Trigger Warning: This post discusses teen suicide. If you or someone you know is thinking about harming themself, please call the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
As an adolescent, I was trapped in two bad relationships: the one between my parents, and the one between my conflicted selves. Self number one (as I thought of her) desperately wanted to succeed in school, but self number two sabotaged all her efforts.
I might have been able to run away from my parents, but how on earth was I going to escape my selves?
My parents and teachers acknowledged only a single self, and they seemed to know exactly what I should do with it:
This is your room—stay in it and be quiet.
This is your mind—don’t think anything crazy with it.
This is school—shut up and study.
That was not likely.
As far as I was concerned, schools were forced labor camps. After I flunked every class except creative writing, my guidance counselor urged my parents to send me to a psychologist.
The first thing Dr. Walden did was give me a verbal I.Q. test.
“You find a stamped, addressed letter lying on the sidewalk,” she began crisply. “What do you do with it?”
I looked at her suspiciously. Was this a trick question? If I said, “Mail it,” was the mailbox going to blow up?
I hoped her questions would uncover some enigmatic explanation for the mysterious workings of my mind.
But Dr. Walden simply told my parents there was no reason I wasn’t on the honor roll, so the next semester I obligingly made the honor roll. But inside, my conflicting selves were slouching toward spontaneous combustion.
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My parents weren’t doing much better. My dad, a prominent microbiologist, was having an affair with his lab assistant, and my mom spent a month in a psychiatric facility after cutting the TV cord when she hallucinated my brother and me on General Hospital. I was getting pretty sick of all of us.
“I feel alone, and very, very aged,” I wrote in my journal. There is no one so old and bitter as a 16 year-old with nowhere to turn.
You look back down the years at yourself in trouble and think how easy it would be to get out. But it’s just as easy to slip deeper in. At the time, all options seemed equally terrifying and equally impossible.
Possibilities spun past like numbers on a roulette wheel: I’ll write a story, I’ll bake brownies, I’ll kill myself.
If I kept quiet, the wheel might stop at baking brownies, and no one would ever know.
One day, when I was home from school ramming myself into the familiar wall of panic, I decided to stop thinking about killing myself and actually do it. At lunchtime, my best friend and confidant, Nancy, called from school.
“Are you OK?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” I said.
Nancy took me at my word and hung up.
People think it’s hard to decide to kill yourself, but it can feel like a mundane decision, a reasonable solution to an impossible dilemma.
I went into the bathroom and unscrewed a bottle of aspirin. I swallowed a handful and lay down, composing myself for death.
A short time later, my mother came home from work. She took one look at my flushed face and rushed me to the ER to have my stomach pumped.
After my suicide attempt, my parents fired Dr. Walden, whose main achievement was determining that I could think fast if I happened to find a lost letter. My new psychiatrist, Dr. Henry Krystal, a Holocaust survivor and trauma expert, tried to baffle my doom but, as Henry James said, “One’s doom can never be baffled.”
Like many bewildered young women, I grew up, awkwardly and unevenly, and became a wife, a mother, a writer. My inner selves still snipe at each other, but we’re working on conflict resolution. Sometimes, though, since my beloved husband died and my daughter left for grad school, I feel once again like I did as a teenager–anonymous, unclaimed, belonging to no one. When this happens, I take a deep breath and text my friend Nancy, who called from school to check on me so many years ago.
Then, I get to work.
From my my desk, I can see a neighboring Cape Cod, reminiscent of the house I lived in as a teenager in a neighborhood like this one, full of trees, children, and the promise of tomorrow.
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But last year, in that house, a girl hanged herself in her room.
Did she feel old and aged, I wonder? Did she battle valiantly, but see no way out? Was there no one to help her glimpse redemption from that dark night, “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen”?
I had such a person, and he stopped me in the crowded high school hallway on the last day of school. Mr. Welch was a kind man with warm gray eyes and a crooked smile. Many of my poems and beginnings of bad novels had appeared in the school paper, but I had just flunked his Chem II class. The fact that he admired my dad made the situation even more humiliating.
Mr. Welch smiled.
“I’m not worried about your chemistry grade,” he said, “because I know that someday I’m going to have your books on my shelf.”
I was stunned—my senior year had not been a good one. Yet here was Mr. Welch predicting he would one day have my books on his shelf. He hadn’t said he thought or even that he hoped he would have them. He said he knew.
Twenty years later, I sent Mr. Welch a copy of my first published children’s book. “I used your book in my retirement talk,” he wrote back. “Then I went home and put it on my shelf.”
My teacher couldn’t change the past. But by bestowing the gift of faith, the “evidence of things not seen,” he gave me something of even greater value–hope for the future.