CW: This essay discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. The world needs you.
By Beth Cartino
“I just want to get really high and then go to sleep forever.” They sits across from me in a dreary, unadorned office, knees tucked under their chin, arms hugging their legs tight to their chest, eyes peering out at me from behind a veil of midnight blue hair. This is the pose they adopt when they’re feeling exposed and vulnerable. They are in middle school, but they have the experience of someone twice their age, and right now, at this moment, they look painfully young.
“Have you been thinking about suicide?” My voice is even, my eyes unflinching. I notice a physical urge, like the one you get when you want to scratch your nose, to mirror their posture. I don’t. I ask myself a question I frequently ask when working with a kid who is thinking about suicide. What could somebody have said to me when I was twelve that would have stopped me from trying to kill myself? I never can come up with an answer but this is the message I try to convey, not only with my words, but with every cell in my body: “You are loved. I see you. I will not judge you. I am here with you. I am not going anywhere. You are not broken. You are not a problem that needs fixing.”
On my 30th birthday I felt something at the base of my spine uncoiling, and I knew without a doubt, for the first time in my life, that I would not go mad. I knew because I had done my research. Men begin showing the first signs of psychosis between the ages of 17 and 20. Women, typically will have their first psychotic break between the ages of 26 to 29. My Aunt Lilian began to experience symptoms of psychosis around the age of 25 and had her first psychotic break at 27. She was a novice at a convent in the 1940’s I have pictures of her in her robes, she was rail thin, with sharp features, and a snaggletooth grin. Lillian left the convent right before taking her final vows and shortly after that she was committed for the first time to Oregon State Hospital outside of Salem.
Her story is fragmented with whole swaths missing from the narrative. After leaving Holy Names she returned to the family farm where she worked long days but was mostly ignored by her parents. They refuse to set a place for her at the table for meals. I imagine her standing in the kitchen caved in chest, arms twisted around each other, fingers intertwined in a white knuckled grip staring at the kitchen floor while her family eats and pretends she is not there. Lilian returned to Portland and a few months later her youngest sister Cecilia talked her down from the Sellwood Bridge where she stood on the ledge ready to jump and it was Cecilia who signed the commitment papers. There they dosed her with lithium, thorazine, and who knows what else, tied her to a gurney and sent electricity through her brain. Back then patients were not sedated before electroconvulsive therapy.
Later, Lillian would say in her raspy voice, “If you didn’t do what they wanted you to do they’d threaten to strap you down. They’d say ‘ya better pick those strawberries or we’ll give ya more therapy.’ Well, let me tell you I picked those strawberries.” Once she said, “I can’t remember what it felt like, but I knew I never wanted to experience it ever again.” Lilian spent her life in and out of various mental institutions and group homes. She died of pneumonia in a skezzy piss drenched nursing home at the age of 76 unable to speak clearly or feed herself because of the Parkinson’s Disease she developed from the high doses of lithium running unchecked through her veins. No one has ever been clear about her diagnosis. My grandma said manic depression which we now call bipolar disorder I with psychotic features, while my Aunt T said she had schizophrenia but regardless of the diagnosis people rarely talked about her in any other context than that of being crazy. No one talked about her talents, her loves, or even about her faith. She was only the crazy one.
Was she aware that reality was fracturing for her while she was still a novice? I wonder if as the mental illness took root she began to feel as if god had abandoned her, if she could not live with the burden of being married to god, if she loved god or hated god or had only been searching for a place to belong and in the end found that like all the other places she had never belonged the convent did not fit. Maybe none of my imaginings are accurate and are just my attempt to reach back through the years and make amends for my terror of her.
Like most seven year olds I loved spending time with my grandma and I would occasionally have sleepovers at her house. Grandma lived with her sister, an old spinster we called Aunt T. Grandma was funny and kind of kooky. She was the sort of old lady who always had bright red lipstick on her front teeth. She bought all her clothes from JC Penney’s or St. Vincent DePaul and her hosiery always had runs in them. She wore big plastic glasses and had the best, most joyful laugh in the world.
One weekend I went to stay with grandma and Aunt Lilian was there. Grandma lived in the attic of Aunt T’s house. Grandma’s room was glorious, every corner stacked with thrift store treasures, every piece of furniture was buried beneath mounds of clothing and the closet was filled with mountains of shoes. I loved playing dress up in the attic with lacy hats, rhinestone broches, and fake pearls piled around my neck. Grandma had put my hair up in sponge rollers and I was looking forward to having hair like Shirley Temple in the morning. I had fallen asleep on the divan (which is grandma speak for couch) watching black and white movies on TV.
