He died after just three days. The eleven-and-a-half-foot great white shark was caught off the coast of Japan and taken to the Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium on January 5, 2016. During his captivity, he refused to eat and smashed his body against the walls. On the third day, he sank to the bottom of the tank and the staff could not revive him. I wonder what it must’ve been like for that shark, used to the silence and expanse of the ocean, to be imprisoned behind glass, barraged with the incessant chattering of humans and their gawking faces and pointing fingers, the clicking and flashing of their cameras. What other form of escape did he have?
In December of 2016, I spent four days under suicide watch at Metropolitan Hospital in New York City. If I had known that calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline meant involuntary admission to the nearest psych ward, I never would have called. Cutting is a walk on a tightrope. One slip and it’s all over. Dangerous, I know, but when I slice into my own skin, I am god, and fuck, does having that kind of power feel good. There is a difference between the desire to cut myself and the desire to kill myself. The trouble is they sometimes overlap, crashing into each other like rolling waves.
I called the hotline because in that particular moment, both waves were sweeping me under. It wasn’t that I had cut myself too deep and was unable to stop the bleeding. It was that even after making over two dozen cuts along my forearm, I still wanted more. The god inside me was angry, and she demanded I continue the blood sacrifice. The voice on the other end of that hotline became my life preserver, and I grabbed on until I was able to find my breath again.
“Thank you for talking to me,” I said. “I think I’m okay now.”
I set down the dripping razor blade and stared at the red streaks on my arm outlined in purple bruises.
“I need to send someone to check on you,” the voice said. “I’m not feeling suicidal anymore,” I replied.
And it was true. The waters calmed. The blood running down my arm appeased the voice in my head telling me to kill myself. I had bled enough. For now.
“I’d feel better if someone could just check on you,” the voice urged. “But don’t worry, they won’t take you to the hospital.”
“We are legally obligated to take you to the hospital,” the female EMT said in a monotone voice. Her partner yawned so wide I could see the black fillings in his molars. Two police officers stood further back in the doorway. One was on his phone. The other stared at me with something like disdain, like how dare I waste his time and the taxpayers’ money.
“The hotline said you were just going to check on me. I don’t want to go anywhere.”
Officer One shifted his eyes to Officer Two. I eyed the guns holstered to their hips.
“Well, you did cut yourself,” the female EMT said, “and like I just said, we are legally obligated to take you.”
They all took a step closer, spreading out to form a semicircle around me. I was escorted out of my apartment and into an ambulance, buckled in, and driven to Metropolitan Hospital. Over the next five hours, I was poked and prodded, told to pee in a cup, asked if I heard voices or felt homicidal, had ever taken drugs, or was on drugs right now.
“No, no, no, and no.”
At dawn, when I asked again if I could leave, they handed me a one-page document titled “Notice of Status and Rights Emergency Admission.”
It basically boils down to this: you have none.
According to an article in Psychology Today, sharks do not feel pain. At least, not in the same way humans and other animals do. Nociceptors—receptors that register tissue damage, heat, and pressure—are not present in sharks, and they do not seem to respond to painful stimuli. For example, hammerhead sharks regularly eat stingrays and have been found with as many as 96 barbs embedded in their mouths. Treatment for stung humans includes soaking the wound in lidocaine, and even then the pain may still be so extreme that “a regional nerve block may be needed.” Wimpy humans, the hammerhead must think. Whalers have also reported seeing sharks continue feeding after being bitten or even disemboweled by other sharks.
It seems that on every level sharks were designed to make things bleed. Great whites have up to five rows of developing teeth lining their jaws, and over a lifetime, they will grow and lose close to 30,000. What are sharks if not cold-blooded killers? But perhaps they are more complicated than their outward physiology suggests. Is it anthropomorphizing them too much to suggest that sharks have the capacity to feel anger, frustration, distress, despair? The tank in Okinawa was clean, kept at a comfortable temperature, and pumped with the right levels of oxygen. The shark was given plenty of food. So what other reason would he have to sink to the bottom of the tank and refuse to swim, if it wasn’t that he had lost his will to live?
“You’re here for your own good,” the nurse told me. “Come, let me show you where you sleep.”
