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The Prescription Illustration by Clara Tissot  

The Prescription

There is a pill that makes Fawn Parker happy, she writes, and another that makes her see her own death.

Content warning

This story includes descriptions of death by suicide and disordered eating.

The first day I took bupropion I was feeling elated and lost my appetite. I saw a man jump to his death inside of the mall.

I was trying to feel out the effects of the new medication, so I walked along Dundas from Ossington to Yonge, to the Eaton Centre. Mostly I felt good except for a tremor in my hands which, though caused by the medication, didn’t bother me too much, perhaps due to the medication itself. Bupropion has a way of making bad things seem okay. Still, I tried to be careful. Somewhere deep in my brain I knew there were small evil anxieties. I worried that they might creep out each night when the medication wore off, or maybe that’s not how it works. I didn’t ask too many questions when the doctor wrote my prescription. I just took the slip to the pharmacy and told the pharmacist, “No, I don’t have any allergies.”

The online forums made me worry I might experience adverse side-effects. Users complained of week-long bouts of insomnia, dissociative malaise, strange pains in parts of their bodies they never knew existed. Someone titled a thread: Do the pros outweigh the cons? Thirty-four replies read, essentially, Yes. Most of the people responding, after the first one to two weeks, stopped having the bad thoughts. I thought if I kept moving, never stayed too long in one place, there wouldn’t be any room in my brain to make up scary ideas. 

I had some of those bad kinds of thoughts when I first started taking fluoxetine, which is part of why I switched to bupropion. I was sitting at my desk composing an email to my boss when I envisioned my own slashed and bleeding wrists. For a while the vision wouldn’t leave me, even when I physically shook my head to try to get it out. That and the headaches. The headaches got so bad I spent whole afternoons in bed with the curtains closed and my arms crossed over my eyes. Sometimes I worried I was faking it, because the pain prevented me from doing my work or calling back my extended family, but I managed to still spend my mornings wandering aimlessly downtown, smelling perfumes in department stores or reading the ingredients on bottles of diet pills. 

I explained this to the doctor at the walk-in clinic: that I was only ever able to do what I wanted to do and what I wanted to do sucked. Wandering around is no way to spend one’s time, even though it’s what I wanted. That’s when the doctor switched me from fluoxetine to bupropion, and instructed me to take the remaining fluoxetine on alternating days, as I began taking the bupropion. When I asked if there would be any side effects he said, “No, no,” and told me he hoped I would feel better soon. 

I threw the remaining fluoxetine in the garbage.

The mall was busy with holiday shopping. It was still early in the month so people weren’t too strung out. I roamed in circles, luxuriating in the slowness of the crowd. No one seemed to have anywhere to go or any idea where they were going. I wanted to look at a fashionable clothing store but I felt self-conscious about my body and didn’t want the salespeople to resent me. It’s always like that when I go into a business; I can’t shake the feeling that everyone is waiting for me to leave. So instead I stayed out in the mall proper to take it all in.

The mannequins in the window display at Aritzia were dressed in red and gold silk. It was obvious from the way the fabric was cinched that the shirts had to be pinned back around the mannequins’ slender waists. There is a problem in my brain that prevents me from seeing my body with any objectivity. Though I envied the mannequins, I couldn’t tell you who was smaller—me or them.

The sound interrupted my thinking about my waist. So loud and sudden, down on the lower level of the mall.

A big, loud bang. 

The sound was so loud and distinct that a man a few feet from me shouted, “Gun!” and a frantic crowd started to form.

“No,” I said, meaning to correct him that it was not a gun but a goose. 

There are sculptures of geese strung up from the ceiling in the mall and I thought one of those had fallen. In grade school I gave a presentation to my homeroom class about the geese. The installation is called Flight Stop. Michael Snow, the artist, sculpted the geese out of fibreglass and styrofoam, and covered them in sheathes made from photographs of a single dead goose. In 1982, Snow filed a case against the Eaton Centre for “mutilating” his installation when, at Christmastime, mall workers tied decorative red ribbons around the necks of the geese. The operator of the Eaton Centre was found by the Ontario High Court of Justice to be liable for violating the artist’s moral rights. The installation was said to be distorted, or otherwise modified, by the Christmas ribbons. This year, the geese were removed from the mall during renovations in a commercial migration from which they will return to a restored galleria sky.

