On amusement parks, depression, and familiarity with death.

On amusement parks, depression, and familiarity with death.

My spouse, two children, & I recently visited an amusement park called “Holiday World.” We stood in line to ride the Halloween area’s “Scarecrow Scrambler,” which was, aside from a small painted scarecrow, apparently identical to amusement park Scramblers around the world.

A “Scrambler” is a giant metal hinged contraptions that send passengers hurtling toward each other, and toward the concrete outer walls, at alarmingly high speeds. Again and again, the Scrambler evokes an illusion of narrowly avoided collision. Certain death.

Phew, that was a close one!

A “Scrambler” in action — image from Golden Wattle on Wikimedia.

My spouse and our five-year-old rode in a car together. My spouse had loved this ride when she was growing up in Albany – and, since her family was often broke, she typically could only ride it after winning tickets from the local library’s summer reading program. Her glee was intense. Her laughter and loud “Wheeeeee!”s filled the air, a nice contrast to the wooshing wind that rushed past my ears each time my car accelerated toward another wall.

At the end of the day, our five-year-old unhesitatingly announced that the Scrambler had been her favorite ride. Happiness is infectious. It helps to have an unremittingly joyful tour guide.

On the Scrambler, I’d sat in a car with our seven-year-old. She too was laughing and giggling – but also, midway through the ride, she turned to me and said, “You’re not enjoying this much, are you?”

I wasn’t.

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Amusement park rides are interesting. The counter-intuitive physics of each contraption, the illusions they create, the sensations evoked inside the human passengers’ bodies – all of that is interesting.

And I’d even argue that the rides are psychologically helpful for most people. In contemporary society, we suffer from an unfamiliarity with death. A reckoning with our own mortality can help us re-calibrate our priorities – what matters to us enough that we should spend our time on it, given that our time is fleeting?

In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, the Christ-like character Myshkin speaks repeatedly about how it might feel to be pardoned from imminent execution. (An experience that Dostoevsky himself went through. He was sentenced to death for revolutionary activity, stood with his co-conspirators before a mock firing squad, then learned with mere moments to spare that the Tsar had pardoned them all. At least one person suffered an irreparable mental breakdown. Dostoevsky became a reactionary conservative.)

To feel certain, at one moment, that your life is ending. And then to find yourself reprieved, given time to make amends, to live and laugh and love some more. The world might seem so bountiful! There’d be no reason to squander time. No reason to waste hours worrying – each mere moment might be seen, again, as the precious gift it is.

During graduate school, I earned extra money as a study subject for Stanford’s psychology department. A team of researchers wanted to show that thoughts of impending death make people more likely to want to spend time with family members and close friends. So they had me listen, daily, to a twenty minute meditation on my own mortality.

“We do not know what will happen next, but one thing is certain: this life is drawing to a close. You will die. We all will die.” And on it went, in a nice calm voice, for twenty minutes.

My brain tends toward depression. Even without the guided meditation, I think about death fairly often. Daily? Yes, probably. During bleak times, perhaps hourly. My first love in philosophy was Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. His reasoning seemed sensible to me. Before determining how we should live, first ponder: should we?

Still, the meditation was nice. Helpful, even. In ways that, for my brain, the Scrambler was not.

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In July of 2020, I attended a funeral for a twenty-nine year old friend. He’d died of a heroin overdose. His death was almost certainly intentional.

My friend had also overdosed the week before. That time, somebody had Narcan’ed him back. Often, people return to life swearing and angry. Narcan blocks opiod receptors, so a person sharply transitions from extreme placidity into a world of hurt. With Narcan, suddenly the whole body aches.

But my friend had resumed breathing, blinking and beatific. A smile bloomed across his face. “That was so easy,” he said.

A week later, he was gone.

Easy.

