When my friend told me in the ICU that I had overdosed on my pills, I fuzzily asked, “My birth control pills?”
Actually, I’d stood at the water fountain outside my dorm room and swallowed two bottles of antidepressants. I had also been drinking all day, making for a perfectly lethal cocktail.
Make no mistake, this was not a drunken whim.
Just three months earlier, I had been a patient in another medical facility: a mental hospital. My best friend, Denise, had killed herself on Christmas, and days after the funeral I told my mom that I wanted to die too. I couldn’t forgive myself for the role I’d played in Denise’s death: Not only did I fail to save her, but I’m fairly certain I gave her the idea.
Suicide has been part of my identity ever since puberty — probably when I developed major depressive disorder, which wouldn’t be diagnosed and treated for another five years. In retrospect, I can acknowledge that I was a popular, attractive, and bright teenager, but my diary entries are peppered with thoughts of suicide and self-loathing. And when Denise and I both had a pregnancy scare (her first time having sex; my second), my “solution” was to gas ourselves in her red Pinto in her garage while her family wasn't home. (Our periods were probably late because of our stress about unprotected sex, and synced because we spent so much time together.)
But I was the first to make an actual attempt, swallowing 16 tablets of my brother’s prescription medication, writing a short note soaked in tears and bathos, and calling Denise to tell her what I was doing. Of course, she rushed over and told my mother, who called poison control, and Denise and my brother raced to a drugstore to buy ipecac (a popular emetic at the time) while my mom stayed home watching me.
There was lots of drama and vomiting and attention, which I believe is exactly what I wanted. This was a cry for help, not a serious suicide attempt, and it was answered with ipecac, a visit to a family physician, and, eventually, a therapist.
Still, my fascination with suicide never abated. For my college freshman composition research paper, I evaluated different methods of suicide based on simplicity, cost, and success rate. (I got an A but also an office visit with my concerned professor.)
Maybe that’s one reason I felt I could say with such cocky confidence those five words that have tortured me for decades:
“Aspirin won’t kill you, Denise.”
But aspirin did kill Denise, and I’ve lived with the guilt ever since.
It was Christmas, and Denise was home again after her first semester away at school. Always the higher achiever, Denise went to the University of Iowa while I enrolled in the local University of New Mexico. Our first semesters were vastly different. I put my head down and earned straight A’s, but Denise — like most college freshmen — reveled in her newfound freedom, her strict father unable to discipline her from a thousand miles away.
Denise partied, made new friends, and found a new boyfriend, but her grades slipped. She almost failed a class. She dreaded returning home for the winter holiday and confessing the failure to her father. And she was especially excited about road-tripping back to school with her boyfriend, Todd, who planned to drive to Albuquerque so he could meet his new girlfriend’s family. (He did make that trip and meet her family — at Denise’s funeral.)
Christmas break wasn’t great for either of us. My parents were divorced, and my mom and younger brothers had moved into a cheap apartment while my dad had his own semi–bachelor pad at a nearby “disco” complex. I wasn’t on good terms with either of them and was renting my own first apartment while I waited to move into the UNM dorms for the spring semester in January.
On Christmas Eve, while Denise was out with her family, I dropped off my gifts at her doorstep: gourmet popcorn from the store where I had a seasonal job, and a bottle of Chanel nail polish. (She loved doing her own manicures.) I’m sure she gave me something much more thoughtful, but I honestly don’t remember. When I called to thank her, she was morose. Her father had forbidden her from driving back to school with Todd, and she was disappointed that she didn’t receive the gifts she had requested (in particular, a singer’s debut album).
That’s when she told me she had swallowed a bunch of aspirin, and I offered my flip response about its effectiveness. I was actually annoyed. She had a boyfriend, an intact family, and her own bedroom to return to in her middle-class house, and she didn’t have to work crummy part-time jobs to pay for college.
So I didn’t take her seriously. Aspirin didn’t even rate a mention in my paper about suicide. I expected her to sleep it off, if it had any effect at all, and maybe even have a happy outcome: Her father would be more forgiving about her grades and let her drive back to school with her boyfriend.
I tried calling her back throughout the day and evening, but I always got a busy signal. (This was before cell phones, and her family didn’t have call waiting.) I had a nagging sense that I should drop by; after all, she probably expected me to, just as she had done two years earlier in response to my own halfhearted suicide attempt.
But I didn’t go to Denise’s house. I tried her number one last time (still busy) before going to bed. I had to work the next day and prepare for the party she and I were hosting at my apartment that night to celebrate the winter break. Nothing fancy, but it required a certain amount of coordination with our older friends who could legally buy alcohol.
