tiber River. There was a study room named after him in the library. It bore his portrait: a lean balding man in a suit and tie and old-fashioned horn-rimmed glasses, glancing off to one side with an irrepressibly impish look on his face.

Then there were the Academy ghosts. One night a visiting scholar told a small group of us that there were several Academy suicides in the 1980s. She related this news in tones of hushed distress. Our silverware paused in mid-air. A staff member told her in strict confidence, she said. No one was supposed to talk about it. The suicides took place where we ate and slept: the palatial villa with its striated tones of cantaloupe and chalk, its graceful cortile, its billiard room with the giant foxhunt tapestry hanging over the pool table, its grey-streaked marble stairs. She explained the nature and location of the suicides. Most of them jumped from a third or fourth-floor landing onto the red hexagonal-tile ground floor. Some hanged themselves in the first-floor restroom. Everyone at the table was horrified on behalf of the surviving fellows of the 1980s who, en route to brush their teeth or play a spirited game of billiards, stumbled, as if trapped in a live-action game of Clue, upon the corpses of their colleagues. Why, it was asked, did it happen so routinely then, but not now? “They used to let crazy people in,” someone joked, “and now they don’t.”

Then there was Fenimore Woolson. Her death was never officially ruled a suicide, but a cursory review of the layout of her rooms in Venice and how she typically made use of her living space offers its own mute interpretation. There were two sets of windows in her apartment: one set, balconied, faced the Grand Canal, and the other faced the cramped, dark, paved courtyard on Calle del Bastion. She often sat on her tiny front-facing balconies, watching the boats and the water and the gulls. If she had only wanted some air, it bears to reason that she would have stepped out onto one of the balconies she was accustomed to using; and if she had dizzily fallen from one of these, she would have hit the water and almost certainly survived. What she did instead was send her nurse out of the house and go to the window in the back bedroom, under which her body was found hours later. Most of Woolson’s intimates, including her good friend Henry James, considered her death intentional.

That doesn’t mean they ever came to terms with it, if coming to terms meant facing it squarely: not the gore of it, not the rubber-necking of its aftermath, but the path that led to such an ending. No one could explain what she’d done. Those who tried tended to resort to fatuous obfuscations that betrayed a cornered, fretful helplessness.

“We buried poor C.W. today,” her friend John Hay, a diplomat living in Rome at the time, wrote to a mutual friend, “laying her down in her first and last resting-place—a thoroughly good, and most unhappy woman, with a great talent, bedeviled by disordered nerves.” This paragraph, the last in his letter, comes after a long passage good-naturedly bemoaning the “hopelessness” of absorbing all the stimuli of Rome. The mention of Woolson’s burial is offhand, a perfunctory addendum tacked on, as if Hay’s flippant allusion to death-by-sightseeing—“There is still enough Rome left to put me in my little grave”—suddenly made him recall that he’d put Woolson in hers earlier that day. Behind the glibness, there’s a deflective, harried dismissal in this tribute, both of the reasons for the woman’s death and of the woman herself. Even her name is abbreviated.

As for James, after Woolson’s death he alluded, in letters, to her “mental disease,” confessing that “half of one’s affection for her was sheer anxiety.”

What struck me about the people at the center of these stories—Woolson, the relic-destroying classical scholar, the Academy suicides—was how uncomfortable they made everyone else, and how swiftly and neatly their breakdowns were classified, and thereby negated. They were crazy. They had diseased brains. They were destined for this end.  And I knew that Italy did not break them; it merely threw their brokenness into profound and excruciating relief. But I didn’t want to believe that they had all merely succumbed, as fated, to some inborn flaw in their synaptic composition. I wanted to believe that there was something Woolson had left undone, something the Academy ghosts had left undone: something they averted their eyes from, and ran from. Something they could have confronted and survived.

* * *

I kept seeing the therapist every week. A major recurring theme of our discussions was the ambivalence and shame that had surrounded the publication of my book, a short story collection, the year prior. My family wasn’t thrilled about the book. They were worried about how the world would label me. They were convinced that everyone—including our own relatives—would think they’d been bad parents, to have raised a person with such a pessimistic view of human nature.

“They’re not going to understand it’s made up,” my dad told me. “They’re not going to get it!”

He was ostensibly proud of me. He wanted to tell everyone that his daughter’s book was being published; but he was afraid that if he did, they’d actually go out and read it.

Before this, I’d never seen my dad frightened. Anxious, outraged, worried, sure; but never just plain scared, despite his own suspicions regarding the fundamental goodness of human nature. In his mind, one’s family was exempt from those suspicions. He knew how to arm himself against the dangers he had aptly prepared for: disaster, upheaval, threats from the outside. When I was four, a tornado destroyed half our town. While the rest of the family hid in the basement, he went upstairs and stood on the back porch, hoping to glimpse the funnel cloud. When a group of boys stole my Halloween candy one year, he got in his car, found them, and threatened to beat up all their dads. The only things that seemed to scare him were nightmare scenarios involving the hypothetical death or defilement of me or my sister; and even then, his fear manifested as warnings. He’d tell us what we needed to do to avoid disaster. I’d never seen him afraid of something he didn’t think he knew how to fix. This time, the threat was coming from me, someone he trusted. He was at a loss. I knew I was the only one who could fix it.

So I offered a solution. Before the book came out, I wrote a six-page single-spaced letter addressed to every single member of my extended family. The letter was an attempt to convince my relatives that everything in the book was a product of my uncanny ability to put myself in the shoes of highly dysfunctional and fucked-up people whose antics I’d decided to dramatize as a humanist exercise in emotional ventriloquism. Nothing bad had ever happened to me, I assured them, and I was a well-adjusted, normal girl. There was nothing destructive in my depths; there was only a desire to understand and nobly portray other people’s inexplicable and unfathomable darkness.

<blockquote class=”pullquote center”>What struck me about the people at the center of these stories—Woolson, the relic-destroying classical scholar, the Academy suicides—was how uncomfortable they made everyone else, and how swiftly and neatly their breakdowns were classified, and thereby negated.</blockquote>

By the time the book actually came out, I felt disassociated from my writing and unable to tap into the urgency that had always propelled it forward. I turned a polite, sweet, nervous face to the world, the face of a well-mannered and well-brought-up girl whose surprisingly “dark” work was entirely the product of empathetic imagination, not indicative of any justifiable rage or complexity in my own makeup. If I had to do an interview, I basically delivered my family letter, in verbal form.

