11" x 14" mixed media on canvas
I can certainly relate. I've lost quite a few loved ones to suicide. I am also no stranger myself to depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. I suffered with it throughout my teenage years, a secret I only touched on through melancholy poetry and occasional essay assignments in my English classes. But overall, I learned to hide my internal problems behind a mask of stoicism.
My depression and anxiety were not a hereditary traits. They were situational ones. As I mentioned before, my parents walked away from their parental responsibilities before I hit the age of two. I was briefly a ward of the state before being placed in the care of my paternal grandmother. She was a product of her generation, having lived through a time when children were expected to be obedient, quiet and beaten into submission through severe corporal punishment if they chose to be otherwise.
And though my grandmother and I have a great relationship now, my upbringing as a Seventh Day Adventist was quite harsh. There are forums all over the Internet describing just how strict the faith and its "spare not the rod" mentality can be.
Even so, my first real suicide attempt was actually triggered by a massive tragedy: September 11, 2001. At the time, I worked as a children's bookseller for Borders Books & Music in the World Trade Center, building 5. When the first plane struck, I was underground on one of the last 3 trains headed for Brooklyn before they stopped all service after the towers collapsed. My boyfriend and the majority of my co-workers were missing in the aftermath.
It would take two days before we would meet at the Borders on Park and 57th streets in a company meeting to learn all of our employees had in fact survived. Yet many of my regular customers, all of them parents, did not. I stopped counting when the death toll reached 39, heartbroken for their children that I'd come to know quite well.
Having been raised parentless, the tragedy of parents dying who actually cared for their kids created a severe case of survivor's guilt that led to a full nervous breakdown by the end of September. I began "losing time," finding myself in strange areas of the city with no recollection of how I got there. I tried to smother my pain with alcohol and marijuana to no avail.
At the end of the month, I was committed to the suicide ward at Gracie Square Memorial after my boyfriend called the paramedics to break down our locked bathroom door. They found me inside out of my mind with wrists full of self-inflicted cuts and attempting to drink ammonia. I spent a full week in-patient, followed by a partial hospitalization program and a barrage of anti-depressant drugs.
As part of our severance, our company offered us full pay with benefits for two months after the tragedy and the opportunity to transfer to any other store in the country. My boyfriend and I decided to move to Providence. We felt the change of scenery would be better for us both. At the time, our neighborhood in Queens had been militarized. The continued vandalism and assaults on our Hindu and Islamic neighbors led to military members being stationed on every street corner for patrols. Groups of white supremacists also marched frequently on our streets, demanding that these "terrorists" go home.
This aspect of the aftermath of 9/11 is rarely touched on, but it was truly a surreal time in NYC then. Instead, people are led to believe the entire city was peaceful in solidarity and mourning. This simply was not the case. As such, we were not the only people to leave New York City entirely due to the unrest.
But I did not find peace in Providence either initially when we relocated at the end of November. Besides us, two other World Trade Center employees also transferred to the Providence Place Mall store. The manager at the time felt this was a terrific opportunity to increase sales as the first of the 9/11 books and musical tributes came out. Any given day, I would be on the sales floor only to have this manager introduce me to customers as a 9/11 survivor to sell this merchandise.
So despite giving up watching television, I could not escape the frequent reminders of the tragedy. Customers routinely asked me invasive questions about my experience. Not surprisingly, my second nervous breakdown occurred in March while ringing up a sale of a 9/11 book. As I did, the woman asked me what it was like to be there. Then her 10 year old son inquired if I'd seen bodies hit the ground after the people jumped out of the windows. I heard a distinct cracking sound in my ears at this comment, then blacked out. When I returned to myself again, I was at home standing in my living room with the phone ringing off the hook.
The phone call was the store informing me that I'd finished the sale, went into the back to gather my belongings and simply walked out of the store. Attempting to go to work the following day, I came down with a case of the shakes so bad I could not enter the building. I also broke out into a sweat with the force of a panic attack that caused me to run I down the street until I caught the bus home.
