Sometimes, half asleep in the night, caught between the worlds of wake and not, Les stumbles to the bathroom and stares at her face in the mirror. Dark half circles under her bloodshot eyes, her face pale and frightened make her look ‘like a demonic raccoon.’ The night has been rough and as she laid awake, thoughts terrorized her. She doesn’t recognize the woman looking back out at her; it is a mere error of someone else. After a while her focus changes and she is inside looking out at herself looking in. These are the days when the depression is swallowing her up, beginning to digest all of her, her own feelings, thoughts, ambitions. Even the prescribed pleasure pills cannot save her. Pain would be pleasure now; it would tell her she was still alive.
Les sometimes anthropomorphizes the little pills, giving them a life of their own. She believes that one time the pills even devised to take her, unaware. Disguised as a bringer of sleep, a reliever of pain, first one melting under her tongue, her inhibitions were lowered. The one became a handful until later, hours later, she woke up in emergency her mouth black and gritty from liquid charcoal, the elixir of life. Foggy and disoriented, constipated for days, Les still wonders what happened. Those days fragmented and forgotten lay jumbled and jagged in her subconscious. They are like a picture puzzle made mostly of sky with key pieces lost.
Then there are times when Les knows that it is the chemicals in her brain that are responsible for her behaviour, her skewed thinking. Yet the same deceptive chemicals that tricked her into her demise by pills try to hurt her in other ways. They try to lure her to the sweetness of death. She has yet to buy the Exacto knife, shiny, sharp and ready. Looking in the mirror, she traces the path with her finger, from underneath the left ear, under the jaw and, if she should make it, to under her chin. She imagines the sound when she hits the jugular vein; is it like pressure released, hissing, a red geyser of life gushing on the bathroom wall? The mere thought makes Les feel faint and she sits on the toilet. The urge to pee momentarily brings her to her senses. These thoughts, ghostlike and elusive, haunt Les in the blue days. In the morning, she forces herself to go out some time before her scheduled psychiatrist appointment. Mechanically, she gets dressed, knowing that fresh air and familiar faces may help her feel better. That’s what they’ve told her in therapy. Les pastes a phony smile on her face and ventures out. This is a small city. She prays not to see anyone; she prays someone will notice she needs help and offer it.
“Hey Les, how you doing?” She contemplates hurrying across the street, avoiding the friendly face that goes with the cheery voice of her good friend, Cheryl. “I’ve tried calling you but you haven’t called back. Is everything okay?”
She mumbles a perfunctory, “Fine, I’m okay, just busy. I’ve been busy.”
“Hey, wait a sec, Les, you don’t look fine, those dark circles. You been wrestling with your demons again.”
Les nods her head. Her lower lip quivers. She tries hard to hold back the tears she knows will fall if Cheryl says one more thing, tries with genuine words of concern to comfort her. One more thing and she won’t be able to hold this illusion together. The next thing she feels is Cheryl’s arms around her, she’s embracing Les as if to say, “cry it’s okay or if you cry, cry on my shoulder, no one else will know.” After what feels like an eternity of warm, fuzzy, ‘I’m here for you hugging,’ she says, “Come on, let’s go for coffee and a muffin.”
Les feels Cheryl tugging on her arm and like a disembodied spirit she floats behind her. She feels like she’s looking down on herself, a balloon bobbing on the wind, whichever way the current pushes her. The only thing keeping her grounded is Cheryl’s firm hold on her arm. One thing Les has always appreciated about Cheryl is that Cheryl can carry on a one sided conversation so she can just relax and come along for the ride. “I’ve missed you at the gym, too busy for workouts I guess these days. Are you working on a special writing project?” Without missing a beat or waiting for an answer she goes on to tell Les about her work and her day and the week before and Les is lulled into a dreamless nether world. The voices around her drone on and on, sounds of coffee cups clinking, the waitress making change at the cash. Compared to her night terrors this is a welcomed euphoria. The psychiatrist calls it dissociative. It’s not considered useful. It’s one of the benchmarks of Les’ illness. Sometimes it’s Les’ only tool for survival.
Today is Les’ weekly psychiatrist appointment and she begs off Cheryl’s extended luncheon invitation. She waits in the waiting room, just the right amount of time to look around at the place, like any other medical practitioner's office, the requisite Reader’s Digests on the table, other nondescript, uninteresting psychiatric journals and business magazines. She waits long enough for the lump in her throat which she recognizes as panic waiting to attack her. Then just as she is about to make a quick exit, the receptionist calls her name and she is led to Dr. Markson’s office.
