TW: Suicidal ideation
I was 9 the first time I thought about killing myself.
Actually, I might have been 8 or even 7, but I was 9 when I somehow, whether through quiet confession or angry threat I cannot remember, let my mother in on the fact that this was more than a “I wish I’d never been born” sort of thought, but an active, “I no longer want to live if this is my life and I’ve started thinking about how to make that happen” kind of thought process.
I was in 4th grade, an awkward geeky kid who was the designated victim and constantly teased and tormented by my peers – at least that’s what it felt like to me at the time. A lot of what went on would be handled differently now. Certainly the physical abuse and sexual harassment wouldn’t be tolerated in my 5th grader’s school. And a lot of the other stuff – the open name calling, the public humiliation – would be called out by good teachers. But in the early 1980s that was just “kids will be kids” stuff and the main response I received was that I needed to toughen up and learn to ignore it.
So at the age of 9, I was imagining how I might make it all end. Slitting my wrists? Hanging? Somehow getting my hands on a gun? I imagined how my peers would react and would drift off to sleep at night imagining my funeral and who would come and who would feel bad and who would recognize their part in creating the vortex that pulled me in and spit me out as a cold dead thing that was now tough enough to ignore and not react because it was incapable of it. Who would cry? Who would laugh? I had a catalog of all 40+ kids in 4th grade at my school and I had theories about them all.
I don’t know how much of this I told my mother. And like I said, I don’t actually remember the conversation or conversations that sparked her realization that I needed help. But she, to her credit, took me seriously and set up an appointment with a child psychologist.
This in itself was weird. The psychologist was the father of one of my classmates – as it happened, a boy I had a crush on and who didn’t really actively participate in my daily humiliation, but who was good friends with one of the ringleaders. In retrospect, this was horribly unethical – I would talk about these kids who might well be hanging out at his house the next weekend. When I talked about the kids who were grabbing my barely budding breasts or sticking their hands down my pants while singing nasty songs about me, he knew who those kids (mostly girls as it happened) were. Most likely, he had at least passing knowledge of their parents. He definitely knew the teachers – his son’s teachers – who stood by and either said nothing or snapped at me to be quiet and get back in line.
Is it any wonder I felt like there was no help to be had and no reason to keep trying?
But the therapy did help. If nothing else, it allowed me to let the genie out of the bottle without being told to stop crying and just ignore them. It allowed me to express my frustration and anger and sadness without judgment.Ethical questions aside, he was a good therapist, probably the only good therapy experience I’ve ever had, to be honest (which lends a certain irony to the fact that I’m married to a clinical psychologist). He gave me some good advice and I think probably gave my mom some as well, because things – while they didn’t get better, per se, got more tolerable after that. I see that time of my life mostly in snapshots, not in narrative, so I don’t know exactly what changed. I do know that we identified alternate reasons why I might be such a target, and people with whom I could try to forge alliances. And I know I had friends who were reliable, despite what my classmates would say when I would come back to school after days off with stress head and stomach aches.
It would be still years more before I started to recognize some of the possible “causes” aside from basic childhood cruelty. I was different – I was a smart outspoken girl, for one. I was proud of who I was underneath it all, which was quite possibly the difference between life and death in this scenario. I was also, although I didn’t have a word or even a conceptualization for it at the time, not entirely straight, which in retrospect, I wonder if some of those physically assaulting girls sensed. Hell, I may have even said things that were cues without realizing it, since I didn’t fully realize what was going on there myself. It wasn’t until high school that I even began to put a name to these feelings, but the sense that I didn’t necessarily differentiate between boys and girls in the same brightline way as my peers did, or as I was supposed to, was definitely there.
Obviously, I made it through. By my senior year of high school I had a niche, I had friends – some of whom might even be reading this – I had a boyfriend and a girl crush and a sense that I could become who I wanted. And as I try to think about what really got me through, I go back to that pride. Even when I felt like no one else outside of my family saw it, I knew I had value and my parents regularly reinforced that for me when I was less able to emphasize it for myself. I knew I had a future. And for me, I think, that made all the difference. I didn’t want to keep living elementary school, but I did, ultimately, want to keep living.
I can’t pretend to know what might help other kids. I was that achiever who, when given opportunities to shine, sought that brightness. Other kids don’t react in the same ways or have the same motivations. And I certainly don’t want to suggest that there is a single right way for a parent to respond, any more than there’s a single wrong way for kids to treat each other. If the answers were easy, we wouldn’t still have bullying problems or elementary school kids attempting suicide. We wouldn’t need things like the “It Get’s Better Project” or other programs to help kids and teens on the margins. As a parent now myself, I try to consciously listen. I try to build my kids up. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have bad days where I might tear them down a bit. And a chill goes through my heart when I hear my tween talk down about himself, because I don’t ever want him to be where I was.
I know there are no easy answers and I don’t want anyone to read this and think that I either have a one size fits all solution – Build Up Your Kids! – or that I’m suggesting that parents who have suffered the tragedy of having a child commit suicide somehow did something wrong. And I wish there were some sort of meaningful call to action that could neatly tie everything together. But there’s not. Other than to talk about it and maybe learn from each other and to listen to what our kids have to tell us.
Featured image courtesy of Flickr user h.koppdelaney.