Victory Over Suicidal Tendencies: Fostering the Human Connection
by Amy Parker
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
The week before I died, our school pictures had come in. My mother intended to separate them when she finished the dishes, so they were laying on the table with the scissors beside them. I heard her say to the air that she was too tired to do anything else and that she’d do it in the morning before she went to work. So, I pulled a chair over to the images, content to do it myself.
As I severed one from another, I thought of other girls’ perfect hair as I looked at my thick brown hair, fuzzy from the crimping iron I’d used two days before picture day. My mouth was clenched shut and bent into a smile that was trained to hide buck teeth. The more I looked at myself, the more I wanted to disappear.
When I finished separating the photos, I pulled the box of cheese from the fridge. The knife in my hand was cold and strong. My fingers curled around it and power surged through me, a storm in my brain. I sliced the cheese, got some crackers, and sat back down with my snack. But there I was, splayed out on the table in tiny pieces, like staring at a broken mirror. I washed my saucer and shined the knife with care. When I opened the drawer to put it away, something urged me to lay it next to the pictures for my mom to see the next morning. I arranged the pictures just so and laid it out beside them. I expected her to ask me about the knife the next day because one of the worst things a person could do in our house was leave something out of place and I knew better, and I knew that she knew that I knew better.
The next day, I was anxious for the questioning to come. My mother didn’t miss an opportunity to correct my brother or me. She always seemed to have plenty to say about the most trivial things, especially leaving dishes out in the kitchen. I didn’t have a plan for what I would say to her when she asked about the knife. Trapped inside myself, I did not know how to express what I was feeling. I might have shrugged and rolled my eyes like I always did after one of her rants. But I had left on the table that night what I thought was an obvious display of what I was feeling, a blatant cry for help that would certainly grab her attention. The fact that it went unnoticed only intensified the feelings of insignificance that already had me in a chokehold.
One week later, I was getting ready for school when it occurred to me that I’d rather die than go. I had skipped so much that year. In fact, I had skipped so much school that my mother and I had an upcoming court date for truancy. It started with an innocent day of leisure with one of my friends. We had gotten away with playing hookie without consequence. But my friend went back to school the next day, and I didn’t. I liked being alone. She was the last friend I can remember having before the darkness started hovering over my mind. But of course, she slipped away when I skipped two whole weeks of school and she had returned after one day. I didn’t do anything during my days. I just watched a lot of tv and slept. My mother tried to force me to go, threatening to whip me and have me sent off somewhere. When the officer came to bring a subpoena for her to appear in truancy court, she cried. Then she yelled at me, demanding answers that I couldn’t give. I wanted to. But my mind was so busy processing fear and trying to survive because with her, every day brought on a new unpredictable challenge. One of the biggest fights we ever had was because I had washed the dishes after school, but I had left a spoon on the table. I couldn’t take a minute to think of anything else. I was in a constant state of fight or flight.
It all seemed to happen so fast, but the truth is, it was a slow fade to the day of my death that could’ve been stopped if someone had read the signs. But that was the thing—nobody cared about anybody in our house, including me. I always knew that my father loved me, even though he was gone a lot. But even when he was at home, he was fighting with mom. Our house was in a constant state of turmoil and upheaval. My parents were so busy trying to survive each other that we all morphed into one big unhappy family of self-absorbed people who happened to live under the same roof.
I was twelve when mom came into the house dancing and waving the final divorce papers in a joyful jubilee of celebration as if I was supposed to be happy too. Instead, I slipped off into a different kind of darkness as I divorced them both in my heart. My heart turned black with hate toward the two people I should love the most. I even hated my father who was previously a saint in my eyes. With my mother, I could justify it, but dad had done nothing wrong. Why didn’t I want to see him? Once I turned on them, I turned inward, destroying myself, because there was no other logical explanation; I must be the problem.
I did not want to die that day. As a matter of fact, I staged it to look like I had swallowed two hundred and fifty aspirin to help me bleed out. I swallowed ten and hid the rest. It never occurred to me to flush them down the toilet. I think I was hoping someone would find them and see the real problem, whatever it might have been. I acted cowardly, even in death. I had to numb my wrist with ice before slicing it and I was careful not to cut too deeply. It was the best self-expression I could come up with at the time. I did not want to die, but I wanted to be free of the darkness inside. I did not know how to ask for help and didn’t feel like there was anyone to ask.
Officer Richard transported me from the hospital three days later to a mental facility for adolescents. I felt like I knew him because he was the one who always came to the scene when the cops were called to our house. He had been to my house all my life as far back as memories can travel. He came to settle the constant squabbling between my mom and the neighbors. He came when my bike was stolen. He came when my parents were too loud, and a neighbor called the cops. He came when my older brother called the cops on my mom and when mom called the cops on him. In him, I saw a solution, so I stared at his black skin in the mirror from the back seat of the cop car all the way to the treatment facility, searching for an answer to all my twelve-year-old questions. After the hour drive, we pulled through the iron gate. He looked at me and said, “keep your nose clean and you’ll be home in no time.” He cuffed and shackled me and escorted me inside. All I could think as I waddled for the door was how strange it was that suicide was a crime.
