Tree Branches and Deep Ditches

by Katherine

****TRIGGER WARNING: This post includes discussions of suicide, self-harm/-mutilation/-injury, and mental illness.****

Things hit me like like a bullet train to the chest.  Emotions–good, bad, fantastic, horrifying.  I will be making a sandwich or taking a shower or pumping gas while Steph beats the steering wheel with her drumsticks and sings along with Sleater-Kinney, and all of a sudden, with no real warning, the wind will be knocked out of me and I’ll feel waves of some strong, potent emotion that I was not anticipating.

Lately, the emotional bullet trains have been good, positive, wonderful, exhilarating.  It’ll feel like someone has suddenly injected me with some sort of drug, giving me a wonderful, warm, comforting high.  This happens a lot when I’m around Steph, or I’m thinking really positive thoughts about how getting through last spring has made me a stronger person.  It feels amazing when I’m struck with these strong emotions, especially because I’m otherwise a big ball of anxiety.  The good moments of clarity and happiness balance out, if not outweigh, my anxiety attacks.

This is in stark contrast to last spring, when my depression was in full swing and was at the worst it has ever been (and, hopefully, ever will be).  I felt those bullet trains then, too, but they were anything but positive.  They were full of deep despair, hopelessness, and red-hot waves of self-hatred.  And even before things got really bad, they plagued me every day.  I would be sitting in class, listening carefully and taking notes, and then I’d glance out the window and see a few trees across campus and suddenly wonder how hard it would be to swing a noose up one of the thick branches so that I could hang myself.  I’d be driving in my car, on the way back to my apartment, listening to the radio.  Something interesting, low-key, non-threatening.  The Diane Rehm show, the classical station, one of my Harry Potter soundtracks.  And then I’d suddenly find myself considering the pros and cons of slamming my foot on the gas, steering the car off the road into a deep ditch filled with tall, solid tree trunks.  Or I’d be in the midst of a binge at home, eating large orders of french fries with a side gallon of ice cream and cake, lots of cake, and I’d get the urge to go to the drugstore and fill my basket with dozens of over-the-counter bottles of pills.  Add those to the large stash of prescription antidepressants and anxiety medications and sleep aids I had been diligently collecting for several months already.  I would swallow them all before my alter of food, and I never worried that someone would find my stinking corpse tipped over on the couch, my face in a bowl of clumped, dried spaghetti, vomit all over the offerings I had made to myself that hadn’t worked.  All the cake in the world, all the peanut butter cups, all the gallons of ice cream couldn’t up my dopamine enough to pull me through the night.  It had to be the pills.

But I was scared of pain, the physical pain I knew would come along with the suicide, the last agonizing moments before death.  I was especially frightened that I would begin feeling regret before I slipped away, that I would change my mind after it was too late; the drugs would make my hand too heavy, I wouldn’t be able to dial 9-1-1.  I wouldn’t be able to wiggle out of a noose hanging from a tree, I couldn’t eject myself safely from the car right before impact.  And I had concerns about my family, too.  Guilt, the guilt that eats me alive and has helped drag me down into the darkness, also helped keep me from killing myself.  I thought about what my suicide would do to my family, and the impulses would go away.  At least they did at first.  There came a point when I was rationalizing suicide so well for myself, using my interest in theoretical physics to spin crazy, radical assurances to myself that this was all meaningless, that there are an infinite parallel versions of myself, that I don’t matter.  I have existed before, I will exist again, over and over and over again.

So all that was left, really was the fear of pain.  And these sudden waves of suicidal ideation and darkness melded into my day and night.  It was constant.  So I took apart a Gillette razor and ran the thin blades across my left arm.  The underside, at first, and tentatively.  The bite was almost too much, but it was enough to allow me to feel the release that was inevitable afterward.  It became the only thing that would quiet my thoughts of suicide.  It would quiet ALL of my thoughts.  It would do what binging used to do for me: I’d forget everything, I’d become numb, it was almost like meditation.  I would focus on the blade, the cuts, the pain, the blood, and nothing else.  I usually felt out of my body while I mutilated my left arm.  Everything was surreal.  I’d stare at my arm, then let the cuts bleed for a bit while I stared at the television.  I’d binge at the same time, too.  I’d binge and cut and stare at the television, binge and cut and stare at the television, binge and cut and stare at the television.  I spent every evening for two weeks like this, before I was forced into the hospital by my therapist at the university.

The cutting, at its peak (which was also the end of it), was less cutting than gouging and stabbing.  The physician who examined me at the partial hospitalization program, who ended up reporting me to my psychiatrist and CSW, was stunned.  She held my arm in her hands for a long time before saying anything.  She works in a psychiatric hospital, so of course she has seen worse, but I think the fact that I hid the pain so well, that I dressed in a smart cardigan and clean clothes and washed hair and had rosy cheeks and a polite smile, threw her off.  I did not look sullen or severely depressed or suicidal.  I hid it so well.  Many people hide it just as well, if not better.  It becomes an art form.  **I want to say here that this is something you should always remember before you make jokes about shrinks or crazy people or asylums–you have no idea if you’re in the company of someone who is struggling in silence.

When I think about all this, the feelings I have are very complicated.  I feel fortunate, of course, that I’m still here, alive and well, recovering.  I still feel some shock, too.  I never would have imagined, in the midst of all of that crap, that I’d make it through.  I feel happiness, gratitude, relief.  I feel lucky.  But I also feel trepidation, a little  fear.  I say with confidence, all the time, that it will never get that bad again.  I will never slip that far down again; I have a real support network now.  I am surrounded by people who are aware of my past and present struggles with mental illness.  Each time I’ve gone to be treated, asking for help has gotten easier, so I am hopeful it will be even easier next time.  But that’s the thing!  Next time.  Who am I to say it won’t happen again?  I should be the last person on earth to make such a promise, since this has been happening on and off since my adolescence.  I should know better.  I do know better.  But even when I’m at my worst, there’s one emotion that never completely disappears: optimism.  Even when I was slicing my skin apart and watching the blood pool up from the fat and layers of skin and then down my arm and onto the paper towels I kept nearby, the stubborn little piece of optimism stayed with me, unyielding, like a rock in your shoe that you can never shake out.

Anyway.  I didn’t start this post expecting to write as much as I did, or to delve that far into my mental illness.  But I need to learn how to talk about all of this.  I won’t be able to heal, or to even walk into a therapist’s office once I have health insurance again, if I’m not prepared to talk about these things without breaking down.  Typing it is so easy, actually.  If I had to sit in front of someone and relay all of this information to them, orally, I wouldn’t make it through a paragraph without tears, or through two paragraphs without being choked into silence by the anxiety.  Not even with Steph.  But typing it all out?  A relief, truly.

I am hopeful, forever hopeful.