“The most precious light is the one that visits you in your darkest hour.” ~ Mehmet Murat ildan
I’ve been embarrassed, ashamed, and silent about this part of my life. I’ve had my lips zipped for 18 years.
Only a few folks close to me and perhaps a few ex-boyfriends, the ones I really trusted and saw a future with, know this secret that I’m not keeping secret anymore. I can’t. It’s too late. It has recently burst forth from my heart to be shared.
Something happened to me this week that pulled this ugly old skeleton out of my closet in a way so unexpected and subtle, it shocked me.
I volunteered (goddess knows why!) to participate in a grief group for a group therapy class I’m taking. We were asked to pick a loved one who has passed on to focus on; I chose my grandmother.
It has been over 15 years since her passing, so I thought I made a safe choice, because I didn’t really feel like crying in front of a bunch of fellow students I don’t know all that well. In the group, I drew a picture about what grandma meant to me—a big golden and purple halo over a few symbolic things, flowers and water, that at that moment, seemed rather cliche.
My subconscious chose the halo. My conscious mind realized after the fact that it was because grandma’s earthly presence meant protection and nurturing to me. This was something I did not quite understand all those years ago—a piece of my grief puzzle that perhaps would have prevented a whirlwind of suffering. Perhaps. However, time could not be turned back.
Fast forward to three hours after group and grad school classes ended. I headed to the grocery store for apples.
Instead, I wept for her there in the parking lot. Something just washed over me as I got closer to the grocery store. What I’d held back in class burst forth in tears and heaving sobs. In my aria of grief, I wept for myself. Lost and alone—drowning in a sea of sadness.
As rain pelted my car windows, I reached for a tissue and found the box empty. It was in that tissue-less, snotty-nosed moment that I found myself. I found out who I was in the tears shed in a running car, surrounded by the dark of night, yellow parking-spot lines peeking at me. When the sobbing stopped, I became aware of my surroundings.
Rewind to 1998.
Spring semester. It was rough. I was an overly ambitious sophomore who chose to challenge herself by taking junior and senior classes. Grandma had been in rehab after losing the ability to walk due to a cancerous tumor. She learned to walk again and suddenly fell. She was in a nursing home at this time and I was in serious denial of her state of health.
“She is dying,” my sister said to me after she went to visit. I had been there two days before and she was cognizant . I remember bringing her healing stones. She smiled sweetly at my gesture to help. I now understood the far off look she had in her eyes. When she asked me to stay to watch a movie, I said I had to drive back to college before dark, as I was a terrible night driver. If I had known this was the last interaction we’d have, I would have stayed. I wished I’d stayed. She knew this was it—I didn’t.
My mouth opened but the words became lodged in my throat when my mom called me to say she passed away—just three days after I’d left her bedside.
Something in me was alone for the very first time in my life. The gaping vortex that grandma’s death opened up would take me 18 years to peer into with complete presence.
It was with sheer courage that I wept in the Wegman’s parking lot a few nights ago. I held myself in that space of sadness, grief and longing. I held myself by being present with the tears and the wails and the utter rawness of it all. I was present with the dark—in my mind and all around me. My car running on a chilly February evening in upstate New York. At the end of it all, I had a flashback of a car running.
Rewind 18 years.
I was 19 years old. I was alone in my grandfather’s old car—a brown Chevy Citation. I left a group therapy session with my mother, furious. I had just come back from three months in Scotland, where I became majorly depressed. I went to connect with my grandmother’s heritage.
I went with the support of inheritance she’d left me. She promised to take my sister and cousin and I there, to explore our roots. I went solo. It was one of the loneliest journeys of my life. I hadn’t left the country, other than family jaunts to Niagara Falls. I remember sweating nervously on the plane and getting off for a layover in a very small Irish airport, feeling numbed by the unfamiliar green walls and thick, brogue-ish accents of the airport security.
I stayed like that—numbed—for two and a half months in Edinburgh. Numbed until I my heart began to spontaneously thaw out. My thawing process began after spending five days in bed listening to Ani Difranco’s Living in Clip album on repeat.
Missing my presence, one of my American friends brought me a latte and a chocolate muffin, thinking that was all I needed to get up and be myself again. I remember rolling my eyes at her gesture, which did taste quite yummy and fill some desire to be nurtured and acknowledged. Just as sheepishly as she entered my room, she left, slightly rocked by my less than joyful state. I was not a joyful girl at that time. Perhaps Ani’s biting lyrics rang true to me in a way that I was scared to admit.
My sadness hit me so hard when I got out of bed and turned off Ani. So hard, in fact, that I didn’t like being in my own skin. I sought out the University of Edinburgh counseling center. I remember telling the therapist, a very stately older British man, in a dark and dimly lit office with walls filled with books, that I would rather die than go on.
His bushy eyebrows raised and his face contorted into both a worried and harried look. “Did I say something wrong?” I thought to myself. “Hmmmm,” was his response. I left there feeling more alone than I ever had in my life.
I still didn’t understand the depths of my sadness. The outer layer of these feelings was so dark that I feared letting myself actually ride them through. Instead, I decided to run.
I withdrew from classes. I flew home, even though home was not home anymore.
Without my grandmother, my mother was not a safe person to be around. I knew that for a fact. That was my first puzzle piece, and the only one I was allowed to see for almost two decades.
I flew home and I became sadder. So sad, in fact, I didn’t know where to go.
I left my parents’ house and moved in with my mom’s best friend and her two children, who were like family to me. But even their company was not enough.
I remember spending evenings at home in the days of archaic instant messenger, trying to meet people to date, just for the sake of companionship. I made a few friends online and turned into real world meetings, but even sitting face-to-face with a person over coffee, I felt alone. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was depressed.
