Suicide, or that which wishes not to be named, is a beast beyond most people’s comprehension. They see it as an abstract, something that naturally runs contrary to the instincts of survival. But it’s actually like a sleeper agent, placed in your brain long ago by things beyond your control. And after years of confidence and not being able to connect to it at all it can suddenly come online. It’s not just the usual triggers that do so—depression, anxiety, fear, addiction, inescapable guilt—it can be the strangest and oddest things, too, which can just put you off-kilter when it rears its ugly head. But the most terrifying part of suicide is how it suddenly goes from being something unthinkable to the easiest thing in the world. For it is the simplest, most elegant solution to a problem that is beyond solving any other way. It feels downright obvious.
And so, your life suddenly becomes about managing this constant, evergreen impulse. I cannot explain what it means to go through 60 percent of a given day fighting the very thought, but it is one of the most tiring, all-consuming things a human being can do. And please know, it does not matter what success, what joy, and what beauty you can leave behind when you take your own life. For I have, by all accounts, “made it,” in the way that many dream of and also imagine will solve their problems. But the cruel irony is that in truly grasping hold of all those lovely things, they will only serve to show you that the suicidal and depressive impulses are still there.
And they will always be there. That is, until you can somehow, someway, beat back the tides of original programming that go so far back that you do not genuinely know a life outside of them. You only know that you’ve been constantly running from them, and in denial about that fact.
“The deal with so many chronic illnesses,” Khakpour writes, “is that most people won’t want to believe you. They will tell you that you look great, that it might be in your head only, that it is likely stress, that everything will be okay.”
I know people say these things because they want them to be true (you seem better) or to sound encouraging (you’ve accomplished so much despite being sick), but it makes me feel like they don’t believe how bad it is. Which makes me distrust myself — just like the many doctor appointments, where people I was supposed to trust told me I was depressed, told me I just needed to toughen up, when what I really needed was antibiotics.
Native nations are wholly absent from Irwin’s serpentine tale, as they are from McCrumb’s. But this isn’t mere happenstance. They must be for these narratives of white dispossession to make logical sense and possess moral force. If anything, the dispossession of Native nations is rendered a ‘tragic’ aspect of the past (see Seminole historian Susan Miller’s critique of this discourse) without political recourse, as a mere ‘preface’ to white dispossession which is conveniently seen as having political recourse, or simply one link in a chain of regional dispossessions, as I’ve heard multiple contemporary, and supposedly intersectional, Appalachian studies scholars say. Yet in all of these cases, what is centered is the ‘dispossession’ of regional whites by coal or timber companies, and what is imagined as the political now is a populist expansion of land ownership among ‘Appalachians,’ or ‘the people here now,’ or other turns of phrase which all mean, when it comes down to it, mainly white people. For these folks, the re-occupation of Native land – for example, swapping coal companies for ‘Appalachians’ – is portrayed as liberation. Environmental organizations, of which there are quite a few here, simply do not work for Native land return. (I think, too, of the many regional activists and academics who will, if you ask them but not before, claim to support ‘decolonization’ but who turn out to do no actual work towards this goal, their solidarity existing somewhere in their skull but nowhere else.) Decolonization, the repatriation of Native land, life, and sovereignty, is called in turns unrealistic, impractical, or even impossible. Of course, that’s what settlers everywhere have always said.
When large-scale infrastructure projects like Oroville work, they symbolize a vital contract between citizen and state; when they break down, they point to that contract’s collapse. Just a few months after Donald Trump’s promise to “make America great again” carried him to victory, the crumbling dam came to stand for America itself.
My family grew up experiencing those fluctuations, as well as the delicate balance between civil infrastructure and survival, as an inevitable part of life. The mass scale of the evacuation and magnitude of the weather extremes made a spectacle of the Oroville crisis, even in a state where rain regularly brings disastrous floods and mudslides that destroy homes and block highways. However, the pitch of the political response to this infrastructural crisis, unlike the usual media coverage around rain-related or earthquake-related disasters in California, was like nothing I had ever seen.
At Oroville, as in Beirut, infrastructural failure did not lead to predictable political discourse. Instead, Oroville’s vulnerability and spillway collapse opened larger questions about what counts as the public good, particularly as weather events grow more extreme in the context of climate change. Representatives from opposite ends of the political spectrum shouted about spending, funding allocations, and taxation, openly debating political questions: Who should be served? What should the state do? And why? When infrastructure appears to deviate from what it is supposed to do, realignments can happen and new politics emerge.