We think of suicide as a cataclysmic event, one that divides time into before and after. But an attempt, or its ideation, may not be so easy to identify. Nor is the beginning and end of a sickness called suicide, as the writer Donald Antrim puts it, cleanly drawn.
As Antrim relates in his slim new memoir, One Friday in April: A Story of Suicide and Survival, his sickness crystallized and became an emergency on a spring evening. While neighboring Brooklynites enjoyed a drink on their terraces and children played in a schoolyard nearby, Antrim was on his roof, fearing for his life. The immediate crisis was a fight with his girlfriend, but he had lived the previous months in a darkening spiral of sleeplessness, anxiety, and isolation. He fled to the roof feeling that he caused more pain to those he loved while alive than his death could engender, and he spent several hours there engaged in mental and physical acrobatics. While his girlfriend and friends searched for him in a panic, he tested gravity. Would instinct—fear of falling, a kind of self-preservation—keep him anchored in the physical world? Or would his despair send him to the concrete below?
Antrim devotes about a third of One Friday in April to these agonized hours. The intensity of his torment as he contemplates the end of his life is matched by a sense of bewilderment at his predicament. He questions his own role in his potential demise: “I was not on the roof to jump,” he writes.
I was there to die, but dying was not a plan. I was not making choices, threats, or mistakes. Is this what we mean by impulsive behavior? I was, I think, looking back now, in acceptance. It was a relinquishing, though at the time I would not have been able to articulate that.
In this and other passages, Antrim challenges some of the received wisdom about suicide: that it is a plan put into place, willed into being, as a means of escape. “The notion that we choose death over pain, fundamental to our current thinking on suicide, suggests that we choose at all, as if some part of us exists outside the psychosis, unaffected,” he writes. “I do not think of suicide as an act.” He sees it instead as “a long illness, an illness with origins in trauma and isolation, in deprivation of touch, in violence and neglect, in the loss of home and belonging.”
Childhood trauma and upheaval are themes Antrim wrote about in a memoir in 2006, The Afterlife. He also published three droll and absurd novels in the 1990s and the early 2000s, to considerable acclaim, and became a regular contributor of fiction and personal essays to The New Yorker. A collection of his New Yorker stories was published in 2014 as The Emerald Light in the Air, a year after he was awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant. His characters tend to be unstable but charming, his writing arch and deadpan. A.O. Scott aptly described Antrim’s novels as “wildly inventive and meticulously controlled … witty, elegant and elusive constructions [that are] decidedly cool to the touch.” One Friday in April is a starker and more meticulous book, an attempt to write about suicide without any of the consolations of that style.
In much of One Friday in April, Antrim attempts to discard the metaphors and symbolic language that surround suicide and to transcribe his specific experience of it. The book takes place on his roof and, later, in two psychiatric hospitals. The first hospital stay, precipitated by the risky behavior on the roof, is short, barely a weekend: Antrim’s anxiety seems to stabilize with Ativan and the sleep it enables; or, rather, he’s able to talk his way out of a longer stay. He goes home to his apartment. But five weeks later, after more insomnia, more agoraphobia, more fantasies of a bullet scratching an itch buried deep behind his temple, he takes a taxi to Columbia Presbyterian and admits himself. This stay lasts four months and is finally brought to a close by treatment with electroconvulsive therapy.
In this extended hospitalization, Antrim focuses on the minutiae. We meet some of his companions: fellow patients like Sarah, in her twenties, who had “survived suicide several times,” and Dawn, a trapeze and vaudeville artist from Harlem with bipolar disorder, who becomes a support. There’s Nurse D, who orients Antrim to his surroundings and, later, is the first person to credibly report to Antrim that she sees him getting better. We learn about routines, from who gives the pills at bedtime to the fact that the bedrooms are locked until evening to prevent patients drowsing all day. We see Antrim toting a black canvas bag with his belongings in it, using it as a pillow on the ward couch.
