A Once and Future of an Unmaking

Photo: © S. Bertrand. All rights reserved.

There was the night I witnessed the spider in the lower left corner of my bathroom haunt the base of my tub for unsuspecting vermin. I pissed on the toilet, cheek in palm like The Thinker but more bloated, and watched this diminutive executioner perch midair waiting for some critter even smaller than itself to wander into the unseen noose that was its web. To my right on the floor was a pair of used panties messed with the slaughtered blood of my menses, circled by a ring of ants that congregated in the clotted center of it. I thought of eyes of storms, of bulls-eyes, of Bataille’s eye. I am a slow pisser. Shy, I think they call it, a shy bladder. Anyhow, in the thick of my shy-dom I fixated on the hovering spider, eyes glazing over and minutes ticking by. Eventually, without thinking, I picked up one of the ants to my right, and being careful not to hold it too gruffly between my pink tips, I let the ant go. And it caught, it really did. I watched it thrash, chained in place by an imperceptible strand of silk. Then came a moment where my mind widened to what I had caused, what god I had played. There was a brief second of ant twisting and spider darting toward, a moment of surging regret at what cannot be undone. It is remarkable really, the speed. They speak of what humanity could accomplish if only we could capture the strength of spider silk at our own scale, but I am astonished at the deftness, the alarming rate at which a vibration translates to predation.

The spider jolted in the direction of the ant so quickly I blinked and it was done; the carcass withering, the body of the spider arching, minutely, over the soon-to-be-shell of its dinner, the two joining into one darkened dot in the center of an off-white marble tile. To the right, the living colony traipsed over my panties, circled and continued the deep burrow. I wiped and went to sleep. Left my drying blood to the living.

~

The first time I thought about killing myself I was seven years old. The first time I tried to I was eight. Again, at twelve. Again, at sixteen. I am freshly twenty-five. They talk of student debt and the impossibility of earning a wage capable of keeping up; they talk of the crisis of the career in the age of freelance employment and gig economies; they talk about how we young ones will never be able to buy houses like our parents did (presuming, of course, our parents were able to do such things as buy a home), and how we will be one of the first generations to proportionately make less than our forbears. What they do not talk about is what happens when you reach your mid-twenties and find yourself rendered listless, unmoving, lacking a trajectory, simply because you did not plan on being here.

The thing about being suicidal is that once the desire or need to kill yourself locks in your brain as a concretely possible solution to the thronging hopelessness that is dismantling your personhood, the syndrome behaves more like a virus than a bacteria. Once the thought passes from the abstract and conceptual into the realm of planning and intent, there is almost a morphing that occurs where suddenly this possibility is forever programmed into the makeup of your psyche. You’ve acknowledged that not only are you capable of physically ending yourself, but you are capable of wanting to in such a way that the survival instinct, and any biological impulses that might inhibit you from doing so, are upended. This process is not a choice, and once it becomes a truth as core to your lived experience as your own bones, the flavor of it will always linger on the back of your palate as a potential outcome, even if the pressing need to act on it somehow, blessedly, leaves you. Not curable through tonics or pills or Pilates. Suspended, yes. Eradicated, the aftertaste—a bitter, noxious lingering—of its presence within you it? Never.

~

There is a moment, a scene almost, as though projected through an airy reel of gauze, from my childhood where I realized for the first time that I was capable of ending myself, or rather, that just because I was a child didn’t mean I couldn’t take care of myself in that way if I needed to. I use the phrase “take care of,” because that was very much how it has always manifested for me; a conceptualizing of suicide as a form of curative solution for what I no longer wanted to be. I thought of suicide as an entirely reasonable event, and in many ways still do. There were gnawing disturbances that threatened my internal security, waves of panic that crescendoed in the utter terror of not being able to halt or even name them, moments where I blacked out and lost myself to self-beatings and dizzying headaches. I felt an ominous suffocation that seemed bent upon ending me, slowly, laboriously, but rather than pushing me under, was content to dangle me over the edge and watch me writhe. Suicide, comparatively, struck me as medicinal; a simple solution to a sickness I was not equipped to wrestle. In that way, of course I found a degree of care in the moment of it. We all take care of ourselves in highly self-attuned and varying ways. Some protect the body, some do not, but it is not always the body that needs the most protecting.

