Title: What Doesn't Kill You
Spoilers: General through half of season 2?
Rating: T. Read the warnings
Summary: Dean comes back to the boys' motel room in time to learn that there are any number of secrets Sam is hiding.
Warning: References to suicide attempts & suicidal ideation, mental illness. Includes description of cutting. Language.
Sam listened at the window, careful not to move the curtain, until he was certain Dean and the Impala had left the lot below. Then he retreated to the bathroom and locked the door behind him just to be safe.
He lowered the toilet lid and sat down, raising the knife he normally kept hidden away in the bottom of his bag, a knife he'd never used for hunting. He spread one of the once-white motel towels over his lap and then pressed the blade lightly to his bicep, high enough up that a t-shirt would hide the scar.
He slid the blade slowly over his skin; the first cut was always the slowest. The second was quicker, not as halting, and the third smoother still. Sam dragged the blade over the stained towel on his lap and watched his blood drip slowly onto the towel.
He'd seen his own and Dean's blood spilled more times than he could count but to see it drawn by his own hand… it was reassuring somehow that there was some aspect of his life, however small, that he still had control over. The only other point in his life where his own thoughts, wants, desires had entered the equation was his short time at Stanford. And even into that his old life - the hunt, the demon - had found a way to intervene.
He'd just placed the knife onto the sinkboard, just begun to wrap the bloodied towel around his arm when pounding against the door forced him from his reverie. "Sam, open this door or I'm gonna break it down!" Dean's frightened, almost panicked voice shouted through the flimsy door between them.
Dean stared, heart pounding and knuckles throbbing, at the closed door. He waited, prayed for an answer but his brother's voice never made it through the door. He aimed a booted foot at a spot just below the doorknob and swore when the door didn't give. The wood splintered slightly and the door flung open under the force of a second blow.
Sam sat on the closed toilet seat, a blood-stained towel wrapped around his bicep. On the sink next to him sat a blade, it's otherwise pristine surface dulled only by the blood staining the smooth edge. His brother looked up at him, face pale and eyes fearful. "Dean--" he whispered, and Dean choked down the fear gripping his heart and moved toward his brother.
"Sammy," he said softly, kneeling in front of the younger man. "Let me see that, okay?" He tried to keep his voice as calm and steady as possible so as not to send his younger brother into a panic. He physically removed Sam's hand from his upper arm and peeled back the blood-soaked cloth.
Three parallel scars jumped out at him, the bright relief against Sam's tanned skin almost keeping him from noticing the other more faded lines marring his brother's bicep. Dean reached blindly for the first aid kit, set on the floor beside the sink, and dug around for peroxide. "This is gonna sting, little brother." Sam gave an absent shrug and didn't meet Dean's eyes. He didn't make a sound as the liquid ran over the cuts and onto the towel bunched in his lap either.
Dean cleaned out the cuts and bandaged Sam's arm better than Sam had probably been doing himself. Then he hauled his brother to his feet and led him out of the bathroom. "We gotta talk, Sam." Sam half-collapsed onto the bed and Dean sat down beside him.
"No chick flick moments," Sam replied under his breath, the words clearly from his tone not intended to be an impeachment of Dean but having that effect all the same.
"This isn't chick flick, Sammy. This is serious." Not that their father's death wasn't serious, but crying over that was a far cry from his brother slicing himself open to deal with it. "How long you been doing this, Sam?"
Sam shrugged. "Long time. Before school."
Years then. It'd started when they were teenagers, maybe before. How had he missed it? "I'm sorry, Sam."
His brother finally looked over at him, genuine surprise in his eyes. "For what?"
"I shoulda seen… I shoulda realized something was wrong."
Sam gave another shrug. "Dad didn't. Jess didn't, until it was too late."
Dean shook his head slowly, trying to process his brother's meaning. "What does Jess dying have to do with you cutting?"
"Not… never mind."
"No, Sam. What do you mean, until it was too late, if you're not talking about her death?" Dean moved from the bed to kneel in front of his brother and took Sam's hand when the younger man didn't respond. "Sam? You're scaring the shit out of me, Sam."