She led me down the hall into one of the bedrooms and pointed to the first bed on the right side of the room. There were four beds in all, each in a corner. There was a tall cabinet between each two beds with doors on the sides instead of on the front. Half a cabinet for each patient. The bathroom was on one side of the room, the shower on the other—doors but no locks. A woman was huddled under a single sheet in the bed in the far left corner. Her bare feet stuck out at the bottom. The hem of her pajama bottoms was dirty and frayed and her heels were dry and cracked. I wondered how long she’d been there.
“You can shower between 7 and 9 am or between 8 and 9:30 pm,” the nurse said. “It’s off-limits outside of those times. You stay here and rest, okay?”
I sat on the end of the bed the nurse said was mine and stared at the sleeping bodies around me. I noticed that above each bed was a handmade poster with the patient’s name written in marker and decorated with stickers. JOANIE. DAKOTA. CELESTE. I turned around, relieved to see a blank space. I needed to get out of there before someone decided I needed a name poster, too. This was not where I wanted to belong.
“This is your new home,” I imagine a staff member having told the great white as he dumped a bucket of squid into the tank. “You’ll learn to like it here.”
“Does it hurt?” the nurse asked, handing me what looked like a ketchup packet of Neosporin.
It didn’t, and the lack of pain was infuriating. I needed something sharp to cut through the claustrophobic fog of this nightmare. The ward was hot and stuffy, and its pale blue walls made me want to claw out my own eyes. I dug my fingernails into the palms of my hands as hard as I could. Pain surged up my arm. Slight relief.
The nurse watched as I spread ointment on the cuts. Beads of red sprang to the surface. She handed me a tissue.
“Just blot gently.”
I didn’t want to do anything gently. I wanted to cut. I imagined pushing the tip of a razor deep into my wrist and dragging it up my forearm. I’d watch my skin part on either side of the blade. It would be just like unzipping a jacket. Blood would spill out of me, warm, wet, thick, deep red. The world around me would blur at the edges, then fade away completely. If I couldn’t have my blade, I would take what I could get. I wanted to grab the nurse’s pen and ram it into my neck. I wanted to run and slam my head against the wall until it split open. I wanted to throw a chair at the window, shatter the glass, and fall nine stories onto the New York City concrete.
I hated being trapped between those walls while doctors, nurses, medical aides, social workers, and deliverymen filtered in and out. I hated them for their freedom.
Once the nurse left the table, one of the other patients, Joanie, came over and sat in the empty chair across from me.
“That’s evil,” she said, pointing at my arm.
She stared with big brown bloodshot eyes. She had frazzled gray hair that stuck out in every direction, as if she had just stuck her finger into an electrical socket. She was missing several teeth, so that when she spoke, she lisped and her lips seemed to work overtime like a fish in search of food. She looked from side to side as if she were on the lookout for eavesdroppers, then pressed the palms of her hands onto the tabletop and leaned in close to me.
“It’s the devil making you do that,” she whispered. “Don’t listen to him.”
I leaned away from her, unsure of how to respond.
Maybe Joanie was right. Maybe it was an evil spirit telling me to cut, and all I had to do was refuse to listen to it. But there were two voices in my head. And if I ignored the voice telling me to cut, I would be overpowered by the voice telling me to kill myself. There was a battle raging inside me, and I was both enemy and ally.
Until the 1930s, self-harm behaviors were regarded by mental health professionals as attempts at suicide. Psychiatrist Karl Menninger was the first to suggest that self-harm behaviors including cutting, burning, and even bone breaking did not stem from suicidal ideation but were coping mechanisms, a way to channel otherwise overwhelming emotional pain into a physical, visible, controllable one. In his 1938 book Man Against Himself, Menninger writes that “local self-destruction is a form of partial suicide to avert total suicide.” He goes on to say that when self-harm is viewed in this way, “it represents a victory, even though sometimes a costly one, of the life instinct over the death instinct.”
