About the Author

Jackie Kai Ellis

Books by this Author
The Measure of My Powers

The Measure of My Powers

A Memoir of Food, Misery, and Paris
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The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
These were the two moments in my day I dreaded—no, I think “feared” is a better word—most: the moment just before sleep and the precise moment I woke up. The unnerving silence of those times. There were no busy sounds to distract me, and nothing to occupy my mind. They were the moments I would be forced to face my own tangled and disfigured mind, even though I wanted desperately to look away.

At night I would lie awake sometimes until the dark sky lightened into paler shades of dawn. My insides crawled and vibrated, panic hijacking hours that, for others, were filled with easy rest. Even when I did find sleep, usually on the couch with the artificial noises of late-night TV lulling me, it was never for very long.

In the morning my chest would clench and yearn for uncon­sciousness. I kept my eyes closed and my body still, like a corpse, in hopes that my fragile sleep wouldn’t leave me completely. I tried to remember the last lingering image, any residue of a dream, wanting it to pull me back for another moment or two, but I was always out of luck and would quickly realize the effort was in vain. I hadn’t dreamt in months. In the past, my dreams had been wild and vivid: full of colors, conversations, places, the feel of fabric between my fingertips, or even the faces of people I had long forgotten. I would dream of a friend’s hazel eyes speckled with rust, or of the fine hairs at the back of their neck that formed a V. But these dreams had stopped, and so had sleep, with rest­lessness replacing both almost entirely. I was abandoned and forced to be alive for another day, so I would relent and slowly open my eyes to my dark, damp bedroom.

Inhale. Exhale.

“I can do this. Just get through today . . . and then after today . . .” I paused to imagine what came next. There was only a repeating image of a lifeless routine that made me feel nauseated.

“Tomorrow it starts all over again.” Dread filled me. I closed my eyes again, sinking into myself, wishing I could cry, but mostly, that ability had abandoned me too. “I have to do this over and over again, and again, and again,” I thought to myself, G sprawled to my left, the sheets, humid from his sweat, covering me like thick, cold skin.

“When does this end?” Inhale. Exhale.

Light was so unbearable to G that he had dark blinds installed on every window in our two-bedroom apartment. Greater than his dislike for light, though, was his loathing of materialism and superfluous “things.” So there was no artwork on the walls of our room, there weren’t any family photos or night tables for them to sit on, only a bed and a generic Swedish floor lamp in the corner. And every single morning, I awoke in this beige room, with bare beige walls and carpets that were an ever-so-slightly lighter shade of beige. I opened my eyes to nothing but emptiness in an empty room, numb with only the feeling of moist blankets cradling me.

I pleaded silently to God, to anything that might help me. “All I need is one thing, one thing to focus on, one thing that will help me get through today. Anything. Please.”

I scanned through my day for something that might give me relief. Waking up. Showering. Getting dressed. Driving to work. Saying good morning to coworkers. Starting a new design account. Meetings. Lunch . . . maybe.

I decided on one of the few things that still made me smile: “I’ll eat a chocolate chip cookie.”

I sat up and headed to the shower. I dressed myself in opaque black tights and a baggy tweed skirt suit I bought from a store I frequented that catered to affluent seniors. I tied my black hair in a tight bun at the nape of my neck and put on my wire-framed glasses and a pair of pearl earrings I had received as a wedding gift from an uncle. I was careful to look polished so no one would suspect that I was actually breaking apart, but I was also purpose­fully unobtrusive so as not to draw too much attention. I drove to work in my reliable silver sedan, and after lunch, I sat at a café table while I savored each sweet bite of my chocolate chip cookie, taking time to sip black coffee between each morsel. For those minutes, there was nothing else, no one to please, nothing to prove, just a cookie and me.
In the months that followed, I felt myself become more numb. There were muffled sounds of laughter and life bus­tling all around me, and yet it felt like I was submerged deep underwater, separated and hearing only the sound of my own breath and my heart slowly beating. I lived in this isolated world, sometimes comforted by the imaginary cocoon that solitude cre­ated, but mostly feeling anxious and restless for anything but the stillness. I was desperate to escape the feeling, and the longer it continued, the more I fantasized about a world where not only did I not exist, but where I had never existed at all.

