The Therapist Who Saved My Life
On the Possibility of Not Killing Oneself
The following appears in Creative Nonfiction’s anthology of writing on mental illness, Same Time Next Week.
My therapist got off the bus with a backpack, a box of matches, and a shovel. She walked toward me smiling the kind of smile that they don’t teach at therapy school. It was a golden Saturday at the end of June, and what we were doing was far beyond the realms of normal therapy.
Two years ago to the month, I had slit my wrist. It was a Tuesday afternoon and my almost-four-year-old was playing downstairs in the office with my husband and my 18-month-old was barreling around the kitchen floor with a spoon and the dog. I was up to my amygdala in Klonopin and unmanned misery and I was trying to cook dinner. Nothing was right, but I had no clear sense of what was wrong. This had been a long-standing problem. The more depressed I became, the more anti-anxiety medication my psychiatrist suggested I take. So I did. But one can become too unanxious. Unworried bordering on careless. Careless bordering on reckless. Reckless bordering on dead.
I drifted in a haze around the kitchen, trying to find anything to pass off as dinner. I found cereal and tofu and had some vague sense that I could combine the two with hot oil to create something crunchy and nutritious.
Over the years I have tried more ways to escape this misery than one hopes for in a lifetime—from Western remedies to Eastern medicine to ideas that neither hemisphere is willing to claim. But nothing has ever shifted the sense I have that I am not supposed to be alive. And when existing feels this foreign and hopeless—like getting off a plane in Nairobi to realize you have forgotten to pack your legs—dying does not seem like the bad idea that most people think it is.
In fact, when you look at your perfect, smart, chubby, bright nuts of children and all you see are small people who will eventually realize that life is just one sadness after another; when you look at the man you moved four thousand miles to be with because the very sound of his voice, the glimpse of his mind, made you excited to breathe, and see only a five-foot-ten Jewish male who walks too loudly; when you wake up in the morning with a painful shock that you are still here; when you feel nothing but sorry for everyone and everything, especially yourself, then death seems welcome, prudent even.
And so, as I rushed around the kitchen cooking dinner, which may have looked to an observer more like a confused lady slowly picking up and putting down the same items again and again, I dropped the cereal bowl. Corn flakes and china shattered and I shooed the toddler out of the way. I picked up the pieces of bowl and took them toward the bin. I stood with my foot on the pedal, a large shard of china in my right hand, sharp edge in the early evening light, and I stopped; everything came together and it looked an awful lot like nothing. I held the bowl over my left wrist and paused. Then I slashed it across the skin; I thought it would make a scratch. It didn’t. A deep, dark world opened up on my arm. The blood looked black. It was coming from a deeper well than anything I had ever seen before.
The first time I tried to kill myself I was twelve. I tied a woolen scarf into a slipknot and hooked it on the back of the bathroom door. I placed the noose around my neck and I let my legs go loose. The scarf tightened. My face felt big and my eyes began to bulge. My knees grazed the reed matting of the bathroom floor and the edges of my vision went black. The screws of the hook cracked loose, splintering through the wood, and I knew I was in big trouble. I had broken the bathroom door.
What made possible both of these incidents was my sense of disconnection. At twelve I did not feel a part of my family, I was not one of my peers, I was not of this world. Suicide felt like a logical step. If you were a corporate lawyer who found himself at a modern dance retreat you would leave. I would.
Brené Brown, a research professor who has spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, and worthiness, tells us that nothing unravels connection like shame. A feeling that there is something wrong with us, something so wrong that if other people saw it they would no longer love us. Such a feeling makes it hard to connect to other people, to connect to ourselves, to connect to life at all. And shame can slip in easily when we are young. When we believe what we are told about ourselves. When we are dependent on our parents—who we realize only later were just a couple of people trying to make it through the day—for our sense of who we are.
When a parent criticizes a child, the child does not think: Fuck you! as an adult might; rather she thinks: Fuck me. And when a parent hits a child, she does not hit back, rather she tunnels that force inside her small body and turns it into a reason that her parent is perfect. The result of the ghastly equation being: there must be something very hittable about me. And when a parent abuses a child, the child does not tell the parent to get off; the child goes very still, the child sends parts of her soul away to protect it, the child burrows inside herself and hides her knowledge that this is wrong. The child is confused. The child is ashamed. The child is not so much of a child anymore.
