Story by Kirk Kicklighter, Artwork by Caren Rudman
Depression runs in my family. My mother endured electroshock treatments. My brother fell into years of addiction to self-medicate. And two years ago, I experienced a dark, gaping slide that convinced me, for a time, that I no longer had hope.
I felt my life had become a harvest of fails, including medication, which failed to help. I had left journalism, a field that seemed to be crumbling around me. My wife and I were struggling in our marriage, though I knew she would never abandon me in my condition. I slept unstintingly and rarely left the house. I gained 25 pounds eating delivery pizza and frozen waffles. I cloaked myself in a homely uniform that included a large hoodie and stretchy sweatpants. In protest against my pain, I shaved my head.
One night during this noxious sojourn, I found myself channel-surfing through insomnia, only to stumble across an episode of PBS Frontline called “The Suicide Tourist.” A solemn narrator with an Edward R. Murrow baritone was reporting on a professor with a terminal disease who traveled to Switzerland to take his own life with the help of a non-profit called Dignitas. Assisted suicide is legal in Switzerland, and for $6,000 dollars you can get an apartment in Zurich, a bedside nurse, an injection of phenobarbital, and a tidy cremation. Dignitas mostly bails out those with progressive fatal illnesses, but an alarming 20% of their clients choose death under a “weariness of life” clause.
The documentary captivated me. My heart started beating faster. My face became flushed. I fell back on the couch and experienced a rush of adrenaline followed by a rapturous calm. When the episode finished, I slept blissfully.
When I awoke at noon the next day (depressed humans treat noon the way the rest of us treat early), I had a puzzling sense of déjà vu.
Had I read about suicide tourism somewhere before?
Then it came to me. One of the guilty pleasures of my childhood was spy novels. In the Ian Fleming James Bond novel, “You Only Live Twice,” a character named Dr. Shatterhand runs a macabre “Garden of Death” in Japan for people who want to kill themselves. 007, who is near-suicidal himself after the murder of his newlywed bride Tracy on their wedding day (the ending of the previous novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service), is dispatched to kill Dr. Shatterhand as a diplomatic favor to the Japanese government (yes, the plot is deliciously ludicrous). Bond discovers that Shatterhand is in fact Ernst Stavro Blofeld, 007’s super-villain arch-nemesis (and the inspiration for Mike Myers’ Dr. Evil parody in the later Austin Powers series). Bond fans will already know that Blofeld is the monster who murdered Tracy in an attempt to destroy Bond. I won’t spoil the ending but the title of the book comes from a Japanese proverb: “You only live twice – once when you are born and once when you look death in the face.” YOLO meets haiku.
This is the weird part: linking the heart-rending work done by Dignitas with my childhood fantasies of allegorical adventure made me feel really, really GOOD. Nietzsche once said that the thought of suicide keeps many men alive in the darkest part of the night. Knowing that I had a chance to join a shadowy organization called Dignitas, eat chocolate, and die in a Swiss garden of death — gave me HOPE.
I did some research and actually contacted Dignitas for more information. Yes, they could help me die, but they required a complicated application process and I was going to have to make my case with supporting documents and essays and an interview. Like applying to college.
A few days later, I sat down and shared the idea with Leslie. I called it the Swiss Option. Leslie is a patient listener and to her credit, she did not judge me….
“But the question is do you really want to kill yourself?” she asked.
I said there were definitely days when I wanted to be dead. And it made me feel dauntless to have the Swiss option.
“If you really want to kill yourself, you don’t have to go to Switzerland. My mom has pills. She saves them in case she gets cancer.”
Leslie didn’t get it yet. It had to be an adventure. It had to be…a picaresque, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones without the jaunty humor.
“No, I need to die overseas, so it’s like I died in a war or during an attempt to scale Mt. Everest,” I said. “I don’t want you or my parents dealing with that nonsense here.”
She sat quietly for a second. I was afraid she was angry. What normal person wouldn’t be angry? Life is for living, right? Only the truly weak choose to take their own lives, or so the angry living would have us believe.
Then she reached out and braided her fingers inside mine.
