Muscle Memory

by Amanda Leduc

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THE moment that I realized I would one day kill myself arrived like any other moment in a day just before the summer — sunshine-y but hesitant, warmer than the days before it but still with a hint of cool on the breeze. A day that held the promise of hotter times to come. I was in my kitchen, getting ready for work, packing a lunch and taking care to put it together — tuna salad with sundried tomatoes and olive oil, a handful of almonds, carrot sticks and a sweet bit of chocolate to reward me in the end — while also, at the same time, thinking idly about how I didn’t want to eat any of it. About how I didn’t care at all about the food that I was eating — me, the girl who had all through her life been known as the girl who could eat. The girl who loved food. The girl who baked like a fiend and got up early on her weekend shifts just so that the muffins she put in the oven could still be hot when she took them in to work. She didn’t want to eat now, this girl, not anymore. She wanted to go to sleep and not wake up. She wanted to disappear.

The thought that I was going to commit suicide — maybe not today, but eventually, perhaps even soon — arrived quietly in the midst of my packing those tomatoes. It didn’t blare into my consciousness or make me suddenly afraid — it was just there, pulsing through and through my head like it had always been hiding and had waited until now to make itself known, to announce its intention.

Imagine that, the thought went. It’s going to be you. All of the people in your life who have struggled with this already and instead, it’s actually going to be you.

It didn’t frighten me, the thought. I was only surprised.


I had stopped eating earlier that spring — and by stopped, I mean only that I pared things down long enough to lose twelve pounds but not long enough to cause any real damage. I ate cherries for breakfast and tuna (with olive oil and sundried tomatoes) for lunch and sometimes for dinner I’d have a poached egg on one slice of toast, hold the butter. Sometimes I would eat the tuna for lunch and then not feel like eating anything else, and so I wouldn’t, and by the time the hunger came back late at night I was already asleep, or almost there, and my stomach had been rolling with nausea for hours already so it was easy to forget I might be hungry. Some mornings I ate crackers for breakfast and then nothing at all for the rest of the day.

I had a friend in Vancouver who was encountering a similar kind of problem, except that she was going through a divorce and I was going through something else that had no name, or rather something that had several different names, several different diagnoses, none of which felt heavy enough for this kind of darkness. We called our lack of eating the Heartbreak Diet, and joked about how it had arrived just in time for bikini season. Hello summer, I wrote on Twitter, a few days after that first day in my kitchen. I am here, and looking FABULOUS. I had been going to the gym and counting my calories since the winter and the Heartbreak Diet helped where nothing else had — not eating was easy because I didn’t want to eat, and suddenly there was definition in my body where before there had only been hints. Some nights I’d wake up in the early hours of the morning and feel a cramping kind of panic that carried through to the rest of the day. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t concentrate, wanted only to be gone from the world. I was nauseous all of the time, so not eating didn’t feel like a moral so much as a practical decision. Sleeping also felt like a practical decision — sleeping as soon as I got home from work, sleeping right up until I had to get up and shower, no time for breakfast, right out the door. Sometimes at work I’d fall asleep for five minutes while sitting on the toilet. Other times, I’d lock myself in the bathroom and sob into my hands. The bathroom was in the front reception area and people could hear you when you peed, so my sobs were hunched and careful. When I managed to claw them back I’d splash water on my face and go back behind my desk, but no one was fooled, least of all the patients.

I spent my days doing administrative work for a hospital emergency psychiatry unit and sometimes I’d watch a patient shuffle into their room, their limbs slack and tired, and feel a flutter of something that was almost recognition. This, I told myself. This is what they mean when they say that they don’t want to do it anymore.

Once, a grandfatherly man came up to my window. He was waiting with a patient but in that moment, his concern was just for me.

“Are you all right, love,” he said. “Is there anything I can do. A cup of tea, maybe?”

Can you tell me how to die and make it look like an accident, I almost said. Can you help me with that?


Except that I didn’t want to die, not really. Or, more specifically, I didn’t want to imagine the act of dying. I didn’t want to imagine it partly because I was afraid that it would hurt, but mostly because I was afraid that I would botch it, or screw things up, and find myself on the other end of a failed suicide attempt — brain damaged or paralyzed or perhaps missing something else, like the woman who came into the ward sometimes and was a double amputee. Years ago she had tried to kill herself by running in front of a train — she kept her life but lost her legs, moved into a lodging home, lost all semblance of the person that she’d been. Because of her I knew that there were worse things than death, and failing at suicide could potentially be one of them. That, I whispered to myself late at night, could not be me. I could not let that happen.

