LIZ WORTH is an author, a tarot card reader, a performance poet, a journalist, and a voice of truth.
I first met Liz many moons ago when she interviewed me about Goth for Toronto zine The Raven’s Call. She was a music journalist then, and a poet. In many ways, she reminded me of my younger self. More accurately, a braver version of myself. In her poetry books, including the early chapbook Eleven: Eleven and the raw collection Amphetamine Heart, she is all guts. (Also, I once watched her pull bloody pieces of animal meat out of her bra and throw them into the audience at a poetry reading.)
Liz has two great books in the library: Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk Rock in Toronto and Beyond 1977-1981 (2010), and her novel PostApoc (2013) about a girl who survives a suicide pact only to find herself living in the End Times. It’s not quite horror, but it is horrific, a dizzying trip into a desperate world where getting high off the ashes of the dead is one of the only ways to keep going. Her next book is No Work Finished Here: Rewriting Andy Warhol (coming fall 2015 from BookThug), and she’s been doing a poetry series based on Twin Peaks. She has also just launched a tarot card reading business. But more than any one project, what inspires me most about Liz is the honesty in everything she does, and her willingness to share, both her own struggles as well as discoveries on how to live a positive, creative life. I met her on a summer afternoon in Trinity-Bellwoods park to ask about the darkest theme in PostApoc—suicide. As always, Liz was very open. Here, we talk about teenage depression, reincarnation, the ghost of Kurt Cobain, and, of course, the end of the world.
I’d like to use PostApoc as a leaping off point. You wrote your first novel about an apocalyptic universe. How much thought have you been putting into what life would be like if most things were dead?
There was a time in my 20s when I used to feel that the end of the world was just around the corner. And I would think of all of the things that would go totally wrong if everything stopped working tomorrow. So, like us living in a place like Toronto, where we have access to this huge lake but we can’t actually drink from it. If all of a sudden our plumbing and water filtration stopped working what would we do, in a city this size? What if all of a sudden air pollution was so bad it was affecting everyone, not just people with asthma? The more possibilities I went through, the more I realized the future could be really, really bleak. And I figure most people would expect to be saved. But what if we couldn’t be saved? What if it really was the end? I was really obsessed with that thought for so long, it started to stress me out. I had to stop thinking about the end of the world. I had exhausted myself asking these questions. A couple of years later, when I was removed from it, I could revisit the idea and write that book.
You’re talking about resources, and how we adapt to changing environments. What about the mass loss of people? We know how bad it is when we lose someone important. And to imagine that times 10, or times 100…it’s hard to imagine grief on that scale. Was any of that part of the story you wanted to tell?
I don’t know. I mean, in PostApoc the main character [Ang] really isn’t functioning. Her and her friends thought the end of the world would come and they would be free. Free of needing money, and having to work, and to conform to society. All of a sudden they realize there is no structure, there is nothing for them, and they are not capable of building that structure for themselves. Her answer to everything is to be as obliterated as possible. So she’s always looking for whatever drugs or alcohol anyone still has hanging around. Because it’s really too hard to live through. But she has survival instincts, so she keeps going even though she doesn’t want to.
The future could be really, really bleak. And I figure most people would expect to be saved. But what if we couldn’t be saved?
Other people have asked you about the suicide pact in the book, and you’ve spoken openly about your own thoughts of suicide. Is that something we can talk about?
Yeah, I can talk about that.
Why is suicide the ultimate taboo?
I don’t know. I think that there are some very simplistic, knee-jerk reactions to suicide, where people can be very harsh and unsympathetic towards anyone who is struggling mentally or emotionally. And I think part of the reason for that might be that there are people who just don’t want to connect on that level. So if they hear that someone has a problem, or that someone is thinking of suicide, they don’t go to a sympathetic place in their reaction. They don’t want to deal with it. Why that is I think is very individual.
When it was happening to you, did you talk about it with anyone? I ask because I’m wondering how much writing about it is a way to talk about it when you can’t in real life.
I had some friends who were also going through some things and we had talked about suicide. This would have been in my early teens. We were all kind of feeding each other in a way. That wasn’t the right outlet. I did see a social worker and a psychologist for a while. I didn’t really want to talk to them, I felt like I was being forced. So I didn’t open up to them and I didn’t really take advantage of that help. My parents knew, but not because I wanted them to know.
This would have been the 1990s, right? A time when goth and vampires and the romance of the undead were becoming mainstream. People often look at Goths and assume they are depressed even though for many it’s purely an aesthetic. For you, were those things connected?
