“And there are never really endings, happy or otherwise. Things keep going on, they overlap and blur, your story is part of your sister’s story is part of many other stories, and there is no telling where any of them may lead.”
— Erin Morgenstern, “The Night Circus”
“It’s one of the greatest gifts you can give to yourself, is forgive. Forgive everybody. Just forgive it.”
— Maya Angelou
The door to Kyle’s room was locked shut, so the five of us were forced to wait outside in the adjacent living room. The cushions of the couch had been ripped off and thrown across the room. The coffee table was flipped, the glasses and candles that once rested on it strewn about the floor. One lamp had been torn from the wall socket and lay broken on the floor, its lampshade knocked askew, so the only light in the room came from the neon Chicago Cubs sign glowing on the far wall. It was just after 2 o’clock in the morning.
An unnerving sound — something between wailing and screaming — came from behind Kyle’s door. It was followed by a crash.
“Somebody’s got to talk to him,” Alex said.
The rest of us stood staring at one another, the scent of stale beer hanging thick among the silence.
“This is bullshit,” Jon groaned, slamming his fist against the wall. “If he wants to kill himself so badly, I wish he would do it already. It would make it all a lot easier on us.”
I watched Jon storm out the front door and thought about saying something, but I struggled to find the right words. It didn’t matter — I would deal with that later. For now, I had to get to Kyle.
“I’ll talk to him,” I said. Will asked if he should come, too, swaying and straining to hold eye contact with me. I declined.
“It should just be me.”
I stepped forward, leaving the other three several feet behind me, and knocked lightly on the door. When there was no answer, I lifted my fist to knock again, but was cut off by a barely audible, “What?”
“It’s Devon. Can I come in?”
Another pause. Then the sluggish shuffling of feet and finally the click of the door lock.
I cracked the door open and slipped in, making sure to close the door behind me before turning on the lights.
I met Kyle on a breezy September night our freshman year. We both arrived at a friend-of-a-friend’s dorm for a small pregame, sipping on a few beers and listening to upbeat tunes before making the trek up to the bars for another Friday night of revelry. He was tall and lanky, dressed in a pastel button-down shirt and a gray vest. His short hair was spiked in the front, and his face broke out in a toothy grin as we fell back from the group and chatted on the way Uptown.
“Do you play any sports?” I asked.
“Hockey, mainly,” he said.
I lit up. “Me too! I actually just got asked to join an intramural team.”
“ZBT, I think? I don’t know, it was a bunch of frat guys I met Uptown.”
Kyle’s smile stretched even further.
“Dude, they asked me to play, too. We’re teammates.”
It was the first thing we had in common, but the similarities wouldn’t stop there. Over the next four years, we would grow to be close friends. We both were considering rushing a fraternity (we would end up joining the same one). We both enjoyed discussing politics, though he positioned himself much further right on the ideological spectrum than I did. We both could talk for hours about dark, psychological television dramas, and we shared a somewhat starry-eyed affinity for Matthew McConaughey.
But our commonalities ran deeper. As the years went on, I began to see a lot of myself in Kyle — the just-one-more attitude toward drugs and booze, the tendency to take harmless jokes a little too personally, the willingness to steal from and lie to close friends when caught in the throes of a weekend binge. Once, at a fraternity party our sophomore year, we stepped outside to share a drunken cigar, and Kyle remarked that he knew he could never take up cigarettes.
“I would get hooked right away. I just have too addictive of a personality. I know you’re the same way.”
He was right. I had never fully realized it until that moment, but we both exhibited addictive tendencies. Though we wouldn’t fully come to understand it until later, we both suffered from deeper mental issues, and we hid them behind an eclectic cocktail of mind-altering substances — booze, pot, cocaine, amphetamines. Once we started drinking or snorting lines, we were always chasing the next hit, desperate to fend off the return of our toxic, self-berating inner thoughts.
During the fall of my junior year, I finally sought treatment for my emotional issues and was diagnosed with depression and generalized anxiety. I wouldn’t quit drinking for another eight months or so, but the diagnosis was a huge step in my awareness of my own mental state. Being able to point to the illness and say, “This is what’s happening to you. It has a name. You’re not alone,” helped me to feel more comfortable in my own skin.
