Hickeys, Lexapro, and Eggo Waffles: On Being Thirteen
The hospital walls were stark white and we weren’t allowed to have pens: they were on the list of things we could potentially hurt ourselves with, alongside other items like shoelaces and earrings. I was thirteen and doodling with Crayola markers on construction paper. Even with the “non-toxic” declaration written on its label in the same vibrant purple of my marker, a staff sat beside me and watched my hand move, making sure it didn’t go anywhere it didn’t belong. Marker to paper and back again, until the felt tip was back inside its cap. Across the table there were two windows that had bars on them that were less like bars and more like braided wire, more similar to a tightly woven fence rather than a jail cell. Just behind the wire was the kind of blue sky that only appears in early spring, a blue that feels like hope after a long Chicago winter. I hadn’t been outside in nearly a week, and the blue was taunting me. I was in art therapy. It was my first time in a psychiatric ward.
“Why don’t we go around and share our work?” the therapist asked.
A girl named Emma volunteered. From the chin up, Emma looked young, innocent even. Her bare face was spotted with freckles and her under-eyes were white, not a deep purple like mine. From her chin down, it was like she was a different person. Red and purple rope burns covered the sides of her neck but when I’d asked her how she’d gotten them she told me they were hickeys. She said her boyfriend’s mom had walked in on her fucking him in his trailer home and they couldn’t deny what they were doing because of them being naked and him being inside her and the evidence he’d written all over her neck. I knew, though. We all did. Maybe if we were on the outside I could’ve believed her, but one look at the windows and the wire and those horrible bruises and burns made any faith I had in her story fade away. There is no way to hide that you want to die from someone who understands.
I even had a nurse ask one day during breakfast why I looked so upset, as if I hadn’t been hospitalized for depression, as if we all didn’t want to die. Despite this, I wondered how my sadness could measure up to anyone else’s, even if I felt like I would crumble if anyone tried to touch me to make sure I was real.
“I drew the bottom of a swimming pool,” Emma told the therapist. “Because I don’t think there is anywhere safer than being on the bottom looking up.”
I had tried to drown myself a few weeks prior. I hadn’t understood that no matter how hard you try to empty your lungs, keep your eyes squeezed shut, press your head to the bottom of a bathtub, that your body will force you to the surface. Your mind can scream “kill me” while your body screams “let me live,” and your body will always win.
I understood what Emma was saying. The bottom of a bathtub, the bottom of a pool. Somewhere that was quiet and deep. A place between worlds.
I didn’t want to die forever, necessarily, but I didn’t want to be in this body and living in this world, either. I was too young to think about eternity, or getting married, or even turning sixteen. All I knew was that if life felt like this, I didn’t want to live it anymore. But my attempt at an ending failed, just like the attempts of the twenty other inpatients on the adolescent floor of Woodland Park Hospital’s psychiatric ward. So there we were, in art therapy, on a Tuesday afternoon when we should’ve been at work, or in math class, or, really, anywhere but there.
Sitting in the emergency room five nights prior, I couldn’t have imagined I’d have been admitted at all, no less kept for a week inpatient and six weeks in a day program of intensive therapy. I couldn’t have known I would be sent to a residential treatment center for at-risk teenage girls for ten months, or that just half a year after graduating that program, I’d be back at another hospital, followed by another day program. I hadn’t even told the doctor who spoke to me in the emergency room that I wanted to die, or about the bathtub. All I had said was that sometimes when I sat in the bathroom and cut myself with a pair of scissors, I worried I’d take it too far.
I did worry I’d take it too far, but what did ‘too far’ mean? Even I didn’t know. After all, what truly constitutes a suicide attempt? I’d hung my body over railings atop ten story buildings, feeling the blood swell to the bottom of my fingertips with my weight and gravity pulling them down, but I’d never jumped. I’d often sat with my back to the glass railings that lined the third story of the mall, hoping the glass would shatter and I’d fall, but it never did. I knew if things got to be too much, there was always a pill cabinet to raid and a knife waiting for me in the kitchen, but I never took them up on their offer. To sit in therapy alongside a girl with rope burns covering her neck, or a twelve-year-old boy who had stabbed himself in the stomach, and say, “I tried to drown myself in my bathtub,” felt incredibly lame, so I didn’t say anything at all.
To say what I’d done, or rather, what I’d failed to do, out loud would’ve been too shameful, too real. So I listened to Emma lie about her neck and cried when a girl named Bella told me she’d swallowed twenty Advil and washed them down with bleach. I envied every new admit that came in with stitches on their wrists and silently cursed myself for not having the guts to bleed like they did. I wanted to go back to the world I knew before the hospital; before a friend had called my parents and told them I was cutting, that she was concerned. But that world had already moved on without me, and I was watching it pass by behind layers of wire and glass.
I stayed up every night in the hospital, eyes trying to find the ceiling in the dark. The months leading up to my hospitalization seemed to go on forever. I couldn’t remember a time before this sadness. At some point after turning thirteen, something inside me had broken, and I began to feel a hollowness that started to eat me from the inside. Every friend I had was fighting depression in one way or another: was I really that much worse off than the others? Was I really the one who needed to be saved? I know there was a time when I complained of a headache and the nurse at school didn’t ask to check my wrists, leaving me so grateful that I’d chosen to cut my thigh the night before. I know there was a time before my teachers followed me into the bathroom because they were worried about me being alone, even only for a few minutes. I’d been in the hospital only a week, but the days before it felt somewhere far away, like a dream I had partially forgotten.
* * *
A few weeks before my hospitalization, my friend Teddy had asked me to video chat. When the video connected, he didn’t even say hello before putting his chin to the sky and dragging a razor blade from it down to his chest. I had watched blood form like droplets of morning dew and slip from his pale skin, dripping downwards, staining his white t-shirt. I hadn’t said anything as I watched that stain grow, and I stayed silent as he swallowed an entire bottle of Excedrin by the fistful. There was nothing to say that could undo what he’d done, so instead I cried.
I texted him asking him to vomit, to call an ambulance, to please not go to sleep—I couldn’t bring myself to say any of it out loud. He ignored my requests and didn’t speak, either. His actions had done the talking. I think he just wanted a witness, someone to understand the extent of his pain. When he exited out of our video chat and told me he was going to sleep, I printed out the suicide note he’d written me and clutched the paper like it could keep him there.
I’ma miss you and everyone else so tell them that, K? Thanks for supporting me when I was fucked. I know you care about me but I need you to swear you won’t kill yourself or anything. If anyone kills themselves over me it would ruin me even as I’m dead. What really surprises me is that I’m only twelve, right now I think I sound a lot older…I know you’re probably crying as you read this, but I am too so don’t feel left out. I don’t really know what to say anymore, but if anybody tries hurting themselves please stop them for me. Thanks, I love you, and I’ll maybe see you in hell one day if you go there too.
I read his words over and over until I had them memorized.
The next day, I climbed into the passenger seat of my car, looked my mom in the eyes, and told her what had happened. My voice was monotone, my demeanor calm. I had spent the last four hours unsure if my best friend was dead. I had nothing left to give.
“Are you okay?” she asked. “Do you want to stay home?”
Her eyes were wide and filled with concern, her voice shaking. I told her I was fine; I couldn’t bear to sit at home with my sadness. I had to see my friends, ask if any of them had heard from Teddy. The waiting game was too much, and I couldn’t close my eyes without seeing his bloody neck, but the only way I knew how to handle it was to keep moving.
I went to school with swollen eyes and his suicide note folded in my pocket, showing it to anyone who would read it. When I saw my cousin in the cafeteria, I broke down sobbing and fell to the ground beside the foldout lunch table she sat in, handing her the note so she could understand. She picked me up and took me to the bathroom, where I stayed and skipped gym class to hide in a stall and cut his initials—T.L.—into my arm, needing at least a piece of him to stay with me forever. The police picked him up later that day and took him to Woodland Park Hospital.
