Depression sounded sensual, sexy. On the ear, the word itself seduced, with its soft consonants and hushed double “s.” Using an online quiz, my best friend Sarah and I had, by the end of eighth grade, already diagnosed each other with it. Do you feel lifeless? Do you feel trapped? Do you feel sad, blue, or unhappy? We glanced at each other and nodded, clicking yes, clicking most of the time, clicking always.
Sarah liked to sit in a steaming bath in a dark bathroom, only moving to refresh the hot water as it cooled. We made playlists with bands like Feeder, Blink-182, and Green Day. “Time of Your Life” always moistened my eyes. If it failed to, I’d keep my lids peeled wide, eyeballs burning, until tears sprung forth. Rain-streaked windows begged our foreheads to press against their panes. Wet, lamplit streets had been designed for our feet. Knives deserved deep contemplation. Black eyeliner was meant to be applied thick.
We’d picked these ideas up from role models just as unstable as we’d been. Lisa from Girl, Interrupted, especially as played on-screen by Angelina Jolie, threatening to shove a pen in her own gorgeous aorta. Marla from Fight Club, touring support groups and doing a “cry-for-help-thing” via Xanax overdose. Esther from The Bell Jar, privileged, talented, crazy—and suicidal. I loved the scene in which she tossed all her dresses out the window to fall into a New York skyline. I wanted to be just like her.
Sixty tablets of aspirin sat on the counter. I gulped them down with orange juice, a few at a time. The simplicity amazed me. Hand to mouth, hand to glass, tilt and swallow. Repeat. It took less than a minute.
Nothing had happened that day. I didn’t get dumped. I didn’t get in a fight with Sarah. I didn’t spill ketchup on my favorite dress. I didn’t get un-invited to the last pool party of the summer. That morning, I simply woke up depressed, terrified to start high school the next week. A heaviness, like motor oil, oozed through my torso, my limbs. I wanted it gone.
I’d cried in front of the mirror. I’d clutched my hair and paced. I’d balled up and rocked. My mom was at work, but even if she had been at home, I wouldn’t have wanted to tell her how I felt. By thirteen, I’d already started turning to friends instead of her for comfort. She didn’t want to talk to me about boys. When a group of girls teased me for buying the same dress that the head cheerleader had worn last week, my mom told me to wear it anyway. If I felt sad, she’d tell me to “fake it till I make it” and forced me to run errands with her instead of moping around the house. Mom just didn’t “get me” anymore. I didn’t like her solutions, so I’d found new, non-parental heroines to follow.
Five years earlier, my parents had divorced. I’d been pulled out of my fancy private school for gifted kids and planted in a country public school in Cicero, Indiana. Then, two years later, my mom and I left my two older brothers behind—one already in college, the other a high school senior—for Lynchburg, Virginia, 500 miles away from the only home I’d known. When we moved, I slipped off my dad’s radar. He and I saw each other at Christmas and summer vacation, but other than that, we barely spoke. Unless a child-support issue cropped up, my mom didn’t talk to him, either.
After two years of unemployment, my mom had gotten hired to teach dance at Virginia School of the Arts. With an MFA in dance and, before that, an international performing career, she was more than qualified, but finding a job had been hard because she hadn’t worked full-time since she started having kids. Before the divorce, she was always home in the afternoons, baking chocolate-chip cookies or slicing apples. Post-move, my after-school snacks happened in an empty house. No one made them for me.
Compared to many kids, I had it easy. I had a home to go to after school, a nice one, surrounded by mulched, weeded, and terraced gardens. Inside, whole-wheat Triscuits and Smuckers all-natural peanut butter filled the cabinets. Each month, when the Delia’s catalogue came, all I had to do was dog-ear the pages and highlight the clothes I liked, and my mom would order them for me. When I wanted hair like Alicia Silverstone, my mom paid for the layers and highlights. I may have been a latchkey kid, but I was a spoiled one.
That afternoon, I didn’t consider any of that—not the divorce and subsequent move, not my brothers living parallel lives I couldn’t see, not my absent dad. Like all teenagers, I lived in my own head. I didn’t understand the permanence of suicide. It seemed like a solution. Relief. An equation: ending my life equaled ending that motor-oil feeling. With no trusted grown-up, or even a sibling to talk to, I didn’t have anyone to check my math.
