Undertow

Nonfction / Donald Edem Quist

Walking across campus to my morning lectures, a familiar swell of pointlessness wraps around my neck and yanks me down onto my knees. In front of the university Communication Arts building, I choke and sputter, fumbling to loosen my tie and the invisible noose constricting my throat. When I manage to stand again, I thank a group of concerned New Media students who, although en-route to other classes, stopped to offer assistance.

I paddle through the rest of the day.

I’m fine …

Until reading a friend’s article on sea slavery in Southeast Asia prompts me to consider how my complacency plays a role in violations against the freedom of others.

And I debate throwing myself from a moving taxi on the Bang Na Expressway.

Nah … I’m good.

Until, while waiting on the Sky Train platform, I notice a poster advertisement for distilled water and I think about the number of disposable plastic bottles I’ve contributed to the tons of floating garbage congesting the planet’s waterways.

And I visualize jumping onto the rails as the train arrives.

My existence burdens the Earth. My being breeds decay.

I don’t know when I became a harbinger of death. But I’ve carried the guilt for as long as I can remember. The guilt comes with desire to absolve myself. And because I can never do enough to make up for my part in the degradation of the world, never do enough to excuse the amount of chocolate I’ve consumed from global food conglomerates profiting from child labor, never do enough to pardon the amount of fossil fuels burned in frequent flyer miles, my own demise often seems the easiest way to excuse myself.

Usually I can keep busy enough to ignore the tug of futility, drown myself in work and creative projects to prevent my mind from dwelling on my own ineffectiveness. I’ve developed habits to keep my thoughts shallow before they sink to darker depths. Focus on what’s next. Keep kicking to the next day, next hour, minute, second. Give yourself purpose. But a month from submitting my first nonfiction manuscript to my publisher, I’m flooded with feelings of worthlessness.

My spouse picks me up from the train station and we talk on the ride home.

“Nothing is forever. So, there isn’t much point, right? Everything will be destroyed, eventually, even the Earth which I am helping to kill just by sticking around.”

P, my partner, sighs. She doesn’t take her eyes off the road to address me, “So, what do you want to do?”

“Well, I’ve been thinking more seriously about killing myself.”

The words tumble out of my mouth before I can stop them. I offer a soft chuckle, and P glances over to return my expectant stare.

She grins nervously and replies, “No.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

She repeats herself, still smiling, “Fuck you, no. You can’t kill yourself.”

“I can’t stop fretting over how print copies of the essay collection might contribute, however small, to deforestation.”

“What?”

“Does writing a book about my own experience only benefit myself?”

I continue trying to articulate my idiosyncrasies and doubt. Once I’ve exhausted myself, P admits she doesn’t know how to help me. She asks if I ever considered talking to a professional.

“No.”

“Why?”

I pause, catch myself before I reply, because my people don’t do therapy.

I can recognize the fallacy of this statement and how it would come across as an oversimplification. I mean to articulate to P that my family raised me to think of psychoanalysis as a last resort. Psychiatrists serve folks who can’t get right. Like, my uncle Cloudy.

When I was a kid, my grandmother warned me not to make loud noises around Uncle Cloudy. She said I shouldn’t move too quickly or walk too closely behind him. She said Uncle Cloudy had come in contact with Agent Orange while fighting in a jungle in Vietnam, and he came out of the service all messed up. As I got older, I’d learn that Uncle Cloudy’s exposure to toxic herbicides didn’t fully explain his inherent melancholy. When prayers for Uncle Cloudy didn’t appear to curb his dark thoughts, the night terrors or his talk about taking his own life, he started visiting a counselor at the Department of Veteran Affairs every so often.

Although I can hardly remember Uncle Cloudy’s voice, I can recall being eight-years old sandwiched between Cloudy and my granduncle on the bench seat of an El Camino speeding down a country road. I no longer recollect our destination or where we had departed, but I still see Cloudy letting his arm roll up and down with the wind rushing past the open passenger side window—fingers tight together, up like the flap of a plane wing, catching the breeze against his palm and raising his flat hand higher, then fingers curling downward on a wave of air. I remember seeing a familiar weariness in Uncle Cloudy’s somber expression as he stared out into the blurring thickets of green kudzu. I liked spending time in Uncle Cloudy’s company, being still together, perhaps sensing a shared sadness.

When someone discovered Uncle Cloudy’s body stretched across a walkway beneath an Atlanta overpass, it made sense to me. Family members suspected a nefarious force behind his purported suicide. They said he made good money from his monthly disability checks and someone might have robbed him and then pushed him to his death. Because we just don’t kill ourselves, I heard some whisper after the burial. We persevered segregation and slavery and the Middle Passage. We endure, with God’s help.

