I was talking with a friend about a relative who had tried to harm herself. My friend was doing as much research as possible to try to understand how to help the young woman. I'm impressed by the variety of resources that are available now--and saddened by how few there were as recently as forty years ago.
My sister tried to kill herself in 1980 and again in 1982. The police found her the first time and took her to the hospital--McMaster University Medical Centre in Hamilton, Ont--where her stomach was pumped. She was released a couple of days later with no follow up, no discussion. It was recommended she be seen by “someone“ but arrangements were left up to us.
My sister and I weren’t close but I decided she should be taken away from our parents’ home where she was living when she tried to kill herself. I brought her to live with me and my boyfriend in Toronto. It was all I could think of to do.
I made her a bed on the sofa of our small apartment. I was afraid to talk with her about why she'd tried to kill herself but a few times I tried. She calmly told me it was easy. You have problems? You kill yourself. In the morning the problems are gone. But your life too, I said. She didn't care.
I didn’t know how to get past her indifference. I had no tools. I found a psychiatrist and made an appointment for her but she didn’t go. I made a second appointment and she didn’t go. I couldn’t convince her that she needed help. The psychiatrist would not make a third appointment unless she called to make it herself. If the patient wasn’t motivated to seek help, then nothing could be done. I understand that but... But what? Should she have been hospitalized against her will?
She was spending the days rocking herself on our sofa, listening to the same David Bowie LP over and over and over again. Eyes glassy, staring before. She only roused herself to put the needle back on.
It frightened me how adrift she seemed. All I could think to do was hook her back into some kind of routine, to give her life a shape and semblance of normalcy--to give her something to do. Was that too unfeeling and practical? I was doing my best. I was 24.
We went to the library and looked at college programs she could take. I kept asking her what she wanted to do. Nothing. I read out course descriptions. I was looking for any kind of spark. I reminded her that once upon a time she wanted to be a nurse and take care of people. Yeah… She remembered that. So we made applications for her to study nursing. She wasn’t enthusiastic but I still believed that having something to do would help her feel she had a role to play and fit somewhere.
My boyfriend got her a job working at a Cole’s bookstore. I was a grad student at York University but I also had a part-time job working in a restaurant. The cook at the restaurant lived in a large house and had several roommates. He said maybe my sister could live there too. (There were reasons why I shouldn't have listened to him but I didn't know that at the time. He actually imagined himself a spiritual guru who could read people's minds, especially when women wanted to have sex with him--he said--but I didn't know that then.) I told my sister that they wanted to meet her the next evening. I don’t know how she felt about that. She didn’t react. But she didn’t only go to meet them, she packed her bag and showed up on their doorstep. They let her stay.
In retrospect, that was shitty of me. I should have kept her close by me and watched out for her, but we didn't have that kind of closeness and I thought I was helping her start her life.
And she did seem to be getting herself on track. She started classes, she continued working at the bookstore, she got a boyfriend, she found her own apartment. (She was sensible enough to get away from that spiritual guru before he started reading her mind.) She learned to play pool. My boyfriend told me she was good.
That year at Christmas we all got expensive coffee table books that I knew she’d stolen. She’d changed boyfriends which I was glad of because she’d been going out with a biker. She got angry with him one night and slashed all his leather clothing while he was asleep, then fled to our apartment to hide. She’d done things like this all through childhood—provoked danger with no sense of consequences. Or maybe she didn’t slash his leather as she claimed because he never came after her. Her being able to describe a scene in detail and with great conviction didn’t mean that it actually happened. I can do it too. Mind you, I think I know that it hasn't *truly* happened. She didn't.
Her new boyfriend‘s Portuguese mother kept giving her litre bottles of olive oil, but my sister didn't cook. She had the bottles lined up along the back of her kitchen counter. She preferred to eat hamburgers and fries. I don't know how she ate so much and stayed petite. She was not bulimic. She and her boyfriend's sister became best friends which I thought was a good sign. They stayed friends even after she broke up with him because he was too boring.
That too: she didn't like nice guys. She liked being roughed up during sex. I saw the bruises on her upper arms. I asked her about it and she said she liked it. I knew some people did and I didn’t want to be judgmental. Now I ask myself if she wanted to be physically hurt because that was the only way she could feel something.
People ask me if she was bipolar, schizophrenic, manic depressive, BPD. That vocabulary wasn't current lingo then. In any case, the hospital didn't bother diagnosing her. She was another fucked-up, unhappy kid. If she didn't have the wherewithal to know she needed help, too bad.
I thought/hoped she was okay because she was still studying to become a nurse and I think by then had even done some practicum. Every now and then the two of us went for lunch or to see a movie. I've blocked on the name of the last one we saw together, though I still remember the final scene where a woman kills the man she loves rather than lose him. Afterward, talking about it, I said the ending was crazy. My sister said it was the only thing the woman could’ve done. All I could think was that her most recent boyfriend—an ex-army guy who also gave her bruises—had better watch out. I was so used to the kinds of things she said that I didn't even think about it.
You are reading this and seeing problems and triggers all over the place. Her patterns of behaviour, her disconnect, the risks she took, her wish to be hurt... There’s more I haven’t told you. I saw some of this too at the time but I was used to her and I didn't know what to do and had no one to ask. And as I said, she seemed to be functioning. Sometimes we even had fun together.
She killed herself a week after that movie. After she was dead, I found out that she'd broken up with her boyfriend a couple of months earlier, but she'd asked him to come see her that night.
Thirty years after her death, in my novel Five Roses, I tried to describe the long, ongoing emotional fallout when a sibling kills herself. I tried to be as honest as I could but I'm aware of how little I understood of what was going through my sister's mind and what she was feeling.
I can't shake the conviction that we failed her--because we didn't know how to help her.
So... for my friend--and for so many others--I'm glad that society is more aware now.