I have wanted to end my life for some time. I even tried once. I took well over 100 pills of Tylenol. Yeah, I was afraid.
I was horribly stupid and downed the pills before driving off with my car to some deserted parking lot where the pills could finish me off. Something didn’t strike my mother right about how I was leaving the house. She stopped me and I was interrogated. I continued denying that I did anything.
Well, they had reason to suspect. I had been quite depressed and sad for a long time. But that really wasn’t a cry for help. I had made my decision and it was reversed. I felt violated. I was kept in the psych ward for a few weeks before they would let me go. It might help to add that I am a gay. And my family is Muslim.
I had been made fun of for being gay by my siblings nearly my entire life. Of course I continued denying until I couldn’t anymore. They would fucking make fun of me for hours for being gay. When I was a teenager and I started to realize that I was actually gay, I was horrified. I spent so many fucking hours praying that God turn me ungay. And when my siblings would poke fun at me, it was so uncomfortable. I had no choice but to deny, but I was also so uncomfortable lying.
I was the oldest brother and I would be the one made fun of for my gayness. It stung. It was painful. My mother didn’t speak to me for two weeks after I came out to her. And I kind of hate her. I don’t really know if I was sexually abused. But I am pretty sure I was. I hardly ever talk about this to anybody, but I started to recover memories of this stuff after I hit puberty.
And for a long time I thought that I became gay because I was sexually abused by a teenage boy whom I didn’t know. And this was my mom’s fault. She would never pick me up from school on time and I would wait around the school for hours, sometimes as long as until 6 even though my school got out at 3. And then they lie to me about my grandmother.
My grandma was one of the closest persons in my life. She died two months after I attempted suicide. I had started law school. I wanted to get away from them. I wanted to leave Seattle and get a fresh start someplace else. So I decided to go ahead and start law school. This was obviously a bad decision. I had started law school about a month after I had made a suicide attempt. But whatever, I just needed to get away from Seattle.
Most of my relationships with men had been secret from my family. I was 21, and I was still a virgin. Notwithstanding my attraction to men, I was still disgusted with the thought of sex with men. The most I could muster at this point was to bring myself to kiss a guy. Then I met this 40-year-old man on the Internet. He was handsome and well-built. I had started to like him. I hung out with him. I would drink with him. He ended up raping me.
He tried to have sex with me that night. I said no repeatedly. But I slept at his place. Yeah stupid idea. But then I woke up to the feeling of him inside me pumping away. I said nothing. I continued to pretend I was sleeping. I couldn’t help my crying but I cried in silence as best I could.
I don’t really enjoy sex. I don’t really trust anybody. I am fucking emotionally needy. I will meet a guy now and expect he will love me. And I get hurt. But I’ve become a master at masking my feelings. I kind of hate this man. I kind of want to see him die of AIDS and see him suffer. And I keep in touch with him just to see how miserably he is suffering. And believe me he is suffering. He is now in his 40s and he has to move back with his parents.
I never bring up with him the fact that the first time I had sex in my adult life, I was raped. Raped by him. But he went to jail for burglary and shit and it took him three years to extricate himself of that. And I was happy in a sadistic way. Now this man is moving to where I am studying law because that is where his family lives. I kind of want to ingratiate myself to his family and somehow cause him maximum suffering.
And I hate my older sister too. She once told me that it’s OK if I am gay and all but that I need to keep it under wraps. I once got into an argument with my brother over the use of an iron, and he started cursing me out. My sister intervened and she told him that this was no way to treat one’s brother. She asked him if that’s what Islam teaches him as to how one should treat one’s brother. And my brother’s reply was that “Well, he’s a fucking faggot! So it doesn’t matter.”
When my family moved to America, I was 12 years old. I was really close to my grandmother. She was, I would say the closest person in my life. When my mother used to beat me, she would intervene. I liked staying at her house because I felt loved.
When she died, I was in law school. Two months into law school. My fucking family decided that it was best not to tell me because I was unstable and had attempted suicide just a few months before. So they tell me about my grandmother’s death not when she died, but after two months when I returned home for Winter Break. This is all just the tip of the iceberg.
I know that partly this shit happens to me because I make poor decisions, but then there are so many things that I didn’t do anything to deserve. Why should I forgive anyone? I was punished many times for having done nothing wrong. So many people in my life have been so cruel to me. On the surface, things seem so beautiful. I am called by my sisters to be their ideal brother. My mother loves me. But I don’t really care about them anymore. They accept me now all right. It’s bullshit.
I nearly killed myself and they’re all just afraid that if they utter a dissenting or hurtful peep, I might actually kill myself and they probably figure they don’t want to live with that kind of guilt. And even if they do truly accept me, it’s because they saw me suffer for years.
