Monday, May 12, 2014

Chapter 19

My high school years are filled with solitary terror, like sailing alone in a small boat across a stormy sea. Like most teenagers I want to be unique and special - preferably in a grandiose sort of way, like a leader of an uprising - but I am tormented by doubts that I have what it takes to be unique and special. I am especially fearful of ending up like the people in my parent's generation: mere cogs in the socialist meat grinder, which turns individuals into a "mass" or "class" to be molded into some sort of "new humanity", devoid of the selfish, materialistic impulses of people in capitalist societies.

I see people in mind-numbing, life-long jobs, coming home to their families cramped into tiny apartments in non-descriptive housing projects aptly named "ant hills" - sometimes 3 generations occupying 400-600 square feet of a concrete cube along a corridor on the nth floor of a huge box containing hundreds of such cubes. Their lives are terribly mundane, proscribed, predictable, and dull.  Their dreams are reduced by all this oppressive dullness to desiring material things that are so unattainable as to seem worthy lifetime goals: a concrete cube of one's own (if still living with parents or in-laws at the age of thirty - a common predicament); a car (the tiny, unreliable Fiat produced by a state-owned factory, with a waiting list of several years);  a furniture set; a front-loaded washer.

The prospect of ending up like that scares the living daylight out of me, but I have very little evidence that my life will be different. It is depressing. All around me I see people resigned to their fates, convinced that this is normal, the only way to live.  Scary thing is, they may be right. I feel like a caged animal, with the painful consciousness that I was born in a cage and will die in a cage. I dull my anxiety with alcohol and chain smoking. Obtaining alcohol at the age of sixteen can be a difficult task, but not insurmountable. Some of us are starting to get facial hair, which makes us look older. I do not have that advantage, but with my recently discovered acting abilities I can emulate the confidence of an adult; strangely, it works most of the times, but I am probably giving myself too much credit. The laws against selling alcohol to minors are just another of many examples of laws that are rarely enforced and widely ignored; if anything, it is the personal conscience of an occasional store clerk that sometimes sends me out the door empty-handed.  I quickly learn which ones to avoid.

The same with cigarettes. Our brands of choice are, not surprisingly, the cheapest ones: "Sport" and "Extra Strong".  The former are especially vile; it is impossible to tell whether they contain tobacco or any other shredded plant.  The suspicion that this is not tobacco becomes stronger every time one finds a large wood splinter in one of them  (not uncommon). The jokers say that "Sport" is made at the end of every shift, from what falls on the floor all day long and ends up in the janitor's dustbin; the pieces of wood are splinters from that factory floor. There may be some truth to that, but the popularity of that brand would overwhelm even the most frequent sweeping. Perhaps my Grandma is right and they use carrot greens instead.

By the time I'm eighteen I smoke a pack a day. Everybody smokes.  Our high school restrooms are so filled with cigarette smoke during recess, one can hardly see. One day I am standing at the urinal, cigarette hanging from my lips, so focused on the act of peeing that I do not notice that the restroom becomes eerily quiet. I feel a light tap on my shoulder and, without looking back, I hand over my cigarette with, "Have a drag, but don't wet it with your spit." When I turn around, zipping up my fly, I find myself face to face with the vice principal holding my smoldering cigarette between his thumb and forefinger. Luckily, he is amused rather than angered by my confusion and utter surprise, so he just wags his finger at me sternly and confiscates my almost-full pack. The rest of the school will learn of this encounter in no time at all and I will hear the story repeated ad nauseam, but no more serious consequences follow.

There are two things I do not know at that time (among many others): that I suffer from depression, and that alcohol, while appearing to temporarily help,  makes that worse. One night I meet with a friend, from the now defunct amateur theater, in a local cafe. We order a bottle of Coca Cola and two glasses. We pour the Coke into the glasses and I top it off with cheap vodka I am hiding in my backpack, making sure that the waitress does not see that. We keep drinking that way, ordering two more Cokes and giggling at the confused expression of the waitress, who can't quite figure out why we appear to be getting drunk on a common soft drink.

We still have some of the vodka left when I decide I had enough.  Alcohol does not agree with me and I vomit violently on my way home. It makes me feel a bit better and I do get home. My parents are watching TV behind closed doors and my sister is reading in bed.  I go to my room and decide to put in motion the plan I hatched just weeks ago - killing myself.

In a country as inebriated as Poland in the 1970s deaths from alcohol poisoning are not uncommon. Newspapers and television give grim reports of people dying after ingesting methanol - usually moonshine that is not properly distilled - or simply drinking too much ethanol (the "good" stuff). The latter reports often include the blood level of alcohol of the deceased. From that I learn that the percentages are rather tiny - less then half a percent is likely to cause death. I am obviously unable to drink enough alcohol to achieve lethal level, but what if I were to put alcohol directly into my blood? Much smaller amounts would be required. I want to die but I'm scared of pain, so this seems like an easy, almost pleasant way to go.

I calculate the amount of alcohol to be added to the bloodstream of an average person, and it turns out that one medium syringe would be enough. I fill a syringe I stole from my stepmother (a nurse) with the leftover vodka, and give myself an injection in the vein of my forearm. (I will later be complimented by a nurse in the ER for having found the vein on my first try, without any prior experience whatsoever.) The vodka burns my vein like hell, so I manage to squeeze in only half of the planned amount, but I figure I probably overestimated, so I lie down and prepare to die.

It occurs to me that, having written no suicide note,  I should at least let my sister know what's about to happen. I stagger into her room and drunkenly explain the situation, showing her the half-filled syringe.  I just want her to know, is all. She, of course, freaks out and tells my parents.  Ambulance is called and I'm taken to the ER, drifting in and out of consciousness. My life is not in any danger - I am just very, very drunk.

The ER nurse has me drink cup after cup of warm tap water, until I vomit. She administers that treatment three or four times until I puke back only the clear water - nothing else left in my stomach. (I will use that technique of "stomach flushing" in later years for food and alcohol poisoning. It's simple and effective.) I am given an appointment with a psychologist and sent home with my parents. I am not disappointed to still be alive, but I am a bit angry at myself for causing such a turmoil for what turned out to be a silly, drunken gesture.  I resolve to never do that again; either I will make sure that I die at the end, or not try at all - it's just too embarrassing.  Also, killing oneself is much harder than it appears in books an movies.