I’m a drummer, a sailor, and a sufferer of eczema. I’m a boxer for the duration of a cross-Canada flight sitting beside a pleasant older woman who started the conversation with a story about the playground scraps her grandchildren had been having. I discuss my failed attempts at culinary excellence and the dangers of dull knives with a student after he questions my hands following a handshake. In a bar in downtown Vancouver, I tell a table of punks about the call of the void I experienced when staring down a cliff face, held by a single rope, and admit that all I wanted to do was succumb to the yearning and jump, but I can’t accept the plunge. I never let go.
I was lying to each of them.
I’m not a boxer or a sailor. I order takeout multiple times a week. I can’t keep a beat on time, and I’ve never climbed a mountain. People who first meet me assume there must be a logical reason that the knuckles and tips of my fingers are perpetually wrapped in bandages, and I don’t want to let them down with the truth, so I’ve spent hours of my time researching nearby climbing spots and different nautical knots to avoid telling them I chew deliberately on my skin until I feel the unmistakable taste of wet tin.
Yes, I’ve tried putting hot sauce on my fingers. Please stop recommending that.
A lot of people don’t like talking about the feeling. It’s easy enough to dismiss, to rationalize a reason for why, when driving down the highway, our hand gently steers in the direction of oncoming traffic, or when, if only for a second, nothing felt more imperative, more vital, than to step from the roof and plummet to the ground. You know the sensation: the call of the void.
I have a recurring dream where I pick at my skin until I tear a hole only to find that inside my body is nothing but empty space. That I’m hollow.
The first two therapists I saw told me that chewing my hands is a nervous habit and informed me I’m a nervous wreck. No matter how much I countered that I’m not a nervous person. I see where they’re coming from. If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, and chews its feathers at all hours of the day then, well, it must be one anxious duck.
The thing is: I know how anxiety feels, and I don’t feel a bundle of nerves in my stomach, vibrating in anticipation of something negative. It’s more like an ever-expanding balloon in the center of my chest. I can feel it filling, pushing my heart and lungs to the periphery of my body, until I’m about to burst like a low-rent remake of Alien. When I chew my fingers, the balloon shrinks, but it never ceases. It’s not that I’m worried something bad will happen; it’s more like I want something negative to happen. It’s more akin to a compulsion, a need to destroy myself to keep from exploding.
The call of the void is believed to be a miscommunication somewhere in your brain that creates a sudden, strong urge to do something incredibly stupid, oftentimes deadly, before realizing you shouldn’t, and that death is bad. It may be nothing more than a minor blip in an otherwise safe situation, an aberration, an intrusive thought that can easily be swatted away. Yet, the pull into the maw seems so real, so attractive, that I wonder if it’s more than loose wiring taking a second longer than normal to process.
I lie to therapists a lot. I know I shouldn’t—therapy is healthy—but I still find myself leading them down certain, often wholly fabricated paths. It’s as if I have an image of good health as being the ability to convince someone I’m in it. I’m always worried I’m going to look deep inside myself only to discover that I hate introspection, so I figure maybe if I say the right words in the proper tone with thoughtfully placed pauses, I’ll impress my therapist enough they’ll give me an A in therapy, allowing me to graduate to a proper, unfussy state of mental health.
My therapist and I spoke mostly about the weather. Whether it would rain or whether it would snow in the coming weeks as late autumn gave way to early winter. I don’t think we thought much of each other when we were apart. A few months after our last appointment he sent me a Christmas card, inside of which he misspelled my name.
Sometimes, I stare down from my office window and wait for the call of the void to pass. Often, the urge to jump never fades. I wait until I’m left feeling numb, like I’m wearing static.
There’s something uniquely and frustratingly human about the desire to self-sabotage. Other animals will fight each moment for the next moment of life, except some of us choose to stop struggling. Perhaps it’s about control. There’s an element of dictating my own future if I steer my vehicle into a brick wall that doesn’t exist if I’m blindsided by a tractor trailer. The destination is the same, but one is my collapse and the other is the world collapsing upon me.