I was actually more into grunge and stuff like that, when I was first starting to have thoughts of suicide. But I was thinking about the concept of suicide when I was as young as eight. I had a cousin who was maybe 18 when she died. She had hung herself in a closet. I was in grade 3 or 4. So I was already very aware of it.
How was that explained to you?
It was pretty straightforward.
You mention grunge and this of course was also around the time of Kurt’s suicide.
Yeah, the 90s were really weird. I feel like a lot of people were living on a very different edge. I think back to how many people I knew who were talking about suicide, or self-harming. Which in the 90s was still being referred to as self-mutilation. The 90s seemed little bit more unhinged.
What did you think would happen if you killed yourself? A different state of being? A light switch going off?
I wasn’t so much concerned about what would happen afterwards. I was more focused on what I could stop if I died. So, if I wasn’t alive anymore I was trusting that the stream of consciousness that goes through my head all the time would stop. Because I wanted it to stop. There were things I wouldn’t have to worry about anymore. Like, I wouldn’t have to worry about the future anymore. I wouldn’t have to think about my insecurities anymore. You know, there were just all of these things that would not be a problem anymore. It was more about that for me, than it was about the thought of entering into something else.
I’m wondering how that even connects to the idea of dying. Like, when someone knows they are dying, from an illness, it effects them in a certain way. But suffering from a different type of illness where you want to, it’s hard to imagine.
Yeah, I think that’s part of why suicide is hard for people to understand. Because it goes against our survival instincts. We are supposed to want to fight for our lives. And a lot of people do when they find out that they have a terminal illness, they want to do everything they can to reverse it, if possible. We want to cure ourselves. We want to stay healthy. And I think going back to your question about PostApoc, and Ang, I think things for her are so confusing because she had wanted to die before, and she had been involved in a suicide pact before. And now she finds herself in a place where there is really nothing to live for, but she can’t bring herself to die, you know, because her survival instinct has kicked in. And for her, that is a very difficult thing to reconcile.
Did you think about the people who love you who would be left behind?
I was mostly worried about my parents. Like, what happens if my parents find me. That was my biggest fear. I didn’t think much about anyone else. It sounds sad, but I really didn’t feel like I had that many friends. When I was in high school I had boyfriends, and a few friends, but I wasn’t sure if people would even care. Like, if I did die, would anyone come to my funeral? I thought probably not.
When you think about that now, how do you feel?
Well, I was really lonely, a lot of the time. Even when I was with people. A lot of that had to do with some of the mental health struggles I had. I found it very hard to relate to other kids. It’s hard to be a teenager because a lot of other teenagers aren’t that sensitive, but you don’t know that yet. You don’t realize until you’re an adult the expectations you might have for your peers and that they might not be able to meet them, and that it’s not personal. Nobody tells you.
I wasn’t sure if people would even care. Like, if I did die, would anyone come to my funeral? I thought probably not.
One thing that made it worse was that because I was self-harming, people would notice. And someone told the guidance councilor. The guidance councilor told the principal, and then the principal called Children’s Aid. They didn’t call my parents first. Children’s Aid connected me to a social worker and psychologist at a hospital. [They told me] if I didn’t go through this six-week program they wouldn’t let me back in school. I got really mad. Because they hadn’t talked to me or my parents about what would be best for me, or what I needed. So I left the school. I just got up and left. Then they called the police. So then there was this missing person’s report out for me. When they brought me back to talk to the police, they made a really big show of everything. It was back in the school. The school principal was there. He was saying, “Show them – what you’ve done to your body. Show them how you’ve mutilated yourself.” It became very exploitative. It was like everyone wanted to look at me. It was uncomfortable and strange. To have a police officer there, it’s intimidating! So it was just really weird and I felt that all of these people were going through the motions of helping me, maybe following a protocol that had been written down somewhere rather than asking me if I was OK. That was a really bad experience. I was only 13.
How did your parents react?
They weren’t helpful in any way. And I’m an only child as well. So to have that happen, and your parents come and pick you up, and to go home alone with them alone, that really sucks. After that, nothing really got better for me for a long time. I self-harmed until I was 27. And I really couldn’t stop thinking about suicide. Even though I got to a point where I didn’t want to die anymore, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I didn’t think I’d live to be 30. I always felt that I was falling apart. Even though I could be together in so many ways and nobody would know. You never know what people are really going through. Right? I guess that’s why I think it’s important to talk about these things. So that people realize it’s happening to so many people.
For me, I just woke up one day and decided I didn’t want to feel that way anymore, and that was it. I was 27. I think that if I had been treated differently from that very first time, when I had an opportunity to get help, when there were adults involved, if that hadn’t been so scary, I could have had a little bit more of a voice in everything. Things could have been a lot different for me.