It is in these moments of fear and misunderstanding that your cosmic rightness, your belief in the sky and earth, and the cellular confidence you were born with, are blindsided. A dark spot begins to grow inside you, an ink spill you want to keep hidden, a shameful stain that pushes you and the world in opposing directions; and the very thing you are a part of, life, begins to feel like the enemy. The string that connects all of us to the universe and each other is loosened and you are suddenly less than sure that this whole thing is such a grand idea after all. Every time we fall in love or make a friend, hold someone tight or choose a muffin, get pregnant or buy new underwear, paint a room or eat a sandwich; every choice we make to stay, to treat ourselves as valuable people, to connect more and more with this thing that can end only in loss, in death, loneliness, holey underwear or shit; every time we choose connection, we are risking loss. But every time we do not choose connection, we are ensuring it.
We all have dark spots, some small—something between a sneeze and a tickle; some huge—like water reservoirs that supply whole towns: dark, deep, and on the outskirts. Some of us laugh too loudly and say mean things, some of us start fights. Some drink in the morning, others have a lot of cats, some go to doctors looking for answers, some hide in the bathroom and vomit up their dinner, some eat only white foods, some cut their arms and legs, some run marathons, others just stop focusing their eyes and wait.
I grew up far and alone on the Yorkshire moors in England. There were no other houses, no other people, just my parents, trees that lay close to the ground at the insistence of the wind, and sheep dotting the landscape like boulders. But my loneliness was not the place’s fault.
Some children are born belonging to parents who belonged. Their mothers hold them and in those arms rests a generational knowing, a sense memory, of what it is like to be held. Their backs and heads and hearts send messages to one another, messages of safety and love.
And then there are the rest of us. With parents who did not know caring, parents who despite their fierce love cannot provide safety, parents who no matter how hard they try will never be whole or kind. No matter their intentions they are fated to deliver every message with an undercurrent of anger or hatred, indifference or carelessness, coldness or power.
My mother had grown up in the 1950s in London, in Germany, in Blackpool, in Bahrain, with an uncle in the English countryside, on U.S. Air Force bases, on her own, in the back of a car when she was twelve with an airman on top of her, with too many sisters, a mother who never smiled, and a father who drank. She had been abandoned and left for living. She wanted something different for me, but we cannot give what we do not have. She aimed for love and can hardly be blamed for missing; she had known only the opposite of holding and safety and was trying to fit in the rest for herself.
There are obvious abandonments of children, and then there are the smaller abandonments. My mother did not leave me on a doorstep. But when my father was diagnosed with cancer and I cried and she told me to shut up, she abandoned me. When she looked at my changing teenage body and touched it and said, there is something wrong with you, she abandoned me. When we saw my father’s dead body and my legs buckled and she told me to grow up, she abandoned me. When she insisted I sleep on my dead father’s side of the bed, when she told me I was her best friend, when she told me about her sex life, when she flirted with my boyfriends, when she wouldn’t let me close the bathroom door, when she asked in surprise how I ended up fat when she had had a 21-inch waist at my age, when she spent so long drying between her legs with a towel in front of me that I thought I must be mistaken, when she told me somebody asked her if she had children and she said no because she forgot about me, when she sat and watched me bathe. By the time she died I was already left.
After I slit my wrist the cut became infected with MRSA and I spent two weeks having surgeries as vancomycin pumped through my system intravenously and the doctors tried to save my arm, my life. Through this time I was largely alone, except for a nurse on suicide watch. My husband stayed at home and tried to hold all the love and needs and spaghetti and baths that two small children require. And even when he did visit I was beyond being visited. There are places out beyond connection and I was in one of them.
For 13 days a black woman sat next to my bed. A different one every eight hours, but always black and always a woman. These women were kind. Some were silent, others wanted to talk. Some texted, others fell asleep. But if they minded they did not show it. Hully, Martha, Nana, Gloria. Jamaica, Guyana, Haiti, Ghana. One at a time they washed me. They moved me gently, they lifted my arms and scrubbed my armpits, they gave me a flannel to wash between my legs, they soaped my back and rinsed me off.
One by one these women asked me if I went to church. I told them I did not. They asked if it was because there was not one nearby, or if it was because I worked on the weekends. Was I was too busy with the children? But one question never occurred to them.
“I don’t believe in God,” I told Patricia. She looked at me, unflinchingly.
“Child,” she said, “that’s why you’re here.”
I did not believe she was right, but I had an awful sense that she might not be completely wrong either.