Antrim isn’t interested in the philosophical discourse on suicide—Camus’ existentialism, or Schopenhauer’s inquiries into ethics—but in the concrete, moment-to-moment experience of being suicidal. At times his account has an enumerative quality, detailing the sequence of minor events, as in his second hospital admission:
I sat in a wheelchair, and a policeman opened the door to the general emergency room. The man behind the wheelchair pushed me through the hospital. We went up an elevator, and then across a skywalk to another building, and from that building across another skywalk to the New York State Psychiatric Institute.… We went into an elevator and got off on the fifth floor. At the end of the hallway was a door. The door was made of steel.
The effect is that of a disoriented individual trying to stay grounded in reality, to get a grip. This happened, and then that. The passive tone, the lack of Antrim as an active participant, is notable throughout.
Though Antrim tries to stay close to the action—the medications he tries, the sheer hours he spends weeping over his past mistakes and his ruined future—the book has a looping, discursive quality. To help his reader understand his suicide’s own particular history, Antrim moves, often within the same paragraph, between his present circumstances and his past, when he so often found himself prey to the dysfunction of his parents.
His father, a T.S. Eliot scholar, and his mother, a tailor and sometime costume designer, were inveterate alcoholics, with a chaotic and sometimes violent relationship. They divorced when Antrim was six and remarried shortly thereafter, before divorcing again, when Antrim was in his thirties, after his mother was hospitalized several times for alcohol poisoning. They gave Antrim a dislocated, lonely, anxious childhood, crisscrossing the southeastern corner of the country, from Virginia to Florida and North Carolina and back again. He lived in 15 or 16 houses before being sent off to boarding school. Antrim chronicled some of this in The Afterlife, which he began shortly after his mother’s death—“too soon for writing to be safe,” he writes in One Friday in April. “I worked at betrayal,” he says of that first memoir, and his guilt festers.
One Friday in April revisits some of the same events that he treated in that earlier book: the deaths of his close relatives; his estrangement from his uncle, whom he idolized and thought was a “free spirit” until his uncle lay on top of him when he was drunk. Antrim divulges many painful moments in The Afterlife, but they are crafted—ironic and witty, rhetorically honed. Yes, he describes his mother as threatening, abrasive, spiteful, divisive, and paranoid, and relates how she died miserable from a virulent cancer no doubt accelerated by her hard living, but he also includes the kooky details that make us smile as we grimace: that she believed “in death she would be met by Carl Jung, the Virgin Mary, and Merlin the magician; that she had done her work on earth and that her work was good; that she was one of those who had been chosen to herald the coming new order of beautiful humanity; that in a former life she had died a watery death as a Roman galley slave, shackled to the oars; that men were shits and her children were hostile; that her smoking was her business, so mind your own fucking business.” In The Afterlife, there is a distanced self-awareness that makes the pain and grief seem managed, controlled.
Some of the scenes and elements of Antrim’s hospitalizations and time of suicide also appear in his fiction—in particular in his story “The Emerald Light in the Air,” which the story’s editor, Deborah Treisman, described as “part painful realism and part mystical fairy tale.” Like Antrim, the story’s protagonist, Billy French, has just come through two hospitalizations for suicidal ideation and dozens of rounds of ECT. Billy’s suicidal state is brought on by grief over the death of his parents and the loss of a lover; Billy describes a burning in his temple, as though he had an itch that needed to be scratched by a bullet. Billy, too, has a hallucination in the hospital that his face has been deformed—one of the lowest points that Antrim describes in One Friday in April. Antrim’s rendering of Billy’s ECT in “Emerald Light” is strikingly similar to what appears in One Friday in April.
“Emerald Light” edges into surrealism when Billy, whose car has become marooned on a rocky creek bed in a storm, is approached by a boy who thinks Billy is a doctor, coming to ease his mother’s pain as she dies from cancer. Billy goes to her aid, not quite pretending to be the doctor; he administers an Ativan to the mother, under her husband’s watch, and then hands over the bottle. He knows he can’t help her, but maybe he can ease her suffering, which he imagines must, in some way, mirror his. The image of the Antrim doppelgänger attending a mother dying in agony of cancer calls to mind Antrim’s own ministrations to his mother, Louanne, and his fears, admitted in The Afterlife, that he had somehow committed matricide. Is the Ativan intended not only to deliver calm but as the kind of sedative that might hasten the mother’s death?
