Nonfiction | Then & Now

The Memory: In Defense of Suicidal Ideation

I don’t really want to die; I just want to be dying—in the Romantic, Victorian sense. I’m sure I’m not the only one to feel this way. Most people know the story of Sleeping Beauty. Surely I’m not the only little girl to grow up thinking that the dreaming princess had it made.

It’s a very strong memory that I’ve had for a very long time, but unlike other curious little stories from my childhood, I haven’t told many people about this one. In a way, I’m rather proud of that. Even though I’ve thought over the memory again and again over the years, keeping it out of words and away from rote, story-based memorization makes me think it’s a little more real than the rest of my early elementary tidbits.

I don’t remember when I learned to be suspicious of my memories, but I don’t ever recall being taught that memories are easily falsified. The first time I read about flashbulb memories—specifically, false flashbulb memories in which the mind has an extremely detailed snapshot of a moment that didn’t happen—I didn’t learn as much as I simply recognized the phenomenon. It was something I already knew but just hadn’t ever had the right words for. In fact, most of the “learning” I do tends to feel more like the slow process of putting the correct words to things I’ve always known. But I’m getting off track.

You see, this memory I have–I’m strangely proud of it because it’s one of my earliest memories that’s still all tied up in sensations and emotions rather than simply empty words. It still feels real when I recall it, and I feel like it’s been protected by the fact that this is probably the first time I’ve ever turned it into a narrative.

So many of my other memories are just stories I’ve repeated so many times that by now I know I’m remembering the way I tell the story instead of the events themselves. Often, the mental images associated with these memory-stories are from a strange, impersonal birds-eye view. Or, even more tellingly, I can tell these memories are based on photographs I’ve seen. For example, I know that most of my memories of my first childhood home aren’t “real” because they’re from the wrong perspective. I was in first grade when we moved from that house, but when I picture the dining room, I can see the whole top of the table—like I’m looking down on it from a few feet above the table’s surface. When I was in first grade, my feet still dangled off the dining room chairs. There’s no way I was tall enough to have the “memory” that I do.

It’s not a memory of the place; it’s a memory of a photograph of the place. I wonder how visual memories worked before personal photography became ubiquitous. I wonder how they’ll work when today’s first graders are sixty.

– – – – –

But the memory I want to tell you about is from the right perspective. I’m at the playground at Shalom Christian Academy, the school I attended from kindergarten through sixth grade. I’m pretty sure it’s early fall because the sun in still warm, but I’m wearing a jacket or sweater of some sort. I’m at the top of playground’s main fixture: a sort of castle-like structure made of thick wooden beams. The center part of the structure is comprised of a three-tiered set of square levels that twist toward the sky like the first steps of a giant-sized spiral staircase—each “floor” roughly five square feet in size. Off the left of this a chain-and-slat bridge that jangles and bounces when you run over it. On the right is a and a spinning tire swing with the tire suspended horizontally by a triangle of chains, so that you can sit on the edge of tire with your feet dangling through hole in the center and hold on to the chains on either side of you as you push the tips of your sneakers against the ground to spin yourself faster and faster and faster…

I’m on the highest level of the wooden structure, in my plaid uniform and a jacket. My friends and I are playing a game of pretend that I strong-armed toward my own desires. We’re pretending to be family of kittens, and I’ve decided that the game is going to be about one of us being sick and the other two needing to find food and medicine that will heal the sick one. In the game we’re cats, but we can talk to each other instead of just meowing and we’re probably magical in some way. The sick one is probably the victim of some sort of curse, so that the game can be a fairytale about defeating evil magic and saving the day. When I was in charge, playing pretend was always about magic. There always some sort of curse and some sort of hero.

I wanted so badly to be the sick kitten. As the de facto protagonist of the game’s premise, I could tell my friends both wanted the part too—despite the fact that it was actually the least active role. I had hoped they wouldn’t want to spend recess lying curled up at the top of the wooden structure, waiting silently and alone for the other two to come back. I had banked on the attractiveness of getting to run around collecting sticks and dandelions—getting to make up a medicine and return triumphant to save the sickly sibling. But apparently I had been wrong, which was a problem.

Eventually we decided that we’d all take turns in each role. But I made sure that I got to go first.

And that is The Memory: lying on my side, curled up in the sun at the top of the tallest structure in the playground. My eyes are closed and I can feel the strangely soft texture of the wooden-beam floor against my face, worn slick by years of use. I can feel the relief in my small body: the chance to rest for a bit, to close my eyes and know that my friends are going to take care of me. That they care. That I don’t have to save the day. That I get to be the one who needs saving, and that it’s not my fault that I need the attention. I’m sick. I’m dying. I don’t have to justify anything, and I get to just lay there alone and rest…

– – – – –

I’m twenty-three now, and recently married. I’m in my second year of graduate classes, studying to get my Master’s in English. Six or so months ago I was diagnosed with an “Anxiety Disorder Not Otherwise Specified.” When I filled out the intake questionnaire sheet at the Counseling Center, apparently I tested in the red for suicidal ideation. I was given a prescription for Citalopram, an SSRI used to treat everything from severe depression and anorexia to OCD and Agoraphobia. I take the smallest dose they make, and I haven’t had a full-blown panic attack since I started taking it, so I guess it helps. I’ve retaken the questionnaire a few times since and the suicidal ideation numbers have apparently dropped significantly.

