The August San Diego sun was hot. I spread a white blanket on the white concrete floor of a patio behind another mental health hospital, opened the book I asked my mother to bring me – Derrick Jensen’s Dreams, and tried to make myself as comfortable as possible. The sun beat down and the sweat pooled on my palms. I closed the book not wanting my sweat to blur Jensen’s exploration of the role of the supernatural in resisting this culture of death. I couldn’t focus anyway. I couldn’t forget why I was there.
It was my second suicide attempt in four months.
The worst thing about being an in-patient at a mental health hospital is the way patients are always watched, evaluated, monitored. Patients must sleep with their doors open so an orderly can shine a light on them every half hour to make sure they’re still alive. Patients are required to present their food tray to the nurse after each meal while she takes notes on the leftovers. I used to wonder what my unfinished beets meant about suicidal ideations or what the fact that I used butter on my roll the night before while eating my roll plain the next night indicated to hospital staff about my mood. Couple this with the fact that many patients are under court orders to comply with their doctors’ directions and the fishbowl effect is intensified.
Setting the book aside, I looked around the hospital patio. I was the only one outside. Visitation was still hours away and the heat discouraged my fellow patients from venturing out-of-doors. A few plastic tables were set up with umbrellas, but I was not interested in finding shade. The sun, at least, is honest in his watchfulness and he had a specific role to play. He was going to sweat some answers out of me – answers I was incapable of finding on my own.
After a few hours, thoroughly drenched in sweat and finally smelling like a human again, I followed the shadows forming in the afternoon sunlight. They led me to piles of stones in a rock garden. And that’s when I realized what these suicide attempts were really all about. Rocks. Rock bottom.
Through my two suicide attempts, I had finally succeeded in scraping my life clean of the death that was drowning me. Lounging in my new concrete couch next to those harsh, but beautifully real stones in the rock garden, I sensed the strength of my position. I was broke. I had no job. I was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. I was in a strange city thousands of miles from my closest friends and hundreds of miles from family. I needed the permission of my doctors to be released from the hospital. In short, I had nothing. Nothing, except for the most important possession of all – nothing to lose.
I am not sure if it was the medication, my own dehydration, or that fucking flashlight sweeping across my face every half hour that contributed to the vividness of my dreams that night, but I am sure I thoroughly confused my doctors because they increased the dosage of my anti-depressant to levels that made my spine tighten and my ears ring. And, just for good measure, when the nurse came with my pills that night she checked under my tongue to make sure I swallowed them.
It’s been 13 months since the sun and stones helped me make sense of my two suicide attempts. I have not tried to kill myself since. This is not to say that I’m completely recovered. I still think about suicide. Suicide is a smooth-voiced monster lurking just below the surface of still, warm waters.
I’ve made rock bottom my home.
I am still broke. Right now, I have nine voicemails on my phone from debt collectors seeking their student loan interest and money for the ambulance rides I never consented to (could not consent to) after my suicide attempts. I do not know where I am going to sleep from week to week. I am in a strange country now, thousands of miles from friends and family. Sometimes, just before bed, when I grow weary of the day, the old whispers start up again. “Wouldn’t it be nice not to wake up to all the anxiety tomorrow?” “Aren’t you so arrogant, Will, thinking you make any difference in this world?” “The guilt could just fade away with a few small actions…”
The sun and stones continue to help me, though. So much of the therapeutic process for the mentally ill involves learning to accept emotions, learning to sit with disquiet. In the mornings after particularly bad nights, I find a rock under the sun. They remind me that part of existing at rock bottom requires some vulnerability to the darknesses that make me who I am. They remind me of the strength that has been required to reject a life of material comfort for a life of resistance. They remind me that with this strength I can laugh at the seductions of suicide. Laughing at suicide removes the poison, and I can accept my suicidal thoughts as a guide like the reassuring feeling of rock walls within a wanderer’s reach in the pitch black of a cave.
I’ve made rock bottom my home. I like it here. From rock bottom, I thank my suicidal thoughts for what they’ve taught me. Everything is better than suicide. Living with the anxiety that can accompany activism is better than suicide. Having uncomfortable conversations with family about personal finances is better than suicide. Losing romantic partners over your choice for activism is better than suicide. Going to jail for defending the land is better than suicide.
