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A Story of Bravery and Resilience: Hannah Puralewski’s, “Lemon Meringue Pie”

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January 30, 2019

Lemon Meringue Pie

Content Warning: depression, suicidal ideation, NSSI

It was the summer after my first year at McGill, a little over three years ago now. My first year had been rough, for a variety of reasons. Partly because I was adjusting to life on my own far away from my family and friends, and partly because the stress of school. But mostly because I was in denial about my depression. Depression was something I had struggled with for several years at that point, but the most recent episode had occurred in my last year of high school. It was triggered by the death of my grandfather, as well as the stressful program I was in, and my problem of equating my self-worth with the grades I received. At the time, it was almost a part of my identity- being the straight-A student, who everyone was expecting to be valedictorian. Things had seemed better after graduation, and I was excited to go on my adventure to Montreal.

Looking back now, I was not in the place I should have been mental health wise. But I didn’t want to be the only sibling in my family to not follow that same pattern of success that seemed to come so naturally to my siblings. At first, things were great. I was quite social at that time, I made friends, and I had fun. Early on, there was an incident with a male in my residence. I had said no several times but he had continued to make physical advances. Eventually, I left before anything could happen. But this event affected me in the sense that I questioned what sort of person I was after that. When I’m suffering from depression, I’m my own worst enemy. I will look in the mirror and say things to myself that I would never dream of saying to people that I hate. This incident only added ammunition to that dark part of myself that constantly focused on every negative action I took and berated myself for.

It wasn’t until later, however, that the fact I was still struggling with depression became much more evident. I started oversleeping and missing classes. But when I say “oversleep”, I mean I wouldn’t get out of bed until after 5pm every day. Usually when I was so hungry that I was forced to get out of bed to go to the cafeteria and eat. One time I went to bed at midnight and didn’t get out of bed until 8pm the next day. I had started self-harming again. Things were getting pretty bad.

I had some amazing friends that helped me survive that year though. Ambar, who asked me if I was okay when I returned home at 2am, disappointed that I had been both too scared to kill myself and too scared to go to the ER in a foreign country. After saying “No” and bursting into tears, she sat with me for two hours and we talked until I was okay. Taylor, who not only came to my door and knocked to make sure I would get out of bed in time to go to a class I was at risk of failing due to absences, but who also left class early when I texted her in a panic. I had sliced up my legs pretty bad and had gotten scared by all the blood. She came straight over and took all my sharp objects and stayed with me the rest of the day, even accompanying me to a doctor’s office so I could bullshit a doctor into giving me a sick note for a presentation I had slept through that day. Eventually, I made it through the year.

I went home for the summer, and I thought being back home would make everything better. But nothing changed. I no longer had the stress of school, and I was with my family once again, but still the depression remained. I worked the same summer job I had had the summer before, and on occasion saw some friends. The best way to describe the overall feeling I had at the time was crushing loneliness. It felt like there was a constant weight being pressed on my body, weighing down my every movement, and at time physically paralyzing me. Sometimes I would just lose the will to stand and I would fall to the ground in a fetal position. I couldn’t get up, or call for help- I couldn’t move. I had to wait until my mom or my sister found me lying in the hallway in our house and helped me to stand up. One time this even happened on my way home from work, at 11:30 pm on the sidewalk a block from my home. The only thing that roused me was fear, as a man walking down the street started talking to me and asking me if I was okay and if my boyfriend had beaten me up. I told him I was just depressed. He said to me with a grin on his face “oh yeah? Me too!” I got up and walked away, but went around the block before going home.

At this time, I wouldn’t say I was actively suicidal, but suicidal thoughts were ever-present at the back of my mind. It was one of those things where I would often put myself in dangerous situations, because perhaps I would die and it wouldn’t be me who had done it. Working downtown in Chicago, every bus that came rushing past I thought about stepping in front of. My friends would bike all over the city at night, and I had to bike as fast as I could because every oncoming car I considered swerving in front of. Twice my friends went out on to roofs of either their house, or park buildings. I stayed down below, crying hysterically and trying to remain calm because I wanted to be included in their activities to avoid feeling so alone. I also knew in my heart that if I went up there with them, there was a large probability that I would jump.

