When I was in the 5th grade, I imagined myself strung up by the neck from the swing set, and I have not been the same since.
I was never very happy as a child; youth had been unkind to me. I was overweight, cripplingly shy, and I made for an easy target. I had to learn that the world could be cruel before I had learned how to multiply fractions. I had friends, of course, though not friendly enough to ever invite me over or out. I probably would have said no if they did, anyway. Even then, the world felt too sharp and too vibrant and too real for me to ever belong to it. People, friends and bullies, it all felt like too much. So the solitude of recess became my sanctuary. Sometimes I would sit and write in a little composition book I kept, but mostly I would walk around the parking lot in endless circles until the bell would ring and we would all go back inside, and I would think. I thought about the things you should think about when you’re so young, like cartoons and the shapes of the clouds.
And one time, I thought about killing myself.
I’m not sure where I had built the thought from, if I had constructed the notion of ending my life myself or if it was something the world had offered me, something I had glimpsed on TV. I don’t know how a ten year old comes to the conclusion that death is an answer. But I had, and it did not scare me, and that scares me now.
I would come back to that thought a lot. Every time I would walk pass the swing set in my daily walks around the parking lot, sometimes with people but mostly alone, I would imagine rusted chains against my neck and final breaths coming from my lungs. It was a secret I told no one about, that I could go to when I was down. “You could die,” I would think to myself, “and no one could pick on you ever again.” No one would know those thoughts until years later.
I should say, while my childhood definitely played a part in my depression, it was not the source for me. It did not help that in my earliest years I learned there were parts of me that were to be hated, certainly, but that is not where the seeds of my illness were planted. No, like so many other illnesses, mine was hereditary. It was a trait passed down to me from my father, and it waited and feasted on my loneliness, got fat off of my hate. A cancer, waiting to form a tumor.
And, like my father, I repressed. Repression was my first defense, before I realized I was in a fight. I didn’t talk about being bullied, I didn’t talk about the thoughts I was having. I was ashamed that I felt the way I was feeling. That didn’t mean people didn’t notice; my mom was concerned about my reclusiveness, but she did not do much to help back then. She shielded me from harm while my father told me to be strong. I had an understanding that the way I was feeling was a weakness, and I think that is a major failure on the part of the black community. I had an illness, I still have an illness, and I have been made to feel weak because of it my entire life.
I went on like that for a long time. Feeling weak and afraid and alone. Making it to high school was a miracle, surviving as long as I did. As I grew, I understood that I didn’t like myself, and that turned to hate, and that turned to disgust. And I bottled all those feelings up, hid them away. I wasn’t okay, I wasn’t well, but I was surviving, and I assumed it was enough.
Then, in my freshman year in high school, my oldest brother was gunned down. My brother died, and every day of my life I question if I could have done something to save him, if he knew I loved him, if it was my fault for not being a better brother that he had died. I was about fifteen, and I had lost my brother, and my parents had lost a son, and my family fell apart.
It broke me, hearing that he had been murdered. I remember it so vividly, my teacher calling me out into the hallway and seeing my sister crying, my teacher struggling to find the words and my sister having to break the news. I remember the world stopping, I remember hearing everything screeching to a halt. I had built something inside of myself, a wall where I hid every negative thought I had ever had, a damn to hold the tide of the darkness that was eating away at me slowly. That damn broke, I broke, and so began my decline.
I stopped feeling human after my brother’s funeral. I was an alien, parading around in human skin that didn’t belong to me. I wasn’t “me,” I was some strange creature pretending to be. I could still pretend, still smile and laugh and joke, but not a single piece of it was real. I was faking it, because what else was I supposed to do? I was just so scared and alone, and that ear and loneliness became the only things I could truly define myself by. So I filled those empty places in me with lies. My grades started to fall, and harshly. I began to become distant to the few people I considered friends. It was hard to focus, hard to relate. They didn’t get that life was pointless, that there was nothing waiting for me in the real world. I tried to kill myself for the first time at this point, a dull blade I had been given by my cousin years ago pressed hard against my wrist. I was in the middle of class, and I was crying, and I had a blade against my skin, and no one noticed. And if they had, I imagine they thought it was best to let me suffer alone. The knife wasn’t sharp enough to make me bleed, and sometimes I still wish it had been.
