Listening and Relistening:
An Outside Account of Mental Illness
creative nonfiction by Sarah Ens
Driving home from Saskatchewan, I count fence poles and trace rivers of wheat and green. I breathe out clouds onto the window to dust the giant blue sky and shift to ask Dad, “Why is Brian Wilson lying in bed?” We’re listening to The Barenaked Ladies from the travel CD Dad put together—a carefully crafted mix. “What does lying in bed like Brian Wilson mean? Why are they listening and relistening?” My brother pulls his nose out of his book.
“Brian Wilson,” he tells me, “was the creative force behind the Beach Boys.” I think about how uninspired Surfin’ USA is. But no, “Brain Wilson,” he tells me, “was brilliant.”
Mom leans back and swivels to pat my knee. “He just went through this stage…” and when she trails off, Dad adds:
“…a stage where he spent a lot of time in bed because he felt sad.”
My parents consult each other with their eyes. Then: “It’s confusing, but sometimes people feel sad all of the time and it gets so bad that they don’t even want to leave their bed.”
My brother nods. “Plus he was on a lot of drugs.”
I drift back to the sky, listening and relistening.
I thought about Brian Wilson often after that, in quiet, secret ways that slipped in on hot summer afternoons spent tossing helicopter seeds down from my tree house, or at sleepovers after all the other girls had fallen asleep and I was left to poke and prod at the darkness of unfamiliar basements. I tried to imagine never leaving my bed, pulling the covers up and over and counting my breaths. I tried to imagine a sadness that got stuck, maybe under my ribs and pressed up against my heart, or maybe onto the bottoms of my feet, heavy and slow. I tried to imagine Brian Wilson, fat and wearing a Hawaiian t-shirt, his brothers and bandmates pacing outside of his bedroom door. These thoughts felt intriguing and warm and they sloshed around in my head.
The first story I wrote, I held secret under my bed. It was the first thing I had written that was completely mine and done simply because I found, suddenly, that I had things to say under my nightlight. After maybe four days of my secret, I gingerly pulled it out to drop in front of my dad. I remember my dad crumpled his chin and wiped at his eyes and I felt powerful. He asked why I decided to make the main character’s friend, Brian, commit suicide. I shrugged. I was tiptoeing around the edge of what might happen to a person who can’t leave his bed. That one day maybe he would shove the covers off, lift heavy limbs, and walk doomed to his death. I think mostly, though, from under my nightlight, that I needed Brian’s suicide because it gave my narrator a reason to go sit in the park, press the metal chains from the swing to her cheek, and cry.
I sit still in the passenger seat, slow tears curling down into my lap. This, my third driver’s license test, had turned into another anxious attempt and humiliating fail. Mom stops at Tim Hortons and buys me a jam-filled doughnut but it doesn’t help. I decide to skip school for the rest of the morning and hide myself in the upstairs bedroom, my brother’s old room. Gazing at posters of hockey players and the solar system, I make myself miserable missing him, regretting all the failures in my life, and worrying about everything I won’t be able to do or handle in the future.
Mom interrupts my downward spiral to bring me the phone. Joyce’s voice whispers, shaky, over the phone, as she tells me that she’s calling from the psych ward because her mom found her cutting her wrists in the bath. “The doctors aren’t too worried, though, because I wasn’t really trying to… They said it was more like a cry for help. Well, I don’t know. Please don’t cry,” she says, half laughing at my silence, at herself, needing me to say something. “If you cry, I’ll cry.” I have already been crying for the past two hours but I don’t tell her that and instead push the phone into my jaw and ask when I can visit. She says anytime is good. Oh, but I shouldn’t bring anything sharp.
I bring flowers and sit on her crisp bed, looking around the white, sterile room. Joyce breathes slowly, embarrassed, and gives me a soft, short hug. We don’t know how to look at each other.
My sister tosses me the pill bottle. “I looked it up,” she squeaks, shivering. I sit down on her bed. “I looked up how much I would need to take in order to kill myself.” I curl my legs in. Wait. “But then I panicked and I called the Helpline instead.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, contained and unable to touch her, no help at all. She plops down beside me, and holds my foot carefully.
“Me too.” She watches my face and is disappointed. When she leaves later that afternoon for her skating lessons, I go through her desk. I find poems from her journal. I read some of them, trying to absorb her loneliness and decipher her anger as I bite the inside of my cheek. I guess at which parts are about me.
Eleven months later, right before I move to Vancouver and leave her almost for good, I check again. This time, I find a letter, licked closed. Fat. The front reads “To my family. I love you”.
I lie down on her bed and smell her pillow, tease open the corner of the letter, before dropping it back into the drawer. Tell myself that letters are written for lots of reasons and that she would let me know if she needed me. Cover my face with my hair.
We arrived at Aunty Naomi’s last night. Relieved to get out of the car with its cramped legs, motion sickness, grumpy brother, and Dad who eagerly took pictures of each and every moose, elk and bear we passed, I breathe in the Yukon. I had pretended to be Pocahontas all day as we went hiking and, now, as I look at my little sister, I feel generous and wise. We’ve got the hot tub to ourselves and I decide to privilege her by letting her in on my feelings. I arch my eyebrows and tell her about the two boys I like. During the four days of driving up, I had written poem after poem about these two boys, and felt it was about time I made an important decision. So I ask her,
“Which one do you think is better looking?” She fixes the faded blue shoulder strap of her bathing suit.