Each night during my hospitalization, I thought about Teddy and wondered if he’d slept in the same bed I was laying in then while he was an inpatient. I wondered how he had gotten released after a mere three days, and how I’d been hospitalized for nearly a week. It didn’t make sense to me how Emma and her burns were already out the door, how a girl named KT, who had been in the ICU fighting for her life for an entire week after she overdosed before coming to the ward, came and went after only two days. I watched those who appeared much worse off than I was come and go, and I stayed put. No one talked about my discharge date. I even had a nurse ask one day during breakfast why I looked so upset, as if I hadn’t been hospitalized for depression, as if we all didn’t want to die. Despite this, I wondered how my sadness could measure up to anyone else’s, even if I felt like I would crumble if anyone tried to touch me to make sure I was real.
I was released after seven days of inpatient care, and then continued with six weeks of outpatient therapy that replaced my going to school. I watched those who were still inpatient from the other side of the dayroom, trying to tell them I understood through just a look because those who were inpatient and those who were outpatient weren’t allowed to talk to one another. I was okay until I wasn’t, and I headed back to treatment. This time my stay extended from seven days to ten months. I graduated. I was okay until I wasn’t. I became a frequent flier of the psychiatric wards of the greater Chicagoland area. I am always okay until I’m not.
The thing doctors don’t tell you about getting better is that Better isn’t a destination, but rather the road between Bad and Good. Some months I do well. I forget about the doctors, about Emma’s neck, about that night I spent watching Teddy nearly die. I almost don’t remember the months I spent desperately fighting for my life in a treatment center full of thirty-two other girls who were doing the same exact thing. I take my Lexapro without really thinking about what it’s for. And when someone who knows my story asks what it felt like to want to die, I can’t even remember. “I don’t know,” I tell them, and I’m being honest. I’ve forgotten. Sadness feels so far away. It’s like the girl who was hospitalized at thirteen, fourteen, and fifteen isn’t even me. Those months, I’m living in Good.
Other months I feel like I’m just treading water, waiting for a riptide to pull me under or for my legs to go limp. Barely holding on. Taking my pill at night and cursing it for not doing the job it’s assigned. Crying when I accidentally drop my Eggo waffle on the way out the door in the morning, and feeling like I don’t know who I’m looking at when I see my reflection in the mirror. Bad is a place that scares me shitless.
I’ve been out of the hospital for eight years now. I haven’t intentionally hurt myself in seven years, and my scars have all but faded to nothing. I have spent years fighting whatever part of me it is that tells me I want to die. Call it a chemical imbalance, Major Depressive Disorder, whatever. More than half of my life, it and I have been at war. I don’t know why everyone else I knew who was fighting depression made their way out without help, why it took me years of intensive therapy to overcome what they could on their own. Maybe they’re all fighting silent battles, but my depression has never been a beast I’ve been able to keep quiet.
When doctors with prescription pads and reading glasses on chains around their necks promise you happiness is possible, they don’t tell you it’s a job. You don’t get to Good and get to stay there forever. Most of the time you’re just running in place, just trying not to fall behind.
There is no way you’d know by looking at me that I spent years of my life in and out of hospitals, going doctor to doctor desperately trying to find the right medication, and wearing long sleeves in the middle of summer to hide that I’d hurt myself. There is no way you’d know that on my eighteenth birthday I sobbed uncontrollably to my friends because I never could’ve believed I would live that long. That even just turning eighteen felt like magic.
When doctors with prescription pads and reading glasses on chains around their necks promise you happiness is possible, they don’t tell you it’s a job. You don’t get to Good and get to stay there forever. Most of the time you’re just running in place, just trying not to fall behind. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth the fight, but it is a goddamn marathon. It also doesn’t mean that Bad doesn’t sneak up on you once in a while. Every few months Bad comes back as a reminder that this is my forever, and I’m reminded of the cyclicality of things. All I can do is try to get help before the hospital has become my only option and I become the girl who believes even her sadness isn’t enough, again.
I once read a poem by Richard Siken that says: “a man takes his sadness down to the river and throws it in the river but then he’s still left with the river. A man takes his sadness and throws it away, but then he’s still left with his hands.” I may always have that reminder of my own river, that night I spent in the bathtub. I may always be stuck in this cycle of Good and Bad and back again. I may be left with my hands, but I was still able to cry on them when I turned twenty-one, so fucking grateful to be alive.