There was very little solace out there for me. I would still write like when I was younger, but it became so hard to find any part of me that cared about that anymore, even though it had been a passion. I started to sing in the choir, before quitting because the pressure felt like too much. I started acting in the school’s theater department, which was a wonderful place where I could pretend to be anyone other than myself. I found refuge in the fake identities. I lived by being someone else, and that was a lesson I took with me. I would have gone the rest of my life pretending, acting and lying, until I got the courage to kill myself.
Shortly after my brother’s death, I went to therapy for the first time. My mother said that I needed to work through my grief. My therapist was a very nice woman, who had a very large dog that snored in the corner while I tried to sort out how I was feeling. I had only been there for a week or two before my therapist diagnosed me with clinical depression, and suggested I take medication. I pulled out one of those lies that had defined my reality, and I told her I would think about it. I never went to see her again.
Medication was for crazy people, it was a sign of weakness and I had to be strong, everyone expected me to be strong. I couldn’t be weak. I couldn’t be crazy.
I doubled my efforts in hiding my sickness. I didn’t tell a soul that I had depression, told my parents that I had come to terms with the loss of my brother, that everything was fine, and I would cry every night for the next few years, until I grew numb enough to not feel much of anything anymore.
I graduated from high school and went to college. I went to the school my parents wanted me to go to, and I chose the major that everyone expected me to. I had no plans for the future, except not living long enough to see the next year. I wasn’t living, I was going through motions. I cried all the time and I didn’t know why. I thought about killing myself every second of every day.
This part is…difficult to address. I was always in a dark place, but it grew darker and darker as time went on, and so by the time I got to college things had gotten…very bleak. I was in so much pain; I couldn’t find the words for it. I’m still not sure I can. It’s a blur in my head, all a downward spiral.
I don’t remember why I decided to start cutting. I remember the feeling, though; everything was just so far out of my control, and I had a pain in me that I couldn’t put into words. I’ve sometimes described my depression as a pain beneath my skin. It was everywhere and nowhere, a phantom in me. I just wanted the pain to be real. I wanted the pain to have a place and a name. The first time I cut myself, I was crying in the basement of my college’s library. And I took the glass bottle I had, emptied it down the drain. I wrapped the empty bottle in a plastic bag and broke it against the tile. I dug through the bag and found the sharpest piece and dragged it against my arm. I’ve become intimately familiar with the sound my skin makes when it’s split open, and the way blood smells, the way it pools in the trench of my wounds.
These are not things I’m proud of, these are just things I know.
It wasn’t always glass from bottles. I took the blades from disposables razors. I broke light bulbs in desperations. All dangerous, all done to feel something real, something that wasn’t just in my head. I think a lot of people turn to different things the same way I turned to cutting. Alcohol, or drugs, or sex, or cutting; it’s all a deadly self-medication.
The first time I really opened up about my depression was to two of my dormmates. They listened to me cry until the black sky turned pale blue with the coming morning. They wanted to help. I didn’t know how they could.
I practiced writing suicide notes, trying to find words that would make people understand why I had to die and stop them from feeling guilty. Those words do not exist. I knew that then, I know that now.
Still, I tried. I gave my roommate a note and ran away, and trying to find the courage to end my life. I wrote about my own guilt and my own sadness and now, so many years removed, I can’t even remember the words. But I must have said something that sparked a real concern, because my roommate told…well, everyone. The dean, and campus security, and my parents, and the campus counselor.
I started seeing the school counselor regularly, and not by choice. I was mandated to see her or leave school. I made the only choice I had. I hated it. I was ashamed. She was a nice enough woman, and I know she only wanted to help me, but she was pushy, and wanted to talk about things I wasn’t ready to talk about. That is something I think is worth mentioning; I have seen several therapists, and not many of them worked out for me. Your first therapist does not have to be the therapist. Or your second, or your third. You have options, and you are free to explore them. This is about you. This is about finding who can best help you.