The word ‘easy’ hurts. Lots of people experience a moment, here and there, when it seems as though it would be better to be dead. But the act of transition would be hard – it is difficult to kill oneself. And that difficulty can save us. That difficulty gives us time to reflect, to consider all the other people whom our absence would hurt, all the future happiness that a present act might steal away.

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Our nation suffers from an epidemic of gun violence. These deaths are ill-tracked – the NRA aggressively opposed all efforts to collect data on gun deaths, and the CDC didn’t begin studying the problem until 2019.

But it appears that around 60% of all gun deaths are suicides. And it appears that around 50% of all suicides are gun deaths.

Humans are a rather dangerous species. Especially among young men, it’s common for arguments to flare into bursts of physical violence. People can kill each other even with sticks and stones. With swords, with knives, with slingshots.

But guns make death come easier. There’s less time for friends or bystanders to break up a fight – within seconds, the fight is over. Somebody might be dead.

Similarly, people attempt to end their own lives in myriad ways. With ropes, with knives, with pills. Or by making increasingly risky decisions. But guns make death come easier. Less time passes between making a (bad) decision and a person’s life ending. No nearby friend can Narcan you back from a bullet.

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For some people, it’s helpful to make the approach of death seem easier. Recently, researchers have tried using psychedelic medication as a part of hospice care. Someone who is near the end of their life is given a vision of the infinite. Often, these patients report that their fear of death has waned. They are better able to enjoy the limited time they have remaining.

But for a young, healthy person with depression, we wouldn’t want the sensation of hurtling toward death to feel easy or familiar. That might reduce the likelihood that bad decisions would be second-guessed. That dangers would be avoided. Subsequent suicidal ideation might have a concrete vision to latch onto – this is what the car crash would feel like in the moments before impact.

In Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing, Lauren Hough writes:

The fundamental misunderstanding of depression is the idea that the suicidal want to die. I didn’t want to die. But some misfire in my brain treats existential pain like a dog reacts to vomiting: Fuck it. I’m gonna dig a hole to die in.

Even on a good day, my brain will point out a few easy ways out: Take a hard left in front of that truck. It’ll be over before you feel it. But when it’s dark, when I’m hopeless, I’m just white-knuckling my way through the nights for no reason but instinct.

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Rides like the Scrambler ought to exist! For a lot of people, they probably have great benefit! The sensations are scary, but also safe, and that makes them fun!

Yes, fun! Big surprise twist here, which surely you’d never guess from the long line of people waiting their turns to get on: amusement park rides are fun!

And also: folks with minds like mine probably shouldn’t be on the ride.

On fire and ash.

On fire and ash.

The phoenix falls into fire, burns, and dies. Then rises again, reborn.

The phoenix triumphs over adversity. Life gets hard, excruciatingly hard. Everything falls to shit. But the phoenix rises again.

Or so we hope.

Sometimes, the fire burns too hot. And then the phoenix dies and stays dead. Sometimes ash isn’t a phoenix egg.

Sometimes ash is only ash.

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Here’s a poem by my friend Satish:

COULD I BE

Satish Brown

a peacock, so vibrant

& bright, but vulnerable

for lack of flight, a

turkey that flutters

searching for height.

A dove that flies so

high, so pure & clean.

I’m none of these.

Just searching for a

balance – in between.

Maybe a phoenix, mystical,

reborn from fire &

ashes.

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Satish wrote this poem while he was living inside the dormitory on the ground floor of the Monroe County Jail. This is an awful little space. It’s about the size of my living room. Twelve men lived there. They slept on bunk beds. The fluorescent lights were turned off only from midnight until four a.m. The single window, a tiny rectangle of wire-reinforced glass inside the steel door, faced the subterranean booking desk – no glimpse of the outdoors. There were two steel tables bolted to the floor, and each table had six steel stools curving out from beneath it, like a pair of silver-skinned twice-amputated octopuses where the men could sit to eat their meals.