In the aftermath of the book’s publication, I became used to feeling neutered and insipid, to sleeping and breathing and ingesting the betrayal of myself with every conciliatory smile and self-deprecating dodge, every safe, hedging, sidestepping anecdote. At the time, I told myself that I got the book out into the world; I wrote it, that was the important thing, and lying about it was merely the price I had to pay for letting it exist in the first place. I told myself that I was being self-protective and no one needed to know my business. I told myself it’s all about craft, about transposition, about emotional projection and intellect and range. It’s about compromise. It’s about reconciling the privacy of the act with the obligations, the moral responsibilities, inevitably attending its public unveiling.

The cookie-eating therapist and I talked this matter to death. What was it really about? Was it about wanting people to read between the lines, while being terrified of them reading between the lines?  Was it about catharsis, or spite? Were my parents justified in their fear and anger? Could I understand their fear and anger? Could I empathize? Could I have compassion for them? Could I have compassion for myself?

It turned out that the answer to most of these questions was yes. I felt like I’d done my job. This exhaustive psychoanalytic dissection, this impact report on my book and my writing and, by extension, my whole fucking life, would have to suffice. It would have to put this nonsense—the weeping, the unreachability, the death preoccupation, the creative block— to rest. The therapist called it “work.”

“You’ve done a lot of work here,” she’d say.

A few months in, I felt that I had come to a full and lucid understanding of what had happened and why. I understood it so well I could have written an abstract, as if for some academic paper with an annoying colon-studded title. The gist: I’d felt compromised in my artistic expression and pathologized for my execution of it; and since artistic expression was the only mode of self-definition and meaning and identity I had, as well my only way of feeling genuinely connected to the world, I got all fucked up and I shut down, creatively and interpersonally. The end.

Except it wasn’t. Initially I felt sort of empowered, in a short-lived, righteously indignant way. I was going to tell everyone to go to hell! I wasn’t going to put up with this shit anymore! I was going to write what I wanted to write! I was going to burn it all to the ground!

But I kept on not writing anything. I was still drowning in airless fatalism, as smothering as melted tar spread over my skin. Except now I was mad, too.

It was the old conundrum of talk therapy: if you can understand every detail and nuance of what went wrong and why, if you can recite it like a catechism, if you can make yourself the undisputed and unbiased authority on the ways and means of your own patterns of dysfunction, why can’t you translate all that precious self-knowledge into the slightest iota of action?

“It takes years and years of work,” the therapist said when I asked her this. She sounded apologetic, but certain.

By this time I had made a few friends. They were kind and brilliant men and women who doggedly and unceremoniously persisted in engaging, inflicting a little bit of interaction on me day by day, like exposure therapy, until I grew desensitized. When I was hanging out with them, laughing and drinking and wading in fountains and looking for hedgehogs in the Academy garden, I felt okay. But then they’d go off to get work done.  I’d go to my place to try to write, but more often than not would end up having what I started referring to as “episodes.” These were intervals in which I’d be reduced to a quivering, hyperventilating pile on the floor, for no discernible reason.  During each episode, I could sort of see myself from above, and what I saw reminded me of a nature show I once watched about rural veterinarians, in which a cow almost died trying to give birth.

When I told the therapist about this new development, she said, “It sounds like an emotional flashback.”

I didn’t know what that was. She explained that flashbacks don’t always manifest as visual replays of an event. They can also extract the raw unprocessed emotion you’d experienced in any number of fucked-up past situations and ambush you with that, eschewing context and frame of reference entirely.

“What am I supposed to do when that happens?” I asked the therapist.

“I want you to know,” she said, “that the part of you that curls up on the floor, the part that is too overwhelmed to speak, is welcome here, too.”

“Here in this office?” I said. “I don’t think I can summon that behavior at will.”

“You can show that part of yourself to me,” she said. “She can reach out to me at any time, when she appears. She can call me. She can email me.”

She wanted to see what it looked like, hear what it sounded like. I didn’t understand why. Didn’t all wordless, animalistic freakouts look and sound pretty much the same? In retrospect, I get that she was gunning for a full-on transference. So she could comfort me and I could experience what comfort feels like and then internalize a nurturing presence that would there-there me through any future wordless freakouts, and eventually eliminate them entirely. When she said it to me, it struck a chord despite my incomprehension; the thought of someone actually lobbying for a front-row seat to the spectacle of my unraveling—not voyeuristically, but with pained, investigative compassion—shocked me so much my eyes filled with tears. But I knew I could never allow such a thing to happen, and that if even if I did, it would not help me. I was still intact enough to be afraid of looking ridiculous.

Once, though, in the midst of an episode, I decided to try and do as the therapist had asked. It was not a very good try. I sat down at my computer and started writing her an email that said something like “Hi, I’m feeling extremely overwhelmed and in despair right now and can’t stop crying.” But it was too clinical. It did not, as she had requested, evoke the true essence of my distress in all its howling and deconstructed incoherence, and so I deleted it and just bashed out “WAAAAAAAAH.” Then I deleted that, gave up and went to bed.

What I didn’t tell her was that each episode usually was prefaced by a memory. But the memories weren’t bad. They were beautiful.  Most were just disjointed snatches, outtakes suffused with tenderness as piercing as music or scent. Like the time I was in a car with a man I loved and he was driving us down a dangerously narrow road in the dark, through an impenetrable fog, and we both strained taut in our seats, trying to see in front of us, our vigilance perfectly and silently synced like a force field erected to protect the intangible thing between us, new and dizzying and barely born—we can’t die tonight, we just fell in love!—and at some point the fog began to thin and we saw a white horse running back and forth in a field, tossing its head, vaporous and otherworldly, as if fashioned from the diminishing eddies of mist. Others were more distant, and fragmentary. Slipping the sticky brown hulls, like little thimbles, off the compressed, damp needles of the blue spruce trees in my family’s backyard.  Sitting on the front steps with my mom at dusk, listening to the birds singing, as she pointed at the maple tree and said, “That’s the one they always land on.” Trying to help a slightly drunk old man catch an escaped lovebird in a vacant lot in New Orleans. The bird’s face was coral and yellow, like the skin of a peach in a still life. Then there were the ones that weren’t even memories at all, but things I’d been told. Like how, when I cried as a baby, my dad would pick me up and cradle my face against his cheek and croon the Japanese word for “relax,” which he’d learned from a friend he worked with at the hospital. Or how my great-grandpa, who died before I was born, grew tomatoes in his garden and gave them to people poorer than him.