Sam twisted his arm in Dean's grasp until the underside of his wrist faced up. Dean stared down and blinked at the angry looking scar that ran half the length of his brother's forearm. There was an identical line tracing up Sam's right arm. "Sam, uh, where did these come from?"
"I couldn't do it anymore." Sam barely whispered the words. "Jess came home early… she was supposed to be out late. I…"
Dean took his spot back next to Sam and pulled his brother into a tight embrace. "God, Sam. I'm so sorry." Sam went still in his arms for a moment and then began to tremble, tears soaking through Dean's t-shirt. It was all Dean could do keep himself in check as his brother sobbed brokenly into his shoulder. He didn't speak again until Sam had quieted. With his brother still in his arms Dean asked, "You want to tell me what happened?"
"I just wanted it to stop." Dean struggled to make the response out, muffled as it was with Sam speaking into his chest. "But Jess found me and… I didn't want her to find me, Dean. I just wanted it to stop."
"Do you want it to stop now?" There was no response from his brother and Dean wondered if Sam could feel the pounding of his heart against his rib cage. "Sam, please tell me."
"I don't know."
"Fair enough." He rubbed his brother's back lightly. "Sammy, when you're ready, I want you to tell me what happened when you… when you cut your wrists." He couldn't bring himself to say suicide, to say aloud that his brother had tried to kill himself.
Against his chest Sam shook his head. "Don't want to, Dean," he whispered.
"Sammy, I need you to. I need to know. For me, okay? I need you to tell me."
Sam shook his head harder but Dean pulled away just enough to look down and hold his brother's gaze. "Sam, I need to know. It's me, Sammy. I'm not going to judge, no matter what. But I need to know."
Sam pulled away and ran a hand up and down his upper arm. He stood slowly and kept his back to Dean. "I don't want to talk about it. I'm sorry I… fell apart like that."
"Sam." Dean stood and pulled his brother back toward him, careful of his arm. "Sam, look at me. You aren't the one who has to apologize here. I should have realized that you had some problems. Especially if this has been going on since before you went to Stanford. Now I'm asking you, please. Tell me what happened."
"Sam, you always want to talk. The one time I want to talk to you, I want you to talk to me, you won't. Why?"
"A lot of reasons, Dean. I'd really like to forget it ever happened."
"Yeah, well, it doesn't look like you're doing a very good job." Dean shut his eyes tightly and forced himself to take a deep breath. Yelling at his little brother wasn't going to do him much good, and it wasn't likely to convince Sam to open up.
Ha. When had he ever had trouble getting Sam to open up?
He brushed a hand through his hair and stared at the floor for a minute, counting to ten before he spoke again. "Look, Sam. Obviously, you've got some problems, and they used to be worse. I'm not trying to judge you here; I want to understand. Because just the idea that you'd do something like this scares the hell out of me. And I gotta say I'm terrified you'd do it again and I don't think I could live with that. So I need to know what happened, Sam. Please."
For a long time he thought Sam was going to keep tuning him out. But then Sam collapsed onto the opposite bed, head in his hands. "I woke up in a hospital with my arms strapped to the bed," he said to the carpet beneath his feet. "The doctor wanted me to check into a hospital and Jess begged me to." He raised his head just enough to look in Dean's direction. "I was in a psych hospital for three weeks."
"And then, ah, they just let you go?" It was easier to ask questions than to think about the fact that his brother had been so far gone that he'd been locked up.
Sam shook his head. "After I was released I spent a lot of time in therapy. I had to skip a semester of school. By the time I started back I was down to a couple of different prescriptions and weekly appointments to make sure I wasn't still thinking about killing myself."
"Zyprexa," Sam said. "And Prozac."
"What are those for?" Prozac, Dean had heard of. The first one… not so much.
"Prozac is for clinical depression." Sam was looking down at his hands again. "The Zyprexa was for hallucinations."
