content warning: suicide, self harm, substance abuse
January was always an interesting month for me. My birthday is in January, which I never enjoyed because I never celebrated my birthday. Two years ago, just after my birthday, I tried to kill myself. This year marks two years since my suicide attempt, and it’s definitely been an uphill climb since then. Since then, February has become a month of growing pains and reflection for me.
One of the hardest things about failed suicide attempts is that you have to find new reasons to want to live. I remember that morning, I felt everything, and nothing all at once. Mostly, it felt like the rug had been pulled out from under my feet, and not only was I left with carpet burn, but also I couldn’t stand up. Ever since that night, my legs keep threatening to buckle underneath me.
February is also known for Valentine’s Day, which I’ve never liked. I’d been in several relationships throughout my life, and February 14th was just something we celebrated for the sake of celebrating. It never held any real meaning.
While I wouldn’t necessarily characterize my relationships as unstable, my unsteadiness definitely made it difficult for my partners to truly understand and support me. I often pushed them away, even when I needed them to be there for me, because I thought that if they saw how “crazy” I really was, they’d ultimately leave. And yet I chose to stay in these relationships because I so desperately sought external validation for the empty hole inside me. Oftentimes, my partners would choose to leave, and I blamed myself. For being insane, for being broken, for not being enough, for not being normal. Over time, my thoughts spiraled to a point where I couldn’t cope with them on my own.
I’d say drinking is a normal social activity in college, and I definitely partook in my fair share when I was a freshman. I didn’t start drinking heavily until my second year, when a combination of school stress, unhealthy headspace, and toxic relationships pushed me to seek something to soothe my nerves. I started with wine, which that felt harmless enough. I come from a line of alcoholics in my family, and I had vowed at a young age to never follow that pattern. I could acknowledge how destructive alcoholism was, and I never wanted drinking to affect my life in that way. I knew I had enough problems on my plate.
I was in denial for many months. I didn’t want to admit that I was self-medicating, and as cliche as it sounds, alcohol numbed me and helped me sleep. I was ashamed to even tell my therapist how much I was drinking, but it was my only lifeline after killing myself didn’t work. I found that I was more vulnerable when I drank, and even though they weren’t always positive, I could tap into the full spectrum of my emotions. I also hated myself a little less when I was drunk, and I told myself that if I wanted to, I could stop. But could I actually? I certainly didn’t.
Looking back now, I was mixing alcohol with medication, I was reckless, and willing to gamble with my life. When I wasn’t working or occupied, I found that I always had a bottle nearby. Some days I drank from morning until night. I wouldn’t even be hungover because I never gave my body a chance to recover. Sometimes, there would be black holes in my memory, and I wouldn’t remember things I said to others.
I could feel my body deteriorating the more I drank. Alcohol sapped my strength, but there was this fucked up notion in my mind that whatever I did when I was intoxicated wasn’t actually me. For some reason, that helped me sleep a little easier at night. But then I’d wake up feeling so awful that I’d have to have a drink as soon as I could to be “not Ella” again.
Whenever I had mental breakdowns when I was drunk, I was inconsolable. I was a lot more self-destructive, too, and I felt like a monster every time I tore into my own skin. I’d watch myself carve patterns in my arms, feeling helpless and simmering in self-hatred. I just couldn’t stop, and I was constantly wallowing in my own misery and shame. When my last relationship ended, our conversation ended with him telling me to be gentle with myself.
I was so angry. What the fuck did being gentle with myself have to do with anything? Was I actually so messed up that I didn’t know how to be kind to myself? I had always told myself that I didn’t need someone to fix me. I didn’t need anything to fix me. I didn’t ever ask to be fixed. And yet why did I feel like I was barely holding myself together everyday?
I knew I had a serious problem when drinking became a necessary chore to make it through the day alive. When my Winter Quarter of my third year started, I finally decided to quit and sobered up. I took it one day, and then one month at a time. Junior year was challenging, and I relapsed often. Sometimes, it felt like I hadn’t even made any progress at all.
I made it a point to not pursue any romantic relationships after the last one ended. I was tired of projecting myself onto other people, and the hard truth was that I probably wasn’t emotionally ready or available enough to be with anyone. I realized that even though I knew how to be alone and independent, I hated loneliness because it meant that I had to face every part of myself that I hated so much. Looking back now, I hated everything about myself. I hated how I looked, I hated how I interacted with people, I hated the constant feeling of incompetence that haunted every waking minute. That’s probably why I drank.
I think I liked the idea of being wanted, because it had been a foreign concept for me since childhood. I had spent so many years loving other people more than I ever loved myself, so much so that I convinced myself that I always had to be with someone to justify my existence.
After the first anniversary of my suicide attempt, life was starting to look up. But such is life that it always manages to sweep me off my feet. I thought that I had made strides in my healing, but I failed to recognize the cyclic nature of mental health. I rose and fell with my symptoms, and a little over a year after I tried to kill myself, I found myself standing at the bridge on Voigt Drive overlooking I-5. It had been an impossible day, and I left work early because the air had been sucked out of my lungs and my head was pounding. I felt that sinking feeling of hopelessness, and I stood at that bridge for an hour, just looking down. It was a Friday afternoon, and I was wearing a red dress. And I just stood and stared down because I knew if I moved, my legs would actually buckle underneath me this time around.
I can’t tell you what exactly I was feeling in that hour. It was just a visceral, suffocating pain that not even alcohol could’ve fixed. I let the anguish wash over me, and I willed my feet to do something, anything, so I wouldn’t draw attention to myself. I told myself that there had to be one more ounce of energy inside me, I just had to make it to my car, I just had to be safe. When I got to my car, I cried and cried and cried for hours. The same song was playing over and over again, but it was oddly comforting at that moment.
I did something that day that I hadn’t before. I forced myself to sit through the pain and do nothing. It was overwhelming, indescribable, and so fucking exhausting. But I was there by myself that day. In my own corner. And I talked myself off that ledge.
My mental health has always been a whirlwind that tears me down. But instead of lamenting what I lost, I started to see that falling apart is an opportunity to rebuild, with a stronger foundation, with more love and care than last time. And sometimes, we need more than just second chances. I’ve given myself countless chances, but the grace I give myself has taught me to be more compassionate to myself, and also the people around me.
I’ve always said that if your body doesn’t think you want it, it’ll do everything it can to change itself and make you hate it. So this February 14th, I celebrate the newfound love I have for my body. I celebrate two years of life, of rebirth, of chances. I celebrate almost a full year of sobriety, and I celebrate myself.
Take care until next month!
Ella Chen is the Editor-in-Chief of The Triton. You can follow her @cinder_ellachen.