It was suicide that taught me how to confront death. I survived. Twice. In surviving, I learned the power that exists in a life in full, mature contemplation of death. I have chosen death twice. It was not hard. I am not afraid of death by another’s hand after facing death at my own. I will die, but not yet. There’s too much to do.
I thank the sun and the stones for being my companions through the darkness.
As a member of the most privileged class in the world – white, heterosexual male – I cannot speak for the experiences of the oppressed. I do, however, think that many of the world’s most successful resistance movements were spawned from the hardest of rock bottoms.
One of my favorite examples of resistance is currently embodied in the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). MEND has successfully cut Nigeria’s oil production by 30% through direct attacks on oil infrastructure and oil workers. While so many of us in the environmental movement are fighting rear-guard battles that resemble armies in full-fledged retreat with our limited actions protecting this or that piece of land or trying to defend against one destructive project leaving dozens of others to ravage our communities, we look more often than not like fleeing soldiers simply trying to grab as many supplies as possible in our arms to make it just a few more days. MEND, on the other hand, has taken the offensive and struck critical blows to the fossil fuel industry.
The history of resistance in the Niger Delta shows how terrible things got before people took up arms against corporations and government. With their backs against the wall in the realest sense, MEND has shown the world that a few dedicated resistors with very few resources can bring the world’s most powerful corporations to the bargaining table. An estimated 1.5 millions tons of oil has spilled in the Niger Delta over the last fifty years. This is equivalent to close to one “Exxon-Valdez” spill in the Niger River every single year. Meanwhile, there are 27 million people living in the Niger Delta with close to 75% of those people relying on fishing and subsistence farming to feed themselves. Beginning in 1990, Nigerian soldiers backed by financing from Royal Dutch Shell (Shell) and supported by Shell’s own paramilitary forces have conducted massive, deadly raids on oil resistors amongst the Ogoni people. Perhaps the most well known atrocity at the hands of the Nigerian government and Shell, was the 1995 hangings of nine non-violent Ogoni leaders including the internationally acclaimed poet Ken Saro-Wiwa by a specially created military tribunal.
Viewed in this light, MEND’s resistance was predicated on survival – rock bottom, indeed.
So far, my writing in this Do-It-Yourself Resistance series has focused on the emotional and spiritual conditions that I believe would-be resistors must find as they begin their path to saving the world. I urge you to fall in love with life, to recover your empathy, to understand that the struggle involves profound, but conquerable grief, and then to embrace the urgency that accompanies opening your heart to love, empathy, and grief. The first few essays merely point out the first steps I see on the path towards a life devoted to serious resistance.
Emotions and spirituality are, of course, important but they will not stop the dominant culture from murdering what’s left of the world. Our prayers will not stop Monsanto. Really, really stirring emotional accounts of suicidal experiences will not affect the material conditions producing widespread depression in this culture. This late in the game, our only salvation will come through real, tangible action in the real, tangible world. I once sardonically directed readers to boil their debit cards and to try to eat them to demonstrate the unreality of bank accounts. The same holds true for emotions. You will die of thirst very quickly if you drink only love and empathy.
In the upcoming installments of the series I will begin to focus on practicalities through the lens of my personal experiences. There are lifestyle steps that I think help to free people to take direct action in the struggle to save life on the planet. I hesitate to prescribe specifics, but I think there are some general choices resistors can make to free their money, time, and energy for tangible action. In the weeks to come, I will explore topics such as family life, financial considerations for activists with a special emphasis on student loans, and even the possibilities of romance in a life devoted to resistance (resistance is sexy!).
Underneath my suggestions is the rock bottom. Live there. Get comfortable sleeping with stones. The truest existential freedom exists when they can take nothing else from you. When you personally have nothing to lose, you have everything to gain. And, the truth is, as members of natural communities we are losing our ability to feed ourselves, we are losing access to drinkable water, we are losing clean air to breathe, we are losing our human and non-human friends at staggering rates. We are losing everything and, if we delay any longer, there will be nothing to gain.