That spring, I published a column in our student newspaper detailing my personal experiences and, after reading it, Kyle texted me to open up about his own struggles. I knew about his anxiety — sophomore year, he’d eaten a bit too much of a pot brownie and suffered a panic attack that landed him in a hospital bed with a fresh Lorazepam prescription. But this was my first time learning that, like me, he had depression.
“If you ever need to talk to anyone about that shit, I’m here,” he wrote.
Once again, I found myself drawing parallels between us. We both understood the dangerous reality of a mind hardwired to self-destruct. And in a dark, bizarre sort of way, our mutual suffering brought us closer together, strengthened our bond. We knew the depths our illnesses could drag us to, and though we didn’t say it explicitly, our friendship was a promise to each other that if it were ever needed, we’d be there to pull the other back up to the surface.
So maybe that’s why, when I walked into our house on that October night of our senior year to find our four drunk friends huddled outside his locked door, I knew it was me that had to go in.
I’d already been briefed on the story — Kyle had been caught stealing Adderall from his roommate Ben, and when confronted about it, he’d broken down. Hence the trashed living room, and the wailing and crashing coming from behind his door. He’d actually seen me Uptown just hours before and warned me he felt a depressive episode coming on. Hoping to enjoy a late night with the girl I was out with, I’d promised him we’d talk in the morning.
I now hoped that wasn’t a decision I would come to regret.
Once the door was shut, isolating me inside the room with Kyle, I flipped the light on, illuminating the scene of destruction. I could say that it looked like a tornado had torn through his room, but that wouldn’t do justice to the carnage surrounding me — tornadoes, though devastating, generally follow some sort of path, cutting a distinct swath of ruin across an otherwise organized setting.
This was pure chaos.
The mattress had been flipped off its bedspring, scattering an array of blankets and sheets across the floor. Posters, torn in half, lay in tatters on the dirty carpet. What was once a four-drawer dresser had been ripped to the ground and shattered into sharp shreds and planks of wood; its contents, once neatly folded and categorized, were strewn around the room as if a grenade had detonated and sent a flurry of T-shirts and jeans flying in all directions. A pair of underwear hung, limp, from a lopsided lampshade. The desk across the room had been hurled upside down, its chair now lying on its side.
In the middle of it all stood Kyle.
He wore gray sweatpants and a plain, pale green T-shirt. His hair stood straight up, as if he had been running his hands through it all night. His eyes were bloodshot and bugged out, and they looked up and bore into mine, staring, pleading. He stood still in the middle of his mess, his arms crossed, and looked right at me, seeming to say, Well, this is it. This is where I’m at.
What am I supposed to do now?
I said nothing, standing silently and taking it all in for 10, 15 seconds. I needed to collect myself, to choose every word methodically. Kyle was perched on a precipice. One wrong word, one judgmental look or overly critical facial expression, and he might jump.
I ignored the mess enveloping us and looked right into Kyle’s eyes.
“What’s going on, man?”
Kyle sat on the displaced mattress and threw his arms up in halfhearted frustration.
“I just want to kill myself.”
Silence consumed us for what felt like half a minute as I scrambled for a response. What’s the proper answer to an admission of that magnitude? I imagined I stood where Kyle now was, pictured my own depressive thoughts and self-hatred magnified to a lethal level, and wondered how I might react to any efforts to console me.
You have so much to live for. Well, clearly he doesn’t think so, if he wants out.
Cheer up, man. Just snap out of it. C’mon, Devon, you know there’s nothing more frustrating than being told to snap out of it — if he could, he would. Nobody likes feeling this way.
Don’t say that. You’ll feel better in the morning. Probably true. This would most likely pass, as most depressive episodes do. But he wouldn’t believe it if I told him. In this moment, his world was crashing down around him, his spirit slowly fading into an empty hollow, and his mind would fight off any evidence to the contrary.
I shuffled uncomfortably, aware that every second that passed without a response was making the situation worse. I needed to say something to him, something that would tell him that I got it, that I was trying to help, that I understood the root of what he was feeling, if not the intensity.
I needed him to trust me.
Finally, words found their way out of my mouth.
“You can’t talk like that, Kyle.”