It wasn’t nostalgia that made these memories so wrenching. It wasn’t some fear that I’d never experience love or appreciate beauty again. Instead, my distress felt like a kind of preemptive mourning for a lost instinct. Those bits were a stockpile of tiny things, emblematic shards of some bigger, blurrier mosaic, that my mind had extracted and retained, when it was still able to do so. They were proof of some tenderly curatorial sensibility, intuitive and helplessly porous, that I was in the process of losing. My brain was Teflon, and everything in this beautiful place, in this beautiful time, was flowing past me like it belonged to someone else. It felt like I wasn’t making memories anymore, but just slipping through some inconsequential morass of stimuli, down a path that was neither a means nor an end.  If could no longer absorb the right things—those tiny precious things, however de-contextualized and random, that signified some larger and nobler truth—how could I make meaning out of anything? How would I know what anything meant? How would I know who and what I was, who or what anyone was? How would I make sense of the world?

* * *

When the fellowship in Rome ended and I told the therapist that I’d decided, due to family pressure and a lack of other options, to go back to San Francisco, she shook her head at me and said, “No. No.”

“It’ll be fine,” I said.

“I’m very concerned about this,” she said.

I just kept saying I’d be fine. I had to toughen up, I told myself. I still had my mind. It wasn’t working as well, and I wasn’t writing, but secretly I wondered if putting myself in an awful situation—in contrast to the idyllic circumstances of the villa in Rome—would somehow jumpstart a creative resurgence, out of sheer extremity.

As if to expedite this process, I got off antidepressants entirely when I returned to the States.

A few weeks after I stopped taking them, I broke the news to my sister one night at the laundromat.

“I feel fine so far,” I told her.

“Be careful,” she warned me. She warned me about withdrawal, about the dangers of going off medication cold turkey.

“I’m just sick of being afraid of everything all the time,” I said. “I’m sick of feeling controlled by everything.”

What I was doing, I think, was devising some sort of purity test by unconsciously removing every safeguard that would forestall a total freefall. If I fell far enough, if I landed hard enough, maybe what I’d lost would come back. It would have to. I would be stripped down to some original state, reduced to nothing but the shining fundament of my being. And that had to be—it must be—writing.

* * *

I threw out almost everything I wrote in Rome. One remnant of output I found was this, scribbled in a half-blank notebook:

I’m trying to get a lot of things to come back. I just keep waiting for them to reappear. Someone said to me the other night, “You’re just changing!” I guess so, but changing into what? I’m petrified the answer is this: I’m changing into someone who is not a writer. But I figure that this “change,” whatever it is, is sufficiently painful as to inevitably herald a transformation, redemptive and vista-packed, rather than a horrific dead end. There must be some reason, some payoff, something that will appear from the ether—correct? I suppose it is not guaranteed.

It was the last thing I wrote for a long time.

* * *

I started writing when I was five, and I never knew why. It was an unquestioned thing, and I felt like it chose me. But the closer I came to “professionalizing” what had always felt like a secret compulsion of mysterious provenance, the more I distanced myself from romanticized notions of the capricious muse, the artist held in thrall by art. By the time I entered an MFA program in my 20s, I wanted nothing more than to pretend that the process was utterly devoid of mystique.

Back when writing was what I did under cover of night, back when I was telling my high school friends that the stacks of legal pads in my closet contained not stories but recipes, I felt both fiercely protective of my secret activity and terrified that the very act outed me as “sensitive”—that is, as someone who absorbed everything everyone said and did with wretched permeability and then took up a pen and grotesquely enshrined it all, as if it mattered, as if I cared, as if it got under my skin. If I had to suddenly become a “public” writer—i.e., one who openly admitted to doing this thing—I wanted to adopt a pose that would counteract the implicit self-betrayal.

I longed to embody the brusque, disengaged competence of a fortressed practitioner. I wanted to be legitimate; I wanted to be an “intellectual,” without understanding what that meant, or how constitutionally ill-suited I was to inhabiting such a role; and I rejected the notion of art as alchemical and mysterious, as a volatile rogue force, colored more by ungovernable sensibility and unprocessed influence than clear, bone-clean logic and planning. I hated what I saw as the elevating of dysfunction and damage as artistically formative. I got upset when famous writers visited the program and claimed to have channeled their narrators’ voices in medium-like fashion, or said that their characters announced themselves in dreams, or that plot points manifested visibly above their writing desks, suspended in nimbus-cocooned tableaux. I remember ranting at a seminar table, insisting that, for me, writing fiction was an entirely rational process. I told my classmates, “I logically ask myself what characters need to say so that the dialogue has emotional impact. And then I make them say it!”

In less guarded moments, I said things like, “Everything I write is motivated by sheer rage!”

Even I knew I was lying. I didn’t write that way at all. I never had. It wasn’t all rage, nor was it a methodical process of cold-pressed extraction. But I was terrified of attributing it to the wrong thing. What I wanted was dignity. Anger—at least the cogent, clear-eyed, hyper-articulated kind—had dignity; so did calculation. The origin myth mattered. The means of denouement mattered.

Ludicrously, I wanted to bask in the illusion that I could engineer some transfiguring payoff that betrayed no incriminating whiff of who I was, what I’d absorbed, or what I’d experienced. This was more ridiculously shamanic in its pretensions than the myth-making I purported to hate. It envisioned the ideal artist as someone divorced from the messy and embarrassing dynamics that engendered emotions, while still being able to miraculously produce impressionistic transcripts of those very emotions. It perpetuated the falsity that art was in one’s control. In my view, it had to be. Manifestations could turn on you; they’d been roused, like Ouija board spirits, from their troubled slumber in some dark and unknown region of your consciousness. They had not been vetted, and they did not have your best interests at heart. They were flailing and undignified. They could make you look like an asshole. They could expose you as a fool. They could shake the wrong element loose.

