The bends: The day I texted a suicide hotline from a philosophy conference

I am only half listening. It’s all too fast—for what I worry is too sick a mind. But something cues me back in. The speaker, David M. Peña-Guzmán, from San Francisco State University, is talking about the phenomenology of whales, but what catches my attention is when he mentions the bends. He explains that the bends are when a diver rises too quickly to the surface and all that displaced oxygen rushes into the lungs, into the body. It’s called the bends because it bends the diver over in pain. 

Nothing heaves the body over like pain, like sorrow. But then again nothing could ever hunch the body over like time. Come up too fast and what you’ve got is pain. Can there be pain without time? Or pleasure? Pain and pleasure are just different variations of our relationship and experience with time and time is out of joint as Hamlet says and as Hamlet knows. But his time was out of joint because he was, of course, haunted. He was acquainted with a ghost. As are we. As am I. 

I leave the auditorium—nursing a headache. It’s all too fast. One time I put all the animals outside so I could kill myself in peace. They just whined at the door. Refusing to let me be. I let them back inside. I wasn’t all that serious to begin with. Just a rough draft of a half-hearted dress rehearsal. As a writer, I subscribe to the rough draft. I buy into revising and revising and throwing it all out if need be and of course some critique. It is hard to say these things. And, even, should I? I don’t know. You can let your darker secrets out so quickly that contrasted with the million minutes in which those thoughts take residence in your body just putting it into words can give you the bends, both to you and your reader, your listener. The air hits the lungs and it bends you over in pain. To say a word is to involve air, air to push it, to receive it—sometimes it makes us sick. Try loving someone. Too slow / too fast. Bends. Love is always and ever a disproportion of speeds. Love is a bending. To love someone is to have already lost them, holding a space which will become, in time, an absence. Caught in between time, Hamlet’s ghost rises to greet you and crack your skull. Time disjoints you—bends you over in pain. Tomorrow your head will ache. 

Later that night at 3:57 a.m. I’m on the phone with a friend. We talk over each other a lot when we speak, the words picking up a pace like they are engaged in a foot race. It’s all rhythm and cadence and side stitches. We haven’t talked in a long time, and that cultivated slow space/pace of silence is sucker punched by the fast clip of our voices layering one over the other. We speak quickly enough to morph time, but only for a second, for what waits in the wings is all that suspended air to come rushing back into the lungs. 

We talk about E.T. (the movie), ghosts, and my argument that E.T. dressed as a ghost during the scene where the kids go trick-or-treating means that E.T. is actually more ghost than alien for he becomes a presence marked by an impending death—it is a quick moment pointing to a long death. “That sounds like bullshit,” is what I hear from the other end of the line, and it sure was. I laugh. They laugh. We carry on for a few more minutes and then get off the phone. Later on, I’ll get the bends. 

Now, at 5:23 a.m., jittered awake, I retool the argument for the paper I have to present in a handful of hours—to try to philosophically position the ghost as what drapes over the otherness of chaos within the self, the sheet of death draped over our not-quite-humanness. We are E.T., living lives as a faulty payment on the debt to time, awaiting a certain loss which welcomes us into mourning, carving us out into empty spaces which double us over in pain. 

This is the day I know I am done. The bends. I am bent. Bending. And bending you become animal. The way they say dogs sleep curled up with the back facing outwards in order to protect the most vulnerable parts of the body. It’s an act of trust to uncurl, to sleep stomach up, to expose the vital organs protected underneath nothing much but some skin, bones, bare trust. I curl around my chest, liver, kidneys. The bends bend you over. I text a suicide hotline. You can get anything via text these days. Better get used to it. Derrida teaches us this. He writes, “come to terms with the new speed of apparition (we understand this word in the ghostly sense) of the simulacrum”—or, basically, get with the program. So, I text, getting used to the speed of this ghost, this haunting of a speed which outpaces me and losing my breath, I fall far behind. How long have I been no longer living? 

To write about suffering is to become a ghost to it for to speak of it is to abandon it—to stutter it into words takes us out of the liquification of language that suffering enacts. Bent over we can hardly speak. Writing this, I inhabit an absent space where the presence of a heavy pain used to inhabit. Time is disjointed. I need some help and so, feebly ask for it. I text the suicide hotline and am aware that I become time’s great cosmic joke as it suspends me between speeds: too slow and too fast. My phone dings. The human on the other end of the machine responds so quickly. How long will this take I wonder? How long to heal? To feel better? To be able to uncurl? Too fast does it hit you and too slow does it take to get back up. 

Donna Haraway, that philosopher of the cyborg, writes that “our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves are frighteningly inert.” Yes. My phone vibrates with the alarming speed of the apparition. There is an aliveness I envy in the response coming to me from the other end. I sink into my chair in the back row of seats at this philosophy conference. I write these words, which are not good, but this does not matter, for as a matter of life or death one must, at times, just come up for air. Later on, I’ll get the bends—but for now, I rest my elbows on my knees. The text back reads, “Breathe. Take your time. These feelings might pass, they just might.” And they just might, they just might, they just might.

JACQUELINE VIOLA MOULTON is a writer, artist, PhD student studying philosophy and aesthetics.

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