Interestingly, though, despite the emotional turmoil that leads to self-harm behaviors, many people report not feeling any physical pain when they injure themselves. In A Bright Red Scream, Marilee Strong writes that because many self-injurers harm themselves while in dissociated states, they are not aware of the pain and that “some are not even aware of the act itself and are shocked to later discover their wounds.” But for a control freak like me, every line I carve into my skin is deliberate, and in the moment of cutting, I revel in the sharp white heat that streaks up my arm and makes my head buzz. The pain itself isn’t what I enjoy, it’s the clarity that comes with it. I want that sharpness to stay with me, but it always fades away. When it’s over, I think, I should’ve made it hurt more.
When sharks fuck, they bleed. At least, the females do. To show their interest, male sharks bite female sharks in various places, and once mating begins, they bite the female’s pectoral fins in order to keep her in place. A column on Discovery’s online “Shark Feed” says, “It’s typically easy to spot the female sharks that have recently mated. They will have noticeable bite marks and raw skin.” And just because a female has mated once, it doesn’t mean she’s off- limits for other males. Multiple paternity has been documented in at least six species of sharks. “Basically, the female doesn’t have much say about who she mates with,” said Andrew Nosal, lead author at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography’s Marine Biology Research Division, on Discovery News: “She can attempt to fight and escape, but may incur greater injury in the process. To minimize the chance of injury, the female may just go along with it, even though there appears to be no biological need to mate with more than one male per reproductive cycle.”
“So were you penetrated or was it just touching?” the doctor asked.
“Just?” I felt humiliated. “Why do you need to know that?”
He stared at me, then made a note on my chart: Patient was molested as a child.
The doctor looked bored—all the staff doctors did, but maybe they were just exhausted. Dark half-moons hung underneath their droopy, tired eyes, and permanent lines creased their foreheads. How many times must they have heard stories like mine? Even so, I hated knowing that every doctor, nurse, and social worker would read my chart and know this one thing about me: Patient was molested as a child. I hated that this trauma was at the center of who they saw. I hated feeling as if this trauma was at the center of who I was.
I wanted to get away from the hospital staff’s incessant questions, but even if I could, I knew I wouldn’t be able to escape my own memories.
“So tell me, were you penetrated or was it just touching?”
Three times a day, I was handed a trayful of food I didn’t want to eat. In the ward, food was ritual. Breakfast at 8. Meds at 9. Snack at 10. Lunch at 12. Snack at 2. Dinner at 5. Snack at 8. Meds at 9. Sandwiches at 11. Each tray was loaded with a carton of milk, a plastic cup of juice sealed with tinfoil, a small Styrofoam cup of coffee or tea, a slice of wheat bread sealed in plastic wrap, and a metal container covered with a plastic lid. Inside the container was a scoop of scrambled eggs if it was breakfast and canned vegetables and a lump of coagulated protein covered in sauce if it was dinner. The only item not wrapped in plastic was a piece of whole fruit, an apple or an orange. The smell of eggs in the morning made me want to vomit. The afternoon snack of rice pudding looked like actual vomit. Tiger sharks, also known as “garbage guts,” will eat anything.
While their main diet consists of bony fish, shellfish, and sea turtles, they’ll take a bite out of anything they can sink their teeth into.
Parts of horses, pigs, crocodile heads, license plates, car tires, nails, oil cans, beer bottles, and even a doll have been found inside their stomachs. But just because a tiger shark can bite and swallow doesn’t mean it can digest. Luckily, these sharks have the ability to vomit up their entire stomach, flipping it completely inside out and regurgitating the contents—whatever is left inside. They do this often after a meal of sea turtles. They digest the meat and purge the shells. At every meal, I would eat only one thing, the piece of fruit. I would peel the orange slowly, trying to keep the skin intact as one piece. I’d pull two sections of orange apart and bite into one slice at a time, not bothering to wipe the juice that dripped down my chin. The apples I’d eat from the top down, stem, seeds, and all. I chewed slowly, methodically. For the next ten minutes, I was all teeth, jaws, and tongue.
I learned quickly whom I could give the rest of my food to. David would always take my coffee and milk. The juice went to Carlos, the bread to Joanie. I’d force myself to take two bites of mush vegetables and one bite of lumpy protein and then I’d give the rest of my plate to Joe, who’d nod and accept it wordlessly. It was easy to give away my snacks. Cereal bars, pudding cups, Oreos, yogurt, potato chips, Dixie cups of fruit juice from 100 percent concentrate, and even the rice pudding.
