Warning: Contains thoughts about suicide. May be sensitive material for some readers.
When I was in my early twenties, I spent a whole year thinking about killing myself. It sounds absurd, given that my life was probably, by most outside accounts, near perfect. As it turns out, illness doesn’t give a hollering hoot about the billboard version of your life—it grabs onto the frayed ends of your insecurities, your deepest, most secret fears, the remnants of discarded goals; it rows down the slippery trails of involuntary chemicals that sprout and fester in the brain, either because of genetics or bad luck or some combination of the two.
During this particular Era-O-Me, on the normally-blissful eve of summertime, often marked in the student world by end-of-semester bashes and notes-burning parties, I was invited to be the token dropout at a party full of fourth-year engineering students who had once been my classmates.
I had expressed some doubt to friends about whether or not I should even attend the party, citing embarrassment about my change in social status from a Woman in STEM—hear me roar—to a Trainee Tortured Artist—at least we get free cheese at most conferences? They said, don’t be dumb, it’s okay to change your mind, you’re happier in the arts anyway.
I arrived on the doorstep dressed too nicely for a frat-wannabe house party, arm-in-arm with my still-engineering boyfriend, carrying an empty stomach, a nine-dollar bottle of rosé wine purchased from the clearance aisle in a Sobeys liquor store, and the sort of apathetic mindset that accompanies only a person who is in a deep mental health shitstorm but has no idea.
I told my boyfriend — let’s call him S — that I had remembered to bring my driver’s license in case we decided to go downtown. That was a lie.
The house was too warm and everyone was saying, how’s history going?—and is your mom happy that you changed your mind?—and, well, at least you’re passionate about it—and, oh yes, I got a twenty-thousand-dollar work term for this summer—glug glug glug—want another beer?—here let’s play flip-cup—and do they party as hard in the arts?
And at least I had the loud music as an excuse not to answer their questions. I muttered to a few people that I didn’t plan to drink very much. And that was a lie too. So we played flip-cup.
The two ‘friends’ flanking me around the sticky table made sure I had a little extra mystery-booze in my red plastic cup, and a slightly lower chance of winning the game, and I let this happen because I didn’t care, and I had finished the rosé. And before I knew it, I was staring across the room at S, who seemed happier than usual. Then I noticed an engineering-frat wannabe across from me, who had been playing the game with twice my alcohol tolerance and even less give-a-shit about me than I had for myself, and he was giving me that kind of a grin and looking not-at-my-face, and I actually thought to myself, well won’t that grin just slap right to the ground once I die at this party? And that intention wasn’t a lie at all.
And I stopped even pretending that I was trying to win the game, and the perfectly slap-able grin got wider, and pretty soon the room was spinning, and my stomach was sending sickly sweetness to my tongue and doing little backflips, and I thought, okay, here we go. And then, sometime between being force-fed salt and vinegar chips by a stock character blonde with runny mascara and being pushed out onto the rain-sparkled deck, I started vomiting. In the toilet. On the deck. Over the deck. On the grass. And I was thinking, okay, we’re going, almost done—but why did I choose this damp patch of yard? And there was a skinny earthworm suffocating on the shiny sidewalk and I thought, you and me both, friend.
S was rubbing my back and fretting a little, begging for someone to help, being ignored, and saying babe, babe, please you have to sit up, babe, I can’t hold you.
And then there was this tiny square of clarity in my drowning brain, and I wasn’t thinking about the earthworm or the damp yard. And I wasn’t listening to S grow more and more frantic.
Instead, I was thinking about my mom, and my dog, and all of my friends who were six thousand kilometers away at home. And I thought of writing and reading, and of movies, and of creaky cinema seats, and of all the history I hadn’t studied, and about chocolate with caramel, and of sex. I thought about green grass, and the smell of puppy breath, and the sun flashing through the trees while driving on the highway, and of Grandma’s flower pots in the summertime. And while it sounds cliché — after all, dying is the most unoriginal thing any of us ever do — I thought of all the places I hadn’t been, and how, oh my god, no, wait, I’m really not done here. And I thought, oh, this can’t be what they mean when they say that your life flashes before your eyes, because it’s not enough. There wasn’t enough there — not the sum total of a whole bloody life.