Mental illness had started flirting with me that year, but not enough to cause real alarm, certainly not enough for me to tell my mom about it. Some weekends, I sat in front of the computer for hours. I joined AOL chat rooms with names like “Depressed and Lonely” and “Suicidal Thoughts.” Life felt pointless, especially on empty afternoons when I had nothing to do. I’d slump on the couch and watch VH1’s Pop-Up Video until Behind the Music came on, then I’d turn the TV off and wander from room to room. I’d pet the cats. I’d pick up knick-knacks—a clay knight my brother Chris had made in middle school, a wrought-iron candlestick, a wooden leopard—and put them down again. In my mom’s room, I’d rifle through her drawers, pull out the silk scarves she’d bought in Tehran and hold them up to my face, filtering my vision in gold. I’d untangle my hair with her brush, try on her old jade ring. Upstairs, I’d open the cabinet with all the old family photos and look through them. I thought I looked like a fat, bratty kid, an ugly baby.
Sitting on that kitchen stool with all that aspirin in my belly, those images of me—fat, ugly—ran through my head, followed by others. M&Ms and tiny wads of paper hitting the back of my head on the bus. Eli Brewer, the seventh-grade hunk, jerking his chair as far away from mine as possible when he got assigned to my table in art class. A group of shiny-haired girls laughing at my own frizzy ponytail.
Shame warmed my face. What a loser I’d been. Until I met Sarah, I didn’t have friends. With her, I’d found a band of rich misfits. Kids who snuck out to wander moonlit Lynchburg streets and light firecrackers on railroad tracks, the hijinks fueled by sips stolen from parents’ liquor cabinets. Sometimes, we got caught, but rarely. When we did, the punishment was minimal. A week at home, grounded. No Sega in the bedroom. No friends over on weekdays.
Considering all this, fear spilled into me. What if I got into trouble? What if my mom found out? What would she think? What if it doesn’t work? What if I don’t die? What would happen to me then? The question that didn’t cross my mind, but must have been there, swimming below the surface: What if I didn’t want to die, after all? Just as quickly as the suicidal urge had hit me, it left, and my attempt seemed dumb and melodramatic instead of sophisticated and final. In the bathroom, I pressed two fingers to my tonsils and retched once, twice, three times. White foam, cherry tomato skins, and bile. I called Sarah and told her what I’d done. She said I’d better come over and spend the night.
When my mom got home from work, I asked her for a ride. While she drove, I stared at her face, trying to see if she could tell, if her motherly intuition tingled. I feared her worry, the face she made when I did wrong, her mouth tightening like a string. It stayed loose, so I relaxed.
I’d made a mistake, sixty of them, but I’d puked, so I’d be okay, right? Sarah looked at my pupils and felt my pulse, nodding, her sharp chin moving up and down. Yes. She confirmed I would be fine. We agreed I didn’t need to tell my mom. That afternoon, we walked in the woods and smoked cigarettes stolen from her dad’s pack of Camels, our long brown hair bandanna’d back so it wouldn’t absorb the nicotine smell. An ache pulsed behind my eyes, but we blamed the cigarettes. We chose outfits from her closet for our Saturday night—long Indian-print skirts and spaghetti-strap tank tops. At a football game, the first of the pre-season, we sat next to friends. Cool summer evening air. Bleachers, popcorn, cheers.
By the final buzzer, I knew I wasn’t fine. Head spinning, ears ringing, heart pounding—but I couldn’t admit that I might be dying.
Back at Sarah’s house, we ordered Papa John’s. I ate, ignoring the spinning and ringing, hoping the food would halt it. She fell asleep to late-night Cartoon Network. I didn’t. The spinning got faster. The ringing got louder. Sweat prickled above my lips.
I clenched and unclenched my fists. I glanced at Sarah, hoping she’d wake up, but she slept like an old German Shepherd, all heavy breaths and twitchy nose. I pulled myself up, trudged to the bathroom, stared in the mirror, and slid back into bed. My feet felt swollen and hot under her blue comforter, so I stood up. I turned off the TV and looked at the clock. 2:00 A.M. I lay down again. I closed my eyes. A year, a decade, a century passed. I opened my eyes. 2:21. Sweat glued the sheets to my skin. I rolled to my side, away from the clock. The ringing continued. I dozed, then jolted. 3:05.