Fifteen or so of us lined up along the railing and looked down and saw that it was a person. There was blood on the floor and blood on his body and he lay with a posture that suggested he was broken in many places. There was no question that he was dead.

Death is a beautiful thing insofar as it reminds us of the beauty of life. Someone always says something like that after someone dies. Most often it is said to a child who has lost a loved one too early. I wanted someone to say a statement like that to me about the broken dead man in the mall.

When my mom died, no one said any stupid thing about death being beautiful like I’d hoped. People assumed I didn’t want to hear it, but I did. I wanted to hear it every day. A statement like that can be beaten to death and still it remains true. True and dead, and beautiful. There’s no limit to how hard you could beat a dead horse and I’d still appreciate its beauty. At a certain point I’d just be appreciating glue and gelatin, which is also fine. Even the idiom I’ve butchered, and still use. Did you know they’ve all but stopped using animal-based glues? The white ones, at least, like Elmer’s, are made entirely of chemicals. Horse glue is used for repairing antiques, woodworking, bookbinding and assembling pipe organs. You could build a whole funeral out of a dead horse. You’d just have to really beat the crap out of it.

My therapist told me I am always “making a mom and dad out of things.” I was telling her that I wanted to join some sort of class at the gym where they would tell me what to eat each day, how much, and when. She said I wanted the gym to be my mom and dad. 

I kept thinking the man looked just like the bodies in The Sopranos. Why The Sopranos, I do not know. Surely I’d seen hundreds, if not thousands, of dead bodies—well, the bodies of actors playing dead on screen, with fake blood and fake gore and sometimes prosthetics and “movie magic” to disappear limbs or explode faces. It’s just I had this sudden feeling like I was watching The Sopranos. I thought what I’d witnessed couldn’t be so disturbing, to see this dead man in the Eaton Centre, if I liked watching The Sopranos so much, even from such a young age. I was, what, fourteen when I watched the finale with my family. 

I thought it couldn’t do any lasting damage, couldn’t even mess up my day, which I’d been looking forward to—dinner with my partner, who I’ll call Émile, and we’d made plans to meet a friend at the Get Well bar afterward. Though I couldn’t drink anymore because of the bupropion, I was still looking forward to being in the bar, sipping something boring. Even beyond the evening plans, there was this small anxiety deep in my brain that worried seeing the body might fuck me up somehow. Is this all it takes? I wondered. It’s just death. It’s just what my mother is. 

What I mean is death can be beautiful. Death can at least be the dirt that beautiful things grow out of. A change in my friendship with my father, for example, occurred when my mother died. It grew like the weeds by my mother’s grave, only I yank those out of the earth whereas my relationship with my father I leave be. He was the first person I called. I only called two people: my father and Émile.

It was embarrassing not to be able to get my words out. Nothing happened to me; I just saw something. For a few long and mortifying minutes, who knows what my father must have thought had happened.

“Sorry,” I said, when I could finally speak. “I just saw somebody die.”

The body landed at the bottom of the upward escalator. Blood splattered on the floor and on the escalator steps, and the body was dragged up to the second level, up to where we all were, watching. His wallet, his keys, and some other items from the pockets in his jeans and parka had landed all around the bottom of the escalator. Security rushed forward and collected the items, leaving the body. It was as if without his ID he wasn’t anybody. That way nobody had to have died at the Eaton Centre. A man pushed a shopping bag into his wife’s chest and hurried forward, crouching by the body, dragging it from the escalator, which had been causing an uncomfortable elliptical movement in the limbs. This seemed important to the crouched man—restoring dignity. His wife watched from a distance, clutching the shopping bag to her chest.

