Sometimes, when you have suicidal thoughts, what you need is a Big Mac. That’s what I needed, anyway, that summer, four years ago. It was Big Mac time about five times a week, usually at 1 a.m. or so. There was better food, but I didn’t want it, because I had this strange kind of nausea where I could only stomach relatively flavorless meals. Vibrant, dazzling flavor overwhelmed me.
McDonald’s, though, was engineered for satisfying monotony — each item was a precise deposit of one scientifically created taste, free of nuance: the simple tang of focus group–approved mayo, or the unassuming umami of perfectly homogenous chicken.
In fact, I never really understood the Big Mac until I was depressed. Why replace so much of the burger with the inner bun? Why make the whole thing so squishy? It seemed silly. Previously, I had thought that the point of the burger, in general, was that it was a challenging, pleasurable ordeal — the unwieldy consumption of a big, greasy puck of cow. But the Big Mac is a yielding, pillowy item. It falls apart upon contact. It’s a burger ghosts could eat.
Pillowy and yielding was just right for my gustatory needs, in 2012, when my face felt weak all the time. Chewing vegetables was taxing. Sitting still, hearing the sounds of my mouth interacting with baby carrots — I didn’t have the endurance. So I didn’t do it, even though I’d read on WebMD that nutrition is a key component of mood. The only suitable foods were soft, like peanut butter cups, smoothies, or fast food of any kind.
I never really understood the Big Mac until I was depressed.
Also, I didn’t feel like I deserved healthy eating. I wasn’t the type of person who ate good food. Salads were for gorgeous women in stock photography, with tight pants and handbags. Protein shakes were for personal trainers named Shawn or Clarence. People with no body acne anywhere, people who had a non-adversarial relationship with their sexuality. Surely, I didn’t belong at a grocery store named Fiesta Farms, replete with organic produce.
That summer I measured all outdoor distances in terms of cigarettes. The McDonald’s was about three cigarettes away. The first steps were the hardest — past the local bar, which I’d stopped going to after I’d reached the stage where being called by name, by the lovely staff, was uncomfortable. Friendly indifference was much better. Smiles, McDonald’s says, are free, and the smiles you get there are free not only of price, but also of meaning, impact, or specificity, which was just perfect.
The rest of the walk was easier. Crossing the major intersections made me a little anxious, because people, in general, made me anxious. But at that hour, they were mostly partygoers to whom I was usually invisible. (My haircut and personal style had recently taken a huge step backwards; I’d made myself uglier than I’d ever been before.)
A lot of fucked-up people ended up in this particular McDonald’s, by virtue of its location. It was kitty-corner to an emergency room, a few blocks away from a bunch of halfway houses, and down the street from the local drug park. Everything was going on. A lone old lady, a regular, spoke to her milkshake in Russian. Men who emitted attention-grabbing odors, who wore clothes whose original colors were indecipherable, kibitzed loudly in the corner.
But there were also prettier people among the population: club kids and beery undergrads, wearing all the right fashion hats; hipsters with all-black fixies parked outside; sloppily lovely waitresses, just off work from handling more expensive food, with the hipshot stance induced by sore calves.
Generally, these groups were self-segregating. On the one side of the restaurant, there were all the people undesired by much of society, regarded as a pitiable burden, or a problem probably not worth solving. On the other side, there were the young people whose lives, while maybe scattered, were most likely trending upwards, towards a series of pleasant, well-decorated living rooms, filled with loving companions and perhaps a few gifted children. Frankly, I never knew exactly where to sit, not feeling entirely at home in either population.
I just needed an illuminated place — a confining cell I could inhabit when I started feeling really sick.
Two years before, I’d sat flush among the ranks of the upwardly mobile: a star pupil, with an appetite for modernist literature, wearing the American Apparel that was in style in those medieval times. But then I’d dropped out to write a novel that became a nervous breakdown. So while I wasn’t yet part of the less fortunate population, that was a possibility. There was still a long way down, but that was my flight path. I’d already thrown out a lot of my clothing, for reasons I couldn’t coherently explain, and somehow burned through most of my money, even though I never did much.
