passion bites

How Writing Saved Me From Suicide

Posted by Kenmari Howell

In 2003, my best friend and first love killed himself. He would have turned 39 on Flag Day. He did it because he wanted to see more of his newborn son and his ex wouldn’t let him, so he shot himself. His death didn’t punish his ex—it punished his son and those of us who loved him.

I hated him for it, but I was no stranger to suicide. I grew up with an alcoholic mother who used suicide as a weapon to control me.

I was six when my parents divorced. I was more relieved than sad. I understood their unhappiness and wished my father freedom from the raging tornado of my mother. But in the mangled aftermath of their marriage, I was left to fend for myself. My mother drowned herself in liquor; my father drowned himself in women.

In drunken stupors, my mother would threaten to kill herself to gain sympathy after a tiring night of beating and berating me, or to make me do what she wanted—which usually meant sitting in the car while she hung out at the bar. I spent far too many nights believing I’d saved her life while she endangered mine.

Moments of joy in my childhood were measured against my mother’s absence—a timeline punctuated with bruises, slurred expletives, and vodka spittle. Her absence brought a silence that felt almost maternal. Her presence meant a constant battle just to exist.

Sometimes, she’d urge me to commit suicide because I wasn’t wanted, nobody loved me, why didn’t I just do it already? 

There are some good memories, of course, but even those seem to be viewed from the bottom of a bottle.

I spent too much of my childhood in pain. It hurt just trying to wake up and breathe. Some days, even my fingernails and eyelashes ached from the effort of it all.

I can only wonder if that is how Kate Spade or Anthony Bourdain felt—or all the souls we lose every day to suicide—that to even roll over and bury their face in a pillow was excruciating.

We can look and judge their bank accounts and empires as measurements of happiness and proof of livability. But the truth is, sorrow sometimes looks exactly like happiness.

A brave face often has a bigger smile and a louder laugh than a clown without a care.

Few people knew what I was going through. Even my father, who’d been witness to her rage when they were together, never understood just how bad it was. Abuse is just like depression that way—it can hide in plain sight behind a 100-watt smile.

At any given moment, Death felt like it was one belt strike away from me. And for my mother, I always assumed it was lurking in the next swig of Jim Beam, waiting patiently for her to take a taste of her own mortality.

The probability that she would kill herself or me felt so high, I made a game of it.

If she makes it through the day, I will do my homework.

If she doesn’t beat me tonight, I will go to bed early.

If we don’t crash, I will clean the kitchen.

If she doesn’t leave me in a bar, I will make my own breakfast in the morning.Depression broke bread with us every day, but it wasn’t the guest of honor. We held dinner parties for silent monsters with place cards for Schizoaffective Disorder and Opioid Addiction, always leaving room for the persistent narcissism that might drop by.

There were days when suicide seemed like the only reprieve from the nightmare of being alive. 

If I kill myself, maybe she’ll regret every cruel thing and finally love me, I would reason. But at eight or nine-years-old, I had no idea how to make my next breath my last. I just knew I wanted the harsh buzzing in my bones to cease.

And then one day, I found a way escape it. It started with my fourth grade English teacher and a blank journal.

Something shifted in me when I wrote. It was like the sorrow and grief bled out of me and onto the page. I learned how to sit still with my thoughts, to be alone without feeling lonely.

Writing became a sanctuary—a means of survival.

I fought my monsters with ink instead of with arms shielding myself from the blows. There was silence between the sheets of my journal, and it was in the stillness that I felt safe to unleash my mind. I could say all the awful things I was feeling and thinking, and there were no repercussions—no fists and angry words to hide from.In journaling, I found a lightness to being, as if I emptied myself onto a page and became whole again. This was my rebirth. I’d discovered divinity inside of a black-and-white marbled composition book.

Writing helped me get through the biggest struggles and taught me to receive the beautiful, chaotic lessons in life.

I can look back through journals and see the various threads of darkness woven in my life, but I can also see the light, which becomes brighter with each turn of the page and stroke of the pen.

They helped me find peace and make sense of the chaos in my mind. If I hadn’t learned to harness the power of words, I am sure I would have given up on myself—and life—a long time ago.

CDC report in 2016 found that almost 10 million US adults reported having suicidal thoughts, and 1.3 million had attempted suicide. Those are just the numbers that are reported, but even those are staggering. There is no discrimination in those statistics—no immunity from the anguish that living sometimes causes.

I didn’t follow Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade religiously. I knew the lushness of Bourdain’s words, and I had a purple Kate Spade wallet, but beyond that, they were simply untouchable celebrities. Their deaths made us closer.

There is a haunting familiarity in their suicides—like a song you hear that takes you back to a particular moment in time. The melody is full of despair and loneliness, and I can almost remember the words.

It is likely that you’ve spoken with someone today who has contemplated suicide during their life. And you wouldn’t even know it.

Not everyone finds a way out of the darkness. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, seek help! Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-8255.