I had been a proud atheist for over 30 years. But I was a lopsided believer, the kind who believes in so much, just none of it good. I thought this was what an atheist was. I didn’t believe in God; I didn’t believe that there was anything after death other than black and no way to see it. I didn’t believe in fate, energy, connection, or spirit. I believed in what I thought were the hard and fast facts: there is nothing here you cannot see, there is nothing before or after life, we are alone, anybody who believes any different is stupid. It seems I had drifted beyond atheist into the realms of cynic, from where it was but a short hop to full-on Prophet of Doom.
But for a self-professed unbeliever I believed an awful lot: I believed that I was not supposed to have been born. I believed I was the wrong child for my parents. I believed there was something intrinsically wrong with me that made me a nonviable candidate for life. I believed there was something dark inside me that I had to hide. I believed I could survive only if I was completely merged with my mother. I believed that I had to be on the second or sixth step of the staircase when the dining room door slammed. I believed things were my fault. I believed I had to eat foods in pairs: two apples, two bananas, two pieces of bread in case they got lonely in my stomach. I believed I had to use the toilet 26 times before I fell asleep. When my mother had cancer I started crossing my chest every time I saw an ambulance, a hearse, a cemetery. When my father had cancer I believed I had to use six paper towels in the hospital bathroom. When he died I began cutting my food into tiny pieces and eating two pieces an hour throughout the day. When my mother died, while I was pregnant, I believed my fetus was her reincarnated.
I spent a hell of a lot more time believing than most practicing Christians do. Everything I did was built on magical beliefs, spiritual hiccups, and soul-destroying thoughts.
When my then therapist found out I had slit my wrist she fired me over the telephone. Nothing gets rid of people like a suicide attempt. It seemed she was not made for this kind of thing; she suggested I find someone who was. The problem with that was that I had no idea what “this kind of thing” was. The closest I could come to it was: me.
I have been diagnosed with bipolar II, borderline personality disorder, anorexia, unipolar depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and treatment-resistant depression. These have been countered with Paxil, Effexor, Remeron, Klonopin, Xanax, Prozac, Zyprexa, Seroquel, Abilify, Lexapro, Celexa, Chinese herbs, electroconvulsive therapy, hypnosis, leafy greens, fish oil, vitamin B12, St. John’s wort, group therapy, light therapy, talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, and acupuncture. But none of these things helped. There was no way they could. You cannot fix someone who does not feel connected to the idea of living with a pill, any more than you can fix a car without wheels by filling the washer reservoir with blue liquid.
The only way to come at a problem of this magnitude and confusion is not with sense; it is not with reason or science; it is not with pills or lists, electrodes or clever sayings. A problem of this scale and unnameability needs to be met with nonsense, with moonshine and malarkey. With magic and oracular thinking. Insanity meeting insanity.
I found a new therapist through my husband’s therapist, whom I had in turn found for him. It is living in New York that makes sentences like this possible. She was an art therapist, which was not necessarily what I was looking for, but since I was pretty far beyond looking for anything other than a way out it seemed as good a choice as any—and after seven years of people nodding and smiling at me and suggesting I try holding an ice-cube instead of wanting to die, the fact that this woman owned a hot glue gun and a creative mind seemed like it could only be a good thing.
The first time I met my new therapist I did not know she believed in fairies. I did not know she would give me tarot cards as a birthday present. I did not know we would go night swimming together in a lake in upstate New York. I did not know that one evening when I was noodling around near the edge of safety she would text me, “I love you so fucking much you have no idea!” I did not know she would hold me for hours while I cried. I did not know we would set fire to things I hated and grind the ashes into the earth. I did not know she would come to my house and remove all my dead mother’s underwear from my drawer and throw it in the garbage. I did not know I would tell her things I had never told anyone. I did not know she would understand what they meant. When I walked into her office for the first time I saw only that she was smart and tall and unfazed by my apparent condition, and that she had the same jeans on as I did. I saw in her face that she had not always been happy. I saw that she had woken up in the wrong places and bargained with God. These are things crazy people can sometimes spot in each other. I was glad for that at least. It is hard to lay bare one’s hopeless soul to someone who has only ever lost a cat and shops at Lands’ End.
She did not yet own a shovel; that would come later.
At first we met twice a week and when that did not seem like enough we added a phone session and when phone sessions did not feel like enough but I couldn’t make it to Manhattan she came to Brooklyn and we sat on park benches. This may sound like a lot of therapy, but when hours feel untenable and bridges look like good ideas seven days can be an awfully long time.
