We were drinking at the time—well, Nick and me at least. My younger brother, Josh, wouldn’t drink, won’t drink. We were all home from college, some in-between time during the semester, and my mother, she was so happy.
“I can’t tell you how proud I am of all of you,” she said from the kitchen. Her smile pulled at the corners of her green eyes. I was afraid she’d start crying, but she cleaned lettuce and continued her praise. “You’re all so talented. I don’t know where you get it from. The only talent I could give the world was you three.”
My older brother, Nick, was not much for serious conversation. He took a sip of his vodka and orange soda and answered, “Yep, you’ve got yourself a regular Van Gogh.” He gestured to himself and then to Josh, before moving on to me. “A Cobain, and a Hemingway.” He laughed, but my mom wasn’t fond of the comparison. She would’ve preferred artists who hadn’t suffered. To be fair, Josh wasn’t thrilled about the comparison either.
“I am not Kurt fucking Cobain.” He shot a glare at Nick. “Nirvana was shit.” Josh, ever the metal-head was deeply insulted by the notion of being compared to the man who tried to stomp out metal with his imprint on grunge.
I, on the other hand, was flattered. I enjoyed Hemingway, his words were plain, simple but carried a weight in a way that I could only dream of doing in my own work. Despite my appreciation for Hemingway, Sylvia Plath may have made for a more accurate, personal, comparison. Hemingway certainly suffered from his own depression, but his path felt different from my own. Plath’s hurt seemed similar to mine—a deep void, an oblivion that consumed, unrelenting until it no longer had breath to draw from.
Plath was born on October 27th in 1932 and 58 years later, in 1990, on another October 27th, I was born. I came into life, ready to leave it with the umbilical-cord wrapped around my neck. But chance be damned, I survived and my mother named me Stephanie. S. P. Stephanie Payne. Two days later, my mother decided I was too tough a baby to be a “Stephanie” so she renamed me Samantha. Still, S.P.—just like Sylvia Plath.
In August 1953, during her early college years, Plath attempted her first medically documented suicide attempt. Plath took a number of her mother’s sleeping pills before crawling under her house. She remained in the crawl space, unfound for three days, later writing that she “blissfully succumbed to the whirling blackness” that she “believed was eternal oblivion.” She spent the following six months in psychiatric care undergoing insulin shock treatment.
By the time my depression was diagnosed in 2009, the study of mental disorders was far more developed than in Plath’s time. Not that development meant the improvement of psychiatric disorders—the treatment was just a little more humane. At eighteen I was placed on Prozac, and at first, I felt better. The guns ceased fire, and I stepped over the bodies of mistakes decorating the theatre of my busted brain’s battle. I felt free, but at the back of my mind, I knew, even though the fighting had subsided, the war, was far from over.
Not long after diagnosis, the Prozac began to have side effects. I had gone from feeling what others would consider “normal”—being able to do what I enjoyed without the void of my depression trapping me in bed for days at a time—to being riddled with new anxiety. I had gone to the mall with my mother and bought a ring only to realize that it didn’t fit. Not far from the store my mother told me to go back and return it, but I couldn’t. I felt overwhelmed and embarrassed. Frustrated, my mother insisted until she noticed tears tracing my cheeks and my hands shaking uncontrollably. When she asked what was wrong all I could say was, “I don’t know.”
Part of my depression was an inability to understand my reactions to trivial things. My emotions didn’t feel like mine. They were a separate entity entirely that came and went without any triggering factors. It was clear then, that Prozac wasn’t the answer. My anxiety increased and I couldn’t even celebrate my nineteenth birthday without my hands shaking while opening gifts. It was time for a different doctor and a different drug. My new doctor decided to take me off what she referred to as the “dirty drug” and placed me on Lexapro. And just like the Prozac, it worked for a short period of time.
It was Spring Semester, 2010 when I called my mother crying from my dorm room.
“I made a mistake,” I told her. No “Hello, mom.” Just me, crying into the receiver.
I could tell by the strain in her voice she was trying not to panic. “What is it, Sam? What did you do?”
“I took a bunch of my pills.” Unless you count the umbilical-noose at birth trying to choke the life out of me, it was my first suicide attempt. I considered it dozens of times before, but I didn’t have the nerve to go through with it. This time I couldn’t pull myself out of the pit that was my depression. I took a handful of my antidepressants and forced them down. I looked at my empty palm and immediately wanted to vomit.
In the end, I hadn’t taken enough to overdose, but as a precautionary measure I was required to stay awake for the next 24 hours to ensure I didn’t go into a coma. I had to open up to my roommate about the incident so my mother felt comfortable enough to leave me on my own, two hours away from her loving eye. The rest of the semester consisted of daily phone calls from my mom and check-ins from my roommate.
“Did you take your happy pills?” my roommate would ask in a condescending tone, and every time, I wanted to drive my fist against her face.
Instead, I forced a laugh and nodded. A response I developed when I first started to feel sad. Smile and nod. And if that didn’t work, deflect with humor.
I knew there was something wrong with me before I started high school, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone. I figured it was probably normal teenage angst and it would pass, but it didn’t. I wasn’t sure where it stemmed from until one afternoon my deflecting led me to truth. I was sitting at the lunch table with two friends: Brittani, who talked too much, and Sam, who didn’t talk at all. In the midst of the conversation I laughed and responded, “My low self-esteem stems from deep routed daddy issues.”
It was supposed to be a joke, and everyone laughed like it was. But something in my brain clicked. I didn’t value myself. And it was because of my dad. My father chose drugs over me and for that, I was worthless. I didn’t understand my own value because someone who was inherently supposed to value me, chose substance abuse over me.
