The first time I remember thinking about killing myself I was eight years old. I remember it like it was yesterday. I had just moved to a new house the year before and I was in a new school. At the old school I had felt like, a star really, teachers liked me, they thought I was going places, They would give me little gifts and things, you know, look out for me. They were talking like I would be a scientist, or like, a mathematician or something. They knew I had problems, but even the problems it was like they were a sign that I was some kind of genius. They talked like maybe school was too easy for me or I was bored or something but I wasn’t bored. I liked school, I was into it, I wanted to succeed, maybe I had some problems with my attention span or whatever but for the most part, I was good.
Then in third grade at this new school I had a teacher who didn’t like me. I don’t want to say her name because I don’t want it to be like it’s her fault because that’s not the point, to blame anybody or whatever. I’ll just call her Mrs. B. She was, like, old school. She would make us sit and copy maps, write words a hundred times to learn to spell them. And at that point I was bored, you know. I don’t need to write a word a hundred times to learn to spell it. I couldn’t understand how all these other kids could do this stuff, just sit there and copy maps out of the Social Studies book. It was torture to me.
At no point did I make a decision to stop doing my work but it became something that, you know, I was avoidant. I would go home and just try not to think about it, and then when the work was due I wouldn’t have it. A lot of times I would pretend I lost the paper or whatever, try to make it seem like I did the work but just couldn’t find it. But the thing I hated the most was copying the words into the spelling notebook, and on that there was like no place to hide, you know? There’s this notebook and it’s supposed to have these words in it and when it doesn’t it’s like, you didn’t do it. “Why didn’t you do it?” I didn’t have an answer.
It’s funny if you think about that question, what it is, like “why didn’t you do your work?” it’s a weird question to ask a kid. Ask an adult why he didn’t do some shit he's supposed to do, is he, does he really know? Do you expect a good answer in that moment? No, you expect him to react with shame, defensiveness. That’s how I reacted. I felt ashamed, I felt defensive. I just shut down, wanted it to be over.
But they were convinced they were helping me, they gave me an extension to go back and do all this work I hadn’t done by a certain date. And for a while the teacher, my parents, they were checking up on me. It was torture but I was getting something done, maybe starting to see how I could possibly survive in this new school where shit is just, like, terrible, you know? Maybe I can survive this one day at a time. Eight years old this is. It’s crazy to me but that’s how it was. Just trying to survive this torture one day at a time.
Over time they kind of forgot about it. Maybe they thought I had formed the habit and I was doing it on my own. Maybe they were wrapped up in their own shit, whatever. Some combination. Anyway, the deadline was coming up and suddenly the teacher is checking my notebook and she sees I’m way behind. I have, like, literally hours and hours of spelling words to copy into this notebook and I have to have it by Monday or I’m going to fail Spelling. Which, if I could go back and do one thing different it would be to give this little man courage to be like “yeah but so what? What’s actually going to happen to me if I don’t do this fake shit?” But I didn’t do that, I was just like, yeah, I’m going to take this weekend and just spend hours copying spelling words into this notebook so I don’t fail Spelling.
So I get home on Friday and I get a snack and I go up to my room and open up my backpack and somehow my spelling notebook isn’t in there. I forgot it at school, and now the school is locked up and I can’t get it and I’m going to fail Spelling. And I remember very specifically thinking “there’s something really wrong with me. I can’t do this. It’s just going to be this endless thing where I’m just failing and I can’t take it.” And I spent a long time thinking about killing myself, but eventually I guess I ran out of energy or I couldn’t really figure out how to do it or, eventually I just went downstairs and told my mom I forgot my spelling notebook and just took the shame, took her anger and disappointment as best I could. And then after it was over I went back up to my room and just sat there thinking “I can’t take this.”
I was right and I was wrong because I really couldn’t do it, like that really did become my life for like fifteen years, just constantly not having my work, avoiding doing my work, trying to become someone who was good at school and just not being able to do it. I didn’t even do that bad, you know, I graduated high school, got into college, even got an academic scholarship while every report card says on it “not working to potential” and other judgy shit that means “you aren’t as good as you’re supposed to be and it’s your fault.”
But the good news I guess is that it turns out I can take it. I can live through that shame and, like, the drudgery of trying to persevere in this life that I’m not cut out for, this world where my contribution is just never good enough, always falling short of what I should be capable of. That’s one skill I do have, that I was either born with or that I was able to learn. I can live through it.
It’s hard to find people to talk to about it because if they don’t understand, if they don’t live with suicidal ideation they don’t get it. They listen and they just, it’s one of two things they either don’t know what to say and change the subject, try to minimize it, protect themselves from having to accept that yeah, this is this guy’s life, you know, he seems OK but actually he’s in this weird hell where he hates himself and wants to die. Or they want to fix it, like “you gotta go out right now and get help!”
And we do get help, you know, we get counselors, psychiatrists, we talk to our friends, people who we trust. But the fact is there’s only so much you can do. You can’t just reach inside somebody and take away all this shame and despair and pain that goes back thirty-five years to these things that happened that they probably don’t even mostly remember the facts of, you know? Like thinking about it, maybe it was fourth grade, with the spelling book. I tell it the Mrs. B way because I actually liked my fourth-grade teacher, you know? She was kind to me, for the most part. Mrs. B is a symbol, more than anything.
In a way there’s nothing you can do about it but just keep living. That’s your triumph every day, like you’re trying to beat cancer or something but the cancer keeps coming back. You make it your goal, like “I’m going to die with this pain, but not FROM this pain.” And some days maybe you might forget about it but it always comes back.
And so that’s the thing I want people to know when they ask, like, “How are you doing?” It’s like, how you want me to answer? Do you want to hear that I’m doing OK because I’m going to make it, live through this day and get to tomorrow? Because yeah, I am. I know I am. It’s a proven process. I been doing it. I’m good. Or do you want to hear about this agony, this horrible feeling that I live with every day? You don’t want to hear that. It’s just going to bring you down.
But if you really got it you would be amazed, you would congratulate me. Holy shit, man, you keep doing that shit. You keep going. Keep sitting down to write them Not-Suicide Notes, telling everybody how you’re not going to kill yourself today. Fuck yeah. Go get em. That’s how we ought to feel. Like heroes, just for not dying.
It’s like Syrio Forel in Game of Thrones. What do we say to death?
Adam Short lives in the Near West End with his loving wife and two beautiful children.
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