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The Project

Rona Altrows

At age four I had created many projects. I'd organized a medical visit for my dolls and had the receptionist (me) call the patients in one by one to see the doctor (me, different voice) for examination and diagnosis. I'd set up a corner store in the living room of our apartment and stocked the shop with soup cans and cereal boxes from our pantry. The cashier (me) stood behind at the till, a shoebox on a table. My customer (me, different voice) told me her life as she placed her purchases on the conveyor belt, a towel spread lengthwise on the tabletop. I'd always loved projects. Maybe that's one of the things that had drawn me to theatre. Making a show with others always felt like a fulfilling project.

That Tuesday morning, I was twenty-one and I had a project.

I'd been depressed for so long I didn't remember what it was like to feel okay. I'd always had some low days, but long depressive episodes had only surfaced when I was fifteen. Now, I was enduring unending days of wretchedness. It had been eight months so far with this episode.

In an episode at age eighteen, I'd looked for professional help. Shrink A loaded me so full of drugs I went numb. He said I was an underachiever, an attention seeker, immature. Most actors were immature, so no surprise, he said. Eventually, he told me I was (his word) crazy. That's when I awakened enough to stop seeing him.

I thought I'd better try another psychiatrist, with my anxiety ramping up during that depressive episode. For me depression had no choice but to travel with anxiety, my constant companion. It was like I was on an amusement park ride going around in circles and unable to get off the ride. This I explained to Shrink B, who worked at my university's health service. He said I'd be fine if I just relaxed, by getting drunk. I explained that except for sips of wine at Passover seders, I'd never consumed alcohol. He told me to get out there and learn to get drunk.

I figured personal spiritual advice might help and decided to approach a rabbi who was also a philosopher. I'd recently attended his brilliant lectures on trends in contemporary thought and other topics that stretched my mind. I hoped wisdom might bring me relief and I felt from his lectures that this rabbi was wise.

When we met at his synagogue office, though, the rabbi seemed like a completely different person. He never met my eyes, just paced and stared at the floor. What did I want, he asked. I said that for many months I'd been feeling empty inside, without direction, useless. To be honest, I saw no point in going on. All right, he said, so what did I want of him?

I said I wanted to know the purpose of life.

He said the purpose of life was to live.

Then he looked at his watch.

I left.

Now here I was, three years later. I'd given up on looking to psychiatrists or spiritual leaders for help, but I still had pills left over from my days as Shrink A's patient. For depression, Imipramine. For inattention, Ritalin. For anxiety, Valium. Although my ordeals with those drugs had made me loathe and fear them and I hadn't taken any in a couple of years, I kept them in the medical cabinet of my downtown semi-basement apartment, just in case. In case of what, I wasn't sure.

By this point in the progress of the depressive episode, I ceased to feel as though I inhabited my body. Sensations and emotions flatlined. When this episode had started I was able to feel. Mostly, I had felt sad. Now I felt nothing.

Somehow I'd managed to get through my days in a one-year post-BA diploma program to qualify as a teacher. I'd done my first student teaching session at an inner-city high school before the depression came upon me and my next session was not to start until later in the term, so all I'd had to do lately was to attend my university classes and do the assignments, which even a depressed me could do, as the course work was not difficult. I had so enjoyed the student teaching. The kids were great to work with, especially the ones who had been sidelined before because of their temperament or ethnicity or complex learning styles. "I used to be dumb, but now our student teacher has confused me," a shy girl wrote in a composition. I'd also had fun directing a production of Dylan Thomas's Under Milkwood that featured the other future teachers in my how-to-be-a-drama-teacher class. But those things had happened before this episode had started.

I had already had so many months in a depleted state, I started to think of the troubled person whose body I inhabited as someone else who looked and sounded like me. Dissociating the rational me from the broken me was the only way I could move from one moment to the next. But which of us moved? I was frightened by what was happening to me.


You look ahead and the landscape is bleak. Food does not interest you. Sleep eludes you and when it does arrive, it comes in a twelve-hour stretch that does not refresh. You are not pregnant but your periods have stopped. You are sluggish. You have no desire to play tennis, your favourite spring sport. You usually love spring birdsong. Now the birds can go to hell. Everyone can. Especially you. You are trapped in this state of desolation. How can you go on like this for a whole natural lifetime, when every day is this flat and devoid of hope? Another fifty or sixty years living like this is unimaginable. You'd have to be crazy to put up with that. In past episodes you've had thoughts of doing yourself in and have even made some gestures, mostly ineffectual wrist slashings. But this time you intend to get it done properly. It's your new project.

