Trigger warning: Discussion of suicide and self-harm ahead
My older sisters and I were each born with ten fingers and ten toes and above average intelligence. We were raised to be articulate and well-mannered with adults and instilled with an internal moral compass independent of church. We each spent different periods of our lives being utter nightmares. I was a mess as a kid, but a pretty easy teenager, Beth was an easy kid but an awful teenager, and Robyn was sort of a different story. She was the first of us to be detected as having psychiatric issues. Even as a little kid, there was something different about the far-off look in her eyes and the way in which she seemed to withdraw inward in social situations. Early on she would hum to herself and pace around with the occasional skip thrown into her step--my dad would later refer to this as her fairy dance--and once she could read, her face was constantly buried in books at inappropriate times. If given the chance, she would happily tell an adult all the facts she knew about lizards, but she couldn’t fit in with other kids. Her first diagnosis was ADD, then ADD and depression, then bipolar disorder, then schizoaffective disorder, then Asperger’s. ADD alone never quite explained how different she was. She didn’t have any friends until college, unless you count friends of Beth or me that included her in our activities.
Robyn was incredibly sheltered. First, she was taken out of the mainstream school system to a private school where the kids were allowed to learn what they wanted and sit under the tables. Then for high school she was shuttled through a half-day special program at a smaller public school than the one Beth and I attended. She passed her GED in ninth grade, but continued high school until the regular graduation date, even though she didn’t have the credits. She was never made to work for money or keep her room clean, and generally got what she wanted. She went to college nearby where my mom called professors on her behalf and helped her keep her assignments in order. Even through high school, Robyn was generally a sweet kid who didn’t cause much trouble. My mom dragged her everywhere with her since she didn’t like being alone and Robyn was a compliant companion. Starting in college, things started to change, though. She was finally meeting some people and growing up a bit, developing a belated rebellious streak. First she was just unusually mouthy and disagreeable with my parents. After she had a manic episode that sent her to the psych ward, she became more committed to her crazy. She became recalcitrant, self-centered, and at times downright rude.
It happened over the course of five years. After graduating college with an art degree, my mom allowed her to move into a small rental house that my parents owned. My mom had outlined vague conditions that she had to work or volunteer somewhere to live there, but Robyn didn’t comply and my mom didn’t press the issue. They filled her bank account with money for food and medication and that was it. Robyn slept all day and spent all night on the internet--message boards, blogs, her livejournal, whatever else she was up to. Her life went to sleep for five years.
I saw one of Robyn’s livejournal entries she’d forgotten to lock me out of: Sitting here, I look at that string of black beads hanging from my bedpost and all I can think is how I’d like to wrap those beads around my neck and squeeze until everything goes away.
I showed the entry to my mom, who she didn’t forget to lock out. My mom read it with a look of knowing concern. “She’s threatened to lie down in the middle of Mt. Vernon Road before,” she said. Then she printed the entry.
Somewhere along the way Robyn became angry. The damage surrounding the divorce had left her full of rage toward both of my parents, which she didn’t even try to hide. When I visited home she would glower at my mom or dad during meals. She was easily set off and would spit hatred at them from across the table. The divorce was how the anger started, but it wasn’t the only reason. She also became angry with my parents for failing to prepare her for work or life. For letting her sleep her life away for five years, for giving her everything she needed except the tools to do things for herself. It became more pronounced the more my family struggled financially. Robyn first moved in with my mom. Together they were toxic. Eventually she got in from the waiting list for public supported housing, where she continued to sleep and internet her days away and meet with a social worker once a week. She was powerless and angry, didn’t know how to change her situation. Days were for sleeping and nights were taken up by pills and the internet. I remember Beth once saying to me in a lowered voice, “If I were her--with the way she lives-- I wouldn’t want to be alive, either.”
Beth was a perfectionist and lived on praise. She kept her room orderly and symmetrical because she couldn’t stand asymmetry. Even in elementary school she took care of her appearance, learned how to style her hair herself as well as match her clothes and do her own laundry. She was the good child, and she demanded recognition for it. She didn’t get enough from my parents, who were busy dealing with her decidedly more challenging sisters. What she didn’t get from my parents she got from teachers and other peripheral adults, impressed with her perfect grades and charming behavior.
