Eric Cash is a comedian, writer, and, actor. He was 37 years old when I interviewed him in Portland, OR, on August 01, 2014.
I've never legitimately attempted in the classical sense, because I'm a tough guy. Instead of attempting, what tough guys do is the very genius thing of doing really reckless shit and daring the world to kill them.
Right after my wife, Hollie, died, I was fucking nuts. When I couldn’t cope, the only thing I could do was comedy. I would go out every night and do every open mic showcase, booked show, whatever—I would do four or five shows a night.
I used to drive a '67 Barracuda, and it was a pain in the ass. A friend of Hollie's lent me her car for a month. A 2009 Infinity. That’s a little race car. Who lends a man in severe mourning—who is already a danger to himself—a 2009 Infinity for a month? I don't know.
Somewhere at the end of that month, I was out doing my thing and going to shows. Two other comics were with me. I ran into them at one show and said, "Hey, I'm going to do this show and then this show. Do you guys want to come? I'll drive," so we did these other two shows, and then I did another show in San Francisco.
Everybody knew what had happened with me. It was a very public story. A lot of people were amazed at how much Hollie and I loved each other. It was real powerful, so they wanted me to tell them stories about Hollie.
Keep in mind, I could do comedy, but I couldn’t deal with being social. Basically, I was just chewing Hollie's Ativan and drinking to get through the night. They started buying me shots of Jameson, I chewed more Ativan, and I told them a bunch of stories. Of course, I was weeping because I was telling these stories. It was really rough. [By the time we were finally ready to go], I’d probably had about seventeen cocktails and eleven Ativan.
I get in the car to drive them home. They both passed out, so I did my thing. I’m a really good driver. My dad used to race cars. He got sent to Vietnam for stealing cars, and he's a mechanic, so being insane with an automobile is a little bit in my blood. I started pushing it really hard. I turned up some really loud thrash metal, and got real dark for a minute, just daring the world to kill me. Tears running down my face, angry, confused, insane, gunning the engine on this thing.
I drop into what I didn’t realize was an S-curve, probably about at 85, and then I did the race car shit and accelerated through the curve because it flattens the car out. I must have hit the second part of the curve probably at 90 or 95. I lost control of the car because I hit the second curve too fast. The car slid sideways, the tires caught, and it jerked forward, slammed the Jersey barrier, and blew the airbags. I regained control of the car, pulled it over, got out, and [decided], "Oh, we can limp it home."
I get back in the car, and one of my passengers—who is now awake because we got in a pretty bad accident—starts having a panic attack. I say, "Well, fuck, let's find somewhere to pull over so you can breathe," but I couldn’t navigate to save my fucking life because I was shit-faced. I couldn't figure out how to get off this weird road, and when I finally found a spot, it was right underneath the Golden Gate Bridge. Park police came immediately to ask what was going on, saw the blown airbags, immediately yanked me out of the car…
I nailed every field sobriety test they gave me. They searched me, found a bottle of Ativan that wasn't mine, and they're like, "Where did this come from?"
"Uh... it was my wife's."
"Where's your wife?"
"Why is it in your pocket?"
The quickest lie I could come up with was, "Because all the way throughout hospice care, I was medicating her. I would just jam things in my pocket, and I haven't done laundry since she died."
"When did she die?"
"Twenty-three days ago."
They thought I was lying. They went back to ask my friends, who said, "No, he watched his wife die twenty-three days ago—that's legitimate."
They come back, but they don't know how to deal with me because I'm obviously a problem. They pull out the breathalyzer, and I immediately say, "I don't feel comfortable blowing into that thing. I'm going to demand a blood test," which every drunk will tell you is what you should do when they pull out a breathalyzer. What I didn't think of was that, in order to do the blood test, they had to take me to the hospital.
In San Francisco, at both UCSF and SF General, I can walk into a room and tell you how many tiles are on the ceiling because I've been in those hospitals so much with her. I'm realizing this as I'm in the back of the squad car and they pull into the parking lot of SF General. My brain starts going, "No, no, no, no, no." I'm trying to hold it together, but I'm fucking three sheets to the wind. I'm completely loaded. I'm really upset. I know that I'm going to jail. I know I'm getting a DUI. I know that I nearly killed my friends just now... and myself.