Dr. Markson looks up from her reading, over her glasses, “No doubt my file,” Les thinks. “Just like any other crazy, she needs to remind herself of my classic case which is the same as everyone else’s.” As if reading her mind Dr. Markson says, “Now, where were we?” It’s like Les has walked out of her office to go to the washroom and has returned five minutes later. Les feels like shouting in her face, “We weren’t anywhere, we haven’t been anywhere in the ten months that I’ve been seeing you and I feel like this is going nowhere.” But she doesn’t, she smiles a slightly pathetic smile and simply says, “The thoughts are back again.”
Dr. Markson says, “You mean, the suicide thoughts.” Les thinks, “Of course you fool, what do you think I mean, warm, fuzzy thoughts of happiness.” However, she says, “I don’t know what it is, the thoughts they come into my head. I don’t want them there. But, I can’t think of anything to keep them away.” The conversation continues like this for a better part of an hour. The same kind of questions from the doctor; the same answers from Les.
Dr. Markson finally says, “This really isn’t going anywhere Les.” Les thinks, “That’s the most sensible thing I’ve heard you say.” The doctor continues, “I want you to bear with me, humour me if you will. We both know you are suffering from a deep depression. I don’t believe institutionalizing you will be of benefit. And, I don’t believe upping or changing your meds will make an appreciable difference. Try this instead. I want you to practice loving yourself. That’s all I want you to do. Spend as much time as you can in front of your mirror. You do have a mirror, don’t you?” Les nods. “Good, stand in front of the mirror and tell yourself, how much you love you. Even if you don’t believe it, just fake it. That’s all. Would you try it? One other thing though, you must say it out loud.”
Les thought, “Encouraging the crazy to do crazy things.” To Dr. Markson she said, “Okay, why not, it’s nuts, but then so am I.” And for the first time in a long time, a little, albeit sarcastic laugh, escaped from her lips. “Okay then, that’s our time for today, please make an appointment for next week. And, good luck,” said Dr. Markson.
She thought back, months ago, when she was first starting to see Dr. Markson, the doctor simply said, “You don’t want to kill yourself.” Startled Les said, “I don’t.” “No, if you did, you would have done it by now. You’re a smart woman. I’ve heard your elaborate descriptions of how you would suicide. Yet, still you make your weekly appointments. You’re still here.” Les was speechless. She’d never thought of that.
Now she was thinking of that statement as she stood in front of her bathroom mirror. As she gazed into her eyes. For a moment an overwhelming sense of compassion flooded up from inside her, she thought, I know that face but it is so sad. Out loud she spoke, “This is stupid.” She looked in the mirror and said, “All right then, I love you.” She thought that didn’t feel so bad. The face looking back at her seemed startled in disbelief. She said once more, “I love you, I really do.” Her face softened and for a moment she saw the woman as a young child so full of love and hope, then as a teenager confused and hurt by her own mother’s suicide. And then it struck her, an epiphany, if she didn’t love this person in the mirror who else would. Over the next few days, many times, she would stand in front of the mirror, practicing her I love yous.
One day, a familiar emotion, a flicker of a feeling, came over her, it was there still, a sense of happiness. It wasn’t gone, only lost, always here, just waiting to be found. At that moment, she reached over to her makeup bag and picked up a tube of the brightest, reddest lipstick she could find and with a flourish drew a giant heart on the mirror. The gesture surprised her and made her chuckle. But the creativity didn’t end there. “I need more,” she thought. Digging in the back of her closet in almost forgotten dusty boxes of Christmas decorations, she found a string of blue tracer lights, her favourite kind. And in this daring mood she strung the little blue Christmas lights around the mirror. The lights gave her a happy, festive, upbeat feeling. Looking into the mirror and saying, “I love you,” became even easier. And now the heart, the blue lights and the words made her smile.
One night she woke up, dripping in sweat, shaking from a familiar nightmare, the one with her finding the lifeless, colourless body of her mother and Les’ open mouth unable to scream out the terror. Tears streamed down her face. She shakes as she gropes her way to the bathroom. “It’s just a nightmare, just a very, bad dream,” she says out loud. “It’s over now.”
Now Les is standing in front of her mirror. The blue tracer lights flickering around the perimeter, her face framed by the red lipstick heart. A faint smile, at first no more then a small upturn at the edge of her mouth, blossoms into a grin. She reaches over for the bright, red lipstick and applies it. Lips relaxed. Carefully evenly into a perfect pucker. And then leans over and with freshly coloured lips kisses the mirror, smack right in the middle of the heart.
“I love you,” she says.
And this time she really means it.