How Toni Morrison Saved My Life

Alliyah Allen
Nov 15, 2018 · 7 min read

TRIGGER WARNING: THIS ARTICLE IS ABOUT MENTAL HEALTH, SUICIDE, and SELF HARM

My first memory of Toni Morrison was my senior year of high school. I was enrolled in AP English with Diane (we called our teachers by their first names — very progressive high school) and frankly, struggling. I remember the other texts we read like Alice in Wonderland and Heart of Darkness. We learned literary terms and wrote countless papers and journals. Long story short, AP English was a lot of work.

Diane assigned Beloved during the winter trimester, which for me was both a good and bad thing. Not understanding how depression and anxiety worked at the time, I found myself in a world of pain and angst mentally and internally, but somehow still managing and excelling externally. In many ways, I felt disconnected from pretty much everyone, but I was not brave enough to vocalize it. I tried everything I could think of to express it. I stopped activities such as basketball. I started writing more. I put post-it notes and pictures all over my dorm room. I even starting cutting myself. I attempted so many means for relief, yet in still, each failed.

Reading Beloved during that Winter Trimester was so instrumental. It did not feel like work. In a number of ways, it was a release. I was connecting to the story and I read myself in so many of the characters. Sethe not being able to see color and struggling to remember, Denver looking for a sister, Beloved wanting all the pieces of her mother, Paul D looking for love and security in order to save his humanity… so many levels to that story applied to me. Truthfully, it was so applicable to my story, that I could not even truly realize it. I’m confident that it was God and the universe looking out for me and forcing me to understand because I would go on to study Beloved each year in college. In fact, this may be the first year that I do not read the text, which is probably a sign that I should.

Even though I was exposed to such a rich and fulfilling story, it did not mean it was easy. I struggled with Beloved for years. I struggled with Toni Morrison for years. For some reason, I could not truly soak in the lessons she taught. I had her quotes all over my dorm room and many more of her essays and stories on my bookshelf. I had gone to therapy to work out my issues. Found new friends, attempted new relationships and discovered new hobbies in order to live life and love me. Similar to my senior year of high school, I kept trying to release but kept failing.

Once, on November 15th, 2016, I experienced the darkest attempt of my life. This was the season when Trump was elected President and my environment was so full of hate and anger. Naturally, I found myself in the crux of it, as I led many discussions, organized students to resist, and maintained safe spaces for my friends and peers who felt threatened by the new leadership of such a triggering and violent man. I was so concerned with others and figuring out what nation ran by Trump would mean for my future, that I was unable to check in with myself. I fell behind on work and struggled to find anywhere on campus to focus. So that Tuesday afternoon, I remember skipping classes and taking a trip to Philly.

My work-study supervisor and friend gave me train tickets because I could not afford the trip at the time. I went to my favorite Panera, got a bowl of broccoli cheddar soup, and got to work. I’d finally finished an essay I was working on and a few other projects. Before I knew it the store was ready to close, which I figured was my cue to leave. That train ride felt easy. There’s no better feeling than accomplishment and getting things done. Especially when you’re behind on work.

When I got back to campus, I entered the Black Cultural Center where I resided that junior year. Stepping through the door the tense energy hit me like a strong wave. My curiosity and need to take care of my community led me to see what my housemates were discussing. They were enraged at some faculty member rejecting another proposal that was for students of color. We talked about the faults in the administration and pondered what we could do about it.

Forgive me, as my memory of what happened next, is not as strong.

I can’t remember what actually happened that made me leave the living room and go upstairs to my single. I’m sure the conversation downstairs led only to more frustration and a lack of answers. I’m sure I played the advocate role and comforted my friends as I tried to conjure solutions. I’m also sure that by the time I got my room, I had no energy left to take care of myself.

I quickly began to experience a panic attack and my anxiety spiraled out of control. I turned the lights out and couldn’t think clearly. I felt myself pacing back and forth, seeking out a release for my pain and frustration. I couldn’t understand why there was so much friction on campus. Why I couldn’t get my work done and be a top student. Why there was so much hate in the world. Why I was so passionate about doing something about it. And, why I couldn’t find the strength to let it go and just live my life. That night I couldn’t see my colorful room full of pictures and memories. I couldn’t see the things that made me feel like myself. I couldn’t see the things that made me feel human. All I could see was darkness.

I went into my closet and fell down on a huge bag of laundry. My closet was very tiny and echoed in the darkness that was washing over my spirit. My tears were endless and somehow I found a belt in my hand. I wrapped the belt around my neck and threw the remainder of the strap over the pole holding up my clothes. I closed my eyes and kept pulling as hard I could, hoping I would strangle myself to death in order to stop the darkness that consumed every inch of my breathing. I kept pulling so hard to the point where the only thing I could hear was I breath. My anxiety and racing thoughts slowed, but my breath grew heavier. For some reason, I opened my eyes and I saw the darkness that took over me.

I did not have the strength to let go of the belt. But my mind wandered to Paul D. I thought about the bit over his mouth and wondered how he might have been struggling for his breath. I thought about Sethe and how beautiful she was, even if she struggled to remember and see her life. I kept thinking about how life did matter and I eventually let go of the belt. Moments later, I heard my friend knocking on the door to see if I was okay. She couldn’t get in because I locked it. So she proceeded to text and call me. Her call made me open the closet, where the light from the hallway peaked through the cracks of my door. I then was able to crawl over and open it. I returned to the closest and she came in. She looked at me, hugged me, and immediately began calling my other friends. It took seeing their faces to pull me out of the closet and eventually lay down on my bed.

At that moment, I did not know what the future held. But I knew that at least that night, I lived.

Two years later, I’m happy to say I’m still here. I was reading a book, Well Read Black Girl, edited by Glory Edim last night. It’s an anthology of black feminist writers discovering themselves and the essay, Her Own Best Thing by Tayari Jones made me remember why I loved Toni Morrison so much. In the essay, Jones recalls her experience reading and teaching Morrison, and describes it as sort of a battle. I related to her testimony in many ways and began retracing my life these past two years. One line that was so small but screamed out to me reads, “Later, in Beloved, Morrison would be more explicit in her messages about love. ‘Thin love’ she calls it when the relationship isn’t enough.” (Edim 29). I highlighted those two sentences because even in an essay about Morrison, Morrison was teaching me something new!

What brought me to that closet two years ago was thin love. Thin love of self. I was not enough for myself and as a result, I was ready to end myself, to freeze myself in the closet of darkness back in 2016. And while that seemed like a solution I was okay with, the thick love that my friends showed me by pulling me out of that closet forced me to live and see differently. Two years later, and I’m still here. I’ve grown and struggled. I’ve cried and laughed. I’ve experienced true sisterhood and thick love as my friends made it a mission that I never return to that space. My family understands me. I don’t feel as though I have to save the world. Rather now, I can just live in it. That night and so many more, Toni Morrison’s creativity and spark helped me along the way. She helped me open my eyes to see both the darkness and light around me. Which leaves me presently here to say that I am okay. I have not harmed myself since that night and I truly feel as though today is an anniversary of strength, resilience, and thick love.

SELF PORTRAIT №1 — By Alliyah Allen

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