Karyn Washington, 22, creator of the blog For Brown Girls, reportedly committed suicide on April 8th, 2014. I can’t say I’m happy to see us talking about it. Because “us” is subjective: POC, women. Often, we’re the only ones who can talk about our intersections, and there are still too many isms we fight against. And sometimes we are unkind to one another, even when we don’t mean to be. There’s no silver lining of advocacy to be gained. The “push-through” narrative is killing us and coaxing us to kill ourselves.
Some people who know me well (or think they do through social media) know that I lost a dear friend of mine in 2011, David Blair. He was one of the best human beings I know. Knew. It’s taken me almost 3 years (and counting) to correct myself, get the proper tense.
It was also the year my live-in ex-fiance and I broke up; the year I lost my Aunt Cynthia on my Dad’s side, and my Uncle Orlando on my Mom’s side. They were two people who saw me, more than anyone else on either side has since. What a rare, rare gift. And like that, they were gone: Cynthia from a complication from a routine breathing treatment; Orlando from a heart attack in the middle of his workday.
Blair came closer into my life at just the right time: one week after my ex moved the rest of his things out; a month before Cynthia died. He himself died more than a week after Orlando did. I didn’t have enough hands to catch all this grief, sift it.
The burial process is an interesting thing. I kept myself busy with details: contacting people to come to the private ceremony, finding the space for the repass, contacting a caterer to feed us, though none of us were really that hungry. When that didn’t work, I threw myself into helping to plan A Crowded House show for his birthday, to celebrate his memory. And then I tried to organized packing “parties” to put his things in boxes. Two days, and we got half-way through. I shut up his room almost up to when I moved out the following year, only opening the french doors and lie down in his bed, to smell his pillow case, and wrap up in his blanket when the anchor on my chest started to break the skin.
When Orlando died, Blair sent text messages to my closest friends, urging them to reach and check in on me. I wouldn’t discover this until after he was gone, and I wasn’t at all surprised. He did that. Took care of us. In death, pregnancies, rejections, break-ups, tiffs with mutual friends, Blair was there weaving that love into threads that became our nets. And when he was gone, the bottom fell out.
A month before, Southwest airlines had a sale.
You should go somewhere, why not? You work so hard, sometimes you have to find ways to be good to yourself.
I could afford a roundtrip ticket to Florida—in to Tampa’s airport. The rest of my little money went to a quaint studio apartment, just five minutes walking distance from the beach. I felt so guilty. I could have used that money to pay down some more bills. To plan for a writing conference, or a retreat. Instead, it became the trip to neatly pack away my grief. I’d go, and watch the sunrises, and drink wine at sunsets, and in between, nap to the clockwork thunderstorms I remembered about the climate from living in Tallahassee in a past life, when I first left home for college. And I did it all. I jogged in the morning before the humidity got too thick. I wrote on the cobbled patio, and drove to the Salvador Dali museum. I remembered everything gorgeous about him, and cried, and laughed, and talked to him out loud in the dark, when the light was done, and the warm water left my skin salt-licked.
I walk into a local haunt with my best friend Ty for dinner. Someone walks up, mouthing what will become the reason I don’t leave the house again, except for work, for several months until I move away:
I’m so sorry. Did you find out how he died yet?
I know you knew him, but I KNEW him.
Did they release the autopsy yet?
You’re STILL sad?
He would have wanted you to keep living.
Death, Weddings, and Baby Showers have an amazing ability to show you that people can mean well and be fucked up. The two are not mutually exclusive.
I apply for graduate school. Blair and I talked about the things we should put on your lists next. I might’ve stalled for another year or two or- had he not gone so quickly. That winter, at the bottom of too many bottles of whiskey, I plan my escape: away from the city, and this apartment, and the closed doors to his room, and all the rumors from people who sometimes never talked to me at all, asking do you know yet, do you know?
August. I’ve moved to Ithaca. It’s a little over a year, and I am rocking in the hammock on the porch. I live in a house off the lake, where hummingbirds perch on my freshly painted toe nails (almost), with an open book across my chest, the soothing rush of the gorge on the side of the house lulling me in and out of sleep. Blair would’ve been proud.
