on searching for answers to the only question that matters

This is an intimate newsletter. I’m nervous to send it. So let me ease into it gently.

Recently, I stumbled across an old article from the Grantland archives, which I had somehow never read before. It’s about sumo, a sport of which I’ve become a fan, but also not about sumo, and it is about Japan and not about Japan. It gently touches on many things, and it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of writing I’ve ever seen.

In the story, writer Brian Phillips draws a number of thoughtful connections between Japan’s history, culture and built environments. Some of these are familiar — at this point, the Tokyo-as-dreamscape trope has been trodden flat — but there’s one passage in particular which jumped out at me, because while I recognized the phenomenon, I’d never thought of it quite like this before.

Old buildings in Japan are seldom really old. A country that builds with wood instead of stone runs the constant risk of losing its monuments to fire. Ancient shrines are really copies of ancient shrines. The Imperial Palace in Kyoto has been rebuilt eight times, and its current layout would make no sense to any emperor who lived there. The main keep of Kumamoto Castle, which burned to the ground in another samurai uprising in 1877, was reconstructed from concrete in 1960. The forms return again and again. They end violently, and they never end at all.

There are, to be fair, quite a number of old buildings in Japan, depending on how one defines “old.” Many temples in Kyoto, for instance, date back hundreds of years. But it’s true that the country has little in the way of truly ancient buildings, such as those one finds in Italy or Greece. Stone is stronger; but wood can shiver and bend. In one of the most seismically-active places on the planet, that’s an appealing feature: the beautiful Himeji Castle, mostly wood on a stone base, famously survived the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake that ravaged most of the region. Yet as Phillips writes, even as Japan’s old wooden buildings were lost to one cataclysm or another — or just to age — the shape of them, the forms, returned again and again.

The most dramatic example of this phenomenon is, perhaps, the Ise Grand Shrine, the most important site of Japan’s animist Shinto religion. It is believed to be the home of the Sacred Mirror, part of the Imperial Regalia of Japan, an object so sacred that it has never been photographed or seen in public. If it still exists at all — it might have been destroyed in a fire, or maybe not — it can only be seen by certain priests and emperors. Only they may enter the two most important parts of the complex.

In legend, the Ise Grand Shrine has stood for 2,000 years; history documents it as far back as the 7th Century B.C. But the key structures that stand now are never more than 20 years old. That is because, every two decades, its shrine buildings and bridge are ceremoniously dismantled and rebuilt, at a cost of about $500 million USD. Yet they do not change: they are perfectly remade on the same specifications, with the same type of Japanese cypress, using the same techniques as when the shrine was first raised over 1,000 years ago. The buildings thus appear as they have always appeared, even as they are renewed. (Here’s a lovely old documentary about that process, in Japanese, though you can turn on mangled auto-translated subtitles.)

Now, thinking back to Phillips’ comment about forms of old Japan never ending at all, it occurs to me that the continual death and rebirth of the Ise shrine’s buildings poses a fascinating series of questions. Is the Ise Grand Shrine ancient, or is it modern? Is it perpetually new, or perpetually old? Or, in other words, what defines a thing the most: its material body, or its spirit?

For as long as I’ve been drawn to old things, I always thought that only the object, the physical thing, was what passed down through history. Ruins were real to me in ways modern reconstructions were not. Now, I begin to think that allowing a thing to bend to time, enabling its soul to persist where the materials cannot, can bring us closer to the heart of history than broken stone.

We can’t hold on to damaged things forever. But we can renew their purpose.

This is the part where this missive gets hard, but please look at it with me, if you can. If suicide is a difficult topic for you, or one that may cause you pain, then it may be best to stop here, because I would like to write about it frankly.

In 1942, the philosopher Albert Camus published a long essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, in which he famously posited that there is “only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” The fundamental question in philosophy, he continued, was to decide whether or not life was worth living: “All other questions follow from that.”

To be honest, I only know this because a fellow traveller in these topics shared it with me, and I went home and read it immediately. One of my lingering insecurities is that I have never felt particularly well-read; my instinct is to try to feel my way through the problems of life and the universe without outside guidance. I am trying to rectify that now: surely, it is better to know what frameworks have already been explored.

What struck me about Camus’ idea is that, though I am neither genius or philosopher, I’d thought the same thing before, in almost exactly the same words. I’ve always been drawn to look at suicide gently, and without judgment; it has many textures, and not all must be defined by crisis. The question of whether our lives have enough value to make them worthy of living is deeply personal and, for some, perpetually shifting; it underpins all sense of our place in the world. Many of us never need to seriously ask that question, having the answers all around them, together with a mind consistently healthy enough to grasp and hold onto those sources of value.

And for those who, at some point in their lives, do not?

Oh, my friends, I have been gone.

I have been gone from work.

I have been gone from play.

I have been gone, and yet, I never went anywhere.

This is the story, unvarnished.

