Trigger Warning: suicide, depression, abuse
February for me is weirdly full of reminders of the significance of life and death. Multiple dates dot the month pulling me back and forth between stupendous joy and overwhelming sorrow. February 1st. February 12th. February 14th. February 21st. February 22nd. February 23rd. They are both birth days and death days. And they belong to some very special people in my life.
But one day, February 14th, right smack in the middle of the month, belongs to me.
Twenty years ago, I was a 19 year old college freshman at the University of Puget Sound. I had moved across the Pacific Ocean to a land and culture completely foreign to me and it was utterly disorienting. I had grown up on an island, a warm, sunny island, and despite living in other places as a child thanks to my parents’ military service, I really had only ever known island life. Living in Tacoma, WA was like being thrown into an ice bath. It didn’t help that the first several weeks of school were filled with learning my grandpa had lung cancer and watching him fight for four weeks until he died abruptly on October 19th.
I had a hard time living with my roommates in an on-campus house because I didn’t understand their culture, their ways of interacting with others, their values. At the end of the first semester of school, I was allowed to move off campus and in with my grandma. We all (me, my grandma, my parents) thought it would be the ideal situation where both my grandma and I would have family close by to help with the loss of my grandma, and it would be easier for me to study and help her with the house. I still don’t know if that was actually the best decision.
In early February I broke my foot and I was on crutches. It didn’t help that the Freshman 15 had hit me hard…twice. Getting around was difficult. I hated being away from home. My original plan to be a Biology major was being dashed by mediocre grades and perfectionistic standards from my scholarship board. I was miserable. I was lost. And I was hurting deeply within and without. My grandma was never known for being a comforting type of person and what I craved and needed in my life at that time, she was an expert at withholding, sometimes with cruel coldness. On several occasions she locked me out of the house on purpose. She liked to ignore me. She would throw things at me when she was frustrated. She liked to go through my things, rearrange the furniture in my bedroom, and throw items of mine away while I was at school. It was isolating.
On February 14th, a Monday, I came home from school, hobbled in on crutches, and saw that she had a few friends over for lunch. I went in to the kitchen to say hello and get myself a bite to eat. As I headed down the hallway to my room, my grandma followed me and proceeded to berate me for interrupting her visit. I remember the words clearly: “I’m so ashamed of you. Why do you have to embarrass me in front of my friends?” I was so confused. I didn’t understand what I had done. I have never figured it out.
It was enough to push me deeper into the depression I was living in. I ate a bag of sour worms, took a three-hour nap, and woke up with a plan. I crutched into the bathroom where I had my bottle of pain pills for my foot. I swallowed most of them, about twenty. I vaguely remember calling my mom and telling her that I loved her but life had just become too unbearable. I felt utterly alone and I just couldn’t go on anymore. I apologized and hung up. I cried so hard.
I honestly don’t remember much after that. I remember throwing up and falling in to a deep sleep until the next thing I saw was my mom standing over me. She had flown six hours to get to me. She leaned over me and as I looked up at her, groggy and still sad, she said to me, “Amanda, I’m here.” It was the first time I had felt love in months.
She took me to a family doctor, Dr. Ritter, and he diagnosed me for the first time with depression. He prescribed me antidepressants (which, by the way, caused me to have the worst tremors so I had to do some exploring with his help to find the right medication and the right dose). He also told me the changes had been too much and it would be in my best interest to go home.
I should quit.
If you know me, you know I don’t quit. I’ve been like that my whole life. I’m not one to give up, especially if someone tells me I should.
I balked. I dug in my heels. I said I was staying. And I did. I stayed in school and graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in English. I continued to live in Washington, though not with my grandma. Ironically, in 2004, when she became deathly ill and needed round-the-clock care, I was the one who stepped in and took on the role of caregiver. I gave her the love and compassion she never gave to me, and I learned it was because she didn’t ever know how. I stayed.
And I stayed in the world. I think about all the wonderful and glorious experiences and people I would have missed out on if I had succeeded that evening on February 14th, 2000. I never would have become a nurse. I never would have had the adventures I’ve had. I never would have become a mother to my fabulous daughters. I wouldn’t have had the pains and losses and heartbreak that I’ve had since then, either, but the good far outweighs the bad and I’m grateful for it all.
I’ve learned that I’m strong and resilient. I’ve learned that I can survive the isolation and hurtfulness from other people and turn it into a great compassion for others. My heart has been beaten, but rather than turning it hard, I’ve kept it soft and give it to anyone who needs it. I’ve developed a strong empathy for those with mental illness and suicidal thoughts. The biggest lesson is that we all have our own hurt and sometimes all we need to hear from others is “I’m here.”
If you are having thoughts of suicide or know someone struggling, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Or click the link to chat live with a trained professional. You are worth it.