One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to pick up little reminders to take home with me. They serve as visible representations of where I have been and where I have yet to go. They can be especially helpful on the days when the extent of my travels consists of an arduous journey from my bed to the couch. I have built a proud little collection of mementos over the years. A fistful of dirt from the South American forests cradled gently in a glass bottle. Slightly crumpled transit passes for the Chicago L stuffed in my wallet. Mason jars full of sand from beaches stretching the East Coast that line my bookshelf.
Each item, no matter how small, embodies special meaning and is a relic that tells the narrative of my life so far. At least the happy parts. Lumps of sand and jars of dirt are the stories that are safe to talk about and the ones I want to remember. But I am a collage, pieced together from stories. And though I sometimes wish I could forget the painful ones, I know they are a part of me as well.
I was 10 years old the first time I ever had thoughts of killing myself. The word “suicide” was not even in my vocabulary yet, but all I knew was how easy it would be to just keep walking down the street, knowing eventually a car would drive by. I always moved to the sidewalk before it passed, though. “For now,” I told myself. At least for now I will stay on the sidewalk.
I was 14 the Saturday afternoon I was home alone and crept into my parents’ bathroom and stole medicine from my stepmother’s cabinet. With a plan to die by suicide, I made the long journey upstairs to my bedroom and closed the door. That Saturday evening, I was sitting in the nurses’ station on the inpatient floor of a psychiatric hospital with an old nurse telling me how lucky I was to be alive.
I was 16 during the stormy March when I was kicked out of a violent home by a family who no longer wanted me. I was 16 when I ended up in a foster group home. And then a second. A third. A fourth. I was 16 when my body lost a five-year battle with anorexia and was rushed to a hospital where I was told I was in acute organ failure; that if I had been taken to the hospital any later, I might not be alive. I was 17 the night I ran away, wishing to be anywhere but a lonely group home. I was 17 the night I barely managed to not get hit by a car.
I was 19 the fall I came to Lee University and stood across the street from the counseling center. Weeks passed before finally working up 30 seconds of courage to walk through the doors and ask for help. It was September, and I was 19 when my journey toward healing began. I wish I could conclude the story here and leave you all with a happy ending and an easy solution, but I would be misleading you if I told you all it takes is reaching out for help one time for your brokenness to mend.
I am still made up of many cracked pieces that have taken years of me, as well as my therapist, professors and friends picking up shards from the dust and trying to glue me back together. I attempted suicide two more times since then. My second attempt was about a month after starting therapy and my third attempt occurred just under two years ago. Both times I attempted during periods I knew no one would be around to find me or intervene. Both times friends happened to have changes in their schedules and routines that led to them finding me just in time. It has been almost two years since the last time I tried to take my own life. This is still not the part where I leave you with a hopeful message of how it gets better and how I have fully recovered. In fact, I cannot in good conscience tell you that at all.
I still struggle with suicidal thoughts and the idea of death will at times entertain my mind. I will go days without leaving my bed, held captive to nights where sleep escapes me. I’ll watch as the silence of my waking hours gives way to nightmares. I live with the scars of trauma that haunt me in memories and flashbacks. The body remembers, and my past has imprinted itself beneath my skin. I continue my battle with anorexia. I still carry the burdens of my struggles, because recovery is not a straight line.
Though I cannot leave you with a definitive picture of healing or an oversimplified message of hope, that does not mean there isn’t any. Amidst such great struggles, I have seen glints of hope. I experienced the mending of my heart and mind, though it is far from complete. I have learned to accept care from others. I have been embraced by gentle arms and discovered that hands — and love — should not draw blood. I have watched the moon eclipse the sun and stood beneath waterfalls that cleansed me beneath their cascades. I have climbed atop a mountain peak and looked out in wonder at the landscapes of Austria and France. I have known the simple joys of conversations with friends and the unparalleled satisfaction of good coffee. I now know the comforting hug of a mother, despite having different blood. I have learned unconditional love from children who kissed my scars and taught me how to play.
There are cracks in my humanity that will always be there. Some days, the darkness will barricade the light. But on other days, it will peak through. I am learning to collect hope in the way I collect items on my travels. I left out most of my story, because I do not find the details relevant for this purpose. I should have died so many times. I tried relentlessly and longed for the escape that death seemed to offer. Yet, I am still here. I will not provide spiritual speculation or ascribe to the miraculous preservation of my life. I will not say, “Everything happens for a reason,” or that there is good even amidst the worst of human misery. I have seen it and do not believe that.
You see, we live between the tension, amidst the dichotomies of good and evil. Pain and pleasure. Beauty and suffering. Our purpose is not to rid our lives of the struggle and cling only to the beauty and goodness of life. The task is impossible and will only abandon the mind to a state of dissonance. We must learn to sit with the tension and hold the ugliness that exists in the world in one hand and its undeniable beauty in the other. We must wrestle with our discontent in pursuit of unifying the dichotomy. Meaning is found in struggling. I wish my past had never happened or that it had told a different story. At the very least, I wish I could forget. I know I cannot. I am slowly learning to accept this.
I will probably be on psychiatric medications for the rest of my life, because my brain can no longer produce the chemicals it needs to function healthily on its own. I know I will carry the memories of my past with me my entire life. I know they will intrude my thoughts when I do not want to think about them. The flashbacks may never fully go away and will attack me at times I do not expect. The scars that trauma has left on my life will never fully fade, and it is unrealistic to think that they will. But my hope is that with time, therapy and continued experiences of love and care, I will learn how to live for the very first time. Like tokens from my travels, these little keepsakes of light will begin to take up more space on my shelf than the darkness.