COUNTDOWN- THREE DAYS
It is mid-morning on Wednesday, November 26th, 2008. I am staring at a computer screen in my cubicle, one among many at my current place of employment, a small state agency in Downtown Boston that hired me through a personal connection. I have absolutely no interest in anything I’m doing at work, but after realizing that I have absolutely no interest in anything I’m doing in my life, I figure it doesn’t matter anyways. In the two-month period that I’ve worked here, I have called in sick five times and narrowly escaped termination for it after quickly fabricating a deceitful story to cover up my shameful lie— that these ‘sick’ days are simply the mornings when facing the bright and hopeful world with a searing and hopeless hangover feels too much to bear, and I can’t find the psychological strength to pull myself out of the cocoon of my bed to face my fated reality.
I see that my bipolar disorder has progressed dangerously, and I find myself ‘rapid cycling’, as my doctor calls it, on a daily basis. Despite feeling chronically depressed, I somehow manage to be consistently ‘manic’, behaving impulsively and self-destructively, and thinking thoughts that ping around my brain like machine-gun bullets. My medication regimen has been whittled down to only three different prescriptions— 200 mg of the mood stabilizer Lamictal, down from 400 mg, which gave me akathisia; 30 mg of the antidepressant Lexapro, the highest recommended dosage; and 3 mg of the benzodiazepine Klonopin, a large dosage that I’ve come to easily tolerate and rely on for sleep.
As I do each day, I am counting down the hours until the clock strikes five and I can flee my coworkers, rip my mask of normality off and find escape in a 6-pack of Harpoon IPA and a 6-pack of Geary’s Hampshire Special Ale. I remind myself that I’ll need to drive tonight to Southern Maine, where the rest of my fifteen-person extended family now sits by the fire, excited for Thanksgiving lunch tomorrow, the only time each year when the entire family on my dad’s side comes together to give thanks. Right now, in this moment, it feels utterly impossible to feel gratitude for anything other than the convenience store in the North End that I’ll be visiting in fifteen minutes to get those twelve beers. I wish this weren’t the case, but it is my reality.
In the last few weeks, my clothes have started to hang off of my body, as I’ve almost entirely stopped eating and operate instead on an artificial high fueled by a 4-shot Americano for breakfast, a 3-shot Americano for lunch, and for dinner, a bottle or two of wine and my only meal of the day, jalapeno poppers or mozzarella sticks from the greasy pizza joint near me in South Boston where I’ve impulsively moved with my current boyfriend. I have picked up a smoking habit that I thought I’d put to rest in 2002 but that has mysteriously become appealing to me once again. I have almost entirely stopped calling my psychiatrist, canceling appointments with her on a regular basis due to the ‘inconvenience’ of driving all the way from Southie to Harvard Square. I have been spending inordinately large sums of money on high-heeled shoes and dresses— material possessions for which I have no need, for I sure as hell haven’t been planning on attending a party any time soon.
On my lunch break, I flee my office on Broad Street and power-walk through the biting November cold, bare-legged and jacketless both because I couldn’t care less about my health and because I am desperate to feel something, anything, even if it’s the stinging air against my skin. Tucked inside an empty stoop in Faneuil Hall, I light up a cigarette and feel the buzz trickle through my limbs. For a brief minute, I forget my reality. When the buzz fades, and I am thrown back into myself, I walk back to the office, take a few deep breaths, and reenter my workplace role, aided by my Ann Taylor cardigan, wool skirt, and black pumps, like a young child who’s raided her mother’s closet, wanting to play grown-up. The remaining hours of the day drag themselves past me like nails on a chalkboard.
At five o’clock, a surge of energy flows through me. I feel rejuvenated, giddy even, as I anticipate the first cold beer that I’ll cling to desperately. I am ready and willing to go to any lengths for the ‘solution’ that lies in these beautiful bottles, and I set myself on my nightly path to oblivion.
Six hours later, I crossed the Piscataqua Bridge, leaving New Hampshire and entering Maine. I don’t remember driving the hour up I-95 that brought me to the kitchen door of my family’s house, the smell of a wood fire most likely coating the brisk night air. I don’t remember what happened when I opened that door and entered the cozy warmth of our family room in my undoubtedly jarring state of negativity. I don’t remember falling to sleep that night.