“Good! You eat a lot!” the nurse said every time she saw my empty tray. “We want to keep you full and sleepy.”
I was determined to stay hungry and alert.
My psychiatrist tells me that the spacey, dissociated state I often find myself existing in is due to my inability to connect with my emotions. “It’s okay to be angry,” he tells me. “You don’t have to feel guilty for having feelings, whatever those feelings may be.”
Our conversation is making the room spin. His chair moves further away from me. He gets smaller and smaller and then it’s as if we’re on opposite sides of a long tunnel. I’m afraid of my emotions. I’m afraid of their power. Sometimes a wave of anger hits me with such force it makes my ears ring. Sometimes loneliness punches me so hard in the chest that I feel the ache for days. If I let myself fully feel all that is roiling inside me, I will explode. So I have learned to keep silent, to simmer.
It’s a skill that comes in handy in the ward. Because what I’ve learned during my time in the hospital is that it is unacceptable to have suicidal thoughts. I’ve been told I am a danger to myself, a high-risk patient, that I am here for my own good, but how can they expect me to be honest with them when we both know that admitting I am still depressed or that I still want to self-harm will mean a longer stay? I am trapped behind sealed windows and closed blinds, under the constant watch of fluorescent lights that never dim, stuck in the same confined space day in and day out—“This is a therapeutic environment,” they tell me. Yeah, right. The con- sequence of admitting you’re hurting is being put into deeper isolation. Learn to choke down your emotions, and you’ll be allowed back into society.
“Nicole, would you like to read the first part of the handout for us?” The other patients sitting around the group therapy table flapped their “Skills Manual” worksheet as if they were trying to stoke a campfire. I wanted to crunch mine into a ball and throw it at the
therapist’s face. How’s that for relationship effectiveness?
But if I was ever going to get out of there, I knew I needed to pass their test. So I read:
“That was excellent,” the therapist said. “Thank you. Now I’m going to read the definitions for each word and then I want you guys to write down what that word means for you and how you can implement it into your own lives, okay? We’ll share our thoughts at the end.”
Joanie nodded. I glared. Celeste drooled. “Great. Here we go!”
Being fair means killing myself. It’s not just what’s best for me but what’s best for my family. They’ve been through enough, and I’m tired, too. I want to end things now, on my own terms. Being fair means treating others the way you want to be treated.
I need to end my life. It’s the responsible thing to do. I will not let myself be talked out of it during my stay here. I know what feels true. I will not sell out.I have the right to kill myself. That’s a fact. Not an opinion. I will try not to say “sorry” before asking a question. Ex: “Sorry, but when the fuck are you going to let me out of here?”
I know what feels true. I will not sell out.
I feel much worse since I’ve been here. My mistake wasn’t cutting myself. My mistake was calling that stupid hotline. I wish I’d had the guts to just finish the job while I had the chance. Next time, I will. No excuses.
I’m feeling much better since I’ve been here. I think I just needed a break. Now that I’ve had some time to think, I realize that I don’t want to kill myself. Life is hard sometimes, but it’s still worth living. I see that now.
At midnight, the ward was finally quiet. The patients had taken their meds and eaten their 11 pm sandwiches. The TV in the main area was turned off and the coloring sheets and crayons were put away. All patients were in their rooms and my roommates were snoring. I couldn’t sleep. Even with our bedroom door closed, a streak of harsh yellow light flooded underneath, and the hospital’s central heating system kept our room close to 85 degrees. I lay there on my bed, sweat soaking through my shirt, hair clinging to my forehead, hating the world.
I hated the therapist who filed away the extra “Skills Manual” worksheets, slung her tote bag over one shoulder, and walked out of the ward without anyone stopping her. I hated the doctors who kept calling me “the client.” I hated the nurse who kept taking my blood pressure every few hours. I hated the aide who laughed when she saw me crying and asked, “Did you break up with your boyfriend?” I hated my outpatient psychiatrist who told the hospital he was “concerned about my safety” and confirmed my status as an involuntary patient. I hated the anonymous voice I had confided in and that had betrayed me by sending EMS to my door.
