“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.”
I’m pretty sure that when William Hickson popularized this proverb back in the 1800’s, he was primarily teaching the value of perseverance. But there is also a subtle message of hope in this short sentence: if you keep trying, you will eventually succeed.
There was a time, in my not-distant-enough past, that hope was elusive and success seemed like an impossibility. I was miserable. The thing I was hoping to succeed at was suicide. And I was horrible at it.
I tried a drug overdose (I have a miraculously resilient liver and kidneys); cutting my throat and wrists (I now have several embarrassing scars, a smile that leans to the left, and some nerve damage); and shooting myself (I chickened out). I even gave dehydration and exposure a try (there are some breathtaking views in the arid foothills north of San Antonio, Texas- but if you’re planning a 3-day walk-about, I would recommend sun screen and plenty of water). Apparently, suicide by more conventional means wasn’t going to work for me. My failure to complete a successful suicide was almost as depressing as the depression that prompted me to try in the first place.
I was ready for something drastic.
Looking for a drastic alternative was probably the only reason I let myself get talked into something called “canyoneering.” The email invitation I received had pictures of climbers dangling from smooth cliffs, and dark caves, and guys shimmying across ropes. It also contained a lot of warnings: DANGEROUS was in all-caps.
This sounded drastic enough to get me off the couch. I dredged up the motivation to take my first shower in days and agreed to meet with the trip organizer over lunch.
The trip organizer, Michael, was an accountant by day and epic trip coordinator by night. He was also part of a men’s group at Concordia Lutheran Church that I had been loosely affiliated with before I relocated to The Abyss. Nearly all of the guys in this group were busy with successful careers and families, but none of us were extremists by nature. Michael was the exception. Normally soft-spoken and unusually precise with his words, I watched this unassuming man come alive as our conversation shifted from the how-have-you-been’s and sorry-to-hear-about-that’s to the upcoming adventure. He began to glow to charisma and confidence. Even though I was tangled up in self-loathing and despair, his dramatic transformation forced a left-leaning smile out of me.
And Michael never asked me the question. He never asked, “what are you so depressed about?” As I saw it, there were really only two ways to answer the question: 1.) I had either done (or neglected to do) something horrible, in which case I deserved to be punished, or something tragic and beyond my control ruined any chance of a meaningful life. In either of these cases, wouldn’t a good friend be obligated to help put me out of my misery? And 2.) I could try to explain the mental implosion I was enduring. Most people can understand mental EXplosions… unleashing destructive energy through violence or bad decisions. How could I explain something that stole all of my energy, built up silently inside me, and destroyed my ability to think logically, concentrate or feel anything other than an overwhelming and undefinable sense of doom? Then finally, when I couldn’t endure it anymore, latching onto the sweet promise of escape through death?
Fortunately, we didn’t go down that path. Instead, he focused me on the trip ahead. I nibbled on a slider (registering without surprise that it was my first meal in two days) as Michael tried to convince me that some fresh air and testosterone-fueled adventure would snap me out of my funk. He jittered with anticipation as he promised chances to rappel across bottomless sink-holes, scale cliffs of “slick-rock,” and conclude with a blind dive into Lake Powell. All, he said, under the supervision of guides trained to ensure our safety.
An idea took root over the course of our conversation and grew. There would be plenty of opportunities to engineer an “accident.” I paid selfishly little attention to the impact my “accident” would have on the group. Instead, I was lost to the promise of relief that would come from finally taking a fatal plunge.
The desert on the lake
After indulging in a solitary and cheerless (but expensive) last hurrah at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Las Vegas, I joined the rest of the group to caravan up to our houseboat on Lake Powell. We met our guides: three wiry, nimble, good-hearted guys that seemed to be everywhere, making sure everyone was safe and following instructions. My nemeses.
By the second day (after we had all demonstrated proficiency with our safety gear and followed all instructions), our guides began to relax. There were exhilarating moments, and beautiful vistas. We started to form bonds that were stronger than the ropes connecting us.
Despite all this, I was still desperate to have an “accident.”
It looked like my moment arrived as I waited for John (a tall lanky engineer with a contagious barking laugh) to spider-walk across a gaping sink-hole. One of his hands lost purchase on the slick sides of the sink-hole and before we knew it, he was dangling from the safety rope.
He was welcomed to the other side with shoulder-slaps and jokes about the implications of tall guys with weak hands quickly enough, but I saw that if I didn’t fully secure the safety rope to my harness, I would be free to fall as far as the sink-hole would let me.
A Really Bad Idea
My hands were sweaty and shaking. John was still commanding most of the attention. I shimmied out, face-down over the hole, extending my arms and legs to maintain contact as I approached the widest point. I didn’t see bottom, just an endless supply of black. My weak arms and legs trembled as I tried to work up the courage to let go. Just do it. The black beneath me began to expand, blocking everything else out, until it was just me struggling with a desire to let go and an instinct to hold on.
The instinct to hold on grew stronger as my limbs fatigued. A series of “maybes” began to play out in my mind: maybe I could do meaningful work again; maybe I could love (and be loved by) a good woman again; maybe my life was worth living. At the time, these “maybes” were only fragments of images, but it was clearly Hope forcing its way into my consciousness. For the first time in years, I decided I wanted to live. Really give life another try. But I was stuck. I barely had the strength to hold on, much less continue to spider-walk to the other side. The safety rope was tangled uselessly around my rescue-eight. I couldn’t hold on long enough for the guides to scurry out to me.
Now that I wanted to live, I was going to die.
I tell myself in hindsight that I couldn’t, absolutely couldn’t, let myself be killed by something as pitiful as irony. No way. My body released its reserves of adrenaline and I forced myself to inch closer to the other side. With each movement I reaffirmed my commitment to live again. The blackness was still there beneath me. I still felt an urge to yield to it, but this urge retreated to a more distant, nearly nostalgic position.
The sides of the sink-hole drew closer as I advanced, allowing me to bend my limbs and get a little more leverage. I was going to make it. I crammed years’ worth of thoughts and internal dialog into the time it took me to reach the safety of the other side, even though the whole event was over in a few moments.
I can’t remember much after reaching the safety of the other side and joining the rest of the group. Did anyone notice how close I came to going “gentle into that good night” (as Dylan Thomas writes)? Were there celebratory shoulder-slaps for me too, signifying that I had earned the right to be one of the guys? I can’t remember.
I do remember that we concluded the day’s canyoneering with a dive into Lake Powell. We rappelled individually down one of the cliff faces that borders the lake to dive from a narrow ledge about 5-meters over the water. Then we swam back to our houseboat for cold beers and a chance to polish our stories of heroism for the folks back home.
When it was my turn on the ledge, I stared out over the water. It was calm and dark and huge. There was some similarity between the welcoming appeal of the water and the black pit I had met earlier, but mostly I was hot and the water was going to be a refreshing way to cool off. I also fought the same instinct to keep holding on. Don’t do it. Don’t risk a crazy leap into the unknown.
P.S. A sincere thanks to John and Michael, not only for reviewing this, but more importantly, for showing the kind of brotherly love and support that helped me to hold on when I wanted to let go… and to let go when I needed to drop the garbage I was holding on to.