I startled awake at the sound of shattered glass and a high pitch keening coming from the kitchen. I couldn’t see anything, my body went rigid and I didn’t know where I was. I lay there, eyes wide, mouth moving like a fish but no sound coming out. The dark smelled like equal parts Ponds cold cream, baby powder, and wet dog. The smell oriented me to the room. I am at grandma’s house and I am on the old lumpy green divan, I told myself. I heard more glass breaking and wild animal screams coming from the kitchen. My body was still in emergency lockdown. I was both afraid to move and afraid to stay where I was. There were no footsteps on the stairs leading up to my grandma’s room and no creaking of old floorboards coming from the back of the house where Aunt T’s room was. My seven year old brain told me I was alone in the house with a wailing, breaking monster that had eaten everyone. The thought propelled me off the divan, my feet connected with the freezing floor, legs moving in jerky little stops and starts. I froze half way to the kitchen afraid the monster might smell me. I stood not breathing, eyes searching, I was across from the front door and the street lights created the silhouette of the window with a decal of the fighting Irishman on it and I thought for the kazillinth time that I didn’t understand why my Aunt T had a sticker of a leprechaun boxing on her front door. I wanted more than anything to not move from the spot halfway between the front door and the entrance to the kitchen. I wanted an adult to come and stop the screaming and the breaking glass but no one came. I moved toward the sound, crouched behind the entrance to the kitchen and peeked around the corner.
Lilian was there wild eyed, spittle flying from the O shape of her mouth. She was in a lacy nightgown, her feet bare, surrounded by broken china and as I watched she peed herself, filling the kitchen with a pungent, sickening smell. I remember thinking, but she’s an adult, adults don’t have accidents. I was still the only one there and no adults seemed to be coming. I made a move for the stairs which were on the opposite side of the entrance to the kitchen and Lilian turned, seeing me for the first time. Her eyes locked with mine and I wanted to run so bad but I was held there helpless looking into these black saucers of fear and rage. I don’t know if the idea came to me at that moment or if only the seed of the idea was planted and then silently grew in me over the years.
Crazy, I thought.
She is me.
The howling wounded thing I saw inside of her was inside of me.
Grandma came up behind me, grabbed me by the shoulders and moved me out of the way, she called 911, and an ambulance came and took Aunt Lilian away. They strapped her to the gurney and she screamed and screamed and screamed.
I have to tell you I don’t know how much of this is true and how much of it is the dark fairytale I have told myself so I can be absolved for being horrified and disgusted by her. I am the only one still alive who was there, and there is no one who can verify my version of events.
I was twelve the first time I tried to kill myself. I walked out of my bedroom, through the living room, past my parents and into the bathroom. I opened the medicine cabinet and took down every bottle. I lined up the bottles of pills and syrups on the bathroom sink. Mixed in with the prescription bottles were packages of Benadryl, bottles of Nyquil, aspirin, and Tylenol. I took everything and sat down on the edge of the tub and waited to die. I hoped I might have been lucky enough to get a bottle of Tylenol that had been laced with poison. This was in the early eighties and a couple of people had died from arsenic laced Tylenol so I knew there was hope. I don’t know how long I sat on the edge of the bathtub waiting to die, in the movies people just laid down and went to sleep and never woke up. I didn’t know what dying might be like, and I didn’t really think about what came after. I had proclaimed myself an atheist the year before and wanted to believe that death was nothing, an end to all things.
It began with heat that prickled through my body. My blood zinged through my veins with the crazy cocktail of twelve year old despair. I couldn’t breath and I started to panic, not because I might be dying but because my parents might find me dead on the bathroom floor and that was too embarrassing to contemplate. What if I shit myself?
I knew that the howling wounded thing I had recognized in Lilian had been growing in me and had taken root at the base of my pelvis and was spreading through me, gutting me, but my monster could not use her voice, could not make a sound, and choked silently on her howls of pain.
I started to shake, and the thrum of my blood was hot in my ears. I wanted to be in my bedroom but that meant going back through the living room, past my parents, maybe they would be too absorbed in whatever they were doing to notice. I reached out a shaky hand and grasped the door knob. The door rattled as I opened it. I walked out into the living room and froze as both my parents looked up at me.