Rewind to group therapy—my mom’s brilliant idea.
Any sort of tension arose, and she sought out “the experts”. I remember thinking the woman who ran the group was an idiot. A major tension arose within me in the group and it wasn’t addressed. I sat quiet—seething. No one noticed. The therapist let me seethe. I left there boiling over. I did something wrong, very wrong, according to my moral standards. Up to that point in my life—all 18 years of it—I’d never broken a law.
This night, I screeched out of the parking lot, where I ended up at a very empty grocery store. I immediately walked to the pharmacy section and stole a bottle of sleeping pills. A rage had filled me. This rage seemed to be driving my car. It took me to the neighborhood where my mom grew up, right by my grandparents old house, the one I spent so many fun visits at as a child—running around the big lawn, picking raspberries in the summer and swimming in the neighbors in-ground pool.
The house was still white with black shutters. Lights were on and figures were moving about in front of some curtain-free windows. Life existed, just like it did 15 years ago. My rage fell into my chest and a sadness overcame me. I couldn’t cry, and so I drove. I drove right to the school where we used to play on the playground. It was just down the street. There was an empty parking lot. I parked my car. It was so cold out, the middle of February, so I stayed in the car.
I opened the bottle of pills. I thought of my grandparents as I did. I swallowed and swallowed and swallowed until they were gone. It didn’t take long.
I was wearing the pea-coat I got in London, where I spent two days before I flew back to the States. It felt tight, but warmed me. I got very sleepy. That was the last memory before I awoke, groggy, in a white bed with bright lights shining on my head. Then I was out cold again. The next time I awoke, both my mother and my aunt were standing over me. My mother had a look of sad disapproval.
“Where am I?” I said, even though I knew where I was. I made it.
What did I make? What had I done?
A waft of shame washed over me. Shit. That was stupid.
Within that shame—was relief. That big black cloud I’d been carrying had vanished, almost completely.
Beside me there a young 20-something woman—eating chicken wings.
“You’re still on suicide watch, Sarah. You have to have a one-to-one until they evaluate you,” my mom said with a slight apology, as if it was her fault this had happened. Some part of me was happy she was so regretful and apologetic. Some part of me thought that our horrible connection did play a part in this unexplainable act.
I remember being looked at like a mutant by my one-to-one supervisor—like I was a monkey to be tamed.
I was shitting green bile and they had to walk with me to the bathroom. My humanness was suddenly on display for nurses and aides and doctors and family to see. I was no longer invisible. I was very visible. I accepted this visibility with mixed emotions. I was unsure about how to handle it.
And so, upon evaluation they found that I was no longer a risk to myself, so my one-to-ones were sent home and I was sent to the psychiatric unit for further care until I was deemed well enough.
I recall that there was one intern in the mix of psychiatrists, nurse practitioners, and nursing staff that saw me.
Her name was Kristin. She came in and smiled at me and it was apparent that she viewed me as a human and an equal. My heart opened in her presence and, because of her down to earth bedside manner, I was able to process some of the grief I’d been holding in since the semester my grandmother had died.
I remember Kristin bringing in a DBT workbook and having a conversation that alluded to the fact that my mother may have had a borderline personality disorder, and my self-harming behaviors were characteristic borderline features. Some of the exercises helped me understand the origin of my own self-harming behaviors.
The bed in my room was next to a window. A beautiful big oak tree stood tall in front of this window. A warm front hit Rochester that week. The sun was shining and birds were chirping in the branches of the oak tree. A week into my stay at the psych ward, I found myself looking out at the tree in the middle of the afternoon, after putting down a book I’d been reading to pass the time. A deep peace ran through my veins and I smiled.
I smiled a genuine smile of pure inner contentment, and I had the thought:
I don’t know what that darkness was, but it is gone. I’m okay. And I will be okay, because I am loved.
I felt loved. I didn’t know it then, but I know it now. In that moment, I tapped into the source of deep and endless self love. What I didn’t know in that moment, was that there was a long journey ahead for me to feel the constancy of that love. To get there, I would have to continue to do the work to get to know my innermost self. And that work has meant sitting with myself as if I were sitting with my very best of friends (because that’s truly what I am doing) in all states of emotion.
Fast forward to this past week.
Me in a dark car, sobbing, with some cheesy music on the radio, music I can’t even hear above my wails.
The moment I stop, take a breath, and feel relief. That one moment was the moment I couldn’t give myself 18 years ago. That one moment was the most precious, loving moment I’ve experienced in all of my life. I was there for myself. I was my own anchor through my own storm.
My sadness for my grandmother and grandfather was much deeper than I thought—it was the loneliness of a young girl who felt abandoned, not only by the people that made her feel the most safe in this life, but also by the people that brought her into this world.
In the darkness of the parking lot I found my deepest light, a light that melted the shame I’ve held onto for 18 years. This is the first time I’ve opened up publicly about what was literally my dark night of soul.
We all have a story. We all have had dark nights and even days. Ultimately, the details of the story don’t matter. When we break down our stories, we find a common thread—deep suffering and unprocessed emotions. But in order to heal, we need to open up about our stories, if not to others, then to ourselves.
When we can hold our story, we shed light on our darkest place. It is in that dark place that we meet our true self. It takes courage to go there, and the support of your deepest and most profound self. We all have that courage. It took me 18 years to realize I do. Now that I’ve realized it, I won’t let it go—and I hope you don’t either.
Suicide is a serious thing. If you are feeling lost, alone, afraid and have thought of harming yourself, please reach out for help. There are both local and national suicide hotlines. Professional counselors are also there. Know there is help. Sometimes we need the help of professionals to get us through our darkness. I did.
Author: Sarah Lamb
Image: Charles Harry Mackenzie/flickr
Editor: Lieselle Davidson