The last two years of my undergrad, between the time when I was 21 and 23 (I am 27 now), I nearly slept every night crying and scheming to kill myself. I paid a steep price to have their fucking acceptance. Had I been flip and told them, hey mom, dad, I am a faggot and proud of it and if you don’t accept that then that’s your problem, they’d probably disown me.
For years I was afraid that my father would send me to Saudi Arabia to be stoned to death or be thrown off the top of a cliff or a building — well, that’s the punishment for being gay in Islam, or so I learned at our mosque.
And all of this just scratches the surface. I am sick of life. Fuck! how depressing is my life. I have hardly anyone I call friends … that I should turn to you to discuss my most painful memories. I don’t think I am capable of a happy, satisfying life. My anger and resentment knows no bounds. Sometimes I point out to my family how cruel they had been to me at times, even if they didn’t mean it, and I get the standard discussion on the virtues of forgiveness.
I no longer believe in forgiveness and even if there is such a thing as forgiveness, I don’t want to forgive. I tried to kill myself once. The suicide attempt was physically and mentally painful and I just don’t have the courage to do it again. I don’t want happiness. I just want to be free. It took me six years to get to a point where I could muster the courage to off myself the first time, to set myself free. But I can’t do that again.
My freedom is in death, but that’s not an undertaking I have the energy for. I don’t want a violent end. I don’t want a painful end. And this society won’t let me have a peaceful end because I can’t just go to the doctor and ask for a prescription that would sweetly ease me into nonexistence. I feel trapped alive. I don’t care if my life will get better or there is much happiness in store for me. I don’t care. Happiness means nothing to me.
Signed: Trapped Alive
Dear Trapped Alive,
What I want to do here is argue for your life.
My argument is that a part of you wants to live and knows that things can be OK. A part of you, a deep part of you over which you have little or no conscious control, nonetheless exists and stands ready to help.
This part of you knows how to heal. I will argue that we are capable of healing if we can find refuge.
I believe this based on my own experience of rage and depression and helplessness, and also on my experience healing physically from cancer surgery. I myself have healed both physically and mentally.
One part of this argument involves the simple proposition that there was a time when everything was OK. There was a time when I was a child with no problems; there was a time, when I was born, when I was just coming into the world to see what it was like and all I had to do was breathe and eat and shit and learn to walk around, and there was nothing wrong with that world.
There was nothing wrong with me. It was just a matter of learning the world’s characteristics, its behavior, so that I could navigate it and experience it with a minimum of pain, so that I could avoid death by drowning and death by being run over by a car, so that I could avoid being bitten by dogs. There was no real problem; it was just a matter of surviving this new physical world.
We do not want to die as children because there is so much wonder in being alive. As we explore this marvelous world we occasionally are injured. We are constantly healing from injury. We don’t know how to do this. Our bodies do this. We have occasionally unbelievable pain and we cry; we get burned or break bones and it is unbelievably painful and we cry. The crying seems to help. We feel better afterward.
Why don’t we cry more?
Why don’t you cry? Why don’t you let this pain and fear come up and cry about it right now? We know how to do this as children. You know how when you cry you feel stronger? When we cry, as children, we summon all this energy and strength; we make amazing howls; our crying can be heard for blocks. It is a life-affirming thing that we do; we say fuck you I am the most important person in the room right now; we put everything we have into it, all our life force.
There is enormous life force in crying.
Or we can stifle it and slowly strangle ourselves.
This life force we have when we are coming out of the womb, this searing, all-encompassing thing to which we give every ounce of our being: It is there in us every day or we would walk off piers and into buses, having no care for our lives.
So in thinking about your letter I found I had to take a walk on the beach and the following is a record of my thoughts on that walk. I’m looking at the remains of a seal, dead on the beach. The sky is gray, the waves are big and the remains of the seal are flat. Here are the teeth. Here are the big molars of the seal. Here are vertebrae. Here is a long, curving, white bone. Here is what looks like a joint bone, a little cup into which a corresponding bone will fit.
But the remains of the seal are flat. There is no mounding up of a body. It is just a flat bunch of bones and skin on the beach just lying there. No form. No form to it, no shape, no structure. Some teeth. It is connected just by tissues, scraps of dried, decaying skin. It is connected just by proximity as if the parts had been dumped there together piece by piece randomly. It has come apart. We know it has come apart because it’s dead. When we’re dead we come apart.
But while we’re alive there is an animating force that holds us together. That animating force is at work every second. That animating force can come into conflict as we clench against pain, as we turn our attention to our wounds as if we could heal them ourselves.
We have no capacity to heal our own wounds. All we can do is wait for this animating force to heal us. Our sole purpose when injured is to find, within our routines of work and family, a setting in which we can heal. This is not made easy by the culture we live in. It is not given to us. But certain settings — church, psychoanalysis, time spent in monasteries and ashrams — these are settings arranged so that this dynamic, holy force that is in us, this animating force, can work its slow magic.
