March 25th is a significant day in my life– in my life and in the lives of the people I love, the people who love me. Twelve years ago when I was fifteen years old could have been the anniversary of my death. Instead, I celebrate it as the day that my life changed forever, the day I got a second chance, the day that hope became an option.
March 25th, 1999 was the day I had decided to commit suicide. I had been planning it for weeks. I had written goodbye letters to my friends, handwritten a crude teenager’s will, allotting my few treasured possessions to the people I loved. I was going to overdose on Valium; I figured that would be the most painless for everyone. I had thought about slitting my wrists—I wasn’t afraid of pain myself—but I didn’t want to traumatize whoever found me. I remember that day in great detail. I had been in a terrible state for months and months, struggling with cutting, Valium addiction, a raging eating disorder, undiagnosed bipolar, and posttraumatic stress disorder. No one really knew the extent to which I was suffering, though my family had their suspicions. My mom was aware that something was seriously wrong but couldn’t reach me through my rage and despair. I was intensely isolative, holing up in my room in the dark and not coming out for days on end. Suicide was constantly on my mind. At that time, I truly did not care whether I lived or died. In many ways, I would have preferred death. I was in so much pain, so full of rage, so exhausted from years of living in a state of semi-panic, just trying to survive. I had been a virtual adult in so many ways. Intellectually, through my over-achieving perfectionism in every school-related and extra-curricular activity. Emotionally, in being my mother’s confidante and inappropriately having to be responsible for her feelings. Practically, in being responsible for my sister’s unstable psychological state and keeping her from going off the deep end. Even sexually, from the age of three, thanks to my pedophile father. I did not feel fifteen. I felt fifty. And while on the one hand I was very secretive about what I was doing, on the other hand, I was aware that this behavior was at some level a cry for help. Ironically, it was that suicidality that kept me alive. Just knowing that I had an escape hatch, a plan, a way out if I wanted to take it, gave me a backwards kind of hope. It allowed me to be curious, just curious enough, about what might happen if I told someone about the state I was in. Because even once I did, on the chance that something went wrong I could still check out if I needed to. I had it all figured out. I was going to commit suicide. But before I did, I would tell someone. Just to see what would happen. At the very least, they wouldn’t be able to say that I didn’t warn them.
This is the story of that day.
That day I crawled out of the dark cocoon of my bedroom and went to school for the first time in weeks, because I needed to say goodbye to my friends. This was going to be particularly painful, because I didn’t go to a regular school where it was just me and them. I went to a tiny alternative school where at least one parent came with the kids so they could act as the teachers. Which meant that I had to ride in a car and spend the day with my mom and sister if I wanted to see everyone else. I felt I owed my friends at least a goodbye, however, so I forced myself to make that sacrifice. I hated being around my mom at that time. She was so concerned, hovering, and all it did was piss me off. So once we got to school I did my best to ditch her. I found my best friend Camilla and we started chatting, as if everything were normal. I had no idea how to tell her what was going to happen. So instead, at some point during our conversation I pulled my sleeves up to reveal my arms: pale, thin, and beset with rows of small, carefully carved incisions, bright red in stark contrast to my ashen skin. I don’t know if I said anything to prepare her but if I did it was useless. The expression on her face at this display was one of shock, panic, and horror. She looked pained, as if my injuries had just injured her. I can’t remember what she said, if anything. I wouldn’t have known how to reply anyway.
I repeated this little show periodically throughout the day, presenting my arms to a few people, basically just to see how they would react. I was daring someone to care. Giving them one last chance to see what was happening and pull me from the fire. Not surprisingly, most people reacted the way Camilla did: visibly disturbed, immobilized with confusion, clueless as to how they should respond.