The first time this thought had crossed my mind was about seven years earlier. I was lying in bed on a sunny afternoon, having come home during summer break from art college across the country with an overwhelming sense of pressure closing in on me. I didn’t understand it completely—I didn’t know why I felt it at all. Perhaps I could sense that I had disappointed my parents with the career I had chosen, but I also knew that I hadn’t been something that I was told I was supposed to be. I simply didn’t know how. Feeling like a helpless failure, I toyed with the idea of death. But I didn’t want to disappoint my family even more than I felt I had already, and I imagined that suicide would be shame­ful and burdensome for them. I wanted to be eliminated from their memories entirely.

I pulled and straightened the blanket over my head, hiding and imagining myself disappearing.
“How perfect would it be if I never existed? I could escape all of this,” I whispered, the sheets resting lightly on my face. They smelled musty and comforting, like my parents’ home.

Years later, these seemingly innocent daydreams were replaced with invasive, surprising, flickering images. Every time I crossed the street, changed lanes, or drove through an intersection, I would see Mack trucks demolishing me. As I soaked in the tub, the image of my dead body in a bath of blood would appear in my mind, along with scenes of G discovering it and then having to making agonizing calls to my family.

When I was a young adult, my younger cousin C killed her­self. I overheard that when her parents had found her, in a base­ment room, there was blood everywhere. I caught a glimpse of the room later. The white linoleum floor was spotless, and I won­dered who had cleaned it. Over the years following, I continued to see the devastating impact on the entire family. I saw the light die in my uncle’s eyes, never to return. I understood that C didn’t foresee the pain she would cause in her family’s life by ending her own, but the memory of that time and the knowledge that I would hurt those I loved if I chose to leave it were the only things holding me to life, like a leash.

But still, when the sadness was too paralyzing and all I could see and feel was my own incessant pain, I just wanted relief. “I think the best way is to take pills, painless and peaceful,” I jour­naled one evening. “But there is always the fear of waking up and things being worse, like brain damage, paralysis. Slitting my wrists is also an option, only because I hate the idea of suffocation. But that is messy (the blood, G would have to clean it up). Hanging: not pretty; they will have too much to regret when pulling me down. I heard C took painkillers. I heard there was blood, but she did it. She was decisive, resolute and spent time saying goodbye. I could too. I could write letters.”

I resolved to make a better plan, one where my family wouldn’t have to find my dead body or clean up some morbid mess. My plan also needed to be foolproof; they couldn’t be burdened by the consequences of the plan backfiring. And, though I figured it wouldn’t be more than the pain I already felt, I didn’t want it to hurt a lot.

I began my research there and Googled “painless ways to kill yourself.” Diagrams, including medieval, gothic imagery flooded my screen. I clicked on a link for a forum topic: “Carbon monox­ide is often not as effective as commonly believed.” I educated myself on how catalytic converters decreased the levels of poison in exhaust and the increasingly popular “death by hibachi.” But then I read a comment that made my body go cold.

“Don’t do it, it’s not worth it.”

It wasn’t the truth of the statement that caught me off-guard; it was the unexpectedly banal stereotype that snapped me into a different consciousness. It reminded me of all those movies where someone is trying to talk an unstable person off a building’s ledge. Then it dawned on me that, in this scenario, I was the one on the edge of the cliché, and it all seemed laughable and then incredibly frightening when contrasted to the reality of how close I was to killing myself. I had to tell G.

“I looked up ways to kill myself today. I don’t think that’s normal.”

“No. Maybe you should go talk to someone. I’m not sure I can help you.”

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