I ran my fingers over the cuts on my arm. They were sticky— blood mixed with Neosporin. Already the cuts looked smaller, not so angry and swollen. I wondered how long before red and purple would blend back to a light tan.
Armando Favazza, considered a pioneer in the field of cultural psychiatry, calls scar tissue “a magical substance.” In his 1987 book Bodies Under Siege, he writes that scars and the process of physical healing can be thought of as “a physiological and psychological mortar that holds flesh and spirit together when a difficult world threatens to tear both apart.”
I didn’t know about all that, but what I did know was that seeing the colors on my arm made me feel calmer. I pressed my nail into one of the cuts and watched as it started bleeding again. I am alive. Here was proof that there was something inside me instead of nothing. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep.
Kill yourself. Kill yourself. Kill yourself. Kill yourself. Don’t kill yourself. Kill yourself. Kill yourself. Kill yourself. Kill yourself. Kill yourself. Don’t kill yourself. Kill yourself. Kill yourself. Kill yourself. Kill yourself. Don’t kill yourself. Kill yourself. Kill yourself. Kill yourself. Kill yourself. Kill yourself. Kill yourself. Kill yourself. Kill yourself. Don’t kill yourself. Kill yourself. Kill yourself. Kill yourself. Don’t kill yourself. Kill yourself. Kill yourself. Don’t kill yourself. Kill yourself. Don’t kill yourself. Kill yourself. Don’t kill yourself. Kill yourself. Don’t kill yourself. Kill yourself. Don’t kill yourself. Kill yourself.
I pressed my hands against my ears. Stop, I whispered to myself. Please stop. When the noise is coming from inside your head, there is no escape.
Just then, Joanie sat up in bed. She scooted to the edge, planted her feet on the floor, and opened her side of the cabinet. The door creaked. She paused for a moment, then shut it. Another pause, then she opened it again. I stared as she continued opening and shutting the cabinet door. Creak, click, creak, click, creak, click. She rocked back and forth with the sound, mumbling to herself, and then started sobbing. I wondered where she was. I wondered what she was trying to escape.
I was released from the psych ward on the morning of the fourth day, hungry and exhausted. I had barely slept the past three nights and the snug-fitting jeans I was wearing when I was first admitted were loose. A social worker handed me my discharge papers, and two nurses returned the rest of my belongings—keys, phone, wallet—in a brown paper bag. Two guards stood on either side of the door to prevent any other patients from leaving with me. I made my way through the labyrinth of hospital hallways and stepped out into the frigid December air. There was snow on the ground. Light glistened on car hoods and street lamps. My breath fogged in front of me. I had survived the nightmare, but I still felt stuck in a bizarre dream. I stood there, stunned by the strangeness of all that had happened, unsure of what to do next. I was free in a world full of sharp things. I was scared. I was exhilarated. I stood there for a moment longer, letting the cold air sting my face.
When I dream about sharks, it’s always the great white I see. She begins at a distance, swims calm and steady toward me while I hover, suspended in the stillness of the water. Her silver skin shimmers against an ocean so dark and so blue it’s nearly black. The blackness stretches out on all sides of us and to an abyss below. I look up, and I cannot see any light. As she gets closer, I see deep scars across her face. There’s a gash above her eye, there are slashes along the top and sides of her head. Her right nostril is torn. Red stains her lower jaw, and her mouth is parted just enough to reveal a million jagged teeth. Her tail moves back and forth propelling her forward. She glides—silently. She is beautiful. I am in awe. She gets closer and begins circling me. I shiver as I meet her gaze. Her eyes are black and cold, and all at once I am faced with the terrifying reality and unreality of this world, of the darkness inside and outside. But somehow, this time, I am not afraid.
Tear me open, I tell her. I dare you.
The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is published October 17th.
Nicole Im will appear with Hemon, Deborah Landau and Nimmi Gowrinathan at McNally-Jackson this Wednesday, October 3rd at 7pm, for the New York City launch.
For the past decade, Literary Hub has brought you the best of the book world for free—no paywall. But our future relies on you. In return for a donation, you’ll get an ad-free reading experience, exclusive editors’ picks, book giveaways, and our coveted Joan Didion Lit Hub tote bag. Most importantly, you’ll keep independent book coverage alive and thriving on the internet.