cw: suicidal ideation
It is the spring semester of your senior year. Sunlight warms the sidewalk, damp with dark patches of melted slush. You hook your thumbs into the straps of your backpack and walk to campus. You’re in the center of Standish Park, a square block of benches and lawn and magnolias in the center of your midwestern college town, when you stop.
You blink and look around as if someone has called your name. The trees tower above you, their blooms far over your head.
Something is wrong with you.
The realization withdraws but then, over the next few days, returns. You prepare for work at the café and tuck in your white button-down shirt and—Oh. Right. You snap your pants. Something is wrong with me. You begin to take notes in Modern Fiction and then again, in Victorian Literature, when your head and neck turn stiff and cold, as if enveloped by something; you squeeze the pencil too hard and stop writing. Oh. Right. You do not look up. Something is wrong with me. You brush your teeth in your apartment bathroom, a tiny windowless box off the hallway, and you are afraid to look in the mirror.
You spit and rinse, wipe your mouth, and decide to smile at yourself. Maybe this will help.
Your hair is frizzy and your face seems to churn, as if creatures are moving beneath your skin.
Your roommate, Clarice, is rarely home. All you hear is quiet.
This has to be a recurrence of your depression, which you were diagnosed with when you were sixteen. A low sadness, a chasm of lethargy that makes you think you should die. You saw a buoyant psychiatrist who prescribed Elavil and then Prozac, and then a therapist who grew impatient and said you were codependent and sick. You left your home in Iowa to start college and get away from your mother, started drinking, became much happier, and decided you needed therapy only sometimes and medication not at all. Medication eased that intrusive desire to kill yourself, but it made you feel defective and left your mouth pasty and your bowels hard. All through high school, you drank spoonfuls of Metamucil stirred into water, the texture like flecks of hay washing down your throat. A jar of it always on the counter, reminding you.
Your mother has depression. She has always had depression, and you have always despised her for never overcoming it. Your fury feels ancient, a beast that grows without your awareness and rages beyond your control. Her habits irritate you: the way she carries drinking water with her everywhere in a glass jar, the way she eats so slowly. The way her hair is thin. When you were a teenager, you hung up on her and yelled at her and ordered her not to look at you or speak to you first thing in the morning.
“Your voice drives me nuts,” you said.
“I just want to say good morning.”
“Well, don’t.” But she did anyway, because she was glad to see you and couldn’t help it.
The dread returns and remains. You watch The Simpsons, but the cynicism makes you despair and wonder if you want to kill yourself. You get up, turn off the large television, and put your hand on top of it, the flat, plastic surface warm on your palm. You are okay, you tell yourself. You are fine. This will pass.
At the café, you wonder if customers can see how disturbed you are. You write their orders on your notepad and pick up their plates of crepes or sandwiches garnished with parsley from the pass-through counter, the dread roiling heavy and sick behind your eyes.
Drinking helps. As you roll silverware at the end of your shift, you fill another tumbler with white wine from the tap. You meet friends at their dorm to pre-party before going to the downtown bars and bring not one but two bottles of Andre Cold Duck. They take only a few swigs; they want to pace themselves.
“Fuck pacing,” you say, gulping. They grin and smoke their cigarettes. They’re used to you. They accept you.
Every day, you drink as soon as you can; you never remember stopping, but you count how many are necessary to make the dread disappear.
Your futon is on the carpeted floor of your bedroom. When you wake up, your head is, for a few minutes, settled into a cushion of remaining drunkenness, a soft force field.
One morning, the dread gets in the second you open your eyes.
It is a Thursday. You don’t have to work, and you have no classes. You put on your bathrobe, a plaid flannel from a thrift store that hangs to your knees, and sit on your couch. You spend six hours staring at the television, which is off. You try to picture the rest of your life. You can’t.
You get dressed and walk to the campus mailroom in the basement of the bookstore. You turn the combination on your mailbox, open the little door, and pull out a postcard from your father, who is in Greece with his wife. He does not have depression like you and your mother but is an alcoholic. When you were a child, your mother left for a few years after a decade of vicious depression and his consistent refusals to quit drinking. Then she returned, a figure of peace on the edge of the lawn, and walked toward you as you sat on the wooden swing, the chains warm and slippery with sweat from your hands. You looked up at her, one arm bent above her head to shade her eyes, the other at her side.
She wanted you to come live with her.
You said okay.
Your father’s handwriting has always been terrible and resembles tiny waves a child might draw. You’re able to read that they’re having a wonderful time, but you cannot read the rest, and you fear that the illegibility is because you are as close to lunacy as Plath’s Esther Greenwood, trying to write to her friend Doreen and watching herself draw giant loop-to-loops, her efforts thwarted by panic and hopelessness.
