“This is not a class about death,” the professor announced as he strode into the classroom on the first day of the semester, not pausing to wait for the chatter to die down first. “In this class, you will learn how to live.” He still hadn’t looked directly at the twelve or so faces now sitting quietly in the windowless room, watching intently as he wrote his name on the whiteboard. The professor turned and placed his hands on the mahogany desk in front of the board, holding the silence for a moment longer. He wore a brown sweater vest and a blue collared shirt, his spiky hair shining with gel, as if still making the transition from student to teacher.
The professor shuffled through a pile of papers on the desk and passed them off to a woman sitting in the front row who could have been my mom’s age. A stack of gold bangles on one wrist jangled as she hauled her body out of the chair and groped for a cane that rested on the floor. A lanky boy in an oversized sweatshirt with a shock of greasy blond hair rushed across the space between their tables to take the papers before the woman could fully stand. I wondered if she was ill and wanted to ask what had interested her in the course. Glancing around at the others in the class, spread across a wide range of ages, I wanted to know what had brought each one of them to the course. Why were they giving up a Tuesday and Thursday evening for an entire semester to sit in a stifling basement room for a course called the Philosophy of Death and Dying? Better yet, why was I? Anyone I told about the class reacted with some degree of shock. “Really? Death? Won’t that be morbid and depressing?” they asked. Or, “You’re so young. Why would you want to take a class about dying?”
But I suppose, deep down, I knew why. When I perused the course catalogue in search of elective classes to pad my degree, I stumbled across the Philosophy of Death and Dying at the bottom of the department’s list and my mind had immediately carted me back to my childhood bed on a balmy June night four years before where I kneeled with three pill bottles cradled in my arms, a super-sized water bottle filled to the brim at my side, and prepared to tell my family members via text message that I loved them for the last time.
I added the class to my schedule without thinking twice.
I didn’t always want to die but I have been obsessed with death for as long as I can remember. The obsession didn’t appear to have any rhyme or reason at first, except that it felt like sleeping with the lights on when you’re afraid of the dark. But it may have stemmed from a childhood marked by the deaths of other children. When I learned that even the most brand new, the very innocent among us were not spared a life ended too soon. A hunk of rock falling from a cliff to strike the fragile chest of a seven-year-old or a febrile seizure in a two-year-old could snatch the life from bodies still growing. And maybe it was because my mom forced me to attend the funerals, to listen to the wails of broken mothers burying caskets the size of a bassinet, their cries imprinted in my ears for years after. She called our attendance supportive and perhaps this was true, but it instilled in me an understanding that no one is safe from tragedy.
My obsession could have also been related to the nature of my parents’ professions, both of whom worked in the health field, my dad as a surgeon and my mom as a nurse. Medicine brought an awareness of death—the effort to stave off mortality was intrinsic to the job, and this didn’t escape me.
But the preoccupation with death deepened in the seventh grade when my darkness was given a name: Depression. I didn’t know it had a name at first; I could only feel the changes. I had no language to describe them. The darkness is here today, was all I could say. The changes were subtle: extreme lethargy, withdrawal from activities I once enjoyed, sensitivity to auditory and visual stimuli. I felt as if a second presence had come to occupy my head, bringing with it a filter that bathed everything in shades of gray.
The diagnosis came from an overweight doctor with spiky white stubble sprouting from his too-shiny scalp that reminded me of a chia pet right out of the box. He slapped a label on my darkness and sent me away with an illegible prescription for pink pills in the shape of a diamond that he warned me not to stop taking. He explained that the medication would help my brain balance all the chemicals it produces to regulate mood, which it can’t do on its own, adding as I walked out the door that some people need to be medicated their entire life.
There was one message I internalized throughout the initial months of therapy, psychiatrist appointments, and never-ending rotation of pills to get the cocktail exactly right: There is something wrong with my brain. There is something wrong with me. It was around this message that I grew, my body still making its way into womanhood while my mind slowed me down, held me back, trapped me in a bubble of shame and pure, bone-penetrating exhaustion. I was broken. Different. Wrong. It hurt to live.
