Jackie loved birds. She had become an amateur bird watcher often spending weekends with binoculars in hand nestled in a marshy spot along the coast of New Jersey. I actually didn’t know of this passion for birds; it had never come up during our college and post-college years. Those years were a time of black makeup, the Cure, partying and the occasional suicide attempt. She and I shared that passion, the journey into that deep, dark place where our only escape seemed to be to inflict pain on ourselves. After meeting Jaf in an elevator the first day of freshman year, we became almost inseparable. Except when she would go out to concerts or to parties with an edgier crowd than I was used to. I’d sit in my dorm room and burn myself with metal object heated over a candle or put cigarettes out on my hands.
I slit both of my wrists in the freshman towers that year. The next year Jackie took an overdose of pills in my apartment, was rushed to the hospital to have her stomach pumped, and wasn’t allowed to come back to Pitt. In many ways, it was best for both of us. I believe we loved each other passionately. I know we were soul mates. But we shared a darkness. After we had sex freshman year, I cried after because I really hadn’t wanted to do it. I believe I broke her heart in a couple of ways; she realized we’d never be together, and she realized the extent she had gone to try to have me.
That determination was soon funneled into an extraordinary return back to school and with her leaving Pittsburgh and eventually getting a PhD in chemistry in her late 20’s. She was one of the top chemists in the country, working at Merck, and had, in many ways, the world at her feet. People couldn’t help but fall in love with her. But she still had her darkness. It was a darkness passed on genetically from mother to daughter. I had never actually met her mother in all the years we knew each other; I just knew she hadn’t left the house in years. Literally. Her mother couldn’t leave the house. That was how Jackie grew up.
I know Jackie suffered from mental illness just as I can safely say I do as well. I often thought my issues were strictly addiction issues, but addiction doesn’t necessarily manifest itself at twelve years old, my first suicide attempt. I have spent more days of the past 40 years looking at the sun coming through the branches of the trees and feeling both elated and also wondering which branch would hold a noose. That’s been my reality, and while I don’t exactly know Jackie’s thoughts, I know she loved too much. As do I. And she didn’t ever get to the point where she allowed psychiatric medication to do what it could have done for her: save her life.
The last time I visited her home in New Jersey was a difficult visit in several ways. She was devastated by the fact my ex-partner and I had split up after 18 years. And I believe she was probably even more devastated I was launching a porn career. She feigned excitement for me, but I could see the pain in her eyes. She could feel my ex’s pain from 500 miles away, and I could see her own pain rising up as we talked. She didn’t ever think she would be loved. And what I couldn’t give her, I was about to give to guys while filming in front of a camera.
Did she really think that? I don’t know, but it’s the guilt and shame I have been carrying for ten years.
She told me she hated her job, and I did my best to encourage her to find another path. This is when she shared her passion for birds, and I told her to go be an ornithologist; she was young, she could do anything! There was something missing in her eyes during that visit, and I left feeling badly. Not just for her but also because of the doubt about my own recent life changes.
I got side tracked with an extended trip back to South Africa with my father. Jaf and I shared one email in January, and by the end of March, I was in Joshua Tree contemplating suicide again. I didn’t find out until weeks later that Jackie had been contemplating the same thing at the same time. Only she succeeded.
Why does this story matter outside of my wanting the opportunity to process what I haven’t been able to process in ten years? It matters because Jackie gave back her chance to recover, to rediscover the passion in her heart. She gave away the kitten she had just adopted, strung a rope around her neck and swallowed enough pills and alcohol to make her pass out. The week before she told a friend that she had unsuccessfully tried to gas herself in the garage with her car. As far as I know that was the only attempt to reach out, and unfortunately, it’s was over drinks in a bar listening to a band.
A suicide attempt is not always the often demeaned cry for help or call for attention people like to label it. It’s often an attempt to die, to end the pain. For me it’s always been a desire to start over, a do-over. My first suicide attempt was swallowing a cabinet full of over-the-counter cold medicine. I was essentially ’tisk, tisk’d,” by my mother, asked how I could do that to her and sent to school the next day high as a kite. After slicing my wrists freshman year, I was able to talk my way out of psychiatric care; I knew what to tell the emergency room doctors. In my late twenties while receiving outpatient care from Western Psych, I quickly got fed up with the help being offered and decided to make some personal changes. It lasted a good 8 years: sobriety, positive and healthy living. But I had never taken care of the real issue, that darkness. Days in to my 90 day stay at my first rehab in Canada I told my counselor I had been contemplating suicide. She, having just gotten to know me, said, “Honey, leave the drama for the stage.” I learned over the years that people don’t want to know about the darkness. Most people don’t know what that darkness looks like and it must scare the hell out of them.
Jackie and I both found comfort in the darkness. And I have battled it incessantly all my life. It wasn’t until this past autumn when, after an amazing run of Venus in Fur, a challenge unlike any I have ever had, I realized something was terribly wrong. I was on two different psychiatric medications but I was getting closer and closer to, deeper and deeper into, my dark place. I finally told my therapist I thought I should see a psychiatrist. I had been prescribed my medications 4 years earlier by a psychiatric nurse, but I had never actually seen an psychiatrist. I went, and he listened. He investigated. He asked the questions about these thoughts and feelings, and he suggested switching one of my meds. That was back at the beginning of December of last year. From the middle of December on, until today, I have stopped looking at tree branches and seeing a noose. I have stopped looking at the exhaust pipe of my car every single time I get in it. I have stopped worrying about shaving, about taking a bath, about driving. The darkness just isn’t there.
Again, why do I write this? Because therapy, psychiatric help, case management, a loving partner and family, a 12-step program, endless self-help books, all my years of life and experience have brought me to a place where I don’t want to die on a daily basis. Those of us who suffer and go into the darkness do not have to white knuckle it. We do not have to allow others who don’t understand where we go tell us that we should go it alone, without the assistance of a properly prescribed psychiatric medication, or worse, shame us into thinking we are cheating by taking a medication. I believe a visit to the doctor and then to a specialist should always be the first step of a recovery program.
Jackie loved birds but wouldn’t let them into her life fulltime, as a way to live, as a way to earn a living. That’s her greatest gift to me: I get to live my life through my passions. I remember her every time I have to make a decision: is this taking me closer to my passion or closer to my dark place? I have my answer in every bird at the feeders outside my windows..
photo credit: Gulls at Venice Beach via photopin (license)
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