My mom talked a lot about her suicide attempt when I was growing up. She was 16. She had been abused by her father. She had known a life of dysfunction unlike anything many of us will ever know. Including me. Despite enduring more than my fair share of shit growing up, both of my parents did try to break the cycles of dysfunction they grew up with. But they fought. A lot. My dad drank. A lot. They separated, usually a couple of months a year until I was about 15. She laid hands on us. I do not believe that spanking is ever good for a child’s emotional or neurological development. And a few times she crossed the line from what folks would have called a good ‘ol fashioned ass whoopin’ (even back in the good ‘ol days) into abuse. The way she told the story of her suicide attempt, we lived right across the road from the woods where she had attempted to take her life as a teenager.
My mother never ended up taking her own life. To the best of my knowledge, she only attempted it that once. But she had enough of a documented history of depression that when she did grow ill, it was originally misdiagnosed as a nervous breakdown. We only found out a few days before she died that she had the extremely rare neurological condition, Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease.
This depression and anxiety shit runs deep. Part neurological predisposition. Part patterned behavior. I am not as interested in nature vs nurture debates as I am breaking the cycle and living as healthy as I can.
But growing up in a vortex of dysfunction and depression, with my mom often talking about her own suicide attempt, it was only a matter of time before I started contemplating my own. I was maybe 12 or 13 when my brother yelled out for my mom because he had caught me rubbing the dull blade of my jack-knife against my wrist. I was 15 when I wrote my first “real” poem: “To Whom it May Concern.” It was a suicide note:
To Whom it May Concern, you know why you’re gathered here today
You know how you died; but “why?” You can’t quite say
I lived ____ years of anger, But when I was 12 I knew my fate
I smiled when I was loved but I always felt the hate.
I left a blank, that I was convinced I would fill in some day. When I was turning 21, I had a bit of an existential crisis. I kept telling myself that was the year I would fill in the blank or turn into my dad.
At age 40, I think I have successfully done neither. But I’d be lying if I said there weren’t dark days when the thoughts come. That ideation I have known since adolescence. That dark cloud that was severely exacerbated by puberty and sexual awaking in a very conservative church culture I was saturated in.
Sharing all of this is not a late night cry for help. It is a war cry. I am here! I am standing. Sometimes my head hangs low. Sometimes I don’t make it through the day without tearing up, sometimes at “inappropriate” places. Some days are a little bit harder than others to get out of bed. I do not have a “god shaped hole” that Jesus or Zoloft can fill. I do have an inherited pattern of depression. A therapist, and occasionally medication has helped.
At the end of the day, some very hard ones – like today – I have to learn to love me. Yes! Even to do that which was I was taught was a cardinal sin by my mother, pastors and some Christian professors: to live for me. When we merely survive for those around us, we are not loving them our best. When the darkest days come, they can even become the targets of our resentment: ‘Don’t hurt me! I am staying alive for you.’ I said a firm “no” to that way of thinking some time ago. But living it, embodying it, making it my truth, writing my own story is a life long task. I’ve made it twice as long as I thought I would. And I plan on making it to the day I am a cantankerous (but loving) old man. If your skies are dark today, if your chest is heavy, if your thoughts are rushing and you don’t know if you can make it another day, please know that you are not alone. I know that sounds so damn cliché. Maybe it is. But I’m a realist. The night will come. And darker days may always lie ahead. But there is freedom. There is freedom in loving yourself, so that you can go forth and love others and even love life for the shitty, beautiful mess that it is.