Empty packets of painkillers. Blood smeared over stained sheets. Vomit sticking to my chest. In the aftermath, the only thing that saved me was writing about it.
The great thing about growing up in a small community was that everyone knew everyone else. This knowledge usually overflowed into personal matters and gossip. The downside to this atmosphere was that families – and individuals – guarded their darkest secrets even more emphatically. The neighbors did well to make up their own stories, no use in adding fuel to the fire regardless of how torturous the silence may have been.
At least this is how I felt about the possibility of talking, of admitting to the thoughts that were rampaging across the dusky landscape of my mind. I was sternly taught that you don’t talk to others about family business, and you don’t talk about what happens in the family home. Mental illness was a phrase that was said in hushed tones, like if you said it loudly you might catch it. Even more so, suicide was the realm of celebrity. Famous people like Kurt Cobain killed themselves. “Ordinary” people didn’t have those issues, or so it would seem by our collective silence. It was how I felt, not that I needed a role model who had suicidal ideations. I found it difficult growing up in a small town, unable to talk about my affliction, and hearing of no one like me who struggled with mental illness. It was only celebrities. I was not that special, so something must have been even more wrong with me than just mental illness, right? I was alone, and the silence was deafening.
I attempted suicide for the first time at around the age of thirteen. By the time I was in college, I had attempted a total of six times. Each time was the same with me taking as many painkillers as possible only to wake up fourteen – sixteen hours later unsure if I were happy or sad that my attempts had failed. Probably the closest I had come to death was when I had cut my wrist after punching a glass door, and then took enough painkillers to cause myself to vomit in my sleep. As I was losing consciousness, I started panicking because I didn’t really want to die – I just wanted the pain to stop. When I woke up from this incident, I was convinced that I was alive for a reason, and further attempts would be pointless. However, the biggest lesson was in my panicked understanding that there is a world of difference between wanting to die and wanting the pain to stop.
Because of society’s silence on these issues, I never learned healthy coping methods for dealing with stress, anxiety, or depression. With that ignorance, I created many ways to cope, most of which were not only unhelpful, but also downright harmful. My methods were overeating, compulsive spending, self-injury (bruising and cutting), obsessive fantasizing, intentional oversleeping (because dream state is better than reality), and attempted suicide. The only safe
way I dealt with these issues was through writing. I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone, so a piece of paper and a pen became my therapy.
During my teenage years I wrote mostly poetry – poems that were so dark that I never showed most of my writing to anyone out of fear of people learning just how “crazy” I was. I wrote so prolifically that before graduating high school, I had written over five hundred pages of poetry alone. Sadly, most of those poems would be lost over the years.
Aside from poetry, I also wrote a few short stories and fictionalized journal entries. If something upset me, I wrote a story in which I got the ending that I had wanted. When memories of abuse plagued me, I would re-write my experience in such a way that would give me a sliver of closure.
Sometimes this writing scared even me. When the rawest, basest thoughts and emotions were staring back at me from the page, I began to question the extent of my mental issues. For example, when writing about abuse issues, getting revenge on the perpetrator in an extremely violent way was always a recurrent theme. I even wrote a poem about a girl who killed the man who sexually assaulted her. I was confident that these were things that I would never do in real life, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t get a sense of satisfaction from writing about it. Did that make me a monster? Actually, more likely it was what kept me from doing those things. Ultimately, it was living vicariously through my own writing that kept me from ever again trying to kill myself – that and a promise made to a dear friend.
I continue to work on these issues through my writing in addition to receiving medical treatment for depression, anxiety, and PTSD. The pieces that I write today are not as in-your-face dark as the poems of my teenage years, but the process is still cathartic and therapeutic. I still have dark thoughts, but I know I can work them out in a story.
If you are struggling with mental illness, even if you’re receiving treatment, write about it – your thoughts, your emotions, your experiences. No one has to ever read it. It’s for you and you alone. You deserve healing. If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
The biggest lesson writing has taught me – you can relieve the pain without killing yourself.
I’m worth it. You’re worth it. Write. Dream. Create. You are the author of your own story – write the next chapter, not the ending.
Get involved by donating to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Donations are tax deductible and will be accepted on my page through December 31, 2015.
Two Old Men & God is the startlingly hilarious story of two old
men who meet on a park bench and discuss religion, life, fishing
and all sorts of things old men talk about. Sure to be hit
with readers! It’s available on Amazon.com Order your copy
Summary from Amazon: Two old men, casual acquaintances with very little to do, often sit in the park and discuss the most serious questions facing humanity. The former engineer, who has become an agnostic, and the blue-collar ex-mill worker who once was a part-time preacher, examine with considerable insight, some very serious religious questions. Their conclusions often seem hilarious but cannot be easily discounted. They reduce some high-minded dogma to language understandable by the common man. Lester the tent-meeting converted preacher, has fleshed out some very difficult concepts into more basic shapes. His visualization of the Holy Ghost is better defined in his imagination than in any other known exposition, physical or spiritual.