It was nearing the end of the school day and no one had really done anything, so I figured by that point that no one would. I went on to math tutoring with a woman named Jill, whom I looked up to and adored. She was one of many surrogate mothers that I had adopted at school, very kind and somehow unendingly patient with me, even through my alarming deficiency in algebra. Months later, she would tell me that she always had a sense that something was not right, and that she tried her best to make a connection with me, hoping that she could help me to not feel so alone. That afternoon in the classroom, we had not yet begun working when Jill was called out of the room for something. When she returned, my sleeves were rolled up, my arms were on the desk, and I tried to act nonchalant as she glanced down at them. To her credit, she did not fall apart in front of me. In fact, she managed not to appear even slightly fazed as she resumed our conversation. That only lasted for a minute or two, however, before her eyes welled up with tears and, shakily, she excused herself and walked out. I knew at that moment that she was leaving to find my mother.
As I sat there waiting for the shit to come down, two or three people came by and looked in on me. First up was Marty; a hyper, chirpy, round little woman who drove a Volkswagen bug and believed that, deep down, we are all beautiful people. She was my home room teacher and apparently the first person Jill went to, which was not the wisest idea considering her sun-shiny innocence about life in general. The second she walked in and looked at the sizeable collection of self-inflicted cuts along my arms, she went white. I thought about the possibility that she might faint and how very little I cared. In fact, the thought of her roly-poly little body hitting the floor and bouncing about like a rubber ball was rather amusing. She left open-mouthed, without saying a word. The next person to walk in was a man named Reggie. He was my friend Robbin’s father, a master in martial arts who was one of the most passive, gentle human beings I’d ever met. He stood in the doorway with the saddest smile, one that would have broken my heart had I not been so detached from it. He tried softly to kid me, asking if perhaps I had incurred my injuries during a struggle with a rake. I don’t remember how or if I replied.
Before I knew it, I was in a little back room of the school with my mother. She was demanding that I show her my arms. I glared at her, hovering somewhere between rage, relief, and total indifference. I very coolly told her to fuck off. She took me by the wrist, pushed up my sleeve, and surveyed my wounds. I expected her to decompensate, scream, sob. Oddly enough, she just stood there for a second, then heaved a great sigh. That kind of threw me. She said something about how she wasn’t all that surprised. She had known for a while that I wasn’t okay. She could see how detached I was, how dead my eyes were. She said that she was almost relieved to see this visible sign of my pain, something tangible to point to, an inarguable reason to get me some help. I ripped my arm from her grasp, told her that she was full of shit, that I didn’t need any of her fucking help, thank you, and that all I really wanted was to be left alone.
Now, in truth, I was a bit ambivalent about that last statement. Mom was calling my cuts a cry for help and in a way she was right. However, there was no way I would have admitted that to anyone then. ,
We came out of the little back area and stood around our table in home room. It was the end of the school day, people were milling about and gathering their things, and I was facing off with my mother, arguing a little too loudly about what was going to happen next. She insisted on taking me directly to my sister’s psychiatrist. I said that there was no fucking way I was going to any shrink and I didn’t want to go home with her either.
“Well, you’re sure as hell not going anywhere alone while you’re a danger to yourself,” she snapped.
“She can come ‘round to my house and sleep over,” Camilla offered, in her soft British accent.
I immediately pounced on the idea, insisting that it was the best thing for that night. But Mom put her foot down. She grabbed me by the arm, pulled me aside, and hissed that there was no way she would put that kind of responsibility on Camilla’s family. What if something happened to me while I was there? They would never forgive themselves. No, that was not an option.
At some point I must have gotten into the car and gone home with her because all of a sudden I was sitting on my bed in my room, the lights off, the last of the afternoon sun casting shadows through the half open blinds. I was just sitting. Contemplating. Trying to reconcile with this undeniable presage I felt deep in my bones: that something in my family’s world had shifted, and nothing would ever be the same after this moment. Just then my mother walked in to tell me that we had an appointment with the doctor, and we had to leave.
