by Darlene Milam
The written word has always been my best friend. During my times of darkness as a child, it helped me to escape the fears and insecurities of my life. In junior high and high school, it gave me something to focus on other than schoolwork. In college, it made me feel complete and that I was still human. After my descent into depression, it was stolen from me. My mind could no longer comprehend the page. Black letters upon that white background overwhelmed me because stringing meaning from those symbols took extra effort.
In classes, I was always able to make sense of textbooks and do the minimum, but the pleasure and processing ability was no longer there. My writing fizzled into nothing. My poetry was about my lack of purchase on words and dissociation and the milky nothingness of my mind.
Twelve to thirteen years of slowly losing myself to rounds of depression and mania and starving myself to death… My mind was a battlefield of shorted neurons and misfiring pulses. I would read, but have no memory of what I read. I could write one line of prose or poetry and sit for hours staring at the page, unsure of what word could possibly go next.
I felt as though my soul had been torn asunder and my mind could barely grapple with reality. Is it no wonder that I wished so badly for death? My connection to the world was gone.
Repeatedly, I was asked what I wanted from treatment. Repeatedly, I told them, “I want my brain back.” What did that even mean? I no longer knew. I am still unsure.
“Be more specific. What do you specifically want back?”
I stared at them, frustrated with their lack of insight. They did not know me. They did not know of my fascination with literature and how dumbed down I felt when all I did was watch television. I frequently referred to television as the soma for the masses and yet, there I was every day, parked in front of it, longing for some connection to ideas greater than myself.
“I want to read again. I want to get back to my writing.”
My illnesses continued to rob me and my therapist said,
“We need a different reason for you to live. This want to read and write is not sustaining you.”
I knew of no other reason to live. There was no joy. I dreaded every morning. Walking was an effort. Eating was horrifying. Shelves of books sat in my room, getting dusty from lack of use. My friends didn’t know what to say to me, so they stopped calling and stopped answering their phones. One friend called me to wish me a happy Christmas and was embarrassed to tell me she had gotten married. “I didn’t want to share my joy with you while you were going through such a hard time.” That hurt so much. I would have loved to congratulate her when it had happened and to share in her joy. My disease had also robbed me of my friends’ joys.
I was in school to be a teacher and I was pretty sure that I would hate that job. Every class left me hating the career. Lesson plans were a nightmare and I wanted to drop out before I even started my second clinical.
There was nothing left for me. No career. No future. No words. No friends. My family was there, but I had been carefully blocking them out of my life for years, despite living in the same house with them. The only people I trusted were my treatment team and I was angry with them for telling me that I needed to eat and to stop hurting myself and that I was going to die. I knew all of these things, but the greater part of me wanted to die. I was lost in my skeleton.
Finding a reason to live should be an easy task. However, for me, it was impossible. For nearly twenty years, I had been pondering suicide. I always hated how people called it selfish. In truth, at 11, when the idea first really occurred to me, I was convinced that my family would be better off without me. I was expensive: food, braces, medical issues, and I was so sensitive… And I was sure they would be happier without me. Sure, they would be upset at first, but they would get over it. Right?
However, the one thing that I always questioned was whether they would have enough money immediately available for a funeral. I knew those were expensive. Plus, I was not certain, not really anyway, as to what would happen to my body and as to whether or not, money would really be saved by my death. So, when people tell me how selfish suicide is, I want to argue that they have no idea what pain a person is suffering and what the reasons are behind the interest to end one’s existence.
After twenty years of not being sure that I wanted to live, having attempted suicide once, and multiple hospitalizations to keep me from killing myself, I was really not certain that I knew of a reason to live. In all honesty, I was surprised that I lived beyond high school graduation.
People tell me reasons to live: “You’re bright.” “You’re talented.” “You have so much potential.” “You have a great family.” “You’re loved.” All of these reasons that meant nothing to me and provided me with no reason as to why I would prove to be beneficial to anyone else.
Each one I had a response for. “I was bright, but now my brain is gone.” “I am talented, but I can no longer write.” “I did have potential, but now I’m looking at disability because I can’t even walk out of my house without a Xanax.” “My family loves me, I am sure, but they would be better off without me.” “My friends are tired of me.” In short, as time went on and my disease progressed, I found more and more reasons to die. I had lost myself, my reason to live, and any hope of having a future.
Finding a reason to live was not easy. So, the focus became on trying to live first. Actions first, thoughts and beliefs change later. At least, that is what my therapist said as he coaxed me through this whole process.
I do not know what question I was asked, or even what show or movie I watched that prompted me to make a bucket list. However, as I started to identify the things that I wanted before I died, I started to identify reasons to live. I wanted to see Europe. I had a dear friend that pushed me to believe in possibilities. And Europe, she assured me, was waiting for me. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to raise awareness. I wanted to start speaking my mind. I started remembering all of the things I cared about before my mind became the disorder and began to focus on how I was more than this suicidal anorexic bipolar mess. I was human. I cared deeply about victims of violence and supporting human rights. I wanted to know about the world and so, after months of searching for a reason and eating just because I had to, I found a reason to eat and began to focus on life beyond my disorders.
Now, I talk to people every day about recovery and urge people to choose life over addiction and harmful behaviors. I urge them even on the days when my brain is screaming for an end to this pain and madness that exists in my brain. I keep hoping I will make a difference and keep reminding myself that I must fight for myself to fight for them. My bucket list disappeared when I burned a journal, wanting desperately to erase those dark moments in my life, but I miss my list and I keep thinking I know what is on it, but I don’t and I keep wanting to commit to something bigger than myself, but now, I am balancing recovery while managing a job and relationships—something that was impossible just 18 months ago.
I still need a reason for recovery. I think everyone needs a reason to keep going. I want to be more and do more than what is expected of me. I never want to give in to my illness again and yet, I know, there will be a day of not wanting to keep going and a yearning to quit. So, here is to making a new bucket list. May sufferers everywhere find the top ten reasons to keep going. Be it to see the Taj Mahal, or to see one’s granddaughter dance at her wedding. Focus on the future and keep fighting. No one can fight for you. Cheerleading occurs on the sidelines; the battle is on the field and it is a battle for life. Keep fighting and find your own bucket list.