He looked up at me with glassy eyes.
“I just keep thinking,” he went on. “If I did do it — nobody would care. Everyone would be happier without me around.”
I gulped, terrified by the sincerity of his words. But I pressed on.
“Look, you just can’t start thinking like that. It’s not true. And the more you start thinking it is, the realer it’s going to seem to you. You can’t start down that road.”
The ceiling fan cut rhythmically through the thick air. When Kyle said nothing, I kept talking.
“Look, I can’t claim to know what you’re going through, but I’ve been through my own shit. You know that. This isn’t permanent. It seems bad right now, but there are ways to address it, to heal. There are —”
“What? Like Prozac? It’s not working!” Kyle was standing again, a whine of panic evident in his raised voice. “I’ve been taking it for months and it doesn’t do shit! It doesn’t work! The Lorazepam doesn’t work! The Zoloft? Nothing does.”
“So, you try something else.”
“There are hundreds of other medications. There’s therapy.” I tried to keep my voice calm and steady, to avoid escalation. “Just because two things haven’t worked doesn’t mean nothing will. You can’t give up.”
Kyle sat back down and put his head in his hands, choking back a sob. He looked to me pleadingly again.
“I don’t even feel comfortable in my own house! This year was supposed to be better. And now that’s ruined. Now, if anything goes missing, people are going to assume it’s me. And why wouldn’t they?”
I paused to choose my words again.
“You’re right,” I said. Kyle looked at me, hurt. “Look, you screwed up. People are mad, as they should be. But you’re wrong in thinking that’s permanent. These are your friends. They might be a little angry right now, but they will get over it. They love you. You are loved — you can’t forget that.”
Kyle rolled his eyes and looked at me behind raised eyebrows. Don’t bullshit me.
“There’s a voice in your head right now, and it’s telling you that I’m lying, that this is all a load of crap. It’s telling you that you’ve screwed up beyond repair and that everyone hates you. I need you to listen to me: That is not true. I know it seems impossible, and I know that voice is telling you to not listen to me, but if you can do one thing for me, as your friend, trust me on this: This sucks, but it is going to get better. If you work at it, this will get better.”
Kyle turned his gaze downward again, but this time he nodded.
“Are you OK to be by yourself tonight?”
He met my gaze earnestly: “Yes.”
“OK. Why don’t you get some rest, and we’ll clean this all up in the morning.”
Kyle nodded, and started to lie down on the bed. I moved toward the door.
I turned around, and Kyle walked up to me, his arms open. We hugged.
“Of course. Let’s talk tomorrow.”
Once he was settled, I left the room, careful to turn out the lights before opening the door.
When I walked back to my own house next door, I found two of my roommates, Jon and Will, sitting on our front porch, the moonlight casting a dim glow across their faces.
“Well?” Jon asked expectantly.
I sighed. “He’s good for now. He’s gonna get some rest, and then we’re gonna talk some more in the morning.”
Jon ran his hands through his hair. He’s a beefy kid with a pale, pointed face. Like me, he’s a Boston boy, though he looks and acts the part more. He’s got a personality as big and abrasive as the city he hails from, always willing to turn the dial up to 10 with every sentence, every thought. A man of superlatives, Jon holds his opinions resolutely and is not afraid to act on them. I knew it was that stubbornness that was behind his heated exclamation earlier in the night, but even still, I was having trouble letting the comment go.
“He needs to stop pulling this,” Jon said. “I love the kid, but his bullshit is not our problem. He’s gotta figure his shit out and stop counting on us to clean up the mess.”
“Look,” I said, trying to remain calm. “He’s going through a lot of stuff right now, and I know people are mad, but ganging up on him isn’t gonna help anything. He’s not gonna stop doing any of this until he’s better, and he’s not gonna get better if his only close friends turn on him.”
I started to leave, but, unable to help myself, I turned back and glared at Jon.
“And I don’t care how mad, how frustrated, how pissed off you get,” I said, my voice cracking as it rose. I have a lot of problems, but anger is not one of them. The furious words now coming out of my mouth felt foreign against my usually placid tongue. “I don’t care. I don’t wanna hear any of that, ‘I hope he kills himself’ shit again. OK?”