There’s a reason, I think, that I have such a strong Memory of that moment on the playground, and there’s also a reason I haven’t told many people about it. It’s the earliest memory I have of feeling the particular kind of relief that comes with daydreaming about being sick or dying. I wanted to play-act at dying because I wanted the rest. I wanted my friends to take care of me, but I also wanted to just lie down and close my eyes and be alone.

It’s a very particular sense of longing, this desire to rest. And I’m inclined to believe that for the most part it’s entirely innocent. I don’t really want to die; I just want to be dying—in the Romantic, Victorian sense. I’m sure I’m not the only one to feel this way. Most people know the story of Sleeping Beauty. Surely I’m not the only little girl to grow up thinking that the dreaming princess had it made. I mean, it’s a pretty sweet gig, isn’t it? You get to be beautiful and desired and sought after—and all you have to do is sleep, frozen in time, protected from the difficulties of daily living while you wait to be awoken to a better, more perfect life.

It took me a long time to decide I should probably see a psychologist. I only caved to my husband’s wishes and made an appointment after one particularly difficult night, when I found myself on the bathroom floor, counting out how many Tylenol pills I would have to take to do lethal damage to my liver. Google has told me I’m not alone and offered me the suicide helpline number a handful of times. I know that these days, if you buy a canister of helium from a party store, it’s likely to be diluted with enough oxygen to keep you alive if you decide to forego the balloons and try suffocating yourself on the stuff instead.

But I don’t actually want to die.

The real reason I finally made that appointment, the real thing that scared me, wasn’t the Tylenol counting. It was that on that particular night I almost drove past the turn into my apartment complex and just kept on driving. I had looked into the steps I would have to take to withdraw all my and my husband’s savings. I had started making a plan to actually run away. And that’s what scared me.

I counted out the Tylenol as a sort of calming ritual. A play-act. I don’t actually want to die, I just want to pretend that I’m dying. I just want to take a week or so and sleep, while all the people that care about me crawl out of the woodwork to buy me get well cards. I daydream about it because the idea that I might choose to run away in a more physical, more consequential manner terrifies me. Liquidating my assets and just driving until the money runs out—that I could actually do. That wouldn’t be a game; it would be a terrible, terrible mistake. It would do irreparable damage to the people I love, and there’s no way I could claim that it was just some elaborate role-play.

– – – – –

Call it the unspecified mental illness talking if you like, but at the end of the day I really don’t believe that my “suicidal ideation” is as pathologic as the standardized intake form makes it out to be. Obviously they can’t take chances with these sorts of things, and I guess I wouldn’t want them to—but still. I wonder sometimes if I actually need the medication I’m on. No one was concerned in elementary school when I wanted to be the dying cat. My friends wanted a turn being the sick one too. Isn’t the desire to be cared for universal? Is it that strange to want play the victim for a while? To play-act helplessness so that it’s no longer your fault for being weak?

In high school my friends and I were forced to watch a terrible video about teen suicide in health class. It must have been made some time in the 90’s, and all of the “actors” were just random students from some random high school. They probably wrote all the skits for it, too. The hokey “acting” and terrible lines made a laughing stock of what was supposed to be a serious subject. In the section about warning signs, the video listed “talking about wanting to take a ‘permanent nap’” as something to look out for. The awkwardly phrased line subsequently became a running joke in the class. There’s just something silly-sounding about the word “nap.” None of us could keep an entirely straight face as we leaned in close, as if whispering our most sacred secret: “You know… I could really… go for… a permanent nap.” The dramatic pauses were a must, and the joke never failed to cause a ripple of snorts and giggles.

I don’t think I really need as much special attention as I get from the psychologists and psychiatrists I see periodically. I feel like I told them I wanted to take “permanent nap,” but they didn’t get the joke and now I’m stuck suffering the consequences. But maybe that’s what I want? Maybe I want to play mental-health hooky—but I want to eat my cake too, so it has to be their fault for misunderstanding me. I don’t want to die. I just like to pretend that I do. I’m not really sick, I just want to pretend I am for a while.

Where is that line? Where is the line between what’s normal and what’s not? How am I supposed to tell the difference between what’s actually wrong with me and the play-acting rituals I use to deal with it all? Eventually I can’t tell the difference between a symptom and a cause—between a pathological trait and natural coping mechanism.

Am I capable of knowing what’s innocuous and what isn’t? Should I be? The worst of my anxiety hits in moments when I’m told that something I thought was innocent actually isn’t—like when I’m told that a joke I made actually hurt my friend’s feelings when I didn’t mean for it to. The second I’ve been told that I made a mistake—that what I thought was safe an acceptable is actually hurtful to myself or others—that’s when the tailspin of doubt, fear, and guilt beings. I think I’m playing pretend with my school friends, but you think I’m playing with fire. If you tell me that I am, I’ll have no choice but to believe you. It all goes up in smoke and my hands end up burnt. I say it’s your fault and you take the credit for saving me from myself. Where is the line between blame and credit? The questions are endless.

What I do know is that I’ve daydreamed about dying for a very long time. The longing I felt when I was playing pretend with my friends on the playground is the same longing I felt the night I poured out my store of Tylenol so I could count out the pills. I don’t want to die, but I like the idea of getting to pretend I’m dying. Daily living just takes so much work. I want to take a turn being Sleeping Beauty. Maybe something’s wrong with my brain chemistry, but maybe lots of other people have felt the way I do. There’s nothing new under the sun—regardless of who has their eyes closed and who’s out looking for the dandelions that will break the curse.