“Let’s do prank calls.”
I was feeling rather bored at a seventh grade sleepover birthday party, and I realized I would have to be the one to add some excitement.
“Okay,” said the birthday boy as he left the room.
He came back a minute later carrying a phonebook. He pushed it in my direction, smirking.
“You first,” he said.
“Fine,” I replied, confidently.
I thumbed through the phonebook until I found the number for Taco Bell.
I dialed the number and waited for someone to answer.
“Taco Bell,” the voice announced.
“Hello, sir,” I chirped. “I just bought a cheesy bean and rice burrito, and I wanted to let you know that when I bit in, I found a finger inside.”
“A finger,” I started to giggle.
“Fuck off, kid. Get a life.”
“Asshole,” I said into the dial tone, proud of my new vocabulary.
“My turn,” said the birthday boy, as he grabbed the phone and dialed the phone number to the local hip-hop station.
“I’d like to hear Barry Manilow, please.”
He called again requesting Elton John, and then he called again requesting a Quaker hymn we were being made to sing in our middle school chorus.
He decided to stop calling after the person on the line said he’d call the police should he callagain.
We went around the room, each person trying to upstage the person who had gone before.
It became my turn again, and I decided my time had come to take the cake.
I wanted to be funny, and I wanted to be the one who was unafraid.
So, I decided to prank call the mayor. I picked up the phone and dialed. When I got the voicemail of the mayor’s office, I screeched into the phone with a bizarre Staten Island accent about some fictional school, “MY DAWTA TELLS ME THE GYM TEACHA GETS A LITTLE TOO CLOSE DURING WIFFLE BALL. IS THIS TRUE?”
The other boys were laughing, so I hung up, fearing they might be heard in the background.
A wave of anxiety washed over me, as I realized I had made a devastating mistake.
I’d forgotten to press *67, and, now I had a very strong feeling I was fucked.
As soon as I woke up I could tell something was wrong.
Almost immediately, the birthday boy’s dad came into the room.
“The mayor just called,” he said. “Apparently a ‘frantic woman’ left a message on his voicemail complaining about a gym teacher making her daughter uncomfortable.”
He stared at me while he said this, and I knew I’d been caught. Someone had snitched.
“I’m calling all of your parents,” he said. “Unless someone owns up to it.”
“I did it,” I begrudgingly said, furious that I should be the only one to get in trouble when everyone else had been along for the ride.
We all gathered our stuff and headed home. I was only a block away from my house, but that short distance felt like an eternity as I dragged my feet as slowly as possible. It was the dead of January, and the street was covered in ice. My feet made loud scraping sounds as I dug them into the earth, anxiously resisting my own steps toward home.
Fear outweighed defiance; much sooner than I would have liked, I arrived at my front door.
My mom and dad were waiting.
“Sit down,” my dad said.
“It wasn’t just me,” I whined before even allowing them to begin lecturing. “We were all making prank calls.”
“But you were the one who took it too far,” my dad said.
“You don’t even know what the other kids were saying!” I tried to argue. “They just didn’t get caught!”
“No one else called the mayor,” he said. “What were you thinking? You’re smarter than this. This is humiliating for you and for us.”
“I didn’t think it was that big of a deal,” I lied.
In actuality, I didn’t think that I would get busted.
“You need to call the mayor and apologize,” my dad said.
“When?” I whined.
“Give it a day,” he said.
I went up to my room to sulk. I was going to lie down, when suddenly a strange idea crept into my head.
No, I thought. No.
I kept trying to push this peculiar thought out of my head; I wanted the idea to go away. Yet, it was only becoming stronger.
I’d been reading Riding in Cars with Boys, and was fascinated by the scene where Beverly Donofrio describes slowly swallowing a bottle of pills.
I can do that too, I thought. I can cry out for help, and no one will be mad at me because they’ll know I’m hurting, too. They’ll know I’m not just cruel and bad.
I took a deep breath and looked at myself in the mirror. I locked my gaze upon the reflection of my own brown eyes.
I waited for my heart to palpitate; I expected tears to pour out as I apologized to myself for even thinking about inflicting self-harm.
I thought about the gravity of what could happen: I could get hurt; I could die.
I waited for myself to back out, but I didn’t.
I felt apathetic.
Maybe I really can do this; maybe I will.
I crept down the stairs to the kitchen and poured Sprite into a glass. Walking over to the fridge, I reached up and grabbed a bottle of blue raspberry syrup. I poured the syrup into my cup and got a curly straw from the cupboard.
With my blue Shirley Temple in tow, I walked back up the stairs.
With each step, the idea became more real; I felt a strange wave of glee, and then an eerie calm.
This is a good solution, I thought. It will make people understand how I feel.
