I am afraid of my phone. That is usually the way that I find out that someone has died or attempted to die. I slide my finger across the screen and the halted voice of someone I love begins revealing details about someone who has gone. He left a note. She didn’t make it through surgery. He’s in the hospital. She passed this morning. They loved you very much.
There are the deaths that make sense and then the deaths that wallop you. And it gets more confusing when someone wants to die.
I grow exhausted of the stigma around mental health challenges and suicide and I want to break it open with my life, the one I fought so hard to get back from the shadows and the shame. It is silly to pretend that it is not heartbreaking and untenable to live in the world sometimes. It’s the pretending that makes us crazy.
I struggled with chronic and severe depression throughout my junior high, and high school years. It became worse around romantic breakups or friendship upsets or anxiety about my perceived future but it was my constant companion.
I attended five different schools for my grade school years. I had skipped a grade, putting me a year behind my classmates developmentally. Puberty was brutal. I was shy, awkward in my body, and interested in academics, a stereotypical nerd who felt mystified by the social systems that my classmates seemed to be constructing around who sat with whom at the lunch table.
When I was eleven, my father moved out of our house. Divorce was cruel to my family; even when people were trying to do their best, I saw them at their worst.
Our teachers showed many films about suicide with lots of reasons why we shouldn’t want to die. Other than some vague American dream-esque possibilities of college, marriage, some kind of job, and kids, there also weren’t a lot of convincing presentations about why we would want to keep living.
It seemed that everything I valued was completely different from what I feared were my only options for the future. There was a lot of pressure to make the right choice and there was no room to make mistakes. Everything depended on my perfection. I also experienced a lot of shame about feeling depressed when so many people on the planet had it much worse than I did. How dare I feel so miserable when I had enough to eat, clothes to wear, loyal friends, and a warm place to sleep at night? I tried to feel grateful for what was not happening to me and ignore what was feeling so difficult. My mother was working two jobs, my younger brother and I were each alone in our grief process and I stayed away from home as much as possible.
I made mantras of my friends’ names. I was okay as long as other people liked me. I was never sure if my friends were really my friends, if anyone could really love me if they truly saw who I was. I loved people so much but they were not depressed and I didn’t believe they would understand. I quietly choked on my own fears and losses and it felt impossible to keep living that way. Who could I tell? What would it matter? Wouldn’t they just run away if they knew me?
Everyone seemed to be playing a game that I didn’t understand. My excessive alcohol consumption during high school did not help my mood. Drinking at parties was the mainstay of my social life for many years. When I drank, my chest opened and I laughed uninhibitedly with my friends. Everything would relax; I could keep going.
I tried to get help. One school counselor asked me if there was a time I currently felt alive when I wasn’t using substances. I couldn’t think of anything. I loved my friends and my family, but I did not experience feeling joyful at all. And it only got worse.
On a particularly bad night at age fifteen, I gave up and tried to take my own life. My suicide attempt was messy and desperate. If depression was my cage, trying to end my life was a prison break. I did not succeed. Two days later, I told my friend who told her mother who called my mother. I ended up spending three weeks on the adolescent ward in the psychiatric hospital. Three weeks transpired like three years. I was hospitalized with twenty other teenagers who had recently attempted suicide.
We were fifteen, sixteen, fourteen, seventeen and hopeless. Our broken down brains betrayed us all the time, no longer producing what we needed for happiness. There was the gracious girl with the paralyzed arm because she accidentally shot herself in the shoulder instead of the head. The quiet boy who took a gun to school and held up the chemistry class that he was failing but didn’t shoot anyone. The gorgeous girl who finally confronted her sexually abusive stepfather; her drunk mother beat her up and kicked her out so she walked in front of a car. The thin boy whose father pushed him so hard to be athletic that he tried to hang himself when he didn’t make the basketball team.
In the hospital, I didn’t fake anything and I learned to ask for help. There was nothing we could not say to each other; our strange and eclectic tribe formed from combined adolescent pain. We were teen super heroes from the halls of angst. In group therapy, we cared if someone’s parent visit was horrible or if someone had a violent episode and went to the padded room or if someone found out their boyfriend cheated on them while they were locked up in the psych ward.
I met three other young women just like me and we became close so fast because we needed it so much. The hospital staff called us the “Four Musketeers” because we did everything together. It was so different to play the game of life with people on your team! I could live trembling, white knuckled and terrified, but I no longer had to do it alone.
One of the nurses aides on our ward hung out with me in the sparse hospital library a few times and we talked about survival and hope. He told me, “Girl, living is hard. It takes a lot of courage. I want you to get out of here and do great things with your life. I dare you to stay alive.” I wanted to learn to speak hope. Something inside me was stuck and I wanted to move it. I read every book I could find about people who survived. It didn’t matter if it was about the Holocaust or The Color Purple.
It would be years before I dealt with my depression and addictive patterns and even longer before I forgave myself. I would later learn to call that period a dark night of the soul, and honor it as an initiatory opening to a healing path that I would walk for the rest of my life. I would realize that we are each responsible for ourselves and yet, deeply accountable to each other. At the time, I just felt despondent. If I wasn’t going to escape once and for all, was I doomed to live a wretched and dismal life? It wasn’t true anymore that I wanted to die. I needed something to change; I wanted to come all the way back to life.
One night around this time, I had a dream where I was sitting in a sunny meadow with my best friends. We were surrounded by butterflies feasting on wildflowers and the butterflies came to rest on my hand, kissing my fingers. The scene switched and I was standing in front of an empty YMCA swimming pool. A person who I could not see advised me to hold a piece of salami over the pool and sing my true name. When I did, a pair of rainbow colored, iridescent dolphins leapt out of the pool, gracefully taking turns eating the salami out of my hand until it was gone. And I sang the whole time.
I have always remembered the wonder in that dream. Something inside of me knew that I needed to believe in something beyond the ordinary to get through that difficult time.
The practice that I carry from those years is one of allowing love, even imperfect and awkward love from other people to enter my life, allowing all the beauty in. I am also practicing asking for help, all the time, even when I don’t think I need it. I am still fascinated with stories of survivors of all things, refugees, endangered species that reemerge, the ways that a burned and scorched forest yields seedlings. The world is so arbitrary sometimes that whether we live or die in any moment is uncertain. I cannot say what makes other people go on, but for me, it is the miracle, the magic that rips me open even when I think I am so crusted over, it could never happen again. I worship at the feet of that possibility; I return to it daily with my song and my visions and my dreams. For me, right now, it is enough to live for that.
If you are struggling right now with who you are, how much you hurt and what your life means, please tell someone. We all deserve to break down the walls around the admission that we need help. Because when you leave this world, there is a terrible absence. I fear that jagged hole that you will leave though I will honor your life when you go. I grieve the emptiness of the holes already left by those I have loved in my own clumsy, sporadic ways. I vow to keep inventing ways that we can reach for each other when we are falling, ways that we can remember our true names and our places in this world, ways that we can sing ourselves and each other back to life, over and over.
Of a great need
We are all holding hands
Not loving is a letting go.
The terrain around here
Dangerous For That.