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Shiny eyes

By Leanne Simpson

This content contains explicit and sensitive information that may not be suitable for all ages.

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to return to my hometown of Scarborough, Ontario, to read a new story about growing up with mental illness. “Shiny Eyes” was written for the What’s Your Story? anthology, a wonderful collaboration between the Ontario Book Publishers Organization and Toronto Arts Council. The anthology features up-and-coming writers from across the city, writing about the places they call home. The OBPO has been kind enough to let me share my story with the SickNotWeak community, so here it is!

Shiny Eyes 

String through flesh, the stitches came out like pulled teeth, stung just enough to make me cry but didn’t stop me from making wishes on them. “That’s not how this works,” Mom said, but I clutched my empty strings all the way home from the hospital.

I know what they say about my town – that it’s polluted under the veins, that we grew up tough. My first soccer tournament, we travelled to Mississauga in mismatched socks and lost every game, the other team of little girls shrieking that we were gonna cut them when I wasn’t even allowed to wash the steak knives at home. It’s easier to digest the ugliness of the world when sandwiched between intersections. I grew up the same speed as everyone else, too fast to see the passing trees but slow enough to climb them, blindly scraping limbs on limbs without worrying about scars.  

My city had never smiled so wide.

Maggie had them all along her arms, skin paper machéd together with the artless beauty of a small child. I was nearly 18 the next time I went to the hospital at the top of the hill, after I forgot how to breathe in the middle of Scarborough Town. It wasn’t the first time either – just the first time anyone saw me the way I saw myself. Maggie took me to the window we now shared and pointed at the Wendy’s drive-through across the street. They don’t know how good they have it¸ she said. My city had never smiled so wide.   

When asked where I came from, I proudly scribbled Scarborough on my scholarship applications, employment records and Indigo membership at STC (until they replaced it with a store that promised infinite youth and cheap spandex). I devoured their books with the same kind of hunger I had when I was 10 and determined to visit every library in my district: Port Union, Malvern, Morningside and westward, the words seeping in through my skin like I forgot to wear sunscreen.  

I thought you didn’t need it if you grew up too close to the light. I thought my biggest threats came from outside of myself, things that I could almost control. In health class on Lawrence Avenue East, we learned about STDs instead of SSRIs, drugs, but not the drugs that would save my life two years later. They didn’t say that 1 in 5 of us would get so sick that we would be scared to open our eyes at night, but they told us that the mitochondria were the powerhouse of the cell, and we believed it.  

Maggie was the only one in therapy who smiled when I said I wanted to be a teacher. Start small, they said, but I thought I was. I thought the best thing I could do with the worst parts of myself was lay them in the sun. But other people wanted to forget, wanted to gentrify our stories just like our houses, until we couldn’t find our way back home even if we wanted to. I called my immigrant grandmother from the hospital payphone and told her I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I’m so happy for you, she said, But where are you calling from? I hung up, starry-eyed.  

I wasn’t the first from my school to get sick, but I fell the loudest.

My grandma had been in the internment camps long enough to form a deep mistrust of the government. She kept her money in muffin tins under the sink and lived in the heart of Kennedy Road, got her hair cut in the same basement salon for 35 years. She knew tough – lived it, too – and I didn’t know how to explain why I couldn’t get out of bed for days on end without taking away from her definition of the word. Depression didn’t seem to stand up against words like racism and segregation, couldn’t hold a candle to the horse stables she once slept in. All she wanted me to do was go to university.  

I wasn’t the first from my school to get sick, but I fell the loudest. In the centre of the mall food court, palms pressed to the floor, I gasped for air and wished that there was just less of things (of people, of sounds, of myself). They stepped around me, pretended that the small anxious girl on the ground was just part of the melting pot. For tourists, Scarborough is a stained glass window, but I know the places where we hurt all look the same – hospitals, police stations, empty classrooms brimming with unsolved mysteries – what makes this city tick is the same thing that makes it ache. 

After dinner, me and Maggie played blackjack and talked about what the darkness felt like. A thousand tiny toothpicks pinning the edges of your skin, she said. Not enough, I said, and she looked at me with sad eyes. I didn’t know how to tell her that I always thought I’d fall down, but into something tangible – something they’d warned us about in school. Something I could fight against, something real. There’s no street cred to mental illness. There’s no cast to sign, no 12-step plan. There’s just you and the silence, and it’s enough to eat you alive. Maggie used to be a social worker, spent her days talking to messed-up kids like me. She didn’t want to go back. Hit me, I said.  

Maggie left the next day. I helped pack her things into a worn down purse, leaving behind anything too heavy to run with. Are you sure you don’t want to come? I shook my head quietly, thinking that things couldn’t always be solved by leaving – there was always someone else coming to take your place. She gave me her favourite library book, years overdue. I knew I should keep it for sentimental reasons but I wanted to put it back where it belonged. The nurse peered over the desk when Maggie signed herself out. Thought you didn’t smoke, she said. Maggie smiled. I do now.  

You and me, we’re shiny. Everyone else just wants to be polished.

I thought of her weeks later when my parents came to visit, UTSC letter in hand. I opened it with the casual unease of someone dropping a smattering of quarters into the TTC collection tin. Accepted, it said. Maybe I wouldn’t be a teacher, but I would be someone who tried. I would tell my kids that the mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell, but the world is so much bigger and sadder than that. I clasped the light to my chest, didn’t shout it down the halls as I was discharged. Just held on tightly to Maggie’s book and tried to remember what she said to me before she left. You and me, we’re shiny. Everyone else just wants to be polished. I looked one more time out the window of our room, wondered where she was sleeping tonight. 

If Toronto is my home, then Scarborough is the heart that beats outside its chest.  

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