I hear it float down to me from upstairs, first the creak of a door opening, then footsteps, then a voice, tentative, calling down to me.
I contemplate pretending I didn’t hear. He’s supposed to be in bed, long asleep by now since it’s late. Hell, I should be asleep too, it’s that kind of late, but I had let the guilty pleasure of a couch to myself seduce me.
And again, a little louder this time: “Mommy?”
He must be leaning over the banister, I think, irritated. Feelings compete for attention in my belly. Anger that he’s not asleep. Fear that he will wake his sisters. Worry, that late-night-only-in-the-dark kind of worry that will look completely irrational in the morning but right now sits heavy on me: maybe he’s not okay.
I unwrap my hands from around my mug of tea, try to keep my voice even. “What?”
And as soon as the word leaves my lips I hear his steps retreat, imagine him uncurling his lanky form from the banister, pulling the door almost shut (but not all the way) behind him. “Nothing,” he yells back over himself. “I was just making sure you were there.”
“I’m here,” I say, but more to myself than to him because he’s already gone.
It’s a thing I say to myself sometimes, two words strung together in an inelegant form of micro-prayer, maybe, a mantra of sorts. It’s half awe and half thank you, a love letter penned to the universe and to God and myself when I was 18.
After I tried to take my own life.
Yeah. That’s the story I haven’t told yet, the missing piece, the truth about me that presses into the dark sometimes, especially when I look at my life now. How could I have risked this? What arrogance could have convinced me that I knew better than God did, that whatever I was feeling at the time was big and deep enough to let it swallow me whole and throw away the gifts yet to come, the big ones like that boy on the banister and the others that came after, but also the smaller, everyday miracles like the peace I found on the couch tonight?
But then that’s not the whole truth either, at least not anymore. That’s the truth as seen through the eyes of a married mother of four in her late 30s. It’s the truth seen from a woman who sought help, eventually, who did the work, eventually, and who found some semblance of peace in her family and her friends and her yoga practice and her marriage and her words, eventually. It’s the truth of a woman who has put enough distance between herself and that suicide attempt to look at it as what it was: what happens when the late-night-only-in-the-dark kind of worry crosses over into the day time where it doesn’t belong.
I thought I was special back then too, that my pain was extraordinary, unnatural even. I thought I was alone, that no one could ever have understood the way I felt. I recognize these now for what they are: the lies that the darkness tells you. But then I bought them hook, line, and sinker, always trying to run from the pain with every ounce of strength I had, with food, with lack of food, with exercise, with booze. With distraction and isolation and boyfriends and TV and eventually, with my life.
A little time and distance though and the light makes plain the truth: that the pain comes with the joy. It’s the labor before the birth. The night before the dawn. The storm that soaks the soil before the bloom. You can’t let one in without the other either, I know, I tried for years, wrapping myself up in a big protective sheet of bubble wrap and bouncing around the edges of my life, playing at being human until it almost killed me. Until I almost killed me.
Because that’s the lesson, really, the only takeaway worth anything that came from that mistake. You can’t run away from the pain and live. The pain is as much a part of the process as the joy is. They are not opposites, not even close: the pain is just the other side of the same life coin.
And this life shifts fast, doesn’t it? That beautiful boy up there was a gleam in my eye when I stood in the disheveled beer bottle covered dining room of our first apartment 13 years ago and told Nick I was ready to start a family. He’s 12 now and doesn’t need me often, until he does, and he certainly won’t need me forever. His sisters and little brother are coming up fast behind him and every night or as often as I remember I lean into them at night and brush the hair from their foreheads and whisper, “I’m here,“ in their ears like I’m saying thank you.
Because I AM. I’m thankful for the things I haven’t missed. For the grace and forgiveness of that failure. For the way the ceiling of my joy has adjusted itself every year since then and made space for every new incredible thing I have been able to take in, including the pain. Yes, even that. Because this life is beautiful, and the pain is the price of admission.
And I will pay it a hundred times over, for the simple pleasure of a beautiful sunrise or a mug of tea heavy in my hands or another mile run or a hug from a longtime friend or the smile of a stranger across a crowded room. For the moments when life leans over the banister and calls out to me and I am able, still, to say the most priceless prayer of gratitude of all:
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National
Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free,
24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please
visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database