It was the winter of my junior year of high school. I don’t remember the exact date. It might have been around Christmas, because my grandmother was visiting. I know I was sixteen, because I had my driver’s license. And it was after the accident that totaled my car. I was on my way to school, stopped to turn into a gas station, left-turn signal flashing. A car driven by my English teacher plowed into the back of mine at 35 MPH. And then the next car hit hers, pushing her into mine again. I was rear-ended twice.
The accident caused me severe whiplash resulting in neck, shoulder, and back pain that would recur for the rest of my life. I know this because on the night of my suicide attempt, I took a total of forty muscle relaxers and pain pills prescribed for me after the accident.
Clue #1: I was in physical pain and in emotional pain from the loss of my first car—my baby blue 1957 Studebaker Golden Hawk. My pride and joy!
And there was a boy. My boyfriend from the previous year had moved away, back to Mississippi. We were trying to maintain the relationship through letters and occasional phone calls, but it was difficult. I missed him.
Socially, I was a misfit. Having grown up an Army brat, only settling into Mesquite, Texas the summer before eighth grade, I came late to the party. Shy and awkward, I had exactly two friends I hung out with, Carolyn and Patty. Patty “broke up” with me later that year, breaking my heart forever, but I know we were still friends because I called her that night.
Clue #2: I was lonely and somewhat isolated.
Academically, I was an average student not living up to my “potential.” Having attended a total of twenty-two schools before winding up at Mesquite High School, I didn’t have a solid foundation in any subject. I also had undiagnosed dyscalculia. It’s like dyslexia, only I reversed numbers instead of letters. I’d struggled with math since third grade and it got worse every year. Looking back now, it could also explain why I was so terrible in history—absolutely unable to memorize dates. I loved to read, but I’ve always been a slow reader. Homework assignments took hours longer for me than for my classmates. I worked very hard for average grades.
Clue #3: School was extraordinarily stressful.
I could draw well and I wrote the occasional story or poem born of adolescent angst, but there was never recognition of my artistic talent. Were there art classes at Mesquite High School? Both my parents were frustrated artists—my mom a writer, Daddy a musician and painter. Both my brothers were talented musicians.
Clue #4: I was an artist with all the attending emotional complexity, without an outlet or community.
Mama worked full-time as a bookkeeper to support the family while Daddy was a traveling salesman always looking for the next big deal. Daddy also “kited” checks and kept us teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Every afternoon I was the one who fended off calls from debt collectors and I lost count of the cars repossessed from our driveway in the dead of night. I also was responsible for my younger brother, Joe, after school every day and for doing housekeeping chores and starting dinner.
Clue #5: My home life was a mess and I carried too much responsibility.
The summer before my suicide attempt my uncle sexually molested me. Although my grandmother and mother knew, this issue was never addressed in any way.
Clue #6: I carried the trauma and shame of my abuse.
Then, there is the matter of genetics. My mother suffered from anxiety disorder and panic attacks. She frequently had heart palpitations and had to be rushed to the hospital. My father had a history of depression and at least one instance of suicidal behavior that I’m aware of. Looking back at his excessive spending, grandiosity, and impulsivity, I recognize he might have even been bi-polar.
Just as I inherited the best and worst of each of my parents’ talents and personality traits—creativity, restlessness, and responsibility—I also inherited my mom’s tendency toward anxiety and my father’s tendency toward depression. It’s a good bet I had both going on when I was sixteen.
Clue #7: I had a family history of psychological/emotional disorders.
All in all, I struggled darkly.
I don’t remember the day or the hours leading up to my attempt. I remember sitting on my bed and calling Patty on my Princess phone. I told her what I was going to do. We chatted for a few minutes and hung up. If I was reaching out for help, I chose the wrong person. Patty didn’t try to talk me out of it and she didn’t call my parents. I may have waited awhile to see, or not. I don’t remember taking the pills, but I took all forty.
The next thing I remember is being in the hallway, crawling toward the bathroom. My grandmother found me and helped me make it to the toilet where I vomited for what seemed like forever. The liquid was hot, harsh, and bitter—the medicinal smell unmistakable. Afterwards, she wiped my face with a damp washrag and helped me back to bed. The next morning I was back in school, as though nothing had ever happened. Patty never said anything and I didn’t either. Grandma never said anything and I never knew if she told my parents, because they never said anything. It was if it never happened.
Clue #8: I had been well-taught not to talk about anything personal or shameful and anything deemed “unspeakable” was considered shameful.
As a clinical psychologist, I recognize the girl described above as one at high risk for another suicide attempt—especially factoring in the developmental overlay of hormonal changes (mood swings, impulsivity). She was also active in church and deeply religious, which would exacerbate her feelings of shame and guilt. Her score on adolescent suicide-assessment protocols would be off the charts.
But, because there was no mention of what I’d done, there was no intervention. There might have been school counselors, but I wasn’t aware of therapists of any kind. Even if one had been provided for me, I might not have talked. Or maybe I would have. Maybe everything would have come flooding out in an uncontrollable torrent of words and tears and snot and rage. Maybe that was what I was terrified would happen if I broke the unspoken code of silence—that once I started the purge I wouldn’t be able to stop. Instead, I buried my shame deep inside and have carried it with me for almost fifty years—until now.
***Please watch for my next blog post, coming soon, where I will share how I made it to the other side.