Scheherazade

Yesterday I got a little notification after posting that said I had made one thousand posts to this blog. That makes today number one thousand and one.

When I realized how that number lined up with the particular day, this entire post wrote itself in my mind. My hands have been shaking and my chest hurts from the task of this. This won’t be a usual post, and it probably won’t be pleasant to read. It will also probably be long, so you can feel free to tune back in tomorrow if that’s not your speed. But I’m writing it anyway.

In the incredibly famous One Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade is the main character and narrator. In the story, the king is convinced that anyone he marries will betray him, so he marries a succession of women and then kills them the morning after the wedding before they can do so. Scheherezade is the latest bride and wishes to avoid her fate. So on the wedding night, she starts telling the king a story but leaves it at a cliffhanger. The king is compelled to hear the end, so he spares her for a night. But on the next night, she finishes the first story but starts telling another. By leaving each story unfinished until the next night, she keeps herself alive for a thousand and one nights, at which point the king just agrees that he won’t kill her at all.

So, if you tell a thousand and one stories, you earn your life.

I didn’t time this on purpose. I started this blog on an arbitrary day with no other significance. I certainly didn’t do any sort of math to ensure that this particular syzygy would happen. But it turns out, sometimes life has a decent sense of literary pacing.

Exactly three years ago today, I attempted suicide.

I have not talked publicly about this and no one outside of my close circle knows, but there it is. My youngest child was only a few months old. It was dark and cold, but very clear. I drove to a place I knew very well and had very fond memories of. I tied a very poor noose in probably the wrong kind of rope and threw it over the rafter of a barn. I sent text messages to loved ones that I felt at the time were suitable good-byes but were in reality, thank goodness, cries for help that enabled someone to come find me and get me down before I managed to die in spite of my general bumbling of the process.

I’ve discovered that it’s natural at this point in the story for people to want to ask why. Lots of people have asked. No one has yet been satisfied with what I’ve told them. I’m not sure you’ll be any more satisfied, but at least here I can write it rather than choking through it verbally. Asking why I did it feels to me like asking someone with the flu why they sneeze. The person with the flu doesn’t consciously say “okay, I’m choosing to rapidly expel air out of my nose and mouth right now, after which I’ll make my body temperature go up, and then for good measure, I’ll leak a little bit from my sinuses and maybe dump out the contents of my stomach through my mouth, too.” Those aren’t conscious choices, they’re just side effects. Symptoms of being sick.

People want me to tell them that my life was bad, or that I was facing some insurmountable challenge, or something like that. But I wasn’t. My life wasn’t perfect, and it still isn’t, but it was good and it had a lot of good in it. I actually think that sometimes suicide can make sense as a tactical choice. I think if you’re terminally ill and the only thing ahead of you is a lot of pain and then a slow death, it’s a perfectly reasonable and rational choice to skip the “pain and slow” part of that. If someone has been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole and they choose instead to kill themselves, I’m sad – but I get it. But this wasn’t that. It wasn’t a tactical choice I was making with a rational mind. It was sneezing.

Now, that doesn’t mean you don’t have any control. Just like the flu, you can definitely influence whether or not you get it. You can get the flu shot, you can wash your hands a lot, you can get plenty of vitamins, and overall have a healthy immune system. That doesn’t mean there’s this direct line of “I sneezed because I didn’t drink enough orange juice,” but it does mean that there’s a correlation between a healthy body and sneezing. (At least for me. This certainly isn’t meant to be advice for other people, or any sort of judgment on their conditions or actions.)

I wish I could say that after my suicide attempt, my friends and family rallied around me and showered me with love and support so that I could heal and get better. But that isn’t what happened. It was, without a doubt, the worst day of my life – and every new thing that happened that day made it worse. Close friends and family shunned me, chastised me, condemned me. They weren’t wrong that what I had done was a harmful, selfish act – but a barrage of screaming insults wasn’t exactly helpful, either. I was kicked out of my home. I was met with nothing but scorn. Lots of friends and family stopped talking to me at all; a few have begun again, but many still don’t.

So, one of the lessons learned: negative action leads to negative results. I’m sure in that moment that part of me just wanted people to understand the pain I was in, but positive change doesn’t come from negative actions.

Another of the lessons learned is that it’s not actually possible for other people to understand your pain. You can’t understand theirs, either. Pain is so subjective, so unique, that it can’t be compared or described or understood in any way that’s meaningful. If you need an active response, you sort of just have to skip the “understanding” part and ask for the response you need. It’s like expecting someone else to truly understand how thirsty you are before they’ll get you water. Even if they were exactly as dehydrated as you, their thirst will manifest differently, it will feel different, they’ll react to it and internalize it and contextualize it all differently. That connection can’t happen. So just ask for the glass of water.

Yet another lesson learned was that if I wanted to build a life that was insulated against this happening again, it had to be done differently. It had to be built on different foundations. That lesson wasn’t instantaneous, I’m afraid. That one took a few months as things fell even further apart. I lost my job, I got divorced, and I continued to feel even more isolated and hurt. I saw that what happened that day wasn’t the bottom – not yet. The bottom was Death. I had fallen a lot but fallen short of the bottom, and if I wasn’t careful and didn’t start climbing then there was still plenty of fall left.

So I started to work on it.

I changed a lot of my priorities. The importance of the relationship with my children came even more clearly into focus and captured the lion’s share of my attention and investment. Personal health – both mental and physical – became dramatically more important. Being substantially more careful about who I spent time with, who I allowed access to me on a regular basis (both personally and professionally) was a major improvement. I sought out professional help in various channels, and all of it was helpful in some way.

And I started to write this blog. I had become more selective about who I spoke with on a regular basis, and a lot of thoughts that used to just come tumbling out in conversation were now rattling around with nowhere to go. I could not begin to describe how helpful and healthy it has been to have this space. I am not ending this; I have more stories still.

But I’ve written now a thousand and one. My hands aren’t shaking the way they were when I began typing (though maybe they will when I go to hit “publish,” who knows), and I think perhaps the king has spared my life. I think I’ve earned my escape from death, at least from this one. Despite the hardships, so many wonderful things have happened to me in the last three years. This blog has helped me embrace them, draw lessons from them, and appreciate them. It’s helped me process the harder times when echoes of a darker life have caused me to stumble.

There will be a tomorrow. That’s the bargain. As long as I have a story, there will be a tomorrow – and as long as there’s a tomorrow, it will give me another story. There will always be a lesson to learn, and then always a new challenge in which to apply those learnings.

See you tomorrow, your majesty.

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