Trigger warning: this post discusses suicide.
Below, we have a coping piece written by our friend Icess Fernandez Rojas. This piece is not only powerful and emotional, but a symbol of strength. Thank you, Icess, for bravely sharing your story with us.
“All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up.”
― James Baldwin
“We each survive in our own way.”
― Sarah J. Maas
I am a liar.
I know how to react when the question comes. I know what will happen if I answer with the truth. I know what I will do if I think about the truth too long.
“Icess, do you want to hurt yourself or others?”
“No. Of course not,” I say straight-faced, like answering whether I wanted red or white wine with my dinner.
A check mark on the clipboard. Then the next question. Topic dropped. Another fooled.
If I answered yes, I would be immediately admitted somewhere where I couldn’t hurt myself, watched for a day or two, and then something about medicine. I wanted to get to the medicine part, to the part where chemistry was going to fix me.
The real answer to that question was yes. I thought about killing myself like people planned out their vacations. There was a letter crafted. Instructions. Simple. Direct. Perhaps reassuring. Hopefully reassuring.
My death would be just as simple, just as direct. No blood. Nothing to clean up. Neat. Clean. Even in my death I thought of others, of the people behind me who have to clean up the mess literally and figuratively.
Damn it, not even my death was my own.
But the pain was. All mine. Piercing like a needle through hot flesh, every breath labored in pain only to birth more pain. Living was painful. Breathing was painful. Blinking was painful. The thought of waking up in the morning was too much to bare. No, it wasn’t going to be better tomorrow. I desired to end. I desired it all to end. Pain and life intertwined.
So, on an ordinary night in July 2015, after months of painful tears and begging the universe to make it all stop, I found myself in my one bedroom apartment in North Texas holding two things — a bottle of sleeping pills and a cell phone. Relief or salvation. End or continue. My hand was steady. The decision was obvious. I just wasn’t strong enough, brave enough to deal with this depression.
And so I lied.
My friend Delia knew something was wrong long before I did.
She suffered from depression herself. Has for a long time. She’d been to enough doctors and therapists that she could write her own book. In fact, she’s planning on it. Dr. Delia giving Dr. Phil a run for his money.
It was a rough week when Delia and I had dinner. My body felt like it went three rounds with a kickboxer and lost. But Delia wanted yucca fries and I wanted liquor and the only place to get both was Gloria’s Restaurant.
“Dude, I think you’re depressed,” she said after appetizers and the first sangria. She said “depressed” stretching each syllable nearly past its breaking point.
It had been months since I had written anything more than a grocery list. A writer’s dry spell like the Sahara in August. I had moved to the Dallas-Fort Worth area six months before and, yes, nothing. I’d had dry spells before but this time, it was different. It felt off, uneven like the grain of two different wood pieces.
“Because I can’t write? Maybe it’s just not meant to be,” I shrugged. “Some people are writers and other aren’t. Maybe I’m not.”
“I can’t imagine you not being a writer.”
Writing was the warm comforter on a cold day. When there was nothing there were words, I could gorge myself on them. The power of the right word was the power of the human condition. I was fascinated by it, in love with it, deep, real love that just kept getting deeper with every passing breath. When my dad died in his sleep, they were there. When I felt alone, they were my company. They understood me when my family didn’t. They allowed me to dream with my eyes open.
Words were mine to own and do with as I wished. Words were my lover. My lover had abandoned me. Maybe it was time to move on? Maybe this thing that was so important in my life was only supposed to be there for a short time? Love doesn’t last forever, eventually death separates to lover from the loved.
“Dude, you’re depressed. You should see someone,” she said dipping a yucca fry into the marinade.
Depressed like sad? I knew better than to stuff depression into a three letter word. Sad is inaccurate. When I started suffering from panic attacks years earlier, I knew it could turn into depression acting like a gateway drug. Panic attacks, the marijuana of mental illness.
I mirrored Delia, stuffing my face so I didn’t have to say anything. That word hung above table eight like a black umbrella. Did anyone else see it, see us, the awkward silence that just sat down next to us? Our food came and we scooped rice and black beans into our mouths. Later, when we talk about this moment, my dear friend will say she felt like I was upset with her for bringing it up. It wasn’t anger but disbelief. There was nothing to be depressed about. I left a career with an industry that was going up in flames. Friends were being laid off faster than people had time to process. I was one of them but I bounced back quickly, leaving a life that barely allowed me to live for one that gave me the space to breathe. Now was the time to have the life I dreamed about — marriage, kids, house, stability. Maybe writing. Maybe my first love would return. This funk, this grumpiness, this weight on my chest was just the adjustment period.