By middle school she already had growing insecurities. I was just two years younger and had been getting more recognition for my writing, which had been her area. Then her academics started to slip and her approval reserves were running dry. She turned most of her energies to being a sycophantic non-central member of the popular crowd, which caused her grades to drop even further. By high school she was fully in the grips of depression, lost the popular crowd and began failing classes. She was always sick and missing school. I don’t know how long she was active in her eating disorder, since it’s hard to tell when that begins and ends. I only know when we found out and she was getting treatment, around her senior year of high school.
It must have been before anyone knew about the eating disorder that she was prescribed wellbutrin. It’s generally never prescribed to those with histories of eating disorders because of the increased risk of seizure. One night she took too much “by accident”. She woke up in the middle of the night to a mouse staring at her from the corner of her room then running away. Then two more mice appeared on the carpet. Then, looking at the ceiling she saw it was covered in spiders that began to drop on her upturned face. She leapt out of bed and woke my mom, frantic, telling her about the mice and spiders in her room. My mom went downstairs with her but didn’t see anything. She asked Beth what she had taken.
It was much later that we found out that this overdose was no accident. The truth came out at some point during her treatment. Not only that truth, but that she had also been spending her time in her room drinking pilfered liquor alone and choking herself until she passed out.
But that night, Beth’s world had become a phantasmagoria of spiders and mice that clawed and bit, could be brushed away only to regenerate. At one point as she was lying down with her eyes open, and translucent, electrified mouse ghosts began floating up and over her, giving her tiny static shocks as they touched her skin and disappeared into the ceiling. My mom sat up with her for the rest of the night, assuring her that she was safe and the mice weren’t real. It wasn’t all bad. She had also seen the videos on the shelf doing a choreographed Latin dance.
Beth had wanted to go to school the next day because she’d already missed so many classes--“If I see a mouse, I just won’t say anything”--but my mom made her stay home. She eventually recovered and told Robyn and me the story, talked about the mouse ghosts and how ever since they touched her she was electrified. She held up her hand and asked me to hold mine to it without touching her. As she moved her hand toward mine, there was an energy between our skin that never touched, like two positively charged magnets pushing against each other.
Walking back to the dorm, I read the word “OK” at the top of my paper and I wanted to fuck myself up. It was the second semester of my freshman year of college. I was one of two first years in this small upper level class, and I was struggling to run with the pack. It wasn’t just this class. All year I’d been slipping. I’d worked hard to get into a selective school and was faced with a cohort where nearly everyone was incredibly gifted. I was disappearing into the scenery, I was becoming average. That “OK” was just the catalyst for what came next. I wasn’t trying to die, but wanted to be not me. Maybe have a break from reality for a bit, a foray into Beth’s world of tiny ghost mice.
I knew what an overdose was technically, but wondered about an overdose overdose. I searched on the internet, found various sites and message boards that asked, “Technically, what is an overdose?” and the response was always the same: “Are you okay?”
I saw Beth’s name on instant messenger and typed her the question: How many wellbutrin did you take when you overdosed?
Her answer was similar: Why? Are you okay?
Me: Yes, just wondering.
Her: Well, if you’re really okay, just for your information, I took fifteen.
I don’t know how much of my effexor I took. I took a few, waited, didn’t feel anything and took a few more. I just know that at some point, I started to search for the effects of effexor overdose. I found brain damage, coma, and death. I got scared.
My friend was with me when we were in health services with the EMTs. I had wanted to go to the emergency room, but the taxi wouldn’t take me for insurance reasons. The ambulance came to health services rather than my room for my privacy. They took my vitals, asked me questions. I calmly explained, like a sane person, how, silly me! I’d thought I’d forgotten my pills but when I counted them I realized I’d taken them twice, and it was just a day after I’d decided to increase my dosage because they weren’t working, and my mom had told me that it was acceptable to increase the dosage of your medication on your own. They discussed my vitals to each other for a while, determined I wasn’t a significant risk of seizure or coma and let me go.
