About six weeks ago, I was leaving therapy and had a “doorknob moment”. I looked at my therapist and stated, “It’s like I’m an adolescent and have to figure out how to live.” She enthusiastically replied, “Yes! Exactly.”
Half-way through my life I am figuring out how to live: how to not eat more than needed, how to pause before I act or speak outside work, how to directly ask for what I need, how to say “no” without explanation, how to eat vegetables beyond my small repertoire, how to set boundaries in relationships, how to manage my expectations of others, how to laugh when things go wrong and then wronger, and how to forgive.
You see, I did not plan to be here. Fifteen years ago, when I gained courage from my husband to see a psychotherapist, the script was this:
“[The Hub] will discover how awful I am just like my family has. He will leave, and I will have nothing left. Then I will jump off a bridge into water.”
I actually can tell you which bridge in this City because I walked over it many times, “rehearsing” as it were: gauging the depth of the water (I then could not swim) and noting the lack of witnesses. Now that I think about it, I don’t cross that bridge any more – in car or on bicycle or foot. I haven’t in years …
The first time I remember thinking about suicide, I was 11 or 12. My mother was on some bloody warpath over some small infraction that I could not have imagined then. Trying to drown out the sound of her still yelling at me after sending me to my room, I put the needle on my Mickey Mouse record player. Turning up the music as loud as the little machine could muster, I remember thinking, “I wish I were dead.” Everything got quieter and calmer in my head.
An A student who showed up at mass with her Catholic family every week throughout grade and high schools, I flew under the radar. I never acted out. I never did drugs. I spent my weekends in high school babysitting and saving money for my eyeglasses and clothes. When I didn’t babysit, I went to the video store and rented a movie to watch at home. I ironed church linens. I never went on dates. I didn’t consume ETOH until college. I read voraciously. While the thought of dying crossed my mind during these times, another plan was more pressing: get the fuck out of Dodge.
The proverbial “Dodge” was not of my choosing. After skipping a grade in grade school, I was very young for my class and graduated high school at the age of 17 years. The orders had come in: I had to go to a Catholic college or university, and the Federal aid had to be there. While I wanted to go to a large university far, far away from my family in a large City, there were no funds for transportation; the gas money to drive me to college was limited and that was if the car made it there. Sometimes it did not.
After spending 12 years of education with the same sixty Catholic kids who had all sorts of names for me – their favorite being the then-maligned-label, “lesbian” – I could not wait for a “do over”. I so desperately wanted to fit in, to find my “tribe”, to belong. After all, I belonged nowhere – not at school, not at home, not at church. (I fought my being confirmed and duly lost.) The fact that four other students from my high school went to the same college should have served as a warning, but I did not heed it.
Within weeks of my arrival at college, I again knew it: I was different. No hair bows hung on ribbons on the back of my closet door. I didn’t care about the football team. If the boys only dated girls with bows in their hair, I was never, ever going to get laid. Most students drove nicer cars than my parents had ever hoped to drive. My family took two vacations that crossed two state lines in my life. I didn’t have the clothes, the identity and most importantly – the self esteem. I had spent four years, pulling the grades to get into college and to get the fuck out of Dodge – for this?
With absolutely no emotional maturity to handle all that was thrust at me, I gave up being a “good girl”. I didn’t fucking care. I was going to have fun, g’d damnit. I was going to break every g’d-damn rule that I had so religiously [pun intended] followed since birth and have fun doing so. I found a department at my college that tolerated difference and found a few friends there. However, the faculty might as well placed a sign on the building, stating “Resettlement Agency”, because we all were refugees from the same dictate: go to a Catholic school, be a nice girl and find a good husband. If you can’t do the latter, be a teacher or nurse – a job that would work well for when you have children.
Listening to Tom Waits, The Smiths, Billy Bragg and P.I.L., we did our school work (sometimes) and bitched about the school, our parents and the boys from which we had to choose. I earned honors for my work until I didn’t.
At the onset of my junior year, I realized that if I did not find a job after this education, I would have to go home. I. Could. Not. Go. Home. Home = death. If I were to go home, I knew deeply that I would kill myself. I could not live another day in that house. No, nope, nyet. I cursed my ignorance – that I could choose a “trust fund” or “rich girl’s” major with no clear employment track. I loved what I was learning, but it was not practical. It was a fool’s errand. The joke was on me.
I spent my junior year trying to piece together a more marketable major. My grades fell, and I lost the support of my department. I will never forget crying in front of my peers when a professor stated, “I see nothing of value or interest here.” How the mighty fall. While my thoughts of suicide never translated into a “means” – there was no Internet or Google then – they were omnipresent.
Early in my senior year, I met my now husband at a bar. It is hard to separate my deep love and respect for him now from then; however, I do recall that I thought he was “very hot” and wanted to “hook up” with him. We did – and have been ever since. In many ways, he saved my life by helping me to see what I needed, by helping me to make choices that year – and now – that have kept me alive. I did not go home. Ever again. That choice has had awful consequences that I will discuss another time. But I can without a doubt say this: I did not go home after my senior year of university, and that choice saved my life. I am proud of that decision. It was extraordinarily difficult, and I did it.
As I write this now, I realize that my survival throughout my adolescence, early adulthood and adulthood – until I entered therapy – was always about the “next thing”:
- “When I get to college, life will [be better in some way].”
- “When I get married, my life [be better in some way].”
- When I get [the next job], my life [be better in some way].”
- When I get a [trinket], I will feel loved.”
The “next thing” would happen, and the hopelessness and anger would sink in all over again. I was different. I was ugly. I was fat. I was fucked. I was awful. My husband didn’t love me. I was “the poor kid”. I heard my father’s voice: “Life is not fair. Get used to it.” Every time one of these punches to the gut occurred, I sidled up to my old friend and felt comfort: “I could end this at any moment.” When things go wrong over and over and it feels “done to you”, you accept that sooner or later, you will take your life.
So, I had resigned myself to the fact that my husband would see what all the others who had left had seen: I was unlovable and deeply awful. He would leave, and so would I.
Through years of twice weekly therapy, I worked through a lot of shit. It wasn’t fun, but I recommend it. I healed through this relationship and still do. Through my training as a psychotherapist, I came to understand how trauma affected my brain, how my attachment pattern plays out in my relationships and how my not acting and suicidal ideation were forms of hope. Over a decade ago, I recall the session in which I looked at my therapist and stated, “I realized the other day that I’m not going to die by suicide – that it is not inevitable.” We both sat in silence for a few minutes, understanding the moment. I was deeply – and still am – grateful for her, for The Hub and all those who loved me in spite of myself during those years. it wasn’t easy to love me. I made sure of that.
My suicidal ideation now is a symptom. I am hawkish on it. If I ever catch myself uttering the phrase, “I am done [with life]” or “I fucking give up [on life]”, I know that I need to readjust. I immediately ask, “Why now?” “What stressors have exacerbated?” “What do I need to do to take care of myself?” It does not happen often – less than once per year- but when it does, I tell my therapist. She doesn’t freak out. I don’t freak out. We just treat it like abnormal blood sugar levels and get back to work.
While my depression is in remission, it is a pernicious disease requiring structure, treatment and vigilance. I never take a good day or the very fact that I am alive for granted. I have a really good life that took about half my life to build.
My Treatment Plan is both out of respect for the perniciousness of this illness as well as for my family and patients. I have spent a very long time wanting to live, now I want to stick around for as long as possible. Oh, the irony.