Once back in my room, I took my bottle of Zoloft off the dresser. As I removed each pill, one by one, I thought about what I was about to do. I didn’t know what overdosing on Zoloft might do to my body. I was surprised at how little I cared.
I swallowed each pill individually, and took a sip of my mocktail to wash each down my throat.
The drink, and the straw felt so juvenile, while the action felt so adult.
After swallowing twenty pills, the thought suddenly struck that perhaps I wouldn’t be able to come back from this. I suddenly remembered all the stories I’d ever heard of celebrities dying from drug overdoses.
Images of Elvis on a toilet, and Marilyn Monroe in a coffin flashed into my mind.
I thought of Virginia Woolf at the bottom of a river, and Sylvia Plath in her kitchen full of gas.
I couldn’t help but wonder if they had also gone into it not planning to go all the way.
I sprinted downstairs to the living room, where my mom and dad were sitting on a couch, ever unsuspecting.
“I just took twenty pills,” I sobbed.
“What!” my mom shrieked. “Of what?”
“Zoloft,” I babbled.
“Take him to the emergency room,” my mom screamed to my dad.
My dad dragged me to the car.
On the ride to the hospital, I couldn’t stop crying like a baby, and never stopped gripping my dad’s arm.
Where I had just felt so rebellious moments before, I was now so aware of my age, of my youth.
I started to think of all that I might lose.
I was only 13.
At the hospital I lay in a bed in a little room by myself. One of the nurses happened to be the mother of one of my fifth grade classmates. I was bothered that she knew my secret.
A different nurse came in and handed me a Styrofoam cup full of liquid charcoal.
“Drink it all,” she said, coldly.
It was gritty and jet-black, like wet tar. I chugged it and almost immediately spewed midnight- colored vomit all over the white linoleum floors.
“Is that supposed to happen?” my dad asked when the nurse walked in and saw the mess splattered across the room.
She drew a tight breath.
“That’s one way to get it out.”
Scoop. Drop. Drop. Drop. Scoop. Drop. Drop. Eye contact. Silence.
My therapist, Lisa, and I were attempting to amend our relationship. To say that we had started off on the wrong foot would be beyond an understatement. During sessions with my whole family, no matter what the initial topic, the discussion would end with me furiously yelling at Lisa after her questionably intentional provocation.
As a result, I’d refused to go back to her.
Now, because of the pill incident, I found myself in Lisa’s office playing Mancala.
I had already convinced the nurses, doctors, psychiatrists and my parents that my mass swallowing of pills was not an actual suicide attempt, but rather a cry for help.
That reality is easiest for everyone, I thought. Though I am not quite so sure anymore what is true and what is false.
“So why did you do it?” she asked.
The truth was that I really did not know how to verbalize the turmoil within my body, the shaking within my soul. I was not completely miserable, and I didn’t actually want to be dead, I now realized.
The thought of people thinking I was suicidal made me quite uncomfortable. While other kids in my class had begun wearing all black and cutting their wrists, purposefully allowing their wounds to show, I wore Abercrombie and ran cross-country.
But, secretly I knew, we were not so different.
Part of me was jealous of their ability to outwardly cry for help; to announce they were not okay.
I was much too interested in mainstream acceptance to be so outward. I tried to keep my suffering to myself.
Yet, something inside of me was off. When little things went wrong, I had extreme reactions. I threw things; I burst into tears. I was so sensitive.
“Do you think you’re unhappy with something about yourself?” she asked.
This was not a question I was unfamiliar with. Whenever I seemed to get upset with anyone I always waited for this question – from my parents, teachers, aunts.
Just ask the question already, I thought. Just ask me if I am gay.
And weirdly, unlike most people who strayed away from the question, she asked.
“Do you think you’re gay?”
“Yes,” I responded, marking the first time I had ever said it aloud.
“When did you realize?” she asked.
“Do you not want to talk about it?”
“Nope,” I responded.
So it was done: The question had been asked, the answer given.
I had verbalized why I was so unhappy. But, that didn’t make me feel any better.
I had given life to my greatest fear: Having said it aloud, I knew I was truly gay; it would never go away.
I was a gay 13-year- old in a place that was neither especially progressive nor oppressive.
I was so scared to embody my sexuality.
I didn’t want to pretend to like girls, so I decided I wouldn’t.
I just wouldn’t talk about it all.
And so it would be, for the next few years, until I could run off to New York or Paris, some city where I could get lost in the liberal fabric, that I would handle this topic in the same way that I handled the pauses between the scoops and drops of Mancala turns with Lisa; I would handle it with silence.
This chapter is included in Seamus Kirst’s memoir, Shitfaced: Musings of a Former Drunk.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.