I picked up the knife and slashed open my wrist.
* * *
Hospitals all smell the same. The sharp tang of disinfectant gently sears the nose. The nurse examining my arm seemed to be combating the chemical stench with her perfume, which had a chemical scent of its own. She couldn’t have been over 40, but her mouth was lined with tiny wrinkles and her heavy-lidded eyes had something serpentine about them. That was it; she had an aura of the serpent’s morality about her.
The tan walls of the hospital room look like they have recently been painted. The cabinets could have been installed yesterday. I’ve been placed on a partially reclined hospital chair. My left hand is set on a metal tray. My right hand is free instead of being strapped down to the chair, on the condition that I don’t, you know, go crazy. The security guard puts it in terms of “the worst has passed” and that I should just “stay calm.” Too late, I think.
The guard’s eyes are focused on the hallway; nurses stride by, and he watches their legs through their hospital attire. He’s enjoying himself, but apparently the view from inside the room isn’t good enough. After a few minutes of conversation, mostly carried on by him, he decides that “You’re cool, man, you’re fine,” and he leaves the room. Once he tomcats off, it is another ten minutes until the nurse enters. She has a younger woman in tow, and both of them are wearing floral-print scrubs. Somewhere within that time frame my friend James shows up, though how he was allowed into the room I don’t learn until later – he has claimed to be my brother, and my parents abetted him.
My parents are in the waiting room. I asked them to leave when my mother started crying again. My father guided her out, his hand gently around her shoulders. They both seem to be bearing new burdens. My fault, I think. It will be a common theme of the next few years. In fact, it had been a common theme for more than a few. At least this time I was correct.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, over thirty six thousand people die by suicide in the U.S. every year. That’s about one hundred people every day. It’s the third leading cause of death for people ages 15 to 24. The National Institute of Mental Health states that four times as many men as women die by suicide, though four times more women than men attempt it. More than half of the men who do commit suicide tend to use guns – “firearms,” as the NIMH states. Women seem less unified, with thirty percent using firearms and forty percent using poison.
As the nurse began to look at my arm, my friend James shifted to get a better look at what she was doing. He wanted to be an EMT, and he devoured any medical knowledge he could, though as far as I could tell he’d only use it to show off. He had arrived at the hospital just minutes after me. I’d known James for as long as I could remember, so I also knew I didn’t really want him there. I tried to pretend he wasn’t there. People were a burden I didn’t need at the moment.
“I’m going to stitch it up,” the nurse says. Her eyes dart up at me. Her face is serious as she takes a wide brush and puts an anesthetic on the gash. I imagine it as snake venom, dripping into the wound so that I won’t feel the piercing fangs. It numbs the cut, which until this point had been a dull ache, cresting in waves down into my fingers and up into my forearm. Her hand is steady and her touch is so light that I almost can’t feel it and have to imagine it instead; like photons sliding over water. Maybe it was just the anesthetic at work.
“Do you need me to hold your hand?” James asks. His mouth twitches.
“Get out,” I say. He opens his mouth to say something else, and I look at him. I don’t know what he sees. But he leaves.
The younger nurse is training. The older nurse shows her which needle to pick and which thread to pick. Anyone under 40 should have tough skin, she says. The younger nurse nods. If they’re older, use a thinner needle. Older people have skin that is more likely to tear. The younger nurse nods. Spread the punctures out, keep them a bit farther from the wound. Don’t pull too hard on the thread. The younger nurse nods.
There’s a whole method for dealing with people like me.
The cut is half closed. I’m busy imagining the needle as the nurse’s fang, puncturing tiny holes for some reptilian purpose that I cannot fathom. The nurse pauses to pull her stool a little closer. “You did a nice job on this,” she says.
“Thank you,” I say. I know what she means – it’s not exactly a shallow cut, and her tone wasn’t approving – but I feel like I should thank her. With her single fang, she’s more skilled than all the king’s horses and all the king’s men.
For the first time since she entered the room, the younger nurse looks at me. She, like her mentor, is taking this very seriously. She doesn’t approve of my comment. I stare back at her. All I can remember now is the serious look on her face and her green eyes. I wonder why she wants to become a nurse.