This was the time I first started taking medication. I was diagnosed once again with depression this time with anxiety disorder on top of it, and it was decided that I needed to take antidepressants to help regulate my mood. I cried the first time I took them, trying to wipe away the tears as they came while I swallowed down generic Seroquel. It helped.
I still wanted to kill myself.
I made the mistake of, once deciding I didn’t like my therapist, not going to any therapist not talking to or seeing anyone. It kept building up. I was sad and stressed and angry and numb. I kept cutting.
Things…kept going downhill. My grades kept dropping and most days I couldn’t even make it to class. I lost my job. My depression made my situation worse, and my situation made my depression worse, and it was a cycle that ate me alive. I was between the teeth of monster of my own creation.
I made the decision to go to the hospital around this time. I revealed to my family that I had been cutting myself, and that I…I don’t know. I wanted help. So we went to the emergency room, where I sat in a small room for over eight hours while I waited to be seen. The man I spoke with only sat with me for a few minutes. I was institutionalized after this, in the psychiatric ward a few stories above the emergency room. It was…it was one of the worst experiences in my life. I was there for days, where I spent most of my time in another small room, surrounded by other mentally ill, some violent. A fight broke out during my stay, and we were all forced to stay in our assigned rooms. Regulated meals, lights out, and mandatory exercise.
Things didn’t get better after I left the hospital. I have never gone back, but it was not because my condition had improved.
More incidents happened. I was kicked off of campus twice. I was put on academic probation, before getting kicked out of school altogether.
I got a new therapist. I got new meds. I got another therapist. I got different meds. More meds. Dealing with mental illness isn’t an exact science; it took a long time to find the right balance of medication and the right therapist. It took me years to decide to get help, really get help, and it took me years to begin to make it work. It has been a process. It is still a process.
This is the part where I imagined the great turnaround would get written the grand epiphany where I realized all my potential and went out there to start living my dreams and got my shit together. That hasn’t happened. In my experience, that doesn’t happen. In my experience, you fight every day. You fight to get out of bed and take your meds and take a shower and go outside and live. Sometimes you lose that fight. Sometimes you stay in bed because the world is an unfair place and it’s too hard some days. But I guess…that’s kind of the point. You’re in a war with yourself, between your emotions and your reason. But it is a war, made up of many battles. You might lose some fights. Win the war.
So I get help now. I talk to a therapist about twice a month. I take antidepressants daily. I have a support network of friends and family to lean on when I need it.
I got help, and I only survived because of that help. If I hadn’t gotten the help I needed, I would be dead.
I’m better. I’m not anything remotely close to cured. I still have a long way to go. I still have very dark days. I had a very close call just a few months back. This isn’t a thing you just get through. Depression is a cancer. You don’t just power through cancer. You don’t. The cancer gets worse. Depression does the same thing. It thrives when you try to ignore it.
Don’t ignore it. Don’t pretend like your pain is nothing. Your pain matters. Don’t let it eat you alive. Get help. That is the only advice I can give. Get help. It is not too late to get into the fight and stop the cancer from spreading. It’s not too late to take control. It never will be too late. Talk to someone. Anyone. A religious leader or a friend or a family member. Talk to a professional, especially, someone who knows the language of mental illness. There is no timetable for recovery. You can get there in your time. It might be years from now. I don’t want to promise that the world will get better. I can’t promise that. But it is an option. It can be achieved. You just have to take that first step. And when you take that step, keep trying. Don’t ever feel like the effort you put in to just surviving isn’t enough. Keep trying, try new things, but keep trying. Find your path that works and stick with it.
Author: N. Benjamin
Editor: Joshua Nwosu | Twitter: @kenteclark
Editors Note: To those of you whose stories of struggle are barely whispered in corners and dark shadows while the rest of the world sleeps, know that you are not alone. The Out of Bounds team is in awe of your courage. Like the author of this article, your stories need not be whispered any longer. You don’t have to fight mental illness alone. Please consider your options for treatment. I encourage you to utilize the number below in the event that you or someone you know is considering ending their life.
1800-273-8255 National Suicide hotline (available 24/7)