By my sophomore year of high school, the distortions had thoroughly sunk their roots into my mind and taken hold: You’re weak. Worthless. A burden. Everyone will be better off without you. The voices were so loud, I couldn’t hear anything else. The future disappeared, leaving behind the painful, indefinite present. Sleep was my only anesthetist and death seemed like the logical next step. When I set my suicide date for mid-June, I felt as if I could breathe for the first time in years.
Death had trailed behind me my entire life, engulfing me at times, hanging back at others. It should have come as no surprise then that a philosophy class on death and dying felt like the perfect glass slipper waiting for me to find.
The professor watched the scenario play out with the bangled woman and then stepped back to the desk, leaning against the edge and crossing one buffed Oxford over the other, his hands stuffed in his pockets. “In order to live a life worth living, you must become comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. And the way you feel uncomfortable is by thinking,” he said and then paused again until everyone had a syllabus in front of them. “All the thinkers that we will study this semester asked themselves one question: How can we find meaning in life when we are constantly confronted by the limits of life? And: Is life even worth living?”
I scribbled on the back of the syllabus as the professor spoke, my ears soaking up every word. In block letters I wrote, IS LIFE WORTH LIVING? and circled it several times. A heat spread through my belly and I sat up straighter, waiting for the professor to say more. I had never heard anyone else ask that question. I didn’t even know we were allowed to ask that question. When I told the psychologists that life was not worth living, that I didn’t believe my life was worth living, they threw me behind barred windows and increased the dosage of my antidepressants. But now, I was looking down at an entire syllabus of people, respected people, who had asked the same question and explored the answers. The loneliness that had sat on my chest for years loosened its grip and I almost cried from the relief.
Over the coming weeks, I did cry. I cried when Socrates said the only life worth living was the examined one. And when Marcus Aurelius said that we must keep hold of each brief moment we have because we live only here in the now and the rest has already been lived or is impossible to see. And when Ernest Becker taught me that the irony of the human condition is the need to be free of the anxiety of death, but that life itself awakens this anxiety, and so if we feared death, we never lived. To live fully, Becker said, as if to me personally, is to live with the awareness of the terrifying rumble that underlies everything. Then there was Miguel de Unamuno whose predominant question was simply, “Who knows?” He moved away from the terror of complete nothingness after death and embraced the human hunger for immortality, proposing that life is irreducible to logic, as is the excessiveness of our desire for life. And maybe we can embrace the risk that life will at some point be without limits because to suffer life is to suffer its limitations. To Unamuno, this suffering was precisely the substance of life and what makes us who we are.
Each philosopher spoke to me on a level I couldn’t express in words.
I learned how to think, how to ask questions, how to never settle on an answer. I learned that life was supposed to hurt, we were supposed to suffer, the only way it got better was to confront the fear and become comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. We weren’t supposed to throw medication at a pain that was not affected by chemicals, that was not born in the body. We were supposed to think about death as it taught us how to live. Not living in denial of death is what gives life richness and vitality. But I had never been taught how to witness the horror and find meaning in it. Years ago, I had arrived at the conclusion that life was not worth living without knowing what questions to ask in the first place.
I cried the most when Albert Camus suggested that suicide is merely a confession that life is not worth living. That our search for meaning is futile in an incomprehensible and indifferent universe and that this search is absurd because there is no inherent meaning to life. Any ultimate explanation for the purpose of existence, he believed, would always be beyond our comprehension.
I arrived late to class on the night we were set to discuss the assigned reading on Camus’s idea of absurdity, having been stuck in traffic on the highway after I left my therapist’s office that afternoon. In the session, we talked exclusively about the reading. And by talked, I mean I blabbered on about the reading as I had been doing the entire semester with every new philosopher we studied. My therapist listened patiently and appeared pleased by my enthusiasm, the life that uncharacteristically colored my face.
