The First Time by Claire Hennessy

 

The first time you ever think about dying, really think about it, you’re sitting in history class learning about the French Revolution. Ms Keating, your teacher, is trying to get everyone excited by giving them the gory details – even as Louisa beside you has her this-is-so-totally-gross face on, the same expression she regularly adopts in science class and when you dare offer an opinion on anything ever – and you listen to what it was like when they started guillotining people. There’s a trashy Sweet Valleybook you have somewhere, part of an older cousin’s collection you inherited, that sets guillotines in forests in the middle of the night from the very beginning of the uprising, but this is apparently wrong (shocker, you think, but distantly, because you are frozen).

They don’t start guillotining ‘til later in the revolution, and then there is this whole thing about cheeks flushing when slapped, about being aware – like chickens, is it chickens that run around headless? – for a moment or two after your head has been removed. After that blade has sliced its way through your neck, and you are left looking at your body, those arms and legs that you have no control of anymore, that belly you always wished was smaller, those breasts you wished were bigger – and then. And then there is nothing.

And you know without a doubt that the nothing is coming for you and you can’t stop it.

You’re fourteen.

This is the first time.

It scares you the most, this time.

 

*

 

The first time you know death is when you are twelve, when in quick succession your grandmother, a school friend and a neighbour die. When the school friend dies you are still in the middle of your first period, a complicated matter involving sneaking pads out of your parents’ bathroom (you cannot and will not tell your mother, how embarrassing, you are not living in a Judy Blume novel). It is during the summer and you are relieved to be able to wear black to the funeral, instead of bright florals that stain far too easily.

You should feel more than this, you know. You should be solemn and sad and distraught and crying like everyone else. Why can’t you cry? Why is there something broken inside of you?

 

*

 

The first time you cut yourself you are fifteen and you have read about it in magazines and Problem Novels for teenagers, the kind that come with lists of helplines and resources at the back, except they are never relevant. Either they are American or British, like Ireland doesn’t exist, like no one in Ireland could possible take the pink razor meant for their leg hair and drag it across their upper thighs so that pearls of blood rise to the surface.

You do not experience what the books call Disassociation, where you float out of your body and look at yourself like you are a stranger to it. You are still resolutely in this body, this container for your soul, if such a thing exists, and it has scabs forming.

Look at them. Look at them. They are beautiful. They are real.

Later, when you trace your fingertips over them, there is something almost erotic about the sting of pain.

*

 

The first time you tell your dad that maybe you should see a counsellor, he raises his eyebrows in that way you know means ‘notions’. Patiently, though: ‘Angie, why do you think you need a counsellor?’

‘I just –’ All the words vanish from your brain.

It is not that your dad doesn’t approve of counselling. He would be a fool and hypocrite not to. But counselling is for people with real problems. Kids whose parents beat them or neglect them. That girl down the road whose eating disorder is so bad that she runs away every fortnight, and has been found more than once going through the bins outside the nearest McDonald’s. That boy he referred to counselling with burns up and down his arms (burns are worse than cuts; you don’t know how you know this but you do).

Other people have real problems and you – you –

You are sixteen years old and nothing bad, really, has ever happened to you. You have a roof over your head. You have a father who tells you to follow your heart when it comes to picking your Leaving Cert subjects and a mother who agonizes over you making the wrong choices and they both mean so well that it hurts your heart.

You feel it there, at night, your heart. It is too heavy somehow. And you cannot blame your parents or the media or video games or Facebook or whatever people are blaming for teenage angst these days.

It just hurts, that’s all. And the problem is not the world. It’s you.

 

*

 

The first time you tell your mother you’re sick is when you are seven years old.

She tells you to get out of bed anyway. You don’t have a temperature. And you know you don’t have a temperature, but you feel you should have. You must. Because there is something else happening, something else that your body is telling you: you need to be in bed. You needto not go to school.

She sends you to school. You don’t have a temperature. And you don’t collapse or anything dramatic like that. The volume is turned down on your life, is all.

But you don’t have a temperature. So you’re not really sick. So you can still go to school.

You only stay off school unless you’re really, properly sick, you see.

 

*

 

The first time you get drunk you’re eighteen and you love it. This is the missing puzzle piece. You kiss boys you never thought you could ever dare approach. You dance with girls from school that you thought you hated; you even make out with Louisa at one point, in someone’s back garden, while painfully-retro 80s music blares out from the kitchen. This is legal and this is practically encouraged. You go to your cousin’s wedding, the one whose books you still have in your bedroom, and she is delighted to buy you wine, and cocktails, and shots.

And so what if you feel like death in the morning, so fucking what.

