The Odysseus Agreement

Marcus once told me he has no memory of what it feels like to not suffer. You’re exaggerating, I told him. He insisted he wasn’t. You are, I fought back. Everyone has one memory, at least.

Marcus concedes little. “Well, maybe I was happy for like a day or two.”

“That’s it?”

“Yeah, that’s it. So that’s that.”

***

I’m visiting Marcus in a psychiatric stabilization unit. I press the buzzer and wait for that prison-like clacking sound of the latch opening the heavy double-doors. There is a medieval quality to the whole drama of letting a visitor into this place, a desolate, chill feeling you get when you hear the harsh click-clacking of the latch and the grrrrr of the doors opening. An orderly, a short, beefy Hispanic man dressed in white, stands off to the side of the door as I step across the threshold. He eyes me without expression and I tell him, as though he’d asked me a question, that I’m here to see a resident. He points me to the intake window.

“Good morning. Here to see Marcus,” I tell the black lady behind the glass at the intake window.

“You are?” she says.

“I’m his therapist. I called yesterday.” I give her my name and she scans a document underneath her interlocked hands.

It’ll be a few minutes, I’m told, so I decide to wait for Marcus in the community kitchen, near a window where I can glance out at the spindly trees and browning shrubbery surrounding the staff parking lot. Turns out the wait is more than a few minutes. Without asking permission, I grab an apple juice from the refrigerator. A young woman at the other end of the kitchen sees me and says apple juice is good for you and I tell her apples are better. I return to my seat and watch this young woman dressed in a blue-gray hospital gown shamble to the window. There, she takes off her oversized glasses, puts them on, takes them off, then puts them on again, as if she were trying to decide which is best, zooming in or zooming out. I’m reminded of a remark long ago by a mentor of mine, something to the effect that skillful living entails the ability to navigate between zooming in on the details of a problem or situation and zooming out to gain perspective on it.

Marcus approaches behind me and whispers, “She does that all the time.” I turn and face him, feeling as if I’d been caught doing something wrong. Before I can extend my hand in greeting, he turns and points to a hallway leading to his room.

He knows why I’m here, because I told him yesterday on the phone. I told him the staff here wants me to sign-off on his discharge with the assurance that he won’t engage in self-harm. “You mean, not think about killing myself?” he said yesterday when I asked him whether he’ll try doing that again. “I think about it all the time.” He coughed into the phone. “It don’t mean I will. And it don’t mean I won’t.” He coughed again. “You sick, Marcus?” “Nah, I’m alright. It’s nothing.” I could see him in my mind’s eye rubbing his cheeks and slumping his shoulders. “So that’s that.”

Marcus is rotund and bald, with a stoop when he stands and a limp when he walks, much like the way my downstairs neighbor, an eighty-eight year old violinist, trudges to the mailbox under the invincible weight of his age.  The remarkable thing is that Marcus is not yet forty. A rush of sadness overtakes me as I watch him zombie-shuffle his way forward towards his room, shoelaces dangling like languid oars on a canoe dragging across the surface of a gently flowing river. A swelling urge to bring this man back to life displaces the sadness when we reach the door to his room.

He holds the door open, lets me enter the darkened room first.

He lumbers straightaway onto the unmade bed. He’s like a dying bear. He lies on his back, his knees point towards the ceiling. One hand rests on his watermelon abdomen and his arm drapes across his forehead.

I walk over to the large window and open the blinds.  “Is this okay?” I ask.

So thorough is Marcus’s lethargy that it would take supreme effort to imagine him ever gamboling joyously while soaking in the sunshine. The way he slouches, the way he mumbles and mutters, the way the sagging flesh on his face collects around his neck, the way his drooping eyes make him look like a human bloodhound, the way his bedraggled clothing drapes tent-like over his fatness—all of it, from his unlaced Converse sneakers to the labor of his breathing, all of it, his entire being, speaks to the torments inflicted upon him as a child and the torments he inflicts upon himself ever since because that past is no mere residue of memory but instead exists within the corpuscles playing bumper cars in his veins. Marcus’s past is vastly alive inside him.

“I like it dark but it’s fine. Knock yourself out,” Marcus says.