But it was more than the regularity of appointments that weighted the scales of my soul. This therapist was not treating me like another client. She was doing more for me than therapists did. And this did not scare her. She was wonderfully unafraid to like me, to love me, to share her story with me, to walk down the street with me, to want me alive, to care for me. And this lack of fear on her part vibrated as she held my hands and smiled into me. We can do this.
In the beginning I did not know that she too had been abandoned in innumerable small ways. There had been an unstable mother, an absent father, religious communes, too many hands, drugs and men, deaths and fear. And as she sat across from me and shared with me her losses I saw her glowing with gains.
This woman was not a nodder, she was not a professional therapist in the bad sense of the phrase; what she was doing nobody could have taught in school. She was a connector. She did not leave me in my pain and sadness, she brought her own out to the moorlands that howled with wind and nothingness and sat down across from me. She offered up her fears and devastations as anchors. Her scars made her a believable hero. She was just the kind of woman who might change someone’s life.
One month out of the hospital I began to tell my new therapist the stories I knew about myself. The stories I had told every other therapist I’d ever had. But we do not always know our own stories. She took the things that I had given other mental health professionals as the reasons for my lack of commitment to life and she handed them back to me wrapped in a new understanding. She asked me questions that at once made no sense and at the same time knocked my lungs clear with truth.
Like a criminal who subconsciously wants to get caught I was leaving clues everywhere. And like a loving Sherlock Holmes, she pieced my stories and scars, tears and hurt together and came to conclusions I could have spent a lifetime missing. In these conclusions I found both devastation and relief.
She was the first and only person to name my experiences as abuse. Emotional abuse. Sexual abuse. The first time she did I hung my head over her wastepaper basket trying not to vomit.
At that moment I had never felt more like dying but underneath the familiar urge to cease existing bubbled something different, I won’t call it excitement, but somebody had heard what it was I didn’t even know I was trying to say with my scarred legs and sewn-up arms, with my preference for hospital over home. Death over life.
“There is nothing wrong with you,” she announced one day and I thought she had somewhat missed the point of me as an entity.
“There is nothing wrong with you, there never has been. You have just always thought there was, but there isn’t! There’s nothing wrong with you!”
She said this last part with an unrepressed joy that frightened me. When you are underweight and covered in scars it is hard to believe you were born whole and lovely. It is harder still to look around and see where some of the wrongness you believe is your own may have seeped through your skin and into your heart.
But this woman gaily abandoned the diagnoses I’d been given. She threw out the stories I told her about myself. She rejected who I thought I was. She taught me some things should be left for dead, I just wasn’t one of them.
* * * *
Two years later the scar ran up my left arm, puckered and lumpy where the flesh had died and been brought back to life with blood flow and hope. I wore shorts and flip-flops to walk down the hill to meet my therapist.
I had driven to a retreat center in upstate New York a day earlier. The things I needed to let out felt too big for the confines of the city, with its slices of sky and wall on wall. The things I had been carrying around needed endless air and open sky. I could not loose this material upon Manhattan. Moreover, I did not trust myself to reveal these things to anyone and then walk out onto streets that roared with traffic 45 minutes later. I had explained this to my therapist unaware that the disclosure would result in the plan we had together hatched.
The place we had chosen to do this work was a place where people come to meditate and do yoga, and while we would be doing neither—instead flying under the radar and embarking on a singular spiritual adventure—the ground at least felt prepared for the kinds of things we carried.
And so it was that I had spent a summer’s night alone in a cabin in the woods, furiously writing and drawing and painting and gluing and trying in any way I could think of to get out all of the stuff I for too long thought of as my own.
The next morning, when I saw the brand-new shovel resting on my therapist’s shoulder, I felt a sense of relief. You do not bring a shovel unless you are serious.
That night we dressed in black. And waited until everybody was asleep. I went into the bathroom and stared in the mirror for too long as if I were high, then I took a black pastel crayon and drew a cross on my chest. Something about aiming for the heart. Something about X marks the spot. Something about giving in to ritual and nonsense.
We packed up the drawings and writing I had done, images of pain and sadness, pictures of my body naked, my body invaded, exposed and broken, vicious images of what it felt like to live in a skin that does not feel like your own. Drawings of my mother’s body that I knew too well, her body sewn up with cancer, her body dead, drawings of things I had no words for. And everything I had written, all the words I had been carrying around like a cloud of shame, making my life faraway and unseeable. We put it all in a backpack and walked up the pathways of the retreat, past trickling streams with little Buddha statues and meditation gardens. We crossed over a blank meadow toward the pitch of the woods. At the corner of the field a small opening led to a pathway in and with a flashlight we felt our way over stony ground and small rivers deep into the forest.