Once in the waiting room at Dr. Adair’s office, the tension heightened to an almost intolerable level. No one had a fucking clue how to speak or how to behave. Everyone was trying not to look at me, speaking softly, no sudden moves, handling me as if I were a ticking time bomb. Emily and I sat in chairs clear across the room from each other while my mother sat by the courtesy phone and tried to get a hold of my father. It took her paging him four times before he finally called back. Emily and I listened to Mom’s side of the conversation as they fought:
“Tom? What the hell took you so long, I’ve been paging you for a half hour… I had to bring Sarah to Dr. Adair’s office. She’s sick, she’s cut her arms. It’s important that you be here, we should present a united front… What do you mean, you have surgery?!… Uh-huh. Well it had better be critical, and I mean somebody’s eyeball better be hanging out of their head because if this is some elective procedure that can be rescheduled I am going to be so pissed…For Christ’s sake, Thomas, this is your CHILD, call your goddamn patient and tell them that she’s sick, they’ll understand…I swear to God, you either show up with in the next hour or don’t bother to EVER show up again.” Thwack! She slammed the phone down so hard that Emily and I both jumped.
“Unbelievable,” she muttered, shaking her head slightly, her eyes wide with incredulity. This struck me as odd. She actually seemed somewhat surprised at his lack of concern. As if, despite historical evidence, part of her had truly expected him to rise to the occasion and support her through a family crisis.
Some kinds of hope are relentless.
Forty minutes later, we were still sitting in the waiting room. Apparently we had arrived at the beginning of Dr. Adair’s last session. My father showed up just as that patient was leaving.
“Nice of you to make an appearance,” Mom spat at him. He ignored her.
“Hey Slim,” he said to me casually, using one of the generic nicknames that applied to all three of us. “What’s happening?”
I snorted lightly and turned away. Nothing, I thought. I’m only dying.
Just then Dr. Adair walked out. The way she looked always made me a bit uncomfortable. She was a large woman, what my grandfather would’ve called a “stud of a broad.” Her clothes were always a little too tight, her hair always slightly unkempt, and it irritated me. She greeted us solemnly and invited me back to her office. Reflexively, Mom got up to follow.
“Actually Dee,” said Dr. Adair “why don’t you stay out here with Emily; I think Tom ought to come back with us this time.”
All four of us froze, stunned. This came completely out of left field. Looking back, I can see her rationale: Mom and daughter are fused, daughter protects mom by not admitting any feelings, daughter is more likely to talk in front of father. That would make a certain amount of sense under normal circumstances. However. Add in the incest factor (which, to be fair, she did not know about) and it was actually the stupidest move possible. I think, though, that we were all to shocked to argue.
As predicted, the next forty minutes were a nightmare. I sat there on the worn leather couch, forced to watch my father feign concern, listening to Dr. Adair make asinine analyzations (which she clearly thought were brilliant) such as, “You know, Tom, I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that you are a surgeon and Sarah has cut her arms.” I glared at her wearily as she presented me with my options: Either go home with my parents, let them monitor me until tomorrow, or go to the hospital. In another move that was rather senseless, she warned me that choosing the hospital had the potential to ruin the rest of my life; every time I applied to a school or a job it could be found out that I spent time in a mental hospital. First of all, that’s blatantly untrue, since medical records are confidential. And secondly, thanks, lady, for threatening me with some future stigma when being admitted to that mental hospital might be the only thing that would save my life. Brilliant.
Fortunately, I did not care. I was absolutely, positively, NOT going home with my parents, and I told her so.
“Well,” Dr. Adair said ominously. “The psych ward it is, then.”
I walked in to the third floor of the Pavilion in St. David’s hospital, my entire family in tow, and looked around suspiciously. I’m not sure what I expected to see; padded walls, maybe? Bars on the windows? Instead, all I saw was an ordinary waiting area: uncomfortable chairs with rough, badly patterned fabric, low wooden tables with a few ancient magazines tossed about on top, heavy on the teal. There was your typical reception desk with the little sliding window, a tired looking woman with a wall of files behind her handing forms to my puffy-eyed mother. Off to the side I noticed two little rooms labeled Intake 1 and Intake 2. Next to that there was a set of substantial-looking double doors, ones that could only be opened with a computer keycard– I recognized those from around the ERs I’d been in over the years. Beyond those there was an open area with another, larger desk and directly across from that was another set of locked double doors. I figured that must be the entrance to the actual unit. Someone interrupted my surveying of the space by handing me a clipboard and pen– apparently, I was supposed to provide information to them about something. I couldn’t think. Everything seemed a tad surreal, depersonalized, as if I were watching it all happen on a screen in front of me instead of literally being there. I gathered enough attention to fill out the forms: Name, Age, Medical History, Psychiatric History, Primary Complaint? I was given a stapled stack of papers informing me of my Rights as a Patient.