The [California Highway Patrol officer] takes me, cuffed, into the waiting room, and he immediately tries to make me sit in this cluster of three chairs that fills a corner of a waiting room. I sat with Hollie in those same three chairs for about six hours one time, when some fuck up happened with a blood thinner for a blood clot in her arm. We thought she was going to have to stay the night in the hospital, and it was a day that I just freaked out. There was no fucking way I was sitting in those chairs.
I say, "I'm not sitting in those fucking chairs."
He says, "Sit down."
I say, "Fuck you.” This was one of my more shining moments.
I pull my arm out of his grip. I run up to the front desk, look up at the lady, and say, "You put me in a gurney in that fucking hallway right now."
She says, "Sir."
I say, "Don't fucking argue with me. I know how it works."
She says, "Sir, if we need the room—"
I say, "I know how it works—I have lived and breathed this fucking hospital, and I am not sitting out here. You put me on a fucking gurney right now."
At that point, the CHP who had gotten back to me grabs a hold of me, and I jump up in the air, kick off of the counter, shouting, "My wife is dead! My wife is dead!" Jumping up and down like a little kid screaming, "My wife is dead!" over and over and over again as they finally dragged me into the hallway and sat me down. Like I said, it was probably one of my more shining moments. I've lost my shit many times in life, but that was definitely six alarms. They sat me down, and I sat there fuming.
Once you're in a situation like that… my reaction, at least, is that I'm already fucked, so now I hate everything. You know what I mean? That's my instinctual contrarian fucking childish nature. The CHP is just pissed at having to deal with me. He knows that the story is true. I can see in his face that he wants to be an asshole cop to me, but he can't completely be an asshole cop to me because he's caught on to the fact that I'm smart, and I am legitimately going through some shit that he cannot fucking solve, so he can't be a total asshole cop, but he still is being an asshole cop.
The confusion on his face was really funny. He made a mistake in referring to the fact that I chose the blood test. He was trying to be a smart ass. The whole thing with the blood test is that it takes them awhile to be able to do it, so your body can process the alcohol. He says, "Well, you got time on your side."
I look at him and say, "You just sat me down in the hospital where I spent weeks with my dead wife. I have anything but time on my side. Me and time do not fucking get along."
He just looked down at his feet and didn't say another word.
Des: Tell me about Hollie.
Eric: I met Hollie on January 1, 2012. I was living in LA and she was living in San Francisco at the time. We'd both known of each other for years, but we finally met that day. Hollie was my soulmate, but I didn't realize it at the time. I was being really cagey. I wouldn't let her call me her boyfriend for the first two or three months. Slowly, over time, we would see each other almost every weekend.
She already had cancer at the time. I didn't know much about the intricacies of cancer. She had already had the mastectomy. The way she said it to me was like, "Oh, they're just mopping up the rest of it now." I didn't know what metastasis was. I didn't know that, once you metastasize, you're fucking gone. I learned those things real fast.
I think, in March, I realized I was in love with her. I told her I loved her for the first time. The next day, I got a text message that said, "They found cancer in my other breast."
I wound up moving up to San Francisco, moving her out of her place and into my friend's place. I ended up becoming her full-time caretaker. Her cancer spiraled out of control. There's a lot more to the story—it went nuts. I married her in the hospital on June 10th. I took her home to our new apartment about eight days later. By that point, she was mostly not lucid anymore, but she would have lucid moments. I married her again on June 21st in hospice. On July 3rd, she died holding my hand.
I've been suicidal my whole life. The first time I tried was when I was eight. I tried to jump out of a tree that was about a hundred and fifty feet tall, but eight year olds don't know much about physics. Turns out when you try to jump out of a tree that's a hundred and fifty feet tall, you hit every branch on the way down, and then go thud at the end. Basically, you're just really dirty, bruised up, and still a depressed eight year old…
I've lived with this for a long time, and there's two different kinds of suicidal feelings. One is the cry-for-help kind… you don’t know how to communicate it, so you attempt to take yourself out because you need something and you don’t know what the fuck it is. Then there’s the kind where you legitimately just want to go.
From my experiences in life, I feel that my suicidal feelings previous to everything that went down with Hollie were the cry-for-help kind. I knew that, and I was a hard ass on myself, so that’s why I would never go through on an attempt. I knew I was just freaking the fuck out, and I just needed to figure out what the hell I needed.
