"did i ever tell you about the peanut butter story?"
-- A really late tribute to an old friend, written sleeplessly on November 15th, 2023
Content warning for discussion of adolescent mental hospital experiences, death and implied suicide... This is longwinded, weepy nonsense.
i don't go too long without telling the peanut butter story. i think i tell it at least once a year, maybe more if i've got the audience for it. well. i've got a big one now, in theory, so i'm going to tell it from start to finish, one last time.
in late 2016, i was admitted to a youth outpatient program at a mental health hospital. i'd been passed around from therapist to therapist for a few years prior, and the last one i'd seen told me that she didn't know what to do with me, and i needed “more intensive treatment.” whatever that meant.
i didn't really expect to get much from the hospital. at the time, even though i was very, very emotionally unwell, i was awfully chipper. i assumed the doctors would decide i was stable-passing and let me go within a week of sessions. assumed it would be uneventful and i'd forget all about it, like i'd forgotten about everything else, ever.
now, something important to know about me is i'm pathologically drawn to sad introverts. i don't get it either. i think it's a sixth sense that i just happen to seek out and helplessly cling to the dark, brooding types. maybe i'm convinced i'll fix them, or that we'll balance each other out like in the cartoons. i don't know. i don't think too hard about it. looking back, in a facility full of dark, brooding types, i'd honestly be surprised if i didn't come out with a friend.
anyway, i'd just gotten out of a table tennis match with one of the caretakers at the hospital. nobody else wanted to play with me, and i'm pretty sure the caretaker thought i'd start tearing up furniture if left alone for too long. it was true, i would have. 16-year-old len was like an untrained puppy. when my energy was adequately drained, i headed to the lounge area to mellow out. there was a girl sitting on the windowsill, looking out, you know, like a dark, brooding type, so naturally i continued past the lounge to say hi to her.
as one would expect, she completely blew me off. i actually got pulled aside later that day and told by the caretaker (the one that played table tennis with me) to not bother other patients. but, i was me, so there was no way that i'd listen to that nonsense.
i'd bug this girl all the time, and eventually she'd let me. at some point, she even told me her name: ruth. now that was a win. i'd eventually learn more information about her, but most of the details are hazy. she was a bit younger than me. she had a sister. i don't remember if she told me how she wound up at this place, but she was certainly here for a reason.
anyway, we'd end up in group therapy together a lot. same age group and all that. they had a basket of snacks for everyone to share. they had these styrofoam cups of ice cream, and they were my favorite. i'd take a spoon and slam like three or four (or however many of them they had in the basket).
eventually, the caretakers would tell me i couldn't do that anymore, and that the ice cream was for everyone. not just me. ruth thought that was ridiculous, because i was the only one eating them anyway. and she was right, but i decided that i had to pick my battles, and this was not one of them. so, i switched from ice cream cups to crackers and peanut butter dip.
the funny thing was there was way more peanut butter containers than cracker packets, and at some point i was so hungry i'd scoop leftover peanut butter containers with a spoon (like i had before with ice cream). it wasn't long until ruth and some others would call me the peanut butter girl. why they never called me the styrofoam ice cream girl eludes me.
ruth and i were pretty inseparable at the hospital by this point. both of us outpatient, we'd eagerly look forward to seeing each other walk through the door, like we were schoolkids or something. i mean, we were, but we were something a little different here. though, we certainly acted like some high school goofball duo. i was the peanut butter girl, and she was the peanut butter girl's friend.
there was this one time when someone was getting really chaotic in the common space, yelling and throwing things. i think the caretakers were worried that she would hurt someone, so they shuffled all of us (ruth and i included) into a separate room. some kids whispered about “booty juice,” and others were quietly coloring, and others were uh. crying? in the farthest side of the room, there was a broken piano—and i mean BROKEN. it'd likely been that way for many, many years, untouched except by kids who wanted to be annoying. which included me, of course, and i sat at the bench and played a couple of songs. that piano sucked ass, but i recall a caretaker telling me that she'd “never heard that piano sound good before.” i'd brag about it for a while.
there were a few highlight days like that. but the best days, regardless of the number of highlights, were the ones when ruth and i had occupational therapy together. we didn't always have all of our blocks at the same time, some days even our group therapy sessions were different. if we could have had anything together on any given day, we'd pick OT. the OT room was full of crafts to get the creativity flowing. it was our favorite, not because either of us were particularly artistic, but because we could goof off the most there. i made all kinds of things—a plushie, a t-shirt, a bracelet for my ex (which i never delivered, because she broke up me before i could). and ruth was always making something fun too, usually bracelets. but at its core OT was just a time for us to hang out and chat. about what? who knows. we were just kids then.