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“Why did you want to die?”
“Do you know where you are?” Do you know what year it is? Do you know who the president is?”
“1991. President Regan.”
The smell of industrial pine sol burned my nose and the green on the walls looked like vomit.
“Can I call home?”
“No. You will be under observation for three days before you can call anyone.”
My wish was granted; I had disappeared.
It was bedtime and the lights were still on. A small window separated me from a dark-skinned security guard. His job was to watch me sleep. We stared at each other for three nights. Finally, I was given a room with two other girls.
At my first breakfast with everyone, I tried to cut my pancake with my plastic fork and broke it. It went flying across the table right into another girl’s tray. We both laughed and became instant friends. We played basketball every day. She was a talented sketch artist and a cutter. She had a bull’s eye brand of a stove-eye on her thick arm—a scar from childhood abuse. She sketched my face with such detail that I wanted to tear up what I saw. She captured all my pain and I felt exposed. In that moment though, where I knew that she saw me and loved me anyway, I felt light seep in. It felt like hope.
Our parents could visit on Saturday or Sunday or both from ten to four. Dad always came and brought my favorite green gum and cigarettes. We ate from the vending machines. My dad never missed a Saturday or a Sunday and cried every time he had to leave
My mother never came. I was both sad and relieved.
I was released on a Tuesday. Nothing was the same when I returned to school. I was no longer the first chair clarinet player or a basketball player or a cheerleader; I missed too much to be a good representative. My grades were mediocre. So was I. My friends no longer knew what to say or how to relate to me. The darkness just kept getting thicker. At our tiny junior high school, I would be forever known as “the girl who slit her wrist and got sent away.” I tried to become a bully, but it felt awful. I cussed out my teachers and smoked on school grounds. I vandalized old houses shoving my bare hands through windows. If someone would’ve asked me why, I wouldn’t have had an answer. Some older kid offered me weed one day and it seemed to fix all that was broken inside. From that day on, drugs became my solution—until at twenty-three I began to create more problems than I could ever count with a full-blown crack-cocaine addiction. For the next twenty years, I went in and out of jails, institutions, and recovery rooms running, running—always running from the pain of the past.
No matter how high I got or what kind of hard shell I created on the outside, the pain of childhood was always present within me. The effects of parental rejection and verbal abuse lingered and clung to my soul, like thick oil, keeping darkness in and light out.
A lot of years passed before I woke from the dead. After twenty years in and out of institutions, some people came along to tell me about Jesus and invite me to church. It wasn’t what they said that appealed to me. I didn’t need a Jesus or a Cinderella story. But I did listen enough that they kept coming back to find me, no matter where I was. As much as I dreaded seeing those Jesus people, they did all sorts of nice things for me for no reason at all. It was the strangest thing I had ever experienced, and I couldn’t figure out why they wanted to be nice to someone as dirty and broken as me. I moved into the projects, and they followed me with a house full of furniture that I couldn’t pay for. They brought me a casserole and homemade chocolate chip cookies when I broke my leg in a fight. They paid my electric bill when I lost a job—which I did quite frequently as a young adult in the throes of addiction.
Years passed before I went to church. I was fresh out of rehab, and I saw a sign outside a building that looked like a twelve-step meeting sign. Too embarrassed to admit I’d made a mistake, I stayed despite the singing and preaching. That same group of ladies that had pursued me in my darkness was there as if they’d known all along that one day I’d show up.
It was a long time before I came to like church. I showed up for reasons that had nothing to do with Jesus and I slept through most services. Even when I was awake, I didn’t have a clue what the preacher was talking about most of the time and never understood why we had to sing those weird songs. I went no matter what I might have been doing the night before. As time passed, I wanted less of the night life—the drugs, alcohol, and sordid people. I began to crave light and no matter how uncomfortable it was for me to get around people of the light, I kept doing it. Slowly, the darkness faded out of my life. It was a painful ascent from death to life. But I found in the walls of that little church love and connection and figured out that that is all I had craved all along.
Today I barely recognize my life in comparison to that broken young woman. I work a normal job. I go to school. I have a husband, children, dogs, and grandchildren. I go to church. I serve others. My heart and my life are full. I am able to express myself fully. I know that I need people—that I need love and connection. My parents did the best they could amid their own pain and confusion. Where I once looked upon them with unforgiveness and contempt, I can now see them through eyes of compassion. My mental health is not their fault and even if it was, the treatment and my response to it as an adult is my responsibility. Today I’m free because I choose to be free. I choose forgiveness. I choose counseling. I choose routine. I choose responsibility. I choose boundaries. I choose love. I choose connection even when my feelings tell me to isolate. Today I choose life and that is why I am free.
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with thoughts about suicide, please call, text, or chat the Suicide/Crisis Lifeline at 988.