Shiny on the Outside
It was the spring of 2006. I was living at my parent’s house, enrolled in college, a member of a sorority, working a part time job and living a very “all American girl” kind of life. A few months earlier I had taken my first official spring break trip with friends down to Florida where I was sexually assaulted and had to call my parents and have them come get me. I was examined, prodded and put on a bunch of medications to prevent diseases that may have been transferred to me during the assault. I walked out of our family doctor’s office, put a smile on and went right back to my shiny life. I held my head high, I showed up to sorority meetings, I went to class, worked extra shifts at my job and then one evening in my childhood bedroom, the one with bright purple walls and perfectly placed curtains and pillows, I tried to kill myself.
I can remember that night like it was yesterday, it’s been over a decade since it happened, I don’t even feel like the same girl who was sitting on the edge of her bed contemplating swallowing as many pills as she could. I don’t recognize her. I have love for her, she haunts me sometimes when I get lonely or things get hard but I don’t feel like I am her. There was an argument between two people happening inside of my brain. One voice was rational and calm and the other was frantic and scared. They talked through what would happen if I was no longer here, how it might feel to be gone, what the consequences might be and how people might think of me. Would they even remember me ten years from now? Would anyone care? Won’t it be better if they don’t have to worry about me? I’ve already caused so much pain for my parents getting into that horrible situation in Florida, isn’t it best if I am just not here? There might have been a third voice, we will call her shame. She couldn’t stop focusing on how stupid we were to get ourselves sexually assaulted, how it was our fault that this happened and we were weak and broken and damaged. The more rational and calm voice was trying to remind the other voices of all of the good things and the responsibility we had to make everything ok. People love you. Your parents love you. We can get through this. Your mom and dad would be devastated if this happened, do you really want to do that to them?
Unfortunately the frantic and scared voice won the argument and at 19 years old I swallowed as many pills as I thought it would take to end my life. Luckily I was at my parent’s house. Luckily twenty minutes after I did this the rational voice took over and she walked us into my parent’s bedroom where I proceeded to tell them that I had taken a lot of pills and I wasn’t sure what that meant but that I wanted to kill myself and I was really scared. My dad immediately tried to get me to throw up and when I couldn’t, we piled into the car and drove to the emergency room that was less than a mile from my house.
We walked into the ER and I looked at my dad and said, “I don’t want to tell the nurse what I’ve done. Can you tell her?”. “You can tell her, he replied. You have to take responsibility for your life.” I walked up to the nurses station and I whispered as softly as I could, “Hello. I’m here because I tried to kill myself. I took a number of pills about twenty minutes ago and now my dad has brought me here”.
I was rushed to the back where they took my vitals and a number of things happened. They pumped my stomach, they made me drink thick black charcoal. A doctor looked me in the eye and said, “What is going on in your life that would make you feel like you had to do this?”. “I was raped,” I whispered. Which was only one of the reasons I was actually in this situation and had decided that not being here on this earth was better than being here and facing myself.
See, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 12. While that is a whole other story and would take us down a different path, it is still very relevant. My mom was sick for a very long time before she died in 2008. On the way to losing her, we almost lost her many times and I mean that in the sense that there were a lot of surgeries and chemo and radiation treatments and nights in the hospital. We were constantly in a state of wondering what was going to happen to my mom and honestly, not wondering if cancer was going to win but rather when cancer was going to win. I had nightmares about my mom’s funeral, I slept in the little nook of the window in her hospital room when I was 16 because I wanted to be near her. But there was no one to talk to. Not in the sense that there was no one to talk to, but I just felt like there was no one to talk to.
I wanted to be strong for my mom. I wanted her to have peace. I wanted to keep my dad from worrying about one more person, I wanted my sisters to get along and just not have to think about me at all. I wanted to be invisible because it seemed like everyone had a lot going on and there wasn’t really room for me. Now, was this absolutely true? Probably not. As you can tell from this story so far— I have an INCREDIBLE family. My family would and still does do anything for me. But as a little girl your perception is what it is. You don’t have context, you don’t have perspective or experience. You see the world and experience the world in real time and my experience in these circumstances was that I needed to be the most well behaved, solid and easy going daughter in the world so no one had to worry about me at all.