In the first weeks of September, I tried to buy sodium nitrite on the Internet, knowing that, of all the available methods to end one’s own life, it offered what, to me, seemed the most appealing balance of pros and cons. I’m not the only one, which means that in recent years, sodium nitrite — a type of salt used in curing meat — has become a popular suicide method, and as a result countries have been cracking down on its sale and importation. As I searched, I saw how sellers who had been active on Amazon or Etsy one day disappeared the next; those who did manage to buy often reported that vendors were selling fake goods, or delivered nothing at all. Thus deflated, I gave up, and by the end of that month I had resolved to feel better; it worked, for a time. There were brighter days. Around the time of my birthday in late November, I had one of the most profound and deeply connecting nights of my life; alright, I thought, I’m fine.

It didn’t last. Within weeks, my desire to end my life had returned, and then grew to a daily fixation. In the middle of December, I began to test out a secondary method: tightening a noose around my neck and tying it to a doorknob, leaning so as to cut off the flow of blood to the brain and holding that as long as I could withstand it. In each of these tries, I was unsure if I was merely practicing, just trying to acclimatize to the sensations in advance of making a final decision, or if I was secretly hoping the attempt would take me quickly, perhaps without my ever knowing.

Obviously, it didn’t take me. I’m still here. This is an abridged version of the story.

I spent most of December in a haze, alternating between trying to hang on to life and wanting, desperately, to leave it; not to die, but to find peace from the fires raging in my own mind. Lacking other options to achieve solace, I sought only a mechanism that would allow me the most gentle freedom from an unbearable pain. I began to immerse myself in online forums where suicidal people gather to discuss their desire to die and learn about their options without judgment; it was the only place I could be honest about what I was feeling, without euphemism, without avoidance.

I couldn’t write. I could barely think. My mind, scattered, could repeat only sad stories about the trauma of the years: the losses, the heartbreaks, the fear. I let a lot of people down, and at the time I couldn’t even tell them why: there’s no easy way to say “sorry, I didn’t reply to your email because I had a rope tied around my neck.” There’s no easy way to say “sorry, I didn’t answer the phone because I couldn’t get out of bed.”

When I had spare time, I worked on my goodbye letters and final wishes, writing up a document to divvy up my estate amongst friends and set out my hopes for my remains. Looking back on that time, I will say that this is one part of the experience that was constructive, and I’m glad that I did it: at my age and without children, one tends not to think about a will, but it’s both a valuable thing to do and, in a way, grounding. It called me to reflect on who really mattered to me, and how, and what legacy I wished to leave in their lives; and though I’m in good health now, shit happens. (One of you was going to get a free trip to Japan in exchange for sneaking a pinch of my ashes to a certain favourite place. Sorry, it’s gonna have to wait.)

The whys of this breakdown are complicated and, in the end, belong to no one trigger, so there’s no need to describe them. It was a long time coming, foreshadowed in a past edition of this newsletter. The common element is a mind that had never built healthy patterns to deal with certain types of stress; it usually worked just well enough to keep chugging along, so I never spent much time trying to dismantle and rebuild it. But the last 18 months had been marked by the most devastating losses of my life, along with several bitterly painful situations that had me perpetually off-balance. I’d always relied on my dad to be my grounding force; with my dad gone, I was adrift in the storm.

As my mental health declined, I became incapable of performing my job. The key word here is “performance.” I love being a writer; it’s all I know how to do, and I’ve been lucky enough to find people who want to read along with me. But while I was feeling so vulnerable, the exposure inherent in my work was too much to bear. I didn’t want people to read what I wrote. I definitely didn’t want them to respond. The thought of my work being seen filled me with a crushing anxiety. At one point, an editor asked if being Melissa Martin was part of what was hurting me; all I could do was blink back tears and nod. Working as writers do, out loud and in public, meant always facing the pressure of public expectation, and that ratchets up as one’s platform grows; I ached for the safety of total anonymity.

As the days wore on, I grew totally hopeless; the despair was overwhelming. When I looked at my future, all I saw was a wasteland that condemned me to entropy and an endless lonely. It didn’t seem worth sticking around for, and “it gets better” doesn’t mean much when making it through the present is nearly impossible. I didn’t care if it was going to get better at some indeterminate point in the future. What I needed was for everything to just stop for awhile or, if stopping was not possible, to end.

So here’s what I did: I stepped away, from everything. I took a leave from work. I told my friends that I needed space and would be gone for awhile; I am grateful for their understanding. (It helped that this more or less coincided with code red, which gave an easy cover.) I dropped off some social media and doubled my therapy sessions. I began to do the very hard work of learning to train my mind out of its most harmful patterns — patterns that originated to try and protect me, to try and make sense of things I did not understand, but which, having stagnated and festered, were now tearing me apart from the inside.

It worked, if slowly. I learned, bit by bit, to pull myself back into the present when my mind tried to drag me into looping nightmares of the future, or endless rehearsals of loss. These tendencies are still present — you don’t change a lifetime of cognitive patterns in weeks — but I do now see how they can be allowed to float past and then continue down on the river, without dragging me under. My days became productive, and then more often pleasant. My thoughts stabilized. It was an imperfect truce with existence, but I began to think more about how to live, than how to die.