“There are people who live without writing and they’re okay,” I said.
“But you’ve been writing as long as I’ve known you.”
I don’t look like depression. I just needed to change my outlook. So what if I didn’t write another word. I had a roof over my head, money in the bank. And work, there were some bumps there but I was still learning.
I just needed to stop being sad and start being happy. I needed to have more gratitude for what I had and where I was. For me, if I increased my gratitude and my happiness then this doom and gloom would fade. I was sure of it.
Journal Entries Nov. 2014 – Dec. 2014
Nov. 24, 2014
Gratitude is difficult.
There’s no other way to say it but that it is difficult. Does that mean it is worth doing? Yes. It is worth doing and practicing. Oh, but it’s so difficult.
Today, the difficult came as it usually does, at work. When the students ask my opinion I feel elated! But when they go to my boss or she disagrees with me, it cuts me down to size, it makes me wonder whether I am really here to make a change or just keep the status quo. I see so much potential here and yet something I know well, digital, I don’t feel like I can lead because the students know I can be overwritten.
Dec. 15, 2014, 2:15 a.m.
It’s 2:15 in the morning, I’m just now feeling caught up with work.
Dec. 15, 2014, later on that day
I am exhausted. My body melted into the couch. I am sitting and wondering what else to do. What is it like to not run but to be still.
I am bored and I don’t want to say it but I am. I know that next year I’ll be dating but what about what’s important to me? What about my writing? I’ve all but abandoned it. Maybe that is why I’m sad. I am so used to having something to look forward to, to hope for something big. What do I have left to hope for now? Continuing my writing feels too difficult to me. I had so many hopes for my life. By now, I thought I’d be living in some foreign country. France. I should be speaking French and having adventures. I feel like I’ve done something wrong as if I’ve made a wrong turn somewhere. It’s not where I want to be and I don’t know what to do about it.
Dec. 17, 2014, 8:41 a.m.
Not sure to what to write today. The day is still young. It’s 8:41 in the morning. I was up early today. That’s rare. I feel like something is wrong.
Dec. 21, 2014, A letter to my younger self
It’s the Christmas of your 36th year. It was a difficult year. So many things changed for you. You had so much pain and so much many things you believed in no longer exist. Your world is topsy-turvy.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t good stuff. There is. You have a job and a boss that you like and believes in you. You hadn’t had that for a long time. You live in a bigger place now, a nicer place. It’s worth the extra $100 a month. Diva is happier. Your mother is happier.
But there is something off. For some reason, you are not happy. You’re not sure why.
You’ll spend time thinking and wondering. The closest you’ll come to something is that you need a social life. Then when you think about it, the thought of it all it exhausts you. But you know that this is what you should do.
You stopped writing. It hurts! But you just can’t write anymore.
Maybe you’re depressed?
In retrospect, that July night was a long time coming.
When I moved to Arlington, the scars of working in the news business were still fresh. The panic attacks, which started in 2011, were fewer and controlled. They had come for me like heart attacks, pounding on my rib cage and taking my breath. But with therapy, they were nearly a memory.
The job I moved to Texas for was to help privileged (some) and at times spoiled children of college age put out a newspaper every week and update a website every day. After reporting for a dozen years and teaching for a couple, this was a job that seemed cut just for me. I love teaching. I loved journalism. What more could I ask for? Add to this that my boss was someone I had worked with, although indirectly, at my first newspaper job in Corpus Christi and it was kismet.
Text Message from the boss: I’m so glad you’re here. (May 2015)
However, three months in, there was a shift in the way she approached me. As a result, I started walking on egg shells at work. Nothing I did was right, ever. Conversations with her were mixed – one moment they were okay and the next she spoke to me as if I were one of the children. When I tried to manage the students she always undermined me.
It was all my fault. The undermining. Her treatment of me. She convinced me it was. It was in her notes, she’d say.
I’d ask if she really wanted me there since she was doing my job and hers.
She’d say that I tried to quit. When I denied it, she said it was also in her notes.
And then she’d send me text messages like this:
Feb. 19, 2014: Thank you for today. It was your newsroom today, and I like the checklists and what you’re implementing. Great energy. You were in your element.
