When Death Seems Best

After losing god, my community, and my reputation, I now also faced the prospect of losing my family. To leave the Mormon church is not a small thing. Many of us who leave, leave with nothing. Not our friends. Not our family.

I simply was not ready for this final loss.

You might think that walking away from an abusive family is easy. It sure is sensible. But they were all the family I had, and I loved them. I had hope for us. But I also could not go on pretending I was still Mormon, pretending that I still believed. The tension between the truth and the risk of all that might happen if I told it was unbearable.

Caught between two impossible choices, something unsurprising happened. I developed severe depression, and I became suicidal.

I did try to tell my friends about my father’s abuse, about the loss of my faith. But all of us were 19. We were all of us beautiful disasters. All of us wrapped up in ourselves, trying to make sense of childhood and the sudden arrival of adulthood. And something else that many people don’t know: when you’ve experienced trauma, it can take months and even years to find the words for it. So when I offered a sentence here or there, stumbling towards words that would convey my grief, my friends would rush into the blanks I drew, spilling words of their own pain over my blank pages.

You think your family is bad, get a load of this.

But you still believe in God, right?

I became more sullen and withdrawn, I saw malice where it didn’t exist, and people withdrew from me. My depression began to isolate me. So I tried the psychology professor with whom I had sat discussing ethics and philosophy and psychology for hours on end. “I don’t have any friends,” I confessed to him one day. This was the closest I could come to admitting how wholly abandoned I felt. How rejected. How hated.

Bob stared at me for a moment, his eyes growing very round and wide like he had choked on something and could not breathe. And then he smiled. “I’m sure you have friends.”

“Well, a couple pen pals.” I admitted. I tried to give a brave smile, although I was close to tears.

His eyes grew round again, and then he simply shrugged. “Well.” And I knew the conversation was over.

His blatant favoritism had not helped matters, and I suspect he knew it. I had been in his classes for a year by then, and he had become overly familiar with me. He addressed many of his lectures to me. Staring only at me. So fixedly that some of my classmates had turned in their seats to see who he was looking at. Once, he even jogged after me when I didn’t wait for him after class. “So,” he said, slowing down beside me, panting from the exertion. In class, he stared at me as he posed questions, as he slipped brain scans onto the overhead projector, as he sucked on pen caps to demonstrate infant sucking patterns.

I was utterly in love with him. A useless, obsessive, toxic love that only abused young women can offer.

And he had encouraged it.

The end result was that I became isolated from my peers. My classmates stood in clumps outside the building, whispering and laughing and glancing at me as he talked with me on the breezeway after class.

He glared at them. I could tell he felt superior, and he believed I was, too. He liked my attention and my intelligence because it confirmed he was exceptional. But when I came to him asking for help or at least reassurance, I sensed, even at 19, that he was afraid of the repercussions. A middle-aged professor at a community college and a teenage student. Psychologist that he was, when I came to him with what looked very much like clinical depression, very much like a young person at the end of her rope, he did not recommend me to the campus counseling center nor did he suggest any other resources.

He simply shrugged.

I was only beginning to learn that if people can see themselves playing any part in your suffering, they are not going to help you out of it. They will deny all knowledge of it and, if push comes to shove, blame you. This is as true of the suffering engendered by racism as it is of abuse and simple exploitation.

My mother, when I confessed I was thinking of killing myself, had a similar reaction.

“Maybe you should see someone about that,” she said and flipped a page in her clothing catalog.

*             *             *

As the depression closed in, everything around me became a potential instrument of death. It is miraculous how single-minded the suicidal brain is. When I did the laundry, I stared at bleach bottles and wondered how much I would have to drink. One bottle? Two? When I drove home from church, I studied the guardrail that wound around a sharp curve. How fast would I have to go? Electrical outlets were tempting, but electrocution could go on so long. You never know. Instantaneous—or, zippity-zap, you’re back. And then it’s the whole rigamarole again. The family toaster with a fork. Or an electric razor dropped into a bathtub. But it presented the same problem. A swan dive from the perch in our cedar tree where I still nestled in, sometimes staying long after dark, my hands red with cold.

The problem was, I had to be certain. I didn’t want to end up disabled. Vegetative. Paralyzed. That would only ensure an eternity under my parents’ roof, attending my parents’ church.

I needed a plan. I’ve always loved a good plan. When I travel, I make meticulous plans. I research hotels as carefully as stocks. I study maps as if they will tell me my future. I memorize every bus transfer and every street name months ahead of time.

So I came up with a plan.

It was a magnificently stupid plan. The kind of plan only a depressed mind could conjure. And a truly perverse idea for someone born in the world’s wealthiest country.

I would starve myself to death.

I had always been underweight. Rapid weight loss had been, for me, the problem that rapid weight gain was for many of my peers. A variation in my diet, a slight adjustment to portion size, and I had dropped pounds the way other people dropped a backpack. Already anemic and bone-thin, damaging my body was not going to be hard.

What I didn’t appreciate was how long it would take to die that way.

In school, I had learned it should take three weeks, tops. I could do that. Just eat nothing at all. Three weeks, and it would all be over.

At the thought of it, I felt such gratitude. Death was such a sweet thing. To just be able to lie down and be done. There was nothing else to wish for.

The problem was, I had to eat something. It was impossible to predict what my parents might do if they noticed. It was unlikely they would notice, but still. I had seen the documentaries where they institutionalized young women with eating disorders. I didn’t want to risk it.

So maybe not three weeks then. Maybe two months.

In two weeks, I lost more than 20 pounds. At five feet seven inches, I was now just barely over 100 pounds. It seemed to be working.

I had finished my first summer quarter at college, and the world didn’t have a use for me. So I spent my days lying on the floor in my bedroom. My parents, who had a habit of opening my closed door and demanding that I do something useful, stopped checking in on me. Everyone in that house began to leave me alone. So I simply stared out the window at the clouds. I didn’t have the strength to want much of anything anymore, but when I did, I wanted to be that. A cloud. A wisp of vapor that evaporated and then condensed and then evaporated again. Something that was here, and then—the light from a star, a breath of wind—gone.

*             *             *

I didn’t know it yet, but I was waiting. Somewhere deep in the folds of my brain, I had chosen this plan, the slowest suicide attempt ever, to stall for time. I never completely lost hope that life, that my future could be something different.

There were the what-if’s of the electrical outlets and bleach bottles and high-up tree limbs.

And then there were the other what-if’s, too. The what-if’s of things that hadn’t been but might be yet. Of change. Of days on which the sun had not yet rose, but might—if I could stand to wait for them.

If I could wait just a little bit longer.

And something else I didn’t know yet. Men had done this to me. But other men, different men—one 18 and one long dead—were speeding their way towards me, inevitable as those other suns, carrying words that would save my life.

If I could just wait for them.

Just a little longer became the only prayer I knew. The only words I thought. And I do not know if it was a prayer for death or a prayer for the rescue that I did not yet know would come.

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