Today is World Suicide Prevention Day, so I am reposting this. Suicide is a painful topic. It’s an uncomfortable topic, especially in the Black community. “Weak” and “crazy” are adjectives that were thrown at me after my very nearly successful attempt to end my life back in my 20s. That was so long ago I don’t even recognize that person anymore. She is so far removed from the woman who survived and went on to become the person I am today.
But I do recognize this:
- Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among young people, and tenth-leading cause of death in the US.
- Every year in the US, more people die by suicide than in car accidents.
- More suicide deaths occur in the US than homicide and AIDS deaths combined. (Source: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline)
This is a part of all I am, and I’m claiming it. You never know what someone else is going through. Please let’s all try to judge less, listen more, and love unconditionally.
Nearly 25 years before I stood next to the President of the United States in the Oval Office of the White House, I lay in a hospital ICU bed with my wrists restrained. This is that story. It is a disturbing story, but one that, I hope, will have meaning.
Today marks the workday beginning of National Teacher Appreciation Week. Ten years ago this week, I was on my way to Washington, DC. I was going to DC as a National State Teacher of the Year – a designation that belongs to every single teacher out there as far as I’m concerned, and one that I certainly did not deserve any more than other teachers. I just got lucky in my fifth year of my second career.
My week in DC included having lunch at the Vice President’s residence, hosted by educator and wife of the then-Vice President, Dr. Jill Biden. There were dinners and meetings at the Dept. of Education. And then there was the Oval Office meeting with President Barack Obama. Each of the 51 teachers had a brief, individual meeting with the President, complete with photo op. Words cannot adequately describe that moment. Some teachers cried. Others fainted. All of us hoped for a glimpse of First Lady Michelle Obama.
Cell phone recordings and photos were not allowed (though some rule-breakers – not I, unfortunately – sneaked them in anyway). The moment you step foot in the Oval Office of the White House everything becomes a surreal blur. I was warned beforehand by previous honorees to be sure to take time to look around the room and take in every detail of this storied office, “because you’ll never again in life have the chance to see it.” This was the last place I ever thought I’d be.
We had to wait in line for our turn with the President of the United States. Handlers lined us up outside, in the smoldering heat and humidity, according to, of all things, our height. I was very last, thanks to being 6’2” in my heels, and by the time it was finally my turn to step into the Oval Office, my freshly done hair had wilted and my nerves had erased everything I’d planned to say to the leader of our country. All I managed to spit out initially was, “Hello, Mr. President! I guess I’m the tallest teacher in the land!” Oh. My. God. I eventually got it together enough to hand him a book of advice my third-grade students had written for him, and he was gracious enough to suggest taking two photos together, one with the book (which I broke the rules to smuggle in), and one “official” shot. Then I was escorted back outside to take my place standing on the back row of risers in the hot sun of the Rose Garden, where I tried not to pass out or throw up during a long ceremony of speeches and musical performances. I couldn’t believe it. This was the last place I ever thought I’d be.
But it wasn’t the first time I’d ended up in the last place I ever thought I’d be. There’s a story from nearly 25 years before I met the President, and I’m going to share it with you today. I’ll warn you: it is a disturbing story. Not disturbing in the same way my cursing and unfiltered writing about my changing body, sex, and dating might be to some. Just as unexpected, perhaps. But this is a story of an event and a time that might trigger some strong emotions. It also will likely trigger gossip and judgment. (NGAF even one little bit about that.) Be that as it may, I’ve had several “signs” from the Universe that this is the story I need to tell now, so consider yourselves warned.
Nearly 25 years before I walked into the Oval Office of the White House to stand next to the President of the United States of America, I lay on a hospital ICU bed with my wrists restrained. At 27, this was the last place I ever thought I’d be. I’d regained consciousness two days after very nearly succeeding at committing suicide. I was supposed to be dead, and this was not where I wanted to be.
I wrote in this post about lessons learned that I’d had multiple bouts of Percocet-popping and overdoses in my 20s. What I didn’t disclose in that post is that two of those overdoses were on purpose, and the last of those overdoses was a deliberate, planned, and researched attempt to kill myself.