“I don’t know. Really Sarah, I couldn’t care less.” She flicks a bubble and sends specks of water flying over the edge. “And, you know, there are more important things on my mind like school and, well, my best friend is moving away so, you know.” She stares at her hands as water runs rivers down her fingers and gathers at her elbows. “And I’m not good at talking to people or anything, like you. I never have anything to say. I won’t even have a best friend anymore. So there’s stuff going on that’s hard and I hardly even know those boys.” Her skin is soft white milky underwater. It sways in the ripples. “And I’m not going to say if I think they’re cute because it’s not like anything is going to happen with you guys and it’s just not realistic.” Her lips gather together as she pulls herself out of the water and stands earnest, green eyes peering grey over at me, so much older than twelve.
I frown. “Right… but which one do you think is better looking?”
I kept track of this all in my journal, listing off the people I knew one by one—an auntie who always laughed loudest, the first boy I ever kissed—who had found deep, dark places inside of themselves that they couldn’t avoid anymore. When my list grew longer after I moved to Vancouver and was surrounded by kids gone from home for the first time, I wasn’t surprised. It became exhausting, however, to be on the outside. To look into heavy eyes and not understand. To worry under my nightlight and wonder if I wasn’t relistening hard enough.
Megan is kind of toppled over in the hallway, sprawled out and gasping through shaking sobs. I pause, then run for Kleenex, water, Advil, and blankets.
“Megan, what happened? What’s wrong?” She can’t explain so I rub her back as she gasps. “Do you maybe need a paper bag or something?” She shakes her head. “What do you need?”
“I don’t know,” she whispers into her hands.
We became frustrated later, when she would be too scared to go to her exams and then be excused by teachers, or when she’d ask for help on essays and break down half way through, or when she’d ruin our nights out by running away and panicking in embarrassingly public places. We thought maybe she should get help and sometimes we thought she should stop seeking so much attention. Things got better after she dumped her boyfriend, kind of. Maybe not. By that time we had uninvolved ourselves. First year of university away from home was hard on all of us. Just because we weren’t often immobilized by our irrational fears didn’t mean we didn’t struggle, too. Eventually, we just let her cry it out, and said nothing when she complained of stress headaches and unfinished essays the next day.
Nicole and I lie on my bed, talking about the old days. We reach farther and farther back and I start to get nervous. I’m not sure why I don’t want to ask about Nicole’s mom. I guess I’m scared of her telling me what happened. I don’t want to hear about how brave Nicole has had to be, how many times she’s had to dial 911. I don’t want to hear her say that her mom meant to die. I don’t want to see her face as she says that. So I cuddle up and skirt around it, shift the focus to funny memories of us being useless on the high school softball team, of us writing hilariously horrible love songs that we never, thankfully, worked up the courage to perform for anyone. We grab my computer and watch Mick Jagger videos on Youtube and laugh until we pee.
I get an email from Nicole after she returns home. She tells me she’s scared because she feels sad all the time. I send her all the love I can type as well as a cute video of kittens. But before I fall asleep I wonder if this is an epidemic, if it’s only a matter of time before I too am unable to get out of bed.
Back at home, I am filled with words, bravery, and big Vancouver experience and am so entirely at ease, I feel entitled to talk my friend’s ears off. Natalie and Amy lean closer as I complain about not-cute guys hitting on me and regale them with adventures, like how my friend stopped a city bus because she was freaking out so badly, and how I had the chance to storm out of a boy’s room late at night after I found out that my best friend had kissed him just a few days before. I smile, wave, flutter. Natalie agrees—last year was crazy for us all. We remember together how she stopped eating for a while, but oh good, things are better at Tim Hortons now and going to college this year really brought her out of her funk.
Amy says she’s doing better now, too. And nods a few times to herself before telling us she’s on meds and that she doesn’t think she’s weak, but strong for taking them. She’s just glad she’s not crazy, “You know?” I don’t know. How don’t I know?
“Yeah,” she says, “I haven’t really told anyone. It’s just that I get anxious a lot and it’s been coming back now. I started taking these meds, though, and it’s nice to know I’m not actually crazy. It’s just chemicals, you know?” I think to myself, sounds like generalized anxiety disorder, but don’t tell her, since taking two psychology courses doesn’t really exactly make me an expert.
Natalie says, “I thought about going on some kind of medication too, actually,” as I pull the blanket up to my armpits. “But then I just went to college and things got better. My mom said I didn’t smile at all, though, last year.” I wiggle my toes and try to remember what we were like when we were the editors of the yearbook in grade 12. Was it easy, singing along to Adele’s 19 album and arguing over fonts, or was there something underneath undermining their assurance, their confidence that they were okay, even then?
My list was getting too long. I thought there was no way this could be normal. But statistics from the Canadian Mental Health Association showed that lists like mine are incredibly ordinary.
I used to lie awake at night in grade nine and listen to my Jackie Greene CD on repeat in my Diskman. He sang only the saddest songs and I was in love with it. Lying in bed, just listening and relistening. But I don’t need my narrators to cry in parks anymore. I navigate the sadness of the people I love by feeling out the edges of my power and powerlessness and by pacing outside of bedroom doors.
Note: The names of the people in this piece have been changed to respect their privacy.