Altered States and Suicidal Remembrances

Why do people kill themselves?

I revisited this question the other day while floating in an isolation tank. Specifically, I wanted to remember why I had so seriously considered suicide, on and off, for a period of some three to four years, during a time that was externally good.

So we’ll call this week’s column “Intrapersonal Guy,” if you don’t mind. (If you do mind, send me an e-mail.)

Some call them “sensory-deprivation tanks;” others, “flotation tanks.” By whatever name, these specialized bathtubs feel just as sweet. Someone pumps a ton of salt into an amount of water that’s about a foot and a half deep, seven feet long and four feet wide. The water is kept at the temperature of human skin, so you notice it less. As you might in the Dead Sea, you float comfortably on your back, your midsection sagging a bit but no part of you touching the bottom. You put in earplugs and turn off the lights, and simply float there for an hour or so. Sometimes you brush up against the side, but that’s about all the action there is. Eventually an employee comes along and knocks on the side. You tap back to show them you’ve heard them, and they leave, so you can re-enter the world of external sensations at your own pace.

Despite their depiction in the movie “Altered States,” tanks don’t normally tap into genetic memories in order to induce physical regression. I’ve floated three times now, and my musculature has remained stubbornly human. Not once have my guttural sounds led someone to open the tank and find me twitching and incoherent, with goat’s blood dripping from my mouth.

“Altered States” was inspired by the work of John Lilly, a pioneering neuroanatomist and dolphin researcher. The New York Times once described Lilly as “a walking syllabus of Western Civilization.”

Before entering the tank, Lilly would inject himself with lysergic acid diethylamide. Then he would float for hours, spacing out in a whole new way. Regular sessions with a psychoanalyst helped him process his experiences, so he could push them further. In 1966-67, it was not only legal for him to take LSD in this way – he also got paid for it, by the federal government, as had Ken “Cuckoo’s Nest” Kesey before him. The National Institute of Mental Health paid Lilly a salary for five years so he could experiment on himself. “Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer” is his report to them of how he used the grant.

When you’re not taking LSD, as I wasn’t, floating can be tremendously restful. According to one proponent, by shutting down external stimuli and giving you the illusion of weightlessness, floating can give rest to parts of your brain that have never rested before – parts that have had to pay attention to sounds and touch and gravity throughout your deepest sleeps.

Probably that’s not true, but it’s nice to think it might be. It adds to the experience.

Let the mind drift

Because I felt so relaxed, I felt safe to explore a time that I rarely dwell on anymore: the years when I nearly killed myself.

Typically when someone kills himself we say that he must have been depressed. It doesn’t help us much, to say that; it feels like we’re saying that someone fell asleep because he was tired. It’s not really an explanation, but we feel better when we can name a cause, however vague.

But researchers say that only some of those who kill themselves had been depressed. What’s up with the others?

Looking back on the experience, I figured I, too, must have been depressed. It was easier to explain it that way than to have to remember. But I wasn’t depressed. I was afraid. I remember that now. The tank gave me the tranquility I needed to recall that emotion.

Lying there on my back, in the warm salty water, I remembered lying on my side, on my boarding-school bed, afraid that I couldn’t go on. I was afraid of the pain of life, but mostly of the inevitability of Death.

You could say that I was excessively afraid because I had overgeneralized, or you could say that the rest of the world is insufficiently afraid because it has undergeneralized. It depends on your point of view.

The world, and particularly the modern American world, blames various controllable factors for death: heart disease, cancer, war and so on. It tries to address each concern.

I had grown up with that mentality, but suddenly all that seemed futile. I had seen what a river had done to my strong father.

The world might say, “Make swimming lessons and boating expertise mandatory.”

But I couldn’t say that anymore. Here’s where I might have overgeneralized: I decided that it didn’t have to be a river. Something would have gotten my father, I decided, whether it had been his heart or his brainstem or a slow growth on his liver or a speeding car or a bullet or an electric wire or a virus or a failed airplane or some other goddam thing. Likewise, something was going to get me, even if I stayed huddled in a sterile room for eighty years, and ate bran and drank carrot juice and exercised like Muhammad Ali.

No exit

Suddenly I felt trapped in life, because I had suddenly seen that no matter what I did, it would end.

Remember Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory, when Charlie and his grandpa were drinking that fizzy soda? The gas made them buoyant, and they giggled as they floated up and up. They were happy as clowns, doing somersaults in the air. Then they saw the rapidly revolving fan at the top, and felt themselves floating toward it in a way they could not stop.

They escaped by burping. They dissipated the gas and became heavier, gradually sinking back to the floor. We are relieved when we see this, in the movie. But we cannot do that, ourselves, because our problem is not caused by excess gas. It is a problem without a solution: One of the conditions of life is that it will end in a revolving fan.

As that truth sank in to me, my fear grew. Call it “fear of fanning.”

When something scares us, we try to move away from it, right? Or kill it. One or the other: Fight or flee. That’s how we’re wired.

Unfortunately we can’t fight Death, only individual causes of it. Nor can we escape it. Realizing that neither fight nor flight would help me, then, I thought about combining them. I wanted to flee Death by killing myself before It got me. I was too scared to just sit there quietly, waiting for the fan like everyone else. I could think of nothing but Death, and when you can think of nothing but Death, suicide seems all the more attractive. “At least,” you tell yourself, “if I kill myself I can stop thinking these terrible self-destructive thoughts.”

That’s not depression – not really. Throughout this time I was working hard and making good grades and playing sports and dating a little. I did landscape labor and painted houses during the summers. I ate regularly, if at times obsessively, and slept okay. Got elected president of the student council and got into Harvard. And through it all, including my first few years in college, I wasn’t sure I could let myself keep living, as long as there was a fan at the end of the tunnel.

I never “conquered” this fear. I doubt it can really be conquered, except by some personal near-death experience that shows you, for certain, that you will live on past the mangling fan. Like most of us, I have gone without such an experience.

Unable to conquer the fear, I began to ignore it, I guess. I suppose that’s how I forgot I had it. At some point I decided that this was all the life I knew of, and I might as well make the best of it. Now I cling to it as if by clinging I could hold myself back from the fan that will eventually suck us all in.

Here’s my Jerry Springer wrap-up: Violence may solve many things, kids, but unfortunately it can’t beat Death. Running won’t help either. You just have to live with that particular fear, and sometimes it takes a few years to figure out how to do that.

I’m glad I did, of course.

Next time I float, though, I think I’ll dwell on something more positive: I think I’ll try to figure out why I decided to get born.  ; )

Originally published by The Guy Code, August 20, 2000. 

Comments are closed.