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Life: Take Three

“Do you ever feel as if you are just acting? An imperfect actor in an imperfect part?

It’s freshman year of college. The anxiety and excitement for this new beginning is overwhelming. You’ve dreamt up this new part for yourself—carelessly sophisticated, supremely confident, witty. Everything you’re not (were not! you furiously admonish yourself) but have always intensely envied. With your whole heart, you see what you lack—and despise yourself. Every mistake, every gaffe in high school stands out in gruesome and torturous detail for you to play over and again in your head like a broken record. But now, here’s your chance, a new place with new people. Everything’s going to be different. It has to be different.

You did everything possible to make a perfect entrance. Starving yourself all summer and sweating over the treadmill lost you two pants sizes. You bought the perfect clothes to accent the new body and makeup to paint the perfect mask. Even new underwear—just in case.

When you first arrive, it’s like new fallen snow…all pure, white, and untouched. You don’t want anything to spoil it. You make your father and brother stay in the car on move-in day because they’re embarrassing. Your warmth, your smile, your freshness, impresses every person you meet. You’re on top of the world, bursting with good intentions and aspirations.

But soon you must take the first step—and another, and another until the same patterns of footsteps show themselves, until you suddenly stop short in horror and look back to see yourself repeating the same ugly tracks, over and over, because you can never get away from yourself.

After so long, so close to all those around you, your façade begins to crack under the strain. Your weaknesses, uncertainties, idiosyncrasies, are bared in all their ugly and pathetic light. Unaware, you go merrily on your way until one day you see yourself through their eyes.

Have you ever admired a friend so much that you hang on their every word and come away impressed by their intelligence, or in tears from their humor? You call home and cannot help but mention your friend, your respect shining through. Every day that he talks to you online or comes to hang out makes the sun come out. Your homework even suffers at the novelty of such a charismatic friend. And then one day, when turning the corner into his room, you overhear something you shouldn’t. Laughter and your name. So oblivious they say. So weird. Every snicker pierces your heart until the pain is real and you put your hand over it and sink slowly to the floor, still listening to those hateful voices. You wonder why he hangs out with you, but his next sentence tells all: pity. Numb, you do nothing but sit frozen until someone else comes around the corner and discovers you. They hear and come out and all you can do is stare at them. Weak, with fat tears snaking down your bloodless face, you realize that the respect you coveted is completely unattainable. All your actions have done nothing to impress, but only to entertain and amuse.

Worse yet, your ability to trust erodes away. Are people being “friends” with you, getting a few laughs at your strange quirks? Paranoia builds. Night brings horrible nightmares of people howling with laughter, their mouths yawning wider and wider with each laugh until you’re swallowed by the black hole of their mirth. Even those friends you love and would stake your confidence in 99 percent of the time, that last, paltry percent still agonizes you. It becomes this niggling doubt, this worm that spreads rot so that no matter how much you banish the suspicion, it only gets worse. Ever watchful, your relationship suffers because your imagination finds mountains of evidence where there is none.

You keep going. What else is there to do? Your carefully devised role is now hollow, but with nothing else to grasp onto, you valiantly try to uphold it. Yet nothing is as you envisioned it. Hours—lifetimes—are spent dreaming situations and how they are masterfully handled. You conquer, you impress, you finally show your true worth and shut up any skeptics—you show them. This last thought is jarring. “Them”, you wonder? Where did that come from? Why the need to prove anything at all? Why live—even dream—not for yourself but for how others see you?

Regardless, these fantasies run rampant. In class, eyes glaze over and you mechanically scribble down notes while your brain sizzles with delicious thought after thought. You’ll do so well on the test that the grade will be announced and such-and-such will believe in your intelligence. At a party, you’ll be so sexy that the guy who never gave you a second glance will want you and be coolly rejected. Acquaintances from high school are amazed by how outrageous and funny you’ve become. They go on and on with only one common thread: they never, ever come true. Even the most harmless, most insignificant of dreams never comes into being. Situations turn out completely different than imagined, or nonexistent. It breaks you. Fantasies flirt with your imagination, raising expectations, only to leave them unfulfilled. The bigger and happier the fantasy, the worse the crash. It’s like a drug.

