I’ve always loved solving problems. That’s why I excelled in school, I liked the feeling of not understanding a complicated question and then working diligently until finding the solution. That moment of completion, of knowledge, of pride has been a driving force in my life. The more challenging the problem, the more excited I am to learn and master the resolution. So it seems fitting that the hardest problem I’ve had to solve, has been myself. Something that I have had to genuinely work hard at to solve, every day.
While sitting on a couch the size of a small submarine, engulfed by pillows and faced in front of a psychotherapist, I realized I was broken. I was the problem. I was the common denominator in all of the bad relationships, the failed friendships, my sadness, loneliness and my crippling fear. I experienced them all and I created them all and I was a part of them all.
Her name was Chris. She was a short woman of maybe 65 years, she had a youthful face, but you could hear in her voice she had lived, seen and conquered. Her blue eyes, overdone mascara and short, pixie length strawberry blonde hair reminded all her patients that she was once a real beauty. Chris was my Cognitive Behavioral Therapist for over 2 years. Her patience, forcefulness and raw honesty guided me through PTSD, manic depression, borderline personality disorder and suicidal impulses.
I believe we have to tend to our mental and emotional health like gardens, attentively and regularly, to make sure we are remaining teachable, grateful, open-minded, empathetic and cognizant of the world and people around us. If you just pick the weed’s leaves, it will continue to grow – but if you pull the weed out by its root, it will never sprout again. But at this time, sitting on this leather sofa with my legs dangling like a child waiting for their mother at the DMV, I did not understand this. I was just a confused, rattled, angry little girl who had been taught to stigmatize therapy, and live in a perpetual state of denial, guilt and grief.
Chris had me fill out all of these tests that asked about my family’s mental and physical health. She asked me questions about what brought me there and why I felt I needed support. I told her about the attempted suicide. I told her about how my childhood was almost all blacked out, except for a few select memories that were so interlaced with nightmares I couldn’t tell the difference anymore. The words were hot and poured out like lava, burning my tongue and making me sick with the aftertaste of ash. By the end of my first session I felt high, exhausted, 30 pounds lighter and calm. I also still wanted to kill myself.
I couldn’t believe the things I just said. I couldn’t take ownership of my choices because I didn’t feel as if they were my own. I felt forced into this life, into these circumstances, playing a martyr to all the abuse I faced as a child. As a woman of 21 years – I could no longer watch myself behaving badly and blaming it on something that happened against my will. I may not have had control over those moments, but I sure as hell had control of these new, present moments. The path I was choosing and the woman I was electing to become was someone I did not like. And how could I possibly go the rest of my life living with someone I disliked? That’s why suicide looked like the way out. That’s why it always seemed to look like the way out.
I tried committing suicide twice before. The first time I was 15-years-old and I think of that little girl now and sometimes I cry for how lonely she felt. Humans have a remarkably strong will to survive, so strong that we immortalize their tales in movies like, “Apollo 13”, “The Perfect Storm”, “127 Hours” and “The Revenant.” We are in awe of our own strength, perseverance and this basic human instinct that is so deep-rooted in our genetic makeup that it has kept our species alive for roughly 200,000 years. So to reach a despair as desperate, fragile and bleak as to fight our nature itself is nothing shy of heartbreaking. Seeing that place 3 times now has taught me what hell truly looks like. It is not engulfed in flames, there is no eternal burning – it’s only numbness. There is no devil, or demons – there is only yourself. And after what feels like lifetimes of sleepless nights, restless days and impossible amounts of solutionless problem solving, you come to a decision that it’s better to die than to live. You become so tired, worn down, so beaten that you have lost any resilience you once had. There is no longer fear of death because you have felt the most unimaginable pain already and any suffering that exists in the transition of death surely will be more comfortable than what you are currently living through. At this point in a person’s depression, there is very little that can be said to change or alter the choice. The only thing left is to plan.
At 15, I planned to hang myself. It seemed quick enough and I had all the materials already. On our 40-acre property in rural Michigan we had a large farmhouse barn with high ceilings just outside of our house. The barn’s walls were made of metal, unlike most of our neighboring farms made from traditional red wood with brown roofing. Our barn was recognizable because it was a grayish-purple with a bright white top. My dad kept it in pristine condition, caring for it with time and pride, always raking the gravel and sweeping the wooden floors under his work surfaces. We built a loft together once, as a family, back when I was younger at maybe the age of 10. I remember helping bring all the 2×4’s up the ladder in a sort of human escalator. That same ladder I was now climbing to attach a rope from the ceiling beams no more than 5 years later. I sat on that loft overlooking my father’s old John Deer tractor. Remembering with fondness about the time my sister sneezed so hard she slammed her eyes shut and accidentally crashed it into a tree. My dad was so upset, he yelled at her all night.
