The second in a series of five essays about Mental Health to celebrate the dog days of August.
On Friday March 28, 1975 I tried to kill myself.
I hadn’t failed at much in life, at least not on paper. I was a twenty-one-year-old junior at MIT, son of a lower-middle class family from Oklahoma, on a full-ride. Honor student in Civil Engineering. Devout Catholic. Fraternity brother, acapella singer, fair runner, excellent dancer. Not bad looking. Nice girlfriend from Wellesley. Terrific sense of humor. Distinguished laugh.
In my head, I was an utter failure. Fat. Pimply. Uncoordinated. (Ignore all photo and complementary evidence to the contrary.) Academic sham. (Everyone knows Civil Engineering is the easiest major.) Landed where I did by geographic affirmative action.
I suppose one way to slice mental health is to measure the discrepancy between our objective and subjective selves. Narcissists’ internal thrall with their own greatness outstrips actual evidence. Depressive’s certainty of their worthlessness ignores realistic assessment.
My action didn’t erupt out of nowhere. I’d always been temperamental and judgmental, especially against myself. I minimized the pressures of school, though I vomited several times a week. I’d seen an in-house therapist; a jovial, patrician man, all hale and hearty. The first person to whom I revealed discomfort around other guys. He offered the word ‘homosexual,’ which I denied. Then he replied, “Well that’s good. Tell me about your girlfriend.” Thus began the mantra that haunted my next twenty years: I suffered inappropriate feelings about men, which manifested as depression. The therapeutic solution was to learn how to ignore the feelings, thus alleviate the desperation.
Spring of sophomore year I came unglued in the middle of structures lab. I removed myself to a bathroom stall, where I cried. And cried. I tossed a few things in a backpack and caught a bus to New Jersey, where my parents had moved. “What are you doing here?” sums up the limit of their understanding. We circled each other in wary politeness for a few days, until I bused back to school. I cannot recall why I thought my parents would offer solace to my confusion; I never entertained that fantasy again.
So when I hit a dark place the following Spring, the options were few, the prospects illegible. I rummaged through the medicine cabinet of our communal bathroom and opened a bottle of pills labelled with the name of a brother I could not admit to fancy. His remedy would be my end. I downed the bottleful, felt woozy, and fell asleep. In keeping with this B-movie script: I tried to kill myself on Good Friday.
I suppose I got off easy:
ten years earlier my complaint would have sent me
straight to electroshock therapy.
I woke Saturday; disappointed. Hauled myself out of bed and went about my day. I don’t remember who I told, or when, but after our Easter Sunday meal, I endured what these days we call an intervention. I promised my sister and brother-in-law, girlfriend, and several brothers not to do it again. I knew the promise was hollow. Next time I’d plan better, and avoid this whole scene. They also coerced me into real therapy. An actual shrink.
By 1976 the American Psychiatric Association had struck homosexuality from their legion of disorders, but apparently that news had not yet reached the provinces of Brookline, where I paid $75 per session out-of-pocket—money I scarcely had—to hear again and again how I must divert my feelings about men by focusing on the little woman. I suppose I got off easy: ten years earlier my complaint would have sent me straight to electroshock therapy.
By fall, I was declared ‘cured,’ and equally relieved for two reasons: I could no longer afford the advice; and my girlfriend had broken up with me. Who could blame her? I actually preferred to be a jilted male with a bruised heart than an actual boyfriend.
My attempted suicide and subsequent therapy set in place a mindset that remained intact for fifteen years. I made the conscious decision to be straight, earnestly believing it was my decision to make. My girlfriend returned, I never understood why, though I suspect my non-traditional masculinity appeals to strong women, and I’m a few digits away from being a full-on Kinsey Six. We married.
The ground rules of our marriage were clear, though never discussed. I was a presentable spouse on the outside, though damaged goods within, which only she could repair. I leaned on her to understand me better than I understood myself. Followed her for her career. Went to therapy whenever she told me I needed it.
This balance held through graduate school and first jobs and two children and buying a house. Until I disintegrated in grand scale at rapid speed; the exploration of the next essay.
My attempted suicide colors my life in constant ways. One unconventional attitude I took from trying to kill myself holds fast. I have no regrets about what I did on that black night. Never have. I feel no blessing in having failed. I no longer wanted to live. I believe that every human should be allowed to take their own life, and their suicide should be honored by those who remain. This is, of course, at odds with a society that abhors the idea of suicide, reinforced by a mental health establishment that rejects the action. As a gay man who attempted suicide in large part because the mental health establishment labelled me ill, forgive me if I don’t buy that line.
I often wonder what my life would have been like if any therapist in 1974, 75, 76…even 1986, had said, “Paul, you might be gay and that would be fine.” No one ever did. Instead, dozens told me over those years, “Paul, you might be gay and we can fix it.” They never could.