After publication, despite the fellowships and prize nominations, despite the women who came up to me at readings and told me my book had moved them, that it was important to them, I felt that my old fears—of exposure, of stigma, of uncontrollability—had, in some measure, been realized. I had written a book that was helplessly redolent of a certain phase of life, a certain ungovernable and unchecked sensibility. And my attempts at deflection may have placated my family, who wanted to be placated. But I wasn’t fooling anyone else.

I kept thinking of that scene in the movie version of Susanna Kaysen’s memoir Girl, Interrupted—a scene that was not in the book, because it was too moralistic and on-the-nose to have any basis in reality—when Winona Ryder’s in a hydrotherapy tub in the upscale insane asylum, demanding a psychiatric diagnosis from Whoopi Goldberg, her put-upon nurse. At the end of her rope, Whoopi looms over her and proclaims, with righteous and searing rancor, “You’re a lazy, self-indulgent little girl who’s driving herself crazy!”

It’s meant to be a watershed moment: Winona, with her middle-class bohemian pretensions and her sheltered mien and her pixie cut and her doe eyes, just needs to grow up and get over herself. In the film version, a stint in the loony bin was reframed as a painful, convoluted Bildungsroman. It was a kind of finishing school for self-actualization. Viewers are supposed to agree with Whoopi: Winona isn’t legitimately crazy; she’s just a closed circuit, like an ingrown toenail, so pathologically enamored of her own neuroses that she ends up getting carried away and enabling their highest form of expression: the half-assed suicide attempt.

I kept waiting for someone to scream that line at me: “You’re driving yourself crazy!” I started to suspect that my breakdown was merely a logical extension of my book: the next step in a simultaneous examination and fetishizing of dysfunction. Everything I did, from writing to publishing to falling apart, felt corrupt and tainted, by dint of some rottenness inside, a voracious, repetitive self-cannibalism-and-regurgitation that de-legitimized everything that came out of me.

I started to suspect that my breakdown was merely a logical extension of my book: the next step in a simultaneous examination and fetishizing of dysfunction.

If people criticized my book, they usually used an adjective beginning with the prefix “self.” Self-indulgent, self-obsessed, self-satisfied. It wasn’t the stories themselves that were suspect; it was the mentality that saturated and shaped them. It was the self, magnified and run amok. It was me. In the aftermath of publication I could not shake the certainty that there was something shameful—immoral, even—in this immoderate self-ness on display, in knowing one’s mind too intimately, and in projecting an undiluted vision that reeked, foully, unmistakably, of that self-knowledge. Why did I have to look so closely? Why couldn’t I have looked at something else, something less disgusting, something worthier of depiction?

A person both judged and rewarded for her traumatized musings is a person in a double bind: too self-conscious to excavate further, and too grandiose and frightened to believe she should have to, ever again. I wished I could disappear into some seamless characterization, one devoid of the incriminating taint of my own emotional landscape. I wished I wanted to be that kind of writer. I wished I could be post-myself.

The San Francisco therapist kept telling me I shouldn’t be terrified of creative experimentation.

“I don’t know what’s going to come out of me,” I told her. “It has to be perfect. It has to be irreproachable in every way.”

“Why?” she said.

“To make up for it,” I said. “To make up for the fact that it’s me.”

She looked stricken.

By this time, it was clear that my sister had been right to warn me about withdrawal, even though I still couldn’t recognize it as such. I wanted to “work through” whatever this was. But my lucidity, my composure, my ability to perceive things accurately, were chipping away. I couldn’t walk more than three blocks without sitting on a curb and sobbing. I cried inconsolably every time I saw an animal. Not even a pathetic animal, but happy pampered dogs trotting down the street, wearing sweaters.

“What is it about animals that elicits this?” the therapist asked.

“I don’t know,” I sobbed. “Because they just can’t help what they are?”

I barely slept anymore. If I managed to, I’d wake up an hour later in a full-blown panic attack. The attacks felt gritty and grey, like some post-apocalyptic detritus from The Road eternally blowing in my face. If I went outside, I was convinced everyone was disgusted at the sight of me and wished me dead. I stopped eating and lost thirty pounds.  It felt like a kind of atonement, a way to diminish my impact on the world. I felt perpetually bug-eyed in the face of impending threat, like that Psycho still of Janet Leigh in the shower. I walked by the suicide park every day on my way home from work. Sometimes it felt comforting just to know it was there.

* * *

In November 2013, a year after my return from Rome, I went home to my parents’ in Michigan for Thanksgiving. For the first time, and without planning to, I confronted them about their reaction to the book. I broke down and told them how tortured I’d been about the letter, how hard and isolating the book’s publication had been for me, how I felt like I had to choose between them and writing.

My mom gave me a hug and said she was sorry. “I’ve wanted to tell you this for so long,” she said. “I just didn’t have the chance.” I had barely spoken to her since returning from Italy a year prior.

She and my dad told me they wanted me to be happy. They wanted me to be free. They wanted me to write about whatever I wanted to write about.

I was moved by their kindness and graciousness, and I believed them, but the blessing felt tragically belated. Not because anything was their fault; it wasn’t. The reckoning felt like a moot point, because I couldn’t write anything anymore. And there was nothing holding me back now. It was just gone, and it had never been enough in the first place.

I returned to San Francisco and had dinner with a friend I hadn’t seen in a few months. She gaped at the sight of me.

“Can we please talk about your anorexia?” she said when we sat down. She told me I was going to start looking older than my years. When she saw that didn’t faze me, she told me I was going to ruin my brain.

“I know,” I said.

At the end of the meal, during which I drank water and ate a leaf of salad, my insides juddering like popping corn, she said to me, with tears in her eyes, “Suz, you have to fight. You have to fight for your shit. God!”

“I know,” I said.

“If you don’t,” she said, “I’m going to be so disappointed in you. I’m going to be personally offended.”

I told her I couldn’t write anymore and was therefore worthless.

“It’s not just your writing that matters,” she protested. “It’s you.”

That was the problem. It was me.

I remember wanting to scream something melodramatic at her. Something like You’re talking about a person who doesn’t exist! Perversely, I wanted what she couldn’t and wouldn’t give me: recognition of my total worthlessness, and concurrence with my hopelessness. What I felt, more than anything, was a wild, bucking irritation. I was barely human anymore, so why did she—why did everyone—stubbornly insist on judging me by human standards?