And so instead I listened carefully when people discussed suicide at work — the methods that had the highest success (blow your brains out), the methods to avoid (jumping off a building, trains), the methods that made everyone squeamish. One of the patients who had been a fixture on the ward before being “rehabilitated” had killed herself by climbing to the top of a construction crane and jumping off — eyewitnesses said that she’d stumbled, righted herself, looked like she’d been about to climb down and then slipped. Imagine, everyone whispered at work. Imagine changing your mind, and then that happens.

When I lived in Scotland in my twenties I worked, for a time, as a support worker to a girl with anorexia. One of the duties was sleeping over at her house, partly to provide companionship but also partly to make sure that if she died during the night, someone would be there to contact her family. Years later, during those months of tuna packed in olive oil, I thought of her often. I was almost jealous. By the time I worked with her, her body had become so fragile that anything could kill her. Walking too much. Climbing her stairs. A sudden burst of fright could stop her heart and so our outings were as careful as could be — we went for slow walks, rode cabs all over the city, took pictures of city gardens. She had a DSLR and had wanted, once upon a time, to be a photographer. Sometimes she asked her staff to stomp in puddles so that she could photograph the splashes. She wasn’t allowed to do her own jumping.

During that summer of the Heartbreak Diet, I’d think of her often and wish to have my body swapped with hers. How easy, then, to die. A little bit of running, a well-timed lunge, and you are officially no more. No need to worry about pills or guns or whether or not you can distract your sister long enough to steal some of her insulin and later, when everyone is gone, slip it soft into your arm. Instead, you have become so weak that your heart has actually broken.

How easy, I thought. How convenient.

That day in my kitchen, I knew that it wouldn’t be easy. I also knew that I wasn’t going to change my mind. I didn’t want to die but I didn’t want to live, either, and the prospect of days stretched out in front of me unchanging was scarier than falling off a crane. I would do it — the only question was when.


What does it feel like, to know that you have suddenly had your fill of living? It feels like wanting to sleep all of the time, or like wanting to find a switch to turn your brain off, because even sleep, at times, couldn’t save me. When I slept — if I slept — I dreamt about the things that were hurting. The pain that I was in, the hurt that I was causing others. Awake, I walked and talked and thought about dying — about pills, about guns, about flying somewhere far away and drowning in the ocean. I stayed for long stretches of time — overtime, unpaid — at a job that I no longer enjoyed simply because being there meant that I could talk to people, that I could sit across from someone and speak face-to-face to them and remember: see, I am here, I am alive.

It meant going back to the little apartment that I had once loved so very much, and wanting to be anywhere else in the world. It meant looking at my piano and my cello and my books and my notebooks and my camera and the foodstuffs in my kitchen — everything that had brought me joy, once upon a time — and realizing that none of it felt important anymore, that none of it was enough.

I watched a lot of TV in those days. It was the only thing that kept my mind intact. Instead of sleeping, I curled into myself in the cold stretches of my bed and thought: how ungrateful, how terrible, how awful you are. How undeserving. You worthless, stupid, insignificant piece of shit.


Even so, when was definitely not going to be that day. I had, after all, just made myself a lunch to take to work, even though I had no interest at all in eating it. When would have to be a weekend, perhaps a Friday night, because when I wasn’t at work I could go days without hearing from anyone and this way, no one would know, no one would come looking for me until it was too late. But when was probably not going to be anytime in the next week, and not in the week after that, either. It was summer. There were weddings to go to, baby showers to attend. My best friend was getting married in just under a year’s time and I was supposed to be a bridesmaid. Didn’t I want to see that? Besides, I needed a plan — both to ensure that my method was successful and also to ensure that it was secret, or close enough to it that no one would tell the difference. Even more than not wanting to live was not wanting my friends and family to know that I’d been sad enough, dark enough, lost enough to want it to be over.

But I also needed conviction, which as it turned out was in short supply. I did not want my life anymore but this was not the same thing as actively choosing to end it, nor was it a thing powerful enough, as I discovered, to overcome my instinctual aversion to dying. When I crossed the street in front of my house I looked both ways and always ran faster if cars were on the approach. (Once, I misjudged the distance and ran out in front of a car that was much closer than it had seemed — my sadness only said Stop running once the danger was over.)

At what feels, now, like the apex of that year’s depression, I rented a car one weekend to run errands. I was thirty-two and I’d rented a car only twice in my life before, both times for long road trips up north. The upshot of this was that I had little in the way of city driving experience. I spent most of that weekend driving from one errand to the next — groceries, furniture, the thrift store, a flower nursery — in a sustained, low-grade panic attack, weeping constantly at the wheel, shaking in place when the car finally came to a stop. I used the self-serve checkout. I spoke to no one. When I drove over bridges I thought about what would happen if I jerked the wheel and floored the pedal — a crash through the guardrail, a lumbering metal arc through the air before finally hitting the ground.