I slide a chair over to the bed. I can see it more clearly now, the bandage plastered on his neck, the bandage that covers a stitched-up gash. With the sunlight drenching the room, I can see the iodine stain seeping through the white gauze. It’s puffy, bunched up in the center, frayed at the edges.

“Can I see it?”

“For what?”

“For fun,” I say, winking.

Marcus tugs on the bandage to show it to me. He cocks his head back and there it is, illuminated by the diffuse sunlight invading the room, the inch-long railroad track a little off-center on his pink-fleshy neck.

I see in Marcus, at this moment, the real nature of suffering—something otherwise opaque, inarticulable. His sagging face, his scratchy and mumbling speech, his lethargic movements—he oozes futility. His entire being is like an homage to some Old Testament sermon that this enterprise of living is fruitless and cruel.  To Marcus, life consists of events that happen to you; events are rarely neutral and never participatory; events by and large inflict suffering and there isn’t any control over them.  All that is to be done is to retreat.

On the night table next to his bed there’s a cassette tape—Doors Greatest Hits.

Singer Jim Morrison, echoing the existential philosopher Martin Heidegger, sings of how we’re “thrown into” the world, which is to say we have had no say (unless you believe in Karmic reincarnation) in what our fundamental life circumstances will be.  Will we be born in an affluent country or a war-ravaged one?  Will our parents be wealthy or will they be drug addicts?  Will they be skilled in the art of parenting or will they mutilate the child’s soul through mental torments or physical deprivations?  A pile of shit or a basket of rose petals, or something in between—you don’t get to choose which you get thrown into. I’m sure Marcus has heard Morrison sing, “into this world we’re thrown,” and I’m sure, as a rider on the storm, he understands thrown-ness in a way that few do.  His understanding is purely experiential, and thus utterly non-conceptual.  And that is why it is pointless to talk with him right now about choice and responsibility and meaning—all core concepts in my therapeutic repertoire, but useless at this moment.

His is an attitude of hopelessness, a recalcitrant, immutable belief that his emotional pain is permanent. But there is much more to it, as I see it through my own existentialist lens. Depression might be a clinical description of how Marcus experiences life, but to restrict ourselves to that misses the deeper truth. Being depressed is, for him, a strategy, in the same way that the fox’s “sour grapes” in Aesop’s fable is a strategy, an emotion experienced to deflect something more painful. Depression is his cover. He has learned to use it—learned helplessness, one might say—to announce to the world that he is not responsible for his choices, that he cannot be blamed or held to account for his many self-sabotaging acts. In effect, helplessness and dysphoria serve as protection against the rigors of transcending his life circumstances. Depression protects him from any demands that he relate to his own life as a process of creation and the living of it as a kind of artistic endeavor.

Then again we live in a cultural milieu where the notion of living one’s life as a kind of artistic project is unfathomable. We literally lack a vocabulary for it.

***

“Does it still hurt?” I ask.

Marcus taps on the wound with two fingers, as if to test it. “Nah,” he says. “Not if I don’t turn my head.”

“I’m surprised you used a knife,” I say.

Marcus told me early on, and repeats often, that he envisioned going into the woods and shooting himself in the head. A fantasy perhaps, some aesthetic end to his particular story, as if a gun-blast to the cranium in a quiet forest is the quintessential response to an ugly and alienated existence. A worthy denouement to a life of unmentionable sorrow that, though silent for me and the staff in this psych ward, now screams inside his head. A knife? No, I’m sure of it—he’s never mentioned that that would be a suitable instrument to escape his tribulations. And bleed himself out on his mother’s kitchen floor like a slaughtered pig? Not the Marcus I had come to know. He told me a gun-blast to the head in a secluded area of the woods, a spot he had already designated as death’s welcome mat, would not leave a mess for others, as if his remains would be shoveled and disposed of with no more ceremonial fuss than road-kill bagged by a road crew.

Marcus and I talked about suicide and death from day one, and for many days thereafter, in his a squalid single-room occupancy hotel. Existential therapy in a paint-peeling, cigarette-smelling room with a mattress on the floor, a small knee-high table abutting it to make rolling cigarettes easier, and an always-on large flat-screen television five feet away. I think about it all the time, every day, it’s how my life is—that’s his refrain. Not one session ends without him mentioning suicide. Usually in the morning: such thoughts, he tells me constantly, are usually considered before he heaves himself off of the mattress to endure what he insists is more inconsequential suffering.