My mom wrote me an email: What I saw over Thanksgiving concerned me. The crying and the irritability and the not eating and the anxiety attacks are all classic symptoms of clinical depression. You need to go back on your medication. She included a link to a website that listed depression symptoms. I clicked on it. It also contained a list of the warning signs of suicide. I clicked on that. I had most of them. This was somehow perversely reassuring.

The therapist also delicately suggested I get back on antidepressants.

“I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t ask if you would consider it,” she said, painstakingly. “You’re going through extremely disorganizing and overwhelming emotions, and there is very little containment around them. It doesn’t mean you can’t simultaneously work through the emotional issues. It doesn’t mean you have to sweep everything under the rug and be complacent and sedated. It just means you’ll have a floor underneath you.”

I stared at my hands. By this time I had forgotten most of my grand pronouncements about the failures of psychotropic drugs. But I had grown accustomed to the ever-present agitation, almost dependent on it. I thought it was the only reason I was getting anything done. I thought it was staving off homelessness.

By this time, it was clear that my sister had been right to warn me about withdrawal, even though I still couldn’t recognize it as such.

On my way out, passing through the waiting room, I saw a woman who was so emaciated she barely looked human anymore. It was impossible to tell how old she was. She wore crisp, tailored clothes over her sharp bones and she smiled at me, pleasantly, the way any stranger would, as I walked by. It was like being smiled at by a charred tree stump; I was shocked that her face could still muster expressions, that she could summon the energy for niceties. I wanted to sit down next to her and tell her she was in danger of dying. But of course she already knew that. It was why we were both there.

On Christmas, one of the kids from the homeless-youth place hanged himself in his new supportive housing unit. I used to see this kid all the time; his name was Cal. He came into our old drop-in center a lot, before we lost the lease. He once popped his head in my office and asked if I could look up his polling place, because he wanted to vote for Obama in the 2012 election.

“Did you see that Lena Dunham voting commercial?” he asked me. “Where she talks about ‘it’s your first time’ or whatever? Well, I like to tell people my first time will be with a powerful black man.”

He came back the next day with an “I Voted” sticker on his face. He was like that: driven, pragmatic. After he died, I found his file and it was full of applications—for a passport, for housing, for a California ID, for a bunch of different minimum-wage jobs—all Xeroxed for posterity. He was all business, always on to the next thing, but seemed lonely and flailing. He sort of hurled himself against people’s boundaries, not in an invasive or creepy way but with a haphazard garrulity, a constant puppyish need to engage, whether via grandstanding or debating or making some provocative, apropos-of-nothing pronouncement. The other kids would banter with him but keep their distance. He was characterized as attention-seeking.

We all went to an informal memorial for him at a needle exchange in the Tenderloin, where he’d been a volunteer. A bunch of young people who also volunteered at the exchange were there. One kid, who looked like a ‘70s-era George Harrison but less serene, was despondent and couldn’t stop crying. Another kid was wearing a pirate hat and had sores all over his face and hands stained dark red and blue. Initially I thought it was some kind of port-wine stain birthmark, but then I realized he’d been huffing spray paint; there was a can of red paint under his folding chair. He spoke cogently, but through a sedated, raspy haze. He said that he and Cal had talked often to each other about their family situations: “There were similar dynamics at play.” He added that they both got overwhelmed with depression and anxiety, and that he could understand what was going on in Cal’s head. Another guy, whose sharp hawkish face was both steely and despairing, reminded me of an injured eagle. He said he knew what Cal felt like, because he could remember wanting to put a knife to his wrist by the time he was four years old. He said, “This makes me wonder how much longer I can keep doing what I’m doing.” At first I thought he meant heroin. Then I realized he meant living. Another kid was so undone he showed up to the memorial staggering and nodding from what we later realized was an overdose; he passed out on a cot in the back room. After the memorial, the staff, checking on him, saw he wasn’t breathing and saved his life with an opiate blocker.

The distress and shock and anguish were overwhelming, and I knew it should be sobering: see what this does to people? See how it ruins lives? See what a loss it is, what a waste? But none of it scared me straight.  I just kept thinking of something my boss had said. Cal had killed himself two days after moving into his brand-new housing unit. He’d been obsessed with getting housing; it was a goal he pursued for months. The process was bureaucratic and slow-moving, particularly for someone who’d spent the past several years transient, addicted to heroin, and estranged from family and friends. He needed a legal ID, which meant he had to track down his mother and find out what hospital he’d been born in and get his birth certificate; he had outstanding warrants for possession and trespassing (i.e. vagrancy) to clear, applications to fill out with supporting documentation, exhaustive interviews to endure, Supplemental Security Income apply for—he’d suffered a traumatic head injury in a train-hopping accident, which made him eligible for disability. And then there was a waiting list. A long one. He stuck it out with dogged perseverance. He was so happy the day he moved in to the unit: a space about the size of a dorm room, with a single bed, a sink, and a closet. He had his caseworker take a picture of him standing in the closet, beaming. He hung himself in that closet two days later.

Afterwards, my boss said it must’ve been part of a plan, that it was so clear to her, in hindsight. He’d wanted to get housing so he could die in it. He’d tried to die before. A year earlier, he’d sent us a letter chronicling, with matter-of-fact mordancy, a Mexican sojourn straight out of Under the Volcano. He’d sold his few possessions and took a bus to Tijuana and booked a room in a hotel. He ate a steak for dinner, then slit his wrists. Of his letter, the only line I remember verbatim is “Then I closed my eyes and waited for the end.” The maid came just in time. She called an ambulance, and he was brought to a hospital and stitched up, and somehow hustled onto a bus back to the States a few days later. He ended up in an inpatient psych ward in Southern California. The food in the facility was good, his letter said. See you soon! he wrote.

As soon as he made it back to San Francisco, he started seeing an outpatient psychiatrist and therapist. And he started his housing quest in earnest. We all thought it was a good sign: he was getting it together. He was stabilizing. And he was, but not the way we thought. He wanted a door that closed and locked. He wanted no interruptions. He wanted to finish. He didn’t want to be found. And he was happy. He was ebullient.

