When I Needed Somewhere Safe To Be, I Went To McDonald’s


During a summer when I was suicidally depressed, sometimes
home wasn’t safe. So I would walk to McDonald’s, where
nothing could hurt me.

Posted on October 03, 2017, 15:50 GMT

Calum Heath for BuzzFeed News

Sometimes, when you have suicidal thoughts, what you
need is a Big Mac. That’s what I needed, anyway, that summer,
four years ago. It was Big Mac time about five times a week,
usually at 1 a.m. or so. There was better food, but I didn’t
want it, because I had this strange kind of nausea where I
could only stomach relatively flavorless meals. Vibrant,
dazzling flavor overwhelmed me.

McDonald’s, though, was engineered for satisfying monotony —
each item was a precise deposit of one scientifically created
taste, free of nuance: the simple tang of focus
group–approved mayo, or the unassuming umami of perfectly
homogenous chicken.

In fact, I never really understood the Big Mac until I was
depressed. Why replace so much of the burger with the inner
bun? Why make the whole thing so squishy? It seemed silly.
Previously, I had thought that the point of the burger, in
general, was that it was a challenging, pleasurable ordeal —
the unwieldy consumption of a big, greasy puck of cow. But
the Big Mac is a yielding, pillowy item. It falls apart upon
contact. It’s a burger ghosts could eat.

Pillowy and yielding was just right for my gustatory needs,
in 2012, when my face felt weak all the time. Chewing
vegetables was taxing. Sitting still, hearing the sounds of
my mouth interacting with baby carrots — I didn’t have the
endurance. So I didn’t do it, even though I’d read on WebMD
that nutrition is a key component of mood. The only suitable
foods were soft, like peanut butter cups, smoothies, or fast
food of any kind.

I never really understood the Big Mac until I was

Also, I didn’t feel like I deserved healthy eating. I wasn’t
the type of person who ate good food. Salads were for
gorgeous women in stock photography, with tight pants and
handbags. Protein shakes were for personal trainers named
Shawn or Clarence. People with no body acne anywhere, people
who had a non-adversarial relationship with their sexuality.
Surely, I didn’t belong at a grocery store named Fiesta
Farms, replete with organic produce.

That summer I measured all outdoor distances in terms of
cigarettes. The McDonald’s was about three cigarettes away.
The first steps were the hardest — past the local bar, which
I’d stopped going to after I’d reached the stage where being
called by name, by the lovely staff, was uncomfortable.
Friendly indifference was much better. Smiles, McDonald’s
says, are free, and the smiles you get there are free not
only of price, but also of meaning, impact, or specificity,
which was just perfect.

The rest of the walk was easier. Crossing the major
intersections made me a little anxious, because people, in
general, made me anxious. But at that hour, they were mostly
partygoers to whom I was usually invisible. (My haircut and
personal style had recently taken a huge step backwards; I’d
made myself uglier than I’d ever been before.)

A lot of fucked-up people ended up in this particular
McDonald’s, by virtue of its location. It was kitty-corner to
an emergency room, a few blocks away from a bunch of halfway
houses, and down the street from the local drug park.
Everything was going on. A lone old lady, a regular, spoke to
her milkshake in Russian. Men who emitted attention-grabbing
odors, who wore clothes whose original colors were
indecipherable, kibitzed loudly in the corner.

But there were also prettier people among the population:
club kids and beery undergrads, wearing all the right fashion
hats; hipsters with all-black fixies parked outside; sloppily
lovely waitresses, just off work from handling more expensive
food, with the hipshot stance induced by sore calves.

Generally, these groups were self-segregating. On the one
side of the restaurant, there were all the people undesired
by much of society, regarded as a pitiable burden, or a
problem probably not worth solving. On the other side, there
were the young people whose lives, while maybe scattered,
were most likely trending upwards, towards a series of
pleasant, well-decorated living rooms, filled with loving
companions and perhaps a few gifted children. Frankly, I
never knew exactly where to sit, not feeling entirely at home
in either population.

I just needed an illuminated place — a confining cell I could
inhabit when I started feeling really sick. 

Two years before, I’d sat flush among the ranks of the
upwardly mobile: a star pupil, with an appetite for modernist
literature, wearing the American Apparel that was in style in
those medieval times. But then I’d dropped out to write a
novel that became a nervous breakdown. So while I wasn’t yet
part of the less fortunate population, that was a
possibility. There was still a long way down, but that was my
flight path. I’d already thrown out a lot of my clothing, for
reasons I couldn’t coherently explain, and somehow burned
through most of my money, even though I never did much.