“What does anyone know about living?” Marcus said to me once.  He wasn’t really asking me a question.

His remark reminded me of the scene in the movie Platoon where Sgt. Barnes, the dark character competing for the soul of the Charlie Sheen character (director Oliver Stone’s proxy), says to a group of young soldiers who are smoking pot: “Death? What y’all know about death?”  Sgt. Barnes, with his scar-chiseled face and pain-knowing eyes, has undoubtedly peered into some abyss and thus has little patience for the young soldiers who seek escape and avert their eyes from the abyss through petty distractions. I don’t recall how I answered Marcus. But I do remember being impressed by the fact that he understood so well the interdependence of life and death, that to understand life one has to understand death. Not that Marcus spoke from a place of understanding death—far from it. He never spoke with any particularity about how contemplating death might bear on the artistry of living.

“I became an altar boy when I was 12,” he continued. “Did that for a few years. Father Lewis didn’t know nothin’ about living. I’ve seen psychs, therapists, energy doctors, fuckin’ you name it, and none of’em knows a goddamned thing about living.”

I told Marcus that hardly anyone knows anything meaningful about how to live. How pathetic we are, I told him, the vast majority of us in the land of plenty, because we know so little about the art of living. How can we know? In this money-making, status-seeking, distraction-obsessed culture, we’ve lost the capacity to talk about it; we’ve lost the tools to even think about it in any serious way. Marcus lit a cigarette, offered me one, and as I waved him off I realized I had lapsed into preacher mode. I’ve been prone to do that.

“I don’t see the big deal,” he said.

“Big deal?”

“Bout killing yourself. What’s the big whoop?”

He wasn’t asking me to give him a pep talk. If I were to tell him it would be best to forge ahead, he’d say best for who? If I were to tell him things’ll get better, he’d shoot back, how the fuck do you know things’ll get better? If I were to tell him killing himself would only leave a legacy of pain, he’d scoff and say, Oh, I get it, I should suffer through life so others won’t hurt. “What’s been holding you back?” I asked.

“Needed to meet you,” he said, chuckling.

“No, Marcus, really. Why haven’t you given up already?”

“I have given up. Gave up way back when.”

“I mean, the Big Give Up.”

“Too depressed. People don’t realize it takes a fucking bundle of energy to do it right.”

“So Depressed-Marcus can’t get the gumption to do what the Suicide-Marcus wants.”

“Huh?”

“Never mind,” I told him. “Let’s just keep you depressed, then.”

***

I ask him again to tell me about his choice of killing implement, this time with a forward-leaning posture and a hand-slicing gesture, using my body in the way I used to do in my former life as a courtroom lawyer cross-examining witnesses.  “I would have used a gun,” Marcus explains.  Silence, for two beats, and then he adds, “If I had a gun.”  He taps the wound again.  “All I had at the moment was a knife.  So I. . . .”  He falters in his speech, as he often does.

“So you used it,” I say to complete Marcus’s sentence.  He nods.  “Small wound,” I add.  “Scary, but small.”  He shrugs.  He tells me he doesn’t want to talk about it anymore and I tell him sure, no problem.

***

A week later I visit Marcus again. I couldn’t decide, after last week’s visit, whether I ought to recommend his discharge. Marcus wouldn’t give me, or anyone, assurances that he’ll hold onto his one and only life.

I’m back in his room, again sitting in a plastic chair next to his bed, with its wrinkled sheets and smashed-up pillow. “So do you want to get out of here?” I ask.

“Shit yeah I do. That’s that.”  He is doing it again: his spirit drains out of his body, eyes and round head freezes. He looks as though he is searching for something in a faraway land. Then, zap! Spirit returns, eyes flash, face goes slack, and he kills the silence with something unintentionally funny. He says, “Besides, the people here depress me.”

You’re kidding me, Marcus, I want to say. Does he even know he says funny things, ironic things? Is he really suggesting that if he were in, say, Golden Gate Park, throwing a Frisbee under a golden sun after smoking dope on a multicolored quilt spread out on lush green grass, while some mellifluous guitar solo emanates from someone’s boom box, he wouldn’t be depressed? He’d be joyous, too? Does he really mean to say that he loves life but these sickos in here are pissing on his happy reality? Are you kidding me, Marcus? Of course, I don’t say this. But I’m tempted, because it would be joyous to witness Marcus recognize the humor in his remarks.

