CW: Suicidal Ideation and Self-Harm
Exactly one year ago today, I was sitting in a room in Phoenix, Arizona with 6 strangers waiting to begin an intensive 7-day, nearly 70-hour outpatient mental health program. While we were all there for different reasons in name, we were all there for the same reason in spirit: to heal something that felt so broken that we finally couldn’t ignore it any longer.
Each of us, highly successful by traditional standards—most as business owners or executives.
Each of us, living seemingly normal lives—most with spouses or partners, kids and pets.
Each of us, living secret double lives as “Normal Responsible Adults.”
All of us, hiding a deep well of suffering and sorrow that leaked out through the crumbling cracks of our lives in many different ways but with similar devastating consequences.
I want to be clear here:
It’s not my job nor my business to tell their stories but I can and will continue to tell you mine.
It’s not my job nor my business to share their patterns of disordered behaviors and addictions, struggles with anxiety and depression, history with suicidal ideation or self-harm but I can and will continue to share mine in the most honest and honorable way possible.
And while I can attempt to explain to you what lands an intelligent, funny, successful, happily married, 40-something-year-old woman in an intensive outpatient mental health program, I find it hard to know where to begin or how to express it in a way that fully captures the complexity and tenderness of it all.
What I will say is this: several of my significant childhood and young adult traumas were left unacknowledged and unprocessed and eventually began to consume my light, slowly but surely. Year after year. Until my once vibrant beacon of a soul began to dim and flicker.
Over these years, mental health professionals have labeled it as chronic depression or anxiety. A more nuanced and accurate diagnosis is Complex PTSD. But regardless of the clinical diagnosis and billing code, slowly but surely, year after year, all my coping mechanisms, decoy behaviors, and the ability to hide behind my façade of Happy Clappy Jessica began to falter and fail. Until one day last year, I called my therapist and told her that I was terribly sorry to bother her but I was finding myself not wanting to live anymore.
Truthfully it’s not the first time I have had thoughts about dying.
The first time was when I realized my mother was most likely not going to make it and I was very clear at the time that I couldn’t go on without her. I was 17, standing in the bathroom of our tiny apartment with all the pills from our medicine cabinet in front of me. My mom was in the hospital, receiving a transfusion of white blood cell platelets because the chemo and radiation for her cancer treatments had depleted them. I was home alone with my Grandma, realizing the hard and painful truth about the fact that my mom might never get better.
I stood there for a very long time, staring at the pills, concocting a plan until my Grandma grew suspicious and rapped briskly on the door and asked me if I was okay in there. I told her yes, put the pills away as quietly as possible, ran the sink faucet for effect and opened the door, pretending, as usual, like nothing was wrong.
A few weeks later my mother was dead. The pills from the cabinet were tossed out in the race to empty our apartment as quickly as possible so we wouldn’t have to pay the next month’s rent. And my “Get Out of Life Free” card was lying somewhere at the bottom of a trash bag.
Our psyche’s ability to compartmentalize and cope in the face of unfathomable grief and loss is remarkable really.
From that point forward, my spirit went into a kind of suspended animation while my body and life awkwardly jerked forward like a puppet on the end of the string in some farcical imitation of real life.
Watch Jessica the Marionette go to college, Watch her get her first real boyfriend. Watch her plan her future. Watch her pretend to care.
Pretend to feel alive.
Pretend that any of it matters.
On and on it went—this imitation of life—until I almost started to believe it.
Except for the crushingly low self-esteem.
Except for the raging anxiety that felt like a thousand crickets trying to escape my belly.
Except for the over-prescribed antidepressants that turned me into a zombie.
Except for the eating disorder slowly taking over my life with its necessary lies and deception.
Except for beating myself in the head with my own hands to try and stop myself from screaming out in excruciating, existential pain.
And except for my first tiny nervous breakdown when I was 34 and messaged my husband at work saying, “I’m sorry to bother you but I cannot seem to stop crying.”
