Content note: this post & the poem in it are about suicide and death.
As a part of Pedestal Magazine’s new site launch, they have included my parallel-universes/Tolkien poem “The Doorway” (tw: suicide) in the 78th issue! It’s an honor to be a part of such a long-running poetry magazine, and I’m totally thrilled, and a little lost at what to say about it.
Why do I call it a Tolkien poem? A couple of reasons. One; the poem quotes Tolkien explicitly:
“Farewell!” he [Denethor] said. “Farewell, Peregrin son of Paladin! Your service has been short, and now it is drawing to an end. I release you from the little that remains. Go now, and die in what way seems best to you.[…]” (Return of the King: Chapter Four ‘The Siege of Gondor’, p99 in the US 1995 Book-of-the-Month Club edition)
and two, because it is fundamentally about Númenor, the island sunken into the sea from which Denethor and all the Men of the West are descended. It is about saudades, the Portuguese sadness for a place that has never existed, hiraeth, the Welsh longing for a home you can’t return to, the sunken home under the sea that will never be a home ever again, but where the bones of your ancestors call to you like a siren’s song, that you hear every time you see your own face in a puddle and remember you are homeless, forever, in a spiritual level deeper than nationalities or countries can ever touch.
It is also a literal, historical poem about December 2009, where, during Christmas break, I had a dream that I lined my pockets with black stones and tried to drown myself, because in a lake I could see a city under the water and it seemed like a good, quiet way to die, but a fictional character I had written dove in after me. I was tremendously depressed at the time, functioning under sleep deprivation conditions used in torture (3-5 hours of sleep in every 24 hour cycle, 6 if I fell asleep doing my homework, and then I was punished with bad grades), at a school I hated, isolated, without proper pain control, having nightmares like I was in the middle of a warzone. I had just turned 21, and I wanted to die. So. Very. Much. Just so that everything that hurt me would stop hurting me. I was trapped by my abusive family, and I couldn’t think of another way to escape.
When I woke up, I was actually slowly smothering myself with a pillow, and if I had not dreamed someone came after me and insisted I live, I might never have woken up at all. I was angry about it for days. Something finally clicked in my brain: I was angry that I was alive? Something had to change, and fast. It’s not normal to be angry you survive. I wish this is where I could say my family rallied around me and supported me in getting mental health care and better medical care — but it wasn’t like that. I fought tooth and nail to leave that school between semesters. I had the first — and last — fight with my father, where he tried to shame me into going back, and I told him if he wouldn’t support me, he could watch me fail the way his parents had watched him when he changed schools in college, waiting for him to fail. (Fact: my father never graduated college because he lacked parental support after leaving a prestigious school for a less prestigious one. You can see why he didn’t fight with me again no matter what his opinions were on my decisions.)
Is this important to understanding the poem? Maybe not. If you’re reading this, just know: there is a parallel universe where no fictional soldier dives into the water, and I slowly asphyxiate as I see the algae-crusted towers rise up to catch me (maybe it is a doorway, after all; maybe I would have traveled through somewhere kinder than here). Or maybe I wake up in time but go back to school and join the 4 students who died there by suicide in the 09-10 year.
Instead, I found a school where I could do what I really wanted, accommodated my disability, and because I actually had some free time, I wrote that character in a collaborative story online. My now-wife emailed me 3 months later and asked me if we wanted to write together, and shortly after she moved back into my timezone and we started spending a lot of time together. I stopped dreaming about dying — and when I did dream about it, it was something I didn’t want anymore, they were nightmares, and I woke up shaken because, suddenly, I wanted to be alive. Pain and all. Untreated mental health issues and all. I wanted to live long enough to do something: (I kept chasing short-term targets) write a research bachelors thesis, finish a storyline, escape my abusive family to go live with my now-wife, make it to that doctor who would give me adequate pain control, get into a masters program, get a diagnosis, write another thesis, get married– until I wanted to have a life of meaning and beauty with the person who loves me, until it’s neither beautiful or meaningful anymore. Then, maybe, I can find that doorway. But not tonight, and not tomorrow.
It seems important to tell this story because right now the world is cheering the eminent suicide of a child of fourteen who does not have a terminal disease and no one in her community is asking: what do we do to keep her alive? What’s wrong with her care treatments that she’d rather be dead? Why don’t her parents love her enough to treat her depression? I didn’t cross through the doorway: I live in a world where we think it’s better to be dead than disabled. Where is the soldier, diving between universes, between fiction and reality, to pound my chest until I jerk awake and throw the pillow away and cause me to choose to give living one more try? Who is diving between all these horrible publicity stunts that cheer her death to tell her: no, dammit, not yet, there is more to your life than this no matter what people say?
Not everyone gets to survive long enough to write about “the time I almost killed myself” and see it in print. I have. You can, too. Find a chatline, wherever you are in the world. I don’t promise anything. I don’t promise it gets better (the fuck is “better” anyway?) I only know it’s better to be disabled than to die because you feel trapped and stuck. Really. No matter what they tell you. God might have rigged the game against me in the genetic lottery (I don’t believe that now, but I did then), but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a purpose for why you are here that you haven’t even discovered yet.
So that is The Doorway, both its roots in fantasy, and its reality. Sometimes, somebody saves you. Sometimes, that person is yourself.