I parked my car on West Main Street and walked into the woods in search of misery.
I had just heard the police and firefighter departments being called out on the scanner, but I couldn’t decode what particular type of havoc was occurring.
This was Stroudsburg, Pa., a spring night sometime in the early 90s, and, as the police reporter for the Pocono Record, I decided it was worth the five-minute drive from my office to see what was happening.
Illustration by Ryan Bakhsh
I didn’t see any of the usual bedlam that goes on at car crashes or house fires. There was no roiling sea of flashing emergency lights, no screaming sirens; no manic assembly of police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances.
There was nothing to indicate that anything was out of the ordinary—until I saw the county coroner walking toward me.
“What’s going on, Bob?” I asked.
“Come here and take a look,” he said.
We walked a little farther in the woods until we came to a clearing where the cops and firefighters had gathered.
And that’s when I looked up and saw a man hanging from a tree.
He was in his thirties, dressed in work clothes. With his head down and his arms hanging by his side, he looked more like a horror movie prop than a human being who had been alive and breathing just a short time ago.
Now I understood why everything was so calm. The victim was beyond help.
The fire chief was speaking with his officers in low tones, discussing how they were going to get the dead man out of the tree.
It was all about logistics now, the best way to get the job done. The man’s story, why he had chosen to destroy himself, didn’t matter anymore. He was an object that had to be removed.
Reporters might appear callous sometimes and, I won’t lie, there’s a fair amount of gallows humor floating around newsrooms. But often what looks like insensitivity is really desperation.
You’re so obsessed with getting the story, so determined to beat the competition that you don’t have time to think about the casualties.
So it’s strange to recall now that as I watched the firefighters set up their ladders and prepare to take the dead man down, I hadn’t thought about how close I had once come to ending up the same way.
My life was in tatters before I moved to Pennsylvania. I was dead-ending at a local weekly newspaper in Brooklyn and struggling with my physical and emotional health.
I was suffering from the Epstein Barr virus, a relatively new diagnosis at the time, and I would periodically come down with mono-like symptoms for weeks on end.
An exercise junkie, I was going crazy from the constant illness and inactivity. I could do little more than drag myself to and from a job I despised.
When I was growing up, I had dreamed of being a famous writer and filmmaker, but in reality I was pushing the 30-year mark and still sleeping in my childhood bedroom.
I was so filled with self-loathing that I got up one morning, looked in the bathroom mirror and actually said the words, “I hate you.”
When I got the call to interview at the Record, I was nervous, but excited. It was a chance to move out, to live in the Poconos, where I had vacationed so often as a kid.
The Stroudsburg area was also the setting of a novel I was threatening to finish someday, so I could do my research and earn a living at the same time. It looked like it might work out well for me.
And then I got sick again.
Deciding I was too ill to travel, I tried rescheduling the interview, but the editor, understandably, was not pleased. We hadn’t even met in person yet and I was already backing out of a commitment.
I convinced myself that I had torpedoed a chance at getting this or any other job, of ever accomplishing anything with my life. And I absolutely refused to see any way out.
“I’m a born loser!” I wailed to my poor mother. “A born fucking loser!”
And one day I decided I couldn’t handle it anymore. I couldn’t take being a born fucking loser anymore, so, when no one was home, I walked down the hallway with a belt in my hand and stood beneath a chinning bar I had set up in the doorway of my parents’ bedroom.
I looped the belt around my neck and draped the other end over this piece of exercise equipment that I bought to improve my health, and prepared myself, like an Olympic diver standing high over a pool.
I felt defiant; for once in my life I was in control. I was going to show them –whoever “they” were—that I wasn’t going put up with any more abuse. There was a strange, unnatural voice speaking to me so powerfully it felt as if someone were standing right behind me.
“Do it,” the voice said, “do it!”
And I pulled on the belt.
I went up on my toes for the worst few seconds of my life before I let go and started gagging.
To be clear, I was in never in any danger of hanging myself. If I had kept on tugging on the belt I suppose I would’ve eventually passed out and fallen to the floor.
This was just a dry run, a dress rehearsal, but as I stepped away from the chinning bar I realized I had done some very serious damage to myself.
I didn’t say a word to anyone in my family about what had happened and I went to work the next day as if everything was okay. But I felt ragged and hollow, as if I were made of glass.
In the afternoon I drove down to the 72nd Precinct in Sunset Park on an assignment and on the way to the front desk I ran into two cops I knew from Brooklyn South Narcotics.
We made some small talk and then I started cracking jokes. I’ve always suffered from a need to be liked and I thought—quite wrongly—that making people laugh would also make them care about you. The truth is that often they just think you’re a clown put on this earth just to amuse them and they don't give a damn about you.
But I was so frantic to have someone like me at that moment that I was essentially doing a stand-up comedy routine in a police station for a two-man audience.
The harder those cops laughed, the more jokes I made. It gave me some sense of worth, a way back to the light. It was like I was crawling out of my own tomb.
I was seeing a therapist at the time and he shook his head sadly after I told him what I had done.
“That would’ve been a nice thing for your mother to find,” he said.
He asked me if I wanted to see a psychiatrist who could prescribe medication, but I refused. As we talked I was able to take a step back and take a hard look at my actions. I saw how close to the abyss I had come. And I started to feel stronger.
“I don’t want to die,” I said with determination. “I want to live.”
I drove back to the paper after the firefighters got the dead man out of the tree, wrote up a brief about the incident, and went home.
Suicides were not big news at the Record, unless the person died in a spectacular way, like the elderly woman who had jumped off the Broad Street overpass down to I-80 one winter afternoon when I first took over the cop beat.
That story was Page One, but this man’s death would be buried somewhere inside the next day’s paper.
The next morning I went to my dry cleaner off of North First Street. The woman behind the counter was on the phone and as I put my shirts down, I picked up on what she was saying.
“Well, at least he’s at peace now,” she said into the phone.
No, I thought, she couldn’t possibly be talking about the same man I had seen hanging in the woods just a few hours ago. It was a small town, sure, but it wasn’t that small, was it?
I didn’t want to believe in that kind of coincidence, but the line about being at peace, that absurd little fairy tale the living like to tell about the dead, immediately confirmed it for me.
When she hung up I asked her about the dead man and she told he had been fighting a losing battle with drug addiction.
This man had stared into the same hideous void that I had, heard the same voice saying do it, do it. We both walked into the same dark woods, but only one of us came out.
This man might have been at peace, but I’m sure his family was suffering terribly, torturing themselves as they tried to figure out what they could have done to stop him from ending his life. They’d probably feel guilty for the rest of their lives.
I never want to put my family through that.
It’s been a long time since that day in my parents’ bedroom and I still struggle with depression. It gets bad, real bad sometimes, but I never want to lose control like that again.
If the voice comes back, if I ever do hear those words, do it, do it, I know how what to do.
I’ll look into the mirror, gather my family around me and shout as loudly as possible, “I want to live.”