In the back of my mind I must have been relieved that I didn’t hear from Denise the next day. It was insanely busy at the popcorn shop, and I figured we would touch base before the party. And sure enough, my phone rang shortly after I arrived home. Except it wasn’t Denise calling — it was her sister. “Could you please come up here right away?” she said, her voice trembling. I suddenly felt cold and a little frightened. I said I’d be there in a minute, and then Denise’s father picked up the extension phone. He reiterated his daughter’s request, with even greater urgency. “Come up here right away, please. Come up here now.”
I suspected that Denise wouldn’t talk to her parents and I would have to intercede, or that she was sick and just wanted to see me. I quickly called another friend to spread the word that the party would have to be canceled, hopped in the car, and raced to her house. I saw people in the kitchen and a lot of activity, and for some reason found this reassuring. Denise’s dad opened the door and pulled me in. We walked down the hall — toward Denise’s room, I believed, but he instead pulled me into his office. Before I could ask why, he put his arms strongly on mine and said, “Denise is dead.”
Even Denise’s mom, an ER nurse, didn’t realize just how desperately ill her daughter was. When she took her to the hospital in the early hours of Dec. 26, she told her husband to go ahead and take the other kids skiing as they’d planned. They didn’t find out what had happened until they returned home and Denise was already gone.
A mutual friend returned with me to my apartment, where I stayed up all night telling myself it wasn’t my fault. I almost believed it. The next morning we called all of our friends to let them know Denise had died. Here’s another thing I’m ashamed about: It was actually exciting to be the one dropping this bombshell, like a reporter with an “exclusive” on a breaking news story.
But after those calls, I felt even worse. Denise’s father had asked us not to reveal that she had killed herself, and most of our friends were too shocked to question us. But in many ways Albuquerque is a small town, and within a day or so everyone knew the truth: Denise had overdosed on aspirin. But in my mind, they knew only half the story. By drawing her into my suicidal ideation, Denise had seen self-harm as a “solution” — but I truly don’t believe she intended it to be permanent. Essentially, I considered myself her killer. I’d given her the “weapon” — and didn’t act when she decided to use it.
Teenagers grieve loudly, without inhibition, when mourning one of their own. One of my most distinct memories is of myself wailing on the lawn outside the funeral home before Denise’s viewing. I’d visited that same funeral home months earlier, when I persuaded a high school friend who worked there to let me take a peek at a dead body after they’d closed for the evening. (My obsession with death had no boundaries.)
Now I was back at that funeral home for Denise's visitation — and my friend was working that afternoon, wearing a brown suit and a sympathetic expression as he hugged me. There were tears in his eyes, and I wonder now if this was the first time he had known one of the deceased? When did he find out that it was Denise who was being embalmed there? Did he help her family choose the casket?
It is pretty horrifying to see the dead body of someone you love, and even more so when you feel responsible for putting them in the casket. When I finally summoned the courage to approach the casket, I gasped with surprise at how lifelike she looked. They had chosen to bury her in her favorite fuzzy sweater and a new pair of jeans she'd received as a Christmas gift. Her hair was styled and her nails were painted crimson — with the Chanel polish I had given her for Christmas. Her sister, beside me, explained that they had given the mortician the new polish along with her clothes. I reached out to touch her hand but recoiled in horror at how cold and fake it felt. This was the first time I truly realized she was gone.
I sat with Denise’s family at the funeral, clutching her sisters as we sobbed throughout the whole thing. But while they wept for their best friend and role model, my grief was complicated by guilt. I felt like a fraud who had no right to be there, much less seated with her family.
I stopped eating. If Denise couldn’t eat, I wouldn’t either. I couldn’t tell anyone how I was feeling, so I destroyed my apartment instead. My mother packed up what was salvageable, and I moved into her place. A few days after the funeral, I swallowed all the prescription medication in her medicine cabinet — but made myself throw it back up because, in a seemingly selfless moment, I didn’t want to put her through the agony I was feeling. The truth is that I was simply too messed up to form a coherent suicide plan.
The next day she took me to a psychiatrist, who said that I should be immediately checked into a mental hospital. Do not pass Go; go directly to what would become my jail for the next few weeks. My mom was to take me there straightaway and return later with a suitcase. It was terrifying, but after all, I felt like I deserved to be locked up.
I felt safe there. For the first time, I was prescribed antidepressants — very high doses, because they don’t have to be as conservative as they would when figuring out the correct dosage for an outpatient. At first I was furious at my jailers, Dr. Bull and his psychiatric nurse, Donna, whom I saw daily for extended therapy sessions. There was also group therapy, and art therapy, and psychodrama. I had no privacy in my room; nurses checked on me regularly throughout the day and night. I slept a lot. I barely ate.
Based on my history, I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder — which I’m still being treated for today. The antidepressants helped me to feel like a functioning human again. By the end of January, my psychiatrist agreed to let me move into the dorms for the start of the spring semester. I still went to therapy several times a week, and they closely monitored my medication. I had to withdraw from my early-morning classes; my medication was so sedating that I slept at least 10 hours a night.