This reaction to the building persisted for a full month. I had to take a mental health leave, then put myself into another partial hospitalization program because I no longer wanted to live. I was also losing time on a frequent basis. I had no idea what I was doing during these hours. For example, I woke up once in the bathroom after consuming a full bottle of wine with no memory of calling my best friend and speaking in a child's voice about abuse I'd experienced.
It would take regression and group therapy for me to understand that I'd been compartmentalizing my head space for years. In fact, regression therapy in particular helped me remember when I'd done this as a child. I created a room in my mind, a basement with a door holding a large number of locks. Anything I didn't want to remember or feel went behind this door.
I would have gone my entire life like this if 9/11 hadn't blown those locks to pieces. "Losing time" was my mind's way of shielding me when external triggers reminded me of those experiences. I did not, however, have multiple personalities. There was no cognitive split. As time went on, I remembered most of what created this schism in the first place. I had to accept these experiences to heal.
But like many others discover, healing myself also meant recognizing and ejecting abusive influences from my life. In some ways, this was even harder than my actual therapy. When we feel that we are broken, it's very easy for predatory individuals to take advantage of us. They use our guilt as leverage. So when you try to stand up for yourself, suddenly you're the one with the problem. During the barrage of their accusations, most of which are the result of their selective memory, you end up apologizing profusely to regain the good favor of bullies masquerading as loved ones.
I just started walking away during these tantrums. I stopped making phone calls I knew before hand would end in fruitless arguments. I ceased visiting the homes of individuals who sapped my energy and twisted me up in knots all the time. Mostly, I stopped apologizing for being who I am to people more invested in keeping up appearances than living in reality.
I also found it interesting that these same people often demanded unconditional acceptance despite the frequency of their lies and brutality. "Selfish" was a term flung at me while they took all sorts of liberties, such as breaking my belongings carelessly, draining me of money to fix issues caused by their own irresponsibility, or even physically harming me. And if I complained about any of it, my mental state was also tossed in my face during a barrage of verbal abuse to convince me no one else would give me the time of day. They were saints, they claimed, for putting up with someone so dysfunctional, so needy, so broken.
You see, keeping you a doormat is checkmate. But the game ends if you remove yourself from their chess board entirely. Trust me: life is a whole lot easier without the constant drama and stress negative people can bring you.
I also know firsthand that alienation during the healing process is also common. My family, for example, simply didn't understand my internal struggle. It didn't matter how often I explained what 9/11 was like or that I suddenly remembered all these horrible things that happened to me. A lot of them just didn't want to hear it. Others questioned my need for therapy, seeing it as a weakness. Some felt I was using it all as an excuse to avoid doing what they demanded of me, which was to be normal.
In truth, I'd never been "normal." The lines of normalcy fall outside the margins of my life. I didn't get a traditional career or follow a set of carefully crafted goals. I've also never really felt like I fit in anywhere. So I decided to live my life out loud as a writer, artist and spiritual seeker without apologies. And I've done this primarily because all three of these things kept me sane. I poured my pain into my art. I healed my soul with adherents from around the world. And I wrote about it all to remember how far I've come. Accepting myself as I am was my first step towards liberation. I hope it will be yours as well.
I fully believe that the final push towards suicide occurs when we don't feel heard or, worse yet, are shamed because we "can't deal like everyone else." But know this: Admitting that you need help isn't weakness. It takes a great deal of courage to look someone in the eye and state your truth, no matter how ugly, traumatic or terrifying it may be.
This is my story. Whatever yours is, I wish you the very best on your journey.
And if you ever get to the point where you feel this life isn't worth living, I urge you to reach out to someone. Call a hotline, a friend or a relative. Send me an email or a tweet. Just hang on one more day because our world needs you here. I have too many days on my calendar marking the death anniversaries of people who chose to leave before I could tell them goodbye.
I'd like you not to be one of them.
Be blessed on your path.