That was what I thought about, during his memorial. Not how horrible it was to do this to the people who cared about you, not the wreckage left behind, but this: what has to happen in order for your mind to make that crucial shift. How does suicide cease to be some destination you’re prodded toward, tortuously—through a baying maze, like a fox chased by hounds—and become instead a straight-up, clear-eyed vocation? When does it stop being scary? What is the point at which it—or the desire for it—stops feeling like something you need to fix, and takes on the fated comfort of something you need to accept, something rightful and ordained? It was why I wanted so badly for my friend, over dinner, to tell me I was doomed: I wanted a blessing. I wanted it sanctioned. No one was going to give that to me. People had probably been giving it to Cal, in one way or another, his whole life.

If my problem was that I couldn’t escape myself, his was that he’d been forcibly separated from himself—from his personhood, his place in the world, his loves, his hopes, his history, his roots, even his body—a long time ago. He had renounced, and had been renounced. He left a note naming names and assigning fault.

I didn’t want anyone to think my death would be their fault. When I couldn’t sleep I wrote letters that I never sent, explaining to various people that it wasn’t their fault. It wasn’t; but also I didn’t want to ascribe that much power to anyone. In the letters, I venerated my own agency, sublime and inexorable: There’s nothing you could have done or said! It was almost defiant. It was almost proud. And yet I hated the thought of people spouting, in reference to my death, some variation of the post-mourning consensus on Cal’s: Well, he got what he always wanted.

I thought of what John Hay had said about Constance Fenimoore Woolson; I thought about what Henry James had said. Disordered nerves. Mental disease. A thoroughly unhappy woman. Half of one’s affection for her was sheer anxiety. I thought of the stern refrain of her credo—ugly, bitter, strong—and how the manner of her death had nullified the strength, so that all anyone saw, all anyone remembered, was the ugliness and the bitterness. Suicide would be an erasure; and despite the ostensible autonomy of the act, it would not be in my power to control what parts of me would and would not be posthumously erased.

Maybe it was this—some ineradicable writer’s instinct to control the narrative—that won out in the end. A couple months later, in February 2014, a friend of a friend offered to let me use his cabin in rural Washington for a month as a writing retreat. I was still grasping at the notion that at least part of my problem was situational: if I got out of here, went somewhere radically different, I would be able to write, and to find some peace. So I packed up and flew to Seattle, where the friend of a friend picked me up. He drove me to his big lofty cabin in the woods, six miles from Port Townsend, and then flew home. The cabin was beautiful and silent and cold.

I lasted six days. I would sit down at the desk in the cathedral-ceilinged loft space and start to write, and a chewing panic would set in, corrosive and instantaneous, a kind of immediate, sizzling shock, like I was sticking my fingers in an electric socket. It happened every time. It is hard to explain and sounds melodramatic, but I was certain that whatever I wrote would kill me: that is, that it would make me kill myself. It would be so bad, and so sickeningly evocative of me, that I would be driven to some act of annihilation, just to escape myself. And despite my suicide park fixation, I was still afraid to die. More precisely, I was afraid of the concentrated violence I would have to inflict on myself to make it happen. I just wanted it to be done already, without effort on my part.

To escape the desk, I would grab a girly pink wicker-basket bike the guy had left me and ride the six miles into town every day, through sleet and rain. It was winter and the landscape was lushly deserted, verdantly eerie. I just remember dampness and black-and-green woods and slate striations of water and the marshmallow chuffings of a paper mill and strange thick vines, sinewy as umbilical cords, acid-orange as electrical wires, snaking everywhere: all of it glimpsed fleetingly, in transit, through freezing rain. I remember trees whose peeling bark, wet and raw, was the inflamed saffron color of a blood-orange. Everything was lurid and dripping.

At night, I’d try to read but it was hard to concentrate. I got emails from a few friends who hadn’t heard from me in a while and were concerned. The emails were full of advice: take medication again, don’t take it, beware of benzos, try meditating, check into a psych ward, eat like a normal person. They infuriated me. I hated them all and knew they wanted me dead. I composed vicious emails in response that I never sent.

What tipped me over the edge, finally, were the physical symptoms. There was a carbon monoxide detector in the cabin—freshly installed, along with the brand-new heating unit—and it kept going off. Typically, it would go off in the middle of the night and scare the shit out of me. I’d ride into town and buy a new battery, and it’d last for half a day before the detector started hysterically bleating again. I called the installer of the heater; a guy even came by and did a manual check. There was no carbon monoxide leak. I knew there was no carbon monoxide; I knew it was a technical glitch; but I also knew there was carbon monoxide and it was going to slowly disable and kill me. I started throwing up every morning. Sharp pains racked my stomach; my skeleton felt squeezed. I was convinced my body was incinerating itself from the inside. Sometimes I thought fluoride in the water was to blame; other times I thought the groundwater was tainted by something else, some rogue fast-acting poison. I was shaking all the time and attributed this to neurological tremors caused by fluoride or carbon monoxide.

I looked up at the beams in the loft space, telling myself that I could hang myself from one of them and beat the carbon monoxide/fluoride to the punch. I thought about Cal and wondered if he was calm at the end, centered with willful purpose, lucidly conscious of every incremental step that had brought him to that point; or if he felt like I did: cornered. Because, at this point, I’d forgotten about my existential misery, my writing, my failures, my hatred of everyone and myself; I wanted to die as some perverse safety measure, the way I’d pull an emergency brake on a careening car. My body had become impossible to live in, and its control panel—my brain—was irrevocably corrupted. I found some cables in an outdoor shed.

Suicide would be an erasure; and despite the ostensible autonomy of the act, it would not be in my power to control what parts of me would and would not be posthumously erased.

The therapist had told me to call her if I found myself in “crisis,” but I didn’t. I knew that whatever she’d say would be insightful and reassuring and kind and beyond reproach, but I also knew it would not be able to reach me. What I needed was someone who had known a different incarnation of me, who had known me before I turned into this, but who would not register horror—however subdued, however overlaid with genuine empathy—at what I had become.

The only person I spoke to during my time in the cabin was a friend whose voice didn’t climb into a high tight register of throttled concern. He talked to me like I was still myself.

“It’s like having diabetes,” he told me. “If you had diabetes, you’d take your insulin.”

I’d heard the old diabetes analogy before, but it didn’t matter. It wasn’t what he said so much as his tone—matter-of-fact, unfazed, devoid of wheedling urgency—and the way he’d go off-message, wander into anecdotes, as if this was a real conversation and not a suicide-hotline call.

