CONTENT WARNING: Suicide of a teenager with explicit details.
We’ve been listening to ’90s music today — we were listening to R.E.M. because I couldn’t get one of their songs out of my damn head (yes, that one), and then I had a sudden longing to hear The Smashing Pumpkins. I fell in love with this band at age 15 because the boy I was in love with at the time was in love with them. I listened to Gish and I was in. This was just before they really exploded. You know, when they were still cool and we didn’t know Billy Corgan was a total douche.
Today we listened to Siamese Dream, the album that made them the alt rock powerhouse they became, and the album that came out just after I had been introduced to them.
I was fine until the very end, but then “Disarm” started playing. My heart ached and tears stung my eyes. I couldn’t hold them back, and they flowed in salty rivers over my cheeks. The power of music to make us feel, to return us to a time and place, and to force us, for better or worse, to remember, never fails to stun me. This was 26 years ago and I still have an overwhelming rush of emotion when I hear these songs. I am 15 years old again, and it’s 1993.
I had no idea what was coming, but it turned out that 1993 was the year that would ultimately throw everything into chaos and permanently alter the trajectory of my life. That summer I ran away from home and spent a few months living in an apartment with several other teenage misfits. We spent our time experimenting with various drugs, listening to music, and not much else. Most of them were older than me, and all of them had dropped out of high school. They seemed so cool to me then. Fuck the system, man. (I mean, for real, fuck the system, but also do finish high school. This should be read in a mom voice.)
One of the people who lived in that dirty dungeon of an apartment with us was Nicole. She was 17, and the two years between us felt like 10. She was confident and bitingly funny, with an edge of weariness. She was also extremely sexually experienced. She kept a list of all the boys/men she had slept with, and there were hundreds. I still don’t even know how she accomplished this in her 17 short years, but she stayed busy.
She carried this list around like a badge of honor, but it was clear to me even then that she was trying to fix something broken inside of her and sex was her tool of choice. While I never had proof, I am almost certain that she was trading sexual favors for money and drugs from the one adult in the apartment, a man named Wayne. No slut or sex work shaming here, but clearly this was an inappropriate arrangement for an underage girl and a 40-something dude. What a fucking creep that guy was. He was the dad of one of the other teens in the house, and I have never figured out if he was just so determined to be cool that he let all of us live there, financed our drug and alcohol habits, and fed us, or if he was seriously mentally ill and needed treatment that he clearly wasn’t getting. He was the definition of an enabler (and likely a sex offender).
But this isn’t about Wayne.
The Smashing Pumpkins were an important part of the soundtrack of our lives back then, and when we found out they were playing a show in Portland we all hopped in Wayne’s van and went to see them play at a great little venue that no longer exists, La Luna. I also saw Elliott Smith and Gift of Gab there, among others. This was one of those “I saw them before they were big” moments. One of the last small shows they probably ever played. October 13, 1993. We were right up by the stage. We jumped around and screamed and sang. I think we crowd-surfed, but I don’t remember for sure. I lost my shoe. Nicole got knocked out — she got kicked in the head or something — but she was ok, and afterward it just made the story more badass. It was the perfect kind of contained danger for teenage rebels who wanted to be tough but secretly longed for safety. It was a great fucking show. On the rare occasion that I listen to The Smashing Pumpkins now, Nicole is always at the forefront of my mind.
I moved back home eventually, after getting scabies in the apartment. Yup, that happened. That’s how punk we were, man. So gross. But even after moving home I spent all my time there (after the scabies situation was taken care of), spent every day for a year or so with Nicole. She loved me and I loved her, though her most intimate inner circle was her best friend “Laura” and their boyfriends, both of whom were in the military. The four of them were an inseparable unit. It seemed like Nicole had actually found a guy she liked. A guy she wanted to be with. She wanted him to love her so badly. She wanted someone to love her and make everything ok.
On March 24, 1994, five days before my 16th birthday, I was downtown Olympia after school like usual, walking down the sidewalk. I saw my friend, whom we will here call “Son of Wayne.” I greeted him with a smile, expecting it to be a normal afternoon of chain smoking, talking about whatever we thought was deep shit at the time, and wandering around. Instead he approached me blank-faced and said, “Nicole shot herself.”
Not registering the implications of this, I asked, “Where is she?”
“She’s in the morgue,” he said. Just like that. She’s in the morgue.
I don’t remember how I responded. Did I scream? Cry? Fall down? That part is blank in my mind. But the next part is clear. We went to the house. I walked into her room. This image will be with me until I die. The emptiness of it. The feeling, still raw, that if I had been there a few hours earlier I could have saved her. Her blood was on the sheets. She had shot herself in the stomach with a shotgun that Wayne had just lying around the house for some fucking reason. There was a hole in the side of the house, the part of the wall she was sitting against. The shotgun blast blew right through her and through the building. I am not convinced she actually wanted to die, which haunts me. I don’t know, but I think she might have thought someone would save her. None of us got there in time.
I sat on her bed. Her teddy bear was there. I held him close to me, and laid down next to the sheets still wet with her blood. I cried and shook and screamed for I don’t know how long.
There was a viewing the day before the funeral. I had seen her bed, her blood, the empty space she left, and now I would see her filling up the space of a different sort of bed, a casket. I think now that in death she was at rest for the first time. I can see her clearly still, I can feel her still. Her skin felt cold. Wrong. I knew she wasn’t going to wake up but I yelled at her to wake up anyway. She had left me behind. I yelled at her until my friend took my arm and led me out of the room.
It’s Mental Health Awareness month apparently, so it feels like the right time to share this story. I have been dealing with major depressive disorder since well before this incident, but Nicole’s suicide was when my parents got worried, when my mom took me to a psychiatrist and I started Prozac. I was 16 then. It’s possible, in a grim sort of way, that Nicole’s death saved my life.
A couple months later I would be sent to a “therapeutic boarding school” in The Middle of Nowhere, Montana for two years, but that’s a much longer story. A different kind of trauma.
Nicole clearly suffered from depression as well, but did not live long enough to come out of that darkness. She did not have access to the care she needed. I think about this often. How I’m still here and she isn’t. How strange and random and cruel the world is, that a 17-year-old girl can have a moment of weakness and access to a gun and then be gone forever.
But the world is beautiful, too.
I wonder what kind of adult she would have grown to be. What kind of mother. What kind of friend. Chances are we would have lost touch over the years — I’m not in touch with anyone from those days — but who knows. I wish she were here to see who I have become. I think she would be proud of me, and that thought means a lot to 15-year-old me. I think we would make each other laugh, like we did then.
Nicole left me behind, but I have stayed. I stay so my children can see me fighting this battle and so that some day they will understand that every day I stay is a battle won. I stay so they will see me making the choice to fight.
I love you, Nicole, and we will always have that Smashing Pumpkins show. I’m so grateful to have shared it with you.