Reprinted from "Families" issue of Visions Journal, 2004, 2(3), pp. 24-25
I vividly remember my wife pouring me the cup of homemade grape juice that morning. We sat together in the hospital psych ward, where I had been admitted the previous night.
“Poison,” I said.
Michelle stared at me, her mouth open. “It’s only grape juice. Just drink a little.” We sat. “I’ll drink it then,” she said, and reached for the cup.
“NO!” I grabbed her forearm. “No... Please, don’t!”
She pulled back her arms, and tears appeared in her eyes. The cup remained between us. “It’s just grape juice. We just thought you’d appreciate something from home.”
I looked at the jar. Indeed, at our wedding, we had drunk juice extracted from grapes that grew on her family’s property, canned by her parents. It often appeared at special dinners. But here? At the hospital, a jar from home? Sealed, and resealed? Because, undiluted, the juice had a thick flavour that could mask that of any chemical poured into it.
I could understand why Michelle and her parents wanted me dead. That made sense: they had figured things out now, based on my suicide attempt, knew that I had set into motion a chain of events that would end in a great conflagration, and that they, being the closest people to me, would bear the brunt of the outrage from the general public and world at large as disaster approached. They understood and wanted me dead.
I could understand that, I really could, but should I let them do it? Cosmic ramifications were very much on my mind, and I was unsure whether I should let them go through with this, because killing me would have repercussions, too. I didn’t know – dilemmas like this had arisen before me many times in the past two days and I often found myself unsure. I looked at the cup. Michelle’s eyes were red, and she took out a frayed Kleenex from her purse to dab at them. I should let her decide, at least.
“All right,” I said. “If you really want me to drink this, I will.”
I took the cup. I paused, with the Styrofoam lip at my own. Drank. I finished it.
“There,” she said. “Do you want more?”
“I’ll just go lie down now.”
“Are you still tired?”
“Don’t forget your bag.”
Poisoned, I took the duffel bag she’d brought me, maintaining the charade, and made my way down the hallway. In my room, I didn’t bother changing out of my clothes, just lay atop the bed with my hands folded on my chest: a suitable pose for someone about to slip away from the world. How long would it take for the poison to circulate through my body and begin disrupting vital functions? What would I notice first? Would it be painful? Would it start with a seizure, and end with me curling into a ball, face frozen in rictus? I accepted my fate, but I did worry about what might happen to Michelle and her family as a result. Not be prosecuted for my death, hopefully. Maybe sleep would be the first thing. Felt drowsy again…
A couple of hours later I woke. Unpoisoned. I sat up. Maybe it had been only grape juice.
Michelle, I learned, intended the juice only to serve as a reminder of home and family, of happier times, and of the many people concerned about me during this abrupt, downward turn in my mental health. But my thinking had become so delusional that such an explanation didn’t occur to me. I could only frame events according to my new, highly paranoid view of my situation. A cup of grape juice was an invitation to poison myself. Michelle’s parents were suddenly people who might want to kill me.
The scene above is excerpted from my book about that period in my life, called Nervous System: Or, Losing my Mind in Literature. Going through the book now, I realize how much family factored into the whole experience: as I imagined terrible events befalling those closest to me, because of me; as those very people aided in my recovery; and as I searched, afterward, for an explanation as to why this had happened, only to find depression extending far back in my family tree, seeding my mother’s own dark, difficult days.
When I hesitated with that cup of grape juice in my hand, my family was actually no different. My thoughts only revealed how different I had become. I sometimes wonder what the view was like from the other side, as Michelle looked at me, so suddenly changed from the person welcomed at countless family dinners and celebrations. Who is this? she might have asked herself. Thankfully, I didn’t stay changed in this way.
The experience taught me that family does influence who we are: not just genetic tendencies toward stability or delusion, passed down through generations, but also who we are while coping with a breakdown. My wife and her family played a significant role in my becoming well again. I’m not the same person I was before this happened, but, if I’m improved in any ways, I owe much to the family members who helped me rebuild.
That’s something for which I’m thankful enough to toast (maybe even with homemade grape juice).
About the author
Jan was born and raised in the Fraser Valley of BC and currently lives in Calgary, Alberta, with his wife Michelle. His book Nervous System: Or, Losing my Mind in Literature, was recently published