The first time I remember wanting to die, I was four years old.
Both of our family dogs had died recently & when my parents explained to me what had happened, it was an instant, almost love-at-first-sight connection.
“Is Heidi hurt?”
“Not anymore. She can’t hurt anymore.”
“Is Herby Wilson coming back?”
“No, but he’s in a better place. He’s happy & he feels better & all you have to do is think of him & he’ll be with you in your heart.”
This made me feel better about loss, of course, I mean that was the point, but it was also like sparking up a pilot light in a new oven that I would then leave on, burning steadily, for the rest of my life.
I didn’t have a bad childhood. I experienced a lot of loss, but my parents were supportive & attentive & I was surrounded by love. My family was funny, I was funny. We laughed more often than not. Laughter is how my family processes everything. I was bright & silly & weird & free & was born with an exaggerated crooked smile that could make any other person smile, too. I also carried in me, deep in my bones, a profound, disturbing, genetic sadness.
Instead of diabetes or muscular dystrophy, this was my lot. I grew up very familiar with this framed photo of my mother’s aunt, whom she had been named after. Anne Marie was a budding famous pianist who had red hair like me, like mom. She was young & beautiful & posed against a piano in the photo. She looked like me; she was so familiar. Something always drew me to her, even though I had never met her, even though she died when my mother was still a child. Was it because she was a redhead or was it because she was sick, too? No one ever told me she was sick, but I knew. She wore it on her face, the way I did. It hovered behind her shoulder like it does me. I was well into adulthood when my mother finally told me this aunt had tried to hang herself before “falling asleep” with a lit cigarette in her mouth, dying in a burning building. She was like me.
Shortly after knowing what death was, after both of our dogs had died, my big sister was watching me with one of her friends. She said something mean that upset me & I cried about it for a long time, probably longer than a kid should. As a muscle memory reflex I had yet to unlearn, I went outside to be comforted by my dog, but remembered, alone in the yard, that she was gone. She had died. She had been hurt but she was better now. She was gone, but she didn’t hurt anymore. I didn’t want to hurt anymore.
I went inside & went straight for the knife drawer. I picked a knife with a blue handle that dug into my palm, the blade facing down, splitting my hand open. The scar is still visible 25 years later. My sister, & her friend, absolutely horrified, watched in slow motion. “I want to die”, I, a four year old child, announced. I, a four year old child, really meant it. “I’m sad & I want to be in a better place”. I just knew that I was hurting, & I wanted it to stop. How was it possible for so much pain to be trapped in such a tiny body? I still wonder that, even today, at 29, I still wonder, “how is it possible for my body to hold so much pain?”
My sister lunged at me to grab the knife. Her friend, probably permanently fucked up to this day from seeing a four year old try to commit suicide, just sat paralyzed, staring in horror. My hand was bleeding & I threw myself at my sister’s feet & begged her to kill me. I just wanted to stop hurting. Four years old. This was just the first time.
I’ve been in hospitals, in the back of ambulances, with barely any pulse, with tubes down my throat, hooked up to machines, I’ve opened my eyes in the ICU under flickering fluorescent lights to see the look on my father’s face when he discovers that I’m still alive. I’ve seen my mother on her knees in the street, barefoot, not knowing that I could even see her, not knowing that I was conscious. I’ve adopted dogs that no one wanted, animals that needed me & have nothing else, so that I have a responsibility to stay alive. I’ve promised everyone I love, knowing that there might come a day when I break it.
I carry the guilt with both hands everywhere I go, every single day. When things got really bad, I got a job where my mom worked so I could see her every day just so she would know I’m alive & there & trying to keep my word. I know to answer phone calls just to give an affirmative sign, a handful of words, just, “yes, I’m here, yes, dad, I will call you tomorrow” which just means, “yes, dad, I will still be here tomorrow”. I fight this beast every day with my bare hands. There’s not a day that goes by where I don’t face this, & with a nod of my head or a deep sigh, say to myself, “not today”.
I still laugh. I don’t laugh to hide it but to process, to ease the pain, to feel a chemical that doesn’t hurt me rush through my brain. I laugh as much as I possibly can. I make myself laugh, alone, to my sweet old dog as I shower her with kisses, I make eye contact with strangers at red lights & I smile, I dance & tells jokes on stage to people who sometimes laugh & try to cheer my friends up while at the same time trying to quietly brush aside that I am hurting, too.
I love unconditionally & fiercely. I still love people I haven’t spoken to in ten years. I still dream of them & in the dreams, we quietly sit next to each other, hold hands, I rest my head on their shoulder, & we just sit, with quiet acceptance that this may be the only way that we will ever see each other again. When someone leaves, I feel it coming & I understand. Of course you want out, because I want out, too. It’s not that I hate myself, but I’m only just learning how to love myself & it’s still very foreign, it’s like learning a new language late in life. It doesn’t mean I’m not trying, or that I don’t want to.
I don’t need to be treated any differently or more delicately than a person who doesn’t carry the dying kind of sadness in their bones. Actually, I think the fact that I end up fighting the beast tooth & nail every single day upon waking & still coming out alive every time makes me tougher than most & more equipped for the hard parts. I can lose you, I can fall down on my face & bleed on the concrete, I can be picked up by the neck & slammed against the wall by a man twice my size. I fight a bear in my head every day & I keep winning, of course I can handle this.
I still choose every day. I still fight. I’m still here.