CW: suicide, self harm, disordered eating
I don’t want to die, but I want to get close. I want to bury my face in the linen of final repose while Death runs her fingers through my hair. “You’re nearly here now,” she’ll say. “Stay.”
I grab my wallet (Hello Kitty, mostly empty) and head to Walgreens. I buy an X-Actoknife, three sleeves of glazed donuts, and a sharing-size carton of Milk Duds. Down by the creek, I eat without sharing while the current rushes my bare feet numb.
After dinner, I tell my family, “I’m gonna take a bath upstairs.” I lock the bathroom door, then realize I’ll need to be revived. I disengage the lock and run a bath. I stare at my wrist and slice into my heartbeat. There’s no Ordinary People moment the way I expected—no spurting of blood, no soaking the tile grout red. I try again, twice, but it hurts too much. I stare at the soap. Nope. I climb out, dirty and wet.
In my bedroom, I search my face for new angles. Negative. I study the college admissions test scores taped to the mirror. I suck at math—that’s obvious. I mostly traffic in the non-linear, the dreamy. On my fifteenth birthday, while friends got learners’ permits, I was down by the River Road looking for fairies. I nudge my Kaplan SAT workbook into the closet with “Hooray of Sunshine” toes. I can’t study for the SAT, the ACT, and my Advanced Placement exams—not if I want to sleep at all. When I think about my future, my panic is tidal. I should be in an ambulance right now.
Death won’t hold me tonight.
In the morning I don’t know what to do. We have a quiz in Algebra II. I’m totally lost—I’ll probably flunk. I get dressed anyway, like I’m going to school, and maybe I will. There’s blood on my pillow and I touch my nose, then notice my wrist. Oh, honey… Downstairs, my dad is looking for milk in the refrigerator. “Dad,” I say, and my mouth turns pure desert. I can’t. Say it. Say, “I think I need help.” “Dad,” I say again. Sweetheart. You just have to do it. I close my eyes. “Dad. I need to show you something.” When I open my eyes, I’m staring at the top of my head. My courageous half is using the refrigerator door as a wall: there she is, on the side with the magnets. There’s my dad, with all those condiments. And here I am, above it all. I watch myself pull up my left sleeve, lay my arm on the refrigerator gasket. “Oh, Boo,” my dad says, bewildered. “Why would you do something like that?”
I don’t know what else to do. “I think I’m probably depressed.” I watch my dad leave to find my mom, and I am returned to form. You were so, so brave. In the emergency room, Dr. Ward—evidently my dad’s medical student—puts three sutures in the deepest cut. “You know, Fairview Medical Center has an adolescent psych unit,” he tells my family. “You might consider a 72-hour hold.” My family wants me to come home. So I can do what, exactly?
Mercifully, Dr. Ward asks to speak to me alone. “So,” he says. “Christina. You seem to be feeling depressed,” and all I can say, can never say, is Sienna.
We met on the ice, coltish under our hockey equipment. Sienna’s clothes—Adidas flip-flops, baggy cargo pants—came from the store, while mine—woven belts, exuberant tights—came from the Lands’ End catalog. At nine, Sienna was already an atheist. I was a ten-year-old Jesus freak. Sienna had never been to church; I kept a bowl of tap water on my nightstand, and anointed myself when I prayed—a ritual I’d invented, as Lutherans don’t bless ourselves. I played “the Glad Game” when I was sad: a perpetual quest for silver linings. Sienna was skeptical of the world generally, of my naivete in particular.
Still, we couldn’t drive, and our parents were eager to carpool. Sienna laughed easily and often, and I found I loved to be its cause. She had an unselfconscious giggle, high in register, that broke her wide open, and mimicked how I thought she probably wept. Then there was the glissando, a single breath from high to low, forced when she felt anxious. We delighted in everything: the blinding whip of my hair in her father’s convertible. The specter of horseflies that caused us to sprint, wild, from nothing at all.
When I was twelve, Sienna planted her feet in my conscious mind and refused to move. She’d invited me to a professional soccer game. I was bored. “Touchdown!” I cried when a player scored.
“Wait… what?” Sienna asked, brow furrowed.
“Touchdown!” I repeated, suppressing a grin. I’m hilarious!
“That’s football, idiot,” she giggled, before she slugged my shoulder. In the blinding sun, she was radiant, pure tiger’s-eye. I suddenly wished to become her. This feeling—the unbearable crush of wanting—was nothing new. I recognized it from so many auditions, when I coveted a role so badly, my stomach betrayed me. Or Bible camp, when I was nine: I’d kissed the door frame of my counselor’s cabin to leave a mark—on her, or the confusing way I felt about her. Here again was that gut-punch—heartache placed low. In a flash of recognition, I understood sex: it was what grownups did when they craved another person with so much fire. This nascent desire, so tremulous and ill-defined, already felt like torment.