Walking back to the dorms, my friend said, “I thought you’d actually tried to OD. I’d’ve been so pissed!”
She had heard my calm, rational lying to the authorities. “Yeah,” I laughed a little. Later, I was curled up on the bathroom floor, skin tingling, head swimming, my body beating against waves of something very wrong.
This wasn’t a plan. This was just me being self-destructive. I could still proudly raise my hand at family gatherings and announce that I’d never had a suicide plan. Then a long bout of unemployment in my mid-twenties happened and I’m not sure what I can say.
Every day I was staring at my own failure. Every day of an empty inbox felt like rejection. I continued the process of gradually knocking down my expectations and my belief in my abilities, lowering the threshold of what I would accept as a way to live with each job I was rejected from. I couldn’t be an administrative assistant at a nonprofit or social services agency, fine. Could I case manage women receiving government assistance? Could I “volunteer” for a $900 a month living allowance with a nonprofit or social services agency? Could I be a receptionist at a law firm? Could I be a receptionist at a dental office? Could I be a receptionist at a tire company? Could I work the front desk at a mid-range hotel? Could I work at a book store? Could I be a server anywhere? The answer to all of these, according to the applications and resumes I sent out, is no. I was less than all of these. Every person working the front desk anywhere was an infinitely more valuable and competent person than me. I spent my days stuck in my brain, stewing, regretting, and every now and then making dinner for Colin. I didn’t even think about how at one point an “OK” scrawled on the top of my paper had pushed me over the edge.
Then one night, lying in bed awake with Colin breathing softly beside me, the wave of hopelessness welled up inside me. It had been rolling quietly underneath my surface every day, and this time I rode it. I saw my life stretching in front of me, not just one, but any possible life that could occur from that point forward. One was filled with days and days of never finding a job, of giving up on becoming an effectual human, accepting being supported by others. Another saw me eventually getting a job, something mundane like being paid nine dollars an hour to do a repetitive task at a desk, and doing it for forty years. In another I got my teaching license and, after years of struggling to find a teaching position, became an unstable, disillusioned elementary school teacher leaking bitterness onto my students. I decided I wanted no part of this life, of any of these lives. I started to make plans.
I couldn’t inflict my death on Colin--he needed to move on, forget about me. I would become so terrible that he would leave me, I decided. Then I would live alone, in isolation until Colin and most others forgot about me, and I could die with less guilt. But what about the cat? He was curled up on my pillow at the time. I couldn’t live those weeks or months without my cat, but someone had to take him once I was gone. Who would find him in time? How could I arrange for someone to discover me quickly (discover the lone cat quickly) who wasn’t a friend or family member who would be forever scarred? I tried to work this out, but couldn’t. I drifted into sleep, wondering, “The cat, the cat, the cat...”
Besides the cat, I’m not entirely sure what stopped me at the time. It might have been getting accepted into graduate school, which gave me both affirmation, some sense of belonging and something to do. I was only okay with myself for one semester of grad school. The second semester, first year. I had gotten my grades back, was delighted with my A in statistics and some good feedback I’d gotten from my regression analyses, and thought maybe, maybe, this was me, maybe I was a policy person who could crunch a few numbers and be competent in economics. But I applied to so many internships to do over the summer, internships that I’m embarrassed I even considered now because I know I don’t have the quantitative chops. All my rejections brought me back down. And then the second year, my final year, I became frustrated and anxious, even angry. I began to think that policy school wasn’t me at all, and these people had just taken my money.
It was a fluke that after graduation that I got that internship in DC. I still can’t quite wrap my head around it, even though I ended up finding out it was less a skill-building internship than an illuminating experience on social capital. Then everything began to fall apart. I knew my internship wouldn’t turn into a job. I checked postings every day, and there were so many beyond my reach that didn’t even pay enough for me to rent a studio and eat. Plus Colin decided to dump me after nine years.
I’ve already talked about crossing streets and hopefully imagining being hit by cars. I took the metro a lot too.