COUNTDOWN- TWO DAYS
It is Thursday, November 27th, 2008. My eyes open, I realize where I am, and I wonder how I got here from Boston. It hits me that it’s Thanksgiving, the day my family treasures most dearly, and I cringe, pulling the quilt over my head. By my own doing— for years, I see, but most intensely in these last few months— I have ceased to be a part of my family, convinced that it is better for everyone that I detach and float aimlessly and perilously in my own isolated bubble, the rest of life living on around me, my stagnancy trapping me in the mire of my fate.
I wonder how I’m going to face fifteen family members, each of whom I know is deeply concerned about me, without running away— whether to the bottle, to Boston, or to somewhere far darker. The pain I experience with the sight of each agonizing look that flashes across my parents’ eyes, each furrowed brow, deep sigh, or wringing of the hands, each tensed shoulder or pursed lip or searching gaze, is like a sharp knife in my side, persistently pushing itself deeper, the agonizing sensation radiating through my body to the tips of my fingers and toes. I am used to self-inflicted pain, yes, but the pain that comes from seeing the path of destruction I have left in my wake, the heaps of damage that have piled themselves around my family members over all these years, is a different breed that I just don’t know how to tolerate.
I sit up in bed, stare with unfocused eyes into the space before me, and brace myself for the guilt and shame I know I will be feeling when I go downstairs.
The details of this day failed to ingrain themselves in my mind. Other than a memory of leaving the table within twenty minutes of sitting down for the Thanksgiving meal and of feeling a desperation to be in the skin of any other human being on earth other than my own, I have no recollection of this day.
COUNTDOWN- ONE DAY
I am back at work in Boston on Friday morning, November 28th, 2008, after waking up early to drive the hour down. I feel temporary relief to be away from the rawness that comes with watching a desperate and loving family surround me with failed attempts to bring me back to them, to bring me to safety, to bring me back to who I used to be. I stare at the computer screen all day, dreading the fact that I’m heading back to Maine again tonight, and focus on getting to five o’clock and my alcoholic oblivion once again.
No further memories from this day set themselves firm in my mind, other than fleeting ones of drinking after work. I once again drove back to Maine and to my increasingly panicked family.
SATURDAY, NOVEMBER 29th, 2008
I wake up in the same comfortably uncomfortable cognitive fog as always, yet this morning feels different. I sense something ominous in my gut, a sense of foreboding that is indefinable but powerful nonetheless. I am completely unsure of the aftermath that surely awaits me as a result of my late-night return to Maine after yet another drinking spree. I imagine my family busy in the kitchen, frying eggs and cooking bacon and putting on a fresh pot of coffee and lighting a fire and doing the things that normal families do, while I sit here upstairs, in my bed, with a dulled heart and a powerful sense of indifference towards my life.
The few steps down the stairs and through the living room to the family room take what seems like an eternity to traverse, the creak of old floorboards under my bare feet reminding me of the weight I am carrying, of just how much space I am taking up on this earth. I open the door to the family room and see my parents awaiting me in the kitchen, looking yearningly into my face, their coffee mugs steaming in front of them. Their silence is deafening and carries the agonizing weight of immediate consequence—I know in my heart of hearts that I have arrived at a fork in the road and that some sort of an intervention is imminent.
My parents ask to speak to me in a quiet place. Too detached from the present moment to challenge their plea, I concede. We walk into an empty room, my heart pounding with dread. I have never seen my parents’ faces so grave, and it scares me. The surrounding noises in the house fade into the background as I enter a sensory tunnel, hearing only the calm voice emanating from my father’s mouth as my parents sit before me, each in an armchair, and I perch myself, legs tucked underneath my knees, on the sofa that sits just under the window with a perfect view of the ocean. It is a beautiful, clear day. I notice this, and smile subtly, a haunting sense of nostalgia sweeping over me for this home and the barn and the fields and the beach and the rocky coast, as I realize, unsure why, that after today I’ll never see it again.
“Laura, we are deeply concerned about you and can’t sit back any longer. We just can’t stand to see you doing this to yourself anymore. You are trapped and you can’t get out and you need help. You just can’t do this on your own any more. Some changes need to happen.”
A beautiful and entirely foreign wave of calm sweeps over me as time stands still and I hear the profound pain manifested in my father’s voice, as collected as I’ve ever heard it. The meaning of this inner peace slowly makes itself apparent as I realize why it is that I feel such nostalgia— my time here on earth has come to an end. I have given life a shot, I have thrown every ounce of strength into living my days and going through the motions of a life I feel trapped in and enslaved by, and I am tired. The peace I feel is the paradoxical freedom of surrender, and newfound clarity of purpose pulses through me. It all makes sense, what I need to do. It becomes clear to me that my family will be better off without me. I think this all silently, as my father continues on.
