There’s this incredible piece by David Foster Wallace called “Shipping Out” and it’s included in a collection of these “things” called A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. And I call them “things” because he really made them his own genre. But in “Shipping Out” he discusses what it’s like to go on a cruise. And it’s just great and DFW at his finest: at one point he measures the length of his room in “Keds.”
You may not get that brilliance, so for those too young to remember Keds, they used to be like the fucking shoe to have, man. They were like the Toms of the 90s without the pseudo-altruism that seems good, but still feels kind of icky, but then you kind of feel bad for criticizing it because you’re still the kid that avoids eye contact with the homeless. Not, by the way, so they don’t approach you, but so you don’t have to stomach the guilt of ignoring another human being in need and you’re worried their eyes will tell you what an asshole you are, which won’t be news to you, but the specifics and to what degree will all be far too much to countenance…and thank god the light turned green.
So in DFW’s piece he arrives at this beautiful idea that what this cruise was incubating inside him was an Alien. Just kidding — it was despair. And he gets very pointed in how he talks about despair — his point: that we abuse and devalue what it truly means to feel it, “It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable sadness of knowing I’m small and weak and selfish and going, without doubt, to die. It’s wanting to jump overboard.”
And I’ll never be able to match DFW’s ability to weave this aching human truth through such a unique lens as his, mostly because I’m not him, but what I can do is say to you all that for the first time in my life I experienced something like this and it scared the living shit out of me.
On a rational level, it helped me understand what we truly mean by despair, panic, and emptiness, which allows me to make a very tidy and neat argument about social considerations of pain. But on a physical level it allows me to attempt to explain exactly what this is and what it fucking feels like and why it has become the singular focus of my existence not to return to that place. And to give it a voice and a narrative, because I know I’m not the only one.
It’s very easy to say what it’s not. It’s not anxiety, stress, women, or a broken heart. It is not a single thing in your immediate consciousness that would seem capable of destroying you. It is not logical and it has no pattern. It appears out of the darkness and returns almost as quickly as it arrives. I had never met this thing, this entity, this machination of the human mind before this day, and it feels, hyperbolically, as though I encountered evil itself. Not evil with a face, but that ubiquitous, unfeeling evil that you can’t even demonize, because there’s no humanity to even partition.
Anxiety and stress are like crimes of passion — there’s a narrative there. It’s Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Tom Waits. I know them and I know them well. This…thing…despair, panic, some faceless ghost…is a serial killer. It’s cold and unintelligible to the rest of us, but just because you don’t understand it, it’s no justification that it can’t take you. It’s Ginsberg, McCarthy…Wallace.
I had left work in my usual state: exhausted and undercompensated. And I vividly remember the highway, the evergreens, shifting my car into 6th gear, and that particular orangeish purple that seems to only break through after 6PM on spring days that are colder than the light suggests they should be, as if to promise they’ll be with us some day soon. And that thought was the last time before falling asleep and waking the next morning that I was convinced hope might be a thing. And then it hit me. Like a shitty Lifetime movie’s depiction of heroin use.
I remember the sounds because I drove three miles with the radio stuck on an upper FM Hispanic station. I just forgot to keep pressing skip until something sounded good. I was burning inside of my skin, yet my hands tingled and I was so cold. I twisted the heater on. Then the AC. And back to the heater, windows down — at least I could breathe. I screamed. When we get old we forget what it’s like to scream. Not yell, but fucking scream. I screamed. Something way deeper in the firing synapses of my brain than I’ll ever be able to reach had convinced my body without a thread of doubt that death was imminent. It’s a confluence of rationally knowing there’s not a single thing wrong, but never having been more certain that terror is unfolding.
So what the fuck did I do next? I did the only thing you fucking do when you’re having what I later learned was a full blown panic attack — I drove to Barnes and Noble to buy books. It was so strange…If I could focus on a singular task, I could keep the dread at bay…and it was particularly helpful to pace back and forth.
On my list was Ender’s Game, the beautiful sci-fi novel ruined most recently in film by Hollywood, and my most recent selection for our company book club. But I also keep a notepad on my phone with a list of books to buy and the only one that night on the list was Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. And I know it seems bizarre to seek out solace in a bookstore, but aisles of names and novels were the only clear things that seemed to alleviate the fog and I sincerely believe pacing those aisles and checking for the last names “Card” and “Carver” are what helped me through this. Luckily the store considered Carver “literature” and Card “science fiction.” And I bought both of them and drove home — and for no reason I cried the entire drive and clinched my body to numb what felt like existential pain.