“Listen, if it gets that bad that you really want to go to Switzerland, I will go with you and I will help you and I will be there to hold you when we say goodbye.”
I leapt to my feet and kissed her on the lips, grinning broadly for the first time in months.
“Let’s go out to dinner to celebrate,” I said.
In the weeks that followed we discussed the Swiss Option regularly. I began to leave the house more and more to run errands. I started exercising to get back in shape because our suicide trip had expanded now to include a hiking vacation in the Alps prior to the death fete.
Having just finished reading a memoir about a self-absorbed woman who travels the world building a new life, Leslie now gave our European perambulation a title: “Eat, Pray, Love, Die.” I loved this title and imagined a guitar-shredding theme song by the Black Keys or Jack White or…yes, Paul McCartney and Wings: “When you were young, and your heart was an open book, you used to say live and let live…you know you did, you know you did, you know you did….”
Finally, one day, Leslie turned to me and said, “You’re getting better, aren’t you.”
I stared back with an embarrassed smirk. It was true. I WAS getting better. And my sense of humor was coming back, which is one of the strongest indicators that a person will recover from depression. I responded to her question with an arch question of my own:
“Do you expect me to talk?”
She rolled her eyes, “Oh God, shut up.”
“No, no, come on!” I said. “Just say it!
“No.” She said.
She paused, then looked away. When she turned around again, there was the wet reflection of tears in her eyes, but she was smiling. Then she curled her nose and lips into a snarl and in her best super villain voice, she said it: “No, Mr. Bond…I expect you to die.”
We giggled and high-fived, but then she became quiet, almost somber: “You know, when you let your imagination and playfulness be more dominant, you’re not overwhelmed. You’re not so afraid. You don’t need to go to Switzerland. But you do need a mission.”
“You’re right,” I said. “I need to kill Dr. Shatterhand as a favor to the Japanese government.”
And with that sentence, we set into motion a plan, at first a secret mission for our eyes only. I can’t give you all the details, for your own protection. It led Leslie and I to separate for a time, though she remains my soul mate and best friend. It led me to Chicago, perhaps not a jet-set destination from a Fleming novel, but my favorite American city and a heartland hotbed of playful imagination and humor. I began studying improvisation and comedy and playwriting and satire and fiction and all the forms of storytelling I’d neglected in journalism. The operation is underway as we speak. The code word is HOPE. The enemy is despair. The femme fatale is fear.
I still think about suicide at least once a week, but now the grim reaper and I share an odd kinship. Now I consider myself post-suicidal. Because I have the option of being dead, I have nothing to lose by staying alive. And that license to kill (myself) makes me both thoughtful and dangerous, an operative to be reckoned with.
My name is Kicklighter. Kirk Kicklighter. I am an agent of Dignitas, sent to terminate despair (and to make love to fear along the way). As Ernst Stavro Blofeld mutters (while delicately feeding his Siamese fighting fish) in an early scene from the 1963 film, From Russia With Love (the narrative centers around a plot to assassinate James Bond):
“Let his death be a particularly unpleasant and humiliating one.”
Author Kirk Kicklighter
Kirk Kicklighter has worked as a staff writer for newspapers, including the Raleigh News & Observer and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and served as Executive Editor of DoubleTake magazine, a national publication of literary journalism and documentary photography. He also attained the rank of Captain in the U.S. Marines during five years of military service as a signals intelligence officer.
He is currently working on his first novel, an adventure set during the events leading up to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s a story about a loser who grows up, saves the world, and gets the girl.
Artist Caren Rudman, Highland Park IL
Caren Helene Rudman works with mixed media, photography, and writing. She has exhibited locally in Chicago and Nationally including shows in NYC. She received her MA from NYU in a program affiliated with the International Center of Photography. Since 2010 she has curated an annual exhibition, Voices and Visions; Standing on the Bridge Between Health and Disease, at The Art Center Highland Park, which traveled nationally. Caren’s work examines the dichotomies between self and other, inside and outside, mind and body. She delves into the notion of genetics, linking past and future generations.