Whether we are suicidal or depressed or addicted, the only thing we can do is find settings in which that healing, animating force can work its slow magic. We cannot go in there with wrenches and fix ourselves; we are not surgeons of our own souls. We are merely keepers attempting to do the feeding and the caring. So in your suicidal, mad, pained state, seek out settings in which there is no harm, settings in which you can be still and allow this animating, healing force to work.
How do you do this? You seek places — ashrams, temples, healing waters, rivers, oceans, forests, mountains, deserts, places where the earth is still, where this animating force is at work bringing tiny seeds to germinate, bringing the merest speckles of water to the tiniest of mouths. That’s all you can do: In a sense, give up. Surrender. Give up everything you think is going to fix you and simply know that as a newborn you came into this world fighting for life, fighting for air and breath and light, and you were amazed, astonished, you couldn’t believe your good fortune to be out here breathing and eating and shitting and walking.
You had enormous good fortune to be born. You knew when you took your first breaths what was what; there was no mullah; there was no Islam; there was only the breath. You knew instinctively how to live: Just breathe. Just suck it in. Just suck in that air. Just fight for breath and life. Ball up your tiny little fists and cry out and let the world know you are alive and you matter and must be cared for. Cry out! Scream! Cry! Beat your fists! Beat your little fists! Just try to live, try to be here in this glorious universe, out of the womb into this glorious and strange place.
You’ve had misfortune. You’ve been told lies. You’ve been told lies. You’ve been tortured. You’ve fallen into the hands of the enemy. You’ve fallen into the hands of betrayers. But you are a soul on a journey.
Who knows where you came from but you were born! Something happened! You came into consciousness! You are a person! You are a person with the gift of life. You were brought to a place from which you eventually will depart, with gratitude.
But for now, you’ve been brought here. To what purpose? How do you find out what you are supposed to do with this gift you’ve been given? Is it something you are supposed to carry somewhere? Are there instructions? Ask yourself, What am I to do with this life? What is it for? Can you give this to another person? Can you give this life to someone? Can you give this love that as a child you had? As a child you are born innocent and loving. You have this love. What are you to do with it now?
You have a choice. It’s not gone, that miraculous life you had in those first few grasping breaths. It’s not gone. That’s the same life. You’re the same person who came out of your mother’s womb and saw this miraculous and strange planet.
And now you’ve been harmed. Trusted hands have turned against you. This happens in life, in the journey. We find ourselves in the hands of the enemy and we are mistreated. But that does not mean that our only option is to kill ourselves. Why? Why would we kill ourselves? Would that punish our enemies? Would it help us to heal? No.
Instead, when we find this impulse coming up to kill ourselves, it is a signal to seek refuge from our enemies so we can heal. Seek refuge and heal. That is what it means.
Do not pretend that you will heal if you do nothing and change nothing. You are a wounded man, bleeding, bedraggled, imprisoned. You must escape and seek refuge so you can heal. Then if you seek refuge and begin to heal in stillness, a voice will come. You will hear instructions. Someone will appear and say, come this way, do this, we have something for you. It always happens.
It won’t be a voice in your head. It will be someone showing up. It always happens in all the old stories. They call these people angels or emissaries or whatever, but you never know when it happens because they are disguised. It’s not gonna be a guy with a name tag on his lapel that says, “Hi, I am your Angel Bob and I’m here to give you instructions.” But someone will show up if you wait in stillness.
You will sense something in your belly or in your spirit. You will sense that this person has something. It might be love, it might be help; you might merely feel mild interest and curiosity, but something will come, if you can find stillness and refuge. If you can begin to heal, someone will come along. That is how it happens.
There is some journey written out here. You may meet your end trying to follow the journey. But from the moment you are born, all you see before you is the journey: What’s next, what’s next, what’s next, what has happened to me and what’s next.
So having seen that dead seal, what once was a beautiful, strong, fast-swimming, sleek, acrobatic seal now a little pile of trash on the beach a scattering of bones, rubbish, I think to myself, I prefer this to being a pile of rubbish.
When we die we are nothing but a pile of bones. That’s all it is. We dress it up. We dignify it with a funeral pyre or a coffin so the image in the eyes of those who live on is an image of stateliness or grandeur. But for the person who dies, this beautiful sleek, powerful, animating force leaves and what is left is a pile of random rubbish. I think I prefer this, whatever this is.
Whatever this is, however painful this is, I think I prefer this to that pile of rubbish and bones.
So that is what I say to you: You are wounded and in need of healing. Seek refuge wherever you can find it — in a church, in the forest, in a monastery, in a healing group of survivors of sexual abuse, in the rooms of a 12-step meeting, in working with a caring psychotherapist: Seek refuge and healing. There is a will to live within you. You can live and be happy. You can be healed.
Cary Tennis writes Salon's advice column, leads writing workshops and creative getaways, and also publishes books and ebooks writes an occasional newsletter and tweets as @carytennis.
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