The summer I was fourteen, Sienna’s family took me on vacation. In the mornings, we lip synched to the Spice Girls. In the afternoons, we raced pond turtles for canteen credit. At dusk, we sliced a V through the lily pads with our boat. To my dismay, I could barely control my hands, wild to feel every inch of her. All week, Sienna sucked on Tootsie Pops—her tongue in constant motion, her lips in every shade of red. She confused me: her androgynous dress; her masculine wrist watches; the dog tags around her neck. She never talked about boys. By the time Sienna’s dad drove me back from the cabin, I was wrecked. Returning home from vacation felt like the beginning of some terrible, undefinable loss. I will never, ever have her in the way that I want her.
Now, sitting in the bright confines of an emergency room bay, it occurs to me that I never even hugged her. “Um, I started to get depressed about a year and a half ago,” I say. “The fall of 1998, I guess.”
“Was there some triggering event?” he asks.
“Well… I lost a lot of weight. That seems to have sort of… caused it all.”
“Sure. M’kay,” Dr. Ward says. “And what would you say triggered the weight loss?”
By October, I didn’t need food. I didn’t need water. I didn’t need sleep. I barely needed to breathe. I could have lived without myself, entirely; I only needed her. With Sienna, my corporeal needs vanished. I feasted on the shine of her sun-bleached hair; the mindless way she slid her silver watch up and down her arm; the sheerness of her cotton shirts.
“I was playing ice hockey. Getting a lot of exercise.” Really? “And I guess I was trying to lose weight.”
“Like… restricting food. Skipping meals. Cutting out fat. Stuff like that.”
“How much weight are we talking?” he asks.
“I got down to ninety-eight pounds.” Get outta here with your smug self. He consults his chart.
“You’re… five feet, five inches?”
“Yeah,” I say, wondering how to arrange my face. I settle on detached, though in truth, saying ninety-eight pounds makes me feel like a fucking champion, and a total loser. I can’t say this to Dr. Ward, but the skinnier I got, the more androgynous I looked. Part of me thought that, if I looked gay enough, I wouldn’t have to come out. Sienna would just know.
“Alright. That’s a pretty significant weight loss.”
“Yeah. I… I got really depressed when I lost the weight.”
“Uh-huh. Well, let me circle back, then. What would you say triggered the weight loss?” I wasn’t hungry. Eating seemed so pedestrian. I saw only one use for my mouth, and it had nothing to do with food. I wanted to push Sienna back and taste what made her her. I imagined her fingers tangled in my hair; imagined entering her, gentle and wet, one finger, then another, until she closed around my slender wrist, pulling me into her. I imagined tracing her silken walls, curling my hand into a slick fist. I imagined her gasp of pleasure; imagined her pressing against my mouth; imagined the arch of her back as she came in great, rolling waves.
I feel my face go scarlet. “I’ve never liked my body,” I say instead, and this is also true. Dr. Ward seems to be waiting.
“I—” he starts to say, but then his pager goes off. “I’m so sorry. I have to take this. I’ll be right back.”
“That’s okay,” I say. In truth, there were a lot of benefits to shrinking. For one thing, I was good at it. I was an actor and therefore an excellent liar. No one had reason to doubt that I’d already eaten somewhere else. Plus, I’d been eating fat free DOTS instead of Hershey bars since fourth grade, when I’d realized I’d be pretty if I just had cheekbones, if my stomach didn’t stick out so much. I already knew the caloric content of everything in the refrigerator.
Too, the skinnier I got, the fewer emotions I felt—less good, sure, but also less bad. I mostly felt blank. My growing hunger muted my desire for Sienna, and for that, I was grateful. But I also felt untethered. My preoccupation with my sexual orientation bordered on obsessive; it was all I thought about. It occurred to me that until Sienna knew I liked girls, I was just a stand-in for myself.
On Christmas Eve, I stopped by Sienna’s house before church. I wasn’t sure how to begin, so—as was my habit—I started with a lie: “My mom and I are fighting.”
“She keeps asking why I don’t have a boyfriend.” I realized then that Sienna and I might both be on the losing end of this confession. Just tell her. “I want to be like, Mom, I’m not gonna have a boyfriend, okay? I’m attracted to girls.” Sienna looked up.
“You… what?” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “I like girls.” I felt my shoulders release the heaviest shame I carried.
“Wow. Really?” she asked, tilting her head.