You look around. You’re alone in the mailroom, the floors and walls white and sharply cornered. You lean into the mailbox doors and let the cold metal shock your forehead. You hear yourself pant. You rub your temples, close your eyes, then try to read your father’s words again.
The museums in Athens, he says, are rich with history and art.
You put the postcard in the trash and look around. You’re meeting your friend Cheryl for pitchers soon.
Not soon enough.
You walk to the Downtown Lounge, a small bar with a groutless tile floor, vinyl booths, many barstools, and a pool table. Women from a sorority are there earlier than usual, playing darts. You know some of them. They’re nice. But the more they drink, the more times they play “I Touch Myself” by The Divinyls on the jukebox and sing along, their voices louder every time.
You want to tell someone about the dread. A friend, not a professional, because a professional would probably send you to a hospital. And then what would everyone think? Wouldn’t they find you repulsive and strange?
Wouldn’t you be repulsive and strange?
Aren’t you already repulsive and strange?
You should not tell Cheryl. She’s had a life of dysfunction, but she’s tougher than you—she’s never been in therapy, never to a doctor for mental illness. She believes in hard work, not depression. She would not understand.
Of course she would. She is one of your closest friends. You drink together several times a week and smoke pot on Sunday afternoons. And who else can you tell? Your best friend graduated and left the year before, and how could you explain what is happening over the telephone? How could you explain what is happening at all?
Cheryl arrives. You share a pitcher, then order a second. As you pour her another cup, you suspect that you are not close to anyone.
That is not true, you think.
“So, listen,” you say. “I’ve been having anxiety attacks. Kind of a lot.” It’s more like one giant anxiety attack, one place of abyss that you cannot leave. But that’s weird and freakish and scares you; you will not say it out loud.
“Oh no,” she says, lighting a cigarette.
“I’ve been on medication before,” you say. “I guess I should go on it again. But I don’t want to. I mean, I’m just kind of worried about myself. I don’t know what to do.”
Is that disgust on Cheryl’s face?
Yes, it is.
No, it’s not.
“Medication is a crutch.” She twists her cigarette into the ashtray. “You go on medication, you’ll need more. Then you’ll need medication for this, medication for that. And on and on.”
The sorority girls are laughing, darts thunking into the board.
“Just deal with it,” Cheryl says. “Whatever it is.”
“I… I don’t think I can, though. That’s the thing.”
“Of course you can. You’re strong.” She drinks the rest of her beer.
“Let’s get another pitcher,” you say.
“I have to go study, actually,” she says, hopping off the barstool. She’s never left you before. You always drink together until after midnight.
“I gotta go.” She hugs you. “I’ll call you tomorrow.” You watch her walk out the door and across the front window, her figure blurred by the word LOUNGE. The song begins again. The sorority girls gather into two booths and belt it out. You buy a twelve-pack, carry it home, drink, and pass out on your futon, the window open above your head.
You wake up. The dread begins when you open your eyes.
It is very, very bad.
You go to the bathroom and look at yourself. You have a round face and small eyes, but today, they’re sunken too deeply into your face. You understand now that it was never your skin moving but your moles and freckles—pinheads, swirling. When you look at the top of the mirror, they stop.
No, they don’t.
It is 10 AM on Friday. Instead of going to class, you put on your robe, lie on the couch, and clutch your stomach. You can’t start drinking until much, much later because you have to work an early dinner shift at 3 PM. All weekend, you’re working double shifts. Your father pays for college, but you still work 20 hours a week so you can pay for all your drinking and save money so you can leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave leave your depressed family and your depressed history and this depressed place and watch the Midwest disintegrate behind you as you move into a new sunrise. In Texas, in fact. You will move there and live with your best friend.
Live with her like this?
Live anywhere like this?
You lie on the couch for five hours and then get ready for work. You cannot eat. You wash your face but refuse to look at yourself. You put your clip-on bowtie in your pocket and pull your hair into a ponytail and tie your shoes. You walk the three blocks to work, holding your dirty apron tight in one hand, pen folded inside.
You are terrified.
You slide your card into the timeslot to punch in and start your shift. Dishes clatter. A cook is telling a joke, and you cannot make out the words. Servers stand around at the soup tureen, waiting for tables. They say hi but then don’t look at you, and you wonder why, whether you’ve done something. You cross your arms and breathe through your nose.
You get a table: an elderly couple at the front window, bright with daylight. You walk to them with your pad and pen out.
The man makes a joke, and you don’t understand it; you cannot follow. Their faces are dark from the glare. You squint. They give you their order, but your pen slips through your fingers and falls to the floor. You pick it up and try again.
You cannot write.
“You okay, honey?” says the man.