The jail dorm shared a wall with soft booking – “the drunk tank.” Much of the time, someone with mental health issues would be in there, hollering. If someone in the tank decides to stand there rhythmically kicking the steel door, the noise resounds through your skull like the repeated cocking of a shotgun inside your brain. All thoughts disappear but hate. At least, that was my experience, and I never spent more than two hours at a time inside that space.

Satish was there for months.

But he stayed chipper. It was always a pleasure to go in there with a stack of poems and have the chance to talk with him. On his good days, his enthusiasm was infectious, leaning in close to ask questions or banter about religion, his huge eyes gleaming like polished fishbowls.

The saddest poem he wrote was about cheating on his girlfriend with an old man – “old man” is slang for heroin.

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The other men in the dorm loved having him around. In such a small space, where people are going through the worst time of their lives and yet are expected to endure the constant presence of a roomful of other men who’re also going through the worst time of their lives, emotions fray easily. Twice when I came in there, my buddy Max had ugly blue bruises covering his face.

“We had a little disagreement,” Max would tell me. And he’d mention the name of somebody who’d been in the dorm the week before, but had since been moved to a different block.

But nobody had trouble with Satish.

Nobody except the judge.

Max told me, “Judge ______ gave him this deal, Satish was on this drug court thing, and she was going to pretend to care. She said, ‘write me a letter, write me a letter and convince me why I should go easy on you.’ But if she’s going to go easy, why would she need that letter? So Satish wrote this letter, he basically wrote to her, ‘Fuck you, just do what you’re going to do.’ “

The thing is, we all thought he would walk. The case, as far as I knew it, was pretty weak. He had come home, he’d lost his keys, and he was high. He thought he could sleep it off, go look for his keys in the morning, and so he tried to get in through the window.

Except he picked the wrong window. He was climbing in the neighbors’, and they freaked and called the police. The cops came. By then they figured out who he was, everybody was confused, but mistakes happen. Mistakes happen more when people are on drugs, but, regardless, mistakes happen.

The neighbors didn’t want to press charges. They weren’t going to cooperate with a case.

In the United States, prosecutors have a lot of leeway, though. Doesn’t matter what the police report says, doesn’t matter what the witnesses say, the prosecutor gets to decide what charges to file. They get to pile charges on as leverage for plea bargaining. They don’t have to justify which people get dog piled and which people walk free.

The prosecutor’s decisions are yet another place in our criminal justice system where racial injustice creeps in. Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that, in the eyes of the state, Satish was Black.

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So, a phoenix. Maybe they’d send him away. But he could overcome adversity.

Well.

We thought he would walk. We expected that he’d go to court, then get sent home for time served.

Instead, they gave him seven years.

He was shipped off to the “Reception & Diagnostics Center.” This is where they do psychological evaluations, figure out which prison you’ll be sent to. While at reception & diagnostics, nobody can get a hold of you.

He’d been there two days when his girlfriend – mother of his two children, pregnant with their third – overdosed and died. She’d been clean a while. But after something like that – you think he’s coming out, instead they give him seven years – it’s easy to relapse.

Heroin killed her. But the courts killed her too.

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He took it hard.

We volleyed letters for a while – he’d send me folded bundles, six or seven sheets that he’d written over the course of a week, and he stamped the envelopes low to dodge the postmark – but he always said that it was hard to find time to write. He was doing as many programs as he could, trying to get level-headed, trying to get out. Most programs will give you a time cut.

They’d given him seven years, but he was out after another two. Lots of guys have tried to explain the math of criminal justice time to me; I have never understood.

Max said, “He was in a pretty good place, at first. I mean, he had a handle on it, what’d happened with Chelsea, everything that happened. But when he started using …”

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He was trying to rise. Twenty-nine, and rebuilding his life.

But sometimes the fire burns too hot. Sometimes it burns and burns and the ash stops being an egg. Sometimes ash is only ash.

Rest in peace, Satish.

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Header image from Badeeh Abla on flickr.