These Are The Things You’ll Pass Down
by Jacquelin Winter
Twenty-eight-year-old Pete had shot some of his head off in a futile attempt at killing himself, so he wandered the halls with it half-bandaged up. The white gauze stopping the hole covered some of his face on the diagonal and what was left revealed were kind eyes and a passive smile. He wore a blue baseball tee and a pair of ripped blue jeans, but on no occasion did he wear shoes for all the shuffling back and forth he did, day after day. His feet dragged with labored steps and his face is still important all these years later. His was a face of defeat, but not really, like he knew this was just a warm-up for his grand finale. A practice round.
Mom was at Bridgeton Psychiatric Hospital, four years before I would be, waiting for a bed at Seabrook House, a drug-rehabilitation center that still sees success in South Jersey, where we grew up. Where thinness moved me, heroin moved her. I was ten years old and unfazed by the sterile, blue-white lighting, and the sea of blue hospital robes. I was unfazed by the tiny plastic cups full of peaches floating in sticky, sweet sucrose, and by Mom’s position at the center of it all.
“Poor fucker missed with a shotgun. Like Kurt Cobain but sadder,” Mom said when I asked what happened to him.
“He lived. Damn cute though, isn’t he?”
Like most afternoons on which something tragic or life-altering takes place, the weather was mild, pleasant even. Temperatures were falling, but still warm as I trudged through week two or three of sophomore year at Vineland High. The color outside my second-floor bedroom window was emerald, but speckled with the hues of a fall sheet pan recipe. Oranges, yellows, and burnt siennas crept their way into the lush, wooded landscape that was my backyard, like a slow-moving fire.
This was not always my backyard. Once, my backyard was on the side of my house—my side yard, I guess. And my house was a flimsy, tin trailer—Mom’s trailer. Here, Mom lost battles to needles most days. Dad sent small tabby cats Mom loved soaring through the air from our deck like small footballs. But this was now, six years after my eighth year on earth, which was the year Mom and Dad lost custody of my sister, Lizzie, and me.
Now, I lived with my grandparents—the Judge and the Teacher—who’d known our sad beginnings and replaced them with after school art lessons, and J. Crew houndstooth skirts.
This was their back yard I was looking out at, and I was fourteen.
The golden retriever I’d begged for two years prior sat howling at tall trees. His breeder had named him Jersey Shore, and I loved him. I’d laid for hours with him on his dog bed on the day he was neutered, clipped a small lock of his blond hair and a small lock of mine, and taped them side-by-side on a piece of cardstock once. I’d fashioned a pulley system from recycled cardboard and twine, and I’d used it to sneak treats down from my second-story window when Grams said he’d had enough.
But on this day, the pitch of his howl was too much for whatever was shifting inside of me. A year before, my freshman year—the seminal, pivotal, whatever you want to call it—first year of high school, my weight plummeted from an athletic one-hundred-thirty-seven to a pitiful one-hundred-thirteen. One-three-seven-minus-one-one-three-equals-twenty-four. I’d lost twenty-four, intentional, meticulous, very hard-to-lose pounds from October of 2000 to January, 2001, and here I was, paying for it.
“Jersey, stop,” I said from the opened window. But he didn’t. He only got louder, his howls drawn out twice the time. Was he doing this on purpose?
“Jersey, please stop,” I said begging.
There was a pause in the noise, and I used the quiet to sink down the light-yellow wall to my stained, carpeted floor. After school I slept, which I couldn’t do at night. But there was no sleeping when Jersey started up again. I winced and closed my eyes. Then I screamed until he stopped.
Dr. Lawrence first prescribed Xanax, a benzodiazepine for panic disorder that begins seeping into your bloodstream the moment you swallow it.
And Celexa, an SSRI, or, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor, that works to treat depression over time.
And Sonata, a status-quo sleeping pill that works in real time, like Xanax. Only, it takes you from unconcerned to unconscious for a period of hours—six or seven if you’re lucky, three or four if less so.