“You see? It’s all just so absurd,” I nearly screeched after summing up the reading, an electricity buzzing from head to toe. “Albert Camus knew it all along. The absurdity of it all! Where has he been my entire life? This is exactly what I’ve always felt but could never put into words. We ask all these deep questions that we will never be able to answer. And we’re not supposed to be able to.”
After sprinting from my car to the classroom, I slipped into my seat, audibly huffing and sucking in air, and dumped my backpack on the floor. As my breathing slowed, I noticed an unusual quiet. The first few minutes were usually spent in loose discussion as the class pelted the professor with never-ending questions—the work of good philosophy students. I peered at the bent heads around me—no one was asking questions. My eyes snapped to the professor who sat at his desk with his head in his hands, his face hidden from view.
“What’s going on?” I whispered to the woman with the gold bangles. She turned in her chair to face me, her eyes gleaming with something that sent goosebumps like wildfire across my skin.
“That kid who normally sits over there,” she said, nodding toward the desk in the back of the classroom, “killed himself last night.”
The moisture left my mouth, my tongue suddenly feeling thick and heavy like it no longer fit in its place. An image of the student came into focus. Latino. Cropped black hair. Kind eyes. He was always so engaged in class discussions. Teacher’s pet type. I often caught him looking at me and he would flash a guilty smile before I whipped my head back around, embarrassed. My stomach churned and the moisture rushed back into my mouth all at once. I jumped to my feet, my chair scraping against the linoleum, and sprinted to the bathroom, vaguely noting the sea of heads that turned in my direction at the intrusive sound.
Bracing the cool lip of the toilet, I dry-heaved, my stomach clenching instead of releasing. The taste of iron swamped my tongue. A part of me recognized that my reaction was not mine to have. I had barely known the guy; I couldn’t even remember his name. But when I clamped my eyes shut to stop the roiling in my belly, the image of my younger self hunched on the bed shoveling handfuls of pills into her mouth flickered into focus, the quality dull and choppy like an old VHS tape. I remembered the rolls of nausea as I tried to keep the pills down, the metallic taste of iron in my mouth, the feeling of something twisting and crawling its way out from inside of me. I heard the scream for my mom, saw the door slam open, her silhouette against the hall light. And then my vision pitched to black.
My bouncing body on a narrow stretcher woke me next as a team of doctors and nurses sprinted down the emergency room hallway. There was a flurry of hands and voices, intrusive lights, and loud machines. Someone cut off my shirt with a pair of scissors, attached wires to my chest, sucked blood from my arm. I woke up moaning and pushing them away. Doctors paraded through the room, bringing more light, bombarding me with questions. They all wanted to know the same thing: Why did I do it? My voice, groggy with sleep and scratchy from the burn of stomach acid: I don’t know. My mom sat next to the bed, her hand securing mine. I could feel the strength of her grip, the softness of her skin. Just tell them, she whispered. I obeyed: I wanted to die. I watched my mom’s face buckle, a shaking hand pressed to her forehead, and then there was nothing once more.
When I opened my eyes, the memory burrowing back into its corner as quickly as it had appeared, I found I had curled my body around the toilet bowl in the drafty university bathroom, my breathing erratic and the taste of iron still coating my tongue. I untangled my limbs and stood up, inhaling deeply through my nose and exhaling through my mouth until my heart slowed in my chest. You’re no longer that sixteen-year-old girl, I told myself. You lived. You’re alive. You chose life, remember?
I splashed water on my face and walked back to class, trying to blend into the walls of the room on tiptoes so as not to draw attention to myself. It didn’t work. The professor tracked my movements, his brow stitched, dark circles carved under his eyes. I settled in, keeping my gaze on my hands.
Another long minute passed and then the professor spoke. “I keep wondering if the Camus reading was the trigger,” he mused, almost to himself. “This course covers some heavy themes. The answers aren’t always what we want to hear.” He lapsed back into silence before releasing us early.
On the way home, the night whipping past the windows, my foot fumbling the pedals as my thoughts sucked me back in time, I dialed my mom and waited for the voice that always calmed the nerves.
