One of my earliest memories is this: Sitting in the passenger seat of an old, beat-up blue Volkswagen, tracing a raindrop with my finger as it slides down the window and swallows up other raindrops along the way. My bare feet don’t yet touch the floor. I’m barely tall enough to see the gray world outside. My pajamas are twisted up, cutting a red line into my neck. My mother’s boyfriend opens the door and ponderously shoves a wastebasket full of my socks into the back seat. He is a bear of a man; I adore him, but he can be scary. This morning he is scary. Just sitting next to him brings anxious tears to my eyes.
“Where are we going?” I ask.
“I’m taking you to some people. You’re going to live with them now.” He forces the car in gear, and we begin to drive away.
“Where is my mom?” I cry, a keening sound too big for my small body.
“Who the hell knows. Probably going to the ocean to drown,” he looks at me. “She doesn’t want you anymore. Now shut it.”
Long before my thoughts of suicide, I was living with my mom’s thoughts of suicide. Her daydreams, fixations, and passive wishes to be non-existent constantly loomed over me. “You know what happens when we die?” she asked me right before my first day of the 1st grade. “Nothing. There is nothing after death. We are a candle snuffed out. No heaven. No reincarnation. We just cease to be.” I froze with fear at the cold, wistful tone in her voice. Like an anchor in my heart, it stuck with me that any moment, my mom could whisk herself away, make herself gone, and I was powerless to stop it.
Her preoccupation kept her unreachable. She locked herself in her room for hours. I’d wait tensely upstairs, watching T.V., unable to help her, unable to leave. Later she smoked her joints and told me her plans. “As soon as you’re eighteen….” she confided, letting the rest of the sentence fall between us.
“You’re the only reason I’m still alive,” she told me other days. Spoken as if to suggest my life had thankfully saved hers, but I heard the trace of resentment hidden underneath the platitude. It was my fault that my mom had to continue to live. Stuffed to the brim with guilt and fear, I’d hide in my room, full of my own resentments. Full of my own budding urges to cease to be.
Holding suicide as a viable option to end suffering was normalized for me. I didn’t question it. I embodied it. When I lived in foster care for the first time, I hoarded the single razor allotted to each girl to shave their legs; hid it under the bunk bed to bring out on those rare moments when I was alone. I traced my veins with the sharp edge the same way I’d traced raindrops on a car window long ago.
The older I got, the stronger the compulsion to tempt death became. At sixteen, newly diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder and armed with prescription medication, I stalked my ex-boyfriend and pushed his anger triggers relentlessly until he shouted what I unconsciously sought to hear: I don’t want you anymore. He left me at the bus stop, where I swallowed a whole bottle of Nortriptyline. I called my mother, who drove me to the emergency room and flicked my ear every time I tried to close my eyes. “Stay awake,” she murmured over and over. When the doctors pumped my stomach, I went into a seizure and almost died.
The only way I knew how to cope with the burden of my illness and the incessant need for destruction was to follow my mom’s example: become a ghost. I shut the world out. Cut off connections to people, places, things. Experiences. I was haunting my life.
Once, I stood on a bluff over the ocean and was hypnotized by the murky depths below. The pull to just let go, let my body go slack and fall passively into the water, was almost irresistible. It frightened me. How am I so untethered, I wondered, why is the veil between death and me so very fragile? I thought of my mother, how her experience of my earliest memory must’ve been. Did she stand above a bluff like this one? Did she feel a similar impetus to collapse and swan dive into the water? Was she filled with this same heavy sadness? Maybe we were born with a biological imperative to snuff our corrupted line of DNA out. Maybe we were made to self-implode.
With that thought in mind, I went home to sit in a warm bath with a razor at my wrist. I felt under a spell. It would be a suicide that represented all the clichés: relief, revenge, a gift to all those whom would be better off without me. This suicide is inevitable, I thought. This suicide was decided before I was born. I waited it out, teeth clenched, knuckles white, until the moment released me. I was alive, after all. No suicide. No death. Just myself, alone in a tub.
I found out something that day: I didn’t want to die. Suicide was not a ‘truth’ I held dear. It was more a combination of faulty wiring and thinking I assimilated when I was young. With help and effort, I have learned to distinguish between my own, actual beliefs and that other voice that is just a misfire occurring in my brain. Not so for my mother. When I tell her these things, that there is hope, that we do not need to stand so close to the cliff, she doesn’t believe me. She’s still stuck in her moment, flirting with death, unable to tear herself away.