Having that fondness quickly morph into hopelessness at the mental remembrance of my dad’s rageful face, I returned to the present moment and how my life was shattered, broken, and unfixable. I slipped the rope over my little head, with my trembling little hands and wiped the tears from my eyes. For a moment, I realized how human I was and how remarkable tears were. I was mesmerized at how people had the capability to make tangible, liquid representations of pain. And how I had gotten to a point in my young life where I felt like I didn’t have any more tears to give to the world. When your depression is past the point of feeling and you’ve transitioned in the pits of numbness that is a truly terrifying place to exist. My insides felt rotten. I already felt dead and like there was no spirit of a child left anymore. And with that, I stepped off the side of the loft that I helped build with my family.
One thing that happens when you go to therapy is that you become aware of all of the weeds in your garden very quickly. Like when you’re lying in a bath tub, propped up with your feet against the other side and then all of a sudden your footing slips, you lose grip and before you know it, your heads dunked underwater. I was drowning by my third appointment. Hell on earth was becoming a frequent gas station on my road, instead of it being in my rear view mirror. I didn’t want to keep filling my tank up with negativity, self-hatred and pity. I wanted to understand how people function in society. How they cultivate happiness and exude joy. Was it just pretend or do people actually have that in their lives? It all felt so comparative and judgmental in my mind. And although I never felt like life owed me happiness, I wanted to see if people could actually obtain it and if so, how. I wanted to live more than a few years without crippling depression, anxiety and perpetual guilt for something as meek as existing. Chris said she could help me. And for whatever reason, I trusted her.
She told me about how she had been an alcoholic for 20 some odd years and that felt safe to me. I knew alcoholics well. My dad was one (although he never sought sobriety), my mom was one (although she always said, “there’s nothing wrong with a few cocktails after a long day.”) My Aunt was one (when I knew her, before my family ex-communicated her). My grandpa was one (but he was a dry drunk by the time I was born) and the list goes on and on. If Al-Anon got one thing right – it’s that alcoholism is a family disease. It pollutes the addicts and everyone that loves them. So, when I heard Chris was an alcoholic, but had been in recovery for 25+ years, I felt like she would get it.
We jumped from current events in my life to past events quite frequently. We didn’t focus on my parents, or the drinking, or the abuse, but rather what choices I was making now and how much they pained me. She never judged me. She only told me lovingly and harshly when I was making patterned choices that continuously led me into circumstances I wanted to avoid. My patterns were very clear: men. I loved men. I loved falling in love with men. I loved men falling in love with me. I loved the cat and mouse games. And it’s all so clear why, and it’s all so cliche. I was a neglected, lonely, insecure girl. Getting attention from anyone was a surprise and a delight. But the men I kept playing with were very unhealthy.
One of the first learnings I had in therapy was that unhealthy women attract unhealthy men. And I was very unhealthy. I also had been living in chaos my entire life, so I only really felt comfortable in chaotic relationships. To define my chaos: I never wanted to feel stable, I wanted to question your love. I wanted a man who would always look over his shoulder at another woman. Maybe just slightly or completely emotionally unavailable. They needed to be an artist, but not a kind, flowery one – a brooding, depressed, consistently miserable one. Because when I made them smile, I knew I did a good job that day. Make sure they smoked, drank, had a mean streak. I liked that. I liked the “heroin-chic look.” I wanted to question if you were ever in rehab. I wanted to question if I was safe with you.
These unhealthy relationships were the torment of my current situation and why I started going to therapy and Al-Anon in the first place. The unhealthiest of all my relationships, the one that brought me to my knees, the one that had me blacked out on my patio in the middle of California winter waking up from a drug-induced, hallucinated state and the one that finally gave me recovery and healing was my 2 year “relationship” with my married boss.
I awoke on the barn floor and I could hear Jo-Jo, Mittens and Cupcake, our three outdoor barn cats, rustling in the hay stack behind me. I took a deep breath and coughed as the sandy floor got in my mouth and lungs. Starting to groggily and weakly look around, it was as if I had risen from an all too realistic and haunting lucid dream. The freshly raked gravel on the floor hurt, my skin felt so sensitive. Like I hadn’t been in my body for a year and suddenly, the feeling was turned back on. I felt every stone and pebble piercing into my shoulder, forearm and hip. Propping myself up on my hand, after what felt like 30 minutes, I realized I had not succeeded in killing myself.
I didn’t tie the rope correctly. I didn’t understand how a noose worked and without the internet, I just tied it with a bunch of knots. Like a flash, I recalled what happened with great sensation. The knots dug into my skin. The rope was tight but not tight enough. My heart raced and I was panicked. I couldn’t breathe, my feet were kicking, and unable to touch the floor I pulled at the rope gasping, alone and scared. Flashes of hot flesh on my neck and hands. The pain seared from external to internal. I felt heat and pressure in my face, pulsing behind my eyes. My back arched and legs started to straighten, feeling heavy as I tried to reach for anything to make it stop. The will to live clicked back on. As I started to slip out of consciousness, my last thought was “not yet.”
My throat aching, still coughing and without feeling I stood up. And like a familiar ritual, I cleaned up the mess I made, covered the shame and walked back to the house to go to sleep and to wake again in the morning for another day.