My mom was reading Skinny Legs and All, by Tom Robbins, and she marked her place in the book with a finger and asked, “Why are you shaking?”
I don’t remember saying anything. My mom got up and looked in the bathroom.
“Bill, get in here.” She yelled and then at me, “how much did you take?”
I said nothing.
“How much did you take?”
One of them grabbed me and stuck their fingers down my throat. Tears streamed down my face, my nose inches from the water in the toilet as I gagged on my dad’s fingers but did not puke.
The night was spent in the ER barfing while my dad watched. He just stared at me like he didn’t know me, the silence and the secrets between us filled the curtained off space. When they admitted me to the hospital he left without saying a word and I imagined that he was relieved to not deal with me any longer. I sat in the dark in my hospital bed feeling wrung out and hollow. I was broken, worthless, and unlovable. I was an adult before I realized it was my dad’s shame that kept him from saying a word, it was his recognition of his part in my attempt that made him seem to look through me, but for too many years I thought it was me. That he was ashamed of me. That he was disappointed when I hadn’t died.
In the morning my mom showed up with my pediatrician. The doctor told me that they wanted to hold me “for observation for 72 hours.”
“Fuck off.” I said in a tight monotone.
“I want to go home.” I got out of bed and started putting on my cloths.
He tried to tell me how serious what I had done was.
“Fuck off.” was my only reply.
Later, in the car with my mom outside the hospital, she gripped the steering wheel, looked straight ahead and said, “I want you to see a therapist.”
“Fuck off.” I said and we never talked about it again.
It would be thirteen years before my second attempt. On my 25th birthday, I thought there was something poetic about taking your life on the anniversary of your birth. A month earlier the person I thought was the love of my life left me sobbing uncontrollably, balled up on the dining room floor. A few years earlier in the midst of an intense and all-consuming depression I had promised to end the fucking farce that was my life if it hadn’t improved by my 25th year.
The night of my birthday I sat alone on the couch in the house I rented with my sister. In my lap was a bottle of valium. Tori Amos’album, Boys for Pele had come out and I was listening to, Hey Jupiter, on a loop.
I stared down that bottle of valium; I would open it, pour them into , count the pillsthe cup of my hand, pour them back into the bottle and close it again. I did this all night, daring myself to swallow them until the sun came up, then I got up and threw the bottle away and made the decision that some things take care of themselves and death was one of those things. I went to my bedroom, flopped face first onto my bed and cried myself to sleep.
I thought I was losing my mind. The howling wounded thing had come to claim me like it had my Aunt Lilian but I never developed psychosis, no delusions of a religious nature, or voices that only I could hear, mine was just garden variety major depressive disorder. The therapist I had recently begun seeing during that time wanted me to be hospitalized for 72 hours, “for observation” so I left her office and never went back.
I wish I could tell you that I haven’t thought about suicide since that night or that I never came close to trying again. There was that time in my early thirties that I buckled a belt around my neck and tied it to the door knob.
When I think about suicide now I know it is shorthand for, “I am completely overwhelmed by the intensity of the emotional pain I am feeling right now.” and I remind myself that some things take care of themselves and death is one of those things. And then I remind myself to breathe and to feel and to stop fighting. I have learned to offer my howling wounded thing the same compassion and caring I would show to anyone else. And when I am sitting across from a client who is thinking about killing themselves this is the narrative woven behind, beneath, beside and through the words I speak aloud: “You are loved. You are valued. I see you. I will not judge you. I am here with you. I am not going anywhere. You are not broken. You are not a problem that needs fixing.”
I have been trying to bring some of the fragments of Aunt Lillian’s life together. There is so much that is just lost, empty spaces that make a cohesive narrative impossible. I wish I had overcome my fear and gotten to know Aunt Lilian before she died. When I am in The Dalles I visit her at the Catholic cemetery where she is buried with generations of my family going back to the 1850’s.
I don’t believe in fairy tales like heaven and hell, or purgatory and spirits who can hear you when you speak to them but when I visit her, I tell her I am sorry anyway, I tell her I wish I had been more brave.
Beth Cartino is a teller of tales and a listener of stories. Beth has a B.A. in Film and a Masters of Social Work. In her day job Beth works with folks experiencing severe and persistent mental illness. Beth’s writing has appeared in The Manifest Station and Nailed.