Or like this:
Feb. 23, 2014: love you, hon. We’re of like mind.
I felt worthless. I never knew if she was happy or wanted to gut me like a fish. Damned if I do or don’t. And I knew she was wrong, but I didn’t know I was right. Gaslighting wasn’t a term I heard or knew about long after leaving. She was a classic gaslighter, making me think everything was my fault, therefore, making me feel guilty.
To this day, I don’t know how she did that. I’m a girl from Houston’s Eastside. In my neighborhood, we handled people like her in a certain way involving fists, curse words, and a brick. But professionalism being what it is, the wounds of my former career still bleeding, and with no one to talk to, isolated even from my adult coworkers, I swallowed this situation even though I knew it was poisoning me.
By February, the first thoughts of suicide popped into my head and then popped out. Too quick to pay attention to it.
Journal entry: Feb. 12, 2015
Today was difficult. I thought of what my suicide letter would say. It would say that I was tired. That life is painful, too painful to take in. It hurts to live and that I was sad, too sad.
I asked God to take me. I’m too chicken shit to do it myself. I asked God to take me because I just couldn’t anymore. I couldn’t be in this life and in this pain.
Something went wrong with my life. I don’t know how to fix it. I just don’t want to do this anymore.
What is left when we are gone? What proves to the world that we were here, that we existed?
Memorial Day Weekend 2015
Friday afternoon ended in breathless tears.
In my apartment, the panic attack was so mild I hardly noticed it. Maybe I used to it like a leaky faucet you learn to live with? Then came an uncontrollable sadness. Then darkness. The lights stayed off. Outside, I heard my neighbors getting ready for the night, music, chatting, laughing. My cat curled up next to me on the couch, the one I was so happy to purchase from an actual store and not from a garage sale. I fell asleep crying.
Saturday morning. More crying. Hopelessness curled up inside my chest, wedging itself inside the open spaces. I couldn’t breathe. The world continued to laugh outside my front door. Mocking me. Teasing me. No food. No drink. Dehydration from tears.
Sunday and I was still in Friday’s work clothes. I forced myself to shower. St. Ives washed away my tears. “So much pain,” I said to myself with no one to hear. I repeat it until it’s the only thing in my brain, the only thing I knew better than my name.
So much pain.
So much pain.
So much pain.
I don’t want to live … anymore.
It had been bubbling there for months, a stray thought I caught before it bloomed into something else. A wish. A statement. An item on a to-do list. Driving from work to home and home to work it lingered in the back of my brain like an ear worm. It would just be easier to not live…that’s where the sentence ended. Sometimes, I’d force myself to finish it adding the word “here” or “in Arlington” or “in DFW”. But now I thought it out loud, said it. It existed.
I don’t want to live anymore.
I don’t want to live anymore.
I don’t want to live anymore.
It would be so much easier. My life was a joke. My life was a fucking hole. I’d never have the life that I wanted. I have fucked up my life and there’s no fixing it.
By Monday, I was on the floor of my apartment crying when Delia called.
“I can’t stop crying.” The words were muddy.
“Go to the doctor now. Right now. Call the office.”
I wasn’t always like this. I was happy once. I smiled all the time and cracked jokes. I use to sing because I loved it and spent hours in my room practicing. I wrote, too.
I always knew I’d write books. Always. Journalism was my training ground and meal ticket. I loved it anyhow. For a long time, I dedicated my life to being the best reporter I could be and was zealous about it. Ambition was my fuel and I had enough to push through a career that’d rather see me in its police blotter than writing its front page stories.
In my family, we are the survivors. My parents left their home countries — Guatemala and Cuba — for a new life here. They didn’t know the culture, the customs, and the language. They not only adjusted, they thrived bringing into this world two children. They achieved the American Dream with hard work and the sweat of their brow.
They didn’t have time to be depressed. It was just something they didn’t do.
So, what caused my depression? Nothing and everything is the short answer. Experts say there is no direct cause but there’s some things that contribute to it. Psychological, biological, and environmental factors. I didn’t know it at the time but I had two out of three. Biological and environmental factors. With a job that required more hours than there were in a waking day and a boss who was terrific at making me feel like everything was my fault, it was only a matter of time before something cracked.
I thought you were stronger than that…
The voice in my head reminded me that I came from a long line of fighters in my family. My sister also reminded me of that when I called her.
“I thought you were stronger than that.”
“I guess I’m not.”