I can’t sleep for the first week I’m in the house. I sit at the edge of the dock, not blinking, not moving, timing my breathing to the slow sun making its way over the hillside. Everything is new. I just need time to adjust.
For months, friends have been saying, go talk to someone. Maybe you need help sorting things out. Logically it makes sense. Counselors are here for a reason. I’ve got class, and work though. The air feels so heavy. If I can find time in my schedule, though. My legs keep buckling beneath me while I make my coffee in the morning. It’s December though. My body on the cold tile floor again, I am drooling down my shirt. The muscles won’t move and I am here alone though. I’m going home though. I can check into it when I get back.
I still haven’t slept for weeks at time. Drinking isn’t helping. No, Roommate, chamomile isn’t working. I walked for miles and now I’m wide awake and sore. I research strands of medicinal marijuana that help with insomnia. I end up dehydrated, hallucinatory, and wide-awake. How am I doing? I hate everything.
I like the guest room in my parent’s basement. It gives a sense of privacy and peace. Home alone, there’s no reason I can’t eventually fall asleep. When they return after midnight, after a night of dancing to old-school r&b (their only date night after church), they call down to see if I’m awake. I don’t even try to call out; just stare at the ceiling, connecting the dots in the panels, making up my own constellations.
I bought some over the counter sleep aids a few days before, in case things got really bad. I don’t like to take meds, except an allergy tab here or there, when the cats who I let sleep on the bed back in Ithaca decide to curl up next to my face by morning.
One pill. Blue pill. Two pill. Twilight. Three pill. Sun’s up. Three pills. Dad’s asleep upstairs. More pills. My body drifts but my eyes won’t close. I’m face first into a makeshift wastebasket—an empty plastic drawer from a storage unit I bought from Target on sale for $7. I wasn’t trying to kill myself. I was just so tired. I was just tired.
I return to school and see a therapist because I’ve been thinking about sliding off the road in my car, into that divider. Off this bridge. Into that water. She recommends me to a grief group, and a lot of comes out. I don’t tell anyone, until it slips to my roommate and a friend or two, usually in a ball of sobs. I excuse myself in the middle of class discussions to go to the ladies room and cry. I walk across the quad, and the tears come. It’s the wind. Or the light and I forgot my sunglasses this time. The sleep comes slow, and I lock my screen doors to keep from walking into the cold lake and lying down in it in the middle of the night.
When I began poetry, I was never great at performance, I knew that. I relied on what I wrote, and hoped that would carry me through. It makes no sense. I’ve become a hell of a performer at keeping it together. It’s the role so many black women strive to perfect, win esteemed recognition for. The lifetime achievement award of who can die having saved everyone else goes to: Big mama. Madear. Mama. Mother. Grrlll. Lover. Wife. Woman.
It’s killing us.
When you know someone is going through a difficult time, look them in the eyes and ask them if they’re ok. Ask them again. Tell them that you’re here. If you find them, vulnerable and broken, ask what you can do. If they say they don’t know, ask them if you can sit with them in their silence.
When you don’t know if someone is going through a difficult time, and they have it all together, look them in the eyes and ask them if they’re ok. Ask them again. Tell them that you’re here. If you find them, cape blowing in the wind, checking off their lists, ask how you can be a good friend. If they don’t know, ask to stand with them in their silence.
When they’re ready to make the call, and they want you sitting in the room reading or making tea, or just there to ask how they feel after having made the call: be there. When the doctor prescribes help, whether temporary for now or temporary for a good while, be there. Don’t call it that poison. Don’t turn your nose up, shirk, or pull away. It says to them you think they’re weak. Or crazy. Grotesque. Unworthy. Useless. A bad woman. Not a real woman. A bad mother. A bad partner. Broken. Damaged.
Ask them if they’re ok. Ask them again. Look them in the eyes. Ask them again.
Before it kills us.