Night is even worse. Or alone in the dorms on the weekend, waiting for the phone to ring, for a friend to remember that you’re alive and eager to go out. Those are when they really take flight. Minutes, hours tick by and you give yourself busy work, almost as if to fool yourself into believing that you have important things to do and that the world and people outside your dorm room are trivial. Finally, giving up, lying down, staring at the ceiling, you immerse yourself in what life could be.

Sometimes the phone does ring. Good old friends. They exclaim, where have you been, we’ve missed you, come out more often. That’s all it takes and you’re ecstatic. People are necessary for your happiness. That doesn’t seem like such a bad thing, sociability is good, right?

No. Dependence on others means you’re at the mercy of their whims. One day Sally or Joe might be your best friend. You go out, talk until all hours of the night, hug each other good night and fall asleep with a smile on your face. The next day you wake up still caught up in the intimacy, but they’re aloof. Thoughts race through your head—did you do something? Did they really have as good a time as you did?—when really it might be nothing more than tiredness on their part.

Anxiety and overanalyzing take their toll. One day you look in the mirror, really look, and are stunned. Are those your eyes, sunken in caverns made black from restless sleep? You wonder when they lost their luster. Stress and unhappiness have scored once flawless skin with acne, and an unhealthy yellow tinge has replaced the healthy glow. Even your hair is thinner and coarser. The face staring back is weary and old.

You realize your body hasn’t escaped the transformation. All that hard work, the dieting and self-control and relentless exercising—it was all for nothing. Food snuck in secrecy, gorged on in despair, finally manifests itself. Fat is everywhere, squishy and repulsive, bulging vulgarly over pants and collecting massively in the thighs.

Desperately, the makeup piles on while clothes are painstakingly chosen for what goods they can display and what defects they can hide. It’s war.

Have you noticed at some parties how there’s almost this frantic quality to the flirting? The girls especially. They stand around, their eyes restless and flicking from one guy to the next. There’s some sort of unspoken contest at who can dress the sluttiest, laugh the loudest, act at having fun the most. In the beginning, you marvel at it. What could they possibly be doing? Eventually you get it when you find yourself joining the game. There’s this hunger for an affirmation of attractiveness. None of these girls really believes in it herself. So they make every effort to impress. Eyes kohled, wearing skimpy outfits, and the tallest, strappiest, made-to-strut shoes they own, they come to parties and flirt with guys in order to get it from someone else. If enough guys respond, maybe it means the mirror is lying.

You start to realize, dozens of parties later, that looking around only reveals guys with whom you’ve messed up, with whom you never took a chance, or who see through you if they even see you. Then comes the inescapable fact that you’re not a whole person, that you’re missing something and don’t know what, that you have no self-worth, that your thinking is twisted, and that your whole world revolves around pretend rather than reality.

You try to fill the emptiness with a guy. For almost two and a half years, you chase after the one you want for life. At first, there’s so much joy. You spend countless precious house of sleep staying up to talk to each other. Nothing is sacred. You tell each other everything so that nothing in the world gives you greater bliss than having him come to you (just you!), excited to relate some anecdote from his day. If only you could grasp moments like these and store them away for a dark day.

More tragic than love lost is love almost consummated. It’s experiencing enough to understand what love is, and to ache for it, but never achieve attainment. Ignorance is bliss, knowledge is agony. As months go by, you progress somewhere into the gray territory between friends and a couple. When you’re with him, not one doubt enters your mind. But when he’s not there, you become uneasy. Why won’t he acknowledge girlfriend status? Attraction isn’t the issue. More times passes and the uneasiness progresses into resentment, anger, despondency. You obsess, bitterness running deep as you think that this is the one boy, and possibly one person, who knows you the best in the world, and he doesn’t seem to want you. The conclusion is nauseating: you’re not worth loving.

He makes plausible excuses; after all, he doesn’t mean to be cruel. But all you’re left with is two years worth of memories and a heart that squeezes sickeningly at every one.

You know that first date after a relationship breaks up? It’s critical. Self-worth hinges on this one event. God forbid you go out and have what you think is a satisfactory date, only to never have him approach you again. Was it not volunteering to pay half the bill? Or neglecting to hug or kiss him at the door? Your brain screeches to a stop: Or was it you?

