The first time I considered killing myself, I was six. I realize I probably didn’t understand the concept of death then, just like I didn’t understand it when I slit my wrists at 15, or even now, when I think about my friend who passed away a few years ago.
I do remember, vividly, what I was thinking, though: I was in the walk-in closet in a room I shared with my little sister, in an old house outside of Chicago where I lived from 5- to 7-years old (I think). I used to shut the door, and line my books up against the walls to play “library.” There was a small white door to the crawlspace in the closet that my mom told me to never go into.
“The floors are unstable, and you’d fall through to the garage and die,” she said.
When she first told me this, I was terrified. Similar to how after she told me a man sprayed his semen -- or maybe she said it was his pee -- all over a food buffet with a water bottle, I avoided that cryptic white hobbit door just like I avoided eating at buffets. (Until I was 22, and by that time, buffets passed in my mind as “salad bars.” Miss you, NYC.)
But there was this time, when I was upset, that I looked at the tiny door differently. Should I go in? I wondered. I imagined my jumper-clad body lying facedown on the garage floor, with my limbs all twisted. Though the thought was scary, it stirred some sense of relief. I wanted to do it.
Eighteen years later, I recount what I know was the beginning of my suicidal ideations in a room full of about 20 people in rehab.
Unlike our regular group therapy, this session was held at the outpatient clinic. A selection of men and women were suggested to go (there were men and women’s houses, so we were only brought together for these kind of “outings”), bused over in white vans with the rehab’s name on it, and asked to sit in a large semi-circle of chairs, with boxes of tissues in the middle of it.
Up front, two counselors sat in chairs at each end of the circle, taking notes. In between them, the therapist, clad in black pants and a black t-shirt with white hair and tanned skin, led the discussion, occasionally darting around the circle like a shark. A baby blue wooden chair, meant for a toddler, was next to him.
That tiny child chair was really the only thing any of us were certain would be at this session, called “psychodrama.” (Except I would've known more, had I read Emily's article published last spring, ugh.)
“I talked to a little child chair, and this asshole got all up in my face,” one of the girls said two weeks earlier, about a day after I was moved from detox to the women’s house. I didn’t smoke, but sat around the smoking table to hear her talk, anyway.
“Then he acted like a fucking gorilla,” she said. She took a pull from her cigarette. “It was stupid. Fucked up.” She got quiet and stared straight ahead.
“Caitlin, you’re on the list for psychodrama,” a counselor told me a couple weeks later. She was standing in front of the white board near the entrance of the main house, where our day’s activities were written. My heart dropped. I scurried over to double-check.
“Fuck!” one of the girls next to me said. “Fuck [my therapist]! Why am I on this list?”
I stood, shocked, and didn’t ask any questions -- all of the women who had experienced the session weeks prior had already finished their 30 days and left. I knew the counselors wouldn’t tell us much. Plus, I knew why my therapist put me on the list.
The eight of us got into the van, and rode over quietly. My hands shook. “Now, this can be a very intense experience,” the counselor driving the van said. “But if you go into it with an open mind, it could be life changing. This man is unbelievable. They fly him down from San Francisco twice a month, just to do this.” (We were in Palm Springs.)
Once we filed in and sat “not clustered together,” as directed, the men came in to fill the remaining seats. A few of us knew each other from detox, so we caught up a bit. It was amazing how different those guys looked -- faces that were no longer gray, eyes no longer glazed. Then, the therapist came in.
He gave his whole spiel, as therapists counseling druggos tend to do, about how he was once an addict, and how he got clean, and the work he’s doing helping other people now.
He showed a picture of himself in his 20s, when he was a cocaine dealer in Haight-Ashbury. (He was totally ‘70s typical cocaine-dealer hot, by the way). He showed a picture of him as a baby (adorable and old time-y!), and talked about his childhood.
He instructed us to go around in a circle and do the same -- talk about our childhoods, and when we started using, and what led us to the point we’re at now.
A bunch of the men and women gave attitude, which is a mom way of saying “were being dicks” -- as newly recovering drug addicts tend to do. They vaguely skimmed the surface of their lives, e.g. “My childhood was happy and I started selling Oxy because I thought it was cool.”
He probed for more details. He gave attitude back. When he came to me, I felt something that I’ve come to know as surrender: I simply gave up. I need to make this work for me, I thought. And I said it: “I’ve been wanting to kill myself since I was six.”
I said some other stuff I’m not ready to write -- about my childhood, and my family. And I continued:
“I started drinking and using drugs when I was 14. Or maybe 13. I went from being perfect -- good grades, teacher’s pet -- to being bad. With a mohawk and stuff. I started cutting. A suicide attempt landed me in the hospital when I was 15. I’ve kept my head above water ever since, but I feel like I’m drowning.” I started crying.
Less than an hour in and I was already crying.
We finished going around the circle and broke to smoke cigarettes. I wasn’t the only one who was open. I still felt embarrassed and shaken, though. I smoked a cigarette. I felt high. Some of the guys patted me on the back. “Good job in there,” they said. I was relieved I admitted something to a room full of people I could hardly admit to myself.
“There are a few people I’m interested in,” the therapist said when we returned to the room. He asked some people questions, and eventually got to me. “Why are you really here?” he said.
“Because I’m angry,” I told him. Fuck me -- I was crying again. I took a deep breath and continued, “And I can’t figure out why.”
“What did your parents call you when you were little? Did you have a nickname or a cutesy name your mom or dad called you?”
I hesitated and almost choked. “C-c-Cakey,” I muttered.
“Cakey,” he said. “Put your hand over your heart and say, ‘I am a perfect child of God.’”