You stare at the edge of his head against the window. So they know. Fine. But they must also know how slippery life is, how brutal and excruciating. Why didn’t they say anything? Why would every single person on Earth keep the truth of life hidden from you? Why would they act like everything was okay?
You walk to the host stand, where your manager, Ted, is writing in the reservations book.
“I’m sick,” you say. “I’m really sorry, but I have to go home. I think I’m going to throw up.”
“You smell like booze. Are you hungover?”
“That’s not what this is. I promise. I can do anything hungover. This is a virus or something.” You get tears in your eyes. “I’m just sick. I think I have to go home.”
You mean home to your mother. Not home to your apartment.
Ted stares at you.
You never do anything like this. You cover for other servers a lot, and you always do a good job.
“Okay,” he says. “I’ll find someone.”
“You can’t smell like booze and come to work. Wear some cologne or something next time.”
You walk home. Your roommate Clarice is there, eating a bowl of Captain Crunch in the chair by the window and watching The Simpsons. You sit on the couch.
“Hi,” she says. She stops eating. “What’s wrong?”
“I… um… I’m having a nervous breakdown or something.” You start to cry.
Clarice is a science person, an anthropology major who earns straight As. You are none of these. You aspire to be a writer but have no path or discipline or mentor, so your goal feels most attainable when you’re drunk. When you’re not, it feels like a joke or a fantasy.
“You don’t look good at all.”
“No,” you say.
“Shit,” she says. “Can I help?”
“I have to call my mom,” you say. “I think I need to go home.” It is two hours away, in Iowa City. You never go there. You never want to, ever.
“I’ll call her,” Clarice says. On the end table between the chair and the couch is a push-button desk phone, like one you’d see in an office, with HOLD and LINE 1 and LINE 2 buttons that don’t work.
She picks up the receiver. “What’s the number?”
You tell her. You look out the small picture window through the framed, divided squares and know your mother is coming.
Your mother is wearing a simple dress that hangs just below her knees, with thin navy blue and brown stripes. This is the dress you wore to the Homecoming Dance your freshman year of high school. She adopted it, which was fine with you because no girl would wear a Homecoming outfit twice, and your mother had no money for a good dress since she had to pay off the custody lawyer for over a decade because she never finished a degree or kept a job because she was always depressed, always removing herself from one opportunity after another. She followed through with nothing. It usually took just a few minutes of conversation with her for you to lash out. To insult. To slam a door and lock it.
But not today. Today, you let her bend down and hug you because you can’t stand up.
Your mother calls the café. “My daughter is very sick,” she says. She stands in the window—it overlooks a parking lot—and smiles at you, making the “okay” sign with her thumb and forefinger. “She cannot work this weekend. I’m taking her home to see a doctor.”
She helps you pack a bag and leads you to her cheap car that’s already breaking down and drives you to Iowa City, where she takes you to the emergency room at the university hospital, which she swears by. The doctor gives you tranquilizers and prescribes more for you to pick up the next day.
Your mother takes you home and follows you to your bedroom in the tiny duplex.
“Do you need help getting ready for bed?”
“No, Mom. I think I can handle that.”
You take two tranquilizers and fall asleep.
The next morning, your mother takes you to a psychiatrist. He prescribes an antidepressant.
“Can I drink on these?” you ask. His office is fake, polished brown. They always are.
“I thought you said you don’t drink very much.”
“Just wondering. I am in college. I mean, it’s around.”
“You should avoid drinking right now,” he says. “It will make your anxiety worse.”
“Not even a little?”
“Do you drink or don’t you?”
“Not a whole lot,” you say. “I’m just wondering.”
“Don’t drink, and don’t worry about it.”
“Okay,” you say. “Thank you.”
Your mother gets you your favorite pizza: Chicago style from Felix & Oscars. She brings you your favorite ice cream: Rocky Road. You watch television with her on the couch while you’re drugged up, and she rubs your feet, which she has done your entire life.
“Would you rub my feet?” you’d ask.
“Sure,” she always said, and you’d put your bare feet in her lap.
Thanking her for this had never occurred to you. Thanking her for anything had never occurred to you and still doesn’t. You didn’t even thank her when she arrived at your apartment. Clarice had opened the door.
“Are you here to take care of Anna?” she asked. The television was on without sound. You were sobbing with your hands cupped over your face. You parted them and peered up at her, standing tall, her purse over her shoulder and an umbrella in her hand. She was always afraid of rain.
Your mother sat beside you and said, “Yep. I am here to take care of Anna.” She put her purse and umbrella on the carpet and her arms around you. As you trembled, she pulled you in. You rest your forehead on her collarbone, leave your eyes open, and breathe. You smell the lotion she’s used all your life, let it sink in.