It's Monday. You decide that tomorrow will be the day. Setting a timeline is critical to any project.

Once you've made up your mind you feel so much better. You know the tedium will end soon, very soon, so now you can relax. You even indulge in a bit of friendly conversation with your classmates, something you'd stopped doing because, like everything else, it was pointless.

On Tuesday morning at seven o'clock you put on your jeans, as usual, and the blue button-down shirt you have selected for the day. Getting dressed is an important part of the project. You know that at some point you will be found, and a serious person would not be found in pajamas. You empty your bladder, brush your teeth, comb your hair. You open the medicine cabinet, kill the cockroaches that have taken up residence there despite your most recent Raid attack three days ago, and bring out the all the bottles of psychiatric pills—the yellow, the blue, the white. Plus aspirin. Why aspirin? You aren't sure. It's your go-to cure for headache, although you rarely get headache. You hadn't planned on the aspirin. Never mind. You're overthinking again. Bring the aspirin along. Can't hurt.

Oh no. You just remembered something. You've been so focused on today's project you'd forgotten the lunch date with your best friend, Peter. He's supposed to pick you up here at your apartment at noon. You're afraid that if you phone him to cancel, you'll lose yourself and tell him about the project today. You can't risk that. You know he'll try to stop you. He's talked you down before, when you've said out loud that you'd like to self-destruct. So you write Peter a note saying you're sorry, you can't make it, something has come up, and you leave the note on the outside of your apartment door. You're proud of taking care of this detail. Every project takes careful planning.

You carry a glass of water to your bedstand and then, in a separate trip, the pills. You decide it isn't necessary to swallow them all. You've been brought up to keep waste to a minimum. The yellow pills will do. Just the yellows. You're sure they'll be enough. You are ready, so ready, to go. You take the yellow pills with water.

You lie down in your single bed on top of your blanket and wait to die.


When I wake up I look at the clock. It's four-fifteen. There's natural light coming in so it must be late afternoon, not the middle of the night. For a second I thought I was dead, but I'm already past that moment. My project has failed. This is an unforeseen outcome, but I'm not sorry.

I'm groggy and it's hard to think. How many pills did I take? Will I die? I'm terrified.

I don't know what to do. Usually when at a loss, I call my parents, so I do that. My mother answers. I can hear myself slur words. My mother says to meet her and my father at the Emergency at the Jewish General. Her voice is calm, unusually so. It settles my emotions a bit, enough so I can get moving.

My parents live way closer to the hospital than I do so I know they will get there before me. How will I get there? A bus ride would be too slow. Too slow for what? I don't even know. Too slow to stop me dying?

I grab my purse, leave the apartment and run north for five blocks. The lights cooperate, thank God, though it's rush hour and there are a lot of cars and pedestrian around, so I need to be careful. When I reach Sherbrooke Street I have to wait for a long light. Finally it changes and I'm on the north side of the street with my thumb extended to westbound traffic. A woman calls out to me from her station wagon, tells me to get in. She says she can tell something's up with me. What is it? I explain, briefly. She says oh boy, let's figure this out. She has to pick her kids up from daycare so she will need to drop me off soon. She says I need to get out soon and flag a cab to get to the hospital. Do I have cash on me? Otherwise she'll give me some. I tell her I have my wallet and my father taught me to always keep some cash in it because you never know. We drive a few blocks and then she says, this is where I need to make my turn. Now go get that taxi. RUN!

I run, find a cab quickly. When I meet up with my parents at the Emergency they look haggard. I tell them they must think I'm crazy. I think, my mother says, in shakier voice than on the phone, I think you must be very unhappy. Her eyes are red from crying.

The wait is short. The doctor, who looks not much older than me, says they can't pump my stomach. It's been too many hours. He talks to me, then to my parents. He says the crisis has passed, I should sleep it off and not be alone today.

Before long we're at my parents' place and I fall asleep quickly. When I get up, my father tells me he and my mother are relieved. They'd been afraid they'd lose me.

It was a project, I tell my father. A stupid project.


Rona Altrows

Rona Altrows

Rona Altrows is a multi-genre writer and editor. Born, raised, and liberally educated in Montreal, she now lives in Calgary. She has always lived with high anxiety and intermittent depression and seeks to use her neurodiversity in positive ways, such as consistently meeting deadlines. She is the author of three books of short fiction and has edited or co-edited three anthologies. Her work appears frequently in magazines both in print and online.

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