In Memorium

One of my students killed herself this weekend.

Posted Dec 01, 2010

I haven't posted here (or anywhere else for that matter) in donkey's years.  I've been with what I call the Black Dog: a depression so deep and black that I had no words.  I know exactly when the pins holding me together began to drop: in July, a scant four months ago, I pushed myself too hard for a classroom evaluation.  I exhausted myself.  I never really got my energy back.  First the food set in, then the iron cuffs that keep me from leaving my house, then silence, then random, unbidden thoughts that, "I can't do it.  I can't leave Daisy.  I can't do that to Daddy.  I can't leave so much debt."

I didn't use the words die or suicide but I had no hope for my future.  It took a half a Klonpin to get me to school and I was still a shaking wreck.  When I got home from teaching, I was enormously tired.  I quit therapy because the pain of speaking was so impossible for me to bear that I left my shrink's office and picked up binge food on my home. 

Six weeks ago I noticed that my three-month supply of sertraline was shrinking.  I didn't have a reassuring amount of Klonopin either.  I put calling my psychiatrist on my list of things to do and after a couple of weeks of procrastination, I made an appointment.  She, thank the Dogs, spotted the fact that sertraline was no longer working for me.  It had also begun to affect my memory and concentration, a reversable side effect.  I'm in the second week of titrating off of it.  I have always hated what I call the woo-woos of sertraline -- the way my head seemes to stay one step behind me behind when I move.  They hit a few hours before I'm supposed to take my next dose and some days they are very bad indeed.

I left my psychiatrist's office with a hankie's worth of hope.  I also left with her agreement that my therapist was not a good match for me.

I am...a little better.  My anxiety has decreased somewhat.  I hope the change of meds will, when they're finished and have a chance to settle in, get me to that lighter place where I can see colors and expose myself to my friends.  I'm not walking around with a dog, a dad and a debt as a ball and chain.

But I have a l-o-n-g way to go and so much time I buried in bed to make up for. 

Or perhaps I just have to write it off as a bad investment.

All of this is a preamble to the news I got this morning.  One of my students killed herself this weekend.  She was one of the most beautiful women I've ever known.  She had a B+ average in my class.  She had a circle of good friends.  I am told she was athletic, that she came from an affluent, loving family.

And yet she jumped.

And I did not.

When the Black Dog settles in, he sleep on my chests, making it hard to breathe, hard to stand up, hard to show my real self to the world.  He is ravenous, he is smothering, he steals my sleep. For eight hours a week, however, I showed up to teach conjunctions using Grouch Marx quotes, and how Chris Rock's Good Hair is not only a terrific piece of investigation but the beginning of an important dialogue between my black students and my white students.  I performed.

Tomorrow I have to go into her class in which six of her good friends are also enrolled.  They are international students and have bonded tightly in this midtown Manhattan environmement.  My dean has advised me not to invite counselors in.  His feeling is that counselors are so drilled in these situations that they tend to lead students away from their feelings and the morality of the situation. My job, as a writing teacher, is to lead them into those feelings with the tools to think them out.

I fought the Black Dog off with those few things I couldn't leave behind.  I understand suicide -- I've always loathed those people who say things like "God doesn't hand us more than we can handle" and "we're stronger in the broken places".  We are handed more than we can cope with every day.  If we weren't, credit card debt would drain, and no one would buy copious amounts of cookies or marijuana or vodka ever again. 

Maybe my clear-eyed, smart, smiling girl didn't have an addiction that -- sometimes -- can save us.  Maybe she was in the frozen place I experienced where she could not talk.  Maybe she didn't have a hyper Lab, a 93-year-old father who doesn't need drama, or indentured servitude to Master Card.

I have named this post "In Memorium" not only to honor to a young woman who brought great light and great spirits to her circle of friends and to her classes, but to honor the wasted time and deleterious effects the Black Dog demands.  She has wasted many years of what I had assumed would be a lovely life.  I have wasted a number of years struggling with my collection of Dogs. 

We waste time each time we hunker into a cheap novel or compulsive television or a computer game.  We waste time each time we don't photograph in our minds the world around us with its tiny pleasures and suprises.  We waste time each time we don't say "I love you" or smile at a near-stranger's "See you tomorrow, dear."

Dearest Ex-student:

It's drizzling slowly tonight.  Not even enough to put a hat on.  The last leaves have fallen -- canine cocaine because they hold so many stories in them.  The Empire State Building was bathed in a silvery light but tomorrow it will be blue and white for Channukah.  I wore new shoes today and they hurt like hell.  Would it have mattered if I let my facade down and told my classes that I had a chronic flu-like depression but that I was crawling through it?  Would you have changed your mind? 

There is no "it's all for the best," dear.  You may be out of your suffering, for which I am grateful, but you are also out of the treasure hunt.  You had a lovely promising life ahead of you.  You can't give into pain without having fought it with every weapon you can find, including chemicals. 

As for me, I must must must remember the blanched face of the student who told me.  I must remember their questions -- why? What could we have done? The few problems they knew about were not sources of shame and failure.

I have to remember the guilt and pain and questions beyond those of my dog, my debt and my creditors,  I have to go down to see the Empire State Building fancied up in its holiday colors.  I have to remember the ecstatic greetings of dogs I've gotten to know -- Eva, Stanley, Lily Belle, Bubba, Mally, Schoss. 

These are the tangible ways the world reaches out.  Maybe it takes death to understand the intangible citizenship we each have, of grieving people who have known you only through the end of summer and into the last days of fall, of an empty seat in the classroom, the tough questions of guilt, anger and fragility I will have to face in class tomorrow afternoon.

In memory of wasted months, wasted lives, wasted emotions, wasted connection: I salute you, dear, and I hope it was worth it in ratio to the blinding pain you endured.