Again and again, I heard the sound in my head. It did sound like a gun, the man who’d shouted had been right. It sounded like a large door slamming. It sounded like waking up from one of those dreams about falling very suddenly. I distorted it each time I remembered it but each time I remembered it, it haunted me as it did the first time, when it was real.

When somebody dies by suicide, it’s said that those around them are more likely to die the same way. It’s not that people necessarily do it, though sometimes they do, but they are more likely to think about it, experience troubling emotions, consider methods of follow-through. When a person begins taking a new antidepressant, it’s common for them to feel worse before they feel better. Both my doctor and my pharmacist told me that if I were to have thoughts of harming myself, I should call them immediately. 

Bupropion has been contraindicated for anorexics due to its common side effect of suppressing the appetite. It is not even a side effect, per se; the medication is often prescribed as a weight-loss drug, or used in the management of binge-eating disorder. Plus something about seizures. When my appetite left me the day I went to the mall, I felt free. I’d never felt so free in my life. Anorexia is hard for me because of the hunger. The hunger is constant and it hurts. It makes my brain buzz so loud I cannot think. Without the hunger it is easy. It is easy to be small. The deep part of my brain where I keep the anxiety fears there is a suicidality in this new ease of starvation. But the medication slows me down. I worry and then I let the worry go. It is easy.

Standing outside of the Queen Street exit, I found I’d forgotten why I came to the mall in the first place. What was I supposed to say to Émile, if he asked? “I’m sort of available,” he offered when I called. “But not really. You can come over if you need to be somewhere.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I just wanted to say it out loud.”

“Yeah,” he said.

After we hung up he texted me: What you saw is really fucked up.

Yeah, I answered.

Ambulances and cop cars wailed down Dundas. I walked in the opposite direction, toward home. It’s just like an episode of The Sopranos, I kept thinking to myself. I felt guilty for trying to make myself feel any better. I should have been putting work into feeling worse. Somebody died.

Something happened but in a way nothing happened. I mean, not to me. 

Each block or so, any time I wasn’t crossing the street, I googled, “Eaton Centre” and “dead man.” There was only an article from 2018, which told more or less the same story. How many others, I wondered, have been erased from the mall? When I crossed the street I would put my phone away not because I was worried I might get hit by a car but because I felt embarrassed being seen on my phone by drivers. If I were to walk too slowly or be in their way or perhaps even if they didn’t like my outfit, their anger would probably only be exacerbated by the sight of me on my phone. 

There was nothing, nothing in the news. When I thought of him, I couldn’t say for sure whether I’d seen what I’d seen. To see it on the news would confirm that it had happened. A post on social media, even. Some sort of frantic tweet, a photograph on Instagram of police tape and blood. In a way, I preferred to think I’d invented the situation than to imagine the man could just disappear like that. Is that not what I’ve been trying to do all this time? Shrink myself down until I disappear? Would anything less (more …) do? 

I didn’t want to die. Not like that man. I wanted to jump but I didn’t want to land. Starvation is a very long, slow jump from the top floor. I wonder if he felt as compelled to do that as I feel to starve. If he also felt he was accomplishing something. If my brief, destructive, rewarding thinness feels like his brief, destructive, rewarding moment of flight.

My therapist had begun to warn me each week that if I didn’t at least plateau, I would have to enter inpatient treatment. “You won’t have the glamour of outpatient,” she said. “Leaving and living.”

It was true there seemed something desirable about outpatient. Something indulgent about taking time off work, making a job out of my body. Arriving each morning to feed, sit in groups and complain, sit in one-on-one sessions and stroke my collarbone. Go home and leave it all behind. Make the hospital into my mom and dad. 

“All we have is the present moment,” she said. “If not now—when?”

When she said this sort of thing I felt like a bug trapped under a glass. I hated her in those moments. I did not want to be difficult, but she forced me to be difficult.

“I can’t,” I’d say. “I can’t.” Over and over. She made me do it. If she didn’t trap me like a bug I wouldn’t have to be difficult. And if she removed the glass, would I budge?