Somehow I managed to make good friends with my roommate and her group of friends, and we socialized regularly. (It helped that they were studying to be athletic trainers, so we attended all the jock parties.) I drank heavily and paid for it with violent hangovers — my medications did not mix well with alcohol. But psychologically, I was starting to feel better. We even went on a spring-break road trip.
But “recovery” and springtime can be a dangerous thing when you have suicidal tendencies. It is a myth that most suicides occur during the winter holidays — Denise, of course, was an obvious exception. In fact, suicide rates often spike in April; T. S. Eliot was right to call it the “cruellest month.”
It was UNM’s annual Spring Fiesta, and I spent the day basking in the sunshine with thousands of fellow students. I drank for hours, and I was completely wasted when I swallowed antidepressants by the handful at the water fountain outside my dorm room. I’d timed it perfectly; both prescriptions were recently filled and the bottles were full. My psychiatrist had finally trusted me enough to prescribe a month’s supply rather than just a week's.
I have very little memory of what happened next; someone saw me and alerted my roommate, and she and her friends rushed me to the university hospital. They said they could hear me in the waiting room as I screamed and cursed the doctors who were trying to insert a tube down my nose. They pumped my stomach and then gave me activated charcoal to try to absorb the drugs. Unfortunately, I’d done a pretty bang-up job and effectively foiled their plans; I very quickly slipped into a coma.
But it turns out that my friends got me to the hospital just in time. After three days in the coma and some worrisome seizures, I regained consciousness in the ICU. I had very little memory of the preceding week; it took the university police five days to find my car because I had no idea where I had parked it.
Once I was well enough to move to a regular hospital room, I started writing again in my journal. Here’s my first entry from the hospital, dated April 20:
So I'm alive. It's hard to write — I have an IV in my arm. Oh well, I don't feel like writing anything serious. How I sure wish my memory wasn't so shot. But that's life, I guess. Heehee. What is life anyway? I was so close to death. It's too weird. Like why did I wake up? I mean, if I had died it wouldn't have hurt or anything. I wish people weren't so afraid of suicide...and me.
I was mortified that so many people knew what had happened. I got a get-well-soon card signed by most of the football team. Some even visited (the hospital was basically across the street from campus), but it was always awkward. There is nothing in the etiquette books to guide the conversation in this case. I could laugh with my closest friends (my friend Kristie’s father had actually flown cross-country to retrieve her from school because they didn’t think I was going to make it), and my memory problems offered a good excuse to put off talking about suicide.
One person who didn’t shy away from the topic was the pastor of the Lutheran church we’d attended infrequently for years. Looking back, I’m furious at the things he said when he visited me, but at the time I was vulnerable and obviously not in a position to walk away. In addition to telling me I had sinned against God, he said I was selfish for not considering how much this would hurt my family. (This was not the last time I heard such admonitions; even physicians have chastised me. The ignorance and thoughtlessness of people when it comes to mental health is staggering.)
Denise’s father, on the other hand, absolved me of my sins. I had finally confessed to him that I had failed to act to save Denise, and he insisted when he visited my hospital room that it was not my fault. He told me he had read all my notes and letters to her — a grieving father’s search for “answers” — so he knew how fixated I was on suicide and wanted to make sure I didn’t die like his daughter.
We stayed close for a while, but ultimately it just became too painful for me to see anyone from Denise’s family. I couldn’t separate my guilt from my grief — and like most people who’ve lost loved ones to suicide, they probably were experiencing a similar torment.
To this day I still feel this was a copycat suicide, in reverse. Denise was psychologically more healthy, and she probably would have ably addressed her problems if she hadn’t borrowed my defective tool kit.
When I was eventually released from the hospital (my recovery was prolonged because I had also contracted pneumonia), I returned to the mental hospital. And I would return there a third time after another suicide attempt. It took years of therapy and constant adjustments to my antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication, but I finally reached a place where I couldn’t hear the siren call of suicide. Or at least it is fainter — farther away and less seductive.
I am lucky. I have a gloriously happy marriage, family and friends who love and understand me, an exciting and fulfilling career, and a terrific psychiatrist.
I am still consumed by guilt about my friend’s death. And I know that if I killed myself, my loved ones would feel the same way — to a lesser extent, maybe, but don’t all survivors believe there is something they could have, should have, done? But my depression means that I will continue to have those dark days, when my sadness and despair and indescribable pain make it impossible for me to see outside myself.
Maybe Denise’s own suffering was greater than I realized or ever acknowledged. I’ll never know. The fact is that I survived, despite my best efforts, and she didn’t. The only way I know how to honor her life is to cherish mine. I’m doing the best I can.