My friend told me about an essay he’d read by the comedian Rob Delaney, chronicling an episode of severe clinical depression. I looked up the essay. Everything in it sounded familiar. Delaney threw up every time he brushed his teeth; he lost vast amounts of weight and had constant diarrhea. He wrote: “My mind played one thought over and over, which was ‘Kill yourself.’ It was also accompanied by a constant, thrumming pain that I felt through my whole body.” He initially resisted medication but finally gave in: “I still get angry, sad, and afraid sometimes. But I also get happy, excited, and horny too. I experience the full range of human emotions, rather than just one horrible one.”

At this point, I had been blocked, despondent, and increasingly, incrementally hopeless for three straight years. I no longer believed I was capable of experiencing the full range of human emotions, on or off medication; I still believed I was congenitally stymied: a stone or a wailing wall, but nothing in between.

“I have no fight left in me,” I told my friend.

“Well,” he said, “you’re just going to have to fight some more and that’s all there is to it.” I still remember his tone of voice. It was matter-of-factly gruff.

I still had no hope that I could be normal or write again or live a life. But I clung to my friend’s voice on the phone, its evenness and its sanity. It was something real, an antidote to all the shadowy portents and signs that dogged me. For some reason, that was enough. I even laughed. I heard logical things coming out of my mouth: “I think I’m going to go home. I think I need to take care of this.”

One night the detector went off again at 3 in the morning, jolting me out of the only sleep I’d managed to get in days, and I seized my laptop and bought a ticket back to San Francisco for that afternoon. A week later I went back on medication. I didn’t feel good about it. I felt defeated and humiliated. I characterized it, secretly, as filling a hospice-like role: it would take away the worst of the pain and allow me to sleep and eat.

At first it just made me feel worse. It ratcheted up the nausea, anxiety and panic attacks.

“That’s normal,” the therapist assured me. “It’s an activating drug. You have to ride that part out.”

She was right. After a couple weeks, the panic attacks were gone. I didn’t wake up in a cold sweat of gnawing, apoplectic dread anymore. I no longer had urges to throw my body against mirrors or walls, or to ram my fist through windows. I stopped crying. I could eat. I felt space around me for the first time in months.

I still didn’t feel like “myself,” whoever and whatever that was. I felt like a jellyfish that’d been drained of venom: mercifully insubstantial, and drifting. When I wasn’t at work, all I wanted to do was sit in bed and listen to podcasts or watch bad TV. It felt wonderful to rediscover a capacity for disassociation. My personality seemed to be gone, replaced by a tediously earnest consciousness, placidly retentive, absorbing stimuli without critique, registering nothing but a prevailing sense of bafflement that any of this had happened and that it meant anything at all. I was too tired to grapple with it.

It took a while for the splintered parts of my mind to reknit and form some kind of foundation. I don’t know how this happens. It’s just a slow, unnoticeable coalescing. At some point, months later, I realized I wasn’t asking myself who or what I was anymore. I just knew.

* * *

The writing part was harder, and slower.

Two years before, back in Italy, I’d taken a five-day trip to Venice. I wanted to see where Constance Fenimore Woolson had lived and died. When I told people about this trip, I had a hard time explaining why I was going.  It was difficult to frame the journey in a way that didn’t make it sound emotionally suspect: at best, a self-indulgently morbid pilgrimage; at worst, a copycat suicide mission. I tried not to give that impression, and tried to hide my constant distress and panic, but people picked up on it. My eyes were often red; I was reclusive; and several of the other fellows had read my book and taken it as further proof of my instability: “I really, really hope a lot of that stuff didn’t actually happen,” one man said to me once at dinner. So when I said I was going to Venice, a few people told me, with apparent earnestness, not to kill myself there. Eventually I just started saying I wanted to see the Tintorettos.

It was winter and the city was largely deserted. I got a hotel room in Dorsoduro, a ten-minute walk from Casa Semitecolo, where she’d lived. I stood there in the narrow alley-like street and looked at the back of the building, the palazzo, just stared at it, carefully and speculatively.

She had a small dog. Once I did a bit of digging and found out so much as the dog’s name—Otello—I stopped. I didn’t want to know anything else about it. I sensed that I was dangerously close to giving form and flesh and texture to a monumental, engulfing something: not misery, exactly, because misery is too inert; it has no love in it, and it was the manifestation of love that frightened me, the knowledge that, despite her despair, she loved and cared for a creature smaller and weaker than herself; she sat with it on her lap, spoke to it in private, affectionate gibberish; there must have been whimsy there, and goofiness and lightness, and afterwards a tether left behind, a food dish, the scurrying, expectant click of nails on tile. Traces of a warm-blooded anchor to earth, an anchor that had not been enough to keep her there. It was agony, I thought. Agony has love in it. Agony implies a certain internal wrestling, a picking up and putting down of options, a wrenching turning away from the familiar and comforting and sane. That was what I thought about, as I stood there: the last gasp, a final spasming protest of conscience and connection, a paroxysm of panic before the deadly calm descended and she stepped entirely outside the frame of the comprehensible and chose, clear-eyed and hopeless, to leave.

It took a while for the splintered parts of my mind to reknit and form some kind of foundation. I don’t know how this happens.

I feel differently now. I don’t think there was anything clear-eyed about it. I don’t think she was torn, or weighing her options, or tortured by ambivalence. I think she couldn’t separate herself from her work, and when the work stopped, she flung herself out that window in the full, unambiguous certainty that this—this sacrifice, this annihilation—was the ultimate expression of herself, of her credo, of her ugliness and bitterness and strength. And there was nothing to contradict her.

The novelist Marilynne Robinson has said that writing is like praying: “I think that in both, if they are to be authentic, grace and truth must discipline thought.”

I always thought the point of prayer was to ask for something, or express repentance. Writing, I thought, had no such objective. It was just a hard-pressed distillation of oneself. It never occurred to me that such a distillation could be a kind of prayer, one whose purpose is not to gain protection or prove penitence, but to show whatever had created you that you were, in fact, true to its design.

