It’s two-thirty in the morning. I’d like to be sleeping. Instead, I’m propped up on a corner of the sofa, bleeding like a stuck pig and trying not to whimper audibly as I wait for this horse-tranquilizing doze of Advil to quell the menstrual cramps that feel like a dozen animated claw hammers trying to escape my uterus from within. I’m tired, and I’m cranky, and it hurts, and this sucks.
But I’m alive.
* * * *
Connie is a friend of mine.
Well, sort of. We straddle the liminal area between “acquaintance” and “friend.” We keep in touch mainly via Facebook; if we’re hewing more toward the “friend” side, maybe Facebook Messenger. We have lots of fun when we see each other, which is not very often. Chunks of time elapse when I don’t think about her; she’d say the same of me. She’s a wonderful person I enjoy spending time with, but ultimately, she’s peripheral to my life. We all have that friend, floating in our circles, present but outside the orbit of our inner networks. Nice to have, when you remember. The Pluto of friends.
I have one less of those now, because Connie died yesterday. She killed herself.
Connie was a friend of mine.
* * * *
If you forced me to sit down and make a list of all my friends in order from most to least likely to kill themselves, I would have (1) politely excused myself to scurry away from you, because that’s fucked up, and (2) put Connie pretty low on the list. Her death is a shock (although probably not any more so than any other suicide, but she’s not any other suicide, she’s Connie). It’s not just that she was a happy person, or a calm person. She was an open person. Open to change, open to growth, open to whatever she felt the universe was nudging her toward. The kind of person who thought the universe nudges — who could reframe tragedy as a painful push toward an ultimately right direction — and who found that exciting.
That openness seemed like anti-depression insurance: when I think of myself in the throes of depression or anxiety, I see a person who is fragile. Brittle. Unable to absorb the slightest shock; crumbling in the face of wholly invented terrors.
Openness, flexibility, and acceptance seem like the antidote to grief. For Connie to be gone means that there was some pain so overwhelming in its destructive powers — so sudden, or huge, or unforeseeable, or all of the above — that no amount of flexion could withstand it.
There’re a partner and son picking up her pieces. They love her fiercely, and I don’t doubt that they would have leaned into the storm with her, bolstering one tired soul with two stronger ones until whatever sudden fury had broken over her abated enough to allow for some perspective. They would have held her while she bent as much as she could then absorbed the excess of pain like sponges, to wring out a safe distance away. It might have hurt them as well, but I don’t doubt that they would have done it gladly. I don’t doubt that they are heartbroken that she wasn’t able to know that in the moment when she most needed that knowledge.
* * * *
I could just as easily be dead. Once, I sat on a bed asking my husband, tearfully but politely, if he’d mind sitting with me while I took all the Valium I’d saved up, because I thought I’d feel better if he were holding my hand when I died. If he’d agreed, he’d be observing the eight anniversary of my passing this autumn.
(From the perspective of a person who wants to die, announcing this wish to loved ones is a terribly ineffective plan. From the perspective of a person who didn’t die and no longer wants to, it was a great fucking plan. Possibly the best plan.)
Instead, I checked myself into a psych ward. I gave up my shoelaces. I participated in group self-esteem building exercises during the day and stayed up alone at night to watch late-night television to try and laugh so I could feel like a human person again. I sat mutely in the visiting room, playing Scrabble with the friends who came every evening to help pass one hour of each thousand-hour day, unsure how to respond when the schizophrenic woman on the vinyl sofa sprang to life, turned away from her husband, and announced, proudly, “I fucked a dog!”
I worked hard and leaned on people harder, and now my current life is wonderful enough that I have a hard time talking about it: it’s an embarrassment of riches that simultaneously elates me and makes me feel acutely like the privileged jerk-wad I sort of am. I will gladly deal with processing those feelings of jerk-wad-ity to have this life, to not be dead.
* * * *
Still, things are not “fixed,” and there’s one negligible but telltale sign that I live on Planet Almost-Dead instead of Planet Normal. It’s a small orange bottle. The kind for prescription medications, the kind that’s child-proof until it becomes adult-proof when you need to take a pill. The kind that collects in the far reaches of the cabinet, holding dribs and drabs of antibiotics never taken and painkillers never used, and disappears every few years when you move out of your apartment and start fresh in a new place with a new cabinet.
I move a lot. It moves with me. It usually ends up behind one expired tube of Neosporin and in front of one tub of hair putty that didn’t live up to its sexy bed-head promises. It’s a small, orange bottle with half a dozen tablets of Paxil.
It’s my bottle, and my Paxil, and no matter how hard I try to pretend that I live on Planet Normal with everyone else — no matter how much it seems like I really, really do — the bottle greets me each morning to remind me: no. I don’t. Pretend all you want, but if you’d like stay on Planet Almost-Dead instead of Planet Kaput, you’ll swallow that pill. Good girl. There is no fresh start, no cabinet without its jaunty orange presence.
It’s the biggest small orange bottle in the world.
There are other things I do as well: therapy, exercise, yakking about feelings on the internet. They all help, and they’re mostly just “life” rather than “self-care” at this point. Ninety-nine days out of 100, I go to the gym simply because I enjoy going to the gym. Therapy these days mostly consists of chatting about what I’ve been up to, like having a coffee buddy with a co-pay. Writing on the internet is fun. And three days out of seven, I completely forget to take my pill. Four or five days out of seven, if I’m being honest with myself. I don’t notice any adverse effects until I forget for more than seven or eight days in a row — I notice myself getting shaken when someone else who yaks about things on the internet is critical of the way I yak, and realize that I’m on thin ice. It only takes a day to even the keel back out.
I’ve done a lot of hard work to build the life I have now. I know I’m lucky to have the self-awareness and perspective needed to take care of myself, and to have people in my life who will happily step into the breach next to me if my reserves ever fail me again. Who will fill in my gaps of their free will and will remind me of that, repeatedly if they have to, because when you need someone to be strong for you in that way, you also need reminding that you are worth their strength.
I’m also lucky to have that bottle. I wish Connie had had a bottle of her own, whatever that might have meant for her.
* * * *
I don’t typically talk about all of the above. I’ve been trying and failing to write something about my experience in the psych ward for nearly eight years; this is the first time I’ve put more than three words together.
I could have died in 2007. I got through that moment with a lot of help, and today, it seems almost dream-like; I have a hard time imagining that I really would have killed myself. But then, I have an equally hard time imagining that Connie would have ever killed herself, and she’s dead now.
It makes me think: maybe I’m not stranded on Planet Almost-Dead with the universe’s other troubled souls. Maybe Planet Normal is just a myth that keeps us all striving for perfect; maybe we’re all already on Planet Almost-Dead, and the best we can hope for is to stay there until we reach a ripe old age. Maybe our jobs are to keep ourselves grounded there, and to help others do the same when we see them unmooring. To cling to one another and to those small things; to clutch our friends and our little orange bottles, and just keep going.
And some of us will stumble because sometimes it hurts too badly. It’s heartbreaking and makes no sense and gives us no option but to continue trudging along, survivors in one way or another. Our choice is to try and forget the loss, or to take what lessons and love we can from those who’ve left us and make sure that those, at least, continue living, ephemeral and intangible though they are.
Maybe that’s the best we can do, and maybe that’s entirely enough.
I hope it’s enough for Connie.
ETA: I’d originally changed Connie’s name, out of concern that this might feel like my co-opting someone else’s tragedy. But un-naming her didn’t feel quite right and still doesn’t, and I think it’s important to bear witness to the life and death of this real person. Her name was Connie, and she was wonderful.