there are many ways to answer the question. not everyone would ask, but some would if true curiosity — a genuine desire to understand — were allowed in place of good manners. i would, too. in fact, i still do ask myself: what made you think suicide was an appropriate, even the only, option? (195)
i start with a 2:1 ratio of milk to water. i have no idea if i wrote that sentence correctly because math is not my strong suit, but, basically, start with 2 cups milk and 1 cup water. heat the milk/water on medium-high until it comes to a boil, by which i mean when the milk starts to foam and tries to overflow (and it will if you aren’t watching your pot). when the milk/water boils, lower the heat, removing the pot temporarily from it if necessary (to prevent the overflowing), and pour in a cup of grits and add a pinch or two of salt.
these days, i use fast-cooking grits because they're, well, fast, but, when i started making grits a few years ago, i used corn meal. i'd stand at my stove for 45 minutes to an hour, book in one hand, whisk in the other, stirring my grits on low heat and adding milk or water as necessary, until they were soft and cooked through. fast-cooking grits take about 5-10 minutes, though that doesn't mean you can just dump in your grits and walk away. you still have to whisk frequently to break apart lumps and prevent burning because they will burn if you just let them sit.
and don't worry if they appear too watery at first. grits will thicken as they cook.
over the last two weeks, i read yiyun li’s dear friend, from my life i write to you in your life (random house, 2017). it’s a memoir of her suicide attempts, of living with (and trying to understand) suicidal depression, and it's also a love letter to literature, to the authors she read in the years around her breakdown, suicide attempts, and subsequent hospitalization.
li doesn’t go into details about her attempts, doesn’t talk about suicide so much as a physical act, and she also doesn’t make a defense or argument for suicide. maybe that’s consistent with, as she writes, her desire not to be a political writer (is the social not tied up with the political?), but i think there's also this — that she recognizes that there is neither a way nor a need to try to explain suicide or suicidal impulses in clearly explicable terms. there is no cause and effect; there is no answer to the question why; and that is all okay.
as i type these words, though, i recognize that they are my interpretations of what she has written, that i walked into this book with my own baggage and needs and anxieties. i went into dear friend with a measure of carefulness because there is a part of me that tenses up when suicide enters public discourse, because i am still sensitive to snap judgments and condescending dismissals toward the suicidally depressed, towards people like me.
somehow, that also manifests in an anxiety towards writing by people like me, authors like me, maybe because there is a part of me that is still constantly undercutting myself, telling myself that my suicidal depression isn’t really suicidal depression, i’m just being selfish, i’m being moody, i’m being whiny and emotional and immature. i haven’t been hospitalized; i haven’t made an attempt on my life serious enough for anyone to notice; and i’m not yet on medication. what if i read this and realize what real suicidal depression looks like? what if this, what if that, never mind that that’s all bullshit, and i know that.
i have recently taken moves to get help for this, and i have recently gotten an “official” diagnosis, which is good only insofar as it helps me get the help i need. my mother marvels over all this, that i’m taking the initiative to make my doctors’ appointments, to go to my therapy sessions, to get on medication, and she says that she might not have been able to do this had she been in my shoes because it all seems so cumbersome. she marvels, too, because these are all actions outside my usual personality — i hate sitting on the phone; i hate living on a tight schedule; and, above all, i hate asking for help.
the thing she doesn’t — that she thankfully can’t — understand is that i am terrified of my brain. a few weeks ago, before i left brooklyn to drive across the country to los angeles, my brother asked what i was most afraid of in moving back to california, a state i viscerally despise. at the moment, i couldn’t voice this to him, but my greatest fear has been and continues to be that i will die in california, not in the sense that i will get stuck in this state that i loathe and grow old and eventually die, but in the sense that i will finally hit that point where everything is so totally unbearable that i will succeed in taking my own life.
to some, that might sound dramatic, but, to others, to me, this is a genuine fear, abstract though it may be. it isn’t that i’m constantly, actively suicidal; i actually haven’t thought about it since december; but i am constantly aware that there is always the possibility that i will be again.
somehow, even though li never explicitly talks about this, i feel like she knows all this, that she understands it, maybe not in these exact terms but at the heart of it. she doesn’t need to express it in clear, explicit words; it’s there in the graciousness, the matter-of-factness of her prose, in the evenness of her tone, in her refusal to make her suicidal depression either less than or more than what it is. she doesn’t diminish the seriousness of it, but neither does she cloak it in dramatics or try to pander to a depiction of suicidal depression that might be more palatable to the non-suicidal, the non-depressed.
and, for all that and for this book, i am grateful.
you have to understand, she said, a suicide attempt is selfish. yes, i know what you mean, i said to each of them. understanding cannot be willed into existence. without understanding one should not talk about feeling. one does not have the capacity to feel another person’s feelings fully — a fact of life, democratic to all, except when someone takes advantage of this fact to form a judgment. one never kills oneself from knowledge or understanding, but always out of feelings. (54)
remember to add salt when you add your grits to the milk/water. i had a flatmate once who was a chef, and she told me that you shouldn’t wait until the very end to add salt. if you do, then you’ll just taste the salt.
unless you’re cooking beans. then wait until near the end because, otherwise, the salt will impact how the beans absorb water and cook — but grits are not beans.
and, so, add the salt when you add your grits.