I wonder if she’ll remember that she saw me at one of the lowest points in my life, and that I hated her for it with all the strength I could rally in my heart. I still do.
* * *
I learn that the mental health professionals have decided that I am bipolar type 2. Depression. Hypomania. Here’s some pills. They’ll help. Run along.
A pamphlet I am given about depression is essentially a folded up paper stuffed so full of outrageous lies that I initially take it for a joke. Of all the falsehoods I read on that paper, the one I see repeated most often is in the section for concerned friends and family. They are instructed to tell the (potentially) suicidal person that feelings of suicide are temporary.
No. No, they are not.
Every day is war. It’s always there in the thin places of the mind, waiting to seep through. It’s like shapes in murky water, and when you lean down to see what they are, you’re pulled under. It happens anywhere and everywhere. You’ll be driving and wonder what crashing the car would be like. Pass a body of water – drowning is always an option. All ropes start to look like nooses. Knives in your hand are temptations from an ex-lover. It’s everywhere, always, waiting to subvert reason and taint imagination.
You can’t push it down or shove it away or deny it. It’s a miasma of foul air. Your canaries are all dead and you have no guiding lights to find your way back to the surface, to a clean wind that would invigorate the spirit. You’re just down there, in the dark, by yourself, forever; a worm writhing madly about until you suffocate or starve.
* * *
Upon my release, my parents insist on therapy. It leaves a lasting impression on me, though not because of any emotional breakthroughs. Rather, the entire thing delights me. It still does. My therapist is a man named David, who runs his business out of his home. He lives in the next town over from me, on Ginger Bread Lane.
I went to a therapist on Ginger Bread Lane.
I loved it. I loved every minute of it. The sheer stupid absurdity was delightful. I felt like I was in Candy Land. Pop some pills like candy, hop on down to Ginger Bread Lane. Maybe on the way home I could stop at the Gumdrop Tree. My therapist was getting nowhere with me. Years later, he’d send me a letter, saying that a laptop of his had been stolen, and that potentially sensitive information of a private nature had been on it. It made me laugh – what did he know about me?
But it wasn’t amusing to anyone else. Attempted suicide is like stabbing everyone you know with a thumb tack, and they all want to know “Why?” and if they don’t want to know why, it’s because they’ve already decided what your reasons were for you. They’ll treat you like broken glass, something that is fragile and not good for anything. But broken glass can cut. I became a mean thing. They didn’t understand. That was the problem.
The worst part was the night after getting home from the hospital. I sat outside, doing nothing, thinking nothing. Eliza showed up.
We hadn’t ever been close. But other than James, she was the only one of my friends to arrive in person. Brandon had called an hour or so before Eliza arrived. I could hear a party going on in the background, and he told me “Don’t do it again.” There was a pause and I knew I was supposed to speak, but what the hell, so he followed up with “Okay?” I agreed and hung up. But Eliza, who undoubtedly had much better things to do, showed up.
She sat down next to me and pulled back her hair. It was like she had a haystack on her head, and her short fingers were topped with manicured nails. I couldn’t imagine having that much hair or such small fingers. On the edge of the patio, she slid her feet back and forth in the grass. The sly whispers of her feet were irritating. But for her sliding feet, we sat in silence.
She spoke first. She told me how I could have been the first person from my high school class to die, how she hadn’t ever had a friend die and that it scared her, that she still didn’t know what to make of it and that she wasn’t going to ask me why because she didn’t care why, she just didn’t want it to happen again. She said if she could help, she would. I didn’t even have to ask. I could see her hands shivering lightly, and her breathing was slow and deep.
“This isn’t your problem,” I said. I packed as much disdain into the words as I could. I wasn’t comfortable with this level of sharing or emotion. And it wasn’t her problem, but that was just an excuse.
We sat in silence again. Night was darkening the sky from sweet blues to obscuring black. The sky to our right was a shrinking circle of sunlight. It wouldn’t last long.
Finally, she stood and met my eyes. “You’re right,” she said. “This isn’t my problem.” She walked to her car and left.
Sean Ryder lives in central Massachusetts and in 2012 earned an English degree from Fitchburg State University.