Transcript : Anne Sexton Pleasure Reading
It’s Thanksgiving and I know it’s Thanksgiving because of the attempt at a Thanksgiving meal that I’m being served. Slimy green beans from a can, potatoes that must’ve originated in a box, a roll with cranberry sauce. There were some other things–less traditional–because I think they’re trying to fill my plate. I’m a vegetarian, there was no turkey.
It’s Thanksgiving and I’m in the ICU alone. My nearest family is 1,500 miles away. All of my friends are scattered throughout the state and the country visiting their own families. I move my food around on my plate with a fork and then give up, push the green lunch tray in front of me and crawl back into the covers.
I was thirteen the first time that I remember the feeling that was later labeled depression. It started as adolescent dissatisfaction with life. I waited for the phone to ring while simultaneously crafting the excuse that I would use to decline the invite–whatever it might be. I had this recurring experience when I was about that age. I lived in this bedroom with my two sisters, and it was large. Our three beds were spread out across this–i mean it felt like it took up the whole upstairs of the house. Had green shag carpeting–dark green–and lime green walls. I lie on the bed at night and the hallway light was on but the bedroom light was off, so the way that the hallway lights fell on the walls made it feel like I was sinking into the bed. Like everything around me was getting bigger and more pronounced and I was getting smaller and smaller until I was just barely visible.
In the lunchroom, I’d just quickly grab one of those small chocolate cartons of milk, and go to the hallway, and if I wanted to talk to anybody I’d talk to the lunchroom aides. And the small joys that existed at that time were the ice cream cart, which surely Michelle Obama has nixed from school lunchrooms. But there was an ice cream cart that came–I think once a week. And the elderly lady that ran it would chat with me while she dumped one scoop into my cup, and then I piled on top of that every possible topping that was available to me. But other than that there was a dark heavy cloud that hung over me constantly.
And as time went by it got heavier, and heavier, and lower, and lower, so that if you looked out it just blocked the view of anything that you could possibly imagine was in the distance. I figured out a way to leave the group of friends I had at the time, cause they just knew me too well, and I found my way into the background of the popular crowd. And the thing about the popular crowd is you don’t actually have to be vulnerable or real, and they don’t have to know you. You just have to go to some necessary parties–pretend to participate. And then you fake it, and it works. I basically quit everything–most things that mattered at the time. There were piano lessons and because I was from the midwest I was an ice skater. There was gymnastics, there were other things.
And when I thought about wanting to die, I would hold on to these little things that I had scheduled into the future. So, for example, I had Dillon tickets one summer. And I remember saying to myself, I’ve got to make it through summer cause I should see Dillon before I die, obviously. And then there was like this sense of obligation sort of mixed with a tiny bit of hope. So, I would think, well, I should graduate high school, and I did.
And then I moved to Montana and the relationship that brought me here sort of ran it’s course, and I was alone. And the more time I spent alone the harder it got to hold onto those things, those Dillon shows, those–you know, obligations. And I spent a lot of time in my seventh story apartment of this very building which at the time was nice, but far less fancy than this. And I would look out at the city, down Higgins, out at the Clark Fork, into Caras Park, and I would see the life of this city that I loved. And I would feel empty. And I sat in the open window of that apartment, which I’m–this is probably still true–there are no screens on those windows and it’s seven stories up. And I wasn’t–that obviously didn’t bother me, but it’s just weird now that I think about it. And I looked out, and I thought–I saw these people like engaging in a world, and I just couldn’t figure out what it was that they were feeling that made them want to do that because I wasn’t feeling that. And on the days that I felt like leaving the house, I’d walk aimlessly around downtown with my nose in a book. And the books were Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, and you don’t have to tell me that those aren’t the best choices when you’re already losing it.
And it became a daily or nearly daily occurrence where I thought about dying, and I thought about ways to die. And the heavy cloud that hovered over me was so pervasive, and I couldn’t see anything into the distance. And the days that it wasn’t emptiness, it was pain. And then I decided I couldn’t think of any other way to make it stop, and I was sort of done trying to figure that out. So I tried to die, and when I woke up in the ICU, and a few days later it was Thanksgiving. I wasn’t feeling particularly thankful. I was exhausted, and the idea of going out into the world and trying to figure out how to do this, how to engage, how to connect, was so overwhelming, and so ridiculously frustrating.
But I got discharged, and I went home to my parents house. And my parents house is the perfect midwestern home. The lawn is manicured so gorgeously, and the white couch and the white carpeting is so perfect and so clean. And the piano–which is constantly dusted but never played–displays all the pictures and all the things a perfect midwestern family has in their home. And we didn’t talk about it, not really, not directly. And I stayed in the bedroom that’s just across the hall from my parents. Which is funny, because it’s not where I normally stay. It was clear they wanted for me to be close. And I put records on really loudly on my headphones. I listened to To Ramona, over and over, until the piercing harmonica was painful because I wanted to feel something. And I read and I wrote letters, and I tried to sleep.
And then one day I came across this search history in my mother’s computer, and it said suicide, depression, and I’m pretty sure it said, cure for depression. If there is a magic wand she wanted to find it, so she could wave it. I eventually convinced my parents that I was Ok enough that they could buy me a return ticket home to Montana. That I would be better here than I was with them. And when I got off the plane I was a little bit better. Not because my mother waved a magic wand, or because I found one, but because I had to be. It became a daily practice to find the times when the cloud lifted just a tiny bit. And then take in that breath of fresh air and look at whatever I could see that just was barely in front me, and I did that, and it’s working.
And this is where the story ends if I tell it ten years ago, or five years ago, or two, but because I’m telling it tonight it doesn’t end here. Because then my friend Mikey died, and the pain of that was unbearable and confusing. It was the first time in my adult life that I saw suicide from the perspective of someone left behind. And Mikey was a husband and a dad, and like a wicked smart hilarious guy. And I know everyone says all of the good things after somebody dies, but this time it’s true. And I felt all of the empathy that I was going to feel you know, that I knew that I could imagine his pain, and I could imagine the emptiness, and I could imagine the desperation of wanting to go. But then I also felt angry, I felt angry that he couldn’t access all of the things that I couldn’t access when I chose to go. His family, the beautiful faces of the people who loved him, all the things everybody says to you about why you should stay. I felt angry that he couldn’t access that, and I felt angry that he was gone. And that was really confusing because I only wanted to feel the empathy.
And so all of a sudden my mother’s magic wand, and the people who said to me, “You know but don’t you want to stay for me, and aren’t you so grateful?” It all came flooding back to me, and it didn’t seem so fucking weird, and so selfish. And there’s not a lot I can do about that. There’s still not a lot I can do about it, all I can do is get off the stage, hug my people, and stay. Thank you.