a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
The Leaves by Caroline Funk (20, Ohio)*
[content warning: suicidal ideation, depression, death]
Shattered glass scatters the passenger seat. My window is smashed in, now an empty hole letting in the cool breeze of spring and the smell of flowers. The bass from my radio still pounds through my speakers. Loudly. I slam my hand down on the volume knob, wanting to shut off the melody that seemed so comforting only seconds ago. I hadn’t heard it in the moment, but now the crushing of metal and the screeching of tires skidding against asphalt seem to ring in my ears.
I just sit there. Maybe I should get out. Call 911. Do something. But my body is frozen. Time is moving faster than my thoughts, I see the shattered glass, I know what car accidents look like. But this doesn’t feel like one.
I’m sorry, Ethan.
Two Years Earlier
“Screw them,” Ethan spat out angrily, resting his head down in the field underneath our favorite oak tree as we stared at the clouds and felt the brisk cool of shade, “Pat’s Pizza just lost their most sophisticated and prized employee.” I dug my fingernails into the soil and felt the indents in the dirt.
Ethan’s been my best friend since kindergarten. I was wildly misanthropic for a child, and he was too awkward and shy to make any friends. We were both loners.
“I mean, I hardly showed up to work, but it’s not my fault when I have crippling mental health issues! If my boss thinks I dream of folding dough and spreading out tomato sauce while I’m filled with existential dread and debating the purpose of my existence, he is sorely mistaken.” Ethan gave me a strange side glare. He knows I joke about my depression, but I think bringing it up is a reminder that he’s always going to have to deal with that part of me that’s broken.
“Stella, you know it’s not just because of that. You dropped a pizza onto the floor, picked it up, and served it to the next customers in line with your boss standing right there.”
“I would’ve eaten it! I’m supposed to throw away a perfectly good pizza?”
In elementary school, Ethan used to wear his Harry Potter costume glasses to school everyday, which I thought was awesome but apparently other people thought was dorky. Some kids from our class thought it would be funny to snap the glasses in two. When I found him, he was curled up into a ball, underneath an old oak tree near the school playground, crying into his lap. I reached out my hand to help him up, decided that maybe there were a few good, Harry Potter-loving people out there after all, and our friendship commenced. The tree has now kind of become our spot.
Frustration and rage drowned out Ethan’s words as he rambled on about how I was going to find a new job. I could still hear the sneer voice of my boss berating me like I was some useless child as I jolted up from the ground, stretched my arms out wide, felt my hair flap through the spring breeze, and prayed no one around heard me. And then I screamed. I screamed until my throat felt scratchy. I screamed until the explosive rage subsided into a tiny bubbling. After a couple minutes, Ethan stopped talking, got up and stood alongside me, and joined. I screamed until our voices overlapped and our joint, shrieking howl echoed through the air.
“I’ve always felt there was something so cathartic about screaming,” he said.
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Well, not just the screaming.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, the release of anger is great. But there’s something else too, something about it being outside. I don’t know. It’s like my voice gets to become one with the air. Like just sitting here, I feel like I’m a part of the soil beneath us and the roots planted under the ground and the tree that it sprouts into. Like maybe if I say words out loud, the sound will make them real. They’re not just a thought in my head; they’ll get to travel through the atmosphere, and I’ll get to say I was a part of this.”
“Well, if you’re connected to the air and the ground and the trees, then I am too.”
“Maybe that makes us connected to each other too.”
“So what, we’re a part of nature now? Stella, are we literal trees?”
I laughed and let my voice echo across the field again.
“I don’t know, maybe. I mean, is it so crazy to think that whatever soul or life that’s powering us isn’t in that oak tree too?” I traced my hand up and down the trunk where I first found him, grazed the bark of our meeting place and source of shade and comfort for years.
“Well, if you’re saying we’re actual trees now, I want to be the leaves.” He looked up at the branches above us. “I mean look at the way they scatter and sprout all over, like little buckets of life. They’re just so beautiful.”
And so we lied here, looking up at the leaves and branches that intersected the billowing clouds, and felt connected to each other and to everything.
One day before
I don’t know why, but I’ve always felt everything a little too strongly. I cry too hard at movies, laugh too loud at jokes, yell out into the void for a little too long when I lose my job. My therapist Dana tells me that my emotions are valid, that it’s better to feel them than to pretend they aren’t there. Which I get, but what Dana forgets is that it's agonizingly exhausting feeling everything all the time.
My brain was churning, thinking of all the reasons why I was too useless to deserve a job, too selfish to deserve a friend as good as Ethan, why I ruined everything I touched, why I’d be better off sleeping for a long time so that there were no messes for me to make or problems for me to cause. Think of a distraction, I told myself. I knew how this ended. When I get in moods like this, I like to call them black holes because they come out of nowhere and expand, suck up everything they can find, until my brain is one giant cave of perpetual darkness.
I went back to our field, alone this time. The blue light of my phone screen glowed, and I squinted my eyes to read the notification that popped up. Eight missed texts from Ethan:
hey, u free?
wanna meet at our spot in 10?