Jon nodded, and I walked inside, my lower lip quivering. As mad as I was, I couldn’t completely fault the others for not understanding that kindness and empathy were the best approaches here. They hadn’t talked to Kyle as deeply about his struggles as I had. They hadn’t lived them. As far as they were concerned, he was just being a drunk, selfish prick who was stealing prescription drugs and lying about it. Could I blame them for being pissed off?
When I had found myself at my worst point, blacking out multiple times a week, skipping class and often laying in bed until seven at night, it was the gestures of compassion from close friends that helped me recover. The others, the friends who tried the tough-love approach, who told me to snap out of it and get over myself, were well-intentioned, but they only made the situation worse. If Kyle was going to be guided out of this hole, I was the only one who could do it.
As far as I was concerned, he was my responsibility.
If my life was a movie, then this would be the part in the story where I put everything on hold, where I clear my calendar and make myself completely available to Kyle, ready to be there whenever he finds himself in need again. I would stay by his side, cook him hot meals, play video games and binge-watch “The Office” with him to keep his mind occupied. Eventually, he would smile again, and he’d tell me thanks, he couldn’t have done it without me. Then we would move on from this ugly chapter, toward better things.
But real life doesn’t pause for every personal catastrophe. Classes go on. Assignments are due. Each day moved forward, unconcerned with how much time I felt I should be devoting to the situation. In order to help Kyle, I would have to make him another part of my schedule, to pencil in free moments I could spend with him, to make sure I was sending the periodic text message to check in and see how he was feeling. It felt wrong reducing him to just another check on my to-do list, but short of taking a leave of absence from my work and classes, it was the only solution that seemed possible.
Regardless, over the next week, Kyle seemed to be doing better. I could tell he was still struggling — I recognized the look of exhaustion and worry hidden behind his smile, noticed the increased frequency in his daytime naps. And it was not lost on me that he made several trips throughout the week to Johnny’s Deli to pick up some personal six-packs.
But on a day-to-day basis, he seemed better, stable. He got out of bed in the morning and attended his classes. He burst into our house in excitement to tell me to watch the new trailer for “The Disaster Artist,” insisting that we needed to go see it opening weekend.
For the most part, he seemed like Kyle again.
On a couple separate nights, I watched him, already glassy-eyed, grabbing for another beer or one last hit from the bong, and I wondered if I should say something. He was self-medicating — behavior I’m familiar with, behavior that I know is unsustainable. Seeing as I had taken responsibility for Kyle, this seemed like something I should address.
I ultimately decided against it. My number one priority was to let him know that, no matter what he did or said, I was here for him if he needed to reach out, that despite the nasty comments from his other roommates, things that implied he was completely untrustworthy and slightly off his rocker, he could talk to me and I wouldn’t judge. Until the drinking or the drugs became a more immediate problem, it was not my place to intervene.
I let myself relax a little, knowing I had the situation under control.
Then, on Friday night, I got the text.
“Hey, if you’re not busy, I need your help.”
I’m lying in my bed, the lights in my room turned off. My phone’s display reads 9:15 p.m., and below the time sits the message notification, which I slide open. The text is from Ben Evans, one of Kyle’s roommates from next door — the one who had caught him stealing his prescribed Adderall a week ago. I consider ignoring it and going back to sleep. My own depression’s acting up, and all I want is to go to sleep, to take a break from the world and try again tomorrow. But I figure it’ll be good for me to get moving anyway. It’s always better to move. I sit up and flip the lights on.
“What do you need?”
His response comes through seconds later.
“Kyle is stealing from me again and it’s so obvious but I’m the only one home and I’m not capable of handling a freak out worse than last time.”
I rub my eyes and open the bedroom door to find Ben sitting on the couch in my front room. He’s a short kid, maybe 5’5”, but what he lacks in inches, he makes up for in attitude. Incredibly intelligent, he understands that he’s gonna go far in this world, an understanding that often manifests itself in an arrogant grin spread across his face. I like the kid, but he’s right — he wouldn’t be capable of handling Kyle on his own.
I go get Kyle and bring him over to talk things through with Ben. As delicate as I’m trying to be, I can’t help but conclude that Kyle did, in fact, take the pills. Stimulants are a hell of a supplement for people with depression. They lift you up, encourage you to get excited about doing work, about cleaning the house, about everything you’ve ever done and ever will do — about life. They make everything seem OK. They make it all seem manageable.
