I have a student who is writing a book about trauma. She’s a therapist, as well as a second-generation Holocaust survivor. The book’s main narrative claim is that trauma is something we never really get over. People who experience any sort of trauma in their lifetime, she says, can never heal entirely. The best they can do is learn to live with it. The memory of whatever happened will always be there.
I think there’s truth to this. Maybe every experience we live through, good and bad, marks us on the inside, like the rings of a tree.
Today, or sometime around today, is an anniversary that I felt in my body before the why came to mind. Around this time, in 2010, a good friend of mine took her own life. She was 27 years old.
I woke up this morning thinking about this, about her. Then, on my Facebook feed there was this article about people in the queer community living with suicidal ideation. I have at least two friends who have told me, more than once, that they sometimes seriously think of killing themselves. Present tense -- as in this is a reoccurring thought they have. What do you say to people who feel this way? What do you say to help people for whom suicide is seriously considered as an option?
Natalia’s problems, on the outside, were of the ordinary variety. Her parents were divorced and she lived with her mom, who was -- by Natalia’s accounts -- an active alcoholic. Natalia was trying to move out of the house and into her own place. She was saving up the money, but it was more than just money that kept her from moving on. She had a lot of shame over where she was from.
Growing up, it seemed she’d taken care of her mom rather than the other way around. She once told me that the apartment had never been painted and that one time she had tried to convince her mom to let the Super in to do the job -- it is written in most NYC leases that renters are entitled to having their apartments painted every two years -- but her mother refused. She grew up in one of those homes where people were not allowed in.
Maybe as a result of her living situation, she spent a lot of time at my apartment, which was between where she worked and the subway she took home. The summer that we were best friends, she came over after work nearly every day. I used to get mad at her sometimes for coming over nearly every day and borrowing my clothes and eating my food and not really thinking anything of it.
I was struggling financially -- like I’m always struggling financially -- working very hard to build the life that, by all outside appearances, I felt I deserved. I had just left a relationship and was trying to establish myself -- to be an independent adult and to take care of myself -- and so I didn’t always feel like I had enough to share.
I didn’t have very many friends prior to Natalia. Natalia taught me how to be a friend. She and I only became as close as we did because she was persistent. For some reason I couldn’t then understand, she really liked me.
We talked about recovery. We talked about God. We talked about boys. She loved my hair. She was always playing with it, like a little girl would. She adored my apartment. I think the life I was trying to build was just what she imagined for herself.
Some months after we had become really good friends, Natalia showed me a scrapbook filled with pictures she’d meticulously cut and pasted out of magazines, girls in frocks with ombre hair. Big white beds, just like mine, in apartments with hardwood floors and exposed brick.
I think Natalia had the same fears that any of us who were never taken care of have -- a feeling of inordinate overwhelm at the thought of finding herself an adult with no other adults to rely on, not really, and with no real vision of what an adult woman’s life is meant to look like.
I tried to help her find a place. I introduced her to my colorist. I encouraged her to date. In many ways, it was the blind leading the blind.
A month after she killed herself, I lost my job and I had to move and she could have literally taken over my apartment. She could have had it all -- I would have just given it her.
When I met Natalia, in our very first conversation, she told me she sometimes fantasized about ending her life. It didn’t register because I didn’t love her then. I think I asked if she had a plan and she said no.
Mine was a boilerplate response. By the time I’d grown to love her, I’d forgotten all about our first conversation. She never mentioned it again.
Our last conversation was over text. We hadn’t seen one another for some weeks. I thought she was keeping her distance because I was going through some shit, and to be honest I felt a little abandoned.
One day, out of nowhere, she texted, “Melissa, I cannot tell you how wonderful my life is right now.”
In a moment only to be accredited to the grace of God, I swallowed my irritation and replied, “I’m so happy to hear that.”
I asked if she was coming to my birthday party the following week and she replied, “I wouldn’t miss it.”
Two days later, she threw herself off a roof.