I haven’t written from inside of symptoms in months, but I’m getting ready to hop on the podcast this weekend, so I’d better practice ripping my head open when it’s reeling — it’s been a while. We’re talking about suicide again on MK Ultrasound but not the act (we’re going to have fun on there, too — I promise). Ideation. What that looks like.
I drive white-knuckled, mantra humming in my head You will not drive into traffic, because the same as a person living with AIDS may harbor fear of The Cold I Won’t Come Back From, the Suicide Set knows self-destruction has swooped in unexpected before and moved our hands to knives and pills.
For me, suicide exists outside of me and comes in. At least it feels that way. Something invades. I don’t invite it over to play a vicious slideshow of bullets through my head, jumps onto tracks or slit throats — but my old friend comes in anyhow and does it. Nestles into my bed and shows me pictures of me dying while it strokes my cheek.
Sometimes I flinch. From my own thoughts, the ones I don’t mean to think. They’ve made me cry. That’s when I know I might not be okay.
When I was a young gothy-thing, I read Dante and imagined if Hell existed, I’d land in the second circle being blown around for the sin of lusting. Unwanted suicidal thoughts are those winds. It’s dizzying and visceral without any pleasure.
When I’m typing, I sit at the center of the cyclone. When I’m done, I might dance or stretch. I’ll leave if I have to. This is me catching myself before it catches me.
The night I could-have-died-but-didn’t, my mother dreamed I’d been beaten. So did one of my daughters.
The night I could-have-died-but-didn’t, I said my version of a prayer to The Universe before it happened. While I drove to my friend’s house, I felt unease and talked out loud on the stretch of Ridgeland that meets up with Oak Forest Avenue by the tracks. Let me bring peace. I didn’t know why I was saying it. I turned the car and kept going.
My mother thought a man had done it — that’s what she told me. In her dream, when she saw me bruised and bleeding, she assigned my wounds to that kind of violence.
When the paramedics saw me, they did the same. And so did the police. I don’t think they believed me that two women came into the bedroom where I’d lain down with my friend and beaten my face, stabbed the top of my head with the point of a kitchen knife. They weren’t buying that he was nearly comatose from drinking, just mumbling and barely aware, so I’d climbed in beside him to sleep.
The Authorities didn’t believe me because they’d met him before — my sleeping friend. I told them the truth. I said, I know that every other time you’ve taken someone bleeding from his house, he did it — but it wasn’t him this time. He’s why I’m alive.
They didn’t believe me because it looked like a love triangle. I was An Other Woman who wanted to pin a drunk’s blows on The Recent Ex.
I’ve had times since then when I’ve wondered who he should fear the most: the woman who stabbed someone in the head over him or the one who took the knife and didn’t immediately stop seeing him. We’re both formidable.
In the ambulance, two paramedics told me it was up to me if I wanted to go to a hospital or not.
My head is bleeding, and I jumped out a window naked. I think I should go to the hospital.
Well what one do you want us to take you to?
I don’t know. Don’t you have one you just use?
No, it depends on your insurance.
Well I have Medicaid, so it should be covered at any of them.
No, not necessarily.
I can’t get more bills.
Then the paramedic got out, closed the double-doors of the ambulance behind him, and I heard him say to a police officer: She’s refusing medical treatment.
That’s when I broke. That’s when I came out of the ambulance in front of the crowd (because after I jumped out the window, I pounded on doors and no one answered. At one house, a Golden Retriever stared at me through the storm door while I huddled in the blanket that had come out the window with me. I knocked and rang and knocked and rang. Lights were on but no one came. So I ran through a backyard to the next street, a busy block with bars. I’d flagged down a bouncer who gave me his shirt and called 911, but it was Friday at midnight — the patio was full, and this was a scene).
I called the paramedic a liar. I screamed things. The officers seemed young and looked at me like they didn’t know what to do, like they might toss a net over me if they could, and finally the one woman with a badge said, I think you should go to the hospital, and we’ll send an officer with you.
Here’s something I learned. When they think you’re a battered woman, nobody cares. They don’t want to bother taking you to the hospital, because you’ll go back to the bastard anyhow. They let your blood dry and cake up in your hair. No ice packs or ibuprofen unless you ask. They just let you swell.
Around 5 a.m., they took my blanket.
We’re going to have to take that for evidence.
I don’t have any pants. Everything is still in his house.
When I got away, it was because we all realized I was bleeding, and the sight of the blood put a pause in the room that let my friend usher them out of his bedroom. As the door closed I heard his ex say, I can’t believe you’re taking her side. He said, I’m not.
I don’t know where the presence of mind came from to try the window, but whatever it was, that was all the clarity I was granted. I should have pulled on my dress. I should have picked up my purse or grabbed my phone.
At the hospital, police came in and out of my room for several hours. Each time they’d ask a question about him, our contact, what I knew about a fight he’d been in earlier that day.