Huh. I have rights? First time for everything.
We sat there waiting for what seemed to be an eternity. As the four of us alternated between stunned silence and terse bickering, I kept looking around, searching for something, anything to reassure me, trying to get a grip on what was happening. At one point, I saw a girl on the other side of the double doors. She was trailing behind a nurse, carrying a pillow in one arm and a blanket in another, looking as miserable as I felt. She stared straight at me with deep brown eyes, ringed with dark circles and disturbing in their emptiness. I remember thinking that she looked like a ghost. I wondered if I looked like that too.
Eventually, some woman showed up to take the clipboard from my hand, and she led me into the room labeled Intake 1. It was a tiny room, with only enough space for three chairs and a small table. She gestured for me to sit. I stepped cautiously past her, sat in a corner chair, and drew my knees tightly to my chest. She asked me a barrage of questions; about my family, my history, my feelings. She asked me to show her my arms. I obliged.
“What are you feeling right now?” she asked.
I shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Do you feel like you might harm yourself further?”
I shrugged again. “I don’t know. Maybe. Probably.”
“It says here that you were planning to commit suicide. Is that accurate?”
“So, do you still feel like you want to kill yourself?”
I snorted. “Have you met my family?”
She did not seem amused. “Well. Do you think you need to be in the hospital?”
“I think that if it’s a choice between being in the fucking loony bin or going home with them, I’m going with the loony bin. Not like there’s much difference.”
Over in Intake 2, unbeknownst to me, my parents and sister were speaking with another counselor. Pretty soon we were all in one cramped little space, and the decision had finally been reached that I should be admitted.
Well. Color me shocked.
Okay. To tell you the truth— and again, I never would’ve admitted this at the time— as glib as I was acting, it was a shock. I was fifteen. I wasn’t some juvenile delinquent, I didn’t deal drugs or sleep around or belong to a gang. I was a “good” kid. How in the hell had I ended up here?
Clearly, I was in a good deal of denial about the things that I was doing. I didn’t really qualify any of my behavior as “disordered” quite yet. I had lived with my eating disorder for so long that it was normal to me. Same with the depression, the mania, the anxiety. I had never experienced anything else. I had been doing drugs for a good long time by then so that didn’t seem odd either; besides, it’s not like I bought them on a street corner or anything. They were just there, in the house, waiting to be taken. Samples of drugs that my father brought home, self-prescribed meds, bottles and boxes and packets, oh my. Valium was never in short supply. I could even procure my very own prescription if I felt like it. All I had to do was wait until my father was busy with something, then loudly interrupt him with a complaint of sore dancer’s muscles or menstrual cramps, do my best to annoy him, and he’d write the scrip just to get rid of me. Not a problem. The cutting was a little harder to justify, but it still made since to me. It was necessary. It had a purpose.
The next thing I knew, I was sitting on a table in a small room designated for the medical exams that are mandatory upon admission. Though the doctor received that same snotty, fuck you treatment from me that everyone else had that day, he registered none of it in his face. My feeling was that he was probably a veteran at this, beyond any ability to be shocked, and I was therefore nothing special. Next stop was the unit itself.
The first nurse I encountered was, to my surprise, reassuring. While she obviously was not going to be taking any shit off of me, she had kind eyes and a nice smile. Her name was Kasia. Over the next couple of months, I would get to know her and all the other staff on the unit very well. For the time being however, she was just sitting there with my family, taking notes on another of what seemed to be an endless series of clipboards and forms. She asked my parents if I was on any medications. My father started rattling off the names of different drugs and doses while my mother sat there and stared in disbelief. He was making this up. He didn’t have a fucking clue what, if any medications I was on. And yet there he was, playing doctor, playing father, lying outright to make it seem as if he cared, as if he was involved in my life enough to know. Never mind that I could get hurt if they thought I was on meds that I wasn’t; never mind that it could affect my treatment. If he didn’t seem involved it would affect his image, and he was willing to risk his child harm to keep that from happening. Fortunately, Mom cut him off halfway through this pretend list with an appalled, “TOM.”
