I am trading down. Out with the large, nebulous problems of life and death, in with the small and distinct complications that arise as I teach myself to sew: buttonholes, broken needles, a loose bobbin. The trees in the city are shrouded in that chartreuse flush of tiny new leaves, and I am attempting to make a dress. Part of me is engaged in some desperate voodoo, imagining that when I slip into the finished garment, I will be strong enough to trade back up again and live my life. The other part of me has an inkling that it will never fit.
By the time the lilacs bloom, the dress is nearly finished. But it’s too small in some places, too large in others. The only solution is to open all the seams and make adjustments. It’s a tedious job, but one that brings the relief of knowing what to do. The taut fabric reveals a tender lifeline of thread. I sever it with a little tool that looks like a devil’s pitchfork, and the seam comes undone, a few stitches at a time. Pop, pop, pop.
A few months ago, one night as I lay awake, it occurred to me that everyone might be better off if I killed myself. It was 3:32 a.m. I thought about the technicalities for a while—how long I might have to endure a particular kind of pain until it was all over, which embarrassing near-miss scenarios I would want to avoid.
By 4:06 a.m., I was certain—no matter which technique I chose—that I would never be able to kill myself as long as my children were officially children. M snored, and I stared at the ceiling.
When I checked the clock again it was 5:16 a.m. I would get up in less than an hour. And I would have to stay alive until O, our five-year-old, was eighteen. When you don’t want to live another day, thirteen years is an impossible amount of time to fathom. In the half-light, simple math and insomniac logic can lead to infinity.
Plucking the kinky leftover strands away from the opened seams of the dress, I begin to realign the pieces—mouth full of pins, fingers trembling with hope. I would prefer to start over from the beginning, but it’s not possible. After I snipped through the virgin expanse of cloth with abandon, only odd scraps of fabric remained. Leftover trapezoids, moon slices, broken hearts. I had no idea they’d be all I had one day.
I understand now that I have no choice but to salvage the mess I have created. There are holes where the needle pierced the fabric—scars. As I begin to sew again, the challenge will be to use them as a marker, while still remembering to veer in or out at some point I failed to do so the first time. Otherwise I will simply recreate the thing that didn’t fit.
Cautiously, I begin to sew, my foot light on the machine’s pedal.
A line of stitches forms.
Since puberty, there have been moments over the years in which I found myself standing at an open window, contemplating what the seconds would be like after I stepped off the ledge. But half of me was always somewhere off to the side, watching the dramatic scene unfold. What a loser, the me watching would say to the me on the ledge, you can’t even kill yourself!
I’m not quite sure how it had happened this time. First, I stopped taking the pills. They kept the blackness at bay, and I didn’t suffer the side effects to a degree that wasn’t tolerable, but it was the principle of it that got to me—something about the patriarchy of Big Pharma or the purity of the body. And I have always been a sucker for principles. As the chemicals leeched out of my blood, I grew ever more irritable. There was a lot of crying and some shouting. There were a few desperate phone calls. Then the agitation turned on itself and I became sullen, listless. I stopped washing my hair or getting dressed. I dropped snotty tissues onto the floor, where they dried into shapes I stared at for hours.
But even though I thought of killing myself all the time, the me watching the show knew the unwashed, puffy-eyed me on the stage wouldn’t do it. Yes, technically speaking, I was suicidal, but I also gathered the petrified snotty tissues on my way to the bathroom. I tossed them in the recycling bin. I continued to floss my teeth. I took care to put my water glass on the felt thingy so that it wouldn’t leave a ring on the new walnut wood-topped island in the kitchen. I often had a semblance of what is referred to as perspective.
But then the blackness would bubble up again, a hatred that filled me until it came gushing out over the people I loved. Eventually I let M drive me to the psychiatric ward of a nearby hospital, where a pretty young woman in a white coat met us at the small door of a side entrance. Right, I thought, keep the loonies out of sight.
She spoke to me in a gentle tone that was surely meant to make me feel tucked in and quieted, like one of the hard, chalky tabs in a bottle of aspirin, packed in snugly under the plug of fluff so they don’t rattle and crumble to bits. She talked about inpatient programs, group therapy, dietary plans, medication. Options.
I stared at her nails, those tiny pink shells, and at the institutional clock ticking away on the wall, thinking of the smorgasbord of mental illness in my family. As in any family, there was some substance abuse and general weirdness. There were paranoid schizophrenics on both sides. There was a gun fanatic eagerly awaiting the apocalypse and a hippie convinced she had had thirteen children in a previous life. There was an aunt holed up with teetering piles of junk mail, shopping bags full of free packets of ketchup, and everything else she had been able to pack into her house after the double-whammy of cancer and divorce. And there was another aunt, the hoarder’s twin sister, who had given away everything, including her lithium, and was now cruising around the southwest in an RV, occasionally stopping to call family and friends to rant about the abuse she had suffered as a child, both imagined and real.