The problem was, I was sad. I was scared. I was afraid of losing my mom and my world being blown up and nothing making sense. I was lonely. I didn’t really fit in at school because I don’t know, I just didn’t. On the outside I was shiny and on the inside there was a storm brewing and I could not slow it down. I tried to be perfect and that is impossible, so all I ever did was let myself down and then beat myself up because I couldn’t be perfect. When I went on spring break, even after my mom said it wasn’t a good idea, and was assaulted, I had broken all of my rules. Now I was going to need help, now I wasn’t invisible anymore, now I was going to have to ask my parents to notice me and my sisters to pay attention and I was going to cause a lot of pain for a lot of people. In my mind, it was a complete disaster.
As I sat on the edge of the bed that night and worked through the argument in my mind I knew it wasn’t the right answer but at the same time, I thought, “maybe finally they will see how much pain I am really in.” I thought it was better to kill myself than ask someone for help.
I can’t tell you if something is chemically wrong with me. Since 2006 I have had many battles with negative and overwhelming emotional thoughts. I have been in therapy and tried medications. I have worked very hard to try to understand myself better so that I would ALWAYS have control in my own mind. Those voices from that night in 2006 are not gone, they exist still in my brain and they still come out to play. I understand them better, I know how to manage them and use rational thinking to get me back on track. But it is hard, I work on it every single day. When I lost my mom in 2008 I lost the person who helped me manage those thoughts, or at the least, she helped me feel ok with them. I spent many nights grieving her loss crying on the floor in my bedroom closet alone in my Manhattan apartment. Grief is real, trauma is real and it is all relative. Sometimes once we go through something so emotionally transformational or traumatizing it is that much harder to normalize our thoughts and feelings. These experiences are real and valid and they are very real and valid for many people. My mom was a psychologist and a mental health advocate. She fought for the people who struggled with mental health and now, to carry on her legacy, but also because of my own experiences, I also work to fight for the lost and the sad and the lonely.
This week I have seen that shiny on the outside, stormy on the inside, isn’t just my experience but perhaps the experience of many. We very publicly lost two very shiny on the outside people this week. Things are never what they seem. For too long we have valued fame and money and prestige. We live in a modern world of airbrushing apps for your Instagram photos and the glorification of extreme wealth. Nothing is black and white. While technology has disturbed us, it has also enabled us. There is not one thing to blame. This is bigger than one phone call to a suicide hotline and one discussion with a stranger (while those tools and resources are completely valuable). This is about how we show up for each other and what we choose to value in our society. This is about creating an environment where we feel safe communicating, “I am scared and I am alone and I am sad, and I need some help.”
I am no less of a person because I battle depression. I am no less a daughter, a friend, a sister or an employee. And if I am being honest, I don’t think I am alone in this battle. I am so shiny on the outside, would you even presume that I have bad days? That I struggle with self-worth and loneliness? I show up, I do good work, I make people feel seen and heard. Sometimes I even appear on the news championing organizations I believe in and speak publicly in front of hundreds of people. But I also wake up some mornings and I feel alone and sad and afraid. Am I enough? Am I doing enough? Will people like me? Will they see me? Will they want me around?
I know shiny is safer. I know shiny is easier and it takes less vulnerability. But can we just stop expecting each other to be so shiny? Can we face the fact that the world we live in is stressful and sometimes chaotic and also lonely? Can we see from these two very public tragedies that we are perhaps not getting it right? I know it is scary to face the hard things, believe me, I have faced them.
I was born into an incredible family with endless resources and love. I still struggled to ask for help and to share the truth with my family. Imagine how people without this privilege are feeling? I don’t know what the exact answer is yet or what exactly we do next but I felt that sharing my shiny on the outside story might help a few other people feel less alone, less like an outsider and less afraid to ask for help.
I do not seek sympathy or messages of how strong I am or how it is going to be ok. I am ok. I have overcome the darkest part of the journey but I still face sadness in my life. All I ask of you today is to look around you and see if anyone needs help. I ask you to be better neighbors, more engaged citizens of your communities and to try not to project that people need to be so shiny all of the time. I am not shiny. Others are not shiny and I think maybe you are not so shiny all the time either and that is completely and wonderfully ok.
If you think someone is struggling with mental illness or deep sadness and needs help try showing up to their home with beautiful flowers and just sit with them for a few hours. Ask them to tell you anything that comes to their mind or simply just sit with them in silence. Sometimes all we really need is a little company and to feel like we matter to someone.
And if you seek support or help and are not sure where to turn please turn to this resource below:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
We can all help prevent suicide. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.