In 2018, while my wife was suffering from stage IV stomach cancer, I swallowed half a bottle of sleeping pills. I have hesitated to tell this story, not for fear of any public record, but for fear of my kids knowing that while their mother was dying, I wanted to die. I write it here only because I want to write about wanting to live. Swallowing those pills was one of multiple suicide attempts in my life, and my final one.
What the sleeping pills did was put me to sleep. When I woke from an eight-hour midday nap, my wife said: “How can you want to die when I am trying so hard to live?” This is what I can’t stop thinking about: not what happened but what she said about what happened.
I spent much of my childhood wanting to die—not rebelliously, sincerely. What kept the knife marks shallow was Catholicism. I didn’t want to go to hell, which was to me then a very real place. Or rather: I didn’t want to leave one hell only to be trapped in another, forever.
The only thing worse than suffering is suffering longer.
Life and taking my life seemed equally hopeless. I threatened my adoptive parents with suicide, but I didn’t actually believe they would care. In the past, I had wanted to run away from home and return to Korea, where I was born, and what ruined that hope was their agreement. They said the worst thing they could have said to me: “Go.” What they wanted me to know was exactly what I feared most: that Korea was the life they had saved me from; that if I thought this life was bad, I didn’t know what bad was.
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My tears were often met with my father’s threat to give me something to really cry about. That was the authority he had over me, I thought: unlike me, he knew how much worse my life could be. I have often found it strange that the limits of our imagined selves are not the limits of other people’s imagined versions of us. How much worse my life could get—that was one of many things I had to be taught about what I should and shouldn’t want.
In Adam Phillips’s book, On Wanting to Change, he writes that “change is always about changing the object of desire, or its recovery.” Our major religious model for this is conversion. Conversion stories, Phillips writes, like the ones of St. Paul and St. Augustine, appeal because they indicate that there is an ideal life that we are missing out on. When we feel that we are missing out on something, we want it.
Conversion is tempting because it is a narrowing—what tempts us to convert, Phillips warns, is “the sheer difficulty of containing multitudes; multitudes, that is, of desires, and griefs, and conflicts, and beliefs, and pleasures.” The ultimate conversion is death. Or, perhaps more usefully: any conversion is a kind of death.
Conversion is always conversion to a life in which the things we are missing out on (everything else) are things we want to miss out on. This is how I was supposed to feel about adoption. In fact, “Go back to your country,” something Asian Americans often hear, is another way of saying, your country is a place no one wants to go. We are supposed to feel glad that we are missing out on what other people assume is ours.
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Not only that, but people often talk about being American as if it is a state of conversion, as when they use the word to stand in for “white,” as if there is only one condition in which American is possible. To want conversion is to want a life in which multiple lives cannot exist. Because multiple lives could not exist if I were to be a good adoptee/convert, I wanted death.
Adoption is also the conversion to a life that someone else (the adoptive parent) is missing out on; it can never satisfy the adoptee because they are the object. The missing is their life. In other words, I didn’t realize that my desire to die was really a desire to live a life that I was missing out on, because I didn’t know what that life was.
The whole time my wife was receiving chemo treatments, I sat beside her hospital bed and wrote what would become my fourth novel, The Sense of Wonder. (Warning: spoilers below.) I wanted to stop wanting to die. I wrote toward a desire to live. Books, in fact, have often been my way of wanting to live. One of the many reasons that representation is so important is that stories present us with different possibilities for what we are missing out on. (We can’t want to be an architect until we know what an architect is and that it is possible for us to be one.)
In The Sense of Wonder, a character named K is diagnosed with stage IV stomach cancer and goes through some of the things my wife went through. I was writing, on a bench beside my dying wife, a book about wonder, in a time when I needed wonder more than ever. We knew that my wife would probably die, but knowing this could do nothing for us. What helped my wife want to live was the belief that more possibilities existed than seemed to exist.
As I wrote my book, I believed that my character would have to die. Yet I couldn’t kill her. I kept asking myself: what is a novel for? What was my novel for?
I remembered a K-drama in which a group of women in a cancer ward watch a K-drama together. In the drama within the drama, a romance develops. The two leads fall in love. The women in the cancer ward animatedly debate what will happen. Then one of the leads gets cancer, and the women who are watching fall into a depressed silence. No one wants to watch anymore. More than that, losing interest in the romance leads the women to lose interest in their own lives. Finally, one of the husbands tracks down the show’s creator and begs her to change the plot. In the next episode, the lead’s cancer miraculously goes away. The women watching in the ward rejoice.
What is it that happens to the women when it seems like the lead will share their same bad fate? They lose a sense of what they are missing out on, and so they lose their desire.
When she was closer to death, my wife said to me: “This is not a life” or maybe “This is not alive.” She meant that although she was alive, she was missing out on life. After she died, I was missing out on life: my life with her.
Mourning is one of the changes Phillips describes when he says change is about changing the object of desire. Freud called mourning—as opposed to melancholy—the process of withdrawing desire from the lost object and investing it elsewhere.
In healthy mourning, one regains multitudes; one regains wonder. Healthy mourning is reinvesting the desire for a single missing object, which because it is lost cannot be retrieved, in many missing objects. Containing multitudes also means accepting that there are multitudes one cannot contain. If this broadening of desire does not occur, the melancholic remains “stuck” on the lost object. (Adoption is so often melancholic because of how difficult it is to withdraw desire from a lost object you don’t know or which never belonged to you.) Like conversion, then, melancholy is a kind of narrowing. Unfaced grief—and we live in a society of unfaced grief—makes conversion all the more tempting and dangerous.
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In my grief after my wife died, I wanted at first to want nothing, or nothing except my wife. Or, to put it another way, I felt the danger of wanting to be only one person: the person I was when my wife was alive. This is the danger of conversion: the life you think you have missed out on becomes a life in which everything except that life is something you don’t mind missing.
I needed wonder more than ever.
Phillips writes that a person who serves as a good model for how to live, like Socrates, is a person who doesn’t present any particular way to live but who inspires us to live as ourselves, “to become whoever else we might be.” Sometimes I feel as if my wife was teaching me how to live. Knowing that she had tried so hard to live, I tried to believe that life–other lives I might inhabit–was possible.
What Plato knew when he wrote the dialogues—and what I needed to remind myself as I finished my novel—is that a good book is also a good model for living, in that even if it stays the same, its reader changes as what they are missing out on changes. I was in danger of not caring if my character K died, because my wife was dead. It took me a while to understand my wife’s assertion that her life was not a life as more than just a feeling but as a desire: a desire for desire. Like a person who serves as a good model for how to live, a good book doesn’t try to convert you; it gives you a sense that it is worth missing out. It is worth containing multitudes. It is worth wondering.
In the end, I saved K because I had wanted to save my wife. I saved K because I wanted to save myself.
If you or someone you know may be experiencing a mental-health crisis or contemplating suicide, call or text 988. In emergencies, call 911, or seek care from a local hospital or mental-health provider.