And was that me over there, in a dreary room with a TV screwed to the wall, wearing a smock and weaving a basket? Was craziness inevitable?
Or was it another option?
I pondered a future of institutional clothing and visiting hours, blunted knives and pills in a cup. I looked at the desk where the intake form awaited my signature, up to the ticking clock on the wall for guidance, down again, consulting with my knees. Then I looked her in the eye, enunciating every word as I told the human cotton ball she could keep her bedside manner to herself. Gone was the mumbling monotone, the wandering gaze. I suddenly had a clear view. Yes, I was miserable, but I knew that staying here would change nothing.
“Look,” I said. “I’m no beginner at this. I’ve been clinically depressed before. I’ve had years of therapy. I’ve taken all different kinds of pills. The ones that make you sleepy. The ones that make you fat. The ones that help. I should probably start taking them again. Yes, I’m angry. Perhaps right now I’m furious. But I’m not delusional or impaired, so please don’t talk to me as if I’m a half-wit. I know which DSM boxes to check. I know how depression works. I know that anger is a masquerade for sadness. And, yes, I know where the sadness comes from. But it’s just a scar—the sadness. You know, the thing that remains after the thing that happened is over and done with? And there’s not much you can do about scars, is there? They’re just a part of you.”
She smiled awkwardly, struggling to maintain her fluffiness as I barked goodbye and marched out into the waiting room. I told M that a matter of uncertainty had finally been cleared up: I was not going to have a stay in the psych ward. And now that freefalling was out of the question, the only option left was to pull myself together. We drove home in silence, and I promptly fell asleep for eighteen hours.
At first M tiptoed around me—fetching take-out meals, making cups of tea, flashing wan smiles—then he began to let me in on some of the details of the preceding weeks. The things I had said. How my friends had called him in alarm. How our older child R had sobbed, What’s wrong with Mommy? How he had sworn to himself that he would finally leave me once the acute phase had passed again.
I told him I was grateful he had stayed.
He told me he wasn’t leaving.
We inched forward, dealing with life from day to day. Opening the mail. Washing the laundry. Easter vacation was coming up. Long before my mental health took a nosedive, we had rented a house in the country, not knowing how much we would need it. My own personal rehab center awaited us.
The kids were in the back seat, M behind the wheel as we drove to the house. I assessed the fallow fields, the leaden sky.
O pointed frantically out the window. “Look! Nests! Nests!”
The trees that lined the road were bare but for great clusters of mistletoe.
“They aren’t nests, dummy,” R said, a satisfied smirk on her face as she delivered the news. “They’re parasites.” She was old enough to grasp the irony, innocent enough to think doing so meant she enjoyed a loftier vantage point.
O didn’t know what a parasite was, and he didn’t really care. It was the sheer quantity of the things in the trees that impressed him.
In his world, more is always better. And the greatest amount of anything imaginable is infinity. There are infinity sprinkles on my ice cream! I have infinity Legos!
I pointed at a flock of birds, “Look, O, infinity birds!”
“Actually, Mommy, infinity is not a number,” he said, informing me of the vital information he must have picked up recently, the way children learn anything of real significance—by paying attention while the adults in their lives are distracted.
I took long walks in the first feeble rays of spring sun that week in the country, unable to ponder the past or forge a path to the future. We returned to the city and I did jigsaw puzzles and rearranged the furniture. Then I began teaching myself to sew.
The trick, it seems, is to keep the machine engaged while not paying too much attention to the bobbing needle, the unraveling spool of thread, the holes being punched in the fabric. I have learned to resist fear and hesitation, to keep moving forward, but also to avoid simply abandoning myself to a tunnel vision that loses track of the ultimate goal.
Finally, I stand in front of the mirror, the finished dress in my hands. The alterations have created a narrower silhouette. I’m worried my shoulders won’t pass through the neckline. And even though they do, I am afraid to look. But I cannot keep my eyes shut anymore.
Lizzie Roberts’s writing has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, Hippocampus Magazine, Litro and Wanderlust, among other places. She was shortlisted for Hippocampus’s Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction in 2019, The Arkansas International Emerging Writer’s Prize in 2018, and The Reader’s Berlin Writing Prize in 2017.