“Hi, honey,” my mom’s singsong voice came through the line.
“Hi, Mom,” I replied, my words catching on unreleased tears.
“What is it? What happened?” she asked, suddenly alert.
“I’m fine,” I said. “It’s just that I found out tonight that a kid in my philosophy class killed himself and I’m feeling…” I trailed off, not sure what word would adequately describe how I was feeling.
“Oh no,” she said, and I could hear her sharp intake of breath. A pause. “His poor mother.”
“I feel so bad for him,” I said. “Why didn’t he ask for help?” My question hung in the distance between us and I was grateful that she didn’t immediately respond. That she didn’t say, Why didn’t you ask for help? I wanted to ask if she was thinking what I was thinking. If the image of a wailing mother next to the ripe earth of a newly dug grave was also stuck in her head. If she could still hear the primal cries, the sound so unbearable, so unnatural that you couldn’t listen for too long. But the silence stretched on, and I preferred to listen to her soft breaths on the other end, the pounding tires on the highway.
I pulled into the parking lot of my apartment building and let the car idle, cutting the lights. I imagined my dog waiting at the door with my slipper in his mouth, his tail wagging in helicopter circles. Blue light from televisions flickered into the darkness. A neighbor rocked her baby in the lit-up window facing the lot. And then my mom’s voice sliced through the quiet. “Thank you for being so strong. I love you so much, honey.” My breath caught midway to my lungs and I squeezed my eyes until the blackness turned crimson.
Although I survived my suicide attempt and spent the following months in psychiatric facilities learning that death is not the antidote to pain, I knew about losing the will to live, the quiet steadiness of it. There wasn’t a big moment or decision, no fanfare. There were only small, subtle moments. A thought: I could imagine not waking up tomorrow. Another thought: How peaceful that would be. No more pain, no more doctors, no more medications. Just silence, like slipping underwater, cool nothingness. The idea becomes magnetic, hypnotizing, irresistible.
Looking back now, I knew it was likely that I didn’t want to die. I wanted to no longer exist as I was—the pain exceeded my ability to cope with the pain and living was no longer worth it. Suicide is the end stage of depression in the same way death is the end stage of terminal cancer. The difference is that suicide is preventable. The caveat: a suicidal person cannot see this.
At the beginning of the next class, the school counselor spoke to the still-shocked faces about the resources available to anyone who may have been struggling with the incident. She passed out pamphlets about the signs of suicide and where to go for help. The suicide hotline was written in shouty red letters on the front. After she left, the class continued as normal, the discussion on Camus’s idea of suicide as a confession tiptoeing around the empty chair in the back of the room.
“Camus wasn’t advocating for suicide as the answer to the meaninglessness of life,” the professor made sure to say as he paced from one end of the classroom to the other. “He believed it was possible to live with the absurd, that a person who acknowledges the absurd can revolt against the meaninglessness of life and the finality of death. They can abandon the idea that life has some ultimate meaning and instead embrace the absurdity of the human condition. The answer is not to escape our condition but to create value and meaning in the face of hopelessness.” The professor paused his pacing and added, “An authentic life can only be lived once we confront the absurdity and carry on in spite of it.”
In my notebook, I wrote, The question of whether life is meaningful or meaningless is relative to individual perspective. Meaning is inherent to life if we choose to see it that way. No one holds the responsibility or ability to make life meaningful for another person—only we can do that for ourselves. I glanced at the empty seat behind me as if expecting it to fill with life again and wondered if the student would still be there if he had waited one more day to learn how to live with the absurd. A suicidal person thinks: The world will be better without me. A suicidal person says: My absence will not matter. And in that moment, I understood fully what I hadn’t so many years before: Suicide wouldn’t have taken away my pain. It would have taken away my life and transferred the pain to those I left behind.
Albert Camus: Suicide is not the answer. Revolt.
Isabel Cohen holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology with a focus in Education. She currently works at an elementary school providing learning support for children with special educational needs while pursuing her passion for writing in her free time.
© 2021, Isabel Cohen