The scene played out in the aftermath of Columbine. Littleton, Colorado, a thirty-minute drive from my own hometown of Lafayette, and my mother could not stop crying. No mother could stem the horror that welled up within them, communal, national, corporeal. A shared haunting, wondering if Dylan and Eric’s parents did not see what their kids were holding inside of them, in what other ways could we, collectively, be mis-estimating our children? In relaying this, I feel shame, because although I shared a sentiment of deep mourning for those lost, what I wished most profoundly in that moment was that I, too, could be shot and killed. I did not understand the event of it, my reaching brain, struggling to grasp. A massacre at that magnitude was beyond my conceptual ability. But what I retained was that somebody might approach me, too, in my school. A new era had been ushered in. I was to understand that there were executioners walking hallways, taking bathroom passes, breaking bread in cafeterias. It’s a thought that would linger. I was young when that realization came to me, seven maybe, when Columbine happened. But it followed me through the years, and I have a distinct, disturbingly clear memory of walking into my third grade classroom on a particularly difficult morning, feeling that unnamable, disabling grief that would come to be a hallmark companion of my adolescence, and wishing with all certitude that somebody would walk up and put a bullet in my head so I, too, could be unmade.

When I reconjure those times, pull up the clarity with which I wished to die from the recesses of memory, I am awash with shame at the thought of those youths who have died at the hands of violence, unwanted and in ways fundamentally, spiritually, tragic. After years of therapy and the slowly acquired understanding that in actuality I am a survivor, I am still reticent to relay to others that as a child I attempted to kill myself, because a child dying is such an unnatural, chill-inducing upending of life. I feel it marks me as sadistic, akin almost to a murderer, and to tell others I was at one point capable of hurting a child, even if it was myself, implies a cruelty against natural order that I would rather simply be mute in the face of.

~

There is a plum tree in my neighborhood that is enmeshed with spiderwebs. It’s summertime, and this is frustrating. I’ve never before encountered a trove of spiders claiming a fruit tree as home, but it is theirs and I am only a viewer. Over the past weeks I’ve watched the plums ripen, laced over with a mess of dusty spider spinnings. Their bright purple quickly darkened to the black that all living things acquire when turning to rot, and suddenly the tree seemed spotted with bloody wounds, bound almost by medicinal wrappings. It became more beautiful to me this way, the webbed markers of hunger and home bespeckled with the makings of jam, all turning to face the sun’s long arc together, high in the branches above.

~

Suicide holds the silver medal in the Death Olympics for being the second leading cause of death for people between the ages of ten and twenty-four. Fifteen percent of American youth report having made a suicide plan in the last year. Yet, as alarming as these statistics are, they do not include data on children younger than ten, and The National Institute of Mental Health does not ask adolescents ages twelve to seventeen about suicidal thoughts or behavior in their national polls on depressive tendencies, negating even younger subjects all together.

I’m no psychiatrist. I have not done the work, been to the years of school and wrestled with behavior as though it were something tangible I could hope to manage. But I know my world, can say what I see and what I have felt, and I feel secure in stating that there is a crisis of invisibilization regarding childhood mental illness, and the taking seriously of atypical psychologies such as depression, anxiety, and other disorders when they are manifest in bodies seen as too small to be capable of bearing the grief of the world. But the grief of the world is perhaps most perceptible to those with childlike intuition, those who are adept at interpreting suffering before even having the words to describe what they are processing, and who stand to go unprotected if biology has set them up with the particular vulnerability of mental illness, but there is no collective effort to take unexplained grief in the young seriously.

We search for a concrete cause: the partner that it’s presumed must exist to the effect. We think of those children who are exposed to trauma and abuse, take seriously the effects of environment and experience, as we adamantly should. But it becomes uncomfortable to acknowledge a child weighed upon by indescribable depression, when there is no visible, clear-cut explanation for the suffering. Often, the symptoms may not be visible at all. I certainly took pains to hide mine, fearing rebuke or lectures to behave or a minimizing response along the lines of, “You just woke up on the wrong side of the bed today.”

Addressing depression in the very young requires an almost illogical resequencing of expectations surrounding childhood behavior. Children are presumed to be innocent to the world, and the widely held assumption is that they are, for the most part, carefree, unburdened by the trials of adulthood, and yes, happy. This is of course a largely naïve expectation, one that negates the adversities of living children are capable of perceiving from their caregivers and the world around them; but it does not stop the collective consciousness from frequently brushing off atypical behavior or urges as mood swings, temper tantrums, or even as attention-seeking, because this is the convenient, palatable narrative.

