**WARNING: Possibly triggering material.
I’m a published writer. I’m a successful Learning & Development professional. I’m a loving and protective mother. I’m a caring wife and partner. I suffer from depression and anxiety. And I’m a survivor of attempted suicide.
For those of you who have known me in school, work and social activities, you have often described me as independent, sometimes domineering, and often a bitch. One thing many have said to me is that I glow, I have a confidence that is sometimes intimidating, and above all, I work to accomplish my goals with success that exceeds expectations. This is the person that I want you to see. This is the person I aspire to be. But ultimately, it is very much a performance for me. A social act based on the hope that you will accept me, because something inside has always told me that if you knew the real me, you would walk away without looking back.
This is the burden of depression. Where it began, I can’t honestly tell you. It’s a darkness that seems to have always enveloped me. There was a time when I was seduced by that darkness, truly believing in my heart that the only entity in this world that would accept me unconditionally was death. And so I walked down that road, yearning for death’s arms, but failing miserably even in that.
Let’s start at what might be the beginning. Like many, I didn’t have a happy childhood. It’s not something that I ever told anyone because in the hills of Appalachia, you don’t talk about such things. Family business stays within the family, even when constant gossip pervades the neighborhoods. Still, no one would have guessed what pain I felt in my house.
I saw and experienced many things as a child. Fights in our home would sometimes turn violent. On one such occasion, I was taken by the police and put in a children’s home. I’m sure it seemed like the right thing to do at the time, to protect a child from the horrors of the home – a safe place to be while the adults worked out their issues. I was scared to be there because I didn’t know anyone. I just remember staring up at the ceiling from my cot, praying that it would all go away. The next day, most of the kids went to school, except me and a few others. In the struggle, confusion and fear, a teenage boy sexually assaulted me in this alleged home of safety. I was five years old at the time. It’s one of my earliest childhood memories.
Once I was returned to the home, I was happy to be back with the family I knew and loved. Unfortunately the fighting continued. My father had a sickness that affected those closest to him. Although many viewed him as one of the nicest men in the community, behind closed doors he could be the most cruel and emotionally abusive person I have ever met. In my staggered attempts to find my way, I never felt that he wanted me, and his self-medication was more important than his children. He always chose that over us.
Through the fighting and feeling of being all alone, even with people around, I began to think…and later believe…that no one could ever want me. Something about me was obviously defective if my own dad didn’t want me. And with what happened in the children’s home, I must only be good for one thing….
Adding to my mixed emotions, my dad would do things and finally realize the hurt, he would often say he was sorry by giving me ice cream or candy, because food makes it all right. I know now that this is one of many things that contributed to my binging to deal with emotions. It never works, and the guilt you often feel afterwards only contributes to the cycle of anxiety and depression.
I guess by the age of nine years old I started trying to emulate what I thought people wanted to see. I became a walking rendition of Cooley’s looking glass self, creating myself in the image that I thought others wanted, of their perceptions, or just to get their acceptance. And as children can be just as cruel, it didn’t stop the teasing and hurtful behaviors that kids can be so very good at displaying. At this point in life I was already overweight, and some kids would make sure I was reminded of that fact, as if I could forget. One schoolmate even gave me the nickname Shamu. I did the only thing I could think to do – I smiled and pretended that it was funny, even when I was dying a little on the inside.
This barrage of darkness that surrounded me and the hurricane of hormones that accompanies puberty made for a potentially deadly concoction of self-loathing and hopelessness. I began spending more time in my room. Sometimes I would write poetry and short stories. In an area where you don’t discuss family business, and talking about it with the offenders and survivors that surround you was not an option – writing about my feelings helped. My writing became very bleak, as if I were obsessed with death. From the teenage boy, to violent fights, to being made fun of because of my looks, I romanticized any figure that would accept me. And I intuitively knew that death would accept me, with open arms, without condition. To be wanted in that way…it’s all I could hope for myself.
The writing melded with fantasies. I would often lie in bed and think about dying, or think about an alternate reality where everyone loved me just the way I am, without pretense. I started sleeping more and more for the simple fact that being unconscious was better than being awake in a world that didn’t want me. When my thoughts almost continuously edged toward shrouding myself in death’s arms, I began thinking of how I would die, specifically, how I would kill myself. Overdose seemed like the most sensible, taking so many pain pills so that they would kill the pain and take me with it. But I also began liking the sight of my own blood, from a scrape or a self-inflicted wound. Seeing it made me feel alive, it stopped me from feeling like a walking shell, a puppet performing for everyone so that they would think everything was happiness and light, because no one wants to be around that darkness. It’s too inconvenient. And for some, it’s too scary because it’s like looking into a mirror. All of it was exhausting, and I just wanted it to stop.