To see him laugh!

Instead I tell him that I’m obligated to tell the social worker about my concern for his safety. Marcus coughs and snorts. “You ain’t gonna rat on me.” We bicker. Is that “ratting.”

“Just tell me you won’t,” I end up saying.

“Can’t. You know I can’t.” He chuckles.

I don’t like the fact that he’s complaisant towards grief. I suck in air, blow it out like I’m filling a balloon. “Look, Marcus, you keep talking about killing yourself and sometimes you do stuff like—.  Hell, you know. You cut your throat, for Christ’s sake.”

Marcus interrupts. “Yeah, and I wouldn’t be here right now if I had a gun around. I would’a killed myself a long time ago.” He goes blank, again looks beyond the walls to that faraway land. Again he punctures the silence with unintentional irony, humor. “I would’a killed myself a lot of times.”

Marcus once told me that one of his mother’s boyfriends stabbed him in the gut while he was taking a bath. He was thirteen. Nothing funny about that.

“Yeah,” I say, holding back a laugh. Marcus asks, with a stupefied look, “what’s so funny?” and I tell him “nothing, nothing’s funny,” and he insists that he wants to know so I tell him.

“It’s just the shit you say, Marcus.”

“What shit?”

“You just say funny shit sometimes and the fact that you don’t know that it’s funny just makes it funnier.” He shrugs, smiles feebly. “Anyway,” I say in a low register, “I get that you always think about it.  But let’s talk about doing this whole thing right.”  Marcus perks up.  His lips separate and form an oval.  “First off, let’s set a date.  No messing around.  Let’s write it in your calendar.”

Marcus has a paper calendar taped on the wall near his bed.  We go back and forth about a suitable day to “do it” and Marcus keeps saying “this is ridiculous, it’s fucking ridiculous,” and I keep countering “no it isn’t, we need to do this right.”

Marcus pounds on the bed. “Stop messing around, Dan!”

I point my finger at his nose. I can feel an energy circulating around and between us. “I’m very serious right now.”

“Serious?” he whispers. “You’re saying what, that we’re going to . . . .”

“You know, Marcus.” I lean my head back, inhale deeply. “Do-it day. We’re going to come up with a Do-it day.”

“Fucking ridiculous.”

It’s early April and I propose Memorial Day as “Do-It Day.”  Marcus keeps repeating this is ridiculous, fucking ridiculous, and then—

He relents.

“What difference does it make?” he says, exhausted by the rapid banter.  “Let’s make it Memorial Day then.”

Memorial Day as Kill-yourself Day.

I pull the calendar off the wall. I stare at it, study it as if it contains some cryptic revelation. A Walgreens logo and a photo of two youthful faces, white male and black female, bearing happy smiles, the cliché image of human joy and social progress, appear on the top half, little date-numbered boxes on the bottom half. “No, not then,” I say. “Let’s pick another kill-yourself day.”

“Why not?” Marcus asks.

“You should have one more summer before you call it quits. It’d be stupid to waste a summer. Get what I’m saying?”

“What the fuck you talking about?” He starts to rise off the bed. “C’mon, let’s get me signed outta here. That’s that, huh?”

I put up my hand, cop-style. He sits back down. “Summer!  Don’t you want one more summer?”

Marcus considers my expression. I feel exuberant, like I’m proposing something wild and fun, maybe even sinister. “Yeah, you’re right,” he says gamely.

“Hell yeah,” I yell. “That’s the spirit. Live it up and then do it on Labor Day. Everybody’s out celebrating labor and you’re saying fuck all that, because you’re calling it quits.”

I find September and I write “The End” in the little box for Labor Day. Marcus is looking at me with electric eyes. They’re like emeralds. Again his lips form an oval.

“But here’s the deal, Marcus. I’m serious about this, so listen to me.”  I pause, wait for emotional gravity to take hold. “You can’t back out of this. If you are feeling then what you are feeling now and like you’ve felt in the past, then you have to make Labor Day the last day of your life.”