He is crying while he speaks, still calmly but now with a tensed jaw. I almost never see my father cry— once when his father died a long time ago, and maybe once again when I was in high school. My mother is crying, tears silently streaming down her cheeks. They both speak, but the words fade into the background of my consciousness as I continue to focus on this new peace of mind that has flooded the years of built-up chaos in my mind, drowning it out, quieting my thoughts for the first time in as long as I can remember.
Yes, it will be better for them in the long-term. The short-term will be painful, I understand this, but in the end, it is truly better for everyone. I have sucked them dry for all these years, drained any goodness and health and happiness that might have once composed our family makeup and left in its place a toxic mess of instability, unpredictability, and raw pain. I can’t put them through this any more. I can’t put myself through this any more. I am tired. I am so tired, to the marrow of my bones, and I can’t fight this fight any more. I don’t want to fight this fight any more. I surrender.
…“Laura, do you agree? Will you make these changes? We can help you.”
I smile and nod, unsure of what, exactly, my father is talking about but knowing that it doesn’t matter anyways. In just a matter of time, it will all be over. I will once and for all have freedom. I look out the window, the rolling fields guiding my eyes to the sea beyond, and I feel grateful that the final chapter of my life will unfold in this beautiful place— my favorite place in the world, the place where I hold my fondest childhood memories, of searching for crabs at low tide, of adventures in the woods, of searching for deer at dusk, of fishing with my father off the rocks, of games of ‘Ghost in the Graveyard’ on pitch-black nights in the fields with my sisters and cousins. My life has come full circle. I can go to sleep for the last time knowing that I’ve been brought back to my innocence, to the start of my life before it fell off its track so many years ago.
I tell my parents that I need to go for a walk, that I need some time to think and to write. They ask if I’ll be OK, and I look at them and tell them I’ll be fine. I am on a mission now, completely and entirely focused on my main objective. I feel no emotions, programmed to get this job done without a delay or roadblock. I get up off the sofa, go to my room, and gather my pill bottles, each having just been refilled and now stocked with almost a month’s supply of medications. I dump the contents of the bottles into a mitten, which now rests in my lap, filled up halfway with hundreds of pills, and I realize that these bottles cannot be left empty should someone get suspicious and come looking for them. This plan cannot be foiled. I think for a moment, and go down to the bathroom in search of something to restock them with. I find acetaminophen, and move quickly back to my room to fill the pill bottles with the obscure white pills that I know my family won’t recognize.
What next, let’s see. Laptop. Get your laptop ready. You’ll need to write a note saying goodbye. You’ll need to explain everything.
I make sure the top of the mitten is securely folded over, tucked in with its mate, and put them carefully in my pocket. I grab a jacket and a hat. I need a bag. Laptop in hand, I go back to the kitchen and ask my cousin to borrow her backpack. I reassure her she’ll get it back.
Wine, I need wine. I can’t do this sober.
My eyes scan the scene in the kitchen and family room. There are several people milling about. A partially full case of merlot sits on the floor of the pantry, and I know that all it will take is a few seconds free from anyone’s line of sight for me to grab the neck of one of the bottles and quickly tuck it in my jacket. I also realize that this needs to be done with the utmost caution— the smallest misstep could completely destroy my plans. I wait patiently.
A corkscrew. I’ll need one of those, too.
I know this is easier. In less than a minute, I’ve strategically placed myself against the island in the center of the kitchen, the drawer containing the corkscrew at mid-thigh height. I pretend to lean on the island, one elbow on the countertop, the other arm hanging at my side as my fingers surreptitiously grasp the handle, pull the drawer out ever so slightly, and rummage around until the smooth, cold curves of the tool are under my grip and before I know it it’s in my pocket. I wait until the number of people dwindles down, and the remaining family members are in the family room with their backs turned. I make a quick dash for the pantry, successfully grab a bottle, and tuck it inside my jacket, the base of the glass resting in the crook of my elbow, my arms hugging my cousin’s backpack to the front of my stomach.
I announce to the room that I’m heading out to write and need some time to think.