We had surveyed the woods in the daylight so we would know where we were headed by night, but sunshine cannot prepare you for darkness. Earlier we had skipped over rocks and rivers, pushed thorns aside and felt the sun dapple us. We had found a huge tree with a trunk that could bear what we would bring it later. I had sprung up the tree, into the branches; flip-flops to the wind I had climbed into the light, held the bark and waved down. This was to be the place. But night changes everything. We steeled ourselves against the black. Mosquitoes hung in the airless woods and nothing made a sound. We tripped and leant toward the spot that in the light had seemed like the spot and she handed me the shovel. I felt suddenly shy. I had never dug a hole to bury years of misery and shame in before, let alone in front of someone else. I was not sure how to start. But there was something about this woman, which doesn’t even seem like quite the right word for her, as it makes her sound like a normal person. A woman with long hair and a cellphone, which she was, but to me she felt like so much more. It was this much-more-ness that she had shown me of herself that made the strangest things possible.
Because every time she did something like this, something she absolutely did not have to do, I felt unabandoned. And not just by her, but by life, by the universe that was allowing us to do this. And I began to dig. Soon the very work of digging chased my embarrassment away and sweat ran down my forehead and bugs caught in my hair. She stepped back and let me hole. I dug into the mud and rocks. I raised the spade high and thrust it into the earth. I footed the tread with all my weight and sunk it deeper.
Then on my knees I pulled rocks out with my hands. Shoulders shaking with effort, I dug further until the time to stop arrived.
Without speaking she handed me what it was I had brought to leave behind. I placed the drawings in the hole, carefully at first, until I had piled everything I had and then my hands took over, my animal, my cells that knew time, that had been fish and wolves and rain and leaves. In that moment I came alive in a different sense. I felt the pull of gravity and the push of time and I was a part of it, I have never been gladder to be included. And with that I shoved soil on top of shame and packed it down. I know I was speaking, then shouting. I told the earth what I no longer needed. I told it I knew it could hold for me what I no longer wanted to hold myself. I told it to stay put. I thanked the forest floor for its vastness and giving. I thanked the earth for its size and acceptance. I said things to that patch of earth that I have never said before and may never say again. Turns out soil is a good audience. And then it was over. All that was left was a pile with a big rock on top of it.
We stood and looked at it until it wasn’t time to do that anymore, then we gathered ourselves and walked out of the forest. I cried with my past at my back, even bad things can be missed. Following the river across the field we walked down to the lake, flat beneath the open sky. The smell of water was cold and black and we lay on the small strip of sand at the edge, uniquely aware of the two sides, the earth reaching deep beneath us, and the endless sky dotted with stars that evade time’s reach. Somewhere a frog was making the sound of a donkey. The moon was high behind us and the stars shot across the night.
In that spell of stars and quiet it was simple: everything that had ever existed came from there. If I believed in the Big Bang like any science-fearing atheist did then I had to believe that in that flash, in that split and fury, in that violent birth: I was there, you were, so was my dog, your mailman, all of the Harlem Globetrotters, birds and feathers, lions and claws, leaves, rain, mud, hope, love, fire, hearts that beat, hearts that fail, moss, sand, rocks, and teeth.
This was a leap for a nonbeliever like me. To feel the eternity of it all and my place in it. Connection had never been a possibility for me. Now it was elemental.
Nobody can save anybody else’s life—it is not theirs for the saving—but this person who lay next to me on the ground had come awfully close. Where life, people, and the things that happen when they get together had somehow pushed me toward nonexistence, this woman had drawn me closer. She had unabandoned me and taught me to unabandon myself. She had met me out on the bleak moors I had grown up on. She had smiled at strange times and heard things I did not know I had said. She had come at me with life and magic. Curiosity and prayer. Heart and soul. She had graced me with her heart and held me close with protective anger and fierce love. Obliquely she had turned my spirit toward itself and gently introduced it to the magic of the universe. With a gentle hand she had taken away the broken bowl and replaced it with things that nonbelievers nonbelieve in. Not once did she give up or look down. And that is how on the clearest of nights, with the sand at our backs, we flew up amongst the light and dark of it all and I came down a person.