Are many of you like me, seized-- in the overwhelming, often blaring joyful tidings of the Christmas season—by sadness? Sadness seems too mild a word. Melancholia—that nineteenth century condition seems more apt, struck by black bile, paralyzed by a pensive, brooding, interior heavy-heartedness. Oh sure, on the outside, I am zipping around the house, setting up Christmas decorations—the mini-tree, with the oh-so cutesy, diminutive ornaments and blinky lights in the window, the garish lit-up Snowman from Big Lots eyes me from the corner of the den, the fancy pine branch, holly berry garland swagged (I read my trendy Home Décor magazines) across the mantle--wrapping presents (which I have selected with care, precision, and utmost surety that they WILL be perfect for the recipient) at warp speed, am baking cookies, cookies, cookies for teachers, cheerfully reading my kids Christmas books each evening about lost reindeer, puppies who fill-in for reindeer, and stray puppies who are wrapped up in red bows and heroically save Christmas.But I am pulled under it all into melancholia. On Monday, home from a very contemplative yoga class--but for some reason, I felt close to tears during the entire ninety minutes, despairing might not be far off. I don't really know why. My sister's family Christmas photo certainly might have had something to do with it—a picture of their happily soon-to-be expanding family. She is expecting her third child in January, so looks beautifully, wondrously pregnant. My weak, sad spot. My longing for a third child a deep, unresolved, never-to-be hope. I know that it is impossible to have another child. I can barely hang onto stability and health with two children and I am so blessed to have my two, a miracle that I am still able to be their mother after all I have been through, after all I have put them through. But still. A third child was part of our dream—mine and Christopher’s. Granted, a dream we have given up—but the memory of that dream still lingers.
And then the sadness over how much of my life has been taken from me by IT—whether through experiences and trauma and choice or through my own luck of the genetic draw. My siblings seem to have escaped the genetic/bio-chemical encoding fuck-ups (Maybe there are some gifts with being Bipolar and genetically programed to be more likely to have an Eating disorder? Tis’ the season right?) I know that they have their own struggles and entanglements to contend with, but the luck of the genetic draw often leads me to despair in this season of stockings hung from the fireplace. I think back to our stockings lined up as kids: Mine, my sister’s, my brother’s. Not that I’m complaining, or railing with the “Why Me's?” Okay, maybe just a little. It seems my stocking got stuffed with more than its fair share of the biologically-based DSM diagnoses. Couldn’t I have gotten more strawberry lip gloss, My Little Ponies, and Big League Chew?
And the onslaught of forced cheer which I actively resist? I tolerate the awful Christmas music in stores with my lips pressed (barely tolerate in the case of music sung by current pop stars under the age of 18, or attempted angelic arias by Mariah Carey showing off her Christmas bum). I do not wear pom-pommed holiday sweaters (even ironically or in attempts to look wittily retro). I do not indulge in sentimental Christmas movies with their easily achieved epiphanies of redemption and family healing and often proffered sparkly engagement rings.
Really, I’m not the Grinch. I enjoy finding gifts that will be meaningful. I watch people shop in Target or TJ Maxx, blindly throwing sweaters and scarves and body butters and golf ball cleaners into their carts, just to check people off the lists, just to get the shopping done. Where’s the joy in that? Maybe it speaks to my perfectionism and my obsessive-compulsiveness, but I do derive authentic pleasure in finding what I hope is the right gift for each person.
For instance, and keep this just between us, one of Sophia’s gifts this year: You know she’s an animal lover. To put it a wee bit mildly. Pittsburgh is home to the National Aviary and at the end of December they host Penguin Camp. A day she’ll spend hanging out with live penguins, feeding and caring for them. Of course, penguins stink, literally, but she won’t mind that given the fact that she’s a girl who has no problem whacking an octopus twenty times against a rock to tenderize it, or hanging out in the cat room at the Humane Society which houses the litter boxes of twenty cats (try that for stink!). She’ll pee her pants when she opens the card. Really. She pees her pants when she plays with the dogs at the shelter because she gets so excited—so a day of penguin play? This wasn’t a gift on her list. In fact, this isn’t even a gift she knows exists, which is the best part. A gift straight from the North Pole. Or South Pole, or wherever penguins live.