There were a couple times when I was sitting in the metro station, waiting for the train home late at night. I noticed there were few people around, and thought about how it was an opportune time to leap in front of the train. The situation had come--I had become so terrible that Colin had left me. The cat was safe in Minneapolis. I could leave my bag on the platform and step off. They could identify me from my ID and inform my family. It would traumatize the driver and the few people waiting, but would save the people I love from having to discover me.
Therapists later would ask, “What stopped you?” I’d generally reply something like, “What am I, impulsive? Like I’d kill myself spontaneously without making a plan.”
We already had the metaphor of mental illness as cancer in our minds. The therapist had brought it up when I was voicing my anxieties about going back to work: “What if I can’t handle it, what if my thoughts take over again and I can’t function?” It was only a couple months after the train, and I was back in Minneapolis. I had been offered a job, of sorts. They didn’t know that I was crazy enough to go to day treatment.
The therapist replied, “What if you were trying to go back to work after cancer treatment and after a while discovered you needed another round of chemo?”
It all sounded reasonable. Our conditions were real and serious. We shouldn’t feel weak if we needed to step back for another “dose.”
Then a new woman came in. She was middle-aged, divorced a couple years ago, in an unhealthy relationship, mother of two reportedly successful twenty-something daughters. She had three suicide plans. That’s why her therapist recommended her to come. She was bipolar, and said at this point she was only staying alive for her mom. Her daughters? Better off without her, she said. She explained, if you see someone with terminal cancer, do you recommend they go through a series of painful treatments to string them along for another couple months, or do you medicate them up and let them go? “That’s how I feel. This is terminal, just let me go.”
All of us patients, with mental illness as cancer already implanted in our heads, nodded eagerly along with her. This is terminal, let us go. And that’s why a room of mentally ill people is not necessarily a helpful therapeutic environment.
I was talking to my mom about writers and stories. I referenced David Foster Wallace and she didn’t know who I was talking about. I tried to describe him: “He wrote Infinite Jest, he killed himself a few years ago...”
She interrupted me, almost disgusted. “That’s really... not nice.”
“What, killing yourself?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied. “It’s really rude to kill yourself.”
And that’s the way we have to see it in our family. Killing yourself is the height of rudeness. I think we had all independently decided at some point that we wouldn’t kill ourselves. For some logistical reason or another, we couldn’t. For me, I think it was when I thought of my sisters. I remember sitting side by side with Beth as we were at the table in my tiny apartment, chopping herbs and meats for dinner. We were sharing the most recent developments in the mental health saga of my family. I said, “Man, if anyone in our family kills themselves, I’m going to murder them. I’m going to haunt them from my grave.”
Beth nodded silently. I was talking about her as much as I was talking to her.
My dad periodically says, whenever my sisters or I talk about any mental health or medical difficulties, how he and my mom should have never had children. I’m not even bothered by the fact that I was an accident, but for some reason, this bothers me. He says it a lot, like he’d never said it before; your mom and I should have never had children.
There have been several points in which I felt like my life was hopeless, an utter disappointment, and I should just quit. Then I would think of Beth and Robyn. At those times, they had it so much worse than me. But would I want them to kill themselves? No. Of course not. If they told me, I would talk them out of it. I would tell them what beautiful, promising people they were, how the world needed them and I would mean it.
Sometimes I felt resentful of Beth and Robyn for being my reasons for not offing myself. I’d think, I have to suffer through forty more years of this shit, just because you’d be sad? But I always have to remind myself of what I would tell them. And think that maybe, if I could show myself a fraction of the compassion I would show for my sisters, friends, even a stranger, maybe I could forgive myself, maybe I could come up with a good reason to live.
The funny thing is, my family is the result of generations and generations of natural selection. We’re very smart, maybe even moral, we maybe even want to help the world, but we’re not so sure if we want to be alive. We fail the ultimate human test: the will to live.
It was late December, before Christmas in the year 2012. I was on the phone with my dad talking about travel arrangements for the holidays. It was the same year that idiots had been convinced of the Mayan Apocalypse, that the world would end on December 21st. As a sort of joking sign-off, he said, “Good thing the world didn’t end Friday.”
“Meh, whatever,” I responded.
He said, “Yeah, I guess I wouldn’t have minded the end so much myself.”