Content warning: This piece deals with issues of self-harm and suicide.
Every Thursday morning at 11 o’clock, I meet my older brother in the lobby of my Barnard dorm, and we get an early lunch. Usually I greet him with a remark designed to be annoying, like, “You’re not going to believe what happened to me this week,” and he rolls his eyes. Most weeks, he has a cough—things haven’t been right with his sinuses for years, not even after the deviated septum operation. We walk to Nussbaum & Wu, where he gets a corn muffin and I get an everything bagel, no cream cheese, no lox. If it’s nice out, we’ll head back to campus and sit on Low Steps for an hour, catching up and getting crumbs everywhere. Sam’s my best friend, and during these early lunches I tell him everything, whether he likes it or not. Then, he heads back up to Yankee Stadium for work.
But it wasn’t always like this.
The men in my family have always been wrestlers, and good ones at that. My uncles were stars on the national circuit in college, and my dad did alright. Sam took after them—he was an athletic kid, and everybody knew there was something special about him from the moment he first took to the mat at age eight. There’s a home movie stored somewhere of him sparring, a tiny, wiry kid in thick, nerdy goggles that suggested he was brainy, too.
Off the mat, fitting in appeared to come easily to him, and it seemed he had the talent for happiness that I lacked. Where Sam was witty and likable, I was earnest and pretentious, moody and worry-prone in a way other kids often found off-putting.
Three-and-a-half years younger, I wanted to be just like Sam. I would press my ear to his bedroom door at night, so I could catch snippets of the advanced chapter books our parents said I was too young for, forever badger him to teach me how to play video games, how to tie my shoes, and, when we were older, how to dress on the first day of middle school so that nobody would make fun of my slip-on sneakers. I worshipped him.
The more desperately I craved his approval, the more cruelly he treated me, calling me sensitive and stupid and pinching my forearms until I howled. The more cruelly he treated me, the more committed I became to annoying him. It seemed the most expedient way to get his attention.
As we grew older, the hallway wall outside our bedrooms began to fill up with pictures of Sam that had made it into the local paper. There he was, winning his 100th match. There he was, a National Merit Scholarship Semifinalist. The day I noticed that there weren’t any photos of me on the wall, I was 12. “When you do something that gets you in the paper, we’ll put it up there, too,” Mom said, pulling me into a hug, stroking my hair, and making maternal, comforting sounds. I’m sure she didn’t mean to say something I’d never forget, but that’s how parents are. I pulled away. We drove to another of my brother’s matches.
At the match, I sat in the stands, a hard little nugget of misery and spite nestled between my cheering parents, and watched my brother win again. I hated him. I wished I were him, or that I were me but different, better, or older, and far away from my New Jersey hometown. I looked at my parents, at the rest of the fans in the gym. I hated them all. I tried to wall myself off from it, and I started cheering, too. For years, that was how it was.
When Sam was 17 and I was 13, he scored a perfect 2400 on the SAT. A few weeks later, I received a 74 percent on a history test. I hadn’t studied for it. I wanted them—him, my parents—to pay attention.
Mom and Dad printed out Sam’s SAT result and hung it in the kitchen. They weren’t mad at me, they said, just confused and disappointed. “I’m happy as long as I know you’re doing your best,” Mom said, back to the sink. I couldn’t look at her, didn’t believe her. This didn’t feel like what I’d wanted. “I know you can do better.”
Hunched over the kitchen table, my brother shoveled carefully portioned skinless chicken into his mouth—he was cutting weight again—and rolled his eyes. He’d always seen through this sort of behavior from me. Nine months later, he committed to wrestle at Harvard.
Anxiety and depression, those good-time twins, arrived early and found a welcoming host in me. I don’t know how to say this. I’m just saying it.
My first episode, when I was 17: I remember the way dissociation made my face in the mirror feel like somebody else’s, the way I woke up every morning full of dread, and the way I felt, always, like I was 11 once more and wearing the wrong shoes. I believed every terrible thing my brother had said about me when we were kids.
It shouldn’t take a Harvard-educated genius to figure out the reason I shielded my parents from the worst of what I was feeling, but once my roommate found out that I’d been cutting, there could be no keeping secrets from the people who loved me anymore.
In the popular imagination, the girl who cuts is a gloomy mess who does what she does to get attention, a bold and unacceptable gambit. Her pain is exaggerated or made up. And to people who don’t know much about it, suicide seems the ultimate grab for attention. It’s true that I wanted attention, but that isn’t quite the reason I cut—often, it was something I did instead of killing myself.
I hid my cuts, but the blood carried a message: See me. Listen. Really listen.
The day after my roommate discovered my secret, I sat in Riverside Park and called my therapist. Then I called my mother. How to explain the urge to self-destruct to the person who created you? “I see now that I wasn’t—it wasn’t the right way to deal with things, Mom,” I said. “I know that. I’m not going to do it again.”
“How do you know you won’t?” she said. “Michelle, I’m very worried. I don’t know how to help you.” She sighed. “I just want to help you.” I imagined a mother who’d cry while having this conversation. She didn’t sound as desperate as she might have. But perhaps I was not being fair.
