Calling the Angel of Death

22 Feb

When on the precipice of suicide, do we really want to die?

In season two of the television show American Horror Story, the Angel of Death, played by Francis Conroy, appears to characters when they wish for death. The Angel is portrayed as the embodiment of compassionate detachment: benevolent, serene, nonjudgmental. She asks the ones who “called” her if they are finally ready. If they are, her wings unfurl, she gently kisses them, and they die. If they choose to live, she vanishes.


In one poignant scene, the distressed character Sister Jude, played by Jessica Lange, has a conversation with the Angel in which they recount the numerous occasions Jude has summoned her. The Angel says that Jude’s call sounded different this time and asks if she is finally ready to abdicate all of her pain and suffering through death. Jude ruefully responds, “Never trust a drunk” and the two part ways until she dies of natural causes at the end of the season.


Television critic Ron Hogan has pointed out that this is a metaphor for suicidal ideation. When facing the Angel, the majority of the characters decide to live, even though their lives are sheer hell. This is true for many of us who have contemplated the act. We don’t want to die, necessarily; we just don’t want to suffer anymore. When confronted by death, many would-be suicides find themselves flooded with a frantic will to live. If they are on the verge of doing themselves in, they will back away. If they’ve already taken action, they will struggle to hold on to their lives.

I find comfort in that.

I’ve flirted with suicide since I was twelve. A combination of factors, including the onset of my bipolar disorder, the start of a two-year-long period of unwanted attention from a family friend, and good old-fashioned adolescent angst coalesced into a perfect storm of devastating depression. Most nights I locked myself in my room so I could vent the day’s collected misery with tears, alcohol, and writing. I often contemplated death but the thought of how it would affect my family stayed my hand.

Alienated goth teen that I was, one of my favorite poems in high school was Sylvia Plath’s “Lady Lazarus.” I admired the poem’s ferocity, its embrace of suicide as an act of resistance and personal expression:

Is an art, like everything else.   
I do it exceptionally well.

I do it so it feels like hell.  
I do it so it feels real.
I guess you could say I’ve a call.

I had no access to that powerful anger, that agency. All of my anger turned inwards and choked me.

One day when I was eighteen, my boyfriend announced that I’d ruined his life and he had decided to kill himself. He would not be dissuaded. Decimated by guilt, I insisted on joining him. We drove to a secluded field, where he fitted a hose over his car’s tailpipe and ran it into the rear window. He sealed the crack with many layers of duct tape, slid in beside me, and turned the key in the ignition. We sat silently and waited.

When I started to feel light-headed, I was suddenly filled with panic and began fervently reciting the Ve’ahafta, a prayer that has always comforted me in times of distress. Disgusted, my boyfriend turned off the engine. “You can’t even do this right,” he said. He disconnected the hose and we drove back to his house.

I finally did try when I was twenty-four and ended up in the emergency room fading in and out of consciousness while nurses cheerfully force-fed me charcoal and monitored my pulse. At one point, I came to and found my mother standing next to my bed.

“I didn’t die,” I said. I couldn’t even do this right.

“Don’t sound so disappointed,” she snapped.

My sister picked me up from the psychiatric hospital five days later. “Did you really mean to kill yourself?” She asked as we drove away.

I reflected for a moment. “I don’t know. I didn’t want to hurt anymore.”

“Well,” she said, “I don’t think you really wanted to die.”

Did I? The thoughts and emotions had come in waves: one second I was certain that it was the right thing, the only thing to do, the next I was overwhelmed by terror and guilt. I honestly thought it was the only way to end whatever ugliness had been burgeoning inside of me since I was twelve: enough already. I detest myself. I can’t do this anymore. Doctors had been insisting I was depressed and feeding me SSRI antidepressants for seven years and things were getting worse. I’d been fighting it for over a decade; I was exhausted. If only I’d had an Angel of Death to talk to in that moment, to receive a bit of compassion and perspective.

Sixteen years after I disturbed my high school drama class with a dramatic reading of “Lady Lazarus,” I know that there is nothing poetic or admirable about being driven to suicide by mental illness and trauma. I knew several people who died either in overt acts of suicide or through the more subconscious sabotage of drugs and alcohol. They were people with talents and love to offer who wasted their potential. I would not wish the pain their loved ones feel on my worst enemy.

The last time I summoned the Angel of Death was four years ago. Older and somewhat wiser, I called the Samaritans. The man on the end of that hotline gave me that needed compassionate detachment. He asked open-ended questions, listened carefully, and allowed me to reach my own conclusions about whether or not I really wanted to die. When I was out of distress, he gently ended the phone call, but before he did he told me not to hesitate to call again if I ever felt the need.

A suicide hotline is definitely not as cool as Francis Conroy’s Angel of Death, but it will provide the same relief: a calm voice to still the storm in your mind, questions to guide you towards perspective, sympathy unvitiated by pity or judgment. There is nothing shameful or weak about using this resource. The only shame is in the waste and emotional devastation wreaked when that urge is left to run rampant.

If you are at this point, your illness is in the driver’s seat; tell it to go fuck itself. Whatever higher power you do or don’t believe in, whatever ontological conclusions you have reached about yourself and the universe, now is not your time. No matter how insufferable your torments are, your heart does not want to stop beating.

This website will connect you to numerous suicide hotlines in any part of the country. Some of the hotlines are tailored to specific populations such as veterans and women suffering from postpartum depression. Choose a hotline number and keep it with you: in your phone (that’s where mine is) or on a card in your wallet. Do not hesitate to call it if you feel the need.

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