“Yeah,” I said. Neither one of us knew where to look or what to do with our hands. A car horn honked—my parents, come to collect me.
“Hey,” she said, as I rose. “Thanks for telling me.”
“You’re welcome,” I said. I shone that night as if lit from within, relieved. On Christmas morning, though, it hit me. Sienna hadn’t said that she liked girls. And she hadn’t said she loved me. And that was when I knew.
Dr. Ward returns and apologizes again. “So then, how did you return to a healthy weight?” he asks. There was nothing left. After I came out to Sienna, our friendship dissolved, almost overnight. I didn’t want to be friends. I wanted her to cry out my name. Sienna moved on to soccer, to other friends. I turned inward, grieving as if she had died.
I found that I was starving. Without Sienna, there was nothing to fill me but food. Crossing the cafeteria one day, I nearly stepped on a cookie. It was partly crushed, a shoe print in the white cream. Still, my stomach was eating itself. I looked around cautiously, then bent over and ate what was left. That afternoon, I found a pecan pie sitting in our empty kitchen. I pried up a nut and bit it into labial halves. It’s not the end of the world, one piece of pie. You weigh 103 pounds. I sliced a narrow wedge and carried it to the dining room, eating each component methodically. I pictured Sienna eating dessert without a second thought. Let’s just pretend she’s here. I sat with my phantom friend while tears streamed down my face. I wondered how disgusted my family would be if they knew I’m probably gay. “I just got too hungry,” I tell Dr. Ward.
He asks about the scars on my body and I say that yes, I’ve been doing that stuff for about a year. “It’s like, when I gained the weight back, all those old emotions flooded back too,” I say. “I didn’t know what to do with my feelings.”
“Even the good stuff?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Anything that was too intense. So… everything.” I wipe the back of my hand across my nose.
“Can you give an example?”
“Well… like when I’m angry, and I lash out at someone, I feel totally shitty about it, you know?”
“So I can avoid feeling like that by just, like, not reacting,” I say. “Then I lash out at myself later, instead.”
“So I get my anger out. But I never hurt anyone.”
“Well,” Dr. Ward says, “except yourself, of course.”
Huh. “Well… I guess.”
“Why not just feel the emotions?” he asks. “Especially the pleasant ones?” I am suddenly, other-worldly tired.
“You know…. I never know how to feel about anything,” I say. “The safest thing is just… not to feel.”
“That’s pretty extreme,” he says. “That’s probably too much to unpack right now.” I nod. “Let’s talk about last night. You were trying to… what?”
“I… You know the book, Ordinary People?”
“I’ve seen the movie, yes.”
“Ah. Well. It’s also an amazing book. Anyway. I wanted it to be like that.”
“You assumed someone would find you? Before you bled to death?”
“I mean, it worked for Conrad Jarrett,” I say bitterly. “I didn’t want to die. I just wanted to feel better.” I press my thumbs into my temples. “I don’t… I’m not… I don’t know what else to do.”
“I don’t think a 72-hour placement in the adolescent psychiatric ward is a terrible idea,” Dr. Ward tells my family, and so I go. I leave with Prozac, a referral to a therapist, and the belief that things will finally get better.
Things do not get better: a miserable spring, followed by a miserable summer. When I remember to take my Prozac, it gives me headaches and makes me sweat. Every time my therapist asks how I’m feeling, I sob uncontrollably. Her office has a warm yellow light that lays on me like a quilt. I wish I could relay my impressions of the book on her desk—Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls—which is that it sucks. None of the patients in it are like me. There’s one lesbian teenager, but when she comes out to her mom, it’s all tears of joy. The author, Dr. Mary Pipher, describes the girl as belonging to “an invisible population: lesbian adolescents.” And that’s all. For a bestseller about fucked up teenagers, you’d think there’d be more queer kids in it.
I can’t say any of this to my therapist. If she knew I was gay, she’d think that’s why I’m so messed up. She’d probably want me to come out to my family. My family might say I always seemed normal, that this is just a phase. If they do that, I’ll lose my fucking mind.
My body is terrified of starvation, flesh ignoring reason. Once home from school, I eat and eat, trying to fill an unfillable chasm. While I stuff myself, I consider the very real possibility that no one will ever really know me. Not my friends. Not my parents. Not my brothers or their wives. Not my cousins, my aunts, my uncles. Not my pastor. I can’t have a family of my own: I can’t get married, can’t have children. Why am I growing up at all?
When I get so full it hurts, I walk stiffly to the bathroom. Then I vomit with fury, overpowering the rage immolating everything inside me. While I heave, I torture myself with visions of my future—waking nightmares in which I’m closeted. My girlfriend is estranged from her family and lives in shadows, her bedroom dim and unkempt, her bedspread stained. I imagine slipping out at first light, trying to avoid her neighbors and their assumptions.