Eyes lift up as I put on my shoes and bundle up. I’m pretty sure the rest of my family has no idea about the conversation that just happened in the other room with my parents. I yearn to say goodbye, but realize with an ache in my heart that it’s impossible. I’ll say my goodbyes in the letter. Silently, without hesitation, I open the mudroom door and leave the warm, cozy mustiness of the home my dad grew up in for what I know is the last time. I feel thankful that my grandmother, the woman I admired more than anyone in life, who gave me my passion for the ocean and for anthropology and who always told me I could do anything with my life, is not alive to see me surrender it.
The door closes behind me, its soft bang filling me with a wistful longing for the countless childhood days of running back from the beach and into the house with sandy feet and salty hair. Behind that door, I’ve left my life as I’ve come to know it since that first fork in the road in eighth grade. Had I gone left instead of right at the moment when I looked at myself in the mirror and saw a stranger, maybe I wouldn’t be here right now. But this is my reality, this is my truth, and I feel a calm sense of assurance that finally, in giving up the fight, I will find peace.
I start the quarter-mile walk to the ocean, through wintery fields coated by a perimeter of leafless trees. I have walked this beaten path to the rocks thousands of times in my life, with feet once carrying a lively and naïve four-year old, later a confused and conflicted adolescent, and now, at twenty-five, a young woman with a seriously debilitating and treatment-resistant mental illness. It is the first time walking this path knowing that I won’t be coming back.
As I willingly walk to my fate, the devastating loneliness of self-imposed isolation that has plagued me for so many years slowly melts into solitude. For the first time in a long time, I can look at nature around me and see beauty. As I emerge from the woods’ path onto the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, the brilliance of the afternoon sun on the deep blue water takes my breath away. I am awed by the glaring splendor of a world that will continue on without me. I turn left, and make my way along the boulders and small cliffs that unfold along the low-tide mark. After walking for a few minutes, I find a large boulder that I can nestle myself behind, hidden from sight should someone come looking for me. There are a countless number of paths I could have taken, and I feel confident that I’ve found a spot that is impossible to find. I know, as well, that the sun will be setting in a couple of hours, and that dusk will keep me even safer from sight.
Propped up against the boulder, my eyes scanning the horizon of the ocean, I begin to reflect on my life. In this moment, I am brought close to my humanity, maybe more so than I’ve ever been. I think about the twenty-five years of my life and about where it went wrong. I was once a successful daughter, sister, athlete, friend, and student. I once had dreams that I aimed for, goals that I set and accomplished, responsibilities that I could meet with ease. I once could look in the mirror and know the person looking back at me, could be completely content spending time in solitude without need for distraction or escape, could feel like I was genuine and integrated and confident. These abilities fell away one by one over the years, like a tree slowly shedding its twenty-five year coat, each withered leaf drifting to the ground to decompose until all that are left are barren limbs haunted by vague, teasing memories of vitality.
I once had the capacity to laugh until my belly hurt, to hug another human being and lose myself in the embrace, to look deeply into the eyes of another person without turning my gaze down, to feel a glimmer of joy streak through my eyes in a moment of pure happiness. Happiness, the taunting enigma that has sat perched on the distant periphery of my mind for all these years, baffling and unfamiliar. Happiness, the dearest of childhood friends, who left me long ago.
All that remains is that I am bipolar. I am a chronic mental patient. I need to take medications for the rest of my life if I ever hope to get stable, but never recovered. I am incapable of taking care of myself, incapable of taking care of another human being, and incapable of feeling connected to others. I am constantly depressed, constantly fighting back tsunami waves of despair and ruminating about the futility of trying to get better. I am dishonest, deceitful, and secretive, my impulsive escapism taking me to places I never could have imagined I’d have gone had I been asked long ago where I thought I’d be in my twenties. Never in my wildest nightmares could I have imagined that I’d be the person I am today. Never.
My hand reaches for my pocket, and I pull out the mittens. I feel the weight of the pills nestled within the knitted wool resting in my palm. It amazes me that these inanimate, miniscule objects hold my fate in their chemical makeup, and that I once put every ounce of my faith in them to save me and bring me back to that elusive happiness. I reflect for a moment on the morbid irony of this situation, and decide it’s time to take my laptop out and begin the goodbye note to my family.
Seagulls glide on wind currents, and the reddening sun sits mid-sky. I begin to type, the mittens and wine bottle watching me silently.
[Note to Reader- These are verbatim excerpts, with no editing since this letter was last saved at 2:47PM on November 29th, 2008. I have removed identifying names and certain personal messages to family members to protect their privacy.]
