When Ryan Bradley was suicidal, he thought he was alone. He was wrong.
“Come out and talk to us,” the police officer says.
I am locked inside a stall in the second floor men’s room of my dormitory. “Leave me alone,” I say. “You don’t have to worry. I’m cognizant.” I repeat the last part, pleading.
“Everything’s going to be okay. We just want to talk with you.”
But they do not want to just talk to me and everything is not going to be okay. I know this because less than twenty minutes ago I swallowed seventy or more assorted pills with a fifth of vodka. I am 20 years old and barricaded in a bathroom stall.
I tell the police over and over that I am cognizant and they feign being impressed at my vocabulary. There is a back and forth. The same things being said again and again. There is negotiating. The police finally come clean. They want more than talk.
“You have to go to the hospital,” the officer says.
“I don’t need to go to the hospital.”
“You can go voluntarily or you can be placed under arrest and taken, but you have to go to the hospital.”
I tell them I will not go unless a specific RA on campus, not even the RA for my building, will go with me. I no longer feel safe. I grasp for any shred of control I can. After all, isn’t this the hallmark of the obsessive-compulsive? When you can’t control your surroundings you grasp for something you can.
The police find the RA I have asked for and he agrees to follow the ambulance.
My friends and other students I don’t even know are milling around the halls when the police escort me from the men’s room to the ambulance waiting in the parking lot. Sitting in the back of the ambulance I eat a tube of charcoal en route to the hospital. The paramedic tells me it will make my shit black.
Then I am sitting in an emergency room talking to a social worker. It’s been over an hour since I swallowed the pills and vodka.
What brought me here?
A big cliché.
Girls were the end of the world back then. Girls who loved me and girls who didn’t. Girls who loved me but had boyfriends. Girls who wanted me, who I didn’t want. Girls I wanted who didn’t want me. Every girl a Shiva waiting to destroy the universe around me.
So, the hospital. For a while I sit by myself, the room dark. A million thoughts ripping through my brain.
What the hell did I do?
This is not the least of these thoughts.
Then the social worker. It must be after midnight. I have no watch, have never worn one. My cell phone is in my dorm room, waiting to blow up first thing in the morning with angry family members, university officials.
The social worker. Questions. Don’t ask me to recall. But his assessment, that I still hear deep in the recesses of memories that have otherwise been obliterated.
“You have this weird way of seeing yourself,” he says, “as if you are someone else watching you. Like you are outside of your body making observations and judgments about everything you do, even as you do it.”
The girl—the Shiva of this particular destruction, she of the dark red-brown hair and muscles of a softball player, of a farm girl. She of the short skirts and smooth legs ending in tall boots. She of the hand on my thigh on the steps of the dorm. She of the daring me to put my hand on hers.
She of the constant affection. And the boyfriend. Do not forget the boyfriend.
Or the Shiva’s roommate, who spread herself on a bed for me, like a shirt waiting to be ironed. Who I left there, exposed and vulnerable. The roommate, who out of anger and jealousy spilled the beans about me to the Shiva’s boyfriend. And then the altercation in the hall, in which I threatened to throw the boyfriend off the second floor balcony.
Was I outside of myself at that moment? Was I watching myself, judging myself as I threatened another person’s life? Over a girl? I knew no better.
The sick of desire, in a shape I knew no better than to call love, this is the base of my knowledge. I remember what I was thinking at that moment in the dormitory hall, squaring off against a guy a foot taller than me. I was thinking I could kill you, asshole.
But rage. Rage is a different animal. I am a different animal when I am filled with a rage that knows no outlet. A rage that followed me like a shadow for too many years. There is no judging oneself until the rage has subsided. Until the tide has released its grip.
The social worker and his observations, they remind me not of the rage, but of the quiet neuroticism that has filled my life. The qualities that make my mother say I remind her of Woody Allen characters. The social worker reminds me to pay attention to myself, to stay aware of who I am and how I am acting. But most importantly he reminds me to pay attention to how I am treating myself.
