It’s a Tuesday and I’m talking to the police again.
“Yes, she called me. Yes, she did say things that made me believe she was suicidal. She said she called the hotline and it didn’t help. She said everything felt meaningless. She called crying and it sounded like she couldn’t breathe, very much like she was having an anxiety attack.”
The low-voiced officer from Tallahassee tells me she’s denying everything. I ask to speak with her husband. Officer Deep Voice says that he’ll pass along my number when they’re done taking the statement. He asks me to write my statement and send it in an email. Then he politely hangs up on me.
I’m glad I didn’t tell him — she was the very first writer I ever became friends with and for the first time in the nearly ten years that I’ve known her, she told me that she didn’t want to write anymore, that even the act of exercising her gift seemed pointless. The double-degreed, published, talented-on-sight poet has foresworn her own hard won genius.
This is the second time in a week I’ve been on the ledge with a suicidal friend. I still have to put out clothes to wear to work tomorrow and attempt sleep. I have to put away the six containers of yogurt I bought on the way home and decide whether I care enough to pack myself a proper lunch. And after the police leave them and he has a moment, I have to talk to her husband whose job this is all supposed to be and figure out what has gone wrong (again) with my friend’s medication and her fragile well being.
I text her: I swear to God, if you pull a Sylvia Plath on me I will never forgive you. Later she’ll tell me she received the message sitting in the back of the police car, fuming.
Here is my recurring ugly thought: When did I get used to this? I am one of the few of my friends who returned to my hometown after college. I live with my mom. I spend afternoons exercising and visiting my elderly father, evenings directing the school play. I’ve made my peace with my rocky childhood. I pet our dogs and pay off my loans and work full time teaching ninth graders. On weekends I play rugby or I go to museums or literary events or occasionally to the bar. I write. I read. I go to the gym. Most days I’m lonelier than I’d like, but mostly content.
The Poet in the back of the police car went to Brown after we graduated from college. She got her MFA from the foremost experimental poetry department in the state. Her boyfriend followed her there. Then they moved to Arkansas where he got his own MFA and while she was there, working a job she hated, she met the man who would become her husband. Six months after they started dating they were married. And in the year and a half they’ve known each other she’s been committed twice and close to admission twice more. Each time I’ve gotten a phone call and each one is worse than the last: nothing has meaning, nothing has purpose, there is no reason to keep breathing. There is nothing I can do but talk to her.
The Nurse, this week’s second case, had a boyfriend who encouraged her to eat until she was at a weight she couldn’t stand. After a colleague raped her, her boyfriend left her. For the last year she’s been in and out of the hospital. Last week a therapist told her, “I don’t think I can help you.” Three days later her mother had to drag her out of bed and put her bodily in the shower and then ordered her to leave the house. She called me the next day.
It was rainy and cold and Halloween and I didn’t want to leave the house but I did. Because that’s the part I play in all this. Because If I wake up tomorrow and her mom calls to say she’s dead, I’ll feel guilty. Because I’ve done it a half a dozen times already and because, in case of suicide, being there is truly the only thing I’m capable of doing.
After years of playing counselor I’m still surprised by the terrible similarity of it all. In college I had suicidal residents confess to me. In high school, my very dearest friend. As a child, I knew of the attempts my father made solely through the horrified whispers of my aunts. Now, as an adult, there are more — my students whom I almost expect, but also my friends —the Nurse, the Dancer, the Statistician, the Politician, the Linguist, and the Poet.
And what do they all have in common besides suicidal tendencies? Excellence. Brilliant academic careers, wonderful dry humor, artistic talent to rival any I’ve seen. And their suicidal scripts.
The torrent spills from their mouths, the only thing they can seem to think or feel, the only thing left to them between bouts of sobbing or defeated silence, the same words, the same terrible –lessness:
I’m a mess, I feel messy.
It’s like I can’t see anything in color.
There’s nothing worth seeing anyway.
I’m a fuck up.
I can’t do anything right.
I’m such a waste of space.
I’m sorry I even called. I shouldn’t have bothered you.
I’m not worth your time.
Everyone would be better without me.
I’m just a fucking burden.
It hurts so much and there’s no way out.
There’s never a way out.
And nothing matters anymore.
This is how I know it is truly, brutally real with all of them: they start using the washed out remains of feelings to describe themselves. All they can manage from the bottom of their spirals is the script they’ve been taught to use when they run out of everything else.
It’s not that they don’t actually feel these things; they do, of course. With my friends I can look at them and know the pain precisely: the shades of doubt about the paths our lives takes, the revulsion we feel when we look in the mirror, the smallness of our voices screaming to be heard by anyone, the cold of being thrown out like trash, as if nobody wants us and no one ever will.
They obsess, they condemn, they steep in these feelings for weeks and months at a time so that by the time they’re on the phone with me again they have lost track of themselves completely and have no real self to express. All they have left are the smallest, cruelest, and bleakest parts of themselves. They’ve lost the Linguist, the Nurse, the Statistician, the Politician, the Dancer, the Poet. All they have left is the Suicidal.