It’s not about strength but health. Illness takes many forms but the hardest to understand, to have compassion for, are the ones that allow someone to function while the disease remains hidden. Outside of my head I could walk, talk, and work as if it were effortless. Inside, I was crumbling. Mornings were a mix of crying and sweet talking myself out of bed, promising that if the day was too hard I could come straight home.
But there were moments of clarity, pure glass, where all was well. Those moments, however, were as long as a wink. Then the free fall would happen and sometimes there wasn’t a net to catch me even though I had always managed to pick myself up.
Here’s the thing though, if I had a terminal disease would I have been accused of weakness? If I spent weeks in a hospital bed, would my boss still blame me for not getting my work done? If Death cloaked its arm around me, would I hear from my so called friends?
I was alone. I felt alone. Why exist?
Memorial Day Weekend 2015
The doctor referred me to the local psychiatric hospital. He couldn’t help me, he said.
I knew the feeling. I cried some more.
When I walked into the hospital, I thought the waiting room would swallow me whole. Part of me wished it did. Potted plants stuffed in dark corners with shiny, waxy leaves that gave up their brighten-up-the-place function long ago. There were several rows of chairs with a shade of green I’d only seen during Golden Girls re-runs. The entire waiting room, illuminated by a cloudy afternoon and Fox News on the television, tried its best to be professional on a budget and lost that battle. Instead, it reminded me that this wasn’t a social call. This was where people went when things didn’t go well.
Periodically, stark white double doors swung open, exposing the building inside. That’s where they kept the light. From what I could see, everything past the doors was florescent bright.
According to that National Alliance on Mental Illness, 10 to 14 million people have clinical depression symptoms. That’s that persistent sad or irritable mood, the changes in sleep, appetite, and energy. It’s hard to think. Concentration and remembering things can be difficult. The things that used to be interesting or fun aren’t anymore. Then the guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness, and helplessness come. And finally the money shot, the thoughts of suicide. That’s where I was. Hopeless. Yes, that was the right word. The right feeling.
My name was called. A happy person with a badge buzzed me past the white doors. She stopped me and held out her hand. She wanted my purse. It wasn’t allowed to go any further but my phone could go with me. I handed it over and she waved a metal detector around me like a wand. Wish it would make me want to continue living.
Shiny happy person then escorted me into a windowless room. The green plastic couch at the psychiatric hospital was about as old as I was and just as damaged. My seams were coming undone, too. The luster that had made me appealing at one point, even to myself, had vanished.
The room was cold and except for the couch, the faded posters of fake flowers, the interviewer, and me, it was empty. If these cinder-blocked walls could speak, they’d ask me how a nice girl like me got to this point. ‘What happened, sweetie that you started crying on a Friday in the fetal position and didn’t stop until you got here, in this place? You still want to cry. You’re being brave. You can fool the woman with the clipboard but not me. You’ve hidden your kleenex under your leg.’
“So, do you want to hurt yourself, Icess?”
She moved on. Of course, she did.
Two hours later she handed me a list of things. 1) Depression and Anxiety. That’s what I have. As if I had a cold or the measles or something. 2) The name of my new best friend, a psychiatrist and his friend, the prescription pad. Appointment needed to be made or they’d make one for me. Fair warning. 3.) A support group that would help me cope.
When I went to work, I told my boss. Kept the details general, just what she needed to know. I went to the hospital. I’m sick but I’ll be better soon. I’ll be leaving early every Thursday.
“If you need to take more time in the morning, go ahead and let me know,” she said with concern on her face.
At the time, I didn’t know that concern was a trap, a lie, the beginning of the unraveling. At the time, what I heard from her was I see you, please feel better, we’ll make adjustments. At the time, I saw her eyes tear up like she cared. At the time, I thought it may get better, I may get better, even though there was still the pain.
At the time, I didn’t see the freight train coming.
“You’ll need the pills in case you can’t sleep.”
My new doctor scratched the prescription on his gleaming-white pad and handed the page over along with a new dosage for the blue happy pills. Wellbutrin makes you feel well, I thought to myself. It starts with a flutter, an early morning flutter that wakes you up. Then after that, somehow, the world is all unicorns and cotton candy.
I had been taking them for awhile and was feeling better. So, naively, I thought he’d take me off of them.
“Some patients said they have trouble sleeping when they are on Wellbutrin,” he said. “But be careful, these are habit forming.”