I’ve already mentioned how much I loved McDonald’s customer service. Let me mention it again. Those kids are angels, every one of them. They’re so nonjudgmental, in the most literal way. Not compassionately judgmental, like a therapist, but just not. When one of these wonderful humans put up my meal and called my number, I’d take it, sit wherever felt least wrong, put my head down, and devote myself entirely to my food. Even when not suicidal, I’m a sucker for Big Mac sauce. It’s basically Thousand Island dressing, which is a ringing endorsement.
The sandwich was only half the appeal, though. The other reason I ended up at McDonald’s so often was that I just needed an illuminated place — a confining cell I could inhabit when I started feeling really sick. Home wasn’t safe sometimes. In my tiny room, with its off-white walls smeared with my handprints, it felt like anything could happen. There were sharp objects around. Medication could’ve helped (and it is helping, now, a lot), but back then, I was proud and stupid. There wasn’t a doctor in the world, I was convinced, who would understand my very special issues.
So I just waited it out with the company of a Diet Coke. Nothing could hurt me there. For however long it took, even if it took all night, I could wait for a lull in my interior monologue. Depression kind of has its own weather, and you get to know it, after a while. Morning depression is often relatively innocuous, if you make it out of bed. The simple fact of coffee is a nice distraction. But by the evening, things are a little dicier.
The only downside of McDonald’s was that sometimes someone initiated conversation. Once it was Manfred, who explained that we were surrounded by CIA operatives who were taking notes on us. Honestly, he made a pretty convincing case — he correctly pointed out that many of the patrons who surrounded us were casting furtive glances in our direction while rapidly writing mysterious messages on their phones. I was a little touched by the fact that he considered me a fellow civilian, rather than a part of the dangerous conspiracy that engulfed his whole world.
At McDonald’s, the calories are inexpensive, if not particularly high-quality, and the lights are on bright every night.
Another time, it was Amanda, whose seeming wholesomeness made me feel somewhat ineligible for the continuing project of being human. As she sat down at the table next to mine, we made eye contact, and she asked me what was wrong shortly thereafter. (I hadn’t told her that anything was wrong, but I had a certain tremulous quality.) When I didn’t offer much of an answer, she invited me to a party, which I refused. “Come on,” she said, “it’s at this really cool loft on Richmond, you’ll love it, it’ll cheer you up.” Shortly thereafter, she briefly waved goodbye before disappearing with a flock of other fun-loving people.
That was the worst summer of my life. The fall was pretty bad too. But, luckily, a confluence of psychiatric mishaps derailed me so badly that I was finally forced to seek treatment. Sometimes an inappropriate prescription of amphetamines, inducing a minor bout of psychosis, is just the kick in the ass you need.
I still go to McDonald’s occasionally. It’s kind of a way to reconnect with my past, along with an opportunity to enjoy a consistently delicious product. There’s always someone in McDonald’s who reminds me of me, someone staring down at their table, fending off their whatever, communing with a Filet-O-Fish. Though I always wish they had better accommodations, I’m glad they have a place. Life is tiring, psychiatric care is often hard to get, Toronto’s shelter system isn’t fantastic, and it gets cold here. But at McDonald’s, the calories are inexpensive, if not particularly high-quality, and the lights are on bright every night.
This was also appreciated by a guy named Clint, who I met in a hospital waiting room recently while my girlfriend was getting a stuck contact lens removed. He had come from his shelter, where he’d been bitten on the wrist by a frenzied man who’d tried to bust in. Clint got involved when the intruder attacked a member of the staff. The fight ended quickly, Clint said, because Clint was an ex-military guy with a lot of combat training, who had a great career until he got addicted to painkillers. Then he became abusive, lost his kids, and started bouncing between facilities. It was unclear, after that night’s combat, whether he’d regain full mobility in his hand. The crazy guy was fierce, if clumsy. Clint told me this nonchalantly.
“That’s quite a story,” I said. “Do you think I could interview you sometime?”
“Sure,” he said, “but you’d have to find me.”
“Where are you going now?”
“Don’t know, I never know,” he said. “But first, I’m gonna get a large fries.” ●
Sasha Chapin is a freelance writer whose work has been published in the New York Times Magazine, The Walrus, and Hazlitt.
To learn more about depression, check out the resources at the National Institute of Mental Health here.
If you are thinking about suicide, talk to someone. You can speak to someone by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Suicide helplines outside the US can be found here.