Suicide Prevention Day.
Note: If you feel even vaguely suicidal right now, please don’t read this. Instead, please call and talk to someone who can help you! 1-800-273-8255.
When I was a sophomore in high school, undone by the relentless teasing of an older relative, unsure that I would ever leave the barren wasteland of my inner-city high school, I ingested a bottle of aspirin and prepared to die.
After swallowing about fifty pills, I remember going into the kitchen and asking my mother, cooking dinner, why life was worth living. She reminded me of a gospel singer who had recently visited my high school and inspired me, a physically challenged woman in chronic pain who none-the-less managed to infuse her life with joy and humor and great music. My mother’s words were something like, “If she wants to live, why wouldn’t you?”
I did not tell her about the bottle of aspirin. I went back upstairs, and soon my friend and high school debate partner, L, showed up. Earlier in the week, I had invited L to spend the night. I told her what I had done, and then absolutely forebade her to tell my mother. Ah, the cruelty of that act. These decades later, I apologize. L and I weren’t close friends, but I had been to her house enough to know that, like me, she had a father who sometimes erupted in fits of screaming rage at the dinner table. I suspected that he, like my own father, was also physically violent from time to time. So in a weird way, I felt ‘safe’ with her. We lived in the same family system.
And, true to the code of ethics of siblings in a dysfunctional household, L did not tell my mother that I had ingested the aspirin. As I recall, she spent a lot of the night huddled in terror in the bathroom whispering to another mutual friend wondering what to do. Me, I was floating off on a cloud. I went to sleep early, fully expecting to drift off and never come back. (How would that have been for L? I honestly never considered it.)
Well, as you might have figured out, that did not happen. I awoke about 2 AM and barfed my guts out. In the morning, I felt as if I had a bad hangover, but I was alive.
L and I walked to high school in the early hours of the cold winter Ohio morning for a debate tournament. My school never won a single match, but L and I kept trying. Walking to school, I realized I felt too lousy to debate. When we arrived, I told the debate coach I had a bad headache and needed to go home again. Her suggestion that I take some aspirin was met by a sharp bark of bitter laughter from L, with whom I never spoke again of this experience during the following weeks and months of debating together.
I remember, walking home alone, that on the sidewalk there were early winter frozen puddles that you could crack loudly with your boots; icy fault lines moving out from your boot’s heel to the edge of the sidewalk square. I remember thinking that I loved that sound. And the feeling of the ice, slowly giving way, cracking under my foot.
Looking back, I see the sheer luck that led to my staying alive. I did wake up and vomit out the poison—I might not have. My attempts to reach out for help were present, but limited. My mother, cooking dinner while I asked her seemingly random questions, did not know that I was asking her to tell me why it mattered if I lived. L, who did know that my life depended on her, did not speak up because we had both learned well that the cost of displeasing a parent was scarier than anything else—precisely why I picked her to confide my situation!
And so, on this Suicide Prevention Day, I sit with the realization that my distant memory might be haunting people still, with guilt and loss and a wish that they had known how desperate I felt to find peace. Just as I sit with my own guilt and grief about the two friends I have subsequently lost to suicide. I sit with the knowledge that the impulse towards suicide is a temporary one, but sometimes the results of that impulse are permanent. And, most of all, I sit with deep and abiding gratitude to be alive.
Today, and every day, may we listen with care when people approach us and show their tender parts. May we reach out to the ones who seem lost, smile and say hello. And may we never be too scared to tell someone that their staying alive to see another day matters to us more than anything else, that we simply want them to live. To take small comfort in joys as simple as the sound that ice makes when it cracks on the sidewalk.