I didn’t fill the sleeping pill prescription for weeks after. I was afraid of it. Habit forming, he said. There were enough habits I was trying to get rid off. Like the habit of writing my suicide note on the way home from work every night.
Created sometime between Feb and July 2015
It was just too much. It hurts too much. I can’t take it. So much pain. So much pain. Please try to understand. I just couldn’t anymore. I tried. I love you.
Please don’t cry,
From that night, I just remember red, my red couch. I loved it because it was mine first. No one owned it before me like no one owned my words.
I remember red and laying on the couch. There was a phone in my hand and on the line was my mom. I remember her being worried. Saying this like how one says things when they are being careful. Are you okay. No. What’s wrong. I don’t know. I’m worried. Me too. I can’t breathe. Why. I don’t know. Pain. Inside. All inside pain.
I remember the sleeping pill prescription in the bathroom. They were in my travel makeup bag. There were 30 small, white, habit-forming pills.
I remember the pills and then that was all I could think about.
I remember saying I was going to do it. Then. Right then. My eyes were cried raw. Mi’ja, por favor no. The other pills, the happy pills, stopped working. Icess, please don’t. Or maybe I stopped taking them. I don’t remember.
Mi’ja contesta me. Icess, mi’ja, por favor. No.
I’m just so tired. It hurts too much, mama. Ya no puedo.
I remember the bottle. I remember the phone. It rang. And it rang again. And again. And the bottle was in my hand. And the phone rang. And the bottle was in my hand. I wanted pills all in my mouth. All of them.
And the phone rang. And rang. And rang.
I don’t remember anything else.
I didn’t think I’d have anything to be thankful for by the time my family and I sat down to a turkey dinner.
About a week or two after that July night, I was fired. It took me less than 10 minutes to pack my entire office in twin banker’s boxes and 15 minutes to make a decision. It was time to go home. There was nothing for me there, no friends, no projects or relationships. I existed for a job and a situation that wanted to end me.
I can write about the adjustment of coming home after not living there for 12 years. I could allow it to be fodder for a comedic, feel-good movie starring an up-and-coming starlet. But it would be a lie and I’m not a liar anymore.
So, on Thanksgiving 2015, I was home, in a job search, and counting pennies like I did when my family was on welfare. And yet, there was so much to be thankful for — the air in my lungs being the top of my list.
“I didn’t sleep last night,” Mom said yawning in the middle of the day. She was still in her pajamas and the TV set roared with someone singing during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade.
“Why?” The smell of roasted turkey made my stomach crazy.
“I was watching you sleep.”
“Why were you doing that,” I asked, surprised.
“I’ve been doing that since you came back,” she said in her Guatemalan Spanish. Her tired voice trembling. “You don’t sleep. It’s like you’re fighting with someone. You’re not yourself. You’re not the daughter I know.”
She’s right. I am a stranger to her now and a stranger to myself. Depression doesn’t stop because you’ve flushed the pills down the toilet. Depression doesn’t stop because your mother watches you sleep in fear. Depression continues. It changes you, often. You become a kaleidoscope changing so often it can be difficult to recognize yourself from an hour ago.
Sometimes, I cry for no reason. Sometimes, I’m quiet and don’t speak for hours. Sometimes, I think what’s the point. Sometimes, I just prefer not speaking.
Here’s the truth of my life: there will probably never be a time when I don’t remember that bitch of a year or when I don’t realize how close I came to being seduced into not existing. This experience has become my litmus test when meeting new people or doing new things — would this person care if I lived or died, can this situation make me feel helpless?
Returning home wasn’t about trying to bounce back or licking wounds. And just because you change cities doesn’t mean you stop wanting to kill yourself. This isn’t about coping either. It’s survival. In this war between living and dying, I choose neither. I choose truth, to not lie, to take my battle wounds and make them beautiful, to use words like bandaids.
I choose confession.
I hug my mom every time she says I’m not the daughter she knows. In the months after that July night, she has said it often, each time it’s a surprise to hear. Each time I explain that the old Icess, the daughter she knew, no longer exists. It’s just this one, the woman who lives moment to moment making sure she does just that — live.
A very big thanks to Icess for sharing her incredibly open and honest piece. Thank you for being brave and sharing your story with our community. To read more of her works, you can follow Icess on Twitter here, “Like” her on Facebook here, and visit her website here.
Always remember you are not alone.
You are loved.
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