Author’s Note: This essay contains mentions of suicide and self-harm
Between the ages of 10 to 14, I wanted to die so badly, I decided I would try twice. The first time was simple, I cut myself and waited for the blood to flow out of me with a ferocity that could only end in death. But the tools I used weren’t sharp enough and couldn’t hack deep enough, so I ended up slashing at the skin until my arm was covered in bloody, raised welts.
When my mother saw them, I think she was offended. I think she was offended because she saw her actions as the best mothering she could do. I think she knew she was hurting me, but hurt was all she knew, so she carried it into our relationship. I’ve wanted to tell this story for a long time, but I couldn’t find the right time or the right place.
She started throwing her fists and hands at my face, only connecting once every few swings. My brothers tried to stop her, but they eventually ran after she convinced them that this meant I wanted to kill them too. After hitting me, my mom dragged me to the bathroom, screaming that I was so stupid, too stupid to even know how to die.
“Next time you try, cut this way, not like this,” she said, drawing vertical lines down my arm with her finger. That always stuck with me, that she didn’t really care that I had tried to kill myself, but that I was too dumb to do it the right way.
By my second try, I was, unsurprisingly, on anti-depressants. I dumped some into my palm and took them, waiting for death to escort me off this plane. This time was also unsuccessful, and with my mother’s words ringing in my ear, I felt like an even bigger failure. How could I be so determined to die and fail twice?
During my suicide attempts, during those years that blurred together like a mess of blood and water in a sink, I dreamt of two things: my biological mother coming to save me, and if not that, then, becoming an adult.
In my daydreams as an adult, I was 30. I had a corporate job that required me to carry a briefcase and wear muted suits. I was skinny, my hair and nails were impeccable. I was beautiful and 30 and alone. In that solitude, I had found peace from the things that plagued me, my mother, my depression, my secrets.
Being 30 meant I was free. In my child mind, it was the ultimate age of adulthood. It meant that no one could hurt me anymore.
I haven’t harmed myself that way in at least five years now. Maybe more. From the ages of 22 to 24, I went through another blur period where I can’t remember much of what I did to my own body, so it is hard to say. But I know I’ve successfully distanced myself from that mode of self-harm. Having been someone who was a cutter, a self-harmer, used to bring me a lot of shame. I felt like a teenage cliche. But in a house where I could not speak for myself, where my pain was fodder for jokes, how could I do anything else?
I’m turning 30, and I have found the solitude I so longed for as a kid. I live by myself, I make a living as a writer and editor, mostly solitary work. I’m single and not really dating. For others, this might sound lonely and miserable. But for me, I feel like I’ve made it. No one’s hurting me anymore. No one’s hitting me, telling me I’m worthless and dumb. I don’t have an abusive entity in my life any longer, whether it be parent or partner.
I quote this poem all the time, but Nikola Madzirov writes in “Presence”
Be alone, but not lonely.
and even in college, where I first met the poet, those words resonated with me. I bracketed and underlined them immediately, something in me knowing that being alone was my destiny.
The following lines read:
so that the sky can embrace you
so that you can embrace the lonely earth.
I used to think that the sky embracing me meant death. I wanted to vanish into its vastness. But I feel, when the sky embraces me now, that the sun makes its mark on my skin. That I can’t help but write poems about the startling blue of it all. That I can look up and breathe the crisp autumn air.
I save forgiveness for myself. I forgive myself for the ways I hated every fiber of my being, for the constant attempts to destroy myself entirely. I forgive myself for not being kinder to the girl I was. For going on crash diets that wrecked me, for staying up until the early hours of morning drinking as a 12-year-old when I should have been asleep in bed. I forgive myself for believing I was worthless and dumb, that the only recourse for my existence was to die.
I’m turning 30, and there is so much joy in that. I get to be a grown-up! As much as it is a pain, I get to make a living and pay my bills and make meals for myself. The image I had of myself is different from my reality. I wear my hair natural now and love it. I’m fat, and I love my body for what it is and not what I think it should be. I don’t carry a briefcase, and I spend a ridiculous amount of time writing and talking about the gay things in my life. I get to be gay. I don’t have to hide that part of myself or force it down to appease someone else’s vision of how my life should look.