They told me they’d knocked at his door, but he refused them entry (at no point did they say they’d attempted to enter the residence of the women who assaulted me). I asked them to ask him to put my purse on the porch so I could call someone to get me. I needed my phone and my keys. An officer said they would try, and hours later told me that “he [wasn’t] cooperating.”
He isn’t cooperating…you know anything about the guy he fought with at Shell earlier? Did he know him?
After the comforter went, two CNAs came in — Hispanic girls who poured peroxide on my head and talked to me while it ate the blood from my hair. They told me how it dissolved the protein and works better than anything else. No badges or titles, they were kind. When they brought me fresh clothes so I could walk out of the emergency room, I’d been there nearly six hours.
The night I-could-have-died-but-didn’t, I stopped writing. I stopped cleaning my apartment and enjoying cooking. The only thing I’ve consistently done since then is breathe; everything else has been fits and starts.
I didn’t die — that’s what I said for weeks after — but I did. Some version of me is under his floorboard covered in ants. So I have to write.
Some days, all I have for the world is, Well, I’m not going to commit suicide today. That’s what I can do. And then I treat myself like I’m very incompetent and get through the day.
Welcome to today, tribal loves. My head is a jumble, a mean mine field detonating in chorus. In an hour I’m supposed to be at work where I haven’t been all week, because I’ve been feverish with a more feverish child to care for. Parents have dropped off Gatorade and Ramen at the door (no Plague for them), peanut butter and milk once we were past the hump of the virus. I have hardly seen any humans other than my sick kiddo and his dad on Monday. And my therapist.
I thought therapy was great yesterday, then I realized that I tricked my therapist into believing the dramatic love-shit coming off my tongue was the most important thing I could talk about yesterday in her office.
Here is the light inside, and I have to touch it now or I won’t make it today:
I know that when I get there, it’s going to be all right. I know that communing is what I do, and it’s Friday. We’ll play music in the cathedral on the jukebox, later on the stage. I will be as gentle with myself and others today as I need them to be with me, and we’re all going to wake up tomorrow.
Friends who call out your bullshit while it falls off your lips are the only kind I can have right now. The delivery can vary—one can listen until you’re done then break it down, another might chant oxymoron while you keep verbally angling around your self-destructive plans—but they are treasured the same and what I need.
My therapist is like this—THANK GOD—and today I’m a mess.
We’ve been sick over here since Monday, and now my son and I are on the mend. The apartment looks like a dead battlefield. We really fucked some shit up, and I haven’t gone outside our front door in over 72 hours. I scrubbed my face today, though, and that helps. My bedroom window is open even though it’s cold outside; the sound of passing cars and breeze are a good warm-up for this afternoon when I drive to ___________. It won’t feel as abrupt.
This weekend, I leave for ________ to see my daughters for the first time since they moved back down there during the holidays. I’m dying, dyyyyying to hug my babies and have some eye contact with them.
I need to drink a smoothie. Nothing nutritious has gone inside me in days, because prior to The Plague, we had a birthday party. I’m eating Pringles and potato salad as I type.
All of this fuels my gratitude that in about an hour, I’m going to be sitting across from a woman who gets paid to have the patience to help me talk through my shit. My friends do it all the time, but it gets old for them. Now is about finding patterns and disrupting them, tracing behavior to root causes and recognizing them for what they are.
Today might be a doozy of a session. Wish my therapist and me strength and humor.
I have this new thing I’ve been doing with my kids where when they’re totally acting like shits and digging their heels in out of pure stubborness and my genes and their fathers’ in them, I give them a chance to have a do-over. “Do-over” means the four days of no screens, whole week of no YouTube, and phone confiscation I have decreed can be called off if they’ll just snap out of it and quit acting like that.
We don’t do it a lot. I’m afraid if we did, they would learn there are no consequences or Mom is weak or boundaries are not real, all the shit I got taught that I’m trying to unlearn in therapy.
Once in a while, though, I see one of them work him or her or zeself into such a self-sabotaging rampage of I-started-it-so-I-must-see-it-to-its-most-insane-ending that I take pity on the perpetrator and give them an opportunity to hit pause and decide if they really want to continue down the current fork or not.
My bosses gave me a do-over this week.
I quit my job at the bar two days before Super Bowl Sunday by standing on the bar and yelling at my manager in front of customers, then I hopped down and walked out mid-shift (and I shall call that story Not My Finest Hour, and I will tell it in whole another day). This left me jobless. Revise: I made me jobless.
It was okay, I said, because I never was supposed to stay at the bar job. It’s a means, not an end. I picked up day shifts at my old bar because I needed a distraction, something to force me to maintain some kind of routine so I wouldn’t shut down after I quit the job I wasn’t qualified for.
I’d been fundraising (allegedly) for a university, and the only related experience I had was knocking on doors in the nineties as part of a canvassing team raising money to protect the environment; this was not that. This was me at Executive Club luncheons wanting to steal the leftovers for all the homeless people outside instead of trading cards and schmoozing with potential donors—the beginnings of a midlife, existential crisis.
By my sixth month in the position, I was crying so hard most days during my morning commute that I went on antidepressants and took advantage of the first chunk of my paid FMLA time. I returned after two weeks, but I didn’t last—I burned the rest of my PTO in the fall then left.