I didn’t know any better. My depression, the depths of my darkness, turned everything against me. I didn’t know that my dad loved me, that he struggled with his own void until it was too late. He once sold his copy of The Death of Gwen Stacy to pay my hospital bills when I was a baby.
He always said, “Do you know what I did for you?”
And I thought it was his regret for letting go of something precious, but I discovered too late that it was his way of saying that I was worth more. But he’d never see that understanding or sell anything again. I had to live with that, but it wasn’t just me—my brothers had to live with that, too. Even my mother, who’d seen the worst of my father’s depression, in his heated abuse, she, too, lived with the weight of his death.
After worrying my mother by comparing us to dead artists, Nick tried to ease her concerns. “If it makes you feel better, Mom, there’s no one I’m currently crazy enough about to mail my body parts to. I couldn’t afford the postage anyway.” He gave her a thumbs up and continued, “And we can’t be certain Cobain was a suicide.”
“Stop comparing me to Cobain!”
Nick ignored Josh, as was often the case, since Josh wanted to argue about everything. “And Sam’s hardly an alcoholic, two drinks and she’s singing the Frosted Flakes’ jingle.”
It was true. I was a lightweight and only drank on social occasions. We were all relatively cautious when it came to potential addictions. We had our father to thank for that.
In 1940, Plath’s father died due to complications from diabetes. Plath was only eight and with the loss of her father, she experienced a loss of faith, which she never regained. Twenty years after Otto Plath’s death, Plath gave birth to her first child on April 1st in 1960. Eleven days later, an ocean away from Plath’s London home, my father was born. He was my grandparents’ fourth child and future black-sheep of the family.
Like Plath, I experienced a loss of faith after my father’s death, but it wasn’t in God. I lost faith in me. My father was an addict. He started smoking pot at thirteen and from there he moved onto one high after another, until one day his heart gave out in the grip of meth’s ugly hand. I spent the majority of my teen years being angry at my father in an attempt to hide my own hurt. I wouldn’t answer his calls. I wouldn’t visit him. When he came to pick up my brothers, I made sure I was somewhere else. I couldn’t understand why he chose substances over his family, over me. Wasn’t he proud of me? Why did he look for substance where there wasn’t any? Didn’t he love me? I tried so hard to be enough of something I wasn’t: everything. The burden was too much to carry. I lost myself for a long time.
After her first suicide attempt, Plath seemed to make a good recovery and went on to marry poet Ted Hughes who she described as a “singer, story-teller, lion and world-wanderer” with “a voice like the thunder of God.” The couple married in 1956 and it was her marriage to Hughes where she was said to have learned to “be true” to her own “weirdnesses.” Unfortunately, Plath’s happiness did not last long. She and Hughes separated in 1962 and five months later, Plath was found dead from carbon monoxide poisoning, with her head in the oven. Days prior to her death, she’d been prescribed antidepressants, but it wasn’t soon enough to save her.
It was enough to save me, but even on antidepressants, there’s still a part of my brain that analyzes death in an unnatural way, like looking into oblivion. Part of my depression is imagining my own death when in public. While walking across an intersection I can see myself from the perspective of the omniscient third person, and watch as the imaginary truck ignores all traffic lights and collides into me. The force sends my body soaring in violent spirals before crashing against the asphalt.
And while I imagine my own death from time to time, I don’t dwell on the idea of suicide anymore the way my depression causes me to dwell on most things. Since my diagnosis, in the span of five years, I have been on Prozac, Lexapro, Pristique, Zoloft, Zoloft with Welbutrin, Celebrex, and back to Zoloft. All of which has either only worked for a short period of time or turned me into the Incredible Hulk of emotions. Supposedly, I, much like the X-Men, have a genetic mutation that causes the serotonin in my brain to remain lodged in one corner where it cannot produce the signals to make me happy. So, in an effort to release that serotonin I was subscribed Lamictal, an anti-seizure medication. Another failure. So, it was back to the drawing board and back to Welbutrin, only this time at a full dose, and on its own. So far. manageable.
But in the end, all the antidepressants in the world won’t save me. They couldn’t save Plath, who, like ninety percent of people who commit suicide have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder at the time of their death. The only thing that can save me, that has saved me, is people like my mother and my brothers who try their best to keep me together.
My father couldn’t keep himself together. He didn’t kill himself, his overdose was no doubt, accidental, but his support system was weak. My grandparents refused to believe my father was an addict, even after his death. My father was depressed and drugs were his form of self-medicating, but I was too angry to see it and when I wasn’t angry, I couldn’t see anything past his wide smile. Maybe, life for Plath had been the same.
I watched Nick and Josh argue as Nick continued to compare Josh to deceased musicians he could not stand. My mother, in the background, chimed in from time to time. I thought about Hemingway and his work. For what are we born if not to aid one another? I laughed to myself and everyone stared in my direction.
“What?” Josh asked.
I shook my head. “Nothing, I was just thinking about how I’m surrounded by idiots.” I smiled at him. Here was my aid: A man who couldn’t have a serious conversation but had a morbid sense of humor, a younger man who could and would turn just about everything into an argument because of his pride, and a woman who didn’t just wash lettuce, but cleaned it. To anyone else, I was doomed.
I know better.
Samantha Payne holds an MFA in Creative Writing with an emphasis in Fiction from Northern Arizona University where she teaches composition. She is the author of the new-adult-romance novel Maleficium and her short stories have been featured in Alt Hist, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Dirty Pool, Donut Factory, and Story Shack. She was the fiction and visual arts editor for Thin Air Magazine, and is an active publishing assistant for the speculative fiction magazine, Bards and Sages Quarterly. When she isn’t teaching or writing, Samantha draws manga and practices coloring inside the lines.