One Friday in April is a much bleaker and more intimate account of those memories and how their sustained torment led him to a period of debilitating mental illness. Here is some of what he relates to us: that his grandmother took him, a newly birthed infant, from his mother by force, preventing the essential bonding that, he fears, allows healthy attachment throughout life; the mornings after his parents’ parties, when their friends would still be passed out on the living room floor; a long-anticipated and then aborted childhood camping trip, canceled because his father needed the comfort of his own yard and a cooler of beer; his mother’s hospitalizations for alcohol poisoning; that as a 5-year-old, distressed at his parents’ fighting, he had rubbed his face into the carpet until he had sores. “How miserable I must have been,” he writes. All of this weighs on him:
I had survived, or thought I survived, my parents’ drinking and shouting, our constant moving, the losses of places and friends, my uncle lying on my back, annihilation after annihilation. I’d played in the yard, and smashed tennis balls against walls for hours, and built model airplanes, and listened to my records at night in my room. I’d slept at night with cats for company, and ridden my bike, and struggled in school, and, later in life, gone to bars, and then quit going to bars, and smoked cigarettes and pot, and fallen in love, and argued and made up, and refused to speak to my father, and suffered my mother. None of this had stopped my dying.
Occasionally Antrim directly addresses the reader who, he imagines, may share some of his circumstances. “Maybe you’ve spent time trying every day not to die, out on your own somewhere. Maybe that effort became, or has become, your work in life,” he writes. At other times, he uses the second person to get his readers to imagine themselves in his place. He describes the ordeal of ECT in precise detail:
The nurse fits the oxygen mask over your face. The anesthesiologist inserts a syringe into the pipette connected to the needle in your arm. The anesthetic trickles down the tube. You can smell it. It has a sweet smell. You count backwards, one hundred, ninety-nine, ninety-eight, and then the anesthetic reaches your blood, and a second passes, and you feel that you are falling—and then blackness.
The meticulousness of his account, its palpability, and the way it’s projected onto us, his readers, helps us feel what he is feeling. It may not be us in this instant, receiving this drip of anesthetic before ECT, but with his help, this evocation, we can imagine the sensations, and the fear.
Antrim chooses to end the book in this register, with a message directly to the reader. By this point, he has come through his hospitalization, his crisis. He has married, and though he lives in the same apartment below the same roof where he contemplated his demise 15 years ago, and still suffers from insomnia and anxiety, he feels relieved at the time that has accumulated since. “I remember that Friday in April, that day on the roof, that time, that life, those friends, the months and years, that eternity,” he writes. “What will you remember? What will you write in your letter to a friend you can trust?”
Early on in this account, Antrim lies to a friend who is a psychiatrist, promising her that he is not thinking of hurting himself, “though dying was my only thought.” He fears the consequences of telling the truth: “I looked forward to poverty, abandonment by my remaining family members, the inability to write or work, the dissolution of friendships, professional and artistic oblivion, loneliness and deterioration, institutionalization and the removal from society—abjection and the end of belonging with or among others. I would be alone.” This is the price Antrim believes he will pay for mental illness and suicidal thinking. Admitting to suicidal thinking, not to mention publishing an extended, unalloyed account of it, remains an unremitting taboo.
In receiving treatment for his illness, he comes to believe the opposite. He must not isolate himself, as he has done for years, but reach out—to those he loves, to professionals for help, and to those who have suffered and have loved someone who has suffered as he has. Suicide may be enigmatic—it’s clear that Antrim, even having survived it, still experiences it as so. But it might lose some of its terrible mystery if its sufferers were not alone. Antrim’s appeal to readers is a call for fellowship, and for embracing suicide’s contradictions. Even as he suffered, Antrim writes, “I wanted to live and not die.” He hopes we can believe him.
If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 (TALK). You can find additional resources here.