"Hallucinations? What, like werewolves and ghosts and the monsters in your closet are real? Sam, tell me you didn't tell a shrink that kinda stuff."
Sam shot him a look that plainly asked how stupid Dean really thought he was. "No, Dean."
"Then what were you hallucinating?"
"I don't want to talk about it." Sam pushed up off the bed and paced toward the window. He pulled the curtain back and looked out into the parking lot. Dean, however, wasn't going to let his brother escape that easily.
"Whether you want to or not, Sam, you need to."
"No, I don't. This was three years ago, Dean. I was in the hospital, on medication, and I'm over it. So leave it alone." Sam continued to face the window and Dean, standing just behind his brother, could hear the younger's ragged, shallow breaths.
"When did you stop with the meds?" Sam's shoulders slumped and Dean reached out a hand. "When, Sam?"
"Year and a half."
The math wasn't hard but Dean redid it twice in his head. "When you left Stanford. After Jess died."
"Criss-crossing the country chasing after demons doesn't make it easy to keep appointments, Dean."
"Yeah, but I'm not sure that your girlfriend's death was the best time to quit the psych meds. Jesus, Sam, we've been in how many hospitals since then? You could have talked to someone, taken care of yourself--"
Sam spun around to face him, finally, a sort of angry resignation in his eyes. "Look, Dean. You don't know what you're talking about. You don't know what I dealt with and you don't know what it was like to have to take pills every day so people wouldn't think you were losing your mind."
"I believe in ghosts, demons, and reanimated corpses, Sam. Anyone I've ever told about my job thinks I'm nuts. So yeah, maybe I don't know about the pills part--"
"But you're not crazy, Dean. I am… was."
"Sam. No. Depression… I get that. I mean, I don't get it, really, but I see how you could…." He shook his head. None of this was coming out right. "And maybe you've got problems. I can see that… who wouldn't with all the shit we went through as kids? But you're not crazy and I find it hard to believe that your hallucinations were anything that me and Dad would find strange."
"Just, trust me, Dean. What I was seeing… it wasn't real."
"If you're so sure, then why won't you tell me?" It wasn't Sam's place to play the secret game. That right was reserved for big brothers.
"I have a reason and that's all you need to know."
"I don't think so. Sam, if you were that… messed up, then maybe you should still be on meds, or seeing someone. Or something."
"Yeah, I'll see a shrink in between salt-and-burns. And the pills… being high on meds'll really help taking down the yellow-eyed demon." He shook his head and shrugged Dean's hand off his shoulder. "Just leave it alone."
"No." Sam tried to step around him but Dean blocked his path. Sam might have been bigger but he'd never won a fight between them when Dean really cared about the outcome. "Sam, the fact that you won't tell me is freaking me out more than whatever secret you're hiding. So let's stop dancing here and you tell me what's going on and then I will leave it alone."
Sam looked him straight in the eyes and wiped a hand across his face in a futile attempt to brush away the tears that had begun to pool. "You."
Dean blinked. "Me?"
"You. You telling me that it was my fault mom was dead, that you hated me, that I didn't deserve to live. In my mind, the knife that did this--" he held up both wrists, "ended up in my hand because you put it there and told me to use it."
Dean couldn't find the words for an immediate response, the sentiment his brother's admission suggested stunning him as much as the realization that Sam's problems weren't just a figment of some doctor's imagination. He turned away from Sam and moved toward the bed. Stretching out, he stared up at the ceiling as if it might hold the answers. No such luck.
"You know I don't really think that, right? I don't blame you for what happened to mom, no matter why the demon came to our house that night. And I don't hate you and I sure as hell don't want you to die--by your own hand or anybody else's."
"Yeah, I do."
"Because I'm sick, Dean. I mean, I was. That's why I was in the hospital and on meds. And I'm fine now so forget it."
"Then why didn't you want to tell me?"
"Because I knew you'd react like this." Sam's voice softened as if he'd just realized he was channeling his older brother. "It had nothing to do with you, Dean. It was just my fucked up head."