I was thirteen-years-old and a few days away from a week-long, overnight field hockey camp when he said something like, “these will make you feel better. And you will sleep.”
I packed them with my Soffe shorts and tie-dyed scrunchies.
In the mornings, I walked to the cafeteria with my teammates, and we ate Cheerios with sliced bananas from plastic bowls, or scrambled eggs. We slammed orange juice or Gatorade and gossiped over which players to watch. Did you see #39’s slapshot? Watch out for her. We play-argued, giddy over the hottest Backstreet Boy or the prettiest Spice Girl. And when we got back to the dorms before morning laps, I took my small handful of pills—doctor’s orders.
This was a beginning.
In his office and to his credit, Dr. Lawrence did say, “You have to be careful with these.”
These medications, I’d thought, were reserved for new moms, bored housewives, or anyone over thirty. With them I was far away. It was true that Xanax stopped my panicking. The sleeping pill made me sleep. And Celexa, I was told, might take weeks or months to change my brain, but it would. “Just be patient,” Dr. Lawrence had said more than once.
So, patient I was.
At home, I kept the pills in my desk. Then I moved them to an obscure, bottom drawer of my dresser. Sometimes, I kept my daily dose in a small, porcelain butterfly with hinges where the blue-painted wings opened.
The concept of swallowing small, colorful tabs to change the Self has never been foreign to me. Mom took drugs my whole life—Fen-Phen, for weight that could only be lost in her mind; OxyContin, for things big and small—a friend’s overdose, a Tuesday afternoon. In her trailer so many years ago, needles and pipes sat where books and blocks should have, so I made stick figures from pieces of Scotch Tape and stuck them to my bedroom walls. I colored them with broken, stray crayons. I knew, better than most, the power of drugs both illegal and doctor-prescribed.
And a year after my doctor prescribed mine, on the pretty afternoon with the crisp, fall air, I swallowed handful after small handful.
Because things were getting too loud, maybe.
In the hallway at Vineland High, stares from boys meant too much. Glares from girls even more. And the dog just wouldn’t stop barking. What would it mean if one less person were here, on earth, in this space that is just so vast… no, no. That’s not what I was thinking. There was nothing profound. Really there wasn’t much thought at all. I was sobbing, but not scared. I’d walked downstairs to the family computer and turned my music on and up. I’d used Napster, or Kazaa, to play Fiona Apple’s, “Tidal” on repeat. She was a sad, sullen girl and so was I.
I closed my eyes and lay on the brown and white tiled floor. It was cool against my hot cheeks, flushed now from nerves, or an hour of clumsy tears. I probably considered the cliché, and maybe I laughed at how often sad people can be found on cool, tile floors. It’s kind of funny, really, how many of us become hot heaps of whatever we once were.
Tracing the origins of suicide is useful in the way fist-fighting a vaporous cloud might be, though some of the earliest attention to it takes us back to Ancient Greece. This is a relief, that men far greater than us contemplated the same, dumb shit. Plato viewed it as a negative behavior and Aristotle considered it a loss to society. There was Socrates and his hemlock. Later, French sociologist Emile Durkheim suggested a person’s over or under identification in society might impact the risk of suicide, shifting the behavior from the individual to the whole.
“Did you see the new meat?” Steve had said to Chris, both strangers and schoolmates, a week before. They stood huddled in a small crowd of sophomore boys with names like Chad, Brett, and Kerry. “Here comes some now. Totally fuckable.”
I was new at Vineland High. I was walking to AP English. And though my hair was long and blonde, and I’d made the varsity field hockey team, I was looking at my feet. Mom’s condition and the trailer all those years before hadn’t quite trained me to look up, or straight ahead. Trailers parks seldom teach worth, though some of the most worthwhile people I know come from exactly this. I turned to skateboarding and art, which I know now is so cliché it’s embarrassing to etch the words into existence, but I was fourteen, so I give myself a break.
Billy—who I’d tackled middle school and trailer park beginnings and chain-smoking parents with and who was more or less, my first important person—was on his way over a few weeks after that. We’d made plans to skateboard that afternoon and I’d forgotten all about them. Billy was analogous to the slithering sophomore boys. With him I played street hockey and brushed off skinned knees. With him there were music and films—the Clash, “A Clockwork Orange,”—the kind of art you gravitate to when your parents love you, but not themselves. With him, there was laughter that reset all defaults.
So I think he was surprised when he swung open the screen door and there I lay, fourteen and not breathing on my grandparents cool, tile floor.
“You’re lucky to be alive,” a doctor said when I woke up an hour later in the hospital.
Grams, Pop, and Lizzie stood on one side of the bed, looking down. Billy, his brother Jimi, and their mother, Faith, stood on the other. Here was Faith. “Five to fifteen more minutes and we might not be standing here.”
What happened next was a series of events I’d grow to know well for ten or so years.
First, you self-harm. Maybe you cut, maybe you overdose—on diet pills, or sleeping pills, or any pills. Maybe it’s intentional, maybe it’s not. Then, if you’re lucky—#blessed—someone finds you.
Depending on who finds you, you’re in an ambulance or your grandmother’s Buick, but it doesn’t matter because you’re not really awake until your stomach has been pumped or the charcoal administered, and your family is standing on one side of your hospital bed with Billy’s on the other, and everyone is smiling, but with tears in their eyes, and you don’t know why.
You’re kept overnight.
Every forty-five minutes, a nurse comes in to check your vitals and asks, “do you still feel like you want to hurt yourself or others?” You say, “no, I want to go home.” But of course home isn’t a place you can go when this is what you do there unattended.
If you’re under eighteen, you wait for a bed at a nearby psychiatric hospital. If you’re me and under eighteen, your grandparents make sure it’s the best one they know. This is how you end up at Bridgeton Psychiatric Hospital—the nearby one where Mom once sat—waiting for a bed at The Renfrew Center—the best eating disorder treatment center on the upper east coast.
An eating disorder is what put you here, or is it? When you trace your own origins, you know there’s much in question, but where it concerns suicidal thoughts and behaviors, you’re not convinced it’s just your lousy ass childhood to blame. There was such drastic weight loss. It happened so fast. It was all so fucking dramatic. But like, Wes Anderson dramatic—the valuable, artistic kind that propels generations of sad, smart girls.
Remember where you come from.
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Were you depressed because you weren’t eating, or not eating because you were depressed?
The answer didn’t matter.
You were still at Bridgeton Psychiatric Hospital—unfazed by the sterile, blue-white lighting, and the sea of blue hospital robes; unfazed by the tiny plastic cups full of peaches floating in sticky, sweet sucrose, and by your position at the center of it all.
I have a daughter now, she’s six, which matters for so many reasons, but mostly because she’s changed me. Point blank. When I look at her cheekbones, I know they are mine. Her lips, on the contrary, belong to her father. Once, when I was still in diapers, my grandmother said, “You have your father’s legs,” to which I replied, hands on my hips, small fists in two stubborn balls, “Fine, but they’re my socks.”
What else belongs to my father that could belong to me that could belong to my daughter now, who’s six? He’s diagnosed bipolar. I’ve been, though not in recent years, diagnosed an anorexic, a bulimic, and a major depressive with PTSD, because of the things my father did when he was manic and drinking. The violence reserved for combat vets was in my living room on any given Sunday and these are the things I’ll pass down.
When I look at my daughter, I see hope. In the same breath I recognize how trite this is, I know it’s there and that counts. And though motherhood doesn’t fit with the mysterious veil I’ve shrouded myself in all these years, I’m finding rare freedom in the light of exposure. I’m shapeshifting and shedding and it only took thirty-five years plus one small, magnificent child.
I think, this is where I’d like to stay.
Jacquelin Winter finds beauty in truth, however scarred or fractured. A Pushcart Prize nominated writer-mother-human* living on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, she holds her MA in Creative Nonfiction and is a graduate of Emerson College. She champions those on the edge of the night.
Image source: Enric Moreu/Unsplash