I passed the hours like that until 5:30 A.M. By then, my world had narrowed, literally. No peripheral vision. My hands trembled. I crept into the kitchen, where I picked up the cordless phone, stepped outside, and dialed my mom. The moon still glowed in the lightening sky, white and round as an aspirin tablet.
As we drove to the emergency room, my terrified mom watched me from the driver’s seat as I shook, my face slick with sweat. I paled, shivered, breathed fast and then faster.
“What did you take?” Her voice cracked.
All I’d said over the phone was that I needed her to come and get me. “Aspirin.” My voice stayed flat, quiet. “I was trying to kill myself.”
“Oh, Em. Oh, God.” She pressed the accelerator.
In the emergency room, I passed out. After 52 hours of sleep, I woke up alone in a hospital room with white walls, shiny floors, and a thin beige curtain islanding my bed from the rest of the room. Wires and tubes connected my body to the machines blinking next to me. A TV hung from a corner ceiling. A bank of cream shelves and cabinets lined half of one wall. Remnants of my mom’s visits took up one of those shelves. A package of orange crackers, the one type of junk food she liked. A Margaret Atwood book. TIME magazine. A bag of knitting. A black, nubby sweater, folded neatly, with large, square buttons marching down its middle.
By 8:00 a.m., my mom had returned, thrilled to see me awake. “You don’t know how glad I am to see you.” She sat on the edge of my bed and brushed the hair from my face, then stood and fussed around my bed, straightening the blanket and clearing my breakfast dishes from the tray next to my head. I rolled my eyes, but part of me must have felt satisfied to have her full attention. I didn’t think to ask her if she’d called my dad. I knew she hadn’t and I was glad for it. She saw him as the enemy, so I did, too.
That afternoon, a slim, white-haired doctor ordered my transfer to the juvenile psychiatric ward at the hospital across town. When he left the room, I sobbed. My mom hugged me. “I’m so sorry. This isn’t my choice—you know I’d have you home with me in a second. But they have to keep you. You tried to hurt yourself, dear one.”
Patients only stayed in the psych ward long enough to make sure they didn’t have bad reactions to whatever medications they’d started. I spent five days there. Five days of wearing pants with no drawstring and shoes without laces. Five days of brushing my teeth in front of a mirror of polished metal. Five days of seeing the outside only through wire-gridded, glass windows. Five days of sitting in group therapy among teens who’d filigreed their arms with razors, or thought the Martians were coming, or threatened to stab a sibling. My first five days on antidepressants. The only physical evidence from my stay is a yellow legal pad, the poems I wrote in it. Most were about grey weather and lost fathers. I illustrated these verses with thorny roses and sad-eyed, thick-lipped women’s faces. Out loud, I claimed the divorce and move hadn’t affected me, but my writing says otherwise.
The day after my release, I asked my mom to take me to Sarah’s house. Sarah met me at the door with a hug and a bag of Funyuns, then we ran upstairs and flopped belly-down on her bed. With the Rent soundtrack warbling in the background, we deconstructed my psych ward stay and dismissed most of it as “lame.” “It’s not like the movies at all,” I groaned. “They didn’t even let me smoke!” I was thinking of what I’d seen on screen and on the page—of Lisa, of Marla, of Esther—of the women who represented ideal.
But Esther isn’t who I wanted to be. Even when I filled my gut with little white pills, I craved escape, not death. What I really wanted was to be one of Esther’s black dresses, thrown through an open high-rise window out of a narrative too painful to bear—to float kite-like, free, down to a city sidewalk, never to be mentioned again.
Emma Faesi Hudelson teaches writing at Butler University in Indianapolis, where she lives in a house by the woods with three dogs, two cats, and one husband. Her work appears in Booth, BUST, Chickpea Magazine, Linden Avenue, Lost Balloon, and other publications, and she was a finalist in the 2017 International Literary Awards in Creative Nonfiction.