When she lost her twin sister to a drug overdose, the writer became overwhelmed with the need to die. And tried in vain to satisfy that need.
On the eve of Thanksgiving, 2007, I ingested 90 pale-blue pills imprinted with the identifier: Lilly 4415. It is a testament to the healing power of years that I no longer remember the design of the drug, the dose, or its true name. My killing pill lives in the same category of memory as the fragrant flowers Mom planted beside my identical twin sister Cara’s and my childhood driveway. Freckled tangerine sepal lilies grew so tall over the asphalt that they bowed to their shadows. Those lilies brushed softly against our Corvair’s passenger side door, a patting whispered drum that both greeted and sent us off. In the remembrance of my suicide attempt, I tether the beginning and wished for end of my life into a circle that thankfully was not forever fused. Now they live together in the same time.
It was no short-lived impulse, this need to die. I’d thought it over, planned it out. A handful of weeks before Thanksgiving, I’d even tried to buy a rifle in a hunting-supply store in rural Vermont. But I didn’t know how to hold it. The cool handle of the gun was too big in my hands. My stance was wrong; I couldn’t hoist the gun onto my shoulder and keep traction enough to fire.
“What does a girl in high-heels want with a rifle?”
“To hunt,” I said softly. The ruse was up. Cara was recently dead of a drug overdose, possibly on purpose—she hadn’t left a note. This was the new reality: My sister had lost her half-decade long battle with depression, and I wasn’t getting a gun. My breakdown hinged on guilt; I couldn’t save her. My hysteria rode on the wings of the particularly maddening grief of twinloss. I was Cara’s exact duplicate, a living reminder of the woman I longed for who was never coming back.
The storekeeper turned his head to the side and stared, observing me like I would a portrait in a museum. “Think it over.” He studied my driver’s license, took in the image of the smiling woman pictured on the plastic card, and compared her to the frowning, starved woman who stood before him. The storeowner put his hand on the tan receiver of the bulky, rotary dial phone on the counter.
The police. Would he call the police?
Attempted suicide was once a crime—one that could get you arrested. It was even prosecutable in the event of death—families left behind were often denied insurance benefits (sometimes they still are). For the most part, those times have passed, though I didn’t know that when I was suicidal. They are gone with the Polaroid, with flammable clothing, with landlines. Suicide and attempted suicide are rarely punishable in the eyes of the law.
Suicide breaks a moral, social contract. Shame, for me, even now, eight years out, is hard to shake when it comes to my moral breech. That isn’t a confession; it’s an indictment. Suicide commits an unspeakable act of violent loss against its survivors. In this way, suicide is still perceived as criminal. So much so that even speaking of the suicide of a loved one is taboo. With that, our lost are cut out of snapshots, pulled from Earth. They vanish into the thin air of grief because they brought it on themselves.
I hurried out of the store in a panic over the law. The copper bell tied to the shop’s doorknob sounded a tinny jingle. Had he seen it, the rifle keeper? The criminal seed inside of me planted so deep that there was no excavating it, no stopping it from germination, nothing to scare it from growing to proportions that demanded my end, and didn’t breath a word of consideration to my loved ones.
I had no fear of the after. Not the afterlife, but the life of possible felony for murdering the self. Was it really criminal to die by suicide? Wasn’t I already criminal for merely being alive? This is what depression told me: I wasn’t worthy of the air I breathed, the space I occupied that felt like a prison. In pondering my death, dishonor was married to desire. I’d been taught this in school: If death doesn’t frighten you, try to die and fail; go off to the jailer, get locked in a real cell, not a pity-party jail.
But wasn’t that indictment unservable? Didn’t death trump the big house?
I had an excellent reason—every suicidal depressive has at least one that they feel is good enough. Yet even with Cara gone, I was no pauper to love. There were people who still loved me, who lived, and who cared if I lived, whom I loved in return. I wasn’t flush broke. I wasn’t homeless, exactly. Neurons fired off in my brain like sharp shooters hitting their target, hence the idea of the gun. I felt exposed to the elements from the inside out.
That Thanksgiving eve I swallowed 90 pills and waited for time to pass. I thought nothing of the consequence of dying in those moments. Instead, I thought of New England.
I remembered a particularly freezing February day in 2006. I’d taken a drive, parked my car in a freshly plowed lot, and then walked through deep, ice topped snow to the riverbank. This memory came vivid in my dying moments, alive like a photograph, alive like I could never again be.
There I was, 27 years old, crossing a footbridge. Not a metaphorical bridge, but a literal, rickety, red paint chipped bridge in Western Massachusetts. The bridge arched the Connecticut River with rusty metal arms. Cold blue water moved beneath sheets of ice on the surface broken apart like puzzle pieces. The trees on the riverbank were bare of leaves. The hills, the valley, the forest had been deep in snow for months.
I stood in the freezing cold, innocent of what was to come, naïve of the power of self-betrayal delivered by depression, how it short circuits the brain. I never want to die, I’d thought as I looked down into the water. But that was all Cara seemed to want. I stood alone on the bridge, wondering how she could feel so ruptured that she’d want to take her own life.
A year later I knew. Depression had come for me. Slowly, it had taken me over, in waves of despair so strong they manifested in physical pain: I couldn’t breathe, or sustain weight. My back ached. I couldn’t sleep. I felt that everyone was out to get me: Co-workers were plotting to have me fired. Family had forsaken me. My partner colluded with other women to find sexual pleasure. Of course, none of this was true. Through the veil of depression I was blind to truth.
There was no slash of red and blue lights turning against the darkened dining-room wall the night I wanted to die. There was no jail for me, except the one that had housed me in feeling. A paramedic didn’t take me from the house in handcuffs. I was never charged.
In the emergency room, a medic covered my body with a soft, warm, white blanket. He brushed the hair from my face that had stuck to my cheek with tears and snot. “You’ll be fine,” he said in a tone that told me he knew. He was right. Eventually, I was fine. Eventually, I was housed in Payne Whitney’s locked psychiatric unit, in a doctor’s good care, very far from a warden’s prison, though it didn’t feel that way then.
There is a myth of the loony bin. It’s a place where doctors conspire to keep you in pain. The suicidal patient is usually not confined for unlawfulness, or punishment, but for her own safety, because she can’t be reasoned with. Being instructed to stay in the hospital is not a sentence. And though it is uncomfortable, it keeps the suicidal alive. The hospital would delay my main objective. It would force time between me, and the death I once needed like food.
It is true. The hospital wasn’t a wonderful place. Mine was state run, underfunded, distressing, sometimes frightening. How could it not be given its occupants, our ailments? Nurses gave us white Dixie cups filled with pills that numbed us gone. We had no privacy—our doors were always open—patients in mental hospitals are on view like zoo animals. It was a hard place to want to remain inside; but so is depression, they are equal sisters of suffering. I plotted to run. I begged to leave. But it wasn’t the hospital that ratcheted me up. It was the depression. I was not well enough to separate the place from the feeling.
In despair, time is endless. Seconds move as slowly as hours. The last thing I wanted to hear was that I needed more time. But I did. I needed time. I had the time that Cara hadn’t allowed. It was time that allowed for me to live.
There’s never been a more important time for quality journalism. Please consider supporting DAME’s reporting, commentary, and cultural criticism by becoming a member. When you join, you’ll be entered to win a copy of Robin Marty’s new book, “Handbook for a Post-Roe America,” As a member, you’ll have access to our members-only newsletter and exclusive content. And we’re sending you some swag too. Become a supporter today.
AN INDEPENDENT FREE PRESS HAS
NEVER BEEN MORE IMPORTANT.
Your financial support helps us continue to cover the critical policies, politics and social changes impacting woman and their allies.