Now that I have told you this, I want to explain what scares me in the telling.

Anyone who follows me knows that I’m quite open about my experiences with pain, grief and depression. I’ve never seen much point in hiding it, but that’s also a luxury afforded by my profession; it’s easier, perhaps even expected, for a writer to talk about the places that hurt than it would be for someone whose employment depends on maintaining a certain image. I have nothing to lose; others do. So I sometimes feel I must speak, knowing that it can help give permission to those who need it.

In recent years, we’ve developed a better cultural capacity to discuss mental health, in the abstract, or specific issues such as depression with slightly more specificity. “Self-care” has widely entered the public lexicon. Of course, it can’t end at talking; the next part has to be a movement towards building structures that materially support mental health, such as improved access to clinical resources and truly substantive changes to how we live and work. Still, having it out in the open at least allows a foundation for these more direct forms of addressing mental health.

Yet despite this increased ability to discuss the broad topic, we are far less able to look at suicide with equal parts frankness and compassion. It does happen: when Maryland congressman Jamie Raskin’s son committed suicide, he and his wife wrote a tender open letter that honoured his life, but also how he left it: the most beautiful part of the letter, I think, is how it held space for his pain without trying to hide or resist it. Still, this seems to be rare. Many families who have lost someone to suicide don’t feel ready to be so frank, for understandable reasons. And few people who have faced suicide and survived feel able to be open about their experience. It remains, in the public dialogue, a topic that is uncomfortable, slightly alienating, and scary. We might see mention of “suicidal ideation,” or “attempts,” but we don’t really look on the phenomenon itself with clear, calm and gently accepting eyes. Seventy-nine years after Camus asked his question, we still don’t really want to engage it in mainstream discussion.

It is my view that we should. It is my view that we should be able to discuss how and why some of us will spend long, painful hours wrestling with the question of whether life is worth living. We have to open up the cultural space to comfortably hold and respond to that question. “It gets better” doesn’t really help most suicidal people. Neither does something like “that’s just the depression speaking.” Not when what you want the most is someone to sit with you and work through all the many facets of the question without turning away, without reacting in alarm, and without judging.

This is me doing that retroactively. This is me trying.

Yet I’m still scared to write this, because I know that, for lack of that space, there are some who will — despite an honest wish to accept — read these words and see me as fundamentally broken. That perception could negatively impact my social life and my relationships, and people’s ease in interacting with me. They may walk on eggshells, not realizing this only isolates more. They may feel as if they don’t know what to say, not knowing that they need not say anything at all. I don’t actually want to talk about this in person to most people, believe it or not; it’s just a boring conversation.

I do not think I am broken. I am just rebuilding.

And I also know that, amongst those who read these newsletters, are friends of faith. For many of them, this question of ending one’s life is a betrayal of something sacred, of God’s greatest gift. When I think of how they might receive what I’ve written here, my heart breaks. I’m spiritual, but incapable of subscribing to any religious belief with certainty; I am certainly no theologian. Yet I keep thinking this: we have a mind that, unique among beings, is capable of contemplating such things. And if this mind comes from God, then that ability is part of creation and what it means to be human; and so being honest about that journey must also, in some way, bring us closer to the divine.

What better way to honour this gift, than exploring all dimensions of the mind?

Yeah, for a time I thought I wanted to die. I didn’t. What I was actually searching for was an honest answer to Camus’ most fundamental question and, for lack of a safe outlet to explore it or a safe person to listen, I had to grab the rope and go spelunking in those dark places myself. (And to the person who shared this knowledge with me, who walked with me through this question without knowing the full context of why I was asking: know that, as we spoke, I realized I was once again seeing the light. This is a gift, one of many, and one I will never forget.)

Time to resume living, then. I’ll be back to work in a week. I’ll start slowly at first, so that I can find my feet, so that I can step back into my tiny piece of the spotlight in a way that feels safe to me. I have many things I want to do, and many ways I want to improve. I have a life that I am determined to create as having value enough to be worth sustaining. I know what that looks like, now: somewhere in the bottom of the deepest pit, I found an answer to my question.

I want to live, because I want more than anything to keep writing my own story. And here’s the thing: that may change in time. I’m not afraid to keep the question alive, to keep checking in, to keep learning more about what it has to show me.

Above all, I will be rebuilt, and I will still be me when that is completed. The materials that hold up my mind are being swapped out for ones that are new and less damaged, but the form will remain the same, and that is what matters. That is how we endure cataclysms: not in clinging to ruins, but in holding safe a purpose. For indeed, over the last five months, a part of me ended violently; but my spirit never ended at all, and that is why I am writing to you now, asking only to be seen as something both new and enduring.

If you’ve enjoyed Dark Heart / Core of the Sun, and wish to express your appreciation in a material way, I have a PayPal tip jar. I am grateful for all the support, in every form. Thank you for being part of my writing world, and more than that, for sharing this journey with me.