what do we gain from wanting to know a stranger’s life? but when we read someone’s private words, when we experience her most vulnerable moments with her, and when her words speak more eloquently of our feelings than we are able to, can we still call her a stranger? (75)
i believe that it is impossible to write anything, whether fiction or non-fiction, that is not autobiographical. writing, by nature, is autobiographical, in that we betray ourselves when we write, whether we do it intentionally or not. an attempt to hide, too, is still disclosure.
that said, if you told me a year ago that i would write so openly, so blatantly autobiographically about my mental health, i would have stared at you like you had two heads. i would have said that i was too afraid for that, too scared of any possible repercussions to put so much personal out there, too hesitant of how it might affect my family. i would have added that i would leave that kind of personal writing for other writers, writers braver than i, more generous of spirit than i.
while i still think that intensely personal writing requires generosity of spirit, i've recently been rethinking the idea of bravery and courage. i mean, even still, even as i type these words and put them out there, i don't consider myself brave or courageous at all, and, as i was reading dear friend, i don't know that i thought that it was courage that allowed li the ability to write so openly, so unashamedly about the personal — her history with suicide, her mother, her childhood and youth in china.
it’s not that i’m downplaying the role that bravery or courage plays in all this; i do agree that there is a base measure of such sentiment required to start shouting into the void; but i also tend to think that we all have that, we just don’t know it until something somehow tips the scale and makes speaking out loud unavoidable.
as human beings, we are relational creatures, and we like to recognize ourselves in the world around us. that desire manifests itself in different ways, but, fundamentally, we possess a desire to be known. it’s oftentimes why we surround ourselves with the people do, why we read the books we do, why we consume the media we do, and it also oftentimes reveals itself in what we share on social media, how we present ourselves, the stories we tell.
it is also, unsurprisingly, why we oftentimes write the things we do.
when your grits start to thicken, start tasting to see if they're cooked and if they've enough salt, keeping in mind that you will be adding cheese. if they're thicker than you prefer, add more milk or water. continue to whisk frequently until they're soft, like porridge, being careful because grits like to gurgle and spit when they're hot and cooking, even with the heat turned down to medium.
when the texture is soft and the grits are almost ready to eat, dump in whole fistfuls (plural!) of grated cheese. it doesn't really matter which cheese, i dare say, though i've only ever used hard cheeses, so i can't speak for soft ones. i usually go for cheddar (tillamook!) or parmesan or gouda, depending entirely on what i have in my fridge — and always make sure to grate your cheese yourself; this is one cooking rule i do not compromise.
reserve some grated cheese for later. whisk the cheese into your grits. taste.
how could you have thought of suicide when you have people you love? how could you have forgotten those who love you? these questions were asked, again and again. but love is the wrong thing to question. one does not will oneself to love. the difficulty is that love erases: the more faded one becomes, the more easily one loves. (115)
when i think about whatever thing it is that drives me to share so much, i think it’s desperation. i consider it an extension of that desperate will to survive that still lives on underneath the despair, the feelings of futility, the hopelessness. i need to write in order to live, to maintain some semblance of stability, and i need to write in order to process, to learn to live with all these things i still perceive as brokenness, whether it be my depression, my anxiety, or my type 2 diabetes.
for some reason, i also need to do all this publicly; i've never been much interested in maintaining a personal journal of my own; and, sometimes, i wonder about all this sharing, whether it’s an ego thing or a something-else-i-don’t-know-what thing. i wonder constantly what good any of this writing does anyone, including myself, and i know that it sometimes hurts my family. no parent should have to come face-to-face with the brutal truth that his/her child hurts so badly, she wants do die, but, unfortunately, thinking that doesn’t negate the reality of this. thinking that doesn’t make it possible for me to sit in silence, not when i know that i am not the only one who lives with this and especially not when i know what silence does, that silence takes lives.
and i always seem to come back to this — that i shout my struggles and pains and hurts out into the void in the hopes that someone will hear me and recognize me and that, together, we can feel a little less alone. it is not that i think that i am this stellar, shining beacon of a human being, but because one of the most frightening things about suicidal depression is how it corrals you in your brokenness and makes you feel so helpless and so alone. it makes you feel unknowable, unrecognizable, and, when you cannot recognize yourself, when you cannot see yourself in the world around you, you start to wonder if you’re even really here at all.
while your grits are cooking, chop up your bacon and toss them onto a frying pan. heat the pan on medium-high heat; starting your bacon cold helps the fat render out, though i suppose that's kind of moot, health-wise, because i'm going to tell you to fry your egg in the bacon fat. remove the cooked bacon pieces to a plate or bowl covered in a paper towel so as to drain the fat.
if your bacon has cooked faster than your grits, turn the heat off the frying pan, so you can fry your egg and eat it right away. you want to get your pan (and the bacon fat) hot before you crack your egg on it because that's the secret to a great crispy egg — start the pan hot, smoking hot, crack the egg (careful not to break that yolk), and step back because the egg, as it hits the pan, should spit at you. basically, everything in this will spit at you — the grits, the bacon, the egg.
when the egg is fried, the white just set, yolk still wobbly, bottom nice and crispy (it won't take long), spoon the grits onto a plate, top with your crispy egg, sprinkle with bacon and leftover grated cheese, and eat immediately.
for those in crisis, in the US, the national suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. in NYC, the samaritans are 212-673-3000. in the UK and ireland, the samaritans are 116 123. all lines are confidential and available 24/7.