Chloe Sagal did not need to die.
I don't want to write this.
I want to be writing about Chloe Sagal's latest work, or about the game jam she just wrapped up, or something beautiful she composed or something funny she said. I want to tell you she's doing OK.
She's dead. She didn't need to die.
I wish I wasn't writing about my friend who set herself on fire. She walked into a park downtown, read a manifesto about homelessness and mental health, covered herself in gasoline, and...
I'm told her last words were, "I didn't think it would hurt so much."
I met her online. We hit it off well so we hung out in person. We got high together and talked about video games. We cuddled. We kept hanging out. I remember playing Nidhogg together, watching Steven Universe together, laughing together. When I had a suicidal meltdown, she and a friend were there to keep me on my feet. When she had meltdowns, we tried to be there for her.
Chloe experienced a litany of mental health issues that interfered with her daily life, aggravated by a cadre of dedicated harassers. Kiwifarms categorized her as a lolcow and maintained a thread on her that spanned 172 pages. I won't link to it. If you want to mire yourself in their hatespeech, dig it up yourself. For years they hounded her, and it haunted her. Amid a world that wanted her dead, these petty strangers helped make life hell.
I only knew Chloe for a short time. She came apart as I knew her, with periods of stability farther and farther apart. Eventually, six people including myself organized a round-the-clock watch to ensure someone was always with her. When we couldn't keep it up, we convinced her to voluntarily be committed to a mental ward -- the same one I'd been to.
Here's the thing about American mental wards: whether you enter voluntarily or not, you are a prisoner to them. They will drug you, control you, and keep you until they see fit to release you, which may honestly be never. Many of the others there had been committed just for having no place to live. I met an older schizophrenic in the ward who had been there, and would be there, indefinitely. As a schizophrenic myself, the reality of his incarceration grounded me. I remember him as elegant and playful, but the orderlies treated him like an unruly animal capable of neither thought nor speech. I understood that if I was going to get out, I'd have to pretend normalcy to my captor's satisfaction. To survive in the long-term, I would have to never stop pretending.
There was only one book in the ward: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I read it twice.
After the ward released me but before I left the building, a clerk handed me a bill and arranged a payment plan. Every day had cost close to a thousand dollars. I remember seeing the price and thinking about the friend who never got out. I remember thinking about the job I was about to lose anyway. I remember wondering if the therapist who had recommended this place had ever endured it.
A part of me had hoped Chloe would come to the same conclusion that I had, but it was cruel of me to have expected anything good of it. I should never have taken her to that wretched place. The experience left her more rattled than before, disoriented and paranoid. How could we have done this to her, her friends?
Eventually our ad-hoc 24-hour watch fell apart. Chloe tried to hang herself in the garage, but my dad cut her down before she could. Meanwhile, I was melting down. I lost my job and couldn't hold onto the house where we lived. After she moved out, we lost touch. The last time we spoke, she was still struggling. She needed help scheduling and getting to medical appointments. She wanted to make it work. She was doing her best. But I had burned out. After trying for months to hold down my own crumbling shit while being there for my friend, my comrade, my sister, our collective abilities were exhausted. The labor to ensure her wellbeing did not exist among us. I told her I needed space.
On September 18, 2015 I said the last thing I would ever say to her:
you are strong and i know you can make it, chloe. we'll talk eventually <3
I read a recollection recently by Meredith L. Patterson of her time in a Belgian ward, in an essay titled Tales from Underwater:
Again, not the response my US-conditioned reflexes were expecting: “But sertraline was all right?” I nodded. “Then that’s fine. I’m also going to put down an optional 10mg of etumine, in case the intrusive thoughts get to be too much. It’s an atypical antipsychotic. If you decide you need it, you can just ask at the nurses’ station, okay?” Gentle Reader, I have seen patient-controlled analgesia before, but this was the first time I’ve ever encountered patient-controlled antipsychotics.
I don’t think I can emphasise enough how novel this kind of approach is to someone accustomed to the shut-up-and-take-your-medicine dynamic of the American medical system. The incentives are simply that different. [...]
I also lost count of how many people reminded me, the first day I was there, that I was there voluntarily and that if I wanted to, I could leave any time. Definitely the intake psychiatrist, as well as the psychiatrist they assigned to me, but also a couple of nurses, unprompted. I don’t know whether I was giving people suspicious looks, if that’s just standard practice there, or what, but enough people said it that I eventually relaxed and believed them. I asked about visitor policies and found out that there weren’t any — whoever wanted to visit could just turn up during visiting hours, no prior arrangements required. I kept my phone, my e-cig, and my e-reader, and when my girlfriend arrived, she brought more clothes, my laptop, and my violin. (I’m trying to imagine how an American psych ward would respond to somebody wanting their violin. “You want WIRES? What do you think you’re going to DO with them?” Uh, practice scales? Be glad I don’t play the cello, or that she left my bass at home.)
Meredith is right about the stringed instruments. We had one instrument in the ward, a guitar, and you could only use it under supervision -- meaning, as you stood in front of the orderly that handed it to you.
The approach that Meredith describes is hard to imagine for me. I can imagine it, but it's like painting a dream. I think about what that kind of compassionate, proactive care could have meant for Chloe. She could have had space to breathe, to recuperate, to come together apart from the malice of strangers who stalked and threatened her, outside of capitalist pressure to pay up or die. The labor to support her did not exist among us, but that Belgian ward shows me it does exist. That she couldn't access it ultimately contributed to her death. Strained and fragile, our communities struggle to organize the labor to protect our most vulnerable from institutional machinery that wants us dead. Though the resources exist, they are kept from us.
The ward never wanted Chloe to survive. They wanted her to pay up, like a good customer.
Chloe isn't the first friend I've lost to suicide, and I know she won't be the last. Until we crush the kyriarchy and cast off the oppressor for all time, I will keep losing friends. Hateful men will step from cars and gun down my sisters. Police will end us for having no place to live. Girls in the prime of their life will step into traffic because the alternative of remaining alive is unbearable. A ten year old caught up in one of the web's many hate machines will call you on a bad day and tell you in a voice that cracks, "Kill yourself."
When she stepped into the park where she would end her life, she read a manifesto. I wish I knew what she had said. I know that she wanted better for all of us. She knew, like we all know, that none of us deserve this. She didn't deserve this. We are human beings, damnit, and we are not disposable. We are not debt batteries or profit centers. We are not sex objects or dangerous maniacs. We are living, breathing, feeling creatures worthy of survival. It is a form of extermination that we are systematically denied.
Chloe died in protest. When I heard the news, I was immediately reminded of Thích Quảng Đức, a Buddhist monk who immolated himself at a busy intersection in Saigon to protest the persecution of Buddhists. Here's what fucks me up:
The self-immolation was later regarded as a turning point in the Buddhist crisis and a critical point in the collapse of the Diệm regime.
Chloe's death won't be the turning point. The wards won't change. Healthcare won't change. This exterminatory regime won't collapse. Do you know what folks did about her death? Fascists weaponized it to harrass other women. We are pawns and tokens in their sick power trips. Even the people who take it up to argue with the fascists won't change shit. They won't tear down the machines that killed her. They'll waste breath in comment threads and then complain about discourse, and the fascists will be all the happier for it.
Nothing will change. We will still struggle to organize the labor to support each other in times of vulnerability, and we will continue to fail all the time. We will lose more sisters and more sisters will be taken from us. Girls just discovering their truth will find life not worth living, and they will continue to act on that despair. Fascists will piss on our graves and liberals will wag their fingers. Our disposability is normal to them. It is a vast nightmare that only deepens.
Chloe Sagal did not need to die. No one does.