“I don’t believe in God,” I told him.
“OK, get up,” he said. “Ladies and gentlemen, what you’re about to witness is a mixture of intensive individual therapy and theater.”
“I don’t believe in theater, either,” I said, standing.
He grabbed my wrist, and pulled me in front of the blue child’s chair.
“Are you going to act like a gorilla?” I asked, nervously. He laughed a little.
“Oh you heard about that,” he said.
He became stern. “I want you to look at that chair, and I want you to talk to 6-year old Cakey. Where is she sitting?”
“I can’t,” I said. “I seriously hate theater and acting. I’m a writer.” I looked around the room, and everyone was staring at me with straight faces. One of the women from my house -- this awesome, blonde, bubbly flight attendant -- nodded at me and smiled, as if saying, “Keep going…”
“Stop looking at other people,” the therapist said. He grabbed my shoulder, and turned me to face the little chair. “Talk to Cakey.”
I had imagined myself doing this in my head so many times: Going into that closet, and talking to 6-year old me -- the little blonde girl with the fucked up bangs and patterned Spandex pants. I imagined myself hugging her and saying, “It’s OK,” and, “This isn’t your fault.”
“This isn’t your fault,” I said to the little chair. I started laughing.
“Why are you laughing?” the therapist said, angrily. “Do you think it’s funny that you’re suicidal?”
“I mean, come on, this is kind of funny,” I told him. “I’m in rehab and talking to a children's chair.” I looked up at everyone in the circle. No one cracked.
He grabbed my wrist, and sat me in the chair. I was surprised it didn't collapse.
“Cakey,” he looked down at me and said, soothingly.
I held my breath. “Yes?”
“I have Caitlin here, but she doesn’t want to talk to you.” I nodded, confused. “She really wants to help, but she can’t. Do you know why?”
I asked him why. Fuck surrendering. I was back to my mode the first two weeks of rehab: Fake it till you make it.
“Because there’s someone here in the way,” he said. He got angry again. “Get up.”
I stood. He grabbed my shoulder, and pulled me back to the position I was in when I was trying to talk to the little chair. “Do you know who’s standing in your way?” he asked me sternly.
“Um… No?” I said.
He turned me back around, in front of the child chair, facing him.
“Hey,” he said, adopting another voice, like a '30s gangster or some kid from pre-hipster Brooklyn. I really wanted it to end. “Toughen up. You’re 14 years old. You’re a cutter. You use drugs. You drink. You’re a badass.” I cocked my head and wondered how I could make this stop. “Sit back down in the chair.” I did.
“Cakey, Caitlin wants to talk to you, but Badass is in the way,” he said. “There are some other people here who want to talk to you.” He pointed to one of the men in the group and told him, “Talk to Cakey.”
“Hi Cakey,” the guy said, naturally. He smiled at me like you would at a 6-year old. “How are you?”
Snot started running down my face. I wiped it away with my wrist. I looked at the therapist desperately. “I’m… good?”
“Get back up!” the therapist said. “You are Caitlin now. I want you to talk to the Badass -- you at 14.”
And then, I don’t know if it was all the getting up and sitting down that had my head spinning, or if I was high on cigarettes and snot, or just exhausted from being so humiliated and crying, but I finally saw it: I saw me at 14. The black dye in my hair, the cuts running up my arms. The knee-high military boots I always wore, my red plaid skirt, my eyeliner-raccoon eyes.
Behind her, I saw a little girl. She looked like one of the little kids I babysat, and like a girl I saw in old pictures of, um, me.
I felt like a horse with blinders on. The rest of the room started to blur.
“Do you see her?” the therapist asked.
“Yes,” I whispered. I averted my eyes from the child, who had her head down, to 14-year old me.
“I want you to tell her, ‘You did a very good job at protecting Cakey.’”
I repeated after him, my words broken, still blubbering. “I want you to tell her thank you for being brave, and for doing what she had to do to help Cakey survive, but that we don’t need you anymore.”
I repeated his words again. “…I don’t need you anymore.”
He directed me to sit back in the child’s chair. He pulled up a chair next to me. Then he talked to me like I was a child.
I stopped resisting. I cried harder. I heard later that most of the people in the room were crying (I still couldn't see anyone else at this point).
I wish I could fill in some details, so that this story could make more sense. But there are some things I can’t write about right now, and -- as my therapist suggested -- there are probably people I’m trying to protect.
The words that came out of me during that conversation, though, were like none I had ever formulated before.
To keep it vague: I think I was too young to understand what was happening, and once I started to, I did whatever I could to numb it out -- as us humans tend to do.
Or I felt uncontrollably angry, and I couldn’t figure out why.
After that session, I understood why. And in rehab, I had no way to numb it out.
I had pictured myself going into that closet before, telling 6-year-old Caitlin that I was OK. I had never thought to forgive myself as a teenager: That maybe, I made those choices, or became “bad,” because it was the only way I knew how to protect myself. I was doing what I had to do, and I was an adult now -- a different person -- who didn’t need to do these things to protect myself any more.
Unbeknownst to most people, I went to rehab voluntarily, for my future children. Yes, I was fucking angry. The payoff of this intensive treatment to me, though, was that maybe I'd be better for my children.
That session, as embarrassing as it was (one of the guys said, “What’s up, Cakey?” at a 5K we ran together a week later), showed me that I wanted to be good to myself.
I ended the performance with the therapist with my hand over my heart and said, “I am a perfect child of God.” I stood up, smiled, and did a curtsey.
And then I went back to the women’s house and slept for 12 hours straight.
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