Editor’s Note: If you struggle with self harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following story may potentially be triggering. You can contact Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741 from anywhere in the U.S.
A few weeks ago, I was at the health center talking to a counselor I had never seen before because I desperately needed a therapy session but my usual counselor was unavailable. We ended up talking about not just my past experiences but also my past self, and then doing a little imagination exercise where I pretended my 16-year-old self was sitting in the room with us. What would I say to her? I had been thinking about her a lot at that point. I’m 21 now, but leading up to that hour in the counselor’s office I had been unable to shake the feeling that my teenage self was still out there in the cosmos somewhere, screaming and crying and wondering if anyone could hear her. In that moment, looking at the empty chair across from me – I know how this sounds, but I really felt like she was there. I tried to look at the counselor as I was talking, but my eyes kept wandering back to that empty chair.
So, what did I tell her? Well, first and foremost I figured we’d have a good laugh that we’re meeting again in a counselor’s office. Typical us! After that, I decided there was really only one thing I needed her to hear from me: I forgive her. I’m not angry at her. I’m not disappointed, I don’t blame her. In fact, I love her quite a lot. She did the best she could with a shitty situation and a brain that kept sabotaging her every time she tried to make things better. I wouldn’t be here without her. I hear her, finally, after so many years of her yelling out into the darkness and hoping for an answer. She wished for someone to understand and tell her they love her anyway. I felt like I owed it to her to try to send her that answer, and I hope that somehow the message got to her.
The interesting thing is that since then, I haven’t been thinking about her so much. I think we have finally let go of each other, for better or worse. As I walked out of the counselor’s office that day, I felt a strange sort of finality, like I could feel her presence slipping away from me. Maybe that means we both got what we needed.
Now if you’ll bear with me, I will tell you a little about that girl I used to be.
When people ask me now about high school, I usually laugh and tell them they’re lucky they didn’t know me then. I don’t think they would have wanted to. I sure wouldn’t want to. But I’m not here to tell you that what I went through was the pinnacle of human suffering. It wasn’t. I’m not here to make mental illness sound glamorous and poetic. It’s not. It freaking sucks. The only time it’s glamorous is — trust me on this — if your mind is ill enough to think it is. I share my story with friends because I want them to know where I’m coming from and I want them to understand me as fully as possible. I share my story here and now in the hopes that someone might find some comfort in it.
I grew up in a pretty stable household consisting of just me and my parents and my dog. Being the only child, I was the main focus of my parents’ attention, all day every day. That was usually fine, but now and then it got overwhelming and I’d wish for another kid in the house to deflect a little of the attention away from me. My mom had her fair share of issues before I came along, but they seemed to flare up again while I was in my “teen angst” years. We often unwittingly (or not) reinforced each other’s demons and hurt each other, which has had lasting repercussions for our relationship. Since then, though, she has really impressed me by taking steps to fix things both within herself and with those around her. I do see a future for us, one that involves love instead of hurt. My dad was a steady, grounding presence throughout my formative years. We have always gotten along exceptionally well, and especially now that I’m a “real” adult, I think I can say that my dad and I are not just family but great friends too. Back in my salad days, he did an admirable job of striking a balance between indulging my childhood whimsy – for example, staging a talent show with all my plastic action figures, helping me write silly songs about green goop and rainbow rivers, or playing endless rounds of Super Smash Brothers on my GameCube – and treating me with the same respect and honesty he would treat another adult.
Eventually, though, the days of action figure talent shows ended and I became a middle schooler. Seventh grade found me in a small private school, where I stayed for the next six years until graduation. The first two years were fine, so I think we can skip over those without fear of omitting any huge plot points. Fast forward to the end of 9th grade, when I self-harmed for the first time. It was a tiny cut, barely a scratch, because I was stressed out about planning some get-together. I was freaking out and needed some kind of physical pain to ground me, so I reached for this little pair of scissors I kept with my nail polish. It did what I wanted it to do; that is, it stopped my brain from going a million miles an hour, but that fleeting peace of mind came at the cost of starting me down a path that would take years to bounce back from. The day I made that first cut was one that I treated as a day of mourning for years after that. It was certainly not The Most Traumatic Moment of My Life™ but, regardless, it really did change everything.
From then on it was a steady descent into the dual hell of all-consuming anxiety and all-consuming depression. It’s some kind of screwed up joke that your life can be ruled by both anxiety and depression simultaneously. You’ve got half of your brain screeching at you that EVERYTHING MATTERS AND THIS TINY MISTAKE WILL PLAGUE YOU FOR THE REST OF YOUR EXISTENCE – WHICH – BY THE WAY – HAS BEEN RENDERED WORTHLESS BY THAT MISTAKE I JUST MENTIONED!!!! and the other half is lamenting, oh…gosh…don’t you just wish you were…dead…instead of going through the motions of this meaningless existence…? I mean it sounds kind of goofy when I say it like that, but it was quite bizarre – not to mention absolutely exhausting and confusing. Some days anxiety would be dominant, some days it was depression. Sometimes one would stick around for a few months, and then eventually I’d notice that my depression had ebbed away a little bit…but my anxiety had skyrocketed. In the depression periods, I wrote in my journal about how I felt like someone had poured concrete into my rib cage. It was the only way I could put into words the heaviness that I felt every moment of every day. Breathing felt like a struggle because my chest just felt so heavy. I had trouble standing back up if I sat down for longer than a few seconds. I wouldn’t have been surprised if you’d told me parts of my psyche had rusted due to lack of use. If it was a “good” day, I’d manage to sit on the little couch in my room, but often I ended up on the floor listening to the same sad song on repeat for an hour, my head in my hands. In the anxiety periods, I was more likely to turn to things like self-harm, drinking, and other forms of self-medication to try to shut my brain up.