So while I’m on the subject of gifts, I have my own to give away. One Dr. B. has asked me to give to my loved ones this Christmas. We’ve been talking about it this week at my sessions. He’d like me, if I’m ready, to give up what he calls my hand grenade. For too long, I have been holding on to the option of suicide, an open-ended option that I have clung to ever since I made my first attempt at nine with that bottle of multi-colored, candy-flavored Flintstone vitamins.
Dr. B. asked me to think about and weigh the costs and benefits of holding onto and giving up my hand grenade.
It is difficult to rationally and emotionally come up with a good reason for keeping this option right now, even as an emergency-only option, as I’m sitting in front of the fire, warm under a blanket, my giant, crazy, manic Labrador Retriever, Athena, passed out beside me, head resting on my leg, listening to the kids running around upstairs—they should be in bed (my bed), but aren’t, and are now running downstairs to find me—which they wouldn’t be able to do if I happened to choose suicide.
So pause—back again. Sophia wanted to show me the birds she is drawing, expertly, from Petersen’s Field Guide: a cardinal perched on a branch. She complained the wing wasn’t to size but I thought it was ornithologically perfect. Alexander made me a Christmas card, a tree decorated in Star Wars themed ornaments and wrapped up a key chain he made for me this past summer at camp—a smiley face, his. How is it possible for me to even imagine holding onto this option in light of this? Their love and need for me? Their creativity and gifts?
Obviously, in moments like these, there is no need. But there are other moments when I am a mother who wreaks damage, a wife who uses up her third and fourth and, my fear of what is to come, her last chance. If I am presented with permanent hospitalization. If finally I am told that I have used up all my chances. If Christopher finally tells me he has reached his end and I have damaged him and the kids in such a way that I have to leave. Then really, there is no reason to continue because the only reason I am fighting IT, the only reason I keep trying, can will myself to stay afloat these days, is because of Christopher and the kids, not for myself. If I am left alone, which is what I fear—where I imagine this conflagration of disorders might possibly take me—then there is no logical, possible, arguable reason for me to continue this fight. I alone am not worth it: at least, that is what IT continues to argue. I alone don’t matter enough to me. And because there have been many times in the past few years where Christopher and the kids should have mattered enough to keep me on even keel—and that hasn’t been enough? I don’t trust that this forward progression in recovery is iron-clad. So if I collapse again—not saying I will, but if—and I know it will be the end-of-the-line for Christopher, then I need to know that I won’t be left to me, myself, I and IT. I can put an end to my being that hand-grenade in other people’s lives.
The benefits of giving up this option:
I suppose the primary one is the fundamental aim which I am trying to wrestle with: that I am inherently worthy, valuable, lovable—and that to continue to keep suicide as an emergency option undermines this work and I will never come to believe that my life is worth saving or redeeming. If I say, “No, Not Ever, I will Never Ever consider or attempt suicide again (even inside the walls of a state hospital, even if Christopher and the kids leave me), it means that what I still have left is hope. Hope. That four-letter word which has been such an anathema to me for so long. I had to look up the definitions of Hope again. It’s a word that gets tossed around, its subtleties missed.
Definition of HOPE
1: to cherish a desire with anticipation
2: to desire with expectation of obtainment
3: to expect with confidence: trust
4: to hope without any basis for expecting fulfillment
Def. 1: I think I’ve lost my connection to the idea of “cherishing a desire with anticipation.” I lack so few desires these days, wait with so little anticipation for anything. This version of Hope seems tied to AA’s “Promises” where they lay down what you can expect from your life if you follow AA’s plan—all the good things that will be given to you if you adhere to the AA WAY. It will all just be given unto you. Like a piñata’s free-fall of candy.
Okay—another pause. I’m now writing this in bed. Kids are scared, so I’m lying between them, typing. Sophia curled up against one side of me, Alexander against the other side. A pretty good anti-grenade defense weapon.