It’s tough to look “put together” when you rip open a bottle of gin and I was no different. It was the only time in my life where I needed a drink. Not wanted. But needed. Like Don Draper with less famous junk and a cheaper haircut, I poured a drink and threw in some ice and just sat on the edge of my bed and waited for something else to happen. Something needed to happen. If it was going to get worse, I wanted it to get really bad so I could go to the doctor or call someone. And if it got better I wanted to know this was going to be okay. Nothing.
I got in the shower and turned the water as hot as I could tolerate and I sat down on the basin of the tub with my head in my hands and tried to cry, but there wasn’t anything left. I think I had reached the limits of my emotional capacity to feel and I simply wanted out of my body. I’ve read about this and it’s not what you think. I didn’t want to die, I didn’t want to hurt myself, I didn’t want to hurt anyone. A friend at work once told me it feels like drowning. And we throw around that image more than we ought to, and despite my excessively grandiloquent language, that was it entirely. The need to fucking breathe.
When I was a kid, we had a Memorial Day pool party at our house and there were more people there than I was ever used to and I was a strong swimmer and I was swimming in the deep end and there was another kid there. A friend of mine – that is, a forced adolescent friendship type-of-thing — grabbed my head, without warning, and pushed me under the water and I had tried to gasp for air as I felt myself going down, but it was too quick and I had taken in a lot of water into my lungs when I gasped. I couldn’t breathe; his hand was on my head. I remember I was just frenetic with my limbs trying to get to the surface. All I wanted to do was breathe. I felt a hand on my lower back, and to this day I swear my dad pulled me from the water with one hand like I was a football.
And I coughed violently and I breathed and it was air and it was transcendently life-affirming. Those weren’t my words at the time, but I’ll never forget that feeling of drowning and that desperate need to breathe and that redemptive moment of breaking the surface of that water. I just wanted to be okay. Not good, not better, not great. I just wanted to be okay. Please let me be okay. Please. Someone. Something. Nick, come back to me. Please. Someone. Touch me and make me okay. Despair.
I got out of the shower and I don’t know how long I had been in there, but I had to knowingly continue to nudge the hot water a little hotter. A little hotter. A little hotter. So it had to have been a while. And I didn’t feel better, but I also felt like my body didn’t have enough energy to make me feel so terrible. Like round 15 of a heavyweight match, it wanted to hit me, but it was just clenching at this point and could barely stand. And that’s the thing: I realized it was only as strong as I was and as it wore me down it was wearing itself down.
When I saw myself in the mirror all the familiar features were there but I couldn’t recognize the person looking back. It was a panicked stranger with heavy eyes and hollow cheeks. So I leaned on my rituals. Mouthwash. Toothbrush. Toothpaste. Top. Bottom. Molars. Spit. Rinse. Floss. How’s the uni-brow? Not bad. Beard? A little creepy, but you don’t work near playgrounds. Acne? More than a 24-year-old should have to deal with, but still good. Benchmarks. Checklists. One step at a time. Get back to your fucking bed. Close your eyes. Face tomorrow however it becomes manifest.
Before I went to sleep I read Carver’s book. For you young people, if you’re facing existential crises, there is one fucking author you do not go anywhere near because he contains the bleakest outlook of any 20th century author. This author makes McCarthy look like Nicholas Sparks. And that’s Raymond fucking Carver. So of course I flipped to a story I admire and have read more times than is healthy. It is the titular short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”. And as I nodded to sleep at the end of the story, for the first time in my life, I couldn’t hear my heart beating. I couldn’t hear a single person’s heart. I couldn’t hear the human noise we sat there making. And then the room went dark.
In my dreams I sat in a room of complete and stale darkness. It was wet and dripping on old-world stone and for some reason I just knew that this place was eternity. And in the face of this immense emptiness, I felt something on my hand. And I knew at my core this was another person. And they grasped my hand and I theirs and we sat there for what could have been eternity or maybe it was just a moment. Alone together.
And then I woke up. There was a sliver of morning light coming through the curtains and I knew then I’d be okay and that it was gone. But so was that hand touching mine in the darkness.