When loneliness threatens to swallow me whole, I hurt myself until I can’t feel anything. I hurt myself to prove that no one can hurt me like I can. I hurt myself when I need to be taken down a notch. I hurt myself as punishment for my belief, childish and stupid, that people who love us can change. If I ever get better, all of this will be just memories. I don’t ever want to forget how sad I am. No one can rewrite these scars.
September rolls around. I spend my afternoons doing homework and eating until I’m in pain. At dinner, I sit with my family and eat some more. The relentlessness of autumnal beauty is hard to bear. Orange and yellow blankets the gutters. Cerulean is every direction but down. I want to smash the world against the fucking asphalt, douse it in lighter fluid, strike a match and scream. One bright Saturday afternoon, I bike to Walgreens. I buy family-sized bottles of extra strength Tylenol and Aspirin. At home, I tell my parents I’m taking the car to the library. It’s been three hours since I drove to Perkins for French silk pie and three giant sugar cookies. I won’t throw up this time; I’m going to be cremated anyway.
It’s been two-and-a-half hours since I drove to my therapist’s office, thinking maybe, by some miracle, she’d be there on a Saturday.
Two hours and fifteen minutes since I found the building locked.
It’s been two hours since I crossed the street to the rusty public drinking fountain and slowly swallowed 90 pills in ferric gulps.
It’s been an hour and a half since I got back in our car, drove around, and waited. And waited.
It’s been an hour since I realized that this would take longer than it did in Girl, Interrupted, where Susanna Kaysen took fifty aspirin tablets and choked on her own vomit.
It’s been fifty-four minutes since I drove home, parked the car, and hopped on my bike. Let it be over. Let me die. Please, please God, just let me fucking die. But I don’t die.
Instead, I’m lying in the ICU with IVs in my arms and a tube that runs up my nose and down the back of my throat, into my stomach. I’m not supposed to be here. I’m supposed to be dead. I’m in and out of consciousness. “… too late to pump her stomach.” “… liquid charcoal to bind the Tylenol.” “Post-ingestion levels of acetaminophen are over 200…” “Start IV Mucomyst…” “… she has an elevated INR.” “… need to run liver function tests.”
I open my eyes when I feel my stomach filling with something cold. This must be the charcoal. I immediately throw it up. They can pump it in me but I’m not gonna keep it down.
The ICU nurses come in and they’re way too nice to me. I’m messing up the sheets. I’m creating extra work on purpose. I’m making their lives difficult. “It’s okay honey,” one of them says. “We’ll get you all cleaned up.” They roll me to one side, careful not to disturb the complex lines and tubes, then wad up the soaked, blackened bedding and pull it to the floor. In the same way, they put on new sheets. Someone wipes my mouth with a washcloth.
A few minutes later, someone else comes in and, once again, I feel my stomach filling with chilled liquid. I wait until the sensation stops. Then I contract my stomach muscles and throw up the liquid charcoal: all over myself, all over the tubes, all over the bed rails, and all over the floor. I’ll show them what a bulimic looks like. Three times they pump liquid charcoal into my system, and three times I throw it up.
Then something occurs to me. You’re not going to die. The only question is whether I’m going to need a liver transplant. I consider how horrible it will be for my family if I need a new organ. When the charcoal flows for a fourth time, I let it go. You can always try again. Death is nowhere to be found. Can you leave me alone for a little while? I ask her, anyway. Can you give me a chance? She doesn’t answer. What torment, to know where Death lives. I wish I could forget her address.
In the morning, a new nurse comes in. “Do you want me to braid your hair before you’re transferred to the adolescent psych ward?”
“Okay,” I say. She picks up my brush and starts to work her way through my long hair. It’s tangled in dried liquid charcoal and vomit. We’re quiet for a while.
“I don’t want to speak out of place,” she says, “but I have a son who’s been through something similar….” I wait. “You’re going to be okay,” she says. I start to cry, then, that wellspring of tears that never dries. I wonder what she said to her son when he tried to kill himself. I wonder if she stroked his hair.
Christina Roscoe is a public interest trial attorney and, most recently, an elementary school T.A. She lives in New York with her wife and two children. In her free time, Christina writes, landscapes and drinks large quantities of mediocre coffee. You can read more of her work in the Fall 2022 issue of 3Elements Literary Review (No. 35) (“Enough for Both of Us” (Pushcart-nominated)) and the forthcoming Winter 2023 issue of Black Fox Literary Magazine (“Losing Sienna”).