Opinion

opinion | Robert E. Brown

Suicidal thoughts affect professors, too

CHristopher serra for the boston globe

I’ve been following the issue of suicides on college campuses and was moved by the brave blog-post revelations by MIT student Rachel Davis, who wrote about coping with the “craziness that is MIT.”

But it isn’t only college students who sometimes want to kill themselves. So do professors. I was one of them.

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More than 40 years ago, I arrived at a college in Los Angeles as a newly-hired assistant professor. It was the summer before I was scheduled to teach a full load of English courses. I was 25, a freshly minted PhD, and in bad shape. I would make it through teaching my one course, but that was as far as I’d get.

Like some freshmen at MIT and Harvard and my own state university, I felt like an imposter. What right had I to the title of professor? With each passing week that summer, darkness deepened in me. I feared facing my classes every Tuesday and Thursday. As soon as the students left, I’d drive to a quiet place in the hills near my apartment to sit and stare for hours. On Tuesday afternoons, I dreaded Thursday. Thursdays, I obsessed about the next Tuesday.

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I went to sleep wishing never to awaken. I visited a gun shop but didn’t have the will to go through with buying a pistol. I tried to hang myself with my tie, which proved to be a farcical failure that would have been a terrific movie moment. I’d lost a sense of humor, but my unfailing clumsiness saved my life.

When the fall semester began, I went to my first class, at 4 p.m., distributed the syllabus, and dismissed the students early. I got in my car and started driving. The plan was to head 400 miles north to the Golden Gate Bridge, and jump to my death.

I didn’t get that far. Exhausted, I stopped three hours later at a gas station in Santa Maria and called my wife. We had been married for all of three months. It was past midnight and she was frantic. I returned home and called in sick — all semester. The department granted me a leave of absence until January.

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I spent mornings curled up on the floor of my apartment, cradling my cat. Hoping I would somehow get back on my feet, and worried about our finances, my wife took a job at a trade magazine. I drove her to work and picked her up. That was the extent of my daily schedule.

I visited my doctor, an internist, who failed to diagnose what today we recognize as clinical depression. In the classroom that winter, nothing had changed — the old terrors descended.

My doctor, at last, recommended a psychiatrist who recognized the seriousness of my struggles. He wrote a letter to the college explaining I was in treatment and needed another leave. While still receiving that treatment, I took off for the Golden Gate again. Like my first abortive suicide attempt, this one stalled from exhaustion.

On the way back to LA, I fell asleep at the wheel as the sun rose. I awoke in the weed-clogged center strip that divided the lanes, and watched a tow truck haul out my car. A solicitous highway patrol officer advised me to get a cup of coffee.

I had finally hit bottom. I underwent a regimen of intensive therapy combined with enough medication to take the edge off. Four months later, I had improved enough to teach summer session. I began to feel human. Food tasted good again. I actually liked being around people. I enjoyed taking trips with my relieved, long-suffering spouse. Playing Wiffle ball with friends was fun. So was sipping a margarita at a favorite Mexican joint.

I taught for a year and earned excellent evaluations from students. I figured it was enough to get back on the tenure track. But given my history, the department’s management concluded I had no future at the university. I was granted the standard “terminal year” — a last go-round for faculty who don’t get tenure.

It would be almost 15 years before I found my way back to academia. I landed a position editing a magazine in LA, which led to speech-writing jobs and then a move to New York for corporate writing work. By the mid-’80s, I was divorced and remarried with a 1-year-old son and a stepdaughter. We moved to Boston and soon after, I returned to the classroom. In 1998, after teaching writing at Salem State, I finally got that tenure I coveted.

To celebrate, I flew to San Francisco by myself. I laced up my Sauconys and ran up and over one of those famous cable-car hills to the base of the Golden Gate. I climbed the stairs to the walkway, and in the windy brightness, sprinted to the Marin County side and back, waving my arms around. This time I was content to look like a crazy person. Which I wasn’t.

Robert E. Brown teaches communications at Salem State University. Follow him on Twitter @gatheringlight.

Related:

MIT eases workload, offers support after recent suicides

Lawrence Harmon: Teen suicide’s tragic lure

Suicide rate at MIT higher than national average

Sally Spencer-Thomas: Coming together on suicide

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