The Suicide Diaries
Patti Smith writes in M Train, “nothing seemed more romantic than just to sit and write poetry in a Greenwich Village café.” It was 1965 when she found Caffè Dante on MacDougall Street. “Unable to afford a meal, I just drank coffee.... The walls were covered with printed murals of the city of Florence and scenes from The Divine Comedy” (p. 8).
When she was sitting in Caffè Dante, I was her age and in Arizona, marrying a man I scarcely knew, dreaming of running away to New York to become an actress and sit in a café in Greenwich Village. It took me six more years to get there, but in 1971 I found my way to Caffè Reggio, a few blocks up MacDougall from Caffè Dante and closer to my tiny room on West 11th Street (bathroom in the hall). There I wrote suicide diaries.
My therapist prescribed them as a way to avoid killing myself. “Whenever you think it’s time to kill yourself, put it off for a little while--what’s a few more hours after all you’ve suffered?--and write in your diary about what it feels like to want to kill yourself. Document each time, bring your curiosity to it. See how this time is different or similar to the last. What triggered the thought? What’s going on in your body? What are you saying to yourself? Be an anthropologist, examining how suicidal thoughts occur. Be a scientist, keeping a careful log. Be a poet, observing the breath, the textures around you. Be very specific, and bring the journal with you to our next session.”
I rode the subway to my job with former heroin addicts at a methadone clinic on West 49th Street and 9th Avenue. I had Saturdays off, and I walked to HB Studio on Bank Street for acting classes. My acting teacher recommended I go to a mental health clinic operating on a sliding-fee scale, serving unemployed actors and underemployed service workers, and there I was matched with a therapist I saw three times a week. When the Black Dog arrived, if it was near payday so I had enough money to buy a cup of coffee, I made my way to Caffè Reggio to drink coffee and observe mind and body. Picture: 26-year-old woman all in black, shoulder-length honey-colored hair falling over her face like a curtain, a cup of coffee on the table, a cigarette in her left hand, a pen in her right. I’d sit on a blackened wooden bench carved in deep relief with curves and curls like wood in ancient church choirs. Searching for words to tell my pain, I traced the curves of old wood with the fingers of my cigarette-holding left hand, watching ash fall down my arm and fleck my black shirt or the bench I sat on. Then I’d turn my attention back to my right hand, the pen, the words.
Spoiler doesn’t seem quite the word for it, but this story lightens up. Stephen Strimpell, my acting teacher, sent me to the mental health clinic where I found Beth Rhude, the brilliant therapist who helped me deal with unhealed childhood trauma and the kidnapping and disappearance of my son in 1969. I went on to have a life including adventure, meaning, and compassion. To others who may be experiencing a Dark Night of the Soul, I say that for me, a skilled therapist, yoga, meditation, deep friendships, and writing--along with good luck and resilience--did the trick. It might not work for everyone, but that woman in black is 70 and happier than ever before.