But then they crash. And as you sense your old self creeping in, you’ll do anything for just a few more moments of bliss. You text everyone you know who might have some. You buy more. You wet your finger and gum the residue left on the table from the previous lines you shot up your nose.
Or, if it comes down to it, you take it from someone, even a close friend.
This is all running through my mind as Kyle and Ben talk it over. I’m standing in the corner of the room, arms crossed, eyes fixed on the floor. Kyle is explaining to his accuser that it wasn’t him, that he understands why Ben thinks he took the pills, but he swears he didn’t do it.
“Seriously? That’s all you’re gonna say?”
Kyle puts his hands up. What do you want from me?
“I mean, I don’t believe you,” Ben says, continuing to laugh. “Is there anything you can tell me that will prove it wasn’t you?”
Kyle looks defeated. His voice is tired, exasperated.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” he sighs. “If I were you, I wouldn’t have any reason to believe me either.”
Ben lets loose another chuckle, clearly bewildered. “Well, I don’t, so … I don’t know what you wanna do.”
Kyle mutters an apology. Then he rises slowly from the couch and walks out the door.
I feel frustrated. With Kyle for lying to us. With Ben and his arrogant little smirk. But mostly with myself. Why hadn’t I jumped in earlier, instead of standing there silently like an awkward lug? I’ve never been a proficient speaker, always feeling much more comfortable typing a paper than engaging in conversation. I need time to pick my words, even more so in a situation as precarious as this one.
But if I’m going to be responsible for Kyle, if I’m going to nominate myself to be in charge of his well-being, then I need to start being quicker on my feet.
Or else I’m really gonna fuck things up.
I run out the door and flag him down on his front stoop.
“Kyle … ”
“What?” A note of irritation accompanies his harsh response.
“You have to go home. Tonight.” I didn’t know that’s what I was going to say, but it feels right on its way out. I keep going. “I’ll drive you. I’ll drop you off tonight and then come pick you up Sunday. But you have to talk to your parents about this. They need to know what is going on.”
Kyle’s shoulders slump downward. His quiet eyes glisten with tears that he tries in vain to blink away. Looking past me, he struggles against the silence in the air, his pursed lips searching for a rebuttal.
Finally, he exhales sharply, defeated.
“Good, let me go grab my keys and—”
“No, I’m good. I can drive myself.”
“Kyle, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“Really, I’m good.” His eyes lock onto mine earnestly. Trust me.
“OK. Just … text me when you get in.”
I glance at my watch, flicking the light on so its face glows in the darkness. “It’s just after 10 now. If I don’t hear from you by 12:30, I’m gonna call your parents. I don’t want to do that. But I have their number, and if I need to, I’ll use it.”
I hug him goodbye, and then watch as his tan Honda pulls away, silently hoping, once again, that this won’t be a decision I’ll eventually regret.
I don’t know why I did what I did next. I can assume that I was stressed, and understandably so. I can speculate that the toxic combination of witnessing Kyle in this state and taking responsibility for him had finally weighed on me, finally pushed me to a breaking point, finally brought to the surface a cavalcade of demons I thought I had slain.
But there would be no use in digging too deep into it. Addictive behaviors rarely adhere to logic.
All I know is that there was no hesitation in my next move, that the moment I watched Kyle’s car turn right onto Main Street, heading toward I-70 and eventually on to Indianapolis, I walked briskly into my house, heading immediately to my room, where I snatched my wallet and keys off the bedside table. Then, I turned around and stomped with purpose back out to my car.
Ten minutes later, I was back in my room, the door locked, the lights turned off, and a towel stuffed against the crack at the bottom of the door. The window and adjacent screen were pushed up, the chilly night air seeping into the room and raising the hairs on my shaking forearms. I tore the plastic off the pale blue pack of American Spirits, placed one of the cigarettes between my gritted teeth, and lit it. Then I inhaled, closing my eyes and enjoying the nicotine rush as it surged through my body, cloaking me in a warm embrace of reassurance.