After a while, you get tired. The effort of getting up every day and facing the world, of trying your hardest to be the type of person people want to be around, drains you. You can’t stand to be lonely, but you don’t have the energy anymore to work at it, to paste a smile on your face and pretend everything’s fine. The constant churning of your brain, thinking, always thinking, takes its toll. You’re back in your dorm and you’re just weary of everything. Numb even. Blah resounds in your head.

There used to be times when the numbness was frightening. Adventures like walking on thin ice or bungee-jumping shock you out of it. Or walking the catwalk under a highway bridge far above the ground at night. It’s so dark that you can only make out a few feet in front of you, and every time a truck roars overhead, the reverberation rocks the catwalk. It’s as if only with death beckoning in the shadows that every hair will stand on end, every neuron fire, and every sense become razor sharp. You have to hunt out excitement, fear, whatever—anything to make your heart pump so that you can feel alive again. Intensity becomes proof of existence.

After a while, you don’t bother fighting the numbness. It’s a losing battle. Emotion is replaced by apathy. You’re not living anymore, you’re just surviving, and you don’t want to. You just want to sleep, sleep so long and so hard that when you wake up, things will be different.

That’s when you get out the pills. It doesn’t matter what type. Blue, green, white, capsules, chewables—whatever—they’re all a means to an end. Peace. Calmly you fill a glass of water and sit down with the rainbow of pills laid out in front of you. You develop a rhythm and chorus that plays in your brain. PILL, drink, swallow, PILL, drink, swallow…

Eventually, surprisingly, they’re all gone. You make your slow way to the computer and bring up a blank page. For a while, you get lost in it, the whiteness, the blankness of a new page. Unsullied, innocent, full of possibilities. And then, the hand poised over the keyboard inevitably makes contact and it’s all lost.

Surprisingly, there’s little to say. Strange that twenty years of living melts down to a few bare sentences. What to tell the world? What soothing thoughts to think before sleep deadens?

None of the things that comfort others does anything to allay your fears. Fate—a nice fairytale. In truth, how could it work? You look around the world, at the randomness and chaos, and wonder how anyone could believe that things are “meant” to happen and people are “meant” to be together. Then what are you meant to do? Where’s your purpose, your man, your place in the world?

It always comes down to God. He has a special purpose for all of us. He works in mysterious ways. You can only trust in Him. Considering that trusting others you’re much better acquainted with failed miserably, this is laughable. Why does He give you a brain to question his ways to death if he wants us to believe in him?

Maybe you’re more comforted by a world devoid of a higher being, whether true or not. Evolution is fine, you can see two-cell organisms evolving over billions of years. What more do you need? Maybe death as eternal sleep is better—no more worrying ever. There’s nothing scary about endless nothingness. Better nothingness then a somethingness that you have to fear your whole life, one based on a “naughty or nice” principle with an entrance fee you probably cannot pay. You don’t need to torment yourself on top of everything else about whether or not you’re a “good” person.

You already torture yourself about the few things you want from life. Sometimes you wonder if you’ll ever get them, or if you’re even worthy. It’s not even that life is really so hard in the physical sense. You’re not abused, or starving, or even lacking in material things. It’s not that at all. It’s knowing that everything’s pointless, that it never changes, that every year after this year will be spent in the same struggle and that you’re just not up to it. You want to be liked, to have friends. For once, you want to be envied rather than be that one on the outside looking in, pretending contempt but in reality wanting to be inside with a vehemence that aches to your core.

At bottom, you’re only a scared, immature child who doesn’t know what to do with life, or how to fix it, who has never grown up and doesn’t know how to, who above everything wants love, but can’t find it.

Imagining yourself this person, wouldn’t you also be here, in the hospital, hooked up to an IV?”

I looked at her lying so still in the hospital bed, gazing at me with those watchful brown eyes. She was so small, lost under the blankets and the puke-green of her voluminous hospital gown. Such big thoughts for such a little girl.

Deliberately, I left her question unanswered. “Then why have you failed in two other attempts at killing yourself?”

She settled back against the bed and smiled faintly. “Hope dies hard. Living is tough, but dying with the shimmering possibility of happiness is almost impossible. Sometimes I think my subconscious protects me. It seems to know exactly how many pills are too many pills. For now, all I can do is take this as a vacation. Eventually I’ll be back out in the jungle. I’ll try again. Take three. It’s a charm, right?”

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