The Experience of Living: Part III
How does one go about explaining that which is so personal, it seems to sit in secret, nestled somewhere deep? How does one find prose or poetry to paint an accurate picture of pain so insidious it distorts both body and mind? How does one speak about something so scary that even the mere mention of its name – “suicide” – sends shockwaves of discomfort through those within earshot?
This can feel – honestly, it is – an impossible task. But we had to try. Because, though suicide does not define our narratives, it has quite obviously shaped them.
And try we did:
“I am running from some unseen ghost and from the voice telling me cruelly, over and over, that I have to die. I can’t run fast enough.” (Meghan)
“The suffocating sense of being trapped in a body, in a life not of your choosing. That feeling of wanting to claw your way out of your own skin.” (Leah)
“I couldn’t…dispel the fog that now clouded my every conscious thought. I found myself consumed by the sense that I was, somehow, actually falling away from [my surroundings]. Nothing felt real anymore…” (Me)
“[T]he skin on my arms looked like a roadmap…The way I used to see it, if I could make myself bleed, it meant that my pain was real. If I could see it, then I could believe that it wasn’t just in my head because it was right there in front of me…The plan was to get so obliterated that I’d eventually lose…control, and that loss would allow me to cut deeper. I’d be so numb that it wouldn’t hurt.” (Dese’Rae)
“Imagine it is 3 a.m. You have been up all night, unable to escape how alone you are in your bed. How long it’s been since someone touched your arm or said your name across the room. The wind is screaming at your window, ice forming on the glass and the television is you pretending someone is there. Imagine that moment stretching out the rest of your life, and you with the absolute belief your light will never touch the darkness. Now imagine a knock at the door. A friend stands there smiling, and asks if you would like to lie down.” (Zack)
Running, falling, suffocating. A roadmap of scars. Isolation, and agony, and a “knock at the door,” an invitation to rest.
And what of the other side? What came after?
It would have been perhaps easier, in writing about our lived experiences, to rely on platitudes to describe the pockets of purpose and incremental instances of healing that each of us encountered. So, too, might it have been simplest to present these moments or people or symbols as saving graces – linear, emerging post-ideation or attempt, a moment of divine light shining down to illuminate our suddenly newfound appreciation of life.
This is not to denigrate the narratives of those who have experienced such moments, or to say they are mutually-exclusive. But I wonder if there is greater understanding to be gained in grounding our lifelines as we do our descriptions of the near-death mindsets we inhabited. Maybe an approximation of our pain can be felt far more easily by evoking images and sensations that resonate with each of you as human beings – that, to some extent, we have all experienced.
Like running. Like struggling for air or space, like fighting to see through the foggiest of nights. Like scars on skin. Like the feeling of relief when, after such loneliness, safety and warmth in the form of a friend beckons.
Like art, and beauty emerging from muck. Like a father, seeing the smiles of his children. Like finding community, like feeling wrapped in love, like recognizing a different kind of brokenness in another and stumbling into some kind of symbiotic support.
For Meghan, paint and canvas became the tools to capture an innate “life force” she felt pulsing inside.
“I went to the studio [and] I started making lotuses,” she said. “They cannot flourish and grow without having the roots deep in mud. And I could see that I had a lot of pain and suffering in my life…and that I would be able to use that in order to become something really beautiful. And the more I could paint, in as many different ways as I could, [the life force] became stronger and stronger.”
For Zack, the quiet constancy of fatherhood sustained him over the course of the many years he lived suicidal ideation, preparing to die.
“My kids saved my life,” he said. “At the time, they didn’t know they were doing that, [but] being there, being alive, being a part of my life…was a huge, huge part of why I’m still here today.”
As Meghan did, Dese’Rae found solace in the visual – specifically, her camera – and would come to compile a family of attempt survivors, carving out space for them to share their truth with the world. First, though, she drew strength from her own support network. From the friend who picked her up at the hospital after an attempt, who tucked her in and let her sleep, to the best friend who helped find a path forward.
“I didn’t feel safe at the hospital,” she said. “What I did feel safe with was my people and my community.”
As for Leah and I, we found connection – camaraderie, even – in the unlikeliest of places. When a guidance counselor suggested nineteen-year-old Leah mentor veterans who were going back to school, she felt unsure. But, in working with them, she found shared experience and understanding.
“I wasn’t peers with these vets in any way,” she said. “[But] the commonality with them was that we were all people who were told, you’re damaged, you’re broken, you’re this, you’re that. Just feeling excluded from society. I was told that I would have to spend the rest of my life in a group home and was just emerging out of that, so connecting with other people who were trying to rebuild their lives was life-saving.”
She recalled further: “What it taught me is that I have something to give. Because I had always felt like a burden, and that [experience] taught me that I can actually hold space for people, and because of the things I’d been through, I actually have this kind of [natural] empathy that is within me. It really changed the way I saw myself.”
I was also nineteen when I met Neli, a little girl who had cancer. We were both sick, though it would take me years to realize that the diseases I live with are neither my fault nor the result of some innate failure. I don’t know what happened to Neli. When I left the volunteer position that had brought me to her bedside, she was still receiving treatment. I like to picture her now as happy, healthy, with a head full of hair.
As for the five of us, we are not “cured.” We still live with suicidal ideation. We’re still human beings, wrestling with histories of hurt, utilizing different tools to cope, approaching survivorship in different ways. Maybe storytelling is our salve. Or therapy. Maybe we take medication. Maybe we do all of these, or a combination of this and other things, or something else entirely. We want to tell you more about this – what it means to us to be living and how, exactly, we’re doing that - so we hope you’ll join us for our final installment next week.
Today, though, Leah, Meghan, Dese’Rae, and Zack will be painting, speaking, teaching, researching, writing, offering real-time peer support, and so much more. As for me? I’ll be sitting at the bedside of another little girl with cancer, letting her hold my pointer finger in her baby fist, and laughing at the silly faces we make at each other within the walls of her hospital room.
Next week: On “survival,” what sustains us, and where we stand today.