He looked at her. “What?”
She laughed slightly, incredulous. “You cannot make this up.”
“What do you mean?” Coolly. She’s the crazy one.
“Tom, this is her medical history, you cannot bullshit this. You don’t have a goddamn clue what you’re talking about because you are never there!” She was beyond crying at that point. Her nostrils were flaring, her head slightly vibrating the way it did when she was truly enraged about something. My father glanced at her with feigned pity, condescending. As if to say, you’re just being dramatic. You’re just trying to make me look bad.
Kasia looked at them, sizing them up. Reading the situation probably as clearly as anyone ever had.
She believed my mother.
“Why don’t you write out her meds for me, Mrs. Henderson. Here,” she said, handing the forms to Mom. Mom stared at her, grateful, disbelieving. Thank God. She can see through him. I was pretty impressed. She asked me to draw where I had cut myself, on a little diagram of body parts, and I did this, almost proudly. These were my battle scars. Collateral damage. I almost wanted to brag about them. You end up doing that on psychiatric units, trying to one up each other on what you’d survived, how much pain you could stand. You show each other your wounds and compare tragic childhoods, as if there is some reward for the worst story. As if you are not all still children.
You get used to opening up to strangers quickly. On short-term units like the one I was on you may only know each other for a few days, but it will feel as if you’ve known each other forever. You’ve probably told these people things that you’ve never shared with anyone before, exposed wounds that you’d convinced yourself were long scarred over but were in truth still raw, and that sharing will inevitably establish a bond between you. Most of you were never really allowed to be children and try as you might to resist, whether you like it or not, you will become fiercely attached to the staff for they are most likely the first adults who have ever made you feel cared for and safe.
This was certainly my experience. However, that feeling did not take hold immediately. It didn’t have a chance. In the last twelve hours, my entire world had been turned upside down. When I woke up that morning my plan for the day was this: go to school, say good-bye to my friends, come home, swallow a handful of Valium, and die. How was it then, that I was standing in a hospital, my shoelaces having been confiscated, pleading with some nurse to let me keep my necklace (”Please, it’s my cross, I never take it off”) when I was supposed to be dead? How was it that my entire family was in the same room on a random evening in March, when that was generally a phenomenon that occurred only on designated national holidays? Everything was out of control, the aura of darkness and silence that surrounded my family had been pierced, and we were all at a loss for understanding. While I had absolutely no idea how it would play out, I knew at a level beyond articulation that the truth of our lives was about to be exposed. Every lie would be unraveled, every shadowy corner lit. And despite the fact that I had dreaded this moment my entire life and had done just about everything in my power to prevent it from coming about, I felt, for the first time ever, that I could breathe. An indescribable sigh of relief washed over me, and I finally handed the wheel to someone else.
It was over—and yet, it was just beginning.
I was in and out of that particular unit more times than I remember over the next year. The director of the unit eventually left to start a private practice and I was her first patient; I saw her twice a week for nine years. I’m eternally grateful to the St. David’s staff and to Shannon, my therapist, because they not only saved my life but they showed me that there are people out there who won’t fuck you up or fuck you over; something I never knew before then. When I moved to Houston I found another amazing therapist named Krista who helped me recover from my eating disorder and do the rest of my trauma work. The people at Castlewood Treatment Center also played a major role on my recovery. Everyone I’ve met, all of the women (and men!) I’ve had the honor of sharing this journey with have changed me for the better. My mom, as ever, is my biggest support. And my best friend Camilla—thank you for every time you got pissed at me for fucking up my life, because you were totally right. I love you. Every day I am grateful that I didn’t succeed with my plan, that there were people who cared enough to do something to stop me. Suicide is never, ever the answer. As long as you are still breathing, there are options. As long as you are alive, there is hope. And whether you know it or not, there is always someone out there who cares; you are not alone.