I will not try to make this poetic, for it shouldn’t be. It is embarrasingly cliché to assume that one should write a letter to her loved ones upon ending her life, but I didn’t have the time to say goodbye, as our typical family chaos (which I cherish more than almost anything) would not allow me the time nor the discretion.
Before I go on, I want to say that I’ve had a wonderful life. Through my ups and downs, I couldn’t have asked for a better family to tolerate me and be patient beyond what should ever be required.
I have tried so hard to avoid this moment, though in my heart I knew it would eventually happen. Maybe I have given myself enough of a chance; maybe I could have written something that captured everything I would have ever wanted to say in a novel, something that Grammy would have been proud. I know she would say, ‘Oh God, Laura, snap out of it. Don’t be ridiculous’, were she alive today and had she watched this process happen right now. And while I choose not to believe in Heaven, should it for some odd reason exist, I hope she’s there and that she’ll accept this ultimate form of weakness.
I truly want you all to know that I realize the selfish nature of what I am doing. But in all the analysis I’ve been doing in my head (for years now, but today in particular), I realize that, in the long run, it’s better for all of you. I would never have a life of normality, of inner peace, of solitude. It just isn’t in the cards for me. And to put you through what I’ve already put you through for decades is not fair.
My head is never silent. No matter how hard I try (and please believe me when I say that I’ve tried as hard as humanly possible), the noise of my thoughts never ceases. Peace, I realized, is not something I was ‘meant’ to have. The days of the Skating Club, of having my first crush on good ol’ XX, of my first love (I dreamed about him last night, in fact)- they were fleeting in the grand scheme of things. Since 8th grade it’s been different. I’ve been different. I’ve been cruel to you all and none of you deserved any of it. Looking back on it now, I genuinely believe that I didn’t have the self-awareness to understand where my anger was coming from, and I therefore directed it at the ones I loved most.
I keep writing paragraphs and with each one I say to myself to take the pills now. I didn’t do any research, so I don’t know how long it takes for me to leave. I’m going to say 10 more minutes. I also don’t want the possibility of anyone finding me. While I chose a place close to home, and most importantly, on the ocean, I truly was not doing this as a cry for help. This needs to happen. It really does. Should someone find me before it’s happened, don’t make the effort to make it stop. We’re far enough away from the house, I am too heavy, body and soul, and there is no way that I will be convinced otherwise. You know, it’s funny. I remember reading a statistic that said that the majority of people who take their lives do so without writing a letter, and that the act of writing a letter, furthermore, makes someone less likely to follow through. While I can sit hear and fantasize about a wonderful life that I could have, should I drag my mind towards sanity (the location of which I have no idea), it does make it harder to count down the minutes until I take my pills.
I go on to write messages to my aunt, my cousins, my sisters. Tears stream silently down my face, although I’m not weeping. The minutes tick themselves down until the time comes to write the last message to my parents. I am faced with the end, the path leading me to the edge of the cliff. There are no alternate routes, no safe way down, no ladder to the depths below. I must jump. I uncork the wine bottle and take a long swallow, gulping down about a third of its contents. After pouring the first handful of pills into my palm, I close my eyes, take a deep breath, and shove them into my mouth, the bitter acidity of a hundred pills’ worth of dissolving chemicals overwhelming my tongue, and I wash them down with another long swallow of wine. Another handful, followed by another swallow. Another handful, another swallow. Knowing now that my fate is sealed, I quickly finish the rest of the wine and begin writing the message to my parents, unsure of how long I have before I go under.
They are almost all in me, so Mom and Dad, I want to say as much as I can to you before they start to take effect. Your undying love for me is something that I don’t understand. I have put you through hell and back, and time and time agai you are there for me with arms wide open, ready to take me in and hold me and tell me everything is going to be all right. I have tried my hardest to believe this for years, and time and time again I’ve made the effort to make it happen. I feel incoherene coming on, so typos and potentially incomprehensible words are going to follow. I understand your love for me. I understand what I’ve done to make your lives so fucking hard- and when I say this, I am not asking for guilt or remorse or anything from you. bnk vj,I mn jkt mono,pkp,; xmpmky[nhbm
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My head now feels heavy, as though my neck no longer has the strength to support its weight. My sight starts to narrow, tunnel-vision setting in, and it becomes increasingly harder to stay sitting upright. I fall over and hear my head smack on the rock, although all I feel is numbness. I pull myself upright. This is the last thing I remember.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.