Once, when I was a kid, I was sitting in the dark after my dad had struck me in the eye during one of his moods. It was a glancing blow, barely enough to bruise a child. When I was sure everyone was asleep, I started punching myself in the same eye with my tiny fist to deepen the bruise. It was difficult at first, but I held a stuffed animal between my teeth and kept swinging at myself until my eye was swollen shut and my fist was covered in tears. It was my choice to be bruised.
I don’t know why I told you that.
It has been speculated that the call of the void is the mind’s way of appreciating life. It has some reasoning behind it: we appreciate sunshine because we understand rain. Thus, we value life because we momentarily contemplated death. An internal desire to live surpassed an overwhelming urge to leap to our death and the call of the void is a check that, yep, I still want to be here.
One evening, I scribbled some words on a piece of paper before exiting my Vancouver apartment and walking down the hill to the ocean. I spent some time on the beach staring at the waves, wondering what happens to a wave after it breaks on the shore. Is it gone?
Then, I headed by foot through the Eastside until I ended up at a Scotiabank on Commercial Drive where, through a combination of debit and credit cards, I took out all the money I could access—a slight bit shy of two grand—and began distributing it to the people living on the street. When I ran out of people, I walked until I arrived at a bridge where I threw the remaining bills, no idea the amount, into the ocean. I watched the money float briefly until I couldn’t make out any individual item in the darkness, could barely distinguish the night sky from the mirror like water.
I imagined myself sinking into the ocean, somehow able to breathe below the surface, until I sank so deep the pressure began to crush my body, and the lights of the city and the stars were no longer able to pierce the watery depths. Then, for some reason unknown to me, I didn’t jump.
I don’t remember how I got home that night. But back in my apartment I found the torn loose-leaf sheet with the scrawl I wrote sitting atop a stack of books on my bedside table. Ten words was all I felt necessary to leave behind. I was so embarrassed by what I wrote that I told people I didn’t write a note to avoid anyone asking what it said.
If it feels bad to fail, it feels even worse to succeed. That’s at the root of one theory on why we feel compelled to demolish ourselves. Whether it be through fear of the unknown or a familiarity with the devil we know, we deem ourselves undeserving of success or happiness. Whether it be our beautiful bodies or otherwise, there’s something human about destruction. Look around.
I start seeing a new therapist. I tell them about my hands and about bridges and about how it takes months to heal, but one mistake can undo all the progress, so moving forward feels less like momentum and more like a denial of the inevitable. If it’s going to happen eventually, what’s really the difference between today and tomorrow?
What’s a calm mean to a coming storm?
From my spot halfway across the Burrard Bridge, I again imagine the current of the ocean. It’s been nearly two years since I last took in this view. There are nets below the railings to catch people, perhaps those who answered the call. The balloon inside my chest expands. In my mind, I trace a path through the water of where my body would eventually wash ashore if I happened to break through the thin sheet of ice blanketing the river. I gnash at a bandage on my thumb and resolve to make another therapy appointment after the Christmas season is over and a new decade begins.
Even in my memory, the scene of me writing the note seems like I’m watching the actions of another man, a different hand. But the bandages are there, both past and present, to remind me that I am now because I was once.
Ultimately, no one is sure what causes some people to feel the call of the void, or the impetus to self-sabotage. While there isn’t a set reason why we’re compelled to plummet, the scientific assessment seems to say that, though it’s daunting, there’s no reason to be afraid. If you ignore the call, you’ll carry on another day, then another, again. Even if you know, in that moment, that you must jump, wait and it’ll pass. That’s what they say.
Sometimes, after gatherings have ceased and I’m away from other people, it hits me that I’m alone with the person who tried to kill me.
Could ten words summarize your thoughts on life? Could they comprise mine?
I bet you thought there would be more. Me too.
Tyler Hein is a writer from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He received an MFA in creative writing from the University of British Columbia. He was shortlisted for the RBC/PEN Canada Best New Voices award in 2018. His debut novel, The End of the World, is set for release in 2023.