I continued puffing. It was silent enough that I could hear the lit end crackling away at the Spirit as I sucked it down. The relief it provided me was quick, temporary. But it was relief. If only for a moment, I could forget what was going on with Kyle. I could take that weight off my shoulders, silence the voice that was telling me that I was fucking this up, that I was a bad friend making the wrong decisions and leading him down a path he couldn’t return from.
For this brief instant, I felt OK again.
As the buzz from the cigarette faded, my mind pictured Jon’s half-empty bottle of Sailor Jerry rum sitting on the shelf in the kitchen. Having not consumed a drop of alcohol in almost four months, I was sure my tolerance had plummeted. All it would take would be a few shots and I’d be soaring, flying freely on the wings of an obliterated mind.
No, I thought. Don’t ruin that. You know you can’t handle it. Don’t you dare throw it all away with a single sip.
Solely by a stroke of luck, I talked myself out of it. Motivated perhaps by the stubborn unwillingness to reset the sobriety counter on my phone back to zero, I fought off the urge to take a drink. On some timeline out there, maybe I didn’t. Maybe I’m now back to my old ways, blacking out Uptown and, somehow, stumbling back to my bed late at night.
Fortunately, that’s not the timeline I ended up on.
But I didn’t make it out unscathed. Alarmed by my near slip back down the liquor-slicked slope, I needed something to force myself to sleep. My eyes scanned the room and fell on the full bottle of NyQuil on my dresser.
Without allowing myself time to think, I tore the cap off and took a big swig, grimacing uncomfortably as I guzzled down the cloying syrup. It oozed down my throat, coating my esophagus and warming my stomach.
Then I knocked my head back and took another deep gulp.
William S. Burroughs was right when he said, “You don’t wake up one morning and decide to be a drug addict.” While I don’t think I’ve ever descended fully into a state of addiction, I’ve certainly toed the line at points in my life, tasted enough of the chase to understand some of the psychology behind it. Never once did I say to myself, All right, I’m really gonna get myself hooked this time. No, it was always Just a quick bump or One more shot or I’ll do another if you will. Addiction is walking, blindfolded, toward the edge of a cliff, allowing yourself to enjoy the breeze kissing your cheeks, but knowing that every step could be the one that sends you tumbling below.
I spent the next several weeks inching ever closer to that drop-off. Every night ended with a Spirit or two blown outside my bedroom window, a heavy quaff of NyQuil, and a few hits from the pipe I kept stashed inside my bedside table, packed tightly with grinded weed. During the day, I upped my already generous caffeine intake and started bumming a mild, non-mood-elevating stimulant called Modafinil off a friend in order to keep myself awake and focused throughout the day. I even stopped by UDF and picked up an electronic cigarette to puff on whenever I was stuck working on a big assignment.
Somehow, during all of this, I felt in control. In a wild flourish of logical acrobatics, I was subsisting on the congratulations I awarded myself for not drinking. You’re really doing a great job staying away from the booze, I’d think, patting myself on the back as thick tendrils of pot smoke drifted off my nose. Keep it up.
Maybe I thought, in a way, that I had gotten better, that my months of sobriety had taught me how to properly engage with everyday life. In his memoir “The Night of The Gun,” David Carr, a former New York Times reporter who struggled through decades of intense alcoholism and cocaine abuse and came out clean on the other side, discusses how years of reimmersion in normalcy pushed him back to the edge after 14 years of sobriety. “Part of the reason that I tried drinking after fourteen years was that I had become so comfortable in a life that was wrapped in the raiment of the normal that I thought I was normal,” he writes. “Not cured, not remade, just normal.”
I wasn’t normal. I still am not normal. In the short time I’d been on the wagon, the impulse to use, to grab a beer at the end of a long day, had not gone away. Some days it was quieter than others, but the voice was ever-present, telling me I deserved to kick back a little. Every day I hadn’t let it win me over was a choice.
But now, I’d given in just a little. I’d fed the urge enough to encourage it to raise its voice a little, and the impulse had only grown stronger.