~

In her book Beyond Codependency, Melody Beattie proposes: “Learn to recognize the difference between shame and guilt. Guilt is believing that what we did isn’t okay. Authentic guilt is valuable. It’s a sign that we’ve violated our own, a universal moral code. It keeps us honest, healthy, and on track. Shame is worthless. Shame is the belief that whether what we did is okay or not, who we are isn’t. Guilt is resolvable. We make amends for what we did, learn from our mistake, and attempt to correct our behavior. Shame isn’t resolvable. It leaves us with a sense that all we can do is apologize for our existence, and even that falls short of what’s needed…. Hold a light to shame and call it what it is: a nasty feeling dumped on us to impose rulesusually somebody else’s rules.”

~

Outside the window of the bakery I work at somebody was preparing to take flight. Perched atop a three-story apartment building, their body was long and black against the sky, a circle for the head, an oval for the body, antlike in midair.

Holy fuck, guys, we got a jumper, Dan the bread baker said, standing at a window and eating a bowl of soup, riveted, spoon traveling rhythmically from vessel to mouth.

I’m calling the police, said Alice, a fellow counter worker, and she went to find the phone. Behind me Dan and a few others were placing bets on whether the person would jump, whether he was tripping and if so on what drugs, whether he’d been in a fight with his girlfriend and she’d locked him out. All the language swirling around me assumed a male subject. I wondered how they could tell, this person with their ant body. I’m desperately nearsighted, but still I wondered, how could they tell? I did not vocalize the rising empathy that was flooding my thoughts, did not tell them to shut up because being suicidal happened and was not aberrant, should not be tossed around as a punch line. But what do I know. Perhaps they, too, had their scrapes with turning toward unliving. Maybe comedy made it easier.

Like them, I stood stilled and transfixed. Time collapsed in on itself, and suddenly, as if being squeezed through a telescope shuttling me back to a not-so-long-ago era, I felt the tie about my neck with which I had once tried to hang myself, felt the rising suffocation of panic at being, my body closing tight and hot around me, demanding I cut it loose. I felt the shame that swells whenever I am confronted with these particular memories, and although I wanted to turn away my body fought me. Look, it said, look and see, this is a homecoming for you. And it was. It hurtled me back, and I did not want Alice to call the cops and I did not want the person to jump, and I worried for their death. Mostly though, and this too brings me shame, I worried that if they did make the leap, three stories would only be far enough to cause permanent injury, but not enough for them to succeed.

~

Clearly, I never did succeed. It was another thing I found I was particularly bad at. All my youth I held tight to the notion that if I wanted to, I could end it. That always I could choose to leave. With each attempt where this proved to be not quite the case, the desperation grew. And yet I could not tell, could not allow others to have a glimpse at the breadth of what was consuming me, otherwise the shame most certainly would end me, and would simply be out of my hands. That I could not live with, and I could not die with. I didn’t want anybody to know I needed the help, was afraid of what asking would mark me as. Now I see it wouldn’t have marked me as much of anything, except honest.

~

And so, you may ask, what builds this within one so young? Indeed, what did build this within me. A destiny of hereditary precedent? The death and loss? My stepfather Andrew’s suicide? Or was it the dysphoric parenting, itself unhinged and characterized by grief, anger, and regret weaponized as contempt? Perhaps that comes another time, in another essay, of which I have plenty I may choose to write, may not. But right now I am guarding this space for me, casting a strand and marking my corners, gathering my edges, centering myself in preparation and wait. My voice, my territory. Not for them.

~

And before you ask, yes, I’m a Goth girl. Not like Hot Topic goth. I mean like Catholic Goth. And that is some real-ass Goth shit.

~

Perhaps the most heartachingly beautiful thing about spiders, and something they are very coy and secretive about, is that they can fly. Fly, aerial dancers. Fly, invisible talents. In the same way that a flying squirrel might, or the bowler cap Wright brothers, spiders take flight by intuiting airwaves and reading gusts of winds with such precision that they are able to pitch themselves aloft, calmly travel, and drop down at a desirable location. To achieve this, they position themselves at a peak of some sort, raise their front two legs to interpret the strength and direction of the breeze, and deeming it a desirable ride, prone their bitty butts and release a strand of thread while simultaneously lifting all legs off the ground. Trusting the wind to carry their body upward, they fly, like a kite. All around us, teensy traffic is crisscrossing through the air, right in front of us, but we are too self-focused to take note.

Spiders get a bad rep for being creepy, noxious, in the way, dangerous. But any real one knows this is a ruse; just look and see. Spiders are doing the undesirable work of cleaning up after humankind, minding their vermin, occupying their unseen corners. They are practicing the feminized art of weaving, are guarding house and home by blood and fang, by gentle, airborne thread. Like so many mothers. And yet, like so many mothers and femmes, and like so many of those disenfranchised and stigmatized bodies whose atypicality or foreignness is weaponized as deviant in order to uphold a norm, spiders bear the brunt of widespread panic. The Halloween-store trope is that the spider’s presence can only be one of malice, not goodwill, and most certainly not both at once. But survivors of all ilks know that malice, of course, is often a necessary safeguard. To bear teeth and protect the self when dogs are lapping at your heels gets bent as criminal or illicit when the lapping dogs are those upholding a system of oppression disguised as normative.

~

Alice called the cops, and they came. As they do. Took the person away. Put the person away. Invisibilized them to us, the onlookers. On with your business, nothing to see here. As they do. But oh, bitch, I do see. I see you have something to hide from me. America’s jails and prisons have always been, since Colonial times and the first formative efforts at punitive control of inconvenient bodies, a landing place for individuals who represent a nuisance or perceived threat to society, but are too poor, sick, or otherwise disenfranchised and oppressed to receive care on the outside. It is no coincidence that the largest provider of mental health care in the United States is currently the prison-industrial complex (PIC). Mental Health America’s data reports that six out of the ten states with the least access to mental health care also have the highest rates of incarceration. Suicide is the leading cause of death in the PIC, an event vastly more common in both jail and prison than on the outside. As journalist Alisa Roth says in Insane: America’s Criminal Treatment of Mental Illness, “Although historical records and statistics provide only an approximate view, it is clear that our jails and prisons have always served to some extent as clinics and hospitals for people with mental illness, from the earliest days of colonial America through the era of the asylums in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and right up to the present. … About 5 percent of the total population of people with mental illness is now in jail or prison. This speaks to the fact that the overrepresentation of mental illness in the criminal justice system is partly a story of mass incarceration.”

The history of mental health care in this nation is one knit closely with the history of carceral punishment, where bodies deemed deviant or malicious or unmanageable (in effect, bodies seen as needing to be controlled. Black and brown bodies. Female bodies. Queer bodies. Poor bodies. And yes, those with psychological and physical disabilities), have been and continue to be sequestered under a ruse of broader “safety” for the general public. Those tactics used in antiquated asylums to subdue residents which we now correctly judge as inhumane (shock treatment, eugenics, straightjackets, lobotomies, sexual assault, etc.) have visceral, contemporary counterparts in the prison system (so-called “suicide jackets,” the practice of chaining incarcerated people to their beds at the waist and all appendages when they are being treated in infirmaries, the deadly consequences of overcrowding, solitary confinement, forced medicating, etc.). When one exhibits atypical behavior in public that clearly indicates a psychological crisis, and they do not possess the forgiveness of money or healthy family relations, often those individuals are arrested and removed to the realm of the unseen, rather than received with resources that might provide care. All this to state that no matter what strides are made to create a more equipped environment on the inside, the fact remains that the philosophies of the criminal justice system and mental health care are inherently incompatible—jails and prisons will always be correctional units under correctional control, designed to punish, incapable of providing a therapeutic setting. So I do not know what might have happened to the jumper on the roof, but it stills me.

~

I think about it often, and I wonder if the person who was perched on the ledge wishes they had made the leap. So often we hear of botched suicides, the safe and comfortable fable of relief washing over a sufferer in the wake of realizing their plan didn’t work. I never felt relief. Only despair, feelings of ineptitude collapsing through me, like dominoes. See, we fall. Why can’t you?

~

Like I mean some crown of thorns shit, weeping statues and blood-soaked shroud of Turin and virgin cults defined by beheadings and apparitions, I mean that Goth shit.

Praise be, bitch. Praise be.

~

I used to walk around a lake near my childhood home when I was feeling paranoid, less sentient and more alien, more manic and less able. It was artificially forged; a necessity in arid Colorado climes where the bushes dry into brittle dust and sun-cured flowers could be used as a loofah. It wasn’t that the scape was so much serene, as that it reminded me of a part of myself I could not look at too closely. I walked compulsively for many years as a form of disciplining my body while also removing myself from my cerebral landscape. My walking was both robotic and unguarded, as much turning to the drying trees for answers as I was using them as boxlike shield from pressing questions. The older I get, and I am still very young, the more I realize everything exists in tandem and as a duality. Not a binary, for nothing is one or the other, including us. But we are all our pasts and presents and future urges at once, collapsing against, charging forth in circuitous labyrinths through mind and marrow. Desire is not linear. Nor is shame. Nor are we. There is not one end and another, this polar, that. One or the other, healthy or unwell. What a relief to realize: an invention, only, all of it.