Whenever I felt despondent growing up, my parents and elders would tell me to take my struggles to the Lord in prayer. Pastors and clergy make themselves more readily available than therapists. Also, church tithes cost less than access to mental healthcare. When my mother gave birth to me in 1984, families like mine accounted for three percent of the United States’ 6-billion dollar household wealth holdings. A decade later, while national household wealth had risen to over 9-billion, homes like mine—eleven percent of the country’s population—remained at three percent. Members of my family would find it difficult to justify spending hundreds of dollars to talk to a stranger when bills and loan payments are due, and a minister could listen just as well.

“Maybe you’re depressed,” P says.

I repeat the word as a question, “Depressed?”

Who am I to have depression?

Around the globe people who look like me suffer, thousands die on journeys across seas and deserts to escape extreme poverty, war, political persecution and ecological disaster. Thousands die to have a fraction of what I posses. My mother would always tell me, “Baby, you are blessed.” Mom’s sentiment feels true, riding in my spouse’s hybrid car, thinking about the air emissions and environmental impact of the copper mining required to wire and power parts of the vehicle. I stay blessed. As we slow to a stop in gridlock traffic I stare at my smartphone to avoid P’s anxious gaze, and I scroll through news stories on suicide rates in an East Asian factory that builds components for the device in my hand. I wonder why everyone can’t be blessed too.

I’m fine.

I’m good, comparatively, and healthy enough.

But am I well?

Do I deserve to feel well?

My folks never really talked about mental wellness. I suppose they were naturally skeptical of a social science once used to negate their humanity. Until the middle of the 1800’s those like me were believed to have immunity to mental illness. Mental health ideology and public policy largely dismissed the idea of my people developing mental disorders because we were viewed as property, like a tool, and tools don’t get disheartened. This opinion changed with the Civil War and Southern Reconstruction in the USA. Many clinical professionals thought newly won freedom could harm the mental wellbeing of slaves. The conversation continued to pivot throughout the start of the twentieth century and by the 1960’s many believed Africans and communities of the diaspora—alleged to be morally and intellectually inferior to European races—were more susceptible to mental illness.

Later studies in the 80’s and 90’s proved risk for developing a mental disorder had nothing to do with skin color or ethnicity, not on a physiological level. While people who look like me exceed all other American populations in admissions to psychiatric hospitals, this statistic has more to do with how ones skin color relates to common disparities that can lead to depression; has more do with how pigmentation can relate to perpetual traumatic stress and how societal expectations of ones race can inundate an individual with feelings of worthlessness.

The car moves again and I ask myself, Did I learn this guilt?

“Maybe I’ve been taught to feel sad all the time.”

P replies, “Taught by who?”

“No one in particular.”

Despite all the rationale shaping my bias, when P asks again, why I won’t go to a therapist, I have no answer for her.

We arrive home.

P parks under the carport.

We sit, silent, listening to the cooling engine emit soft clicks and wheezes.

She asks me, “Have you ever tried to kill yourself?”

And I can’t find the words to enumerate the times I’ve pulled plastic bags over my head as a child, the times I’d try to smother/drown/choke/cut myself, or the destructive behavior throughout my adolescence and adulthood. I can’t begin to tell P about the previous evening when I walked out onto a campus balcony and leaned over its cement wall eleven floors up until, much like all the earlier instances, a voice sounded in my head, We Don’t Kill Ourselves, and my hands caught the ledge and pulled me backward, my hands dropped the knife, my hands pulled the belt from my neck, pulled me out of the water, yanked the pillow from my face.

“You know, if you killed yourself you’d hurt me?” P says.

“I know.”

Guilt pulls me down and lifts me up. I don’t know who I am without it. Maybe I fear if I take steps to resolve my guilt and become content, I would lose the only version of myself I’ve ever known.

P reminds me, my death is of no use to anyone.

“I know,” I say before exiting the car.

I’m not ready to swim out from beneath the swells, but I can author my own salvation, assign myself purpose, a reason to be; and maybe by persisting I could unearth a means to give more than I take.

Later, in bed but not asleep, my hands type in frenzy as P snoozes next to me. I keep writing through the night, progressing the manuscript soon due to my publisher—I hope to craft something useful. I don’t stop until beams of sunlight stray through the space between the heavy window curtains.

I keep going, to the next second… next minute… hour… day.

Donald Edem Quist is author of the short story collection Let Me Make You a Sandwich and the nonfiction collection Harbors (Awst Press). His work has appeared in The Rumpus, Puerto del Sol, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Cleaver, The Adroit Journal, Publishers Weekly, and other print and online publications. He is a four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, runner-up for the Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize and a winner of the E.L. Doctorow and Peter Matthiessen Authors Competition from the Writers’ Workshop of Asheville. He is creator of the web project PAST TEN, co-host of the Poet in Bangkok podcast and serves as Fiction Editor for Atlas and Alice. He received a fellowship from Kimbilio Fiction and earned his MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts.