It’s a family friend’s annual Thanksgiving party in Potomac. I stand in her elegant and eclectic front hall and gaze at the photograph my stepmother has just taken. The screen of her digital camera shows a lovely girl, radiating joy and quiet confidence with her smile. This smile highlights the dimple on her right cheek, her straight, strong teeth, and warm hazel eyes. The amber lighting softens the bold red of the sleek, shoulder-length hair framing her slender, graceful neck. The black and tan ruffled top, cut low, exposes taut, shimmery skin. The inviting hollow at the base of her neck releases a delicate swirl of lavender and honey, her favorite scent, dotted there a few hours ago. I know this because I am the lovely girl beaming up at me, a lovely girl who entertains thoughts of death each day.
This doesn’t mean I think of killing myself each day, though, at times, suicidal thoughts batter down the chemical barrier built by precious pills. Musing on death, on being dead, brings with it a peace that smells of rich, moist soil and honeysuckle. When suicide cells sucker punch my chemical bouncers, all color bleeds away. Only black remains, bordering an empty space like a long forgotten page in a coloring book. I attempt to downplay it by imagining bits of my Major Depressive Disorder giggling mischievously, scurrying for cover as I swallow 150 milligrams of Effexor each morning and night. I concede, however, that my disorder deserves more respect. You see, the eleven-year-old me remains within. What she witnesses sets the stage for the starring role this disease plays in my life. The two of them intertwine like kudzu run amok. They distain any rosy blush of health and destroy green buds of promise like a late frost. Her penance involves keeping a record of my failures and playing it on a continuous loop, like a favorite song. She lingers, nurturing my enthusiasm for death, feeding the monstrous guilt for living.
Since December 2009, any strength and courage I possess in resisting their calls to desist comes from pills and weekly therapy sessions with Peggy. Pleasantly plump and comforting like a warm crescent roll, and hand picked to help after a talk with John on the suicide hotline, we fit together nicely. Nestled in the back corner of the practice’s suite, her office invites conversation and confession with a plush black leather sofa and Batik embroidered pillows in desert hues I embrace. The inherent problem in freeing grisly events and thoughts of the past and present to her, however, is that she knows me now. She reads and interprets me better than any one else. Like a mama bear, she senses when one of her cubs is in danger. She and I meet as I teeter on the precipice.
My older sister Jill and I live with Dad at the 1960’s ranch-style house in West Laurel after he and Mom divorce. Neither of them talks to us about their separation. Instead, they enlist our Presbyterian minister, Reverend Sonnenday, to break the news. It’s late summer and Jill and I play croquet in the front yard, the grass the color and texture of hay. It crunches under our bare feet. Out of nowhere, the Reverend approaches us and bending to our level, explains what’s happened. At age seven, his words and seriousness of the situation escape me. The only images I retain of my parents together are a hurried wedding day photograph and a recent Olan Mills portrait, the four of us in complementary shades of blue. Years later, I realize it’s a parting gift. Ten-year-old Jill understands, though. I believe her face ages at that moment. The first day of second grade, I raise my hand eagerly when my teacher, Mrs. Mumma, asks about our summer. “My parents are getting divorced.”
Peggy asks why Mom and Dad divorce. “She cheated on him. That’s why he got custody of us.” How do I know? “She told me.” I’m twenty-four, live in Towson, attending Towson State, my second attempt at a bachelor’s degree. Life glows tentatively with this upturn in independence: I pay for school and rent with my own savings. Mom and my stepfather, Hubert, live comfortably in suburbia. She drives up for a day of shopping. I notice the weight loss, the new outfit, and constant grin. Back at the townhouse I share with two roommates, she confides in me as we rummage through packages.
“I’m leaving Hubert.” “I’ve been in love with Ken since Geneseo (where she spent one year at college).” “We’ve seen each other through two marriages.” “He’s a wonderful man.” “For a second there, we thought you were his.” As my mind processes this heap of awfulness, I automatically say I’m glad for her and wish her much happiness. She giggles like a teenager. The sun through my window grows harsh, merciless.
Peggy asks how often I think of suicide. “Every day. As long as I can remember.” She lists numerous signs of major depression in a questioning way as I nod at each one: feeling helpless, hopeless, worthless, dread, fear, and self-loathing.
“Can you tell me why?”
The catalyst for my gradual decay occurs one evening of my eleventh year. Dad sits in his favorite chair: brown, orange, and ivory plaid that matches the long sofa in the living room. Trim and athletic from squash and volleyball, his short brown hair recedes but shows no sign of grey. He has hazel eyes and long eyelashes that I inherit. A tiny regiment of sewing needles stands at attention, stuck in to the left armrest. He grabs one and picks at the skin surrounding his fingernails. When he pulls enough flesh away, he tears it off with his teeth and spits it out onto the worn mustard carpet. He works his way diligently through all ten digits, leaving raw pink spots behind. I try it when he’s not around and it hurts.
At fourteen, my sister, Jill, exhibits more than the usual mood swings of teen girls. Too often, her thin, brown frame emits tremors of tension and anger like a rubber band stretched too tight. I sense a growing unease between her and Mom, who we see every other weekend and Wednesday nights after she and Dad divorce in 1976. Unaware of the scope of my sister’s suffering, she confuses and confounds me with her stubborn insistence to incur the wrath of Dad. I fear and love him in equal measure. One face slap and threats of “the belt” keep me cowering and quiet. He lashes out at Jill more often because she pushes and prods like a prosecutor, questioning his stance for refusing her requests, usually to stay out later with questionable friends.
I stand in the kitchen doorway as he denies her wish that night. In vain I will her to not press the issue, to back away, and return to her room. A raging fear fills my airways and my breath stills as it escalates, as Jill knows it will. Like a Shostakovich symphony, their voices become sharp and manic chords daggers thrown at each other, and then silence.
I hear the creak of Dad’s chair as he rises, his fists and feet making dull thuds and slapping sounds as they connect to Jill’s bony frame. His limbs take on a life of their own, finding exposed shins, arms, head, and inherited cheekbones. She totters backwards down the hall. It becomes a barbaric ballet. Without thinking, I pick up the phone receiver to call the police or Mrs. Green across the street. In the seconds it takes to decide Dad’s future, I turn my head and our hazel eyes meet. I don’t know if his look or voice says, “Hang up,” but I do. As the receiver clicks in place, I understand that, at age eleven, I have failed Jill.
The next day, I walk down the hallway and hear, “Hey,” as I pass our shared bathroom. I stop and turn. Jill leans against the anemic pink laminate countertop in her bra and underwear. A thin, tortoise-shell barrette holds her shiny brown hair away from her face. A wisp of lighter baby hair at her natural part escapes its grasp, framing a frank prettiness. Even at fourteen, she carries her beauty effortlessly, unconsciously. Her body bears angry red marks sparring with black and blue. Jill displays this nightmarish canvas with a neutral expression. No puffy eyes or tearstains compete with Dad’s brutal work of art. I blank on words spoken between us. Her eyes dig in to me as I memorize the chaos on her skin. I receive my just punishment with obedience, igniting the spark that causes chemicals in my brain to collide and clash.
A year later, Dad has married my stepmother, Faith, and decides Jill and I should live with Mom. He breaks the news to us just days before our scheduled move. Flooded with both relief and a sense of being tossed aside, I anticipate calmer waters in this new setting. Jill seethes with a new intensity. I strain to understand how she can miss a man who inflicts such pain. Her misery at being parted from him is palpable, though, as is the animosity she fosters for Mom.
One day I lie on the itchy beige and brown sofa in the stark white living room of her and Hubert’s new townhouse in Columbia. With pen and paper in hand, I scribble, “I want to die” on a torn piece and set it aside. My memory blurs as to whether I mean it, or want Mom to find it, but she does. In a hushed tone, she asks me if I feel that way. Fear hits me and I say no.
Silence reigns in this new place, interspersed with shouting matches and slammed doors when Mom and Jill collide. After an altercation outside, they enter the house with matching shiners. My sister attracts beautiful loser boyfriends with violent tendencies, too. Bruises outnumber hickies. Mom’s tiny frame is no match for such turmoil. She suffers hurtful breakdowns throughout my teen years. “I can’t take it anymore. I’m so sick of all of you. I’m leaving today. I hate you. I hate this life.” She aims this oft-repeated mantra at me like a backhanded slap. My bedroom, the loft, takes up the entire fourth floor, and offers a respite from the jagged air below. In my mind Jill should have this room. Hit after hit, and I remain mute. Still. Why am I rewarded for this?
Peggy asks if there is a history of depression in my family. Indeed, mental illness finds fertile ground in Mom, Jill, and me. Mom’s depression stems from a forced marriage to Dad in December of 1965, and Jill’s birth seven months’ later. High school sweethearts, she falls hard for Ken when Dad, a year older, leaves for college. Still, they sleep together sometime that fall, a mistake with steep consequences. July 1966 hands 19-year-old Mom a petal perfect, unwanted baby girl.
What I witness of my sister’s torturous upbringing sickens and shames, but relations’ whispers of abuse from Jill’s earliest days make my love for both parents traitorous. I remain ignorant of what she might have endured with Mom in the broiling tin box at Phister’s Trailer Park, while 23-year-old Dad worked and completed his Master’s Degree. I hear my paternal grandma’s tsk-tsk refrain: “Oh, Lisa, if you only knew what your mother did to Jill,” but refuse to contemplate injuries or neglect. It takes what little strength I have to hold in her son’s sins, compounding my own.
Mom discloses one long-ago visit to a therapist. She vaguely mentions the negative experience that keeps her from a second visit, or finding another therapist. It takes years for her to summon the courage to ask for antidepressants. Her primary care physician prescribes the lowest dosage to her, “no-kill pills,” she calls them, inadequate in strength and the absence of therapy. Repeated pleadings and the positive physical and emotional change she sees in me fail to move her to further action. She and Ken eventually marry and live in upstate New York. Romantic trysts differ greatly from day-to-day existence, however, and she slaps on a layer of veneer to cover the reality of a third unhappy union.
Jill and her most beautiful loser boyfriend, Danny, often hazy with booze and bong hits, conceive, again with steep consequences. At 16, failing at school, accepting casual beatings as her due, she balks at giving up her baby. Mom wears down this resolve in her oldest daughter, a rare, sound judgment. Jill acquiesces, but refuses to forgive Mom to this day. I cherish a grainy photograph of my sister holding her petal perfect baby girl. Her breasts bound painfully to prevent milk production, she offers a weak smile and tearstained cheeks to the camera lens as my niece holds tight to Jill’s finger. She hands over her daughter to new parents moments later.
It amazes me that one can exhibit such bravery and vulnerability at the same time. Jehovah’s Witnesses knock on Jill’s door one day, as if sniffing out the most gullible person in the neighborhood. They excel at selling her promises of an Eden-like paradise after death. Stoicism and resignation of life’s hardships will be amply rewarded to those whose faith in Jehovah remains steadfast. She grabs hold of this rope, her safety blanket. In time her devotion is deemed extreme to her fellow “brothers and sisters.” Even her Witness husband, Rick, who, stunned by the growing brilliance of Jill’s mental illness, follows the pathetic tradition of her family and ignores, denies, maintains silence. She embraces death like me, only as a means to eternal life in a Technicolor nirvana.
Peggy sits still while I sob and stammer, vomiting this bilious narrative. “Why?” I ask her. “Why am I here? It makes no sense. I make no sense.” She contends that my disease points the finger at me, insisting my departure is the answer. “Your medicine does sixty percent of the work. When it gets black, you need an arsenal of weapons to fight along side it. Who and what makes you happy?”
Nothing brings me joy. Listening to my beloved music causes numbness. I don’t deserve to enjoy, to feel all that my life’s soundtrack gives me. The sun grows too bright and it proves difficult to keep my eyes open. I stop driving. Years of residing with violence, hate, indifference, resentment, and silence results in a determination to fade from friends and family, then to nothing. Neglect becomes easy when you want to die. Neglect makes no sound. For years, it attracts no attention. When it causes physical pain, you carry it with pursed lips and perfect the response, “I’m fine,” with a shadow of sincerity that passes the test.
There comes a time, however, when the damage demands to be seen. Swelling fingers and feet turn painful, hot, and red, and a slight limp emerges. Occasional inquiries from family elicit the requisite, “I’m fine,” but the veneer begins to crack from wear. Teeth and gums ache and bleed when brushed. The limp grows pronounced and painful swelling travels to ankles, knees, and wrists. Teeth change position and loosen, jangly keys of an old piano. Gums ooze pus. The inquiries stop, replaced by silent looks of concern, disgust, or pity.