Through the fog, across the Hudson, I saw New Jersey, dark and bulky. I imagined her as she must have been at that moment, sitting in her bedroom or standing by the window in the kitchen. She’d stood there most afternoons when I was younger, watching, waiting for me to get off of the schoolbus.
That night, sitting on the edge of the bathtub, I killed the bathroom light, and I cut. But it was for the last time.
For the first time, Sam was far from home. In high school, his wrestling career hadn’t been easy. There were all his injuries, and then there was the deviated septum surgery.He never made it to the regional finals. But at Harvard, his performance was underwhelming from the start. He wasn’t team captain anymore—he wasn’t even a starter. He became close friends with his roommates and teammates, but those relationships were nothing like the ones he’d built with the high school classmates who’d known him since he was a tiny, wiry kid in thick glasses. The team took up all of his time, and he had little energy to spare on friends and classes and his dramatic, annoying younger sister.
When we talk about this period now, it’s easy for Sam to identify what his problem was. “I was pretty miserable,” he says, and we laugh. I’m not sure why we laugh.
When I was 16 and he was 20, Sam passed out at practice. The diagnosis: a concussion. He never wrestled again.
The day he quit the team, he tells me now, life got better. Just like that.
During my first year at Barnard, Sam had accepted an offer to work at a tech company in San Francisco—one of the big ones—but he wasn’t happy there. For years he’d wanted to work in sports analytics, using his beautiful mind to make baseball teams better, crunching numbers and coding. In the months before his graduation from Harvard, accepting a position at Microsoft had seemed like a safer choice than continuing to seek one of the few baseball analytics positions that exist.
But it didn’t take long for Sam to realize that moving across the country had been a mistake. He knew hardly anyone in San Francisco, and he wasn’t doing the kind of work he’d wanted to. This was a different sort of loneliness from anything he’d experienced before he’d stopped wrestling at Harvard.
I don’t remember whether we acknowledged the new routine, but we began to talk on the phone each week. We didn’t talk much about my depression or his loneliness or the progress of my treatment. We talked about Game of Thrones, and he told me stories about his high school friends that he’d never shared when we were younger. When, after a few months of these calls, I began to speak about my depression, I could feel him listening. Really listening.
Every Sunday evening, he Skyped my parents. Home for spring break, I sat in their robin-egg-blue bedroom, looking down at my phone and occasionally contributing to the conversation. I couldn’t talk to Sam in front of my parents the way I could when it was just the two of us. His face on the computer screen was huge and pixelated, and he seemed so far away. Something occurred to me: It wasn’t just my brother I wanted back on the East Coast. It was my friend, maybe even my best friend..
“Do you think coming home would make you happy?” Mom was saying, brow furrowed.
Sam sighed. “I don’t think I’d be happy anywhere.”
That was it—the thought I’d had so many times, the talent I felt I’d never develop, the idea I kept returning to even as my condition improved. And my brother, the brain, with all his perfect easy grace, felt it too.
After that, I don’t remember getting better—I know I worked hard, but mostly it seems like it just happened. That’s often the nature of the beast, my therapist says. I had a life all newly built. Just like that.
After a year in San Francisco, my brother got a job with the Yankees—the kind of job he’d wanted—and moved to New York. He lives with a high school friend in the Financial District, and they fret about work and grad school applications and dates with Bumble girls. Typical roommate stuff. He hasn’t told me he’s happy here, but I can tell. After all, he’s my best friend.
Every Thursday morning, he takes the 2 train to Morningside Heights to meet with a consultant for work. When the meeting’s over, he walks over to my dorm. We walk to Nussbaum & Wu. He gets a corn muffin, and I get a bagel. We sit on Low Steps and talk, pausing only for Sam to blow his nose. His sinuses never did recover. After an hour, we walk to the Amsterdam gate and say goodbye.
When I get nervous flirting at Bernheim & Schwartz, and on the now-rare days when anxiety makes me feel my body’s not my own, it is still my brother’s voice I hear in my head. It tells me I am unlikable, too much in all the wrong ways and not enough in the worst ones, too sensitive, too effusive, making it all up just to get attention. I have to remind myself that it isn’t like that anymore. We aren’t like that.
Backpack heavy with laptop and notebooks, Sam walks toward Central Park West and the B/C subway line, and I return to my dorm room on 116th Street. I have been happy here. After I graduate this May, I’ll take down the decorations I’ve put up on my walls—photos of my friends from our spring break trip to Austin, the Klimt poster my friend Hannah helped me pick out at the Neue Galerie. I hope to stay in New York after graduation.
On weekends, I’ll take the train across the river to Millburn, New Jersey. Mom’s promised to teach me how to knit—I want to make a scarf for her like the one she knit for me last winter. Sam and I have plans to arrange a weekly dinner. Wherever I end up, I will take what I know about love. I will build a new world.
And if anybody asks me how I did it, I’ll say I learned from watching my big brother.
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