I began sneaking around the house, gathering up as many pills as I could find. Usually this was limited to a bottle of Tylenol, but I would take whatever I could get. I would sit in my room with the door closed, listening for any footsteps coming down the hall, methodically counting the pills…twenty…thirty….more. Sometimes I didn’t even count, just chugged the bottle like a shot. More often than not, I just fell asleep for hours, as many as sixteen hours at a time. My mom did take me to the doctor trying to figure out why I was sleeping so much, doctors even suggesting that I had a sleeping disorder. I just nodded, knowing that I could never admit to them that I was in a dance with death, praying for that final dip where I would drop off the face of existence. The shame associated with it, and more importantly, having to explain why, was oppressive enough that I kept all of it locked inside, managing the weight of things as best I could.
One evening I took too many of whatever pills I had. I got to the point where I became so drowsy that I was fighting to keep my eyes open. Yes, fighting. A part of me was scared to die, wanted to survive, and I began panicking to take it all back. I stilled for a moment. It was the path I had chosen because I couldn’t deal with my life. I erroneously thought I needed to accept my choice because I would not have gone in that direction if there weren’t reasons. I lay in bed, covered myself and tried to accept the fact that I would never wake up again.
I did wake up. My face and shirt were covered in vomit. As I cleaned myself up as best as I could, I began wondering why I was still alive. I was so close to the end, yet something kept me here. Maybe it was a mistake, an act of God or the workings of simple biology, I was still alive. That had to mean something, right?
Although I had this new view to ponder, I could not escape the shadows of the past. I continued my daily performance, but struggled to keep it going. I began to withdraw from school activities, preferring my bedroom to being around other people. In hindsight, it’s interesting to me that no one noticed. The warning signs were there, but no one picked up on them. Maybe because they were too busy with their own lives, or maybe the truth was too ugly to comprehend, or maybe I was just that good of an actress. Still, I continued to try to make sense out of all of it on my own.
My high school boyfriend was one of the first people I told about these things, specifically the suicide attempts. I had told a school friend before, even after a botched attempt to cut my wrists. Her reaction was to scoff at me, accuse me of seeking attention, and distancing herself from me from that point on. My high school boyfriend was different. He accepted it, was genuinely concerned and even more so, made me promise – on my honor, with what little I had – that I would never try it again.
For whatever reason, that clicked with me. I’ll be honest, thoughts of death do still raise their ravenous heads to this day, but I always remind myself of the promise I made to him. There was at least one person who didn’t want me to die, and I believed him. It has been like an anchor for me.
Still, I go on. The darkness still surrounds me. To this day, even when I have reasons to celebrate accomplishments, a voice inside me says, “Don’t they even realize you’re faking it? What will happen when they wake up and realize you’re not who you say you are? That you really are unattractive and worthless, no use beyond a few minutes of physical gratification. What will they think of you then?”
Although thirty-three years have passed since that day in the children’s home, and multiple years since other traumatic events, I still deal with the fallout today. Even recently I had a panic attack in my office which was directly related to being triggered with a past event, the fleeing response had me scrambling to put distance between me and everyone else, for my own protection. This is the reality of anxiety – I went to the ER on this occasion to rule out a heart attack, and the ER doctor said it all: “You’re heart rate is elevated, your blood pressure is elevated and you have lowered oxygen levels in your heart…but there’s no medical reason for any of this.” That is the reality of anxiety. And worse, the feelings of worthlessness because of these events brings depression back to the forefront to the point where you can’t even get out of bed or leave your home because it’s just too much effort, and nothing seems to be worth it. Your bedroom is safer, although for me, when I was younger, the bedroom was just another way to embrace the darkness.
Part of the pain, like many people struggling with these issues, I logically know there is no reason for any of these reactions, feelings or thoughts. But yet they still come, and I have to wrestle with them in the best ways I know how, always reminding myself of the promise I made.
So, I continue the performance. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. Remember this when dealing with others because we never know the struggles that others are shielding from the world.
I’m exhausted with all of this. Be gentle. And for those of you who have read my book, I realize now that the main character of Emma was highly influenced by the thoughts I have about myself that I dare not speak for fear of what you would say. Her internal dialogue that has repelled some of you? That’s what I deal with on a daily basis, keeping it inside, protecting everyone from that discomfort, all out of fear. Not anymore.
No more shame.