I get to be sober. When I had my first drink, I thought there was no going back. I had found something too good to give up, that I couldn’t ever live without. Now, the most provocative thing I drink is a Cheerwine.
In my last sessions with my therapists back in Pittsburgh before I moved, they both walked me through our treatment plans, and they each had to ask if I had felt any suicidal ideation recently. I got to say “No” to both of them.
I’ve lived a life afraid of “No,” because when I said it, I was ignored or bullied into a yes. Getting to say no to that question makes me cry. It took me so long to get here. Thirty goddamn years. I spent at least 25 of those years in pain that felt unbearable. Trying desperately to claw my way through the muck of abuse and abandonment. I didn’t think I’d ever want to be alive, but I do now.
I used to live my life waiting for the next disaster. Moving away from anticipating the next blow, the next assault, feels like I’m coming up for air after being underwater for hours.
I used to beat myself up and ask “will this make me good?”
Pain never made me good, it made me small and breakable. To have come out on the other side of it stronger and free is a miracle to me.
I wanted to have a huge party for my 30th, but that was before the pandemic. It’s now my yearly tradition to put on a cute outfit, eat good food, and spend some time doing what I love. That includes reading and writing poetry, watching a movie, listening to my favorite tunes, and more. This year, I’ll get to see my brother and his family, so I won’t have to spend this momentous day alone.
As I am typing this, “True Love Waits” came on, and it made me cry even more. I used to think that true love would come in the form of another human being. It is so unbelievably corny to say, but the love I now have for myself has been more transformative than the love of any partner or lover I’ve ever had. True love for yourself really heals, it really does make a difference. Though I pat myself on the back for this realization, I wouldn’t be here today without the hard work of many mental health professionals.
When I had my first therapist as a child, I was too afraid to answer honestly when he asked if I was being abused. I thought my mother would hear me say yes through the door after she’d been asked to leave. Hell, I thought she’d hear me THINK yes, help me. I believed she was that powerful. I believed she could get away with anything because I was a child and she was an adult, because of the way I looked, and the way she looked. I didn’t think anyone would believe a young Black girl. I was already accustomed to being dismissed as overly emotional and sensitive.
So when my college therapist handed me the book Toxic Parents, I read a few pages and then gave it back. I couldn’t stomach thinking about the ways I had been hurt. For therapists after, I only told partial truths. I still didn’t think anyone would buy it if I told the whole of it.
Part of being 30 now, how I got this far in life, was by learning to tell the truth. Which is why I am being honest about my suicide attempts now. I’ve talked about them loosely in other forums but spared people the details because of that feeling of being a cliche. And the feeling that no one would care.
One thing I talked about in my interview with my brothers is that my mother would always tell us, her adopted children, that she saved our lives. I believed that for years and internalized the abuse as punishment for being unworthy of her as my savior.
Even throughout my suicide attempts, throughout my alcoholism and drug abuse, I saved myself. It wasn’t always pretty, and it didn’t always make sense, but I did what I could to pull myself out of the depths of despair. Some of it was false and fleeting, but I did what I had to do to survive then.
Now, I’m much gentler with myself. I go for walks in the sun, I eat good food, I consume things I enjoy, and surround myself with people that show me love and that I can show love in return. I read and write poetry almost every day because words saved me from ending it all again and again. Seeing that other people lived was enough to propel me forward. In these days leading up to my birthday, I’m hopeful and excited and almost giddy. I keep buying myself little presents and changing my outfit and makeup plans. It’s silly, but I think I deserve to be silly for a little bit now. I think I’ve earned the right to be unabashed.
When I was preparing to move and didn’t have enough money or a new job lined up, I had hope. Hope carried me through this change, and will carry me through the next decade of my life.
Today, I turn 30, and I hope anyone reading this that has also struggled with suicide knows that I see you and hear you. It is more brutal than anything, but I’m happy you are still here. I hope one day you will be too.