I did not jerk the wheel, or floor the pedal. I checked my blind spots regularly and never forgot to use the turn signal. I drove with the lights on. When I returned the car I filled the tank even though I didn’t have to, like the good girl that I was.


One week turned into two, and then three, and then months. The bargain that I struck was this: I couldn’t kill myself until I’d paid off all my student loans, because somewhere in the crying and the anger and the wanting to sleep all of the time, the wanting, in fact, to sleep forever, was the thought that I couldn’t do that to my parents — saddle them with both a death and debt. And so I would work for three years and pay off the debt and revisit the issue once the debt was gone. Perhaps I would kill myself then. My family would be upset, obviously, but they would get over it in time. Did I see them all that much? Wasn’t I the strange one in the family, the one who had chosen to live overseas for years and thus build a life away from everyone in the first place? Wasn’t it my fault that I couldn’t fit now, couldn’t find a spot for myself after having been away for so long? Wasn’t I a stuck-up snob? Wasn’t I living in a tiny little apartment when everyone else had houses and cars? Wasn’t I a failure?

Maybe, in three years, I wouldn’t be so sad anymore, and things would all be different.

Or maybe things would not be different, at all, and I could find my own release. Perhaps everyone could just pretend that I had gone to live overseas again, this time indefinitely. Perhaps it would hurt for a while and then close over, like a scab.


Oddly enough, when I wasn’t weeping in that car I was having an excellent time. I drove so rarely that the opportunity to do so made me feel almost special — somehow older than I was, more together, suddenly accepted into that part of the rest of the world that Knew What They Were Doing. People did things, with cars. They drove to IKEA and got dinner at the drive-thru and took their own garbage to the dump and went to the movies ten minutes before the show was supposed to start, just because they could. People with cars knew how to navigate the city in ways that felt wholly mysterious to me, limited as I had been by the bus routes. People with cars didn’t have to call the rental company from a gas station two hours away and sheepishly ask whether the car took unleaded or diesel because they knew all of that in the first place.

People with cars were completely comfortable hurtling themselves through the universe at sixty miles an hour, protected by one strap of fabric and one sheet of glass. People with cars could take death into their own palms and sing along to Tears for Fears while doing it. People with cars could be at once completely aware of and yet also completely indifferent to how terribly things could end.

In the moments when I wasn’t crying, I would sing along to Taylor Swift and Neko Case and think: perhaps things weren’t so bad. I wasn’t going to crash the car. I was an excellent driver. I wasn’t going to go into debt as a result of renting the car, either. I had, in fact, rented the car because I had money and things that I needed to do with it. Look, I wanted to whisper — here I am, buying leafy greens at the supermarket. Here I am, taking the clothes that I don’t want to the thrift store. Here I am, buying patio chairs for my deck.

People who buy patio chairs are, as they say in psychiatry-speak, future-oriented. They are, by definition, optimistic. They spend money because they want to sit out in the sun. They remember, they hold tight to the thought that the sun will come out even after the darkest of days.


Once, when I was young, I went on one of those car rides at an amusement park — the kind where a car runs around a predetermined track, safely tethered to the course by the magic of electricity and science. In the video that my parents have of the ride, my sister and brother are in one car, and I am in another. They are smiling. I am not. I am staring straight ahead, gripping the wheel tightly enough that you can see my knuckles shining in the grainy summer light. In later years I confessed to my parents that I hadn’t realized the car was connected to the track. I thought, in all honesty, that I had actually been driving — me, an eight-year-old, let loose behind the wheel while my parents smiled and filmed us from behind the safety of their fence.

It’s all too much, I might have told them at the time, except that I knew I was supposed to be having fun and I didn’t want to seem ungrateful. It’s all too much. What if I crash? What if I make a mess? What happens then?

We laugh about it now, whenever we all get together. My tiny self, taking the world much too seriously right from the very beginning. I look contemplative even in baby photos — my eyes trusting and unsure, trying to figure everything out. Establishing connection, slotting everything in place. I am tethered here and here and here.

Years later, when the time came to get my actual driver’s license, I was so excited I almost couldn’t sleep the night before my test. I was not nervous — just looking forward to the chance to move a little further out into the world. So it felt strange, years later, to find myself swinging back to that eight-year-old in the amusement park, convinced that she couldn’t do it anymore, not on her own, not like this.

