Sunday, July 3, 2011

One Snowy Night that Changed Everything

This post is the first in a series on How I Escaped from the Rat Race. For the series introduction click here.

It was my junior year of college - spring mid-terms, upstate New York. It was the middle of March, there was a thick blanket of snow on the ground, and I was mired in a hopeless sea of cold, dark, exhausted misery.

At that point I was majoring in psychology. I didn't really want to major in psychology, it was just where I had landed after trying and rejecting German, Geology, History, and Sociology/Anthropology. I guess some part of me was laboring under the misguided notion that I might uncover some secret hidden truth about the human condition which would allow me to outsmart all of my personal demons.

But after my first "lab" class, which involved starving rats so they'd be properly motivated to run through mazes, and an oppressive accompanying workload, I knew I'd made a terrible mistake.

What sort of career awaited me as a psych major? The prospect of a life in academia sounded horrific, and the idea of becoming a clinical psychologist seemed utterly absurd. How could someone as screwed up as I was ever presume to think they might be able to help anybody else sort out their problems? I'd probably end up with a meaningless desk job in a nameless office building doing the bidding of some faceless corporation.

I saw my future spread out before me in a maze of twisting passages, just like the ones that poor tortured creature had been forced to endure. And like my wretched starving rat, the only reward I'd get would be a small morsel of sustenance... just enough to keep me alive, but never enough to feel satiated, let alone happy.

But there wasn't really time to worry about any of that now. I had several exams the next day and a major paper due. I was pretty sure Phi Beta Kappa would revoke my early admittance status if I didn't keep up my GPA, and the thought of adding public humiliation to my private anguish was almost more than I could bear. To make matters worse, I was scheduled to take a semester abroad in Italy the next fall, which meant that I'd need to complete three psych labs my senior spring in order to graduate. One lab had nearly killed me, how could I even contemplate three?

So there I was, feeling hopeless and demoralized, when I made one of the more curious decisions of my life. I decided to call my mother. I really don't know why I thought this was a good idea. It's not like my mother had ever been a font of unconditional love and support. I guess I was just hoping against hope that she might provide some source of comfort. I desperately needed to hear that I, as a human being, was more important than what I accomplished.

"Well, if you don't get all A's, you're not going to Italy."

She said it in a rather flippant manner, just like she always did - with enough of a sarcastic laugh so she couldn't really be held accountable for saying such a cruel thing, but enough of a biting edge to let me know that some part of her meant it. Did I think she'd really prevent me from going to Italy if I got a B? No. Did she succeed in delivering the message that I was expected to achieve? Loud and clear.

I hung up the phone. I felt completely vacant... there was no anger, no sadness, no nothing... just an overwhelming hollow sensation. I really couldn't see what the point of any of it was any more, and there didn't seem to be any direction to turn. So I decided that I only had one option left.

I was going to kill myself.

Of course, being the cowardly non-committal soul that I am, I wasn't about to choose a method that involved pain, or blood, or suffering. Slitting my wrists was definitely out. Pills seemed like a good choice, but the strongest thing I had on hand was Tylenol - and a long protracted death via liver failure didn't exactly fulfill my desire to "end it all" quickly.

So I got in my car and I drove. I didn't know where I was going, and I didn't care. I just drove and drove into the dark snowy night. I contemplated turning the steering wheel into the path of an oncoming semi, but it seemed unfair to force some unwitting truck driver to share my fate. Plus, knowing my luck I'd probably only succeed in making myself into a quadriplegic, at which point they'd undoubtedly turn me over to my mother's care - and that would indeed be a fate worse than death!

Then all of a sudden it hit me... the perfect solution... hypothermia! I realize it may sound far fetched, but when you grow up in Colorado you hear stories each winter of some idiot tourist who gets lost in the back country and freezes to death. At school they taught us all about hypothermia and how people don't realize they're in such danger because once the body temperature falls low enough you loose the sensation of coldness and are simply overtaken by a pleasant warm drowsiness.

