A promise to stay

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

Suicide is a crimson thread that wound its way into my body and mind at a very young age. I remember being seven years old and stretched out on the grass, looking up at the vastness of sky and wanting to be up there. Anywhere but here. I wanted to float far above the confusing, chaotic, too-solid world of my childhood. I wanted to soar beyond the trauma that took up residence in my body: wordless, unnamed, unrecognized.

As a teen, I made several attempts to leave the planet, which landed me in locked youth wards, a residential treatment center, and, eventually a group home that reeked of stale cigarette smoke, vomit, and the absence of all hope.

My suicidal urges landed me in the back of ambulances, strapped to stretchers. Handcuffed and criminalized in the backs of cop cars. Suicide left me with the imprint of averted eyes, disgusted tones, and scornful exclamations of “why would you do that to yourself?” I answered endless questions about “symptoms” and “behaviors,” but no one ever helped me to find a framework or a vocabulary to understand it all, beyond what was written in the DSM. No one ever taught me what to do with the suicidal thoughts or where they might come from. I was only commanded to stop thinking them, to stop acting on them. I signed “safety contracts” in a world that felt anything but safe.

Suicide steeped me in a thick brew of shame, a sludgy poison that infiltrated every cell.

Shame is a silencer. It’s an isolator. It’s a killer of dreams and of lives. It almost killed me.

The turning point came when I saw that my “problem” was bigger than me: that suicide is not an individual medical issue, as I had been previously led to believe, but a collective one, a matter of social justice. That realization was the beginning of a small measure of freedom.

I began to take my power back when I stopped blaming myself and began to look critically at the world around me. At the world that gave rise to the social and intergenerational patterns and traumas that shaped me and the suicidal thoughts in my head. This process worked like a salve, dissolving much of the shame that circulated in my blood.

“It’s no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society,” the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti tell us. Yes, the world is sick. If I wrote all day and all night, I would not be done with naming the layers of injustice that permeate this planet. We live in a violent, individualistic, and materialistic society that functions directly counter to our deepest human needs. I will not, cannot, should not, adjust to this.

We humans are wired for connection, for belonging.

This world teaches us to disconnect from ourselves and one another.

Trauma — personal, collective, and historical — disconnects us even further.

Our pain, named and felt together, can be alchemized into an unstoppable force for liberation.

Slowly, I began to shift the narrative that lived inside me. The story I told myself about who I was and what I was capable of becoming. The same old story, narrated to me by old white male psychiatrists, typed in bleeding black ink in my chart. I crossed that story right out. Redacted it.

I began to rewrite my story and to speak it out loud. Saying publicly, on the Internet and in front of people, yes I tried to kill myself, but the shame is no longer mine to carry. Shame on the people who pathologized and punished my pain. Shame on the systems that harmed me in the name of help. Shame on the drug companies that profited from my misery.

In speaking out from this new perspective, I began to connect with other suicide attempt survivors, other survivors of trauma, loss, and so many forms of oppression. Though the details of our stories varied, and we were not equally impacted, I saw my experience reflected in theirs: fractals of struggle, survival, and magnificence shot through our intersecting narratives.

Over time, I stopped seeing myself as “sick” or “ill.” I had been broken, yes, but I could gather up the scattered pieces and seal them together with veins of sweat and gold. I knew that I was healing when I could envision a different kind of future, one that would decimate the prognoses laid before me, that would defy and resist the medicalization of my suffering. Day by day, I could begin to create something out of the fragments of this life.

But mine is not a tidy narrative. I will not offer you any inspiration porn. No shiny, happy “recovery story” here. My healing will never be complete in the midst of so much suffering, so much injustice, that settles over this tiny, blue-green orb spinning through space.

There are still times when my stressed out mind and body shift into suicidal gear and sing me a seductive song. The suicidal impulse is a groove, a neural pathway, a psychic riverbed, well worn, though less so than in the past. Something, many things — lack of sleep, the news, overwork, a heartbreak, life — will turn it on and the thoughts will begin to flow.

The first thought of suicide used to act as an undertow. It would pull me in until I could not distinguish myself from the waves that pounded all around, and I was immediately sucked under. As a result of years of practicing, I am learning the paradox of swimming with the current, rather than against it, and in doing so, I eventually find my way back to the shore. I do not swim alone. I would not be able to stay afloat if it were not for all those who also struggle for breath along with me in these stormy, rising waters.

I’ve learned that the suicidal thoughts are not an “enemy” to be eradicated. Having them does not mean that I am doing things “wrong.” Far from it. They are an invitation to deeper compassion for myself, for my fellow swimmers, and for our burning world. They are an invitation to look up from the narrow chasms into which I fall sometimes, overwhelmed by the confusion and sorrow all around me and inside me. They are an invitation to remember the sky of my childhood, a source of vastness and longing, but to keep my adult’s feet planted on the earth, where I have promised to stay, in wounding and in wonder.

On the shore, the promise to stay echoes in the chambers of my heart and pumps through my veins. A renewed commitment to remain in the mystery, to help change the way things are. In my own small way, to help create a different sort of world, a world that so many folks won’t want to leave so soon.