How do I tell this story?
On January 10, 2018, I’m sitting under dim, buzzing fluorescent lights in a bare, windowless room wearing a hospital gown that comes under my knees. The psych ward. Nothing about this is normal. There are people screaming. But I just sit there because I’m tired, and I’m numb.
In the morning, two paramedics who tell me they’ve been awake for 24 hours will load me up into an ambulance and take me to Lakeview Behavioral Health Center, where I will spend the next 96 hours. It will feel like an eternity of locked doors, air hockey with suicidal 12-year-olds, and numbness. But it won’t be forever.
I want to tell my past self this. But for now, she is going to be sitting alone in that uncomfortable hospital bed in the blue room, thinking.
My name is Maya. This is VOX ATL. And here’s my story.
I should probably start with May 4, 2017, when a little journalist with a big dream published an article entitled “A Self-Care Toolbox for Stressful Transitions.” The opening sentence reads, “Change is tough but necessary. If I could take one lesson from the craziness of being a teen halfway between a world that held my hand and sheltered me, and a world that expected me to wake up at 5:30 every morning, drink coffee and show up, this would be it.
“As I graduate high school this spring and look to a future of more caffeine, independence and quirky new classmates, I want to simultaneously drive through a long tunnel to the sound of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’ donning my cap and gown — and dunk my head into a vat of icy water and scream from the stress of it all. I think I am not alone in this, which is why I went in search of strategies for managing transition stress. This is what I found.”
And I interviewed a bunch of folks, mostly valedictorians who graduated from the high school where my grandmother taught who, like me, had abusive relationships with perfectionism. The article suggested many helpful tools, like affirmations, community, and asking for help.
I was right to anticipate that the transition would not be easy and seek out ways to prepare for it, but part of that anticipation planted a seed of self-doubt in me that became this monster of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Graduation day was 13 days after my article was published online. And graduation day was great. Graduation day was a dream come true. On graduation day, I gave the valedictorians’ speech. There were hugs, so many hugs, and flowers and scholarships and my family threw me a party. Then that night, I bawled my eyes out because where the heck was I supposed to go from there? I can’t say I was the most popular girl in high school (in fact, people often mistook me for my best friend who looks nothing like me), but at least I had clout as the senior that all the teachers adored. Who was I now? What was I supposed to do?
And then, like a freakin’ steam engine, life just kept chugging along.
What happens in the mind manifests itself in the body if you let it. I closed my eyes and imagined my best friend from high school, who ended up going to the same college as me, finding more compatible friends and drifting away and in my mind, it happened. I imagined flunking my first semester, and I nearly did. (By the way, in case you’re a rising freshman and worried about this— it’s totally normal if your college grades don’t match your high school grades first semester. Totally normal). I imagined my own death, but .. .I survived. I’m here.
In the months after I get out of the hospital, I experiment a few times with taking a couple more pills than I am supposed to. I hold scissor blades to the inside of my left palm, but don’t break skin. I once accidentally sedate myself for a day by intentionally taking too many anti-anxiety pills.
How do I tell this story that makes up just one part of the smorgasbord that is my life? Do I attach a zoom lens or do I want more distance than that? Do I use flash and if so, what do I highlight? What do I crop out? For October 17, 2017, for example— just the one day— do I put focus on the first anti-anxiety pill I ever take (taken the night before my very first real party with alcohol and everything) or do I put focus on the extremely purple lipstick I pick up from the drugstore this night or do I focus on how the firefighters laugh at my panic attack the next morning when I think I am dying or do I focus on my friend when she is here right in front of me acting as photographer of every dress I try on for this party so we can compare them later? When love and hate and insecurity and power and community and beauty and depression and pain and stress and fun and joy all exist in the same 24 hours and in the same body, how do you pick up the pieces and make a story out of them?
In the end, the most helpful story for me is the story of post-traumatic growth. We’ve all heard of post-traumatic stress, but when you have the resources in place and you’re willing to work with them, sometimes trauma can be the soil you grow them. This is what I did, and it is what I continue to do, and it’s the story I have to tell myself to get myself out of bed every morning.
With that being said … I don’t know where or how I came across the semicolon.
Did I find Project Semicolon during the early days of copious research about my depression diagnosis? Did I notice the symbol on some 12-year-old’s wrist as we huddled over our coloring pages? Or has the semicolon always been there, branded in my brain like an anthem blaring louder than anything else?
I used to see myself as a victim.
I felt like things were constantly falling apart.
There was no way I could survive the pain.
But with the help of therapy, medication, and a mixed bag of coping mechanisms that included everything from random dance parties to Smells Like Teen Spirit by Nirvana to making bad watercolor art, I did.
And I do.
And so will you.
As soon as I woke up from my 16-hour nap induced by too many anti-anxiety pills, I picked up the marker in the floor of my bedroom and scribbled that semicolon onto my wrist. Deeper and deeper, like I could brand the will to live into my skin. I continued to draw semicolons on my wrist every time I felt bad. Then I put a semicolon on a small piece of fabric to pin to my shirt, to paper, and into my poems. Everywhere. Unlike the comma, the semicolon allows for a short breath before we continue, but it is never the end. I’m 18 years old. I’m still just a wee sentence fragment and the semicolon hangs there between all the amazing things I am and all the phenomenal things I could be.
I haven’t “overcome” anything. Nobody swooped in to save me. I saved and I am saving myself one day at a time and I am grateful for every chance I get to be here— to play with my dog, to argue with my brother, to eat bad cheese, to drag my friends onto the ice skating rink even if they really don’t want to.
Your emotions and thoughts are a natural part of you, even the scary ones, so to try and silence them would be like amputating a limb.
But your emotions don’t get to control you. You are here.
It’s your choice to get into that studio, to trust your voice and what it has to say, and press record.
You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or by texting HOME to 741741. Your Life Your Voice is another great resource just for teens that you can reach by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), phone (1-800-448-3000), or text (text VOICE to 20121). You can contact YLYV for any reason, not just when you are in a mental health crisis.
Maya, 18, hopes you will share this. Facebook, Instagram, carrier pigeon, word-of-mouth. Print it out and stuff it in the collar of your timeshare cat. Airplane messages in the sky work, too.