Eric Ogden Donald Antrim at home in Brooklyn, New York, Sept. 29, 2021.
With a pair of successful novels already out in the world, Donald Antrim was named by The New Yorker in 1999 as one of the 20 best writers under age 40. Seven years later, it seemed that all he could write were suicide notes.
"I wrote them all winter long," Antrim, now 63, writes in his latest memoir One Friday in April, describing how, in early 2006, he would sit with a notepad on a tarp covering the living room floor of his Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment: "The notes were apologies. Sometimes I called friends and held them on the phone. I was fine, I told them. ... But then I was up, startled, pacing, shaking, scared, awake without having slept, worried about my heart, spreading out the tarp, not wanting to leave a mess, and then sitting with pills, pad, pen, and a knife."
Antrim never used that knife to hurt himself. But, come April of that year, after an argument with his girlfriend, he found himself on the roof of his apartment building, pacing to the edge and dangerously dangling from the fire escape ladder as he wrestled with what felt to him like an overwhelming certainty that he had to die.
"I didn't want to die," he tells PEOPLE in an interview for the new issue on newsstands Friday. "I just felt that I had to die. One of the confusions that we have about suicide, is that the suicidal person wants to die. But, actually, we can spend months in that shape trying to live."
Trying to live. That's how Antrim hopes to reframe the struggle of people like himself who suffer from mental illness, often severe depression, that is marked by suicidal thoughts or compulsions.
In One Friday in April, an unflinching portrait of his psychosis, hospitalization and treatment after that day on his roof, Antrim aims not only to destigmatize mental illness but also to strip away the hushed-whispers surrounding suicide. "If we could demystify it some, not regard it as an enigma," he says, "we might do better with treatment and our attitude toward people who are in serious depression."
With raw and explicit candor, Antrim shares what suicidal illness feels like and looks like.
He writes that he experienced it as a disease of the body as well as the brain. His crisis in the spring of 2006 came with physical symptoms: a pounding heart, stomach pain, an itch deep in his temple, and a clenching in his neck that noticeably changed his voice. His friends could hear it in his phone calls that April Friday and so were already at his apartment when he returned from the roof. Although Antrim had long resisted hospitals, fearing that "doctors would drug and shock me," he let his friends take him to the emergency room.
Shortly after, he was admitted to the New York State Psychiatric Institute, where he was diagnosed with psychosis and prescribed electroconvulsive therapy. After four months in the hospital and five weeks of ECT, in which electricity is sent through the brain as a "reset" of its wiring, Antrim went home feeling "gratitude and something that seemed brand new in my life, a sense of calm and even happiness."
Today Antrim and his wife of four years, Marija Ilić, a classical pianist, share the same Brooklyn apartment where death once stalked him. Despite relapses — he's been back to the hospital for more ECT — he describes his suicidal illness as in remission and says he's now "able to accept love in a fuller way."
"We have a very even and gentle relationship, and that was something that I wasn't able to achieve in the past — I'm talking about relationship after relationship."
"I can't really solve suicide here, and I'm not trying to. I'm trying to suggest a model that is based on the idea that the suicide wants to live and not die ..."
Antrim is as hopeful about surviving suicidal illness as he is clear-eyed. "Treatment changed things. My story's not over yet. I may be very sick again. I can't really solve suicide here, and I'm not trying to. I'm trying to suggest a model that is based on the idea that the suicide wants to live and not die, and how that can give us a better insight into what might be going on over the course of a life."
He hopes that people who are struggling, and their loved ones and caretakers, may recognize something familiar — something lifesaving — in his own story. Antrim's message to that person is to hang on, to seek treatment even if it's frightening or feels doomed to fail.
"I want people who are very, very sick to get to the hospital," he says.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
For more of Antrim's story, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday.