I don’t think I really intended to kill myself that morning. I just couldn’t face what seemed like the insurmountable challenges of the day. So I swallowed half a bottle of my anti-depressants. Then I stumbled out of the bedroom to tell my father what I’d done.
If I’d actually wanted to die, I would have simply stretched out on my bed and let the pills take over. Dad wasn’t about to barge in while I was getting ready for work.
So I guess I must not have been ready. Still, at the moment I gulped down all those tablets, all I wanted was for the world to go away.
It did, for a couple of hours. I woke up in the hospital with a tube down my throat. Fortunately I was barely conscious. I don’t remember any discomfort, not until later when my mind cleared a bit more and I saw the desperate concern on my father’s face. The taste of vomit and the raw fire in my throat from the stomach pump were nothing compared to the guilt that slammed into me—along with twice the anxiety I’d felt that morning.
I was stuck in this life, I realized, stuck dealing with the old feelings of dread and self-disgust, along with new remorse for the blind, self-centered cruelty with which I’d inflicted my pain upon him. Talk about angst.
Probably I shouldn’t have been working in the first place. I’d only been out of the psychiatric hospital for a few months. But what was I supposed to do with myself? My family and I both knew I couldn’t yet handle college, living away from home, trying to keep my weight up, constantly tempted to skip meals or fill my stomach with cabbage or cantaloupe. I took a full time position as a nurse’s aide at a rehab hospital three subway stops from my dad’s apartment where I was staying, as a way to fill the empty days.
The job really stressed me, though, both physically—after all, I was barely five foot two and weighed about eighty five pounds—and psychologically. The patients were mostly recovering from surgery or strokes, not terminal but hardly the most cheerful people to be around. Though I was just an aide, I had a good deal of responsibility. Furthermore, I was on my own all day, fighting the food demons, drinking can after can of the free diet ginger ale available to employees and trying not to be lured by the fried chicken and ice cream on the patients’ meal trays. It was an unending battle.
My “suicide attempt” put an end to that job. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thankful. My parents shipped me back to the psychiatric crisis ward for evaluation. My therapist seemed to be the only one who wasn’t alarmed by my rash action. I realize now that he understood my motives, better than I did myself. Plus he’d dealt with truly suicidal individuals. I knew that from personal experience.
Carol flashed through my life, spending two weeks on the ward during my own two and a half month sojourn in the institution. She arrived with bandages on her wrists. I couldn’t believe this woman had tried to kill herself. Beautiful, brilliant, vivacious and talented, she charmed both the staff and the other patients. Though I was at least a decade younger than she—she had a good-looking husband and two cute kids who came to visit—we seemed to connect. We loaned each other books. She’d brought her guitar, and we’d sit in the common room together singing. Why, I wondered, would someone suicidal make music?
She taught me several songs I still sing. They all had a sort of wistful, bittersweet quality, even (I now see) a hint of desperation. The one I associate with her most strongly has the following lyrics.
“I don’t care what’s right or wrong.
I don’t try to understand.
Let the devil take tomorrow,
But right now I need a friend.
Yesterday is dead and gone,
And tomorrow’s out of sight,
And it’s sad to be alone.
Help me make it through the night.”
This tune resonated. I felt equally lost sometimes. Plus the sexual undertones of the song—especially when expressed in her rich alto voice—gave me a bit of a thrill.
Carol and I were both patients of Dr. R. But whereas I occasionally acted crazy (running up and down eight flights of stairs ever day, for example, to avoid gaining weight), she seemed psychologically healthier than anyone in the ward, including the people who worked there. Her wrists healed. She was released after two weeks and left with a smile.
I sensed something wrong during my next appointment with Dr. R. His normal ebullience was subdued. I can’t remember whether I asked, he volunteered the news, or I heard it somewhere else, but the gist was that Carol had succeeded in her most recent attempt.
It’s difficult to recall, too, how I felt when I heard about Carol. Indeed, those anorexic years have a hazy quality, the images blurred, the emotions, for the most part, muted—aside from the intense fear and confusion around food. I believe that malnutrition or hormone imbalance may have affected my cognitive abilities.
Now, though, I understand that my sense of emptiness, my guilt and my awful terror, were nothing compared to the emotional pain she must have endured. Yet she hid it all under a mask of normality. To escape that pain, she left us all behind—her husband, her children, Doctor R., me. Our love just wasn’t enough to help her make it through.
Looking back, I am full of sadness at the waste of her vibrant life— but newly grateful for my own survival.