Every now and then I get to a place that I don't like very much. It's dark, empty and very lonely. I've been making visits there for as long as I can remember. My first conscious memory of visiting the dark place was when I was five.
I've been thinking about writing about this place for years. I used to think that I was the only person who visited the dark, empty, lonely place but I eventually learned that it wasn't true.
Last week I read about Andrew Koenig, a man whom I've never met, but I know him. He was a fellow visitor of the dark place, but he lingered there too long and was unable to leave.
I recall the theme song from M*A*S*H; it had that refrain that hypnotized me: "Suicide is painless; it brings on many changes; and I can take or leave it if I please." I sang that refrain in my head for years.
The first time I tried to kill myself I was fourteen. I took an overdose of Valium. My dad had been in an accident on his squad car and injured his leg. The doctor had prescribed Valium to help him rest. I came home from school and was alone in the house. I took all of the pills that were in the bottle, but there were only four or five. No one noticed anything was wrong until I was attempting to wash dishes after dinner and was rather wobbly on my feet. I don't recall much of the evening; my sister, who was 12 at the time, has supplied some of the missing details. My mother called the doctor. I'm not certain what she told him but she put me to bed to sleep it off. My sister watched me all night, afraid that I was going to stop breathing. I am still sorry for putting her through such trauma.
My father was visiting this Christmas and asked me about why I dropped out of college without graduating back in 1977 (I eventually went back to school and finished what I had started). I explained that I had been on the verge of an emotional breakdown. I told him that I had been on a downward spiral for years, ever since my suicide attempt back in 1971. He looked puzzled and asked me where he was when I made this attempt. I told him that he was there, but I recognized that he honestly didn't remember.
Please don't judge my parents harshly; I don't any more. They didn't have a clue as to what to do with me. My father left all child rearing decisions to my mother. I believe that he really doesn't remember. As for my mother, she couldn't accept that a part of me was broken, she wanted me to be whole and thought that by pretending that I was fine she could make it so.
It has taken me years to understand that my parents elected not to notice my emotional pain because they had no mechanism for dealing with it, no frame of reference for how to help me.
There are a lot of people who are in the dark place. It's not just dark, it's unrelenting darkness. A pitch black place where there is a total absence of light and the worst part is that you believe that there will never be an end to the darkness. You feel that you have only two options--to live with that oppresive darkness squeezing your chest so hard that every breath hurts, or end the suffering, escape the dark by ending life itself. It's not death that you desire; it's the absence of the hurt. You just want the darkness to go away.
Over the years I've developed a sort of sixth sense for suicides. When I was still teaching, I was a part of a team of four teachers and we taught 80 students among us. We took a personal interest in our students and tried to intervene as soon as we became aware that a student was having academic problems. We had a team meeting with one of our students whose grades had begun to slip. One of us asked a fairly innocuous teacher type question, "Where do you see yourself in ten years?" She responded, "I won't be doing anything in ten years." My colleagues just looked puzzled and considered her response to be teenage doublespeak meant to confuse adults. I looked at her and had this moment of total clarity. My question hung in the air, "When did you decide to kill yourself?" I remember that she didn't look surprised although my colleagues gasped rather loudly. When she spoke her voice was soft and quiet, "Last night."
I don't recall her name any more although I can still see her face. I hope that she is still hanging with the world; I hope that she has found her way to navigate the dark times. The name that I do remember is that of another of my students who went home and hanged herself one day.
I wish that I could tell you how to stop someone that you love from taking the ultimate step but it's not that simple. Both of those young women were suicidal; one I heard and the other I didn't. I was able to tell one that I understood and that the darkness really wasn't permanent, but the other, I didn't catch; I didn't hear her pain. It's not a science and blaming yourself is futile.
I've found my own way but I don't presume that the conclusions that I've reached have any universal application. I find it of comfort to recognize that I am not alone. There are a lot of people who find themselves in the dark place at various times in their lives. The beacon for me is that I've come to believe that there is a light somewhere in that darkness and that if I just hold on long enough I will find that light again.
I think that suicide is about hopelessness, a sort of emptiness that seems infinite. I've worked through a lot of this with the help of some good therapists over the years. In addition to talk therapy, I believe that depression may be linked to a chemical imbalance and when that is the case, prescription medications are necessary. My medication of choice is Paxil.
I've also learned to allow myself to give in to the dark. Sometimes I refuse to function. I sleep a lot, cry a lot, and demand nothing of myself for a day or two. I think of it as my renewal time.
I encourage parents to listen and to not be afraid to make direct inquiries if you suspect that your child is suicidal. You can't plant the idea in your child's mind by asking but you may get an honest answer if you ask an honest question. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 10 and 29. Gay, Lesbian, and transgender young people are even more likely to attempt suicide.
We rarely talk about suicide. Survivors tend to bury their attempts, to refrain from sharing their stories. I think that there should be a Suicide Anonymous organization where survivors can go and say, "Hi, my name is Sheria and I'm a suicide survivor." People who are contemplating suicide could come and share their thoughts in a safe environment and hear from people who fully understand where they are and how they got there. We could also tell them with credibility that suicide is not an answer.
I cannot declare that I am safe from suicide. To do so would be arrogant. I can say that I no longer consider suicide to be a desirable option. I choose life with all of its sorrow because there is also such sweet joy in living. I accept the darkness because I know that it is not endless. I decided that the time was now for me to write about this part of me because I'm tired of the secrecy and the shame. I know that there are others out there who have wrestled with these same demons and I think that it is important that we share the hope. When I was younger, I used to think that dying young was brave; now, I know that real bravery is choosing to live.
The video is of Kathy Mattea, a singer whose voice is like a cup of hot chocolate. I was fortunate enough to see her perform live; it was one of the best concerts that I've ever attended. This song is one of my favorites, "Standing Knee Deep in a River (Dying of Thirst)." I found this cool widget that has the lyrics. Just use the controls to the right to pause, slow down, or increase the speed of the scrolling.
Lyrics | Standing Knee Deep In A River (Dying Of Thirst) lyrics