CONTENT WARNING: This post contains descriptions of self harm, suicide, and drug abuse.
I remember being happy when I was 10. I was sitting in my mom’s car, an old white Volvo station wagon waiting in the driveway after school. I felt smart, and cute, and strong, in stark contrast to the usual self-critical anxiety that often ran through my mind, even as a kid. School had always made me so nervous. But just then, just for a few moments, I didn’t feel worried. 5th grade was going pretty well.
When I was 11, I started to flicker and fade. It felt like the change happened overnight. I would curl up in a ball in the corner of my bed, my stomach wrenching in horrible knots of anxiety and apathy and grief. I would pray that nobody would have to feel the way I felt, not even my worst enemy (who at the time was Jake Doone, because he said my mom got drunk at a party in 3rd grade and I didn’t even know what that meant and anyway he was a show off).
I hurt so much. I didn’t understand how to take care of my body. I didn’t know that I was sick with Bipolar II and a major anxiety disorder. I smelled bad and dressed weird. I cut class and failed tests. I started hanging out with the kids whose parents didn’t notice what we did, kids whose parents did drugs. All our moms did drugs. Mine drank too much, smoked weed, popped pills. Other moms snorted coke and smoked crack. We would smoke cigarettes and steal liquor and get drunk and tell our parents we were fine.
Sometimes I could barely stand up. I felt like I could hardly breathe. I would crouch and hide. And sometimes a swooping blackness would make me dizzy with fear as it swung toward me from my peripheral.
I started scratching my arms and burning my legs — first with safety pins and the edges of hot lighters, then later with razors and cigarette butts. I went to therapists and took medicine — all kinds. I thought about suicide constantly. Once I thought about pulling on the wheel of my mom’s car so that we would die and it could be over. I was so scared of myself. I would drag a razor gently, gently down my wrist. I would slash it across my taut thigh and the pain would bring me back to myself.
I can’t think. I can’t think. I fade in and out. I still lose myself. Sometimes I detach from where I am now and become overwhelmed.
When I was 16 I dropped out of school.
When I was 17 my brother, my best friend and I got my mom from the bar. The next day, she and I fought. She cried, screaming that she was an adult, but she started going to AA and NA.
When I was 18 I pleaded with my mom in a parking lot — I wanted her to promise me that she would stop taking drugs.
When I was 19 I got my first girlfriend.
When I was 20 I tried to kill myself.
When I was 22 I moved to Philadelphia, and when I was 23 I got help. I hired an amazing therapist, and I started doing the work. Eventually I started seeing a wonderful psychiatrist, and was prescribed Effexor and Klonopin. I left a relationship that had become sour with age, and found myself held in a community of stunning, sweet, and honest friends. At 25, I am surrounded by grace. I am dating the love of my life, I still have an excellent therapist, and I’m medicated because I want it. I want to get better. I want to get better now.
Still, I am tired these days. I can hardly work because I get afraid to go outside. I weep sometimes for hours. My moods swing unpredictably. Sometimes I feel like I am being swallowed. I catch myself over and over, just before the curve pulls me down into a spiral, an endless grieving. “Stop it,” I say to myself. “Shh!” I hiss, pressing my heart. My family knows what it means. It’s kind of a joke but it works. “Shh. Stop it. Stop it now.” I try to treat myself like a child. “Hush. Shh, it’s okay. Everything is okay.”
Everything is okay. In this place where I am low and high, I am safer than I’ve ever been. Nobody will hurt me now. I have the things I need, my art, my love, my big brown dog. I can’t kill myself now with all of this around me. I can’t kill myself with my friends loving me. I can’t kill myself. Everything is going to be okay.
When I started taking an antidepressant, Effexor, something finally helped. Things are different now but I can remember those weeks walking through the cemetery with my dog and thinking, “This is how they do it, all those people, getting old. Just aging and aging, going and going.” I always wondered how they do it, how do people do it, staying alive so long. I knew then. I know now. I accessed that information then and I can’t feel it now but I know that it is there. I can feel good again. I have to feel good again. I will feel good again.
