Afraid of the Dark: Why We Need to Open up About Our Pain.
Following the recent suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, I feel the need to share my own story in hopes that it will spark a greater awareness and compassion for those who struggle in the dark.
Mind you, I have never attempted suicide.
But I’ve thought about it. A lot.
In middle and high school, I was miserable — I didn’t fit in, I got teased and picked on, I was smart and involved but far from popular. I remember kids on the bus, younger than me, kids I’d never even met, throwing Cheetos into my lap and laughing. Once a kid threw a coin at my head.
In case you have never experienced this, let me fill you in: coins thrown at your head will hurt like a b*tch, but the inner pain lasts longer.
Back then, I wrote dark stories and darker poetry alluding to these thoughts of death, sometimes vaguely, sometimes quite overtly. Once or twice, I even started clearing things from my room “to make it easier on everyone when I’m gone.” I began hurting myself. Bruises, scrapes and scratches. Seeing signs of pain on the outside made the pain that was inside make sense.
I wonder how my mother could have missed the signs.
She saw the marks on my leg, my hand, and she heard the weak excuses. Of course that slim circle was from a color guard flag pole at band camp (and not a safety pin). Sure, that scrape across my hand was from the corner of my nightstand (and not from desperate scratching with my fingernail).
I showed her the poems. One was about walking into a lake and letting the waves “rock me to sleep.” Another began with “Dig me a grave, for I have died / drowned in the tears that I have cried.” She told me at one point that she didn’t like reading these because they were too dark. It was clear they made her uncomfortable.
But what about me?
Maybe she saw the signs and chose to ignore them.
Maybe she was clueless.
Maybe she just couldn’t deal with it.
So I was left to deal alone, understanding that these things were not meant for sharing and must be suffered in silence.
And these feelings have never gone away.
Driving to college, I used to imagine plunging my car into the huge pond I passed every day. In my first apartment, I remember being so distraught about something that I took a pin and scraped three long lines down my upper arm (I blamed it on the cat).
These days when I’m feeling particularly stressed and low, I still consider how much easier it would be if I accidentally got hit by a car and died, all my worries snuffed right out.
I don’t make plans to kill myself.
My life is not at risk. I’m one of the lucky ones: my thoughts are passive, I have a great support system, and even after being dismissed by my mother, I learned the benefit of sharing our experiences. I’ve always been a writer, and I discovered the medicine that lies within the experience of purging our pain and using it to connect with others.
I dig out the diamonds — the lessons and insights — from the caverns of my hurt, and I hold them up to light the way for those who struggle similarly.
Now I even use writing to help others move past their own traumas and explore their own stories, and it’s the most fulfilling thing I’ve ever done.
But just because I know how to cope doesn’t mean I’m “fine.”
These thoughts are rampant, and the emotions involved can be debilitating. Sunshine and exercise and being productive and getting enough sleep only take me so far. I still feel like crying a lot of the time for no apparent reason. I still scream desperately in my mind and don’t understand why. Anxiety and depression are my closest companions.
But you’d never know this upon meeting me because I am generally a great big ball of sassy sunshine.
It’s all real, and it all coexists.
I am not a flat character. No one is. We all have certain amounts of both darkness and light, but everyone prefers the light, and society tells us we’re not supposed to talk about the dark. It’s not acceptable. It makes others uncomfortable. So we hide this part of us because it’s black and ugly and unwanted. But then it festers. It slowly poisons us. It drives us mad.
We craft excuses. We make up lies. We say we’re “fine.” Because that’s what we’re supposed to do. We don’t want to burden you, we don’t want the stigma, and we don’t want to be that vulnerable.
The stigma needs to go away.
When we feel open to talk about it… when we let the pain breathe… when we don’t feel judged and ostracized… when it feels safe to ask for help… when we realize we’re not alone… that’s when things get a little easier. That’s when we can start to heal. Having to hide our darkness doesn’t make it go away, it compounds it.
So be lavishly kind, and be generously compassionate.
Remember that one simple gesture can change a life, for better or for worse. I’m not saying that kindness can single-handedly beat depression or prevent suicide. I’m just saying that it makes a difference.
The darkness is most dangerous because it’s taboo. But we don’t need to fear it, and it doesn’t have to come hand in hand with guilt and shame. I believe that if we normalize it — if we talk openly about it, if we accept and admit that we all have at least a little dark inside of us — it can become safer. It can become something that we explore instead of something that we hide.
Justin Haley Phillips is a free spirit, an adventurer, a nerd, a people-loving introvert and, above all, a writer. Her purpose with words has always been to express herself with the intention of letting others know they are not alone. She has loved and lost, fought and failed, but always gets back up again, fiercer than ever! Her alter ego is the superhero Bounce-Back Girl. Haley can be found in libraries, on road trips, staring at the sky, leaving behind sticky notes with positive affirmations on them, or curled up with a cuppa and a good book. If you’d like to connect with Haley on Facebook, click here to join her free writers’ group for learning, laughs, and inspiration.