Def. 2: I have difficulty with this definition as well. I don’t trust that I can achieve permanent stability, that the medication cocktail for the Bipolar Disorder that is working right now will work ad infinitum, that I can achieve permanent recovery from this eating disorder, that I will ever function like a normal, healthy, sexual adult woman (i.e., all past trauma will be healed), so I have lost the ability to desire, with any expectation, the obtainment of anything.
Def. 3: Again, ditto. Holding onto this option of suicide prevents me from expecting anything with confidence. Expectation = A Future Possibility. Suicide as an option nullifies the expectation of allowing me to anticipate future possibility
Def. 4: This definition, though, is one that seems a perfect fit. Hope without any basis of fulfillment. Hope that seems to go against my distorted reason. Hope that rails against IT (which sounds, to my screwed up logic, more truthful than actual reality). Hope that says, “Even if all seems lost, even if it might seem like suicide is the right answer to end your pain now, even if you believe you have caused irreparable damage to others, you can still cling to this kind of hope—the kind that doesn’t promise anything but a single, potential, barely possible, improbable turnaround. Like the planet 22-b that the Kepler telescope just discovered 600 light years away, in the “habitable zone”—that may be like earth, that seems like it might support conditions like those on earth, life—maybe, maybe, maybe—but really, we’ll probably never know in our lifetime.
Other benefits? That I owe it to my children to stay here no matter what. And to Christopher. That “in sickness and in health” pledge was not just about staying by his side, but my staying here, too, in my own sickness and health.
That I won’t have any accidental attempts—i.e., not that they would be unintentional, but that they wouldn’t be impulsive. I know how easily I can react when my moods start slipping and sliding.
That I might be able to trust more in my own long term recovery, seeing and planning beyond weeks and months, to years.
By extension, those who I love and those who love me back might have less anxiety and worry for me.
What has suicide-as-an-option cost me over the years?
From my first attempt at age 9 with the bottle of Flintstone vitamins until present, holding onto the option, keeping the plans tucked away in my head for “when the time comes”—a great deal of shame, loneliness, and isolation. If I counted all the hours up, likely years, spent ruminating inside my head—fantasizing, planning out different scenarios, arguing back and forth. The ease at which self-harm leads to suicidal thinking and then attempts—the slippery slope. The humiliation at waking up in ICU’s several times—the anger, too—at having been saved. Having to deal with the anger and incomprehension and mistrust of those who love me in the wake of an attempt. Concealing attempts, lying about them, never talking about them—burying them—holding them inside of me for years and years, feeling alone with IT, all which only increases the likelihood that I will try again. All the evidence of practice sessions—the scars on my arms—which beckon me to follow through the next time, to make it real, to go all the way. The humiliation of being “saved” by security officers, police officers, hospital workers—of being locked up in safe rooms, under 24 hour, round-the-clock watch. Of knowing how much I have damaged Christopher—what must it feel like to know the person you love has chosen death over you? The merry-go-round effect of the obsessional thoughts—up and down and all around—IT’s voice urging me to hurt myself, to kill myself because I am hateful, vile, damaging, terrible, a monster—all the black curtains drawn around me, all the beauty and possibility of the world, or my life closed off.
If suicide is an option, then what does it matter if I am hurt by others, abused by others? Just another version of the same thing—maybe I can push them far enough to do me in in the meantime. Just like the eating disorder—passive (or active) suicide. No need for pills or razors or knives or the car in the garage or the car aimed at the tree. It is costing me my life already. The grenade has already gone off and shrapnel has wounded me and those who love me.
So Dr. B. asked me to give away this option of suicide as a Christmas gift to my loved ones. To tell them that I will no longer keep this in my arsenal of weapons. That as bad as it might get—and I know how bad it can get—I will promise to see myself through to the other side which is life. To keep living and keep on living. To hold on to Hope (see Def. 4).
So you won’t see this gift on the rack at TJ Maxx, or wrapped in a tidy package under the tree. And certainly, no Christmas jingle will be accompanying it. But my gift to my loved ones and to myself this Christmas is this promise: I will renounce my ties to suicide, surrender my right to this option and yield to a life of Hope. My stocking hanging from the mantle, beside Christopher's, Sophia's, and Alexander's, stuffed from toe to top, overflowing with Hope.