I’m trying to help myself now any way I can. I can’t seem to keep my face on, and can’t present long enough to work. But I write stories. Stories and poems. I write the “why” my therapist can’t answer for me. Why, why, why do I feel meaningless? Why am I so afraid? Why did it happen to me? Why can’t I think my way out of this?
My favorite stories are the origin stories — Adam and Eve, how the leopard got its spots. Stories that lend us a reason why. A god who isn’t us who once, a long time ago, did something that they couldn’t help. That. That. That is why. I move through my fears by writing. Writing about the gods, the origin stories, the why.
There was a god in the sky with a mouth full of dirt. She sat there and rolled the dirt in her mouth like candy, turning it into a smooth hard ball of sweet mud. Sometimes she would spit it, and people on the earth would see a flying meteor and they would think, “There goes a beautiful fire!” but really it was just the dirt flying from the filthy mouth of a god in the sky. The hearts of the people were moved only strangely.
There was a god in the ground that broke seeds and tore them apart with long claws and found sprouts inside and yelled at them until they left the cool earth to try and get away. That is the way sprouts reached the hot sun. But the god liked to yell and wouldn’t let them go, and would claw at them, tearing them out into the earth and tangling them into the soil so that they became stuck in the ground. That is how the plants grew roots into the earth and tall into the sky, being held down by the bully earth, always pulling toward the sun.
There was a god who spun darkness from darkness. She gathered it like wool and silk and wove it into stories and pictures of things that she had thought and seen. She built the insides of our heads and she built our minds, spinning darkness from darkness, darkness into darkness. We provide the light.
There was a god in the concrete who made the city glitter. The god was full of fury and grew as bright as she could each day in the sun. She grew more furious with every step she took, her rage stifled beneath the dirt and dust and gum and moon. Her rage made the streets collapse, and caused holes to grow in the road. Nobody filled them, to honor the god who could collapse the heavy streets. The rage spilled out of the holes and seeped into the humid summer air. This god of anger held fear in her arms and nursed her, nursed her.
There was a god in every word you speak and she was the same the same the same until she changes. She was true and true and true until she was lying. She was real and real and real until it’s over. She chanted and chanted and chanted in hope and terror, a plea and a prayer. “Feel and open. Feel and open. Feel and open. Feel and open. Feel and open.”
There was a little snake that ate her own tail. She became a god. She coiled tighter and tighter inside of herself until she was a hard disk and she could not be shattered and she could not be moved.
There was a god who grew her eyes too wide and became blind in the glory of the earth divine.
I have always known that if I can just define it, it can be mine. Not just fear, but anything that happens. If I could give a name to it, it would became holy and real and mine. I tear into my feelings, searching for the word. I remember when I learned what “overwhelmed” meant, bent over in my dad’s kitchen during an anxiety attack, digging into myself and then I found it. Overwhelmed. “That’s all?” I remember thinking. I had never known that word before. It had never been mine. I turned it over in my hands and hold it now still with me.
Language is power. Word is God. I believe that. I heard a man on the 42 bus talking about it on my way to therapy last week. He moved me with his spirit. “Word is God,” he kept saying to the woman next to him, who was disinterestedly searching through her purse. We made eye contact and he looked away fast. “Every word you say is God’s word,” the man said, opening his bible and pulling out some leaflets. “Read this here, you’ll see.”
My thoughts come like breaths, my feelings move like blood, my words come from my marrow and I just have to let them through me. Stop being afraid long enough to set the words out orderly, beautiful on a page. Stop being afraid long enough to set them out ugly and shift them tender into place. Write one word, one sentence, one paragraph, I am finding God. I have found God in words.
EDITOR IN CHIEF: Bud Clayman | EDITOR: Glenn Holsten | DESIGN & LAYOUT: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | INK ILLUSTRATIONS: Jenna Brager