The Day After
The opening sequence of “Little Miss Sunshine” shows us quick glimpses of the members of the Hoover family until it settles on Toni Collette’s Sheryl, frantically smoking and driving while talking on the phone. Moments later, we see what she is driving toward: Steve Carell, sitting in a wheelchair and staring out the window. He is nearly catatonic, refusing the world around him. He is there because he attempted suicide but survived. Half-relieved, half-terrified, she throws her arms around him. He doesn’t seem to notice. He goes with Sheryl because, well, she’s there and she told him to. So he follows her. He is just as unresponsive on the drive home. Sheryl keeps stealing concerned glances at him; he doesn’t seem to notice. She brings him to her home. Is it because he doesn’t have anywhere else to go? Is it because she wants to keep a close eye on him? Maybe both?
They arrive at her house… then what?
Then what? If there is a handbook for how to deal with a suicidal relative, it isn’t given out widely. “Then what?” is the question everyone has to confront. The family, friends, co-workers, and especially the person wanting to die. My wife and family had to figure out the “then what” while I tried to come to grips with what I had done. I didn’t attempt suicide, but I did tell anyone who would listen that I was going to in the coming months. I considered it a courtesy. I figured nobody would need to wonder why I died one day. I think everyone who is suicidal feels about it in their own way. It could be desperation, it could be pain, it could be hopelessness. To me, it felt logical. I went to Costco to find toilet paper that same day, because I wasn’t going to die immediately and we needed it. I didn’t think it was a big deal. Even after my wife confronted me and pulled me out of it, I still didn’t think it was that big a deal.
The human body can protect itself in strange, unexpected ways. As the part of my brain that was pro-not dying started to take over, a numbness began to envelope me. It wasn’t the sort of numbness when your foot falls asleep or your favorite team somehow blew the big game, it was more like my body partially shutting down. The pro-survival part of my brain started to take other parts of me offline as it tried to figure out what was going on. I became slow in action as well as thought. As part of that numbness, I still didn’t think it was a big deal.
My wife telling me my parents were flying in first thing in the morning was a bright bolt of reality. They arrived early in the morning. Too early. I shambled out of bed to greet them, quickly begging off to go back to bed. Seeing that I looked about as well as a zombie, they took my wife for breakfast. I went back to sleep, knowing fully what they were doing. They were going to talk about me. My parents were going to ask my wife questions, she’d answer the best she could, there would be conversations about What To Do With Him.
Eventually, I had to get up and face the most uncomfortable day of my life. In many ways, it was worse than the day before. I didn’t know this was possible, but I felt pale, the physical manifestation of blanched. Unshaven, unkempt, I sat on my futon as my father said they were here to support me and be there for me no matter what. And that’s great, but I was barely there. I had somehow reached some other dimension and stood with half a foot in that one. My wife had to go into the office, because work, unlike death, does not kindly wait, leaving me and my parents alone together. I couldn’t tell you what happened over the ensuing hours. The numbness had intensified to a point where it was almost painful. It was as if my consciousness was trying to get out of my body.
And my poor parents had to decide what they wanted to talk to me about. Did they want to address it? Did they want to distract me? Nobody gave them that handbook. I sat there, inanimate, while things happened around me. I did not decide my actions. People told me what was going to happen, and that’s what happened. I just followed, an almost human. Go here. Eat now. Come over there. And that little part of my brain made sure to tell me that I wouldn’t have to sit here during this had I done the deed yesterday.
When the Hoover family sat down for dinner, Abigail Breslin peppered Carell with questions. Why did he try to kill himself? Over his brother-in-law’s objections, he calmly laid out the story for the little girl. At the end, he said that he didn’t succeed in killing himself, so he “failed in that too.” Stop and think about that for a moment. You’re in a place where you want to end your life. You try, but you live. Maybe your subconscious intervened and sabotaged the effort. Maybe it just didn’t work. Bottom line, you didn’t kill yourself, which is the worst thing you can do to one’s own self. You’re alive. Are you happy? Are you relieved? No. You’re miserable because you failed in killing yourself. You feel negatively about your own effort to end your life. Somehow, in a way, you’re feeling even worse. The thing that should be objectively good gets twisted into a negative. That’s how bad it gets. Almost anything spirals down into harm. I have no doubt my family was relieved I didn’t kill myself, but that’s not a feeling I had.
Instead, it was a heavy dose of shame. Anyone I know, is that what they’re thinking about when they see me? It’s embarrassing. You brace yourself for them bringing it up. I’m certainly not going to. “Hey, remember that time I posted on Facebook I was gonna commit suicide? Crazy, right?” You don’t want to talk about it, not at all. But you have to. You’re The Suicidal Guy. Everyone uses their concerned/supportive voice. You have to message your grandmother because she saw it. Your wife has to go with you to the counselor and psychiatrist to make sure they know what happened. That means you have to go over what happened, what triggered it, how you felt. The humiliation doesn’t get the opportunity to scab over, because around the corner, there’s someone else you have to explain yourself to. You get threatened with going to the hospital, which you don’t want to do because you absolutely cannot afford it and who wants to go to the hospital anyway? It’s an effective stick, though, and you agree to do things. You’re not left alone, because you’re not trusted with that privilege.
The important part here is these are conversations that absolutely need to happen, but they’re happening at a time you can barely feel anything, let alone articulate clear thoughts. Your brain’s not ready to fire up all the systems again, because it’s not sure what’s going to happen when it does. And, again, you try to ignore that voice telling you a dead person doesn’t have to deal with this.
You’re told to take it one day at a time. Otherwise, it feels overwhelming. One of the few good things is it’s easier to do it in this state, as you can hardly comprehend a day after this one. And you don’t know it at the time, but everything you do this day matters. Even though you don’t feel it until later, it’s the beginning of the healing process.