I get into Little B*****d and drive to Ohio. I am tired. I am avoiding seeing Violet. It’s exhausting trying to even myself out and be careful around her, so careful, like I’m picking my way through a minefield, enemy soldiers on every side. Must not let her see. I’ve told her I’ve come down with some sort of bug and don’t want to get her sick.
The Life Is Life meeting takes place in a large room with wood paneling and radiators that jut out from the walls. We sit around two long tables pushed together, as if we’re going to be doing homework or taking tests. Two pitchers of water sit at either end, with brightly colored Dixie cups stacked up beside them. There are four plates of cookies.
The counselor is a guy named Demetrius, who is this very pale black guy with green eyes. For those of us who haven’t been here before, he tells us he’s getting his doctorate at the local college, and Life Is Life is in its twelfth year, even though he’s only been running it for the past eleven months. I want to ask what happened to the last counselor, but don’t in case it’s not a pretty story.
The kids file in, and they look just like the ones we have in Bartlett. I don’t recognize any of them, which is why I drove twenty-five miles to get here. Before I take my seat, one of the girls sidles up to me and says, “You are really tall.”
“I’m older than I look.”
She smiles in what she probably thinks is a seductive way, and I add, “Gigantism runs in my family. After high school, I’m required to join the circus because by the time I’m twenty the doctors predict I’ll be over seven feet.”
I want her to go away because I’m not here to make friends, and then she does. I sit and wait and wish I hadn’t come. Everyone is helping themselves to the cookies, which I don’t touch because I know each of those brands may or may not contain something disgusting called bone char, which is from the bones of animals, and then I can’t even look at the cookies or at the people eating them. I stare out the window, but the trees of the arboretum are thin and brown and dead, and so I keep my eyes on Demetrius, who sits in the middle where we can all see him.
He recites facts I already know about suicide and teenagers, and then we go around the room and say our names and how old we are and the thing we’ve been diagnosed with and if we’ve had any firsthand experience trying to kill ourselves. Then we say the phrase “________ is life,” as in whatever strikes us in that moment as something to celebrate, like “Basketball is life,” “School is life,” “Friends are life,” “Making out with my girlfriend is life.” Anything that reminds us how good it is to be alive.
A number of these kids have the slightly dull, vacant look of people on drugs, and I wonder what they’re taking to keep them here and breathing. One girl says, “Vampire Diaries is life,” and a couple of the other girls giggle. Another says, “My dog is life even when she’s eating my shoes.”
When it’s my turn, I introduce myself as Josh Raymond, seventeen, no previous experience beyond my recent halfhearted experiment with sleeping pills. “The Jovian-Plutonian gravitational effect is life,” I add, even though no one knows what this means.
At that moment the door opens and someone runs in, letting the cold air in with her. She is hatted and scarved and mittened up tightly, unwrapping herself like a mummy as she finds her seat. We all turn and Demetrius smiles a comforting smile. “Come in, no worries, we’re just getting started.”
The mummy sits down, losing the scarf, mittens, and hat. She turns away from me, blond ponytail swinging, as she hooks her purse strap over her chair. She settles back, smoothing the loose strands of hair off her cheeks, which are pink from the cold, and leaves her coat on. “I’m sorry,” Amanda Monk mouths at Demetrius, at the table. When her eyes get around to me, her face goes completely and immediately blank.
Demetrius nods at her. “Rachel, why don’t you go ahead?”
Amanda, as Rachel, avoids looking at me. In a wooden voice, she recites, “I’m Rachel, I’m seventeen, I’m bulimic, and I tried to kill myself twice, both times with pills. I hide myself away with smiles and gossip. I am not happy at all. My mother is making me come here. Secrecy is life.” She says this last line to me and then looks away.
The others take their turns, and by the time we get all the way around, it’s clear I am the only one here who hasn’t tried to really and truly kill himself. It makes me feel superior, even though it shouldn’t, and I can’t help thinking, When I actually try, I’m not going to miss. Even Demetrius has a story. These people are here and trying to get help and they’re alive, after all.
But the whole thing is heartbreaking. Between thoughts of bone char, and stories of wrist cutting and hangings, and bitchy Amanda Monk with her little pointed chin jutted out, so exposed and scared, I want to put my head on the table and let the Long Drop just come. I want to get away from these kids who never did anything to anyone except be born with different brains and different wiring, and from the people who aren’t here to eat these bone char cookies and share their tales, and the ones who didn’t make it and never had a chance. I want to get away from the stigma they all clearly feel just because they have an illness of the mind as opposed to, say, an illness of the lungs or blood. I want to get away from all the labels. “I’m OCD,” “I’m depressed,” “I’m a cutter,” they say, like these are the things that define them. One poor b*****d is ADHD, OCD, BPD, bipolar, and on top of it all has some sort of anxiety disorder. I don’t even know what BPD stands for. I’m the only one who is just Theodore Finch.
A girl with a fat black braid and glasses says, “My sister died of leukemia, and you should have seen the flowers and the sympathy.” She holds up her wrists, and even across the table I can see the scars. “But when I nearly died, no flowers were sent, no casseroles were baked. I was selfish and crazy for wasting my life when my sister had hers taken away.”
This makes me think of Eleanor Markey, and then Demetrius talks about medicines that are out there and helpful, and everyone volunteers the names of the drugs that are helping them get through. A boy at the other end of the table says the only thing he hates is feeling like everyone else. “Don’t get me wrong—I’d rather be here than dead—but sometimes I feel that everything that, like, makes me up has gone away.”