At least there is a reason for it.

 

*

 

The first time you show a boy your scars you’re seventeen and he runs his tongue along them in worship.

He has them too, up and down his arms. But he says this thing you don’t quite understand: ‘obviously you’re much worse than me’, is what he says.

It’s not an insult. It is, in its own weird way, a compliment to fucked-up-ness, an admission of guilt, a recognition of something serious going on.

Except that it feels like when someone tells you that you look gorgeous and immediately your instinct is to deflect: oh no I borrowed this. Oh wouldja stop. Ah sure – Penney’s finest!

*

 

The first time you fuck up an exam is when you’re twenty, which is actually pretty good going, seeing as how you spent significant chunks of your first year of college in the bar arguing with classmates about books and theories and politics and which cheap alcohol was the best value.

You have to have a meeting with the head of department, and among his suggestions is this: counselling.

So you go and wait, oddly excited by the whole thing, and then you see Evie, star of half your tutorials last year, and you know suddenly that you cannot compete with whatever troubles Evie might have.

Your parents reluctantly agree to pay for you to repeat the year, yet with slight relief that you have not been deemed crazy enough to repeat free of charge For Medical Reasons, and the guilt is enough to ensure that you spend the first two weeks of lectures with a duvet over your head. You tell your parents that classes start back weirdly late this year.

 

*

 

The first time a counsellor suggests antidepressants, you’re twenty-two and in love with an older guy, not that much older but old enough, and he has really strong feelings about this – they turn you into a zombie, fry your brain, make you feel not-quite-real. And you’ve finals coming up and you don’t want to screw them up the way you have with exams before, so you say no.

All throughout finals you wear a heavy cardigan to cover up the razor-blade scratches on your arms, even though summer has kicked off early and it’s really too hot in the exam halls to wear wool. You’re a grown-up now. You don’t want to look as though you’re seeking attention.

You tell your boyfriend it’s the family cat, expecting him not to believe you. To look into your eyes and ask: what’s wrong? What can I do to help? Have you thought about . . .

He nods and continues undressing you.

 

*

 

The first time you call in sick to work you are twenty-four and it’s a hangover, because a hangover comes with proper symptoms: throwing up and headaches and a general weariness that is somehow better and more worthy than everyday weariness.

It’s a joy, it is, calling in sick. When you do it you can’t remember the last time you did this and then you think: never. You were never allowed miss a day of secondary school in your life, and college never demanded phoned-in explanations for absenteeism. To miss a lecture or two, a tutorial or three – normal.

It’s gorgeous, this. To have the day to yourself and to breathe easy, knowing that you are off the hook for work. For life. For everything.

 

*

 

The first time the doctor talks about antidepressants, like you don’t know what they are, you tell him no. He seems relieved and then tells you about exercise. Exercise and fruit.

Your mother is losing her own mother in a haze of dementia and kidney stuff you block out the intricate details of. Your father has just retired and is coping badly with empty days and hopeful phone calls to former colleagues gone unanswered. You are twenty-six and a brat, a privileged monster who has no right to feel bad.

You don’t do the exercise.

You don’t eat the fruit.

It is not that you don’t believe they work. You know they do, for some people.

The thought of it just makes you want to kill yourself.

 

*

 

The first time you think about it properly:

Look. You love the Luas. The purple and yellow, like a bruise, zooming towards you. You remember vaguely: your cynical childhood, insistent that they would never finish it, ‘akhtually’. You charmed neighbours and relatives but at the end of the day you were wrong. Foolish. Stupid.

Every time the Luas hurtles towards your stop, you imagine stepping out in front of it. It would be so easy.

You have everything to live for except that your body hasn’t quite figured this out yet. And twice a day, at least – into work, out of work – you steel your faithless body against the treacherous urge to fling yourself into harm’s way.

You’re twenty-eight and you’re not supposed to feel like this anymore except you do.

All

the

time

 

*

 

The first time you call a helpline you have consumed, oh, let’s say a bottle of wine.

Or two.

Or three.

You want them to say: we will send someone out to you right now.

You want them to say: you need to be in hospital. Being minded.

You want them to say anything but: hang on in there.

Fuck. That. Shit.

You are too worn-out to save yourself.

 

*

 

Eat more fruit.

Go for a nice brisk walk.

Meet a friend for tea (herbal, ideally).

Funny how when you squint it all looks like: pull your fucking socks up.

 

*

 

It’s not that you want to die.

It is just that this is so exhausting, all of it. It is like you have signed a contract to let people down.

Your family are disappointed you are not spending enough time with them.