If I had any power I’d demand to know where this emptiness is coming from. Where are my loved ones picking up the darkness that they carry around inside of them? Who is handing them the shovels to dig their own holes? What force is pushing down on them day after day and where does it hide when it isn’t wreaking havoc?
If I could I’d hunt it down. I’d creep behind until it knew the same despairing fear and emptiness they know. Then I’d spring, I’d batter, I’d bruise and brutalize until the wretched monstrosity went down and never got back up again.
If I could. If I only knew what exactly I was hunting.
I’m fascinated by how fascinated people are by suicide. When, after a few weeks absence, I tell my friend what I’m writing, she wants to hear more about it and asks me, “Jen, have you ever seriously considered it?”
“Let’s just say that in my time, I never quite got to the ledge. I just stood on the balcony staring at it for a very, very long time.”
“I spent time thinking about it,” she says, “A lot of time. Going on was only bearable at times because I knew I had the opt out. The choice of an end. I’m not trying to offend you, Jen. It’s just I get it. Suicide is one of those things I’ve invested a lot of thought in.”
“You didn’t offend me. Not at all. It’s just that keeping the people I love alive is something that I’ve invested a lot of thought in.”
I have three people to check in with today. The Nurse: did you get out of bed and talk to someone? Did you go to work?
The Poet via her husband: has she calmed down, is she still wielding a knife?
And my father: how’s your back today? How’s your heart? Are we doing any better?
He tells me it was a good night — no voices calling him worthless or telling him to kill himself. He didn’t sleep much but at least he got to rest in peace.
Here is my fear: In the last ten years of my life I’ve found myself standing there, repeatedly, the last person left, looking at people I love, teetering on the edge. They stand on the ledge and I know I can’t go to them, I can’t pull them off. I can’t use my physical strength to take them from this place because somehow, they’re always miles away from me — in a car wanting to veer the steering wheel, in their apartment shifting a knife in the light, on the floor of their bedroom looking down the barrel of a shotgun. And I am on the phone, always, it seems, perpetually on the phone with people I love, wondering what’s left for them and trying to sound calm while fighting to breathe past the hard mass of things that have settled on my chest.
It isn’t anger. It isn’t guilt or bitterness, though all of those things are in me. It’s a peculiar feeling built entirely of that moment when they’re standing on the ledge and I know I can’t jump in front of them or grab them from behind I can only stand beside them and breathe and see them and wait.
One day it won’t be enough. One day, especially if I keep collecting artists and misanthropes and more who are like the beautiful and beloved people in my life, it won’t be enough. One day I’ll be standing beside them and it won’t be enough that they have all my attention, all my love, all the force I can put behind my words. It won’t be enough to say over and over again, I know, but it will be ok. It will be. I promise. It will be. I love you. It will be, I promise. I promise, I love you. You’re loved. There’s meaning. There’s cookies and dogs and books you haven’t read and bottles of wine we haven’t drunk together. There’s boys to conquer and Pulitzers to win. There’s tomorrow to win and who you could be if you just listen to me and know that I love you and things will change. Change is inevitable. And if it can’t get worse from here you know it has to get better. Put down the knife. Put down the pills. Pull over, turn off the car, and just talk to me.
One day it won’t matter. It won’t be enough. And whether I’m there or not, whether I’m talking or not, whether anyone else does or not, I’ll blame me. For being beside them on the ledge and having to watch them, finally, jump.
Wednesday is dinner with my parents. I’m mid week exhausted, still in my work clothes, and late for something in the evening but I need to eat, I must eat if I want to make it through the rest of my day. We’re saying grace when The Nurse sends me a barrage of text messages: they’re taking my job, my boss is making me go to HR to get a mental health check, they’re forcing me to take a leave of absence, I hate this, I’m horrible, I’m a fuck up and waste of space. Just forget I sent any of this, I don’t want to be a burden, I have to go.
My parents are eating salad while I stand in the back room trying to call her again and again and again. My feet hurt. My eyes are scratchy. I’m annoyed and angry and frustrated and I should be sympathetic and sad and worried, but I’m just not.
And when I slam my way back to the dinner table I’m not fearing for her life. I’m sitting there texting her the same message over and over again: promise me you won’t hurt yourself before you talk to me tomorrow. Promise me. Promise me. And I’m angry because I seem to be the only one fighting for anything these days and I’m too fucking tired to keep fighting alone.
I think it’s worth saying: the Suicidal are shells of themselves, so similar to the vivid and beloved people they were before, that it is easy to forget they are possessed of a landmine made of desperation and darkness in the middle of their chests, waiting to be set off by just the right pressure. When the mine blows it will destroy itself utterly and every thing around it, every possibility for healing, every potential new beginning, every bit of the life the Suicidal might have lived if they’d made it past the darkness.
And because it’s a landmine it will shatter into a hundred pieces of blistering shrapnel made of darkness and each piece will imbed itself in whoever is closest, branding us forever.
What lives they lead when they are well:
The Nurse stood with me on a green, green mountain in Ecuador taking perfect pictures of the huge heart carved into the stone by the centuries and putting an arm around me while I cried. She could’ve led the hike but stayed back to help me keep my horribly unsteady feet. I fed her from my stash of sweet bread when she couldn’t keep anything else down. She checked my bed for bugs before we went to sleep.