I started to get the other sorts of suicidal feelings right before I met Hollie. I think that’s one of the reasons why that whole situation fucked me up really bad. All of a sudden, I had something to live for.
I was getting to the point where I was like, “I’m tired. I’ve done so much in life. I’m not well-known. I’m not a draw, and I’m still struggling to survive. I’m just tired. I’ve done enough. I want to go. I’m done.”
Then I met Hollie, and I totally had something to live for. Afterward, I went through those feelings. I intended to die with her. When [we first started hanging out], a friend said, "Okay, Eric, I have to say this: if this goes the way we all don't want it to go," meaning Hollie’s cancer killing her, "what are you going to do?"
"I'm going to go with her," I said. “It's my choice. I get to go if I want. I've never loved anyone the way that I love her. She's amazing, and if she's gone, I don't want to be here. It may sound trite to you, but it sounds totally within my right.”
I had [a plan for how I was going to die] with her. When she was in hospice... she wouldn't let me. I told her we could just go. We could just leave and not have to deal with doctors and pain and bullshit anymore. She said no. She wouldn't let me die.
Des: Do you talk about this stuff during your sets at all?
Eric: A little bit. I don't really go into it, because it would require me telling the whole story, which would not be funny. I talk a lot about my mental state, but even in a sixty minute set, I don't have the time to go, "Hey, I know you all came to a comedy show, but let me tell you this brutal shit that fucking happened to me, which is why [these other things happened]."
It's tough. Hollie and I were both funny people, so there was a bunch of darkly hilarious shit during that time. We were both already gallows humor people, and then we were standing on the gallows. We were dealing with it, so we would crack jokes. They were some of the darkest jokes you'd ever hear, and they were really funny.
The day that she died, she died in the morning. I heard her breath hitching. I wasn't sleeping in the bed with her. I'd sleep in the living room because she was just in too much pain. I went in and I held her hand.
Our friend was there. She’s a 6’1” trans porn star, and she was amazing. The first few days she was helping me in hospice, I didn't realize it, but she was literally sleeping in the hallway in a squatted position. I kept going to sleep and waking up, thinking she was running off to her hotel and coming back. Then I realized, at one point, that she would just go in the hallway, crash out for an hour, come to, and then help me more. She was incredible in hospice. She was there [when Hollie died], too.
Hollie was kind of [making gasping noises], and eventually, she just stopped. It took a minute to register if that was the last breath, so I looked up at our friend and said, "I think that's it." She tried, like you see in the movies, to do the ultra-respectful closing of the eyes thing. She goes to do it, but it doesn't work. She [tries again], and it doesn't work. She goes to do it again and I say, "She sleeps with her eyes open. It's not going to happen.”
Right then, Hollie’s [medication pump] goes, "Beep, beep, beep... sssst," and injects her with more Dilaudid. Later, I very solemnly told our other caretaker that, and she replied, "She died doing what she loved: drugs.”
It is a bummer for me that I can't tell some of those stories on stage. I think it's really funny, but it would take so much. I'll do a one-man show about it at some point, or something where I feel like it's okay to go really dark, really sad, and still crack jokes.
In comedy, you feel like you need to be [snappy], you know? It's too much. My act is pretty dark, but I still have to keep the laughs up.
Des: Do you address suicide at all in the sets?
Eric: I have, but I don't really approach it. My act is a lot like how I talk. I start on a subject, and it winds up going somewhere else, and the audience has no idea how it got there. I mention that I'm a widower, but I say it in the middle of something else. I do this joke about how my girlfriend right now is twenty-two and it's tripping me out. There are all these things about how much younger than me she is, and I say, "Fuck you, don't judge me. I'm a thirty-seven year old widower. I get to spend my nights with whoever keeps me from chewing a shotgun the next fucking day," but that's as much as I say about it.
Des: Why did you decide to tell your story?
Eric: I've always been really public about everything that I go through. I'm an art-as-lifer. When I went through therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder in 2009, the only way I could process it was by constantly blogging about it. I've been a performer for a long time, but I've never done anything directly approaching that weird, awkward, freaky shit that is going on in all of our brains all the time.
Aside from being a comic, I was a street performer for ten years, too. My street show is really dirty and aggressive. Mostly, I yell at people. I eat fire and I walk on broken glass, but it's ninety minutes of me yelling at people. It's really funny and dark. People go to the places where the street performers work, and usually they expect to see a very kid-friendly juggler or something.