Pleasant warm drowsiness?!? It was the answer to my prayers! No pain, no blood, no chance of a paralyzed dependency on my mother... just a nice little nap and then... oblivion. So I pulled off the road at an abandoned campsite. I got out of the car, took off my jacket, laid down on a snow covered picnic table and waited....

And waited... and waited... and waited.

Here's the thing. Now I'm not saying that the folks who told me about the "pleasant warm drowsiness" weren't telling the truth, but unless one is willing to do something really dramatic, like say, jump into a freezing river, one apparently has to freeze one's ass off for a really, Really, REALLY long time before anything even remotely resembling pleasant, warm or drowsy starts to set in.

After a few hours I decided that I was being ridiculous. I got back into the car and reluctantly drove back to campus. I felt like a total failure. I didn't even have the emotional fortitude to kill myself, let alone to face my life.

I couldn't bear the thought of going back to my dorm, so instead I went to the campus spirituality center. It was a small building tucked away on a back road, with private prayer/meditation rooms that were open 24/7. I tiptoed through the dark building, locked myself into one of the closet sized rooms, sat on the floor and sobbed. I cried, and cried and cried.

I've never been a Christian, so I don't think it would be accurate to say that I prayed, but I certainly begged for guidance.

And then it happened.

I had a realization - more like a revelation... an actual epiphany in fact.

It suddenly dawned on me that if my life was making me so utterly miserable that offing myself truly seemed like a viable alternative, laughable though my attempt may have been, then I had absolutely nothing to lose.

I'm not sure that I can accurately describe the emotion that I experienced in that moment. It was as if a wave of euphoria washed over me, taking with it all of the angst, fear, and hopelessness which had so consumed me just a moment before.

Suddenly nothing mattered. Who cared if I got a B? Or an F? Or if I dropped out of school completely for that matter? If the alternative was becoming a human Popsicle splayed out on some picnic table in the middle of nowhere, then nothing else held any importance whatsoever.

Maybe my parents would disown me. Maybe I'd starve to death or become a bag lady living in a cardboard box under an overpass. Maybe the New York Times would run my picture on the front page with a caption reading "Phi Beta Kappa revokes honor when student proves herself to be the embodiment of human failure and inadequacy." So what?

And thus I took my first tentative steps down the proverbial road less traveled.

I dropped out of the Italy study group. The only real reason I was going was to have an excuse to get close to a guy named JP on whom I had a terrible crush. But I was damned if I was gonna let my mother hold it over me.

I looked at my transcript and realized that my musical "habit" had amassed me a huge number of credits from singing in the choir and playing in the orchestra. In fact, I only needed to take one more class to fulfill the requirements for a music major, and I already had enough credits for a psychology minor. So I took the final music class the next fall, refused to study and got the one and only B of my academic career. YES!

I had a total blast my senior year in college. I took art classes, and photography, and women's studies, and absolutely NO classes that met any time before noon. I didn't know what the future would bring, but whenever I started to worry, I always had two words to set me straight: Human Popsicle.

The hilarious postscript to this story is that early the next fall I got a long letter from JP in Italy. I could tell that he was leading up to something, and I was pretty sure that he was about to profess his undying love for me. I think the crucial sentences went something like this:

"Well, I guess you can probably tell that I'm not just writing to say hello. I don't know any easy way of telling you this so I'm just going to say it. I'm gay."

Human Popsicle indeed!

For the next post in this series click here.


  1. Thank You for this post! Thank You for being brave enough to share! I have lived through much of what you describe and confess that I still use the thought of ending it all as a sort of crutch. I know I can do it so I don´t have to. And yes, I spent 10 years (!) of my life being passionately in love with a guy only to find out why our wonderful relationship didn´t grow into something more. Yes, he now lives happily with the man of his dreams. And we are still good friends.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story. I'm glad to know that you didn't end up a human popsicle because I would miss your writings. I wish I had had such an epiphany in college so I could have enjoyed more of it, especially because I didn't bother working anywhere near the field I worked so hard to get great grades in. I'm doing my best to teach my children that grades and jumping through hoops are ridiculous, so hopefully they won't need to learn such lessons on their own, and are able to enjoy life more.

  3. I too would miss you if you weren't here! I went through the most stressful 12 months of my life a few years ago to achieve a diploma that will never amount to more than a part time job at best because I too can't bear to sit at a desk all day. I had a serious breakdown at Christmas during that year, and can certainly empathize with your situation when in college.

    I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason and (while I am nowhere near religious of any sort) there is a plan for us all. There was surely something that you got out of the whole experience that changed the way you do & look at things today. Your experiences are a part of who you are:)

  4. I have a very similar dark sense of humor and also very carefully considered the best method to off myself while in college ans super stressed. Obviously I failed but I also decided to embrace my slacker nature and never be a "good" student, but only so-so. Did what I wanted, pursued what I wanted, and still thrilled with all my decisions!

  5. Anonymous - I have actually never considered suicide again since that night... I guess it really made me see that there are always SOOOO many better options if I just look at things differently. JP and I are still friends too. Shortly after we graduated he met the man of his dreams and the two of them are still together. They live in NYC so, although I haven't received an announcement yet, I'm pretty sure they'll be tying the knot soon. Here's hoping you never need the "crutch" of the dark thoughts again!

    Anne - The world really needs more mothers like you. Your children are SOOOOO lucky!

    Kristin - It really was a watershed moment for me. While the misery that led up to it was certainly no fun, I am eternally grateful that the universe provided me with the opportunity to see the trap that snares so many of us, and to make a different choice about how to live my life.

    Sam - It's so nice to know that there are other people out there who share my dark sense of humor. I was a tad bit afraid of telling this story for fear that it might freak people out. There is enormous power in casting off the yoke of perfection isn't there? Blessed are the slackers for they shall save the planet!

  6. I'm sorry to say this out loud but this is the funniest post on suicide I have ever read. Isn't it great when you can look back on dark times with a sense of humour.
    I, too, had a human popsicle moment. It was in law school when I learned that despite hours and hours of neurotic studying, I bombed my Criminal Law exam. Fortunately, when I called my mother she said the sweetest (and most uncharacteristic) four words I've ever heard her say: "Who gives a shit!?"
    I dropped out after first year and am the envy of every lawyer I meet.
    So so so glad, you're still with us!

  7. Thanks for having the courage to share your story with the world. I, too, definitely had some "dark thoughts" times in college -- what pressure we put ourselves under!

    I look forward to reading the rest of the stories in your journey to escaping the rat race. I agree that we all need to find our own path, but learning from the experience of others can be helpful.

  8. Christine - I'm so glad you appreciate my twisted sense of humor. I often refer to that night as my "nervous hoedown" - like a nervous breakdown, only smaller and with comic overtones. Law school sounds a bit like hell on earth to me. I'm glad you escaped!

    Melissa - I'm always amazed when I learn how many other people had some horrible times in college too. Back then I often felt like something was wrong with me because everybody else seemed to be having a great big party while I was totally miserable. Over the years I've come to realize that much of the partying etc that I observed back then was really not an expression of happiness at all... it was just how lots of people dealt with their own misery.

  9. Thanks for this brilliant post. I think many of us have been there but rarely mention it..

  10. Hi JNU - Thanks so much for your support. :)

  11. I loved this story because it mirrors the experiences of so many young people trying to find and define themselves in our society. We try so hard to be what others tell us we should be that we are blinded to we really are.

    I never reached the depths of despair that you experienced but I certainly had my "fuck it all" moment in college which led to my transferring from Penn State to Berklee College of Music. One of the best decisions I've made.

  12. Wow! Berklee is legendary in my circles. Sounds like a great decision to me! Did you end up working in the music industry?