In the meantime, I was still keeping tabs on Kyle, who had actually gotten a lot better. The weekend at home, the opening up to his parents — fortunately, a loving and understanding couple — about what was going on, the time spent getting away from his now-tense living situation and the stress of school — all of that had allowed him a little headspace, a little room to breathe. I continued texting him, checking in to see how he was feeling. I talked hockey with him, striking a familiar nerve by picking apart the technique of Corey Crawford, his favorite goaltender. I scheduled movie nights. I invited him over to watch the latest Netflix doc and marked a date to drive to Hamilton and catch a showing for “The Disaster Artist.” Even as I sunk lower, I kept kicking, kept trying to push him up toward the surface.
But deep down, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it wasn’t enough. Every laugh, every upbeat text, every morning he would burst through our front door to see what we were all up to — how much of it was real? Was he actually better, or was there pain he was continuing to hide from us? If I was locking myself in my room to smoke pot and sip cold medicine each night, what was he doing behind his closed door?
There was still the occasional slip, the periodic evening I’d watch him reach for yet another beer he probably didn’t need, and I’d wonder if I needed to be doing something different, something more. Fretting frequently about his mental state, I became plagued by an endless barrage of what-ifs: What if he wasn’t as OK as he seemed? What if he did need more help? What if I had said just one more thing? What if he slipped back to where he’d been, and I had to wonder if it was because of me?
It was the kind of worrying you know is toxic, the kind you know can only make things worse but that you can’t escape. The kind of worrying you try, in vain, to shove out of your mind. The kind of worrying you’d do just about anything to escape.
The kind of worrying that, when your roommate approaches you one Saturday afternoon, waving a small bag of white powder and wearing an urging grin, makes you think that a little pick-me-up could be just what you need.
It’s 3:30 on a Tuesday morning in mid-November. I’ve just trudged home from another late night at production for our school paper and crawled into bed, hoping to get some rest before rising again in a few hours.
I take out my phone to set an alarm and see that a text has come through. It’s from Sarah, a close friend and fellow editor. Not a stranger to stress and self-scolding, Sarah often stays in the newsroom for hours past the end of production, getting caught up on papers and various assignments. I figure I probably left something there, my laptop charger maybe, and she’s just texting to let me know.
“Hey you still up?”
“I didn’t wanna ask you earlier but is everything OK?”
I rack my brain nervously, wondering what I had done to make her ask that. “What do you mean?”
Nothing for a couple minutes. Then her response pops up.
“I know the Kyle stuff is v taxing. And I saw how tired and out of it you looked today. Liz also mentioned to me a couple weeks ago that she noticed something similar. I wanna be wrong, but I just wanted to talk to you about it and let you know if you need to talk you can talk to me.”
I gulp. My heart drops, feeling like it’s plummeting out of my chest. Not because I’ve been noticed. Not because it’s now clear that I wasn’t holding myself together as well as I thought. I know that what I was doing wasn’t sustainable anyway. It was only a matter of time before someone saw through me, through the heavy eyes that insisted, I’m OK.
I’m taken aback because what Sarah says to me feels sickeningly familiar. Her gentle, empathetic outreach, her insistence that she’s there for me … it’s just how I’d made myself available for Kyle a month earlier.
Rarely does real life emulate the a-ha, moment-of-clarity turning points championed by even the greatest storytellers.
Sometimes, though, it does.
Reading Sarah’s text, the incessant glow of the phone screen illuminating my face against the darkness of the room, I vow to not bring her down with me. I promise to get better, to let drop some of the weight that had begun to feel so at home atop my shoulders, to put my own oxygen mask on first before reaching across the aisle.
A few weeks later, I’m sitting in my living room, the cheeky holiday horror movie “Krampus” coming to a close on the TV. As the credits roll, I look at Kyle, who’s slumped on his side on the couch, three or four empty cans of Busch Lite crumpled on the floor at his feet. He was the one who’d suggested we watch the movie, eager to redeem himself after having wussed out a year ago when we’d all gone to see it in theaters. But now he’s passed out — not plastered, just gently eased into a slumber by a few beers. I think about waking him, but instead decide to let him be, to just call it a night.
I flip the TV off and start walking to my room, but then I stop. Turning back to Kyle, I reach down and gently turn him onto his front. I grab the blue shawl off the back of the couch and drape it over him, making sure it extends past his feet.
Then I head back to my room, turn off the light, and go to sleep.