It is not a lesson learned overnight. But it is a lesson that begins on this night. In the emergency room. It is a beginning of a chapter, the pre-birth of a new me. I don’t realize it yet. But give me five years. Eight years.
But birth and death go hand and hand. Always have. If a new me was being born, an old me was dying.
The swallowing of pills—this is not the first time. But it is the last. It is the most public and eye-opening. It is a demolishing and a rebuilding. And not just for myself.
As much as we as a culture blindly accept the adage that we all die alone, death is not a solitary event. In death we are not islands.
Leave out the obvious for a minute, my family members, who will have their moment in this story. Leave out the friends who were burdened with the choice of whether or not to tell someone that pills were swallowed. Friends who will be told when I am kicked out of college the following summer, that it is their fault for doing something about it. About me.
And, there is the Shiva to think about. The Shiva, who is really just a young girl, caught in her own universe of struggling self-esteem and self-worth. This girl who is handed the weight of knowing a dumb boy has tried to off himself because of her.
In death, or near death, I, too am a Shiva.
There is a car ride with the RA. It is a quiet drive from the hospital to the university. It is a quiet walk through a quiet dormitory in the middle of the night. It is a quiet room on the fourth floor. Quiet and solitary because my roommate has switched rooms after I held him out our window, suspending him above the parking lot, threatening to let go if he didn’t promise to request a room change. I curl into my twin-sized dorm bed and sleep.
My cell phone wakes me and I grasp to find it, open my eyes to see who is calling. There is a moment, right now, where everything before—the pills, the vodka, the men’s room, the police, ambulance, and hospital, are nothing more than a bad dream. Then I answer the phone and the bad dream is reality.
It is my older brother. He is yelling.
“What the fuck did you do,” he asks.
It is a question that has an answer. It is an answer that does not spring off my tongue. Did I give an answer? I remember only his voice. I remember only him saying he is on his way with our stepfather to pick me up. I remember only the end of his voice and the beginning of a knock on my door. A voice on the other side. The RA for my building, yelling for me to wake up.
The dean of students is driving to campus to meet with me. It is the Saturday before the week of Thanksgiving. It is Saturday, and the dean of students is coming to campus at 8 a.m. to meet with me. There is no pretending anything was a bad dream.
This is a rabbit hole. There is no emerging until I touch bottom. Then, maybe, I can begin burrowing back to the surface.
A meeting with the dean. A meeting she starts by asking, “So, what happened?”
“I did something stupid,” I say, because really, how else can I boil it down when I haven’t even begun to process.
I agree to begin seeing a school counselor and to attending an alcohol awareness class. (Isn’t it my awareness of alcohol that has gotten me here to begin with, I joked just weeks before at a punishment hearing for drinking in the dorms—a joke I don’t repeat with the dean). A meeting where I am told it is best if I go home early before the brief Thanksgiving break. The dean has already spoken with my stepfather, who along with my brother, will be picking me up in a matter of hours.
This should be the bottom, but it is not the bottom. And the surface? It won’t even be in sight for days. Weeks. Longer.
My stepfather and brother arrive and it is a long drive home. And we go to dinner and alternate between ignoring why they have driven five hours to pick me up, and grim mini-lectures.
In the car I sleep and pretend to sleep when I am not sleeping. There are so many words I can feel waiting to happen, so many words poised on both their tongues. The promise of words hangs like static in the air. I will not give them the chance, not on their terms. I sleep and I pretend to sleep for five hours and then I am home and my mother hugs me for an eternity. And sleep. All I want is to sleep. Until everything is ancient history. But history never comes easy. And as long as you’re alive, you’ll only ever be in the middle of it. As close as this story came to being an ending, really it could only ever be a beginning.
This is an excerpt from Party Trick, a memoir-in-progress.
In Canada and the U.S., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). In the U.K., ring the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90.
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