Occasionally, when I get a little perturbed with my more pessimistic college students who lament about the times in which we live, I will ask the class a series of short questions: “How many of you have had the measles?” Not one! “Whooping cough? Polio? Malaria? Yellow Fever? Bloody Flux? Typhoid Fever? Tuberculosis?” In a typical class, not one student will have had anything other than a cold, sore throat, or chicken pox! They seem surprised when I tell them that Queen Victoria’s husband, with the best medical treatment available, died of typhoid fever. And that at least two, maybe three, of Abraham Lincoln’s sons died of typhoid fever in spite of the best medical treatment available at that time in America. That when I was a youngster, polio could be an awful scourge during certain summers when children were not even allowed to go to public pools or to Sunday school, or to any other gathering in those “polio” summers. I tell them, also, that among the poor in Eastern Kentucky in the first half of the twentieth century, tuberculosis could wipe out entire families as a disease that did not respond to any treatment then known.
Tuberculosis was not only a disease of the poor, but of writers, I tell my students, and poets and artists, invariably leading to death (often after a very long period of illness). Some members of my family do not like to say it, but our own father had tuberculosis in the 1940’s, and was confined to Waverly HIlls in Louisville for the better part of two years. I remind them that the famous Kentuckian Henry Clay and many members of his extended family died of tuberculosis, or “TB,” as it was called.
Fresh air, good food, and sometimes the surgical removal of part of a lung, as happened to Dad, were the only treatments available, and they didn’t work. What did work was the introduction in the late 1940s of the mycin family of drugs, headed by streptomycin. In no time, Dad was out of the hospital and back home, and in a relatively short time all of the TB sanatoriums, including Waverly Hills and the one here in Ashland, Kentucky closed their doors for good.
The times in which we live may not be so bad after all, I try to tell my students, and anyone else who’ll listen to me.
[Ernie Tucker is a retired college history teacher. He is a frequent contributor to
COLUMNIST WITH A VIEW]
FIX THINGS! by Mary Shortridge
If you know something that would make the world better–that you believe would make the world better–How can you not share it? The answers to fixing the world are so simple. And the possibility that everyone in the world would stop talking and listen so remote. And if they did, the likelihood that each of those people would find the strength to defy the world for the few minutes it would take to admit they are the problem, and they are the solution and actually do what it would take to change their piece of the world so unlikely- We will continue into the next cycle of extinction without it happening.
[Mary Shortridge is Professor of Communications at Ashland Community and Technical College, Ashland, Kentucky]
The sun has barely risen above the horizon. The morning cold makes the feral cats act bold, while they fold their bodies to shrink from the wind.As I step out the door, the dew finds the hole in my shoe and enters therein. More cats appear out of thin air… while I carry their food. Busy mouths eat rapidly as empty bellies soon extend. The afternoon sun is on a lower arc, but still has the power to drive me into the shade. The paler, yellow light is not as bright, and speaks reverently of the coming of the snow. Morgan County… the blessed land for those who are grateful to be protected by the ever-embracing mountains. We live in peace and go about our lives as we strive to make a better world.
On the evening of 9-11, as I put the goats to bed, large flocks of birds flew south… being rapid upon the wing. Two, three hundred strong they race across the sky knowing that to beat the cold they now must fly. In the morning the clouds were a deep red–a sailors warning spoke of dread. The rain came down like a curtain draped across the scene…two rainbows appeared across Warm Springs Ridge, delighting my mind’s eye. So much color on this grey, dreary day. As I opened the door to the barn, the goats looked at me with a countenance that said, “Are you for real?” The feral cats fed reminds me of where and how they will fare when the cold of winter bites deep into their flesh. The kittens born in the spring have no idea about the change of the seasons and the suffering that awaits them. We need the rain, so I don’t complain….will stay warm and dry for today…. no birds will fly.
As the declination of the sun declines, the declination of my stored energy from wood rises from the ground ready to burn and release its heat to keep our home warm and toasty. Our benevolent sun takes care of us in many ways; the solar wind shelters us from the calamity of deep space by forcing the void to withdraw. It allows all who reach up for its warmth and power to survive and grow; we know that the ancients fell to their knees to honor the one that allows life to exist. On a sunny day in winter, I face the inferno and long for the time of days gone by when the sun climbs high in the sky. I wait knowing that the Snow Princess will soon dust the land in wedding gown white, and the glare from the sun will become bright. The yellow orb sends its light for me to absorb, as I wait for the decline to cease, and the suns zenith to sail overhead and force me back into the shadows on a summer day.
[These moving, lyrical prose-poems were written by Morgan County, West Virginia farmer Ralph Gonzales. He is 70-years-old. If you enjoyed these sketches as much as I did, tell Mr. Gonzales we want more. More! More! Pictures courtesy of Beth Rankin.]