My father cooked me a meal every day for the last two years. Whether I was in his kitchen or not, whether I was working or not, every day there was a meal waiting for me: carrots and potatoes and chicken, stir fry and rice, meatballs and gravy and noodles, spaghetti and sauce, two pieces of pizza wrapped in tinfoil and Caesar salad. When I stopped by his house he played old records for me and sang me lullabies from my childhood. Baby girl, don’t lift a finger. The least I can do is feed you.
The Poet asked me to be the Maid of Honor in her wedding. We spent three hours one afternoon picking out her veil and on the day of her wedding I taped her into the perfect dress and sat her down on chaise and said, Do not move until the ceremony. She squeezed my hand, “There’s no one else I’d rather have by my side. Don’t forget the cake, ok?”
Weeks before, when I asked her if she needed help with flowers or favors or music for the service, she told me not to worry, it would all take care of itself. My job was much more important, she said. Her only real concern was that she and her husband wouldn’t have time to get cake at the reception. So that was my chief duty as maid of honor: stop the world for a moment so my friend and her newly-made husband could eat their wedding cake.
Sometimes I feel selfish that I can’t stand the idea of losing them. I feel wrong for making their fights into my fight when they haven’t asked me to. Since I don’t know what it’s like on the ledge, since I’ve never been to that place, only looked over the edge, is it fair for me to say, No, this one thing you can’t do?
They convince themselves so completely that it almost convinces me. I feel like I’m lying when I tell them all the worthwhile things they’ve done, lives they’ve saved, problems they’ve solved, moving things they’ve written.
And I feel like I’m tormenting them when they scream to be left alone and I keep calling anyway. I feel like I’m wrong when they hang up again and again, when they send me directly to voicemail, when I sit on the line for forty five minutes, dialing, dialing, dialing, frantic until a still living self answers and both of us are gasping tears into the phone.
Is it agony for them? To hear the phone keep ringing, to know that someone won’t let them go? That they can’t escape so easily to where they don’t exist, so pain can’t exist either?
Is it agony for them, too?
It’s simpler for me. My depression is a low hum that I keep at bay with exercise and working too much and following the old rule from when I was kid: you may only feel sorry for yourself for five minutes before you do something about it. I keep my life moving by forcing myself to do, no matter what I’m feeling. And sometimes the feeling disappears altogether.
Conversely, there are nights that are exponentially worse.
On those nights, curled around my own balled fists, in a bed that I can’t seem to make warm enough with just my own body, I fight with my own demons: I made a student cry today. I haven’t written a solid sentence in six weeks. I haven’t been on a date in six months. I am ugly, which, if I didn’t already know from looking in the mirror, would be easy to read on the scale. I am a waste of my education and all the work that all the people I love have put into me — I can never be as good as they need me to be, never be as strong or as brilliant. I can’t be charismatic like my brothers, or friendly or successful. Which is probably why I have no partner of my own. Just look at me, who could know me for real and still love me?
Tangled in covers, I whisper all of this into the telephone and the Poet listens to me while I cry and ask, why does no one want me, why is my room so cold, why is teaching so hard, why does the neighbor’s porch light shine right onto my eyes, why does my writing never come out right, why can’t I stop sobbing, why can’t I just sleep through the night like a normal person?
Our scripts aren’t so different, after all. In fact, when she’s playing my part on the other end of the phone, she says exactly what I always end up saying to her: I love you. Remember that. Remember, you’re loved. No matter what. I love you. It’ll be ok. You’re so, so loved.
I know, even if I don’t feel it now, that I’ll wake up tomorrow feeling better — lighter, more fragile, but clean. This is not the thought that gets me to sleep.
Instead I repeat to myself again and again: you’re loved. You’re loved. You’re so, so loved.
I know from experience that if we make it through the night we’ll make it through another day. Near dawn I know it’s safe to hang up the phone, safe to leave the hospital and end my own night, wandering to my bed feeling battered and salty eyed. I always feel heavier after I’ve left them, solid, like nothing could shatter me after what I’ve been through. Lying down in bed the acid grumbles in my unsettled stomach, sneaking up my esophagus on the back of many burps, releasing the anxious swallows of air I’ve been holding all night.
Predictably, sleep only makes me more tired. But there’s work to go to and business to go about. In the car I’ll think about my lesson plans and how many diet cokes I need to get through the day. I seem to live by the philosophy of my dear friend the Politician: we can sleep when we’re dead.
Even this exhausted, I don’t see myself opting for that alternative. Heaven only knows why, but for as long as I’m given, I’d rather be part of the fight. And gratefully, up to this point, so would they.
J.M. Leija has previously been featured in the Motesbooks “Motif: Water” anthology and “A Detroit Anthology” published by the Rust Belt Press. She is a recent graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars and the winner of two Hopwood Awards from the University of Michigan. She has served as an InsideOUT Writer-in-Residence, is active member of Literary Detroit, and currently resides in Detroit, Michigan.