I have been incredibly fortunate to have access to good mental health care and a husband who loves me so much and believes in me and in the importance of caring for ourselves. Telling him the truth that day was an important step on my mental health journey but it would take me another 10 years or so to really share the realities of my interior life in order to begin my deepest healing.
Because it’s hard to heal when you’re afraid of what telling the truth might mean for your life, your relationships, your career. The truth of meaninglessness and hopelessness.
It’s hard to tell the truth in all its rawness and realness when you’re afraid it means you’re irreparably broken. Irredeemable and beyond repair.
That there’s just something so fundamentally wrong and weak about you that telling the truth will diminish or destroy all the parts of you that also feel whole, and good, and solid, and strong and worthy.
All those parts that are filled with laughter and joy and brilliance and strength and resilience.
What happens to those parts when the truth of our sorrow and suffering comes to light?
And yet, in spite of the fear of consequence… In spite of the terror of being cast out and judged for being weak and found lacking, it wasn’t really until this past year when I started telling the real, whole, unvarnished truth about my life, my sorrow, my suicidal ideation, and my self-harm without shame—without a hushed and hesitant voice—that I finally started getting the help I really needed to acknowledge, to honor, and to ultimately begin to heal my not my broken soul, but my broken heart.
For far too long, I have moved through my best imitation of life on my marionette strings, yearning for the world to see me. The real me. The good and whole and worthy me. To tell me if I’m real. To tell me if after this unfathomable and irreconcilable loss I—the good and whole and worthy girl I once was—even exists any longer.
Can you see me? Am I real? Do I exist?
For far too long, I have been spiritually bereft, hollowed out, afraid. Disconnected from my magic and my wonder. Wandering the interior landscape of my trauma and sorrow while presenting a facile mask of easy confidence to the world, quietly imploring:
Can you see me? Am I real? Do I exist?
But more importantly,
Do I matter?
As I reflect back on this one-year anniversary, I realize now that while I felt all alone in this sorrow and in this suffering, I was, in fact, not alone at all.
I realize now that all 7 of us that were in that room…
All 7 of us who showed up there in a state of fear, exhaustion, and surrender…
All 7 of us who started off our time together feeling utterly bewildered and totally isolated in our suffering…
All 7 of us came to that door, face and palms upturned to God, asking the same thing:
Can you see me? Am I real? Do I exist?
Do I matter?
All 7 of us asked and all 7 of us discovered that yes.
We are real.
We are, in fact, not alone at all.
This past year has been one of the most difficult and profound years of my life as I have done the bone-deep work of trying to answer these questions myself—for myself—not merely looking to an outside world to tell me that:
Yes, I see you, Jessica. Yes, you are real. Yes, you exist.
But most importantly, you matter.
Your losses matter.
Your joy matters.
Your voice matters.
Your fear matters.
Your grief matters.
Your stories matter.
Your life matters.
The realities and complexities of mental health are vast and diverse and often complicated. But if there is anything I’ve learned over the past 30 years, it is that shame, fear, and the loneliness of grief flourish in the solitude of darkness and will take root and consume our light if left unattended.
I’ve also learned to turn my focus and attention to the things that really matter in life.
It’s not the hustle.
It’s not the 6-7 figure income.
It’s not the Balenciaga shoes or the Chanel bag.
It’s not the vacation home in France.
It’s not the slimming teas or the shapewear or most hydrating under-eye concealer.
What really matters are our stories. So tell them.
What really matters are our connections to each other, to Spirit, to community. So nurture those connections.
What really matters is…
And most importantly our light.
So please, please, please let it shine.
The soul of the world is hungry for it.
This reflection was offered live in our free kindness community—The House of Belonging—on Sunday, September 11, 2022.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or ideation, please call 988 in the US. If you are in Canada, please visit talksuicide.ca. The greatest prevention to suicide is taking any thoughts about it seriously, talking about it, and offering care, help, and support. Thank you.