“I’m going back to freelancing and bars,” I said. Before I’d taken the full-time job at the university, I’d been writing for a newspaper, editing a blog, and freelancing for that same institution’s Office of Marketing and Communications.
I went back to my bar (and I call it mine because I am its. The owner’s brother gave me my first job behind a bar when I was 22. I’ve danced in and out of their establishments since, and when I was pregnant with my last child, the regulars pitched in and sent gifts. This is family.), and I got comfortable. It was like going home. Autopilot on.
The Universe has a way of screaming when you don’t listen to her whispering. Each week I spent not pursuing writing work (which is the thing I actually can do with enough earning potential to afford cat food, oil changes and rent), things got a little bit louder. The warning shots kept coming, and I insisted their intervals had a good rhythm instead of taking cover.
I have a circle of humans around my children and me who have me like no others, and that circle keeps growing. If I’ve learned anything in the last year, it’s how to recognize members of my own tribe and the priceless nature of shared vulnerability between people.
For nine days, I thought I didn’t work at the bar anymore. I was really scared, and I needed to be. I followed up on two writing opportunities, talked with another bar, and then I went home and told them I was sorry for screaming on the bar. And I told them the truth—I lost my shit and shouldn’t have. I’m finding balance, and it’s ugly sometimes.
Sometimes I tell people that if I was left to my own devices and had no other living things depending on me to not be horrible, I would live naked on a room-sized pile of dirty laundry. I would weave weed-stems and bones into my hair, paint stripes on my cheeks with cigarette ashes while I chain-smoked and took speed. I’d go out happy and fast. I’d be a lunatic humming in trash, crying on my way into the light–a schizo lovechild of the warty garbage lady from Labyrinth and Daryl Hannah when she was Ayla in Clan of the Cave Bear. And that’s why I should see a therapist.
People laugh like I’m joking when I say it, and I usually say it because they’ve done something like compliment any of my practical life skills. I’m compelled to crush that immediately, not because I’m bad at All The Things All The Time but because I’m a lifelong addict with the usual mental illness flight that comes with (grows? causes?) addiction–anxiety, depression, manic moments that last from a few hours to years, and that makes it hard to sustain any kind of uninterrupted status quo no matter how hard I try.* And I’m bad at accepting compliments.
One of my Best Forever Sister Friends and I take selfies making the grossest, ugliest faces we can muster and send them to each other with no warning sometimes. While there’s no score, schedule or rules to this game, you know you’ve won when the recipient cusses you for making her laugh for emeffing real–out loud and against her will–in a public place. The naked lunatic-junkie picture I like to paint is a word version of one of those faces. My jaw doesn’t always jut into a pronounced under-bite but it can; I’m not perpetually in a holy-shit-balls-to-the-wall mental health crisis but I get there.
One of my favorite, favorite, favorite things about being lucky enough to still be alive is learning how to accept myself. Right now, I’m working on the part where I find the line between To thine own self be true and FUCK IT I’M NUTS NOW! and mark it on my map: DO NOT CROSS. I’m still pinning down the coordinates, and I’m grateful to have a co-pilot on this mission in the form a smart twenty-something who listens to my shit then says things like, “Okay, well, that was a lot of assuming feelings and outcomes based on past experiences that aren’t this one at all.”
Therapy is good.
*But I/you/we don’t get to quit trying. I just hate for people to feel disappointed when, despite love and counseling and sleep and meds, I go off the rails and do it all wrong sometimes anyhow.
I took this photo from a bridge over the Chicago River last January. I’d had a stairs-induced panic attack in the Art Institute that ended in me pouring sweat and crying. I was on a date.
Winter and I have a history of not getting along well.
But I’ve been embracing it this year. Walking in winter. Bundling up and getting my shit done, because if I spend another cold season hiding in my house crying for summer, I’m going to die from it.*
This year, I’m letting winter hold me the way summer does. I’m asking January to be my womb and let me find the cord and trace how deep it goes into her belly before hitting spring-placenta. This is the only way to full-moon magnolias and lilac-breezes through rolled-up windows at stoplights that make you roll them down, and that’s where I’m headed. That’s what I’m made for.
The best words I learned last year were:
FEELINGS AREN’T FACTS and THE ONLY WAY OUT IS THROUGH.
I remember this photo and this day because I was on a date—with a man who loved me anyhow. And I got through the panic attack and I took this picture because there were buildings reflecting sunlight on breaking floes, and I felt peaceful. I was at home again in my city. We found a five on the ground and gave it to a busker before getting in a cab. (And a bum coughed on me that day. Right. On. My face.)
My new therapist’s name is Angelica, which is what my dad’s dad used to call me. I’ve scheduled our sessions for Thursdays so I can sometimes sleep in beforehand and never be expected to sling drinks and entertain any(one)(thing) immediately after.
I hope you’re warm.
*Will it really kill me? Not directly. But it feels like hell to always be wishing it was warmer.