Cover Photo: Sarah Charlesworth, detail from Unidentified Man, Ontani Hotel, Los Angeles 1980
Sarah Charlesworth, detail from Unidentified Man, Ontani Hotel, Los Angeles 1980

Don’t Smoke in Bed

“As a personality the main thing is that I am determined. In June 2001 I was determined to commit suicide.”

It is hard to kill yourself and I failed. I stepped on the scale and it didn’t register anything. But I wasn’t dead; I was just skinny. I wanted to know why my ears were ringing. The nurse said tinnitus was a side effect of aspirin overdose. She said it in a curt way like I should have thought of that. Though I could barely hear her. I asked her if it would go away.

I was not eighteen; I was seventeen. I was not with the adults; I was with the kids. The nurse made me go change because I was showing too much skin. I remember wall-to-wall carpeting and that it was not what I thought a mental hospital would be like.

As a personality the main thing is that I am determined. In June 2001 I was determined to commit suicide. On a Saturday night a week after my high school graduation I bought a hundred-bottle of Bayer aspirin at a gas station. Seventeen is my favorite number. I was born on the 17th and when I was seventeen I was not married and I had seventeen letters in my name. The aspirin were chalky. I swallowed them in my bedroom and then I laid down on my bed like that would be it.

Back then I would have said that I ate them. We ate pills. We called Xanax “nerve pills,” we called Percocet “muscle relaxers.” This was before OxyContin. I guess I thought I would pass out. My stomach started cramping. To lull myself I imagined the organs of my body shutting down in sequence. The ER nurse told me I was lucky not to be on dialysis. She said Tylenol is the liver, aspirin is the kidneys.

She probably said that while she was pumping my stomach. I think she was just trying to scare me but she was scaring me. It is inaccurate to think of something being pumped out of a stomach. A lubed tube was fed up my nose and down my throat and into my stomach and charcoal was pumped through it. The nurse did this with a giant syringe. It was sludgy and slow. She said it took time to absorb everything. I don’t remember if I could speak. The worst part was how the tube caught in my esophagus. It is the strongest physical memory I have. Even writing this makes me touch my neck above the clavicle.

When I started throwing up the lining of my stomach I woke up my mother and told her what I had done. In the car I remember slumping down in the seat and watching the black tops of the trees rush by. I grew up somewhere that was mostly trees. They were impassive. They still are. My father drove me to the hospital.

At the ER they thought I was being difficult about the urine sample and I was. But I was also puking charcoal and pissing black at the same time. It came back positive for cocaine. By then I had been given such a generous shot of morphine.

I think I lost 48 hours. I do remember being led by both arms down a carpeted hall, head nodding, my legs like jelly. Later I found out the psych ward was called South Campus and it was part of a big hospital forty minutes south of where I lived. I surfaced, suddenly, in a room with low twin beds and a tiny bathroom. There have been a few showers in my life that have been wonderful and that was one of them.

I probably shouldn’t have said that before: that I was determined to commit suicide. I didn’t write a note. I woke up my mother. I had thought about what the mental hospital would be like.

At South Campus I had a circle on my arm from the TB test. Every morning a nurse measured it to see if I had tuberculosis. I didn’t have to get out of bed. I did have to eat a chewable Flintstones vitamin. My roommate got prenatal vitamins. She found out she was pregnant in her pee test. She was thirteen; I found her irritating. My friend there was a girl who was my age named Candace. She had been there before and she knew everything. She showed me the plastered hole where she had kicked the phone out of the wall. She wore heavy-handed white glitter eye shadow and we talked about getting out and doing ecstasy together and I think I wanted her to kiss me.

The ecstasy was worse for me than the coke. This was 2001 ecstasy: the pills were pastel and named after luxury cars and mostly speed. They desiccated me. There was this day-after feeling—of being in the pit of a hole and aware that I had to scrape myself out through gargantuan effort—that I don’t want to think about.

Of course there was a man. When I got out of South Campus I remember leaning back against a kitchen counter while he poured moonshine over a cut-open watermelon in the sink and him telling me he thought I did it not really because of him but because I was scared shitless to leave. I was leaving. I was moving from a small town in the Appalachian Mountains to New York. In September 2001 I was starting film school at Tisch.

They must have thought I was lying. I don’t remember their reactions, Candace or my pregnant roommate, when I told them I was going to college in New York City. I do remember a nurse telling me, maybe the one who weighed me, that she would see me again.

“No, you won’t,” I said.

“Everybody comes back,” she said.

The little kids were the worst. They were all boys. There was a five-year-old who was Nordically white and entirely emotionless and a psychopath. Another one, when the nurses disciplined him, sat down on his knees and stuck out his wrists because he expected to be tied up. The older kids, except one, were all girls. We lined up shortest to tallest to walk to the cafeteria.

Everybody who did drugs, which was everybody eleven and up, had to attend NA meetings. I tried not to participate. What I wrote inside the cover of my blue book, which I still have, is: “Remember, darling, don’t smoke in bed.” I absolutely refused to play basketball. I stayed against the brick wall of the hospital with my arms crossed. The court was walled in, too, so we couldn’t see outside. Everywhere we went a door locked behind us.

Above the nurses’ station there was a whiteboard list of all our names and I was always on top because I was on suicide watch. I wasn’t supposed to have anything sharp, or shoelaces. After a few days I was allowed to use colored pencils under supervision. I didn’t draw. On the backs of worksheets like “Getting It Together: How Comfortable Are You With Yourself?”, I wrote. I saved them; I just read them. I wrote some things that were detached and staccato and not unlike this essay.

It’s true that I didn’t want my brain to die. Maybe I wanted to write this essay one day. “My mind, I hope it’s still the same.” I wrote that in black pencil. My father came in while the ER nurse was charcoaling me and for the second time in my life I saw him cry. It is impossible to access what I was thinking at seventeen. It is equally hard to imagine that it is very different from how I think now, as if each person is changing every second, incrementally, but also that the whole change is so small.

I remember thinking, when I was in my car with the man and we were fucked up, though we must have been tripping on acid because we were laughing so hard, that I would prefer if we died.

I recently saw at the New Museum a room full of people killing themselves. They were all jumpers. They were blown-up newsprint photos, six feet tall, of people falling through the air. I suppose some of them were fleeing fire and some of them lived. Looking at them I felt almost nothing. Later when I wrote it as a scene in the book I’m working on, the woman who is in some ways a stand-in for me, who is a suicide bomber, was horrified. Sublimation is supposed to be a mature defense mechanism.

In the evenings a doctor came and he saw us for five minutes each. He put us on the newest anti-depressants. The other kids got Wellbutrin but for an unknown reason I got Celexa. Maybe because it’s good for panic attacks, too—I read that online. Except those only happened after. I took it for four years, never feeling the slightest shift in my chemistry. He was a meds doctor. He had no theories as to why.

I don’t think I wouldn’t do it again. I am still alive. When I was released from South Campus I was given back my purse and I tried to smuggle Candace my cigarettes but I got caught.

Image courtesy the Estate of Sarah Charlesworth and Maccarone

Katherine Faw is from North Carolina. Her debut novel, Young God, was long-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and named a best book of the year by The Times Literary Supplement, The Houston Chronicle, BuzzFeed, and more. Ultraluminous, a novel, is forthcoming in 2017. She lives in Brooklyn.