“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. I am, I am, I am.” – Sylvia Plath
I am, I am, I am. I’m getting this tattooed on my right wrist at the end of this dumpster fire of a year. I’ve thought about it for months, but lately, it’s really been on my mind. Out of context, it sounds kind of silly, doesn’t it? My first tattoo, maybe my only, and it’s going to be the same small phrase, repeated three times. What a cliche; a former English major getting a literary tattoo. Pretentious book nerd.
I was called a lot of names in my middle school years, and made fun of for my looks, my shyness, and my intellect (or lack thereof), so that doesn’t really bother me. Because when I read that small phrase from The Bell Jar, I feel it in my chest, to the beat of my heart: I am, I am, I am. It is a heavy, comforting weight. That phrase on my wrist will serve as a reminder that once, when I was thirteen, I made a choice that left me with a faint scar on my wrist…but I am still here. Ultimately, I chose life. Passively, then. Actively, now.
At this moment, that quote makes me think of its context: Sylvia’s autobiographical character Esther is at the funeral of a friend who committed suicide. This friend hid it so well that Esther thinks she must not have been that sick to begin with, and so what she did blindsided everyone. Sylvia, as many of us know, took her own life when she was 30. When I read The Bell Jar for the first time, I saw and heard so much of myself in her struggles and internal thoughts that it was, at times, physically painful to read and I had to put the book down.
I am feeling that pain again, and writing to make sense of it all. Last week, I hosted my very first Friendsgiving at my apartment; three of my coworkers came. The turkey breast was near perfect, we ate five different kinds of potato, and drank delicious wine that Chris brought. Chris was late; he worked hellish holiday season hours at his second job downtown and had his debit card stolen earlier. He almost didn’t come, but Tara convinced him to stop by and eat. He poured out his heart at the table, got drunk, and after pie, sat down on my floor and cried. I thought he was just having a rough week. I didn’t know Chris incredibly well – we worked on different floors – but our company is small, we all hang out together outside of work when we can, and I’d had fun, lively conversations with him before. I did know that having your debit card stolen sucks, and that would be enough to make me cry out of frustration. When they grabbed an Uber home, Chris forgot his phone at my apartment, and I went downstairs to give it to him. He gave me a bone crushing hug, thanked me, and told me he loved me (the inebriated, “holy shit you brought me my phone and I thought I’d lost it” kind of love).
This past Friday, I passed him in the stairwell on my way down to the first floor from my third floor office to deliver a package. He was standing in the stairwell against the door, which I thought was odd. As if he were bracing himself before going back to his desk. We said hi, how are you, he opened the door for me to pass, and when I came back upstairs he was gone.
An hour and a half later, one of my coworkers emailed everyone to say, “Hey, the Purple Line is down because of an “emergency,” so take the bus instead.” We started seeing reports that someone had been hit by one of the trains. Then the articles began to say they were considering it a suicide. That this person jumped off the platform. I received a text late Saturday night from one of the programmers: “Is Chris okay?”
The victim was a 29-year-old man. I’d read about Chris dying before I knew it was him. He had left work and taken his own life in a way that I can’t…my brain cannot touch on it for long, like trying to lay your hand on a searing hot coal.
For the last year and two months, I worked with Chris, and had no idea how heavy, how crushingly heavy, the weight of what he dealt with was. There were signs, and we all talked about it as everyone in the company slowly found out on Sunday; signs, yes, but unrelated, and he had rough days like we all do, but Chris was lively, creative, kind, hilarious, what happened? I spent the better part of six months wanting to get to know him better, because when he wasn’t directly engaged he kept to himself, but when he was, he would light up and talk your ear off. He made a delicious green bean casserole at our work Thanksgiving two weeks ago. I’m pretty sure he ate half of the blueberry banana bread loaf I brought in last month. All the while he was suffering and none of us knew.
I hate this.
I am undone by his choice. I wish with everything in me that he knew, and felt, how much he was loved by the people in his life. I wish I had reached out more. I wish I had said hello more when I passed his desk in a hurry. I wish his pain had not overwhelmed him on that platform, God, I wish I wish I wish.
Christopher Flores, I know what that pain feels like. I know how consuming it is. I am so sorry it was so loud that it drowned out the voices of those who would have helped lift you out of it. You were loved and wanted and you will be missed more than you know. I hope you found peace you did not have here, although we will never stop feeling this. Your absence is on every floor, at every desk, in every member of your work family. This hurts.
As I mourn for the loss of a young, hilarious, fabulous and fabulously talented coworker who I had the pleasure of sharing a Thanksgiving with this year, I think of that quote again. I think of my own choice, and how I will do anything to never find myself in the head space I was in at thirteen, or eighteen, ever again. That’s easier said than done, but that tattoo will be a reminder to reach out, and talk, and tell someone when the weight becomes crushing. It will also remind me to be kind. To let others know how much they mean to me and that they are loved and worthy and not any of the things their minds may lie and say they are.
It will mimic the beat of my living heart: I am, I am, I am.
Please take care of yourselves. Self-care is not just a buzzword, it is vital. Reach out, to family, or friends, or a more confidential source of support. You are so loved. You are worthy and brave and lovable. You are not your mental illness.
I’m going to let someone more eloquent than me end this one: