Trigger Warning: This essay discusses suicide
By Regina Hastings
When I was a kid, I had two friends, John and Jared, who lived on the street behind my house. In the summer, we roller skated on Thayer Street and in the winter, we ice skated at Scanlon Playground. Racing around corners, passing each other in the rink, we grew well balanced through practice. But we had our fair share of tumbles. Each time, one of us fell, we would pop back up on our skates and yell to the others: “A – Okay” to show that we were not hurt. We were strong, we were the “A okay” team.
I haven’t thought about this memory in a long time until I started thinking about a strong defense mechanism I acquired over the years. I don’t have words for sadness because I don’t allow myself to feel it. I stumble, I fall, I bounce back up in “A – Okay” style.
That seems great because who wants to feel sad? It’s so uncomfortable.
But here’s what I have learned, there’s this protective coating that shields sadness. It is anger. And it can get ugly.
The thing about sadness, it scares me.
December 4, 1988. A cold Sunday night. I leave Tate’s house where the gang hangs out. My curfew is nine o’clock. Sue was going to come home with me but decided to stay with Anne, Bryce and Bobby.I guess Dennis does not really like me, he is at his house with his new girlfriend.
I walk from Cornwall Street along Ontario, cross Kensington Avenue, pass 7-Eleven, and into the house.
My parents are at Bingo, my sister, Rose, sits on the couch watching TV, Matt is in his bedroom doing homework. I go to the room Rose and I share and sit on my bed. Pictures of Axl Rose and Guns N Roses line the walls. The black suede jacket purchased from my McDonald’s paychecks and my Metallica and Slayer concert shirts hang in the closet. Tomorrow is another day of junior year at Little Flower High School. Religion class sucks, Sister Anthony mocks everyone. I am failing Algebra 2, Mr. McLaughlin does not notice or care that I sleep everyday in his class. I hate school. I hate life. I cry.
Down the stairs to the basement. I find a rope, I climb a chair, I tie a noose around my neck. I step forward.
Rose screams, Matt shouts “Oh no”. They run up the steps. My eyes blink open, my face rests on the concrete floor.
A month of my sixteenth year spent in Philadelphia Psychiatric Hospital, a diagnosis of clinical depression.
From that point forward, sadness equated to depression equated to trying to kill myself. It’s easier to be strong, isn’t it? Except when you don’t allow yourself to feel the sadness and you try to immediately bounce up into strength, that angry protective coating erupts. You develop this fight or flight response to the little things that irritate the wounds that you haven’t healed. You don’t want to fly away from what is important to you, people, moments, dreams, you want to hold on to them. Only, that protective shield knows only to fight because you feel like you are fighting for your life.. Then, you end up fighting the wrong battles. You wage wars from disagreements. You shut down. You yell. You drive people away.
One of my favorite authors, Elizabeth Gilbert, once wrote: “Own Your Shit”. Sometimes, we bury that shit so deep we do not understand the triggers. A friend makes the wrong comment, a lover does not understand the importance of a gesture, you don’t have the words to communicate your sadness. So, you want to protect your wounds, you show your strength, you start a fight, you lose someone, you bounce back up and say to the world, “I’m A – Okay”.
My feet pound the trail, I come around a turn at Mile 4 of this run in Tyler State Park. I enjoy the thoughts running through my mind as I think about my demonstrations of strength, how I can get back up no matter how many times I fall. The loss of parents. Divorce. Rejection. Break-ups. Switching careers. Switching jobs. Meeting new people. These moments are what clear my head.
A thought gently interrupts. From inside, a quiet voice whispers: “You have to deal with her. You are not sixteen anymore. You can handle your shit better now”.
I slow down my pace almost coming to a standstill. Here she is, my sixteen-year-old self, gaze down, hands in her jean pockets, that denim jacket with Metallica patches, hair dyed black, meandering – the starting point of viewing life as a battle needing to be defended.
At Palo Santo Wellness Boutique in South Philadelphia, David Ahemsa, the YogaPunx teacher, gives the best dharma talks at the beginning of classes. He is authentic about taking ownership of his shit, he does not hide from what broke him and what built him. I often wonder if that ownership creates the lightness one needs to get into all of the crazy inversions he is capable of doing. His assists help me on my own balancing journey.
He references Thih Nicht Hahn and an idea of cradling anger like a baby who needs soothing. I play with this idea in my head because I perceive my anger as a source of strength.
I realize I must go a bit deeper into the sadness.
If I could stop along this run, I would sit right there on the bench with sixteen-year-old me, not so much before the suicide attempt because I think that taught me about my passion and drive. It showed me how willing I am to give life a try. Even if that was my lowest moment, it taught me about my willingness to live. If I could go as far as trying to take my own life, I would go as far as trying to live my life to the fullest.
No, what I would tell my sixteen-year-old self is to not be so afraid. “You’re going to do it anyway, you’re going to try and succeed and fail at many opportunities in life. Don’t hide from yourself, don’t be so afraid. Feel the feelings, reveal your softer side. Appreciate yourself. You’ve got this.”
So, now when I go out on these runs, I keep going to Mile 4 hoping that I meet her again. Sixteen-year-old me. I want to sit with her. I want to talk. I want to give her the confidence that she’s got this.
Then, I want to stand up from that bench with her. I want to run this life together wherever it takes us.
**photograph from Nicole Goss Photography
Regina Hastings is a high school English teacher, yoga enthusiast, novice runner and wanderer. Working on a novel, she discovered that some issues from her personal life demanded attention before she could focus on fiction. So, she launched a blog: tothebooks.com. It’s her writing process along with the tools she is using to get to the writing of the books.
I perceive my anger as a source of strength. Oh yeah.