I didn't realize it until I started blogging about my therapy, but I had this core group of fans who were basically tortured teens—because who's going to like my show? Oh, well... the seventeen year old kid who listens to Marilyn Manson and hates his fucking parents, who is also suicidal. It made sense as soon as I started getting these letters, I just didn't realize it until then. I got emails that were like, "Hey, I'm really thankful that you're writing these things. My parents tried to get me to go through therapy… I'm going through shit, you're going through shit, but when I saw you, you were so strong, and you're able to share that sometimes people are weak..."
It was the first time I felt like, artistically, I had done anything that helped anybody. I'm a comedian. It's a pretty narcissistic art form. You don't usually feel like you're helping anyone. Ever since then, I've always been really public about whatever the fuck I’m going through.
I was really public about my relationship with Hollie. I was very public about losing my fucking mind afterward. Even though those are things that scare me to say publicly, people would consistently come back and say, "Oh, I read this and it really helped me because I'm going through this."
I figure if I'm going to have this hard, fucked up life, I may as well utilize it to help other people.
Des: Talk about the comedy scene. Why are comics so “fucked up?”
Eric: Honestly, that's a question I get sick of. You ever notice that scientific groups are obsessed with us?
Eric: Google the words "study comedians." Every fucking four months, there is some article that's like, "New scientific study says that comedians are more this than…" They're always saying that, and we're all really fucking different. It really annoys me. I swear to god, scientists are obsessed with us.
Des: Interesting. Now I'll pay attention, for sure.
Eric: I don't think most comics are that fucked up. I want them to be more fucked up. Most of the comedians look at my life and say, "I don't even know where to start." There are so many people in comedy, and they’re into it for different reasons.
There are a fair amount of people who are in comedy for narcissistic reasons, because somebody told them they were funny and when they decided to try it, they were good enough at it that they kept doing it. Like, I'm a pretentious artist to the fucking core, but I don't think most comedians are like me. I meet other comedians who are like me—really fucking committed—who think of themselves as artists. There are plenty of comedians who think of themselves as businessmen, which is the dumbest thing that I've ever heard. If you want to go into business, sell real estate. If you think you're going to get rich doing comedy, you're a fucking idiot.
Des: You mentioned to me a private Facebook group you are a part of. Without saying too much, what is it about?
Eric: [Someone in town broke up with his girlfriend and went into a really dark place. A few of us went and watched him for a little while on suicide watch, and then, immediately, one of the others started a secret Facebook group that's just a support group for all of us. He actually ended up using something I said as the blurb for it. I said something about like, "I save space where you can shout into the darkness, scratch at the walls, or pull your fucking eyes out without judgment." That's basically what it is.
In that group, it's very strict. A new person doesn't get added unless the majority agree. There are definitely people there who normally don't get along, but we always keep that to, "In here, you still get a fucking hug from me. You still get a, “Good job.” Whatever personal differences we have, it's a safe space.” I think it's really, really cool. I've utilized it a lot. I know that other people have utilized it a lot. Some people find it to be too much and then quit it. People go in there and say, "I hate my boss." People go in there and say, "I'm going to kill myself right now." It's everything in between.]
Des: Why is it helpful?
Eric: I think that people need to know that those feelings are normal. Before you wind up talking about anything, I think most of us think we're completely insane. We're all dumb enough to think that no one else feels that way. Then you realize that everybody feels that way all the fucking time, and that makes it better. When you look around and realize every face wandering by you who looks like they have their shit together is also screaming on the inside, then you realize it doesn't feel good to be like this, but it is okay to be like this. I think we have a really inherent problem in our society. This is actually stuff that I do broach on stage.
After the Hollie thing, I went to a level of crazy that was unmanageable. I've thought about this a lot—what we are lacking in our society. I went crazy enough that reality came apart. There was a section of time where I felt like a character in a Phillip K. Dick novel, like I had downloaded Hollie into my brain, but she didn't fit. My head hurt all the time. I didn't know how I felt about things. Not even on drugs, but sometimes on drugs, I would time-travel.
I went through experiences on a daily basis. Shit like this would happen: I was walking with a friend who was also a lover, and we walked to the store for cigarettes and back. On that walk, I was talking to her while we were walking down Hawthorne, but we were also walking over a bridge in France a hundred and twenty years ago. There was a war happening. We were in fourteen different places at once. During the conversation, it totally seemed like she could see it too, but she didn't know she could see it. I lived in this weird, fucked-up, psychedelic reality for a really long time. I saw what fully going insane was like.