But I had to stop waiting for some judicious entity to give it back to me. To give me back my writing, and my mind. I had to stop waiting to have suffered enough and plummeted enough, to have interrogated and deprived myself enough to earn back what was already mine. Whenever I talked about not being able to write, or about my mind shattering, I characterized myself as my main adversary—there’s something in me that won’t let me write, there’s something in me that broke—but I never really believed that this “something” was an organic part of me. I thought it had been put there by the world. I conceived of it as an all-powerful interloper, a squat little godling that sat in my chest, growing fat on all my siphoned, squandered time, withholding the passwords; and my whole self-scouring search for meaning was a way of paying its toll, of paying homage, of telling it I understand you, I validate you, I recognize your power, can you leave now? I treated it like a ghost that haunts you because it wants you to know how it died. Once you figure out the mystery and give it closure, it leaves you alone.

There was never a ghost. And there was no one left to resent and no one left to blame and no one left to pay. Eventually I just reclaimed it. I don’t know how; I just did, not all at once and not with some big rush of weepy, fist-pumping, Shawshank Redemption crawling-out-of-the-sewer triumph, but bit by bit and with a strange, intrepid sort of dispassion, a quizzical kind of hope. It was a lightweight, incremental, undramatic shift: to be calm again, to be measured and unafraid again, to sit down and feel the old stirrings, the old need, the old capacity to be ugly and bitter and strong.

It started happening, slowly, in 2015, the year after I resumed medication. The abatement of the symptoms—paranoia, nausea, sobbing, sleeplessness—helped. But it wasn’t just that. There was something else. It was something I recognized from before all this happened: a kind of resettled baseline, a way of seeing. It’s not the old staunch happiness of my early years, or the jaundiced grimness that set in later. It’s neither sad nor happy. It’s just something that lets me see the world clearly enough to write about what it’s like not to see the world clearly.

* * *

This is not a cautionary tale about going off antidepressants without medical supervision, or about getting on them in the first place, or about pinning your entire reason for being on a single thing. There is no real lesson I learned from going off medication, or resuming it, or spending thousands of dollars and years of my life on a quest that turned out to be, in hindsight, absurdly ironic. How militantly determined I was to turn over a new leaf, a new way of being that revolved around unmasking the real human motivations behind the façade of chemical conditioning, when in actuality I’d been doing that, and only that, my whole life. It was one of the few things I ever did well. It just went away for a while.

About six months into feeling somewhat normal and writing again—not much, nothing important, but something, a little bit most days—I walked by the suicide park and there were actual people in it. It was so weird that I did a double take.

Sitting on one of the maroon-painted benches were three adults—a skinny young woman in a maxi-dress, with a scarf on her head, and two young men—and with them were two children: a toddler on the woman’s lap, and an older girl, maybe five or six, standing between the legs of one of the men, who had his arms clasped around her front.

This is not a cautionary tale about going off antidepressants without medical supervision, or about getting on them in the first place, or about pinning your entire reason for being on a single thing.

“Do you have any change?” the woman asked me. She asked flatly, the way people do when they’re used to being turned down. It was the automated joyless reflex of a gambler who knows the house always wins.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Anything? Get us something to eat? Anything?” one of the men piped up. He was more animated, like maybe he wasn’t as used to doing this as she was. The toddler looked at me with curiosity; the older girl looked down at the ground.

“I’m sorry,” I said again.

A few blocks later, I stopped walking.

I rushed to the tiny corner grocery on the top of the hill and bought a bunch of food. I focused on things that could be eaten without utensils, things that kids would eat: tangelos, packaged peanut butter crackers, orange juice, bread and pre-sliced cheese, bananas, chocolate-chip granola bars, pretzels, sweet plums. I picked things that were dense and bland and filling.

When I made it back to the suicide park with two brown paper bags of food, they were gone. It’d been less than ten minutes since I saw them. I walked up the hill, and down the hill. I peered down side streets and alleys. They were nowhere. The park was empty. The string of Mexican flags fluttered and sagged in a long, drooping smile.

I sat on a bench and gave it a few minutes, thinking they might return. It was the first time I’d actually entered the park, just sat in it and looked around, instead of skittering past or hovering on the edge. There was no view of the Bay, of Alcatraz. I sensed light and movement all around and realized the park was encircled on three sides by stories and stories of apartment windows, some dark, some glowing yellow in the dusk. I saw people moving inside their homes. I saw them looking out their windows.

I picked up my groceries and walked the three blocks downhill to Washington Square, where there were always hungry people. Sifting through the early-evening Frisbee players and the couples with their dogs, I zeroed in on a man I’d seen there many times before. He was large, older, with a white beard and a bunch of duffel bags slung over his shoulder like an overburdened Santa. He sat on a bench watching the dogs chase each other.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m sorry. Do you have any interest in these groceries?”

He looked up at me, surrounded by his duffels. I gave him an inventory of what was in the bags, like I was trying to strike a deal.

“Are you sure?” he said. “All for one person? That’s a lot of food.”

“I know,” I said. I explained: there had been a family, they had little kids; now they were gone and I didn’t know what to do with all the food.

“I haven’t seen any family like that,” he said.

This was starting to feel less like a benevolent gesture and more like a problem I was dumping in his lap.

“You’re welcome to any of it. Or all of it,” I said. “But if it’s too much to carry around, I can take some of it to the wharf and just kind of give it out bit by bit.”

He glanced back at the dogs chasing each other in one undulating line, like a game of crack-the-whip, and then peered inside the bags and told me he would take them.

“Only if you’re sure,” he said. I said I was.

“It’s nice of you,” he said. I shrugged.

“I’ll look for that family,” he added. “Maybe they’ll show up.”

“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you so much. Thank you.” I was suddenly babbling because what I was giving the man felt like something I needed so badly for him to take. Just to take it from me, and use it, and make an ending. I just kept saying thank you.

“I hope God blesses you,” he called out as I walked up the hill.

Then he added, “Maybe He already did.”

He really said this. I wrote it down when I got home.

I looked back and told him that God had, even though I don’t really believe in all that anymore. But it felt at least as true as the truth, which is that none of it—not his luck or mine, not the manifestation or evaporation of that hungry family, not their hunger or his, not my curtailed death or my re-inhabited life, not the stories I need to tell and the ones I can’t, not the sky turning Easter-egg pink as the dogs were rounded up and led away by the people who loved them—has anything to do with anything as enormous and as reasonable as God.

***

This essay first appeared in the Spring issue of ZyzzyvaOur thanks to Suzanne Rivecca and the Zyzzyva staff for allowing us to reprint it here.