He nods. He blows air through his oval lips, almost like he wants to whistle. I’m astonished by his eyes. I’ve never seen them, really. They are fixated on me like never before. The blowing escalates. He’s accusing me with glowering green eyes—either I’m guilty of messing with his head or guilty of going nuts.

“Let’s designate a place,” I say. “It’ll be a place where you can play the Doors. You can’t go out without a soundtrack, you know. I mean, we’re going to do this right, you know. Like how about ‘The End’? That’d be a great song to play.”

“Yeah, that’d be a good song to play. I like that part where he yells out how he wants to kill his father. Yeah, that’d be a good song.”

“So we need to figure out where,” I say, trying to keep things on track.

“What about when the music’s over?” Marcus interrupts.

“What?”

“The song. You know the song. ‘When the Music’s Over.’”

“Yeah, I know that song. I love that song. Slow song, perfect for the mood. Yeah, yeah, perfect line, too: ‘When the music’s over, turn out the lights.’”

“Maybe I’ll use that one, then.”

“Sure, Marcus. That one’s a good one for this. But you don’t need to decide right now. In fact, we don’t even need to settle on a place right now. These are things we can think about, you can think about on your own. So think about it on your own, talk to me about it if you want, since it’ll be a really important event and we need to treat it as such.”

“It’ll give me something to think about,” Marcus says.

“Promise me, though.”

“What? Promise you what?” He leans forward, scratches the back of his neck.

“Promise me that you won’t harm yourself in any way before Labor Day.” He pulls back, rubs his thighs. “Understand, Marcus? You need to promise me that.”

He tells me he can’t do that. “Ain’t makin’ no promise I’m not likely to keep,” he says. I hector him until he relents. “Okay, okay, okay. Shit, man. If it means that much to you. Okay, then.”

“But there’s one more thing, Marcus.” I say this solemnly.

“What’s that?”

I pause and look at him.

“Fucking what?”

“You only get to do it—it’s only The End—if you live it up this summer. You have to go to the beach, like, every day. You have to ask women out and not give a shit if they say no. You have to . . . you know . . .”

“Get laid?”

“Yeah, sure, if that makes you happy. But I want you to go to the library and go on the Internet and make a reservation for a campsite in August.”

“I love camping,” he says.

“I know, Marcus. You’ve told me that before. That’s why I’m telling you now—I’m telling you, you hear?—to reserve a campsite.”

“Will you come out? To the campsite, I mean.”

“Sure,” I say hastily. I grab his knees, squeeze them together. “Listen to me, man. You have to live it up this summer, go camping, be wild, not give a shit about what other people say and do, not get caught up in drama, you know? Then you can do it on Labor Day. Labor Day will be Kill-yourself Day.” I let go of his knees and lean back in my chair. “Unless, of course, you aren’t depressed anymore like you are now.” Marcus picks up the calendar from the floor where I dropped it. He studies it. “Deal?” I say.

“Deal,” he says.

We shake on it. Then I leave the room and return with a legal pad. Marcus asks me what I’m writing and I tell him I’m writing an “Odysseus agreement.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s a thing you sign. Remember you promised? Promised not to harm yourself. No shooting yourself. No stabbing yourself. No taking pills. No off’ing yourself. You fucking promised.”

“Yeah, okay. Fucking get off it. I promise.”

“Okay. So this is your signed promise. It’ll say you won’t harm yourself, and if you do feel like you’ll harm yourself, you’re promising here that you won’t, that instead you’ll call nine-one-one or somehow, someway, get yourself to the hospital.”

“What’d you call it?” he asks

“An Odysseus agreement is what it’s called.”

He wants to know why it’s called that. I tell him about Odysseus, the Greek protagonist who needs to be tied down to the mast of his ship so as not to capitulate to temptation.

“Oh. So what you’re saying is that by signing this thing you’re gonna write, that’s like you tying me down to a pole on the ship.”

“Exactly.”

He laughs. “Go on, then. Write it and I’ll sign it. That’s that.”

 

Dan Williams is a writer, psychotherapist, and performance consultant. Aside from writing many essays and scholarly articles, he is the author of one book, Executing Justice: An Inside Account of the Case of Mumia Abu Jamal (St. Martin’s Press) and is nearing completion of another, The Storm and The Whisper. Before becoming a psychotherapist, Dan was a courtroom lawyer, specializing in capital punishment, and a law professor at Northeastern.

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