I Became Friends
I became friends with a girl who was in the institution with me, also fifteen, also getting shock treatment, a girl who was institutionalized after a suicide attempt I found epic in its ferocity: she swallowed a bottle of barbiturates, drank vodka then bleach, and shot up all the heroin she had. She survived through a series of unpredictable events: semi-conscious, she threw up much of what was killing her but did not—like most who overdose—choke to death on the vomit, as she’d fallen facedown with her mouth open. No one was due to come home for a long time but a parent got sick and left work and walked in on her.
People say that attempts at suicide, especially among females, are cries for help but that’s presumption; it is possible to tear at your own body like a serial killer and survive. It’s luck, or more truly, happenstance.
The girls shut away at this place shared this ferocity, even if they had not tried to kill themselves, but in other things they had done, in the cutting that left their skin looking secretly like the bark of a tree; in the cigarette burns; in the chosen vomiting and starving.
My friend had an unusual name, something like Yvette. I see her perfectly in my mind—strawberry blonde hair, large blue eyes and a nose on the wide side of normal, with pronounced nostrils, but not unpleasant—but I can’t recall her name with certainty.
It is no different being alive having tried to end your life than if you had not. Your life does not seem like some kind of puzzle or miracle, or animal you left on the side of the road that made its way back to you, like the scarred slate-gray cat our redneck neighbors in Atlanta named Drop-Off for her habit of finding her way home, back from the highway where they were always leaving her.
When I Was Fifteen
When I was fifteen, as my son is now, people sent waves of electricity through my brain. Actually, my parents asked them to. They hoped I would feel better or, more to the point, behave better. I had been flunking out of school, taking a variety of drugs, behaving badly. I had undiagnosed bipolar disorder. I lived my life beyond the end of any tether. I had rowed my boat to the dropping off point of the seas.
My boyfriend dealt drugs and so did our best friend Jimmy, who was also a narcotics detective; he resold what he confiscated. Homicide, in our little group, was not unknown, and occurred to several men in my orbit, by bullet: a person existing and then not.
The shock doctors used one hundred and forty volts of bilateral electricity on me—a flow through both temples, with electrodes smeared with conducting gel—now a voltage and method considered primitive, wrong. “Shock Treatment Makes a Comeback: Past Horrors Gone with New Treatment” I read in a headline in the Spokesman Review, surprised to see the whole thing stated that way.
No one knew or knows why electroshock should work, except that people who go into shock following convulsions (the “shock” of “shock treatment” doesn’t refer to electricity but to inducing a state of shock) become subdued. They do whether convulsions come from a blow to the head or snake venom or camphor—the stuff of turpentine–mixed with the paralyzing poison curare, a poison used by South American natives to tip their arrows. Snake venom and camphor with curare, along with overdoses of insulin, have been treatments used by doctors on psychiatric patients before turning to electricity. The paralyzing curare helped keep bones from breaking during the seizure. At the end of a treatment—still—a patient’s EEG or brain activity flatlines, as if the patient were momentarily a corpse.
I Can Recall
I can recall being on the table, with electrodes on each of my temples, both greased with conducting gel. The shot of anesthetic, an electrical burn up the veins. I can’t remember any instance of waking up. I’ve read that it’s protocol for nurses to remind you of your name when you waken from shock, that you won’t, yourself, remember. You come to and regress, nursing on the bit in your mouth. I was fifteen. It was always women on those tables, women and young girls. The complicated relationship between female and infancy.
Susanne Paola Antonetta’s most recent book, Make Me a Mother, ranked a Top Ten Book of the Year by Image Journal, was published by W.W. Norton.She is also author of Body Toxic, A Mind Apart, the novella Stolen Moments, and four books of poetry. Awards for her poetry and prose include a New York Times Notable Book, an American Book Award, a Library Journal Best Science book of the year, a Lenore Marshall Award finalist, an Oprah Bookshelf pick, a Pushcart prize, and others. Her essays and poems have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Orion, The New Republic and many anthologies. She lives in Bellingham, Washington.