Confession #967: The Girl Who Promised to Die
Escaping to magical thinking about God and death.
[CW: discussion of suicidal thoughts, self harm, bullying, death]
Reflecting at age thirty-six on the other side of the dark depths of mental illness, I’ve never been actively suicidal.
I’ve wanted the power to cease existing with every cell in my body so hard that I swear I was one hair’s concentration away from spontaneously combusting.
I’ve swallowed a handful of sleeping pills and immediately went to the hospital, after weeks of exhausting psychosis and desperation for rest and failure of anyone to recognize there was something seriously wrong with me.
I occasionally bashed my head against hard surfaces to dull the psychic pain, and I once made an artful design of a heart on my body with a safety pin.
But my relationship with suicidality and self harm has always been very distant.
So distant, I’ll tell you a story of a little girl who felt she had to be so perfect that calm and collected games of dying in her head were a favorite calibration tool. I’m hoping by sharing I can let go of some of the shame around this strange little habit.
I was a happy kid. Intensely energetic. Positive and compassionate, often silly, tall and strong for my age, but with a self-deprecating side blooming into a voice in my head that sounded somewhere between my mother’s strained enthusiasm and my father’s teasing matter-of-factness.
I’d been skipped ahead in my little private school and was beginning to feel an unfamiliar inner turbulence of my social world crumbling.
My penchant for playing competitive sports with the boys and forming friendships with the downtrodden was not earning me lasting allies. I was bullied by a few girls in my class, one of whom I believe was asked not to return to the school after cutting my uniform skirt with scissors.
At one point in Grade Four, I became aware that my two best friends were actually just “pretending” to be friends with me while secretly conspiring as their own besties about how they could hurt me.
Mean girls, indeed.
At home, I basically did what was expected of me and got what I wanted, living as a doted-upon only child for most of my youth. Seemed like a straightforward enough universe.
I couldn’t tell you exactly when, but I began to feel like I could predict the future. This kind of “magical thinking” is a very normal part of childhood, but one usually grows out of it around this age. Heck, I still believed in Santa Claus until I was ten or eleven, not because I’d critically examined the issue, but because it seemed uninteresting to look closer, especially during these years I wasn’t often around peers. It wasn’t until I overheard kids younger than me laughing about someone who still believed that I realized I should change my mind, so I immediately applied that particular brain patch.
Iwould feel like I saw patterns in the world others didn’t, or sense things no one else perceived. I was figuring out how to consciously interpret my intuition, and found myself fixated on being accurate at things like counting and predictions in my head.
I don’t know when exactly the thoughts of death crept in. It was before I was pulled out of school and still at an age of skipping rope.
Sometimes I’d make my declarations after a moment of intense concentration, or what I’d today call a brief grounding exercise, and sometimes it would slip off my mind’s tongue without a second thought.
“I’ll kill myself now if I don’t beat this Mario level.”
“I’ll die if that cloud doesn’t turn into a wider shape.”
“I’ll make sure I die tonight if I chew less than seven times.”
They were quite eclectic in their severity and I don’t recall getting stuck on any one type of thing.
The harsh inner critic I developed as an adult was surely informed by these life-or-death promises to succeed.
At this point in childhood, I was still slightly afraid that some other world or dead people could hear my thoughts, and I remember feeling ashamed. Like I should ‘be better’ for the people who were listening.
They must be terribly disappointed in me.
Also, there was some lack of clarification on the logistical details. I don’t think I ever resolved whether take-backsies were allowed once I had even an inadvertent thought of killing myself.
I recall making pleas to the justice system in my head when I felt like I lost a couple on technicalities —
“I swear, Your Honour, I didn’t mean to pledge my entire existence upon getting that song right, it was a moment of stress and weakness!”
But I only chose the things I believed in, whatever that was supposed to mean.
I guess I won all my cases.
Looking back, that was one anxious little girl who casually filled her head with casually suicidal vows on a daily basis. Psychological survival was all about being calm, classy, special, and most of all, right.
I struck up a relationship with two girls in Grade Two. I graduated from “let me tell you when the wind is going to start blowing” and started to convince them I was an angel with magical abilities and a direct line to the all-powerful one.
It was time to test my little death game with the risk of social suicide instead.
I asked them what their biggest fears and most hopeful wishes were, and wrote personalized reassuring notes on birch bark from “God” that I slept with under my pillow, and handed them over in special vessels or tied with string. I wanted them to feel what I felt, and experience the hopes and depths of the world I thought only I felt, since no one around me seemed to act like they did too.
Thus began a great cognitive dissonance in my head.
My mother had made it clear that lying was one of the worst things you could do. We didn’t talk about hell or the devil or anything, but it was “a sin”. Something that sounded like it made you a non-person.
Sitting at the kitchen table, smoking a cigarette, she once claimed she’d never lied with a chilling insistence.
Here I couldn’t even utter the word “God” in church and mumbled my way through the discomfort of proper nouns in every song and recitation, and yet I am concocting this elaborate fantasy for the apparent benefit of a few 7–8 year old girls. I loathed myself for lying, but yearned for anyone to listen.
Today, I’m not sure that my concept of dying is all that more visceral than eight-year-old me. Even then, the ‘magical thinking’ of actual powers and predictions was something I kept at arm’s length, laying awake at night wrangling with the confusion and shame mixed in with joy and social connection.
To me, dying is a non-scary, non-state. The end of a process, something for the rest of the world to update and expand from. The growth I’ve been through in the last half year confirms what I’ve always felt: what matters is what we do here.
My academic interest in death goes deep. I’ve spent extensive time since I was a preteen (thanks, 90s internet!) studying serial killers, unethical medical experiments, and why we are driven to harm people. There is much wisdom in the margins.
Has this detached attitude towards death been a major undercurrent throughout my life? Absolutely. Perhaps even saved it.
I’m putting the pieces together. Connecting the child me and my today self. Taking advantage of this new sense of purpose, perhaps now fueled in part by understanding of a temporary corporeal existence.
As an adult, I feel deeply connected to other people in a way that doesn’t seem god-like, external, or anything other than gravitating towards those who provide momentum towards purpose.
Today, I’m perhaps slightly more aware of death in a way that I think will help rekindle my instincts for self-preservation.
I strive towards moving through life with ease, not a series of predictions and promises to myself.
But I’m not yet sure how to forgive that little girl for not seeing the world as I do today.