And then I was looking at S through a fog of tears, and alcohol, and vomit; through shivering regret, and sticky, thick fear. And I was crying, and the square was closing, and I couldn’t see the earthworm anymore, or S’s face. And it was so, so dark, but I didn’t think my eyes were closed, and I was begging S, please call an ambulance, you have to call an ambulance I think I’m going to die. S, I don’t want to die.
And in those dark moments, when I go back to that place, and that patch of stinking grass, and the eyes-opened darkness, I remember that the worst part wasn’t almost dying.
It was glimpsing between the darkness. At the ambulance they didn’t even bother to light up, at the paramedics who strolled up to the door and rolled their eyes at S, at the hundred cell-phone-shaped hands taking videos that if not for S pushing them away might have been viral humiliation. It was waking up in a hospital hallway cradled in IVs and a blanket of my own piss, without even being offered a change of clothes. It was the assumption that I was a waste of resources, that I didn’t need real help — that I was Student Party-Chick in a see-through shirt — that I was generally spoiled and had simply gone overboard. It was catching S crying on a plastic chair next to my hospital bed. It was being carried out to a taxi at 6:11AM, bloated from the IV drip, wearing hospital-blue crepe slippers because my shoes were back at the party house.
It was retrieving those shoes.
It was never being able to wear the same shirt again and feeling sick at the sight of rosé wine.
It was six months later when Grinning Frat Wannabe #1 laughed, in the same language as the videos from the night I decided not to exist, and he joked, “Hey remember that time you got so drunk at my house that you had to get an ambulance?”
But the good part — there are good parts now — was being just healthy enough to snap back with, “Yeah! That time I almost died!? I remember that time. That was so fun. Ha, ha!” The good part was that grin slipping off of his smug face and splattering onto the pavement — and the fact that I was here, alive, to experience the sound of that grin finally hitting the ground.
The good part was, and has been, getting better.
The good part got better every day that I woke up and didn’t think about how beautiful deep red must look against a white porcelain bathtub, and didn’t analyze cheap plastic razors for easy ways to disassemble them.
The good part is not having nightmares about self-made monsters every night.
The good part kept getting better on the day that I realized I could take a whiff of rosé and almost find it pleasant, and even better on the days that I noticed how beautiful the people around me really are. And, eventually, those better days started turning into better weeks, better months, a good half-year.
And S had to go, because a person who doesn’t want to live is impossible to live with. And he had to go for a thousand other reasons that — and this was freeing to realize — had nothing to do with my illness and everything to do with simple, youthful incompatibility.
And I had to be on my own for a while. And that’s okay because, no matter how often I look back on that year and worry that I’m permanently damaged because my own brain tried to murder me, no matter how often I overhear friends talking about so-and-so who attempted suicide the other day and how it’s such a sin, no matter how many times a day I get a tiny poke of fear that the scary thoughts will return, or that the monsters will make a nighttime visit; no matter what, I remember those summertime flower pots. And my mom. And my dogs. And chocolate and caramel. And writing, and reading, and movies, and, of course, creaky cinema seats.
But now, I also think of wild, curly hair bouncing up a Vancouver street, and of my Grandpa saying, “hello, peanut,” just one more time, and of fog on the tips of the Kootenays at 4AM, and of London cobblestones in July, and of the sun pouring through the top-level window of my downtown apartment. I think of blue cigarette smoke swirling around a pair of cateye glasses, and then of the same fingers that grasp the cigarette pointing angrily at a freshly broken ankle, “THIS IS NOT CUTE!” while I laugh in the corner of the emergency room.
Now, I think about a set of greyish eyes looking at me, and a pair of, still-unfamiliar, solid hands grasping my hips. I think of the new, deep, rich sound of, “you’re wonderful.” And I think about all of the experiences from yesterday, the day before, and the day before that, that, if I died tomorrow, would produce a very different set of life-flashes.
And I think, well, I’m glad I changed my mind.