One morning, while walking into school, I was stopped in the parking lot by a boy who told me he’d “heard about me” and a boy I had previously dated that morning. I just looked at him, flummoxed.
“I wasn’t with him this morning,” I responded as I continued walking.
“No, I mean, this morning, I heard about you two,” he jeered with a wink and smirk. I kept walking. What does that even mean?
If you knew me then and have no memory of this, or if you think I’m over-exaggerating, I was right with you. I had forgotten completely until a reality check brought it all back into my present.
I was at a high school alumni happy hour about five years ago, and after a couple rounds of drinks, a woman with whom I graduated confessed to me she hated me in high school. I was pretty shocked by this revelation because I felt we’d always had a friendly relationship and banter. When I asked why, she said it was, firstly, because I dated a boy she had liked, but secondly, because she, too, had heard rumors about me. And because of them, she had thought I was a disgusting slut.
Then she described it to me. A very specific night with very specific details about very specific acts in a very specific location. I remember feeling taken aback by it, like, how? How do you know this? And then I remembered those words in the parking lot…I heard about you two this morning…
When she finished, being proud of where I was emotionally, I said, “Well, that rumor is true. But I won’t be ashamed by it. He was my boyfriend. We made mutual, consensual decisions.” From the vantage point of our thirties, it all sounded so, well, “high school”. We laughed about it and changed the subject. But just having the conversation reminded me of the scorn, disgust, and disgrace that were authentic at the time. I was the slut; he was the hero. I was “easy”; he was a “stud”.
The aftermath of this release of information into the school was subtle yet slithering: a boy in the hallway making rude, graphic noises at me; the boy sidling up to me asking under his breath if I would get on my knees for him; the leering, the whispers, the gesticulating.
For most of high school, I felt I was in control of my narrative. I was careful about what I shared and with whom. I didn’t even tell my best friends about the intimacy of that relationship when it was happening, and unexpectedly, that right was taken from me. Not only was I a slut, I was a slut who had kept secrets. I lost my power. I could not see a way to live through this. I wanted out.
I had previously pondered the idea of suicide during my sophomore year. I talked about it openly with a couple of friends. I wrote about it in English class. I thought February 29th was a perfect day because my death could only be mourned every four years, and it just so happened to be a leap year. I truly, honestly believed I could just check out, and everyone else would be better off without me. Those friends didn’t like how I was talking. They told their parents, who told my parents, and I was pulled out of biology one day to go to the principal’s office where my parents sat, waiting. A short conversation, and then I was whisked off to therapy. I lied to the therapist for a couple of months, convinced my parents I was never serious, and we moved on.
As anyone who has experienced suicidal thoughts can attest, they never go away, but it wasn’t until that day during my senior year I thought about it again seriously. I had learned my lessons from before, though. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I had to act like everything was normal. That I was normal. Had to keep my chin up, my cheeks from burning with shame, laugh it all off.
I picked a random day of the week. I took a bottle each of aspirin and ibuprofen from the cupboard and a few beers from the refrigerator and hid them in my bag, calling over my shoulder to my mom that I was going to finish my homework in my room. I played Dave Matthews Band and Red Hot Chili Peppers and wrote down the lyrics to “Rhyme and Reason” and “My Friends” as my suicide note. I cried and cried as I swallowed handful after handful, washing them down with Coors Light.
As I crushed the last can and hid it away in my room, the tears finally ebbed, and I fell into my bed. I looked around my childhood room and remembered it all. The good, the bad, the fights, the celebrations, the pain, the abuse, the loneliness, the broken heart, the impenetrable shame…the absolute clarity that this is what I wanted. I didn’t want to feel anything any more. I was ready to fall asleep and drift peacefully into oblivion.
Violent agony awoke me a few hours later. Something was tearing through my insides. It was ripping at my abdomen, clawing to get out. I was disoriented from the beer and pills…what was happening…why did I feel so sick? Oh. Right. I was trying to die. But my body was having none of it. “GET IT OUT!” it screamed. I crawled to the bathroom, barely in time as the poison I had put in my stomach raced up my throat and out my mouth.
For over an hour, I wretched, sweating profusely, lying limply against the cold, smooth surface of the porcelain god. The noise finally woke my parents, and after one look at me, my mom yelled for my dad, “We’re taking her to the hospital – NOW!” I gazed unseeing deep into the water and slowly, a lone, solid pill at the bottom of the bowl came into focus. I used my last strength to reach up and flush. I had to save my parents that shame if I could.
They dragged me, still heaving, into the car and put a bucket in my lap as they drove me to the nearest emergency room. There are blurred, hurried memories of nurses pulling off my clothes and getting me into a gown, one wrapping a blood pressure cuff, the other prepping my vein for an IV. Severely dehydrated and still vomiting, I hunched forward, head between knees, trembling with cold, as they administered medication to stop me from throwing up and bag after bag after bag of saline. As they piled on heated blankets, the weight of which was so soothing, sleep finally overtook me.
Many hours and five IV bags later, when the doctor agreed I was stable enough to go home, my parents were still bewildered by what was wrong with me. He just shrugged. “There seems to be some weird flu going around. This is the third case we’ve had like this. She’s going to be fine. She just needs to take it easy for the next couple days.”
Not realizing I’d been holding my breath, I exhaled in such enormous relief. I don’t know if the doctor knew exactly what I had done and was saving my ass, or if there really was a virus going around. Either way, my parents didn’t know. They would never know.
Two days later, I was back at school. None the wiser.
I have tried two other times to take my life since that day. I have been to two funerals in the past few years where someone died by suicide, and no one around them had any inclination. Every person was shocked and saddened. And that is on purpose. If someone is truly serious about taking their life, they will never say a word. I was lucky my naivete and lack of internet didn’t provide me with a more fatal combination of pills. I was lucky someone cared enough to try and break the window of the car as I sat slowly inhaling carbon monoxide, jarring me awake and putting me face-to-face with the effect of my actions. I was lucky. But I caution you, never assume you know someone completely.
I still think about dying. More than I’d like to admit. It has taken me a long time to treat myself with care and consideration. To trust I am enough. To know my reputation and character are defined by my actions and how I treat people who can do nothing for me. I have worked excessively hard, every day, to fight the inner demons of scarcity and perfectionism. It is a practice and will be for the rest of my days.
Every day, I have to make a choice. I choose to face my pain and invite it in, get to know it, wrap my arms around its shoulders and feel every difficult inch of it. Even though it is excruciating some days to want to stick it out.
I choose breath and heartbeats.
***Author’s note: I have been trying to write about these experiences for a few years, and it still doesn’t feel like I got it right. I wrote and rewrote this at least five times. The rawness of experiencing it again through the writing is like reopening the wounds to fresh salt. However, every time I write about an experience, it helps me to give it a gentle hug and send it off to where it no longer holds any power over me. And it has been true here, too. I hope you’ll forgive any uneven segues or drastic changes in tone. This is how it needs to be.***
If you or someone you know is thinking about death by suicide, please reach out for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available at any time: 1.800.273.8255