Émile made butternut squash soup, heated thick slices of spelt bread in the oven and spread them with good olive oil. He was always pushing oils on me. 

“It makes the brain work,” he’d say.

Lately it was getting dark at 4 PM. I could see our reflections, side by side, in the sliding doors behind the kitchen table. He ate peacefully with his head down and I marvelled at how he trusted me. To be so vulnerable at my side? Perhaps I had more work to do, or else I wasn’t really giving myself to the relationship. One of his hands moved gently over my knee. Maybe in his own ways he kept small parts of himself to himself, too.

Often I fantasized about the apartment having a small room like a bathroom but for eating, where we could take our plates one at a time and eat quickly and without interruption. In past relationships I’ve taken soft foods into the bathroom and stood at the sink with the tap running (so they wouldn’t hear). Funnily, though, when I confronted my image in the mirror, chewing and swallowing with efficient pace, I’d end up thinking, It’s not so bad.

Getting better was part of giving myself to the relationship. My therapist used this against me because she knew it was the only thing that stood a chance of working. “What about Émile?” she’d say. “What about your future children?” 

It’s true. I wanted to be good to my future children. I wanted to bleed on time and more than just a pinkish stain in my underwear. I wanted to have big healthy babies and a big loose abdominal bulge with stretch marks. Well, I didn’t want any of that but those seemed like the right things to want. There was something to be said for doing the thing most other people are doing. The further out one wades, the greater the risk of getting in over one’s head. The starvation rots my brain. I want to be a writer but instead I am an 8-ball. I used to have original thoughts. I used to be quick and make my friends laugh. Now I sometimes couldn’t remember a thing. I mean it. I’d sit and think, just remember something. Nothing would come. 

It was like when my mother died: no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t remember a single thing about her, for nearly six months. Then one day it all came back at once. Her cackling laugh, her jangling bracelets, the way she’d say, How do you do, missy-lou? when I got home from school. As quickly as it came I wished it gone again.

My mother never met Émile but she knew about him. We were friends for five years before things became romantic. She said she could tell by the way I did my hair before leaving the house to meet him that I was in love. 

I wasn’t, even! I am now, of course. But I wasn’t!

When Émile cooks, it’s always good. It’s root vegetables, unconventional grains, coconut milk and cumin, organic wines from cinemas-cum-boutiques. He lives in a city like a man who has already lived another life. Whereas most of the time I feel I am fumbling in the dark. What kind of a person am I? I wonder, all the time. My wardrobe is eclectic and ill-fitting, it drapes in some places and in other places it clings and reveals the awkward ripples of my ribcage. My shoulders are pale and bony like a plucked hen. My hair is heavy and frizzy. I’ve never found a pair of glasses I like. Sometimes something will be okay for a while and then I’ll see a photograph. In photographs, I’m forced to confront the uncertainty of my character. 

“It’s great,” I said, about the soup. 

He was embarrassed to be complimented, made a sound. I took a piece of bread and placed it on my plate, to impress him. I wanted to communicate my commitment to him and to our future children. 

“I’ve heard it’s good to talk about things like that when they happen,” he said. “Like, as soon after it happens as possible.”

“Oh,” I said. I’d been worrying he might think I was obsessed with the situation. Already I’d brought it up two or three times. I never knew how to talk properly. I mean, what to talk about and how much. When was the appropriate time to bring up a certain thing, and so on. What I liked better was listening to Émile. He had lots of smart thoughts about literature and lots of sweet thoughts about life. Sometimes he would look at me and say, “Holy shit,” and I’d ask what? even though I knew what he meant, and he’d say, “It’s just nice.”

Émile read out an excerpt from his dissertation while I washed dishes with the water on low, so I could hear him. It was nice to have my hands under the warm water and to listen to his voice. An anxiety crept in when I realized he was nearing the end, and that I would have to comment. I’d been enjoying the free-fall and now I was about to hit the ground. 

“It’s great,” I said, and I felt stupid for saying the same thing I’d said about the soup. A dissertation is not cooked squash. 