At the end of June, this all culminated in a decisive trip to the lakefront. I went there to think, but I was particularly upset that day, so other plans were brewing in my mind. I walked out on one of the long strips of concrete adjacent to the beach that are designed to break the waves from the lake. You can go pretty far out, and it had been a particularly dry year so the water was quite low. I sat down and swung my legs over the ledge and I looked down. It was a drop of about thirty feet, and large rocks were visible just below the surface of the water. I knew if I fell there was a big chance that I would die. That day I was in a tremendous amount of pain- not just emotional anguish, but every part of my being felt pained. My body felt crushed and after months of feeling this way, I just wanted the pain to stop. And I wanted it more than anything. I was scared though, I knew it was a decision that I could never take back. So I told myself that I would inch myself off the ledge slowly. I took my phone and my wallet out of my pockets, and put them on my shoes next to me. I did this so that after I fell, the people on the same wave-breaker as me would know who I was and would be able to contact my family. I had been texting back and forth with a few friends but I sent one last text and set my phone to the side. I started inching, and after ten minutes or so I was almost completely off the edge, supporting myself almost completely with my hands on either side of my hips. At that moment, my phone started ringing. I almost decided not to answer it, but I saw it was a friend of mine, Maya, who had been one of the few supports I had that summer. To answer the phone, I had to pull myself back safely on the ledge so that I could use my hands. She had been concerned by whatever that last text I had sent said, I can’t remember now. It wasn’t a goodbye or telling her at all what I was doing, it must have just carried a tone that told her I was upset. She asked me where I was. I happened to be at the beach near where she lived, and she showed up five minutes later and found me. She got me to go with her for a walk through the park, far from the water. And she stayed with me for a few hours, letting me rant about whatever I was upset about that day. After a while, the suicidal feelings had passed and we both went home.

That night, I asked her what her favorite dessert was, because I wanted to make it for her to show my gratitude for her showing up that day. I don’t think she realized the significance of her actions, but the next day she came over and we made lemon meringue pie together. A few weeks later, I would tell my psychiatrist about this incident. I had been trying out a new medication, the fourth one in the series of anti-depressants I would try. I downplayed the event enough not to be hospitalized, but my doctor called my mom on speakerphone and recommended an outpatient program to my mom. She agreed, and I found myself in a twelve week program that involved ten-plus hours of therapy a week, a majority of which was done in groups. I can remember my annoyance at the time, how could my doctor betray my confidence like that? Now, I recognize that that phone call and that program saved my life.

Today, I find myself in the best place in terms of my mental health that I have been in for the past decade. Now on my sixth different medication, I’ve finally found a balance that works and thanks to the program I have the self-awareness to reflect on all that happened three years ago. In some ways, I’m still trying to make things right with the people I care about. My mother recently told me, when I mentioned something that happened that summer, that she couldn’t remember because she had tried to forget most of that summer. I realized in that moment, how painful that time must have been for her. Every time I came home after the time she told me, what she must have thought and feared. When I reflect on that day at the lakefront, I am ashamed to admit that I remember thinking to myself that what I was about to do would devastate her, but that I thought my pain was more important. That ending my pain mattered the most.

I recently decided to get my first tattoo. This moment at the lakefront has been present in a lot of my reflections on how depression has impacted my life, and made me who I am today. I decided to get a tattoo of lemon meringue pie. When I see it, I am reminded that I survived and that I am so grateful to be alive. I am reminded to consider how my actions will affect others because the world is greater than my pain. I am reminded how damn proud I am to be where I am today, how far I’ve come from the depths of my own despair. After everything I’ve been through since that moment and everything I learned, I have a greater understanding of my emotions, and also a greater awareness of those around me.

Ultimately, this beautiful slice of pie on my arm is about more than surviving depression. It’s about learning from it and using it to be a better, more understanding, and honest individual. It’s a promise to myself that I will strive to be the best that I can be, because I got a second chance, something that not everyone gets. My depression helped me appreciate happiness, but also sadness, and everything else in between.

So I guess the moral of the story is: when life gives you lemons, make lemon meringue pie. You will be stronger for it.