My first tooth falls out in my sleep November 23, 2009. Breathless about the inevitability of it, I remain calm when it happens. I spit it into a tissue, place it on the bedside table, and go back to sleep. I hobble behind Peggy to her office on the first of December.
One Tuesday morning, about two years into my therapy, Peggy reminds me of our first session when she asked me what I wished to achieve by working with her. She reads my response: “I just want some peace. I want to be the girl I used to be.” The latter couldn’t be farther from the truth. Eleven-year-old Lisa resides in me, still. Most of the time I want her wiped from the slate, though the violence of it frightens me. My hate for her, for us, has shrunk like a tumor from treatment, but Peggy and pills fall short of eradicating the wistful, powerful allure of a final sleep. She understands death remains my security blanket, my Plan B. What a relief to share this disappointment, this drug-resistant melancholy with her. I understand stronger measures may be taken to save me in the future. I know someone who’s undergone Electroconvulsive Therapy with mixed results. He regrets losing memories, the worst side effect of ECT.
I would, too. Peggy and my pills allow me to derive the utmost pleasure in my music again. I embrace it with the enthusiasm of a teenager. I find myself singing aloud at home or in my car, even with the windows open. My smile draws people to me—at work and at school, where I feel an addictive peace. Unlike my deathly peace, this one surrounds me with sound, color, and people. Friends and strangers compliment me on my beautiful smile. It showcases a wonderful set of dentures that replace my rotted teeth. Longer feminine hair replaces the boy-short style I wore to hide any errant sexual allure. It swings as I walk, and lifts and settles when I throw my head back in spontaneous laughter. Clothes cling and show more skin than anything I wore in my twenties.
I receive a diagnosis of Rheumatoid Arthritis in January 2011. Chronic, degenerative, and painful, I learn to adjust my life to it effects. It adds another layer of depression to the stack I struggle to keep from toppling over. Instead of keeping it to myself, I discuss it, my mental illness, and teeth with a circle of friends who listen, support, take it in stride. A few take me aside and ask for Peggy’s phone number. Whenever the black creeps in, I recall these small acts of giving.
My most powerful defense is forgiveness–of Dad, Mom, and myself. Its duration varies. It’s habit-forming, though. The more I forgive, the more I desire life, although it still battles the longer-held habit that I can’t quit completely. I remember saying final goodbyes to close friends, parents, and Jill the week before my intended death. I apologize for hurts and slights aimed at them. Some invisible barrier breaks and apologies float my way. An unexpected dewy peace falls on me like a spring shower. The call of death reaches its zenith. I call the suicide hotline, unwittingly taking part in saving myself.
The images of my parents’ darkest moments remain. Jill receives a diagnosis of Pervasive Thought Disorder. Difficult to treat with a compliant patient, I accept I may lose her to this disease someday. I write her regularly, updating her on my health issues, reminding her of warm moments between us, sharing my love of school, books I’m reading, music I enjoy, and my fear of not finding someone who will love me despite my wear and tear. Recovery releases an abundance of love to share. She remains silent.
How to forgive Dad? I think back to when I slept on a mattress on the floor of the cheery yellow spare room as a kid. Jill joins me most nights after a half-hearted attempt to sleep in her cool lavender room. In unison, we call out, “Daddy, we’re ready!” In he comes, usually holding his grandfather’s set of Peter Rabbit books. He reads to us as I admire the glossy pages and watercolor illustrations once more. We sing “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” “On Top of Spaghetti,” and my favorite, “You are My Sunshine.” I devour books and music because of Dad. Mom passes down her pretty singing voice, love of writing, and remembering to always say, “thank you.” Besides Peggy and my pills, these gifts form battlements to beat back the black. Still…
I gaze often at the photograph of the lovely girl from the Thanksgiving party. Throughout the evening she walks up to people and introduces herself. She speaks with an easy confidence to professors, doctors, lawyers, and Ivy League students. She discusses the resurgence of college plagiarism and new favorite authors with an art professor, who confesses his fear of reading David Foster Wallace. She suggests, as it was suggested to her, that he begin with Wallace’s non-fiction before delving into his darker, denser fiction. She gushes about his work enough that the professor declares a renewed enthusiasm in tackling Wallace. He asks her what she’s studying in college. Writing, she says. She wants to write.