Your friends judge you for not making that dinner. Those drinks.

Your boss disapproves of you slipping out early of Christmas drinks.

Here are the things you want to do:

  1. Sleep
  2. Sleep
  3. Eat
  4. Drink
  5. Sleep

You don’t want to be here, wherever here is. Dublin. Ireland. Earth. Awake.

 

*

 

You sleep with a guy from work because Carrie who you went to school with thinks you need to get laid, and basically you just cry all over him once he comes (you don’t, of course you don’t, and you can’t expect any guy to bother making that happen) and it is deeply humiliating.

And that should be the end of it except that you sleep with another guy from work. This one you tell: ‘I’m depressed’.

He finds this fascinating, which is infinitely creepier than being put off by it, and he is disappointed when you reveal that you are not medicated. He looks at you like you have told him the worst lie in the world. He doesn’t talk to you ever again.

 

*

 

You take the medication.

Already this first time and the other times, the future times, are blurring into one.

It will not work instantly.

It takes time.

And yet that first week sees you skipping up streets and wide-eyed all the way. The sun. The sky. The flowers. The world is beautiful. It is all so, so beautiful.

It does not cure everything but look: the world is so, so beautiful.

 

*

 

Some things you do on this miracle medication, after the first three months: drink too much. Cut yourself. Sleep with inappropriate men. Feel. Like. Shit.

You try another one.

You sit with a glass of half-drunk wine and a kitchen knife and jesus it is too much effort to cut yourself so you might as well just – sleep.

 

*

 

This is not a cure.

This is not not-a-cure.

You are smart and clever and you are supposed to be fixed with something more sophisticated than a daily tablet. You are more nuanced. More complex.

You flush all your pills.

 

*

 

The boy – man – who wants to sleep with you does not like that you burst into tears when he is nice to you.

You breathe in and out and look at the number on your phone. The doctor that can prescribe you the antidepressants that will fix – in due course, blah blah blah – you.

You are thirty years old and you are so, so tired of being tired.

 

*

 

You think of Dorothy Parker and you feel clever and sassy for doing so. Quite frankly. Look how literary you are, thinking of Parker’s poem about suicide when you’re pondering methods yourself. It is so apt. So – so – so something.

You don’t want to die.

You don’t want to live.

You leave the roof of the building and you go home to your parents’ house and despair over the obvious things like the economy and not the voices in your head that whisper and whimper and coerce and tell you: you’re better off dead.

Objectively, the economy is –

  • You’re better off dead –
  • terrible, and we must remember –
  • Some people are just worthless…

And aren’t you? Objectively? Objectively, how the fuck are you not fucking worthless? You at thirty-one, you with an arts degree and a handful of work experience bits ‘n’ pieces that accumulates to nothing, really, nothing at all. You’re shit. It’s not hyperbole, it’s true. You. Are. Shit. You have nothing to offer.

Why

don’t

you

just

die

because you are the worst of everything they talk about in the papers, entitled millennials, snowflakes, the kind of people who thought they should be able to get a job (but was that so wrong?) after their degree and the kind of people that wonder now why on earth they can’t make any money, because they didn’t – didn’t work hard enough? or just didn’t get born at the right time?

. . . fuck, it’s endless.

So you breathe in and you tell your parents that you are delighted to be there.

That you will stay for as long as they’ll let you.

That you don’t know when you’ll be ready to leave

(because who is?)

 

*

 

The first time you are ready, really ready, it’s an ordinary day. You’re thirty-three and you’re still living with your parents and like it has always been there, it slots into place: you’re always going to be sick.

And maybe the ‘sick’ should feel like a burden and maybe the ‘always’ should feel like a death sentence but the truth is you realize you are once again afraid of dying.

It is your Catholic upbringing, you think. Thirty-three: Jesus when he was crucified.

Crucifixion – suffocation, really – seems even worse than the guillotine. At least the latter is quick.

But you don’t want either. Not today. (You’re always going to be sick, though.)

You ring the doctor.

Counsellor tomorrow (baby steps).

It would be ideal if the sun was shining, but this is Ireland and autumn and it is raining, lashing down, and you watch the drops pelt the kitchen window with something that is not quite a smile, but not quite not, either.

 

This story is published in The Broken Spiral, all proceeds to Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, available at Take Heart Pop Up ArtClaire Hennessy is the author of several YA novels, most recently Nothing Tastes As Good and Like Other Girls. She is a co-founder and co-editor of Banshee literary journal, and also works as a creative writing facilitator, editor, speaker and book reviewer.

Inspired by

© 2018 Spontaneity. Copyright of contributions remains with the artist.