The Exit Sign Went Out: A Mackenzie Nicole Guest Blog

When I was fourteen, I got heavy into slam poetry. I would stare at my computer screen (open to my now regrettably deleted tumblr) and scroll through hours of miscellaneous faces speaking or yelling or whispering their pseudo-profundities. One of those faces was a poet by the name of Neil Hilborn. While slam poetry lost my interest as suddenly as it caught my attention, it was one of Neil’s works (or, rather, one of Neil’s lines) that always stuck with me; an excerpt from his poem “The Future” goes as follows:
“I think a lot about killing myself, not like a point on a map but rather like a glowing exit sign at a show that’s never been quite bad enough to make me want to leave.”
He was right.

I had been suicidal for eight years at that point and would remain suicidal for four more. I wondered why I didn’t just do it. Why didn’t I just kill myself? Was it for a higher power? No, I didn’t believe in one. Was it for my loved ones? No, they would all die eventually, too, and take the collateral damage from my death with them. Was it for myself? No, I hated myself. Was it for my potential? Now, we’re onto something…

I have never been an active participant in my life. My life has been a show I watch in a theater empty except for myself. And, the exit sign. I loathe the show. The “protagonist”, if we can even call her that, from whose perspective the show is from is two-dimensional. She is water. She is whatever you put in her or put her in but nothing in and of herself. It is exhausting watching her project the front that she is someone when she is, in fact, no one. She is a husk, a papier mache person poorly masquerading as knock-off archetypes. While the main character lacks substance, the supporting characters, settings and plot lines blatantly boast some sort of potential but are grossly neglected. There’s a certain meta irony of the show in that it’s entire focus is on how much it sucks. Everything else is so secondary it is virtually nonexistent. The exit sign’s glowing red reminder is a security blanket assuring me that there is always a way out, at least. In the vacant theater, it was my companion and my comfort. Yet, I stuck around, just in case the show ever got good. After all, it was less about exiting and more about having the option to exit.

But, then something happened. It started when I first saw my psychiatrist at eighteen. With once weekly therapy sessions and twice daily medication, the exit sign began to dim. I didn’t notice it immediately. It wasn’t until months into my recovery that I noticed the flicker. The sign had shone so brightly for so long, but now it was barely visible. Before long, it went out completely. The moment the darkness engulfed me, anxiety swelled in my chest like a puffer fish. The old fallback was gone. I was going to have to see this show through to the end, for better or for worse. Instead of staring at the exit sign, I turned my attention to the screen. When I did, something changed.

Suddenly, I wasn’t in the theater anymore ― I was in the show itself. I was the protagonist I so despised. Even more to my surprise, the entire thing was self-directed. It hit me all at once that it was now my responsibility to make this show good.

Realizing this, a heavy weight crashed down on my already burdened shoulders. I had to make choices. I had to participate. I had to make the changes required to make this show at least bearable, lest I live in misery. The first step? Workshopping the protagonist (i.e., myself).

After spending a lifetime of excruciatingly yet shoddily modeling myself after what I thought I should be, I finally surrendered to what I was. I had to finally make decisions based on what I actually like, dislike, want, believe in, etc. rather than what I thought I should. Instead of asking myself, “What would Mackenzie be like?”, I began asking myself, “What am I like?”, viewing myself as myself rather than dissociating. I stopped obsessing over perfecting the character, an amalgamation of others’ perceptions and my expectations of myself, instead acting on instinct and inclination. I am still undergoing this process, finding out more about myself every day. I replaced a lifetime’s worth of rigid character scripting with one guiding principle: I will do what makes me happy and become a product of it.

Still, I obviously do not have the luxury of doing whatever I want.This is where the second step in directing the show comes into play ― addressing the settings and supporting characters. The rule for this is as follows: do what you can where you are with what you have. I started working on my relationship with others and my relationship with my environment. Before, I had drifted through life like a shadow person, never taking advantage of my surrounding people, places and things and how they could better my life. I took for granted so much while trapped in my own pitiful self-absorption. Now, I refuse to miss out anymore. Now, I’m no longer going to kill myself, so there’s no excuse to remain distant. I talk to the people around me. I meet new people. I spend time with loved ones. I create a home for myself out of the places I have at my disposal. I do all the things I was too busy hating myself to do before.

Do not misunderstand me ― these things were not easy. They were necessary. I struggle every day practicing this new way of life. I struggle every day trying to be true to myself. I struggle every day using the tools at my disposal to construct a happy life for myself. Some days, I miss the exit sign that once relieved my ache for change. I didn’t know back then that the only way to change the way I felt was to change the way I lived.

I am so grateful the exit sign went out.