On the way to the YMCA recently
I was thinking about something I read;
“The most profound HUMAN REALITY can only be communicated
Through myth, poetry, art and ritual.”
Having recently been contemplating reality
In more than casual depth
I wondered what, exactly the Pope meant
By this statement?
And I specifically wondered if his Human Reality
Differed from real, actual, Hard-nosed reality
As I ordinarily view it.
After some reflection I concluded that
Reality is reality
And as the Pope intimated, it is, it must be
On the face of it, that’s all there can be.
This led back to my consideration of
Descartes’ Mind-Body dualism.
Philosophers once believed that the external world,
(If it exists – and they taught that it did not)
Consists entirely of the myriad inputs
Of man’s six or eight senses
(About his surrounding environment.)
In other words the physical world is only
A mental construct, a figment of man’s imagination!
This idea, of course, is ridiculous,
Convoluted, devious, and craftily contrived
I recalled that a young woman
Once entered the YMCA Weight Room
Where few women appear.
As she moved smoothly into her exercise routine
Something drew my attention.
Her dark hair, cut well above her shoulders,
A scanty bra, bare mid-riff,
And tight-fitting leotards – went clear down to her ankles!
She turned her head to smile at an attendant.
I thought it looked like a snarl,
Perhaps a harelip,
Or a scar beneath her nose. I paid no more attention.
When I saw her a few days later I did not look at her face.
She was small, with tiny breasts,
Almost boyish, but very neat and trim.
Her waist was no bigger than a saucer.
I could not help but notice,
Were like a second skin with nothing underneath
To spoil the lines of her smoothly rounded
Hemispherical buttocks and tapered upper thighs!
He legs, like a dancers, were perfectly formed,
Her abdomen exquisitely flat.
She was a pure delight to look at!
I thought, what is reality?
Well, reality is made out of matter, all natural.
That which is real!
Trees, rocks, chairs, the moon, Sputnik!
The world is really out there, no doubt about it!
Man is born into this reality,
Not of his own volition or initiation,
Oh Hell no!
He is rudely disgorged upside down
Into this cold, hostile world,
Spanked on the naked bottom
And forced to begin breathing on his own.
Helpless, with only an urge to suck, poop, cry
And wave his useless little legs,
Yes, now he is facing reality!
It is real! It is not just in his mind.
(Well, actually he has no mind.)
His squiggly little brain is pure, blank and empty.
He slowly begins to learn. He suckles
A soft, spongy nipple full of warm milk,
A smooth, downy breast against his cheek,
But NOT GOOD!
Cold air - the prick of a safety pin,
A scratchy blanket. A colicky pain in his little belly!
Taste, touch, smell and sight all soon develop.
A sense of balance, of falling.
Cradles, bowls, spoons, rattles are all out there.
Reality! Tangible reality!
Breathing makes a noise, a sound,
And soon a word, then ah - Ha!
Myth, poetry, art and ritual,
The next time I saw her she was on the Ab Machine
Supported by her elbows,
Her legs, hanging straight down were pressed together.
The line running up from her ankles to her crotch
Ended in a little upside-down teardrop
Of light peeking through.
When she raised her legs straight out in front
Her little round bottom formed
A perfectly contoured, simply fascinating curve.
“As an artist,” I said to her.
“I have painted many beautiful nudes,
But you are absolute perfection.”
She smiled, broadly displaying a perfect row of
Straight and even teeth.
I continued – (like a complete ass)
“I can’t stop looking at you,
You know that,
That’s why you come in here!”
I tripped on the mat,
Stumbled, nearly fell,
And quickly walked back into the Men’s Health Club.
Myth, poetry, art and ritual
(The Pope left out music!)
Language – the words you know,
Yes, words may be
An indication of your intelligence.
How many facts and strange episodes you have packed
Into your head, your brain, your mind and
Perhaps your soul
Ah the SOUL!
Animals of course do not have souls.
Darwin postulated that man evolved.
If so, then some man had
The very first SOUL!
Perhaps one Fourth of July
A man was born with the very first one!
(While his wife may have only been a monkey
I did my calisthenics,
Finished my Weight and Strength training
Then did twenty minutes on the Stair Climber
I went back to the weight room
(For a drink of water) but
She was not there,
While you only exist for this single moment in Time
(Yesterday is gone and tomorrow never comes.)
Yes, your mind
Can soar out in both Distance and Time.
It is totally free to go anywhere on this planet or
Far out into the distant reaches of Space and History,
Real and/or imagined
And into the Future!
This looseness of man’s evanescent mental apparatus,
(Ganglions, dendrites, synapses, axons, etc.)
Give people the impression that they have a SOUL
Located somewhere in the head – or perhaps the heart
And it is this Soul of theirs
That keeps flitting around and (they think) it will eventually
Fly up to Heaven.
(Very few people think theirs will go to Hell!)
That’s why people listen to this,
Listen to the Pope’s myths, poetry, art and rituals’
Maybe she’ll come in tomorrow.