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Gary GatelySeptember 23, 2019
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If you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). You can find more resources from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention here.

On Christmas Day 2011, I am clutching the railing of the George Washington Bridge, staring into the cold, black waters of the Hudson, into the face of eternity itself. I forgot I am so afraid of heights. The wind is blowing stiff and cold. The signs read, “If you’re in crisis, call 1-800...” and “Take5toSaveLives.com — How to spot the signs of suicide.” Police call boxes appear every few hundred feet on the bridge’s concrete walkway.

Here come two lovers, hand in hand. In another life, I was one of them. We were them. We ambled through Manhattan at midnight, long before the brilliant September Tuesday when the world changed, down there where the red and green lights now bathe the top of the Empire State Building, where the angels blow their horns and the skaters glide across the rink at Rockefeller Center and throngs fill St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which smells of votive candles lit with plaintive pleas in hope and desperation. The cityscapes in the store windows imitate life, life at least for the beautiful people.

So maybe it is true: Your life really does flash before your eyes in your final moments.

So maybe it is true: Your life really does flash before your eyes in your final moments.

The shivers course through me. I think of bungee jumpers and classic manic depressive, high-risk, thrill-seeking behavior, and the shivers are not because of the cold but because the prospect is so tantalizing. Somersaults? A triple jack-knife dive? A spinning plunge? What is the difference, really? I have pondered it so many times, longed for it, prayed for it, played it over and over in my head. I had received the sacrament of the anointing of the sick from Bill Watters, S.J., a priest in Baltimore who is my father-confessor, my spiritual director, my conscience when I could no longer trust my own. I did not tell him of my plans.

Now the precipice awaits.

For most of seven years, I had kept those desperate moments on the G.W.B. a secret from all but family and close friends. Do not go public with it, some told me. Your kids will never live it down. Publishing that, one editor warned, would be, well, career suicide.

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Then, Anthony Bourdain killed himself. Tony Bourdain—a man who seemed to relish squeezing from every moment all the life he could and savoring it. If this darkness could take from us Bourdain and Kate Spade and before them Robin Williams and Ernest Hemingway, why should I keep my secret any longer? And so I feel compelled to share my story. Perhaps others may find solace and suspend disbelief just long enough to imagine not hating being alive.

If this darkness could take from us Bourdain and Kate Spade and before them Robin Williams and Ernest Hemingway, why should I keep my secret any longer?

They are not emotional cripples or immoral people who fail to recognize life for the gift it is, not evil people, not sinners who seek to violate the commandment “Thou shall not kill.” All these things I had long associated with suicidal people.

This is an American epidemic of people suffering, so often in silence, suffering not a moral failing or emotional weakness but mental illness. Suicides have surged 30 percent since 1999 in the United States and now claim an average of 202 Americans a day, more than 2.5 times as many lives as homicides. And the young have become the most vulnerable: More teenagers and young adults die by suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza and chronic lung disease combined. I think of the words of the newsman Mike Wallace, which played on a video during my first stay in a psych ward, in 2003: “Depression is like being sentenced to be alive.”

But again and again, I brood over the question I cannot answer: Not so much what drove me to the brink—depression, addiction, a marriage that disintegrated. No, rather I have pondered: What kept me from jumping? Why did life triumph in those desperate moments? What enables us to choose to continue?

Others, their words, even words spoken decades ago, gave me enough hope to choose life over death.

For me, it is a sunset, my son’s whispers echoing, “I love you, Dad,” and a ghost, that of an editor who died in 2010, Anne Zusy. Sunset over the Hudson paints Englewood Cliffs all oranges and crimsons and purples, and I just gaze at it, savoring the beauty of last light. Then I look to the Manhattan skyline, and my mind meanders to interning at The New York Times. I hear the voice of Annie, echoing through the decades. Annie, the editor who had hired me and mentored me and saved me so many times, is saying: “Look, don’t worry, O.K.? Have some fun. You’re not meant to be miserable. God loves you, and he wants you to be happy.”With that, I turn and take that long walk down the winding concrete pathway of the bridge to the subway at 181st Street, take the A train, then board the Megabus back home to Baltimore.

What saved me? No simple answers or solutions exist. People in the throes of deep depression cannot see a tomorrow of bright sunshine and love and joy. We see blackness, the sun blotted out of the sky, and can imagine only more darkness ahead. While antidepressants have been life-saving for many individuals, they have not slowed the suicide epidemic. Advances in psychiatry and better understanding of the mysterious workings of the brain have not. Being connected via screens has not. We are both more and less connected: Many of us are on social media much of the day and too much of the night, yet lonelier than ever.

Only light can pierce this darkness, and only love can shine that light. That means people who care—even when you have given them every reason to conclude you cannot be saved—can reach you: family, friends, loved ones, a priest, a coach, a volunteer on a suicide hotline, a therapist who recognizes that you do not snap out of depression that makes you want to die but that there is a path out.

Love is the answer. Nothing else could have saved me when I could no longer save myself. Others, their words, even words spoken decades ago, gave me enough hope to choose life over death.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Christopher Lochner
3 years 2 months ago

Wow! This is very powerful. Thank you for speaking to truth. Thank you for being brave and to share this with us. May God bless you. Hang in there, we're all with you.

Patricia Fox
3 years 2 months ago

Gary, I am so glad to chose life and walked off the bridge. At the end of the day, love is all we've got and thank God, love never dies. As a person who is trying to support a child with chronic depression, you have reminded me of how expressions of love are vital in this battle, because the meds do not always work. God Bless you and feel the love!

Christine Coleman
3 years 1 month ago

Thank you for sharing your story, and your bravery.

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