To this day, I still think there is a reality to all those experiences. In the society we have, there is nobody to talk to about that unless you buy into this Christian shit. That's the only place where spirituality is allowed—or that anybody knows anything.
When we used to live in tribes, we had the “medicine man” or the “witch lady” or whatever, who fulfilled a variety of different things. It didn’t sound crazy when you came apart and started fucking time traveling and realizing that the closest people to you in your life—you may have known them for thousands of years—and you're playing some weird interstellar fucking tag with them. You went and talked to this person, and they were like, "Yeah, this is what's going on."
We don't have that now. We have a good grip on a scientific methodology, but there's no okay space in our society to say, "What's all this other shit mean? Even if you can't tell me what it fucking means, just tell me that you fucking see it, too. Am I crazy? Are you crazy? Which one of us is fucking crazy? Also, which one of us is bleeding? What's happening here?"
That is something I talk about on stage. I honestly feel like we used to have that space, and [now] we live in this capitalist economy that defines everything. You're supposed to go to your stupid fucking job, pull your stupid fucking lever, and make your stupid fucking money to pay for your stupid fucking house because these things all mean something. That is [a sliver] of what your brain is occupying all the time, and the rest of this shit makes no sense because we don't have a space for it.
Humans are fucking incredible; our minds do amazing things. They must do it for some reason. I think all of us know that deep down, but the only thing we see in this society is to go make some money for somebody else who doesn't work. It makes no sense. Of course, people fucking have anxiety attacks because we live in a fucking absurdist play and we're the butt of every joke. It's something that I think about all the time. I don't know why we're not rising up and saying, "This is fucked. This is not working."
I used to do a bit about the devil in the term "sanity." People use “sane” as if it is a quantifiable thing and a static state, but there is no such thing as sanity. Sanity is a language, and that's it. It's a very limited one. Sanity is [composed of] the things that we can agree on and express, and that's it. I used to say that sanity is “base." You aren't sane. Sanity is just something you tap on every once in a while, and yell, "Base!" When you get too far away from it, where there's no explanation for all this other shit that's out here, you run back and yell, "Base!" At the same time, we have this society that thinks that everyone is sane, you're supposed to be sane, and that's what you should do. Don't stray too far away from that fucking thing because that's when we all start to get nervous.
Des: If you were to talk directly to someone who was looking at your portrait and reading your story, what would you want to say to them about suicide?
Eric: For somebody that's been suicidal my entire life, I don't think that I'll ever do it. I have way too much will to live even when I think I don't. What’s the word I’m looking for?
Eric: Survival instinct.
Like I said, there are two forms of suicidal thoughts: the cry-for-help form, and legitimately just being done. When that stuff comes along, I ask myself, "What am I feeling?"
If it's the first kind, then the goal is, "Well, you need something and you don't know what it is or how to ask for it. Sit down and figure out what it is, so you can figure out how to ask for it."
If it's the second kind, the legitimately wanting to go kind, I say, "Alright, go to sleep and see if you feel that way in the morning." Then, since I can't think in the morning, that keeps me alive because it's the last thing I think of. I wake up in the morning, and I just say, "Where the fuck is the coffee?"
If you're hurting, afraid, or need someone to talk to, please reach out to one of the resources below. Someone will reach back. Please stay. You are so deeply valued, so incomprehensibly loved—even when you can't feel it—and you are worth your life.
You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860 (U.S.) or 877-330-6366 (Canada), or The Trevor Project at 866-488-7386. If you don't like talking on the phone, you can reach Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, or check out Lifeline Crisis Chat. If you’d like to talk to a peer, warmline.org contains links to warmlines in every state. If you're not in the U.S., click here for a link to crisis centers around the world.
Thanks to Jana Christian for providing the transcription to Eric's interview, and to Sara Wilcox for editing.
Live Through This is made possible in part by donations from incredible humans like you. If the project moves you and you have even a single dollar to spare, please consider donating. Every dollar donated goes straight back into the project. These funds allow for gear, web real estate and hosting, travel associated with the project, professional fees, conference attendance, and more. If you would like to make a one-time or monthly donation, please click here.