I’m doing in the math. I knew you when you were 27. I feel weird that I didn’t know you enough to realize it, or to know to ask. Even though I liked you and cared about you, I was oblivious. It feels weird now.
[Pause. A super happy, tiny dog runs over. Much laughter ensues.]
So, almost half your life was spent thinking that maybe dying would be better than being alive. That’s intense.
Yeah. It was. Even now. This is the longest I haven’t self-harmed, but it’s still a really short amount of time in comparison. Right? So, yeah, that’s’ weird.
Does writing help?
I guess writing PostApoc was kind of cathartic because it let me talk about my experiences and get a lot of stuff out there in a way that I don’t have to think about anymore. Once a story is told, it’s out of me. But in general I find writing stressful. The feeling of never being satisfied that you’ve done enough, the constant nagging. That’s what writing is to me, the feeling that something is undone. No matter where you are, you’re always “with” your writing in your head. You’re always in two places at once. This feeling of striving towards more.
Do you believe our lives on Earth are one-shot deals? Is that part of the stress, the struggle to get everything done?
I definitely believe in reincarnation. I believe that we have souls. Even though my parents are not very spiritual, I am. But yeah…there are beliefs that everyone you meet, you’re already supposed to know. And we all play a role in each other’s lives, for better or for worse. We are all here to see each other through certain chapters of our lives, to give each other certain types of experiences that we all agreed to do before we got here.
So do you feel that you have lived before?
As a theory, or as a sensation? Do you feel your past lives?
I don’t have memories. But when I was really young I felt that I was an old soul. Sometimes it would worry me. That I was too young to be so tired. That things were maybe a bit too much. But I’ve had some really interesting interactions with people who work as mediums. And I’ve had three different mediums tell me the same thing—that this is my last life here. Depending on what your school of belief is, souls can go on but they don’t always come back as human. They might come back as a guide for someone. But I don’t know what happens to me after this.
How do you personally deal with the end of things?
I don’t believe that anyone ever totally leaves us. We still have our memories of them. My dad died two years ago, but I still dream about him all the time. And I feel that those dreams are real. When we are in dreamtime together, those are real interactions to me. Other times, I’ll be walking down the street and think I see him, for a second. It’s not him, it’s someone else. But I feel like for that flash it was him. I feel that people can hang around, in that way. Even though the physical end is hard. Because that’s what we know, everything we touch and see and feel and talk to. But I do believe everything has a life cycle. I do believe relationships do, jobs do, places that we live. And sometimes they come to an end when they are ready even when we are not ready. And part of that is the lesson on its own. Right? Because all of those experiences inform us later on. We just don’t know how we are going to use that information yet.
What kinds of books have you read that help you understand the bigger questions about life and death?
I got really interested in the occult when I was younger. In divination, in mediumship, in witchcraft. That kind of stuck around, but I’ve also expanded into other areas. I’ve started working with shamanic healers, trying different types of meditation, exploring things to find what resonates with me the most. I’m very curious.
You mention divination. If someone could tell you when you were going to die, would you want to know?
Yeah, I think I would. I just spent the last eight years working in an industry I didn’t like working in. I would tell myself, “If I knew I was going to die in a month, I wouldn’t come back here tomorrow.” So I’d want to know, to keep myself in check about what I’m doing with my life.
I don’t believe that anyone ever totally leaves us. My dad died two years ago, but when we are in dreamtime together, those are real interactions to me.
If we have a choice, why keep living?
I think hope has a lot to do with it. We hope that things are going to be really great one day. We hope we’ll be able to accomplish some of the things that we dream about. We hope that we’re going to fall in love. And we hope that we’re going to grow old with that person. We hope that we’re going to have a nice house, or go on a great trip. That we’re going to write an awesome book, or have kids. I think those are the things that keep up going. Because we don’t really know, what we’re going to get off our wish list. Right? Some of us get everything. Some people don’t get anything. You know?
You said “us.” How much is hope part of your own transformation these past few years, into someone who thinks less about your own early death?
I think so. There are a lot of things I want to do. But there were always a lot of things I wanted to do. I think the important thing to remember is that if anyone is thinking about dying, it’s not like that’s the all-encompassing thought. Because there is all of this life that happens in between all of that, still. There are friendships, there are things that you do and things that you laugh at, things that you work on, goals that you accomplish. Life keeps moving forward. And you keep moving forward too.
Forgive me the cliché question, but since you believe in reincarnation I thought I’d end with this one: What do you want to come back as?
It doesn’t work like that. I don’t think it does anyway. But I do think it would be cool to be a ghost. The experiences you could give people! The stories! It would be a great way to still be a writer.