"You tried to kill yourself because you thought I was telling you to." Dean kept his eyes focused firmly on the ceiling because, as much as he didn't want to admit it to himself, he was scared of what he might see in his brother's face. "How is that not about me?"
"If I tell you are you gonna listen or are you gonna dismiss it as nonsense psychobabble?"
Dean didn't answer right away. He'd never had any use for shrinks and the run-in they'd had at Roosevelt Asylum with their very own demented doctor hadn't exactly increased the worth he placed on psych degrees. But Sam seemed to have gotten some comfort from it and maybe he owed his brother that much. "I'll listen. I might not buy it but I'll listen."
"My doctor said it was a… a manifestation of my own guilt. I blamed myself and I wanted to kill myself and the hallucinations came from there."
After a moment, Dean propped himself up on his elbows and looked over at Sam, who was hovering by the corner of the bed as if waiting for an invite. He sat up and wriggled toward the head of the bed, gesturing for his younger brother to sit. "And I was just, what? Convenient?"
"I don't know, Dean." Sam looked back down at his hands. "I don't know why it was you and not Dad or Mom. "But don't… it was me. I was out of my mind. Literally."
"And, what, you're all better now?"
"I'm a lot better, yeah."
"What was wrong with you? Like… the diagnosis."
"And now you're just all better."
"The only freaky stuff I see is either real or is about to become real and I don't want to kill myself. So, yeah. I am."
"Shit like that just goes away?" It was easier to focus on the technicalities of it all--what the words meant, what the meds did, what Sam had gone through--than to think about, and admit to himself, that his brother had been that ill. That he might still be that sick.
"I don't know, Dean. Maybe I just don't blame myself as much. Maybe therapy helped me deal with the guilt. But I don't feel that way anymore."
"But you cut." Dean looked pointedly at his brother's bicep and Sam's hand strayed almost subconsciously up his arm toward his shoulder.
"I was cutting before I was ever hallucinating, Dean. And it's not about punishing myself."
"What is it about?"
Sam looked surprised at the question before his expression turned thoughtful. "Um… it's like… Stanford was the only time in my life I've ever had control of what I did or where I went. It's always been you and dad calling the shots. The cutting I can control. It hurts but I'm the one doing it. And it's this enormous release, Dean. Like I can feel the tension let go of me." Sam gave him this earnest look, pleading for understanding. "Does… does that make sense?"
"Sammy, you've never made sense to me. But…" Dean shrugged. It was all a little too much to process right at that moment. "How's your arm?"
"I barely notice it." A quick look at Sam told Dean that was the truth.
Dean leaned back against the headboard and studied the torn knees of a pair of jeans he'd probably had since before Sam had left for Stanford. "If you've been doing this for years… I mean, Sammy, I've seen you shirtless. You ain't just using your arms." Sam shook his head slowly but didn't offer any sort of reply. "Sammy?"
His younger brother shrugged uncomfortably but gave no sign that he had any intention of speaking. "Sammy, where else do you cut?"
Sam's face flushed slightly and he kept his face pointed firmly downward. "My thighs… the only place you and dad wouldn't see."
Right. That made sense. Explained Sam's embarrassment too. "Don't worry, bro. I'm not gonna ask to look. I figure you've got enough experience by now patching up cuts that you're probably pretty safe."
Sam looked relieved. "Thanks." He glanced out of the corner of his eye at his brother. "Are we good?"
Dean's eyes tracked up toward the ceiling. There was a reason he didn't do chick flick moments. He never knew what to say.
Who would know what to say to this?
"Not gonna lie, Sam. I'm a little worried about you. It… scares me that you were so…"
"You said it, not me." Dean had to force himself to look over at Sam, who was now again staring at him anxiously. "Sam, tell me the truth. How okay are you, really?"
"I'm not suicidal, Dean. I'm not thinking of killing myself. And I haven't had a hallucination since I got out of the hospital. I could probably be better but I'm not as bad as I was."
"Fair enough." Dean reached over to squeeze his brother's arm. "Let's get some rest, man." He couldn't mistake the relief in Sam's eyes.