I’ve already mentioned how much I loved McDonald’s customer
service. Let me mention it again. Those kids are angels,
every one of them. They’re so nonjudgmental, in the most
literal way. Not compassionately judgmental, like a
therapist, but just not. When one of these wonderful humans
put up my meal and called my number, I’d take it, sit
wherever felt least wrong, put my head down, and devote
myself entirely to my food. Even when not suicidal, I’m a
sucker for Big Mac sauce. It’s basically Thousand Island
dressing, which is a ringing endorsement.

The sandwich was only half the appeal, though. The other
reason I ended up at McDonald’s so often was that I just
needed an illuminated place — a confining cell I could
inhabit when I started feeling really sick. Home wasn’t safe
sometimes. In my tiny room, with its off-white walls smeared
with my handprints, it felt like anything could happen. There
were sharp objects around. Medication could’ve helped (and
it is helping, now, a
lot), but back then, I was proud and stupid. There wasn’t a
doctor in the world, I was convinced, who would understand my
very special issues.

So I just waited it out with the company of a Diet Coke.
Nothing could hurt me there. For however long it took, even
if it took all night, I could wait for a lull in my interior
monologue. Depression kind of has its own weather, and you
get to know it, after a while. Morning depression is often
relatively innocuous, if you make it out of bed. The simple
fact of coffee is a nice distraction. But by the evening,
things are a little dicier.

The only downside of McDonald’s was that sometimes someone
initiated conversation. Once it was Manfred, who explained
that we were surrounded by CIA operatives who were taking
notes on us. Honestly, he made a pretty convincing case — he
correctly pointed out that many of the patrons who surrounded
us were casting furtive glances in our direction while
rapidly writing mysterious messages on their phones. I was a
little touched by the fact that he considered me a fellow
civilian, rather than a part of the dangerous conspiracy that
engulfed his whole world.

At McDonald’s, the calories are inexpensive, if not
particularly high-quality, and the lights are on bright every

Another time, it was Amanda, whose seeming wholesomeness made
me feel somewhat ineligible for the continuing project of
being human. As she sat down at the table next to mine, we
made eye contact, and she asked me what was wrong shortly
thereafter. (I hadn’t told her that anything was wrong, but I
had a certain tremulous quality.) When I didn’t offer much of
an answer, she invited me to a party, which I refused. “Come
on,” she said, “it’s at this really cool loft on Richmond,
you’ll love it, it’ll cheer you up.” Shortly thereafter, she
briefly waved goodbye before disappearing with a flock of
other fun-loving people.

That was the worst summer of my life. The fall was pretty bad
too. But, luckily, a confluence of psychiatric mishaps
derailed me so badly that I was finally forced to seek
treatment. Sometimes an inappropriate prescription of
amphetamines, inducing a minor bout of psychosis, is just the
kick in the ass you need.

I still go to McDonald’s occasionally. It’s kind of a way to
reconnect with my past, along with an opportunity to enjoy a
consistently delicious product. There’s always someone in
McDonald’s who reminds me of me, someone staring down at
their table, fending off their whatever, communing with a
Filet-O-Fish. Though I always wish they had better
accommodations, I’m glad they have a place. Life is tiring,
psychiatric care is often hard to get, Toronto’s shelter
system isn’t fantastic, and it gets cold here. But at
McDonald’s, the calories are inexpensive, if not particularly
high-quality, and the lights are on bright every night.

This was also appreciated by a guy named Clint, who I met in
a hospital waiting room recently while my girlfriend was
getting a stuck contact lens removed. He had come from his
shelter, where he’d been bitten on the wrist by a frenzied
man who’d tried to bust in. Clint got involved when the
intruder attacked a member of the staff. The fight ended
quickly, Clint said, because Clint was an ex-military guy
with a lot of combat training, who had a great career until
he got addicted to painkillers. Then he became abusive, lost
his kids, and started bouncing between facilities. It was
unclear, after that night’s combat, whether he’d regain full
mobility in his hand. The crazy guy was fierce, if clumsy.
Clint told me this nonchalantly.

“That’s quite a story,” I said. “Do you think I could
interview you sometime?”

“Sure,” he said, “but you’d have to find me.”

“Where are you going now?”

“Don’t know, I never know,” he said. “But first, I’m gonna
get a large fries.” ●

Sasha Chapin is
a freelance writer whose work has been published in the New
York Times Magazine, The Walrus, and Hazlitt.

To learn more about depression, check out the resources at
the National Institute of Mental Health here.

If you are thinking about suicide, talk to someone. You can
speak to someone by calling the National Suicide Prevention
Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and or by texting HOME
to 741741, the Crisis Text Line.
Suicide helplines outside the US can be found here.

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