  13. Oh man. You and I are so alike. (And have a lot in common with some of your readers too by the sounds of it!) My first university degree went almost exactly like yours did... and guess what, I also ended up in Psychology having the same 'freak out' moment re. lab rats! Soooo, I did what you did, picked the fastest point of exit. Goodbye med school dream (however that was my parents dream for me, not mine... took me a long time to sort that out)...

    I didn't have such a profound 'popsicle' moment as you, although in some ways I wish that I'd had. I have had, instead, a plethora of 'mini-popsicle' moments... and basically suffereed from bouts of mild depression for the past 15 years. It all came to a head when I had my son and it launched me into a MAJOR depression (they called it post-partum, I call it inevitable!) So, now I am trying to sort it all out and AND parent a son (without screwing it up!) A lot of pressure. HOWEVER, as you konw, I am having mini-epiphanies along the way bringing me closer and closer to 'the truth'...

    Thanks for sharing. As you know, I think that you are RAD and glad that you didn't freeze to death on that fateful night...

  14. Those poor lab rats. And what's worse, once we got done torturing them, they were sent over to the biology department to have god knows what done to them. I still feel guilty about it.

    In many ways I consider myself fortunate to have reached such a low point (and to have come out of it). It's not like everything has been all sunshine and flowers since, but the perspective certainly helps. I sort of chalk it up to my inability to tolerate what most people can. I think most people just "grin and bear it" and as a result they get mired in depression that they can't quite understand or escape from. So I feel lucky to have a fairly low BS tolerance level.

    I think the very fact that you're able to acknowledge your struggles with depression means that you're not gonna screw up your son. The real damage is done by pretending that everything is OK when it's not. My advice is to not spend too much time dwelling on "the truth" because it easily becomes a mirage. Just focus on feeling what you really feel, no matter how uncomfortable it may be. When the universe sends you popsicles... OK there was something witty or profound in that thought, but clearly it escaped me...

  15. Hey ECL, your experience was indeed a gift (and one that you are bravely sharing so that others may benefit). Thank you for the good advice on letting go of 'the truth'... Re-reading my post now, I am not sure why I used that term. 'Truth' (like reality) is relative. All you have if your own experience... One more thing, I have come to equate being 'uncomfortable' with being authentic... And living authentically is important to me.

  16. ECL,

    We share much. But I think you sound pretty brave, and I admire it.

    Hey JP wouldn't happen to be J Poullard would it?

  17. I love your outlook through this story. Thanks for sharing it.

  18. Hi there again. I just read this:

    It suddenly dawned on me that if my life was making me so utterly miserable that offing myself truly seemed like a viable alternative, laughable though my attempt may have been, then I had absolutely nothing to lose.

    and though:


    only not over the same issues. Doesn't matter - same moment of liberation.

    I started reading this and thought "this sounds like Cornell," but then none of your death-options included flinging yourself into a gorge.

    I'm on my way to read more.

  19. Duck - Liberation is an amazing feeling isn't it? Too bad it takes getting so low to realize it.

    And no... not Cornell, but close... Colgate. We stole the midnight scream from them at finals, but alas, no gorge to heave oneself from... at least not one capable of doing much real damage. :)

    And to everybody else who has commented and to whom I never responded... thanks so much for your thoughts... I'm sure you'll never get back here to read this, but thanks anyhow... and Steph... I have no earthly idea who J Poullard is, so no, not him... JP is just a very nice fellow living in happy obscurity somewhere in Greenwich Village.

  20. Fantastic! Even the bad and sad bits. With an ending I wasn't expecting what a rollercoaster ride of a post it was magnificent!

    I'm loving this series I'm glad I'm only 2 in.

    1. Ha! I wasn't expecting that ending either! I remember getting his letter... I had gone with a group of friends to pick up mail and as I was reading it we were all walking along together. I was so dumbfounded by it all that I just stopped short with my jaw hanging on the ground. By the time I came back to my senses my friends were all the way on the other side of the campus!

