Tomorrow is Thanksgiving.
The other night I found myself reading through my old high school journals, and they all started and ended like that: short, clipped sentences, dense and muscular but starved for context. (I think I was reading a lot of Chuck Palahniuk at the time.)
“We lost the football game last night,” one begins tersely.
Another entire page reads: “I went to [boy]’s house today. Got a hickey. I guess he and I have some things to discuss.”
Then came the slightly longer entries… like the one where I sat in the shower and told myself I wouldn’t leave until I came up with a hundred reasons to live.
“I stayed until my hands pruned and the water ran cold,” I wrote. “I didn’t even make it to 25.”
That story is true, by the way. I remember that shower. I also remember the night, New Year’s Eve later that same year, when I drove my car to the edge of a cliff and sat there with the engine running for over an hour. A police officer eventually knocked on my window, and through my sobbing I could only choke out one phrase to him: I just need a minute. I just need a minute, just give me a minute.
And, for better or worse, he did. He actually put his hands up as if in defense, got back into his cruiser, and drove off. (If you can count on anything in this life, it’s that men will always back away from a girl in hysterics.)
I’m alive to tell this story today not because I had some inspirational life-saving epiphany, but rather a vain one: Seeing the officer reminded me that I technically had alcohol in my system. I had driven here from a New Year’s Eve party at a friend’s house – and even though I regularly experienced suicidal ideation while sober, it was somehow important to me that the alcohol not be blamed. It would’ve been easy to drive off the cliff by accident, and that’s probably the story they would tell. But that wouldn’t be what had happened, and I didn’t want to be another drunk driving statistic.
A true storyteller by nature, I wanted to be able to control the narrative… even when I wouldn’t be around to hear it.
So, I put my Toyota in reverse and pulled carefully away from the precipice that day, in more ways than one. I never came that close again.
When I reflect on it now, part of me wonders if I ever really thought I would do it. I truthfully don’t know. But I will say this: In some ways it surprises me that I didn’t. I had been thinking about it for so long, and I came so close, and it seemed (at least for a moment) that I had finally found the resolve. Not following through with it felt almost cowardly at the time.
I know that isn’t the right way to think about it. Of course putting the car in reverse was the bravest thing I could do – I was returning to fight the dragon rather than running away from it. But depression does funny things to your brain like that. I remember sort-of admiring people who could carry it through. Mostly, I just imagined it… and when those imaginings never turned into action, it just became one more shortcoming with which to bludgeon myself. How can you fail even at this?
The right thing to say now is how grateful I am that I didn’t do it. It would be even better if I could report how much happier I am these days – how the cosmic forces all fell into place and now I can’t imagine how I ever considered it to begin with. I’m tempted here to write about all the wonderful things that have happened to me in my life – I have such a loving, supportive family. My friends are true and dear to me. The work I do is diverse and fulfilling. I have never wanted for anything. Even as I write this, I’m sitting in a comfortable bedroom under a blanket with a candle burning next to me, filling the room with the scent of evergreen. I’m listening to music. It would be easy, and preferable, to end this story with something uplifting.
But part of the reason this particular memory has been nagging at me lately is because 16-year-old Susie feels like a friend to me now. I understand her; I feel like I can cup her in the palm of my hand and nuzzle her against my cheek. And I now have another decade-plus of life experience, perspective, and some therapy under my belt to better articulate what she was going through.
Six years later, she went through it again. The specifics then were different: it wasn’t teenage angst that acted as a catalyst that time but the perfect storm of job, living situation, and personal relationships all conspiring to hit rock bottom simultaneously for eight straight months. I hardly remember this time in my life, I trudged through it in such a fog. Each day was a carbon copy of the last, fading more and more over time.
When I recall this period now it’s like I’m watching the scene unfold through a dirty window: beyond a general sense of despair and hopelessness, I can call very few details into focus. The watching TV but not really seeing it. The night I walked to a gas station by myself and saw a figure eyeing me from the shadows, and wondered vaguely why I didn’t even care enough to quicken my pace. The time my mom sent flowers to my apartment because my voice had sounded so hauntingly despondent on the phone that she didn’t know what else to do.
That one was easier to break through because it was so wrapped up in circumstance; moving to a new state and getting a new job and making new friends was enough to jostle me awake.
But here I am, five years after that, sinking back down again – and I don’t have circumstance to blame. My life is laughably non-depressing these days. I’m on the brink of buying my own place. I have a job I love, and colleagues I revere. I just got back from a cruise, for Christ’s sake.
And yet, when I opened my high school journal it didn’t feel like I was reminiscing on a past version of myself. It felt like someone had snuck into my brain today, traveled back in time, and captured my thoughts on paper retroactively.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t feel compelled to drive off a cliff, and I’ve wised up enough not to tempt fate with a “100 reasons to live” challenge in the shower (even then, I think, I knew that was just asking for trouble).
But that same sense of loss (without really losing anything), of loneliness (even surrounded by people), of sadness without cause, of an emptiness that nothing can fill… on those counts, I may as well still be that same lost little girl blinking through tears as she writes in her journal.
Anyway, tomorrow is Thanksgiving.
Hopefully we’ll win the football game.
I don’t anticipate any hickeys.