because i arrived to the program before ruth, i was also getting discharged before her. on my last day, we exchanged instagram handles, and just before parting ways she placed something in my hand. i don't know how she did it without me realizing, but she'd made me a bracelet during OT. it said “❤️ peanut ❤️ butter ❤️”. i thought it was adorable.
and then she told me she was thankful that i approached her at the windowsill, and she was thankful that i kept pestering her over and over again. she said it was so funny to watch me scrape peanut butter out of a small plastic tub with a small plastic spoon from the other side of the group therapy room, and that she enjoyed getting to know me during OT, and that i was great at piano. she told me that before arriving at the hospital she was in a really, really dark place, and that i had given her a light and reason for living on. (she'd say this again and again, even after we both left that place.)
when i returned home, i left the bracelet at my bedside, where i'd see it every night before sleeping. years later, i'd bring it to college and carry it around in the front pocket of my backpack. it has traveled with me everywhere since.
i tell the peanut butter story a lot. it's a good tale to kill the time, maybe warm some hearts. i tell a lot of stories for this reason, but the peanut butter story's special. my friendship with ruth reminded me—and continues to remind me—why i practice kindness and warmth.
being a nice person made people feel happy and loved, and this happiness and love was meaningful.
it's a simple principle, but it's worth repeating anyway.
i tell the peanut butter story because it makes other people happy, yes, but i also tell it because i want everyone in the world to see the value in making each other happy too. it's an easy story to tell, and everyone likes it.
ruth and i would talk over instagram messages once in a blue moon. she'd share a piece of her life, and i would share a piece of mine, and we'd comfort each other, and we'd cheer each other on.
and then we'd stop talking for a while.
the reality is most people inevitably drift from one another, and—despite everything—ruth and i did too.
but i'd continue to toy with the peanut butter bracelet every day and tell our silly hospital friendship story whenever anyone was willing to listen.
until, well, i didn't.
at some point, i'd not seen anyone in person for a long time, stopped fiddling with my bag and pulling out the flimsy bracelet for an audience. maybe it was because of covid, maybe it was because i'd moved away from all of my friends, maybe i'd just gotten a little too old or distracted. ultimately, i'd been separated from the story for some time.
but, today, i was digging through my things and happened to find the bracelet in exactly the spot it'd been all these years: the front pocket of my backpack. i thought maybe i should ask ruth how she'd been doing, if her boyfriend had gotten through rehab alright, if she was doing anything fun.
and i learned from instagram comments that her boyfriend had passed, and i learned from other instagram comments that she'd later passed too. a year and a half ago. really, i'd just missed her.
and i'm so mad at myself. this girl whose story i've presented to everyone who'd listen like a badge that said “see guys, you can make a positive impact on people's lives, and it does amount to something!” and i believed it. and now i lie here fucking sleepless, years late to the fact, staring at dms when i'd left her on read with nothing but a stupid heart emoji.
but at the end of the day it's not something i should be getting mad at, you know. especially at myself.
i'm just one guy from one small, small episode of her life,
just as she was just one guy from one small, small episode of mine.
and maybe she carried me around with her,
and maybe she didn't,
and i will never know, and honestly it doesn't really matter if she did or didn't.
i know that i carried her around,
hooked on my lamp
and tucked in my backpack
and she tagged along
everywhere i went.
and when i was bored, i'd rummage through my bag pretending it's full of wonders and surprises, and i'd pull out this stupid-looking bracelet, and i'd laugh on cue, and i'd go “hey, what's this old thing doing here?”
like i didn't put it there on purpose. like it wasn't just an excuse to tell another silly story. like it wasn't a reminder that even though i was sick enough for a hospital, my life was still pretty fucking grand
because i had friends.
and i had ruth.
and i had love.
and that love had meaning.
everyone tells me i'm kind. and, though i know people define me as a nice person, i've not allowed myself to feel pride over it, convinced that all my empathy has ever brought me was pain.
but that's not true.
it wasn't true in 2016 when i said hi to ruth at the windowsill
and it isn't true now.
my kindness has always been a strength, one that i've trained and nurtured in the presence of anyone who will have me. if i'm so proud of the way i was with ruth all those years ago that i'm retelling the story years later, then i should also be proud of the way i am with the people in my life today.
ruth was kind and thoughtful and bright and she told me that i was a part of that growth.
and i am kind and thoughtful and bright and she was a part of my growth, too.
ruth, i'm mad at myself, but you should know that i never stay mad for long. what a silly yet powerful impact you've had on my life, then and now and i'm certain for years after. the kindness in my heart that i shared with you back at the hospital was only in its infancy, and i want you to know it's exploded into something powerful and something defining, and i have you to thank, ruth. you kept telling me i saved your life back there, but there's no way in hell i'd be where i am today if not for your goofy teen ass.
thank you for always being you. rest in peace and power and peanut butter and everything else good.