But then, at the same time, not so strange at all. Rules of the city notwithstanding, driving (much like preparing food now, for me) feels like breathing — you make decisions without realizing that you’re making them, your subconscious another kind of magic, albeit much less exciting. You turn the key and move the gearshift and slide through traffic like some kind of earthborne fish. From A to B and back again, the possibility of death beside you all the way.

Perhaps this is the problem: it is all rote now, when once upon a time everything seemed so exciting.


“It doesn’t close over,” a friend said to me, some time later when I told her some of what had been going through my head, that day with the rental car and all the days before. “Death. Dying. It doesn’t close over. It still feels like yesterday.”

Her own father had died when she was eighteen. We were fifteen years in the future now, sprawled on her deck as the sun set on a night in Toronto.

But look, I wanted to tell her. You survived, didn’t you? You went on. Your life came back to you, eventually. Theirs will too. I’m sure of it.

It felt silly to speak with conviction about something like this, though, and so I did not say it. Instead I stood up when it got dark and hugged her, thanked her for letting me into her house, made my way back outside to the streetcar and from there to the bus back home. My legs moving without my telling them to, my hands through my tote bag and finding my keys without even realizing it, the climb up my own stairs its own kind of unconscious routine.

I slept, I woke up, I kept going.


Later still, months after that day in my kitchen but months before the end, another friend sent me a link to an online discussion that she’d found about grief, and sadness. The metaphor in play was that grief — and sadness, and depression, and whatever else you want to call it — is a wave that comes at you, over you, obliterating everything, leaving you alone and hanging on to a broken chunk of wood in the middle of the sea. The waves are one hundred feet tall and do not stop. They do not stop. They do not stop.

They do not stop until one day, you look around and realize that they are only eighty feet tall now, and you can breathe for longer bits of time in between.

They do not stop until one day, you look around and realize that they are only fifty feet tall now, and you can breathe — you can even smile — for longer bits of time in between. You might be naked, still clinging to that bit of wood. But you are here. You are alive.

This is a wave, she said to me, the next time I called her in a panic. Over and over. This is a wave. It will pass.

This is a wave.

Look at it.

Stare that motherfucker right in the face.


I stained the patio chairs, and treated them for rain. I bought flower baskets and a trellis and wound the thin stems of my morning glories — they’d grown from last year’s forgotten seeds, a shock of green in the midst of the greying dead things that I’d ignored for most of the year — around the trellis arms. When the patio chairs were cured I set them up and wound a string of patio lights around the borders of my deck, and when night came I turned the lights on and watched my flowers shimmer in the deep, dusky shadows.

Look at this, I thought. Look at this.

Toward the end of that summer, I went to the market — on foot, this time — and bought a basket of peaches, from which I made a pie. I made it from a recipe that my mother had baked when I was young — Deep Dish Peach Pie, bottom crust optional, extra peaches encouraged. The traditional pie was baked in a large oven-proof bowl — my parents still had the Pyrex bowl for this pie back in their kitchen closet — but I made mine in a regular pie plate and diligently rolled out a bottom crust before tumbling the peaches into place. The kneading and smoothing and rolling was its own rhythm, another kind of sameness. I had whipped cream in my fridge and so I made that too, and when the pie was ready I took it out of the oven and let it cool down and then ate a piece of it out on my deck, in one of my new patio chairs, while the whipped cream puddled into frothy white soup around the pastry. The pie was excellent, and the weather was excellent, and I was grateful for both of these things while also at the same time vaguely unaware of them, or unconcerned by them, or unmoved. My flowers were still growing. My patio was spare and calm and pretty.

This is a wave, I told myself as the sun went down.

It will pass.

This is a wave.

This is a wave.

It wasn’t enough, but after a while I went inside and went to bed and didn’t dream, and the next night I did the same, and the night after that.

It wasn’t enough, but it was something.


About the author

Amanda Leduc’s essays and stories have appeared in publications across Canada, the US, and the UK. Her novel, The Miracles Of Ordinary Men, was published in 2013 by Toronto’s ECW Press. She is the Non-Fiction Editor at Little Fiction | Big Truths and the Communications and Development Coordinator for the Festival of Literary Diversity. When not working (because who needs free time), she writes, reads, and procrastinates in Hamilton, Ontario.


Credits

BT #022 © 2017 Amanda Leduc

Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, January 2017. Cover design by Troy Palmer, using images from The Noun Project (credits: Wilson Joseph and Dilon Choudhury).

Read more stories and essays at littlefiction.com

Published in support of Bell Let’s Talk Day.