By my junior year of high school, things had gotten really dismal. I was veering towards teenage alcoholism. If you invited me to a party, you had best be prepared for me to end up puking in your bathroom. I couldn’t do school very well anymore. I’d skip classes to cry in empty classrooms, or, just as often, I’d give up completely and cry in plain sight. I cut almost every day. At a certain point, it became routine to the point of seeming like no big deal. “It’s just what I do,” I told myself. Most of my noticeable scars today date back to that period. I was so lost inside my own world of suffering and, what’s worse, I was completely unwilling to let go of that oh-so-familiar suffering and give “recovery” a try. I had no concept of how I was treating other people, or how my treatment of myself affected other people. My head was just somewhere else. For a good two- or three-month block of 11th grade, I spent most of my conscious hours desperately wishing for death. When I wasn’t wishing I was dead, I was berating myself for “not having the guts” to kill myself. I was in so much emotional pain that I truly could not fathom allowing myself to keep living that way. Recovery was out of the question, as I didn’t believe myself capable of it. I didn’t see a future for myself, unless that future ended in my self-inflicted death. I felt like a failure, like a waste of a life, like a burden. In my eyes, suicide was the only reasonable option.
Now I’m going to say something a little surprising, considering I just spent a few sentences emphasizing my death wish. Even at the time, I think I knew that deep down (I mean, deep, deep down) I didn’t really want to die. The thing that I really wanted was relief from the bleak place my mind had become. I wanted to escape myself. And it just so happened that the simplest way for me to conceive of that was death. So, on a cold Tuesday night in February of my junior year, when I gulped down a load of cough syrup and anti-anxiety pills, my reasoning was not so much a straight death wish, but more along the lines of: Ok, I know this little stunt isn’t gonna kill me. But maybe it’ll at least fuck me up enough for me to forget about all this for a while. Maybe I can finally get some peace and quiet. It was only as I went from woozy to woozier to barely-still-conscious that I realized this looked an awful lot like a suicide attempt.
Spoiler alert: I woke up the next morning feeling entirely normal and alive, if a little lightheaded and mildly horrified at myself. I went on with my life (or what passed for “life” at the time) and told almost no one what had happened. It wasn’t until a couple months later, in April, that people around me became seriously concerned for my safety. A friend of mine did something that I now affectionately refer to as “ratting me out.” Don’t worry, she’s still one of my best friends today and I’m very grateful she ratted me out when she did. Long story short, I ended up in the ER on the orders of my high school guidance counselor (though she would probably be more accurately called my real-life guardian angel), and the psych team at the ER recommended I participate in partial hospitalization starting the following week.
I had been in partial hospitalization once before, in 10th grade, for five days or so. It was not super helpful, as I was there for such a short time and I was by far the youngest person there at 16 years old. This time was different. I spent three weeks at a satellite branch of a Massachusetts mental hospital with an excellent reputation. It was, and I do not throw this sentiment around lightly, the thing that made my life stop getting worse and start getting better. It armed me with a toolbox full of skills, acronyms, and exercises for when I started feeling out of control. I was always a pretty self-aware person, and I think that’s part of the reason why I’m still alive and well today, but this hospitalization experience enhanced my ability to understand myself and, even more miraculously, helped me learn to be compassionate towards myself.
In the three and a half years since then, things have been better. It has not been a linear process and god knows there have been almost as many setbacks as there have been successes. There have been some crappy nights even within the last few months that I think could rival my worst nights in high school, and believe me, I still cry a lot. There have been some very frantic and upset journal entries and some days where I walk around feeling like someone is squeezing all my internal organs and I’m likely to have a heart attack and drop dead any second. The difference is that now those days don’t have to be anything more than that: bad days. I’m pleased to say that I feel more like myself now than I ever have before. I try to treat myself (teenage self included!) with kindness and gentleness when I can, and I try to find the support and validation I need within myself instead of searching for it in external forms. I write bad poetry, I go for walks, I look at the stars. I remember that the only person who’s been with me through everything, who has always been there to pick me up off the floor, bandage my wounds, and tuck me into bed – is me.
So there you go. I wish I could tell all of this to my 16-year-old self. After writing this, not only do I stand by all my sentiments from earlier, but I think I’d like to add something. I’m so proud of her. Looking back, I wouldn’t and couldn’t have done anything differently. Yeah, some of it sucked a lot. Some of it was really pathetic and embarrassing. Some of it felt like being kicked in the stomach over and over. But, hey, we made it. I’m here today thanks to my past self who somehow had the resilience and the bravery to keep going through those countless moments she wished she didn’t have to. If she could see me now, I think she’d agree it was worth it. This is my message in a bottle to her, if she is still out there in some parallel universe or if she can hear me through a wormhole: I forgive you. I love you. I’m proud of you.
Written by Lanie Plueddemann