When you see suicidal people portrayed in the movies they are often despondent and tearful. But my decision and subsequent planning to end my life at 27 marked my happiest, most contented period back then. There was an eerie and powerful sense of relief, peace, freedom, and control as I researched The Hemlock Society, ordered its suicide how-to manual, began stockpiling necessary supplies, and worked with a lawyer to write my will. I am nothing if not organized, and planning my suicide – what was supposed to be my first and last “solo trip” — was no different. I had a to-do list and timetable. Other than these secret preparations, there were no outward indications of my suicidal state. No warning signs anyone could pick up from my demeanor. No one knew because no one could tell.
I followed all the tips in the manual, except for pulling a plastic bag over my head and tying it shut around my neck after taking the pills and before losing consciousness. That just sounded claustrophobic and scary. On a Saturday afternoon, I sat in the kitchen of my apartment and ate a light snack of plain soda crackers, to put something in my stomach to guard against vomiting up the pills. I crushed a bottle of Percocet tablets in a tall glass, and then emptied Fioricet capsules into the glass as well. I poured Jack Daniels whiskey into the glass, stirred the mixture, and then topped it off with ginger ale. I drank the entire glass of fizzy, gritty liquid with white-laced foam on top, taking breaks between gulps to nibble crackers as suggested. When I’d swallowed all the liquid, I poured a little more ginger ale into the glass, swished it around to get all the white pill residue from the sides of the glass, and then swallowed that down. I didn’t cry. I wasn’t sad or in any distress. I was not afraid. The Jack Daniels made me woozy right away, but I never threw up. It took me years later to be able to drink or even smell whiskey or ginger ale without gagging. Ironically, whiskey would become my favorite drink in my late 40s.
I went to my bedroom, double-checked that I’d left my will and a note on the nightstand, and lay down on my bed, telling myself not to vomit as my stomach began lurching, trying to save the life I was determined to end. I should be dead now. But the phone next to my bed rang (no cell phones back then) as I was falling asleep for the last time. I say I answered the phone because I was out of it, nearly unconscious, and didn’t know what I was doing. Some might say I didn’t really want to die. Either way, answering that phone saved my life. I apparently lifted the receiver but wasn’t responsive, and my friend on the other end of the line got worried something was wrong and eventually called 911.
By the time my rescuers broke into my apartment I wasn’t breathing and they had to perform a tracheotomy right there on my bed. When I later went back to my apartment for the first time after finally being released from the hospital, the bloody sheets still on the bed were a shock for some reason. A stark reminder of violence perpetrated under cover. Because there were no cell phones then and I didn’t carry an emergency contact card in my purse (I’d forgotten this on my to-do list), the police notified the only person whose information they found in my wallet – my dentist’s daughter, who’d also attended my high school. I hadn’t seen this woman in years before running into her at a bar at some recent point, and we’d exchanged business cards. Imagine her surprise at receiving a call that I’d tried to kill myself. Now imagine all the ensuing gossip that circulated then and for many years afterward, even among some of my local teaching colleagues decades later. No secrets in this town. This was the last place I ever thought I’d be.
I am not that 27-year-old young woman anymore. I mean, I have a son that age now. That person from long ago seems so removed from the woman I am now. She has been a stranger for so long that we have no connection anymore. That period of my life — like walking into the Oval Office — is a surreal blur. But I’ve been thinking about how many times over all the years since then I’ve thought, “This was the last place I ever thought I’d be.” When, at 30, I became the first Black officer and vice president of a small agency that was the oldest independent PR firm in the US. When I became a business owner at 31. When I became a mother at 34. When I went back to graduate school for another master’s degree at 45, and then started a second career as a teacher. When I met the President in the Oval Office five years later. When I retired as a single 59-year-old woman. When I traveled around the world solo for 70 days in celebration of my upcoming 60th birthday. And today, when I’m starting an internship at a whiskey distillery of all places, at 61. This was the last place I ever thought I’d be. And yet…here I am. Again and again.
I realize this story will be a shock to some folks. An embarrassment to others. And maybe, to some, even deserving of derision or disgust. I’m good with all that. I have no lesson or words of wisdom here. No advice or miracle self-help tool to pitch. No pithy slogan or memorable saying to offer. Just a couple of reminders:
First, try to remember not to make assumptions about people based on a public image they portray. You really never do know a person’s story until they tell you. And second, try never to underestimate the power of tomorrow. Tomorrows are what will take you to all those places you never thought you could be. (OK, so that does sound like a wannabe pithy slogan, but you know what I mean.)
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