When I get like this, it’s easier to be by myself. He knows when I don’t reply that the black hole is taking over. And I know that it gets to him whenever I shut him out, that a good friend would reach out and confide in him. But I’m not a very good friend.
sorry. too much homework. another time for sure.
I put my phone back in my pocket and laid down the second my feet hit the soil. Cars sped by—forces of flashing movement—but I turned my back to them to look at the overhang of trees intersecting the emanating starlight. The black hole in my brain expanded. The chaos reverberated in my head, but the trees hung over me like arms reaching in for a hug. I remembered the leaves, how beautiful Ethan found them, and let them whisper reminders to me. You are really here. You are held to the earth. You will be okay.
Thirty minutes before
3:30 PM. The cars lined up bumper to bumper, desperate to leave the prison-like cinder-block walls and fluorescent-lit hallways of high school. My knee bounced up and down in anticipation as I waited for each car to slowly creep forward out of the lot when the passenger door suddenly swung open and slammed shut. Ethan popped into the seat.
“Hey, you were going to leave without me?” I tried to ignore the genuine hurt weaved into his voice.
“Sorry, I forgot I was giving you a ride.”
“Second time you’ve blown me off in the past 24 hours. You definitely are a handful, Stel.” He said it as a joke. I didn’t laugh.
We sat in silence. I was too afraid to face the guilt and apologize; he was probably too afraid that he’d say one thing and my poor, emotion-ridden self would shatter into pieces. The cars inched forward. The minutes passed. Life continued.
“I know you went to our spot without me last night.” Ethan broke the silence, tucking a curl behind his ear. “I drove there anyway to go alone, until I saw you there and turned around.” The guilt bubbled in my stomach. I pushed it down. “Look, I know that it’s not your fault when you get like this, and that me bringing it up only makes it worse. But I want to spend time with my best friend. I don’t want to be put on hold when you don’t feel like talking to people. And I can’t just be cool with my best friend lying to me.”
“I know. I’m sorry.” I could feel the emotions building. If I let even one in, even one ounce of guilt or shame or sorrow, it was all going to come tumbling out.
“That’s it? Sorry doesn’t really cut it right now.”
“Okay.” My emotions teetered like a towering pile of books. Every word was another book added to the stack, tilting further and further, on the verge of collapse.
“Seriously? God, I know you can’t help it but you could at least pretend like you care. It’s really hard to have to be your shrink and try and fix you and get nothing back in return.”
Ethan kicked the stack down and sent the books plummeting.
“I get it okay!? It’s exhausting to be friends with me! I’m the worst and I can’t control how I feel and I’m a dread to be around. But I can’t be fixed.”
“I didn’t mean fix—I just—”
I didn’t let him finish.
“I’m better off on my own anyway. It’s not like I need you as a friend or anything. So feel free to leave me alone because it’s clearly easier for you.”
“You still make it all about you, don’t you.” Ethan slammed the door behind him. Books were pouring like rain now. They were burying me, suffocating me, piling up above my waist, chest, shoulders, eyeline, until I couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe. The cars poured out of the lot as I got up to the main road, but all I could hear was my heart pounding, and all I could see were the books drowning me until a car that I hadn’t seen flashed in front of me.
Blackness enveloped me.
My arms are still shaking from shock. I know that I should stay in my seat until an ambulance gets here, maybe call my dad and tell him what happened and that I’m fine.
But all I can seem to do is replay my conversation with Ethan over and over.
The passenger seat door is smashed in, a hole punched into the center. The flow of traffic I was once driving through now rushes past behind me. My car feels lopsided from the uneven ground below. I look up and over my dashboard, out of the half-broken window to see where I’ve ended up.
Our field. My car spun into me and Ethan’s field, a few feet in front of our oak tree. I can feel a black hole contracting in the pit of my stomach, threatening to expand, so I get out of the car, slamming the door into the heap of crushed metal and exposed wire that was once my beloved 2015 Toyota Corolla.
I lie down next to the smoking car, still smelling the burnt rubber of tire, and look up at the sky. The trees arch upward, like arms reaching for the clouds, branches intersecting the downward pour of golden sunlight. I feel the matted grass below me and for a second, the ground is so comforting I almost feel like I’m tucked up in bed, moments from drifting off to sleep.
The rich smell of soil is fresh and awakening. The air is clear. Every inhalation is a medicine cleansing my thoughts and relaxing my shoulders. I can hear crickets chirping in the distance, I can see birds swooping above me from tree to tree, but other than that I am alone. I pull at strands of grass and rub the blades between my fingers. The hunk of metal now behind me is a crumb in the green abyss of grass and leaves and stems and branches and the chatter of bugs and birds and the dome of blue that is the endless expanse of sky. The black hole shrivels down to nothing.
Everything around me feels connected: I can’t tell where my body ends and the grass begins. My limbs are roots buried in the ground, sprouting into a stem of wood and oak and exploding into a bushel of leaves that look out over the field.
And as I sit here, at one with the world around me, I know he’ll come and find me here. He’ll come back to the place where we met, where we always reconnect, where we remind ourselves that the same energy is everywhere and within each of us and that, no matter how badly we may want to or try to, we could never detach ourselves from one another. And if my limbs are the branches of the trees hanging above me, I know that he will be the leaves.
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* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.