  21. Hi Cat

    How awful to feel so desperate so young. I'm glad you had a happy ending to your suicide attempt and I'm only sorry that you had to work through it alone. It must have made you very much stronger than you were before.

    I decided years ago that if ever I am in the position of wanting to end my life then exposure would be the way to go. Alcohol-fuelled exposure, I might add. Not going out sober - no. I would also say that I have no intention of ending myself prematurely, because no matter how depressed I get, there's a little mantra that helped me through my first brush with the black dog that I still use. It's so simple, but it really works for me. "It will not always be like this." Those exact words popped into my head one day when I was nearing my lowest, and they had a ring of truth. After all, life *hadn't* always been like this, so it stood to reason that it *wouldn't* always be like this. I am always open to reason. I may laugh in its face on occasion, but I'm always open to it in the first instance.

    Sure enough, life got better, I got better.

    I'm really talking about if I get a diagnosis one day that I refuse to endure through. Then it's the whisky bottle, a mix tape, a damp (but alluring) nightie, and the back garden for me.

    That's the theory, anyway. Knowing my luck it'll be in the middle of a heatwave.

    But in the meantime life is good, even when it's not, if that makes sense.

    Do you ever plan to come to England?

    1. "Not going out sober" - now there's the spirit! You know, with the weather we're having here, I'd say it's much more likely that one could do oneself in via heatstroke than exposure.

      In a funny way I am so grateful for this experience. Learning that it was OK to simply reject all of the forces that were telling me that I wasn't good enough really allowed me to reject a whole host of other ridiculousness that is constantly hoisted upon us.

      I've never actually been to England. Maybe I'll make it there someday...

      p.s. Sorry it took me so long to respond to this - I fear I've been sorta caught up in the wall to wall TV coverage of the movie massacre. Sigh.

    2. I meant to say "foisted upon us" although "hoisted upon us" an interesting visual... :-)

  22. Although it wasn't the main point of the post, here's a question for you:

    What do you think you were REALLY learning in that rat-torture psych lab?

    Valuable insight into how to condition starving animals? No, not really - you already knew that information, or could have easily read it in a book. It's not particuarly useful information, is it?

    What you were really supposed to learn was how to justify doing something morally wrong (torturing animals for no purpose now, or something else evil later) for some abstract reward (grades now, money down the line), while proving that you had "what it takes" to make a go of it in the souless, rapacious world of academia or some other competitive white-collar job.

    Congratulations on your failure.

    Oh, and by the way - your mother sounds about as loving and supportive as mine. By which I mean, not at all.

    1. "...proving that you had 'what it takes' to make a go of it in the souless, rapacious world of academia or some other competitive white-collar job." Well said, my friend! Suffering now to earn the right to both suffer more and inflict further suffering on others - NO THANKS!

      You know, when the semester was over we had the choice of either adopting our rats or letting them go to the biology department (to be dissected, of course.) Oh, how I wanted to save that poor little creature, but I was an RA (resident advisor) - responsible for enforcing campus rules like no pets in the dorms, and I would have lost my job for sure.

      I cried, and cried and cried over the fate of that poor little guy. It still makes me cry just thinking about it.

      Anyhow, thanks so much for your comment.

  23. This is such an incredible story. I'm most captivated by how much you have helped yourself. The strength required to do that is immense. You're giving me hope :o)

    1. I'm so glad that my crazy little life could serve as inspiration to anyone. But you know, it's interesting that you'd choose the word "strength" because in a funny way it was sort of the opposite. I felt as though I'd been fighting and trying and struggling my entire life, and the moment it all changed was when I basically gave up and stopped trying. I stopped trying to control what was going to happen, and stopped trying to be perfect.

      It's not like life has been all lollipops and sunbeams since, but I can draw a definite before and after line to that event.


  24. My dad took me camping in January, I slept on the ground head inside the sleeping bag shivering all night. I saw The Red Tent and hoep I die warm.

    1. Haven't seen The Red Tent, but I do agree that dying warm sounds like a good idea! :-)


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