~

When I turn inward and think of that chuck of life spent wishing myself out, it isn’t remembered as a moment or event that came upon me and then at some point, for one reason or another, ended. Instead I think of dormancy, of hibernating black bears and unfurled sprouts deep beneath the soil. My depression has this tendencyto self-describe in terms of the natural and beautiful. At times, my depression, my suicide, should I choose it or not, has felt to me like a naked, sleeping lamb I carry with me. I have often experienced it as exactly that; a tender, fragile entity, both outside myself and truly of-me in the sense of who bears it upon their back. Harsh, jutting bones in places, but also a smooth and well-known cushion of a thing. Loyal, bleating, tugging at the edges to be seen. A lamb. I think of lambs of gods, of petting zoos, of sustenance and slaughter, of blood spilling red against creamy wool. I think of that which is both fiercely protected against roving predators, and also butchered by the hand that feeds it. I have at times clung tightly to my lamb, defending it, hiding it from prying eyes, needing it. At times, I’ve wished it dead. For now, my lamb is sleeping; eyes folded gently downward, internal churnings quieted with the stillness of abeyance. Sleeping, not gone. Not begun, not ended. Nothing fixed. Always aloft, shoulder-borne, moving in step with me, my foil, my crown, a mess of shadows in place of the halo I do not want.

~

Roland Barthes, in The Pleasure of the Text, waxes poetic about the immutable nature of writing, reading, and the question of subjecthood regarding each. Simultaneously dissolving the writer as inessential to the meaning of a text, Barthes manages to equally highlight a writer’s status as implied subject within a text as one that is fundamental to the chimeric ménage a trois that is writer: reader: text. Was there ever, after all, a holier trinity? In elevating text itself to a level of subjecthood independent of, and on-par with, the individual writer and reader, Barthes proposes the event of text, the event of a cultivated collection of writings that bears itself before the world, as one both inherently reflective of the hand that crafts it and the audience that processes its meaning, while also existing as a site outside the identifiers and limitations of the humans who collide with it. Extending further to suggest text as a body outside the body, as a manifestation of flesh that, though tactile, exists conceptually almost on an astral plane, Barthes launches into an examination of the texture of text. Taking pains to consider processes of structure as well as the breaking down and doubling-back inherent to the difficult task of interpretation, he speaks to the subject who loses themselves in the “tissue” of the text, saying, “lost in this tissuethis texture the subject unmakes himself, like a spider dissolving in the constructive secretions of its web.”

The web as secure safety net, the web as noose, the web as house and home and belonging. The web as confounding internal reasoning, as delirium, as tangled psychosis. The web as longing. The web as a killing apparatus that absorbs you for itself as soon as you flex, doubt, twist and turn. The web as process, as intent. The web as lamb. Not begun, not ended. Nothing fixed. Always aloft, shoulder-borne, corner-held, moving in step with me, my foil, my webbing, my crown.

~

So, I never did die. Not yet at least. I will. I could be mawkish, embrace the trope dying is the only thing we can be sure of after all, and profess that that, at least, brings some certitude to the whole task of being. But it doesn’t. There’s the perishable use-by date affixed in the stars or the flesh or otherwise to these bodies of ours. And no, I don’t place stock in an afterlife, or a heavenly landing plane, or even hell, though things might be simpler if heaven and hell could be distilled to just that. But like everything else in the world, like desire, or shame, or the lambs we carry, I will never fold to the idea of an absolute, and not for the sake of ego. For the same reason I don’t ascribe to beginnings, and I don’t believe in the concept of recovery, and I don’t want to be made anew. I want it all, collapsing, condensing, expanding, folding throughand not just once, but over and over. Unmade, in the sense of rebuilding. Unmade, in the sense of reimaging. Unmade in the sense of soul as material, reduced, reused, recycled. A floating island in the sea, regurgitated as new kitchen appliance. Like Merlin, living through time backwards. Unmade, ever on the track to final form, which evaporates, elusive on the horizon. So yes, I never did die. And so yes, I want to live. I want to live. I want to live. And my lamb bleats on, spiders traipse over thin wire, and time circles back, ever-living itself, the text of it all, subject and body, alien beings. Breathing out, together, I’m here for now. That’s good enough. An invention only, all of it.

 

by Kelsey Gray

 

Kelsey Gray.pngKelsey Gray is a writer and visual artist living in Portland, Oregon. She is a 2015 graduate of Lewis and Clark College with a degree in studio art. Her written work has appeared in The Nashville Review, Alta Magazine, Litro Magazine, Gigantic Sequins, Big Big Wednesday, Metatron Press, Maudlin House, and elsewhere. You can find more of her visual and written work on her website, www.kelsey-gray.com.

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