“I’m nervous about sending it to my committee,” he said. “I’ve been putting it off for weeks. I’m afraid they’ll hate it.”

It was hard for me to imagine having anxiety about such a thing. Firstly, because Émile was intelligent and capable, and secondly, because I couldn’t imagine having anxiety about anything other than one’s own body. I spoke the language of hunger and that’s all. For Émile, the email was the jump. The dissertation, a goose strung up from the ceiling. He is a medieval scholar at the university where I did my master’s degree. I used to think he was the smartest person on earth. Nothing changed, but a person has to have a certain amount of dignity in a relationship. I couldn’t go around talking about Émile like he was an angel.

At the Get Well bar, our friend, who I’ll call Jacob, became animated and spilled a bit of his beer. “Me too,” he said, leaning across the table toward me. “I’ve seen that happen too.”

Jacob saw a man jump from the roof of a high-rise downtown. When he rushed forward and started to perform CPR, the cops came and tried to arrest him for touching the body. They didn’t believe him when he said he’d been a medic in the army. It’s true; he was.

Listening to Jacob, I worried I’d told my story with indifference, revealing some inner deficiency. The bupropion was making it easier to say anything at all without emotion. Whereas before I could be moved to tears by nearly anything, now the events of my day seemed like stories I’d heard from someone else. 

Jacob offered me one of his American cigarettes and we went outside and looked in at the bar where Émile sat at our table. I felt impatient about getting back inside where it was warm and my legs ached from walking all day, but I didn’t want to miss the end of Jacob’s retelling: he’d been with a friend, and the friend stood by the place where the body landed for hours afterward. Then, he never came back to Toronto again. He stopped answering Jacob’s calls. 

Jacob and Émile are in the same PhD program at the university. On Mondays and Wednesdays they go to the university gym and lift weights. When they drink, they laugh about the way their colleagues extend their five-year degrees into seven or eight years. How they resist leaving the protective cocoon of the department, even though the department is killing them. 

“A PhD is a death wish,” Jacob told me, when I mentioned I might apply. 

When we went back inside another round had been brought to the table. Two pints of beer, and for me, a tall narrow glass of diet ginger ale. Émile kissed me and I worried he might be put off by the smell of cigarette smoke in my hair. I’d all but quit, except now that I couldn’t drink I felt I deserved something bad. It was for Émile, in a way, that I stopped smoking and any time I smoked one I felt I was giving him the finger. I liked stopping the bad habit for him, even if he didn’t ask me to.

There is suffering in success. Fear in happiness. Embarrassment in joy. There is a constant nagging pressure, a deep anxiety in the brain. There is a pill that makes me happy and it helps me do bad things. There is another that slows me down and shows me my own death. 

Émile sits outside in the snow each morning for fifteen minutes in just his robe. It is the “Wim Hof method,” which the internet told me is meant to unlock a person’s full potential. I wonder if there is any way to unlock a person’s full potential without suffering. He comes inside and he is flushed and shivering. His spirit always up. There is an outdoor sort of scent on his skin when I kiss him, always up on my toes so I can reach. That is one of the good things. Then, the rest of the events of the day. 

Some days I am so afraid of nothing in particular. All of the unknowing. The elliptical movement of the goodness of so many days cannot write over what I know about what it’s like when it’s bad. When it’s bad it’s so bad. Bad is so pure, and good is so elusive. Do we all have to be in pain at all times, in one way or another? There is beauty, too. Naively, though, I’ve spent my life waiting for the pain to stop. I don’t mean just mine. But it doesn’t, does it? One has to hope to catch a glimpse of something nice while moving quickly through the air. Convince others, momentarily, that we are geese. Otherwise, well. ⁂

Fawn Parker is a Giller-nominated novelist from Toronto. Her forthcoming releases are Soft Inheritance (Palimpsest Press, 2023) and Hi, it's me (McClelland & Stewart, 2024). She is represented by Ron Eckel at CookeMcDermid.