Ten Thousand And One Angels
Earlier this week, something very sad happened. Mindy McCready died from suicide. It has weighed heavily on me ever since, forcing my mind into flipping back the pages of my own life.
I spent one year of my life in a college dormitory. It was one of the hardest years of my life, though a great college it was indeed. It was the first time I had ever been away from home. Frankly, it was the first time I had ever been safe every day. It didn’t matter whether or not my dad was in jail at the moment because, even if he wasn’t, he wouldn’t come to the dorm. Even if he did, there were other girls there and I would have still been safe. I should have been full of pure, unadulterated joy. I should have felt an immense sense of freedom.
But I didn’t.
Instead, I was absolutely paralyzed with intense shame, self-disgust and fear of failing. Everyone called me beautiful. But I didn’t feel beautiful. No, instead, I felt like a clown who couldn’t take off her makeup. I thought people liked me because they didn’t really know me; they did not know what I had done. They did not know that I’d spent years silently allowing terribly disgraceful, ugly things to happen to me. They did not know I had dark, dark secrets. They did not know that I would do unfathomable things just because I was told to. Reasons didn’t really matter. The way I figured it, I knew what had happened to me was bad but because I chose to say nothing, I was also at fault. I was the one who had thought about telling–but never had. I was the one who knew that, contrary to what everyone saw on my face, I was not innocent. I was dirty.
The only way to change that, I thought, was by becoming as close to perfect as I could. If I was late to class, it proved in my own mind that I was innately bad. If I didn’t make straight A’s, it wasn’t because the material was more challenging than high school, it was because I just wasn’t smart enough. F I ate two meals a day, I was obviously unworthy of a date or a boyfriend anyway…. So I only ate partial meals and then only on the weekends, when I went home. I would not allow myself to eat even a bite of anything during the week. I remember going to stand in front of the vending machines to stare at the food–but I would have deliberately left my money in the dorm, so I couldn’t buy any.
I don’t remember the first time I took a brush and started hitting my arm. I honestly cannot remember that moment. What I do know is that I didn’t stop until bruises formed–and K didn’t stop doing it until Breathe was born. I did other things to my body too that I’m not proud of, and of which I never speak nor write. You see… When others look at you and say you’re beautiful and wonderful…but you don’t believe it yourself…then you start believing that the only one who really knows how terrible you are is you. Everyone else would hate you too, if they only knew the real you.
I never sat down and came up with a plan to kill myself. I never really wanted to die. I never said: “Today’s it: the last day of life for me.” I loved my mother and sister too much, and I stubbornly insisted on believing in a good and merciful God. I never consciously intended to die. But, by the same token, I never intended to live either. While my roommate spent the nights with friends and partying, I spent the nights at the desk in the dorm, so scared that I wrote multiple Last Will and Testaments out. I divided all my possessions, which really just amounted to my books, between my mom and sister. I’d then re-read the will and get so scared of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that I would immediately rip it up only to re-create it and the cycle the following night. Though I did not know how I was to die, I was convinced that I would not live long.
Around this time, I met someone who became very dear to me. Yet, still, I remained like a soda bottle that has been shaken up. Just like with such a bottle, a volcano of emotion and pain was rumbling inside…but I pretended it wasn’t. I wrote sad stories, sought peace from a quiet, unobtrusive synagogue and insisted I was a healthy, emotionally happy, normal eighteen year old.
When intimacy rocked my world, I was proven wrong. I couldn’t handle the idea that someone I truly cared for might want nothing but my body, and decided that no one, regardless of how much I might care for him, would be allowed access to my body without the promise of marriage first. I thought no one would ever really love me, only want me, but I told myself that was ok because it meant I wouldn’t have to handle physical intimacy. See, the fact that it felt nothing like what I had learned in childhood, scared the crap out of me. I did not want to enjoy intimacy because, if I enjoyed the same act that had so traumatized me in childhood, I thought I would be betraying the little girl inside me who had been so, so unspeakably dehumanized and hurt. Good girls were not supposed to want anything to do with intimacy.
Thoughts like these helped destroy any sense of value or worth I could have hoped to have in myself. It was so intensely painful that I numbed myself to it all by blocking it with repeated strikes of a brush against my skin. I drowned the noise of the internal volcano with volunteering for abused children.
A few souls along the way perceived more than I told. A girl I worked with at the same college named Rain took me aside one day. She was a Junior at David Lipscomb when I was a Freshman. She gave me her phone number and told me that she would find me help if I called her. She gave me a hug and told me I would be ok. When some boy whose name I never knew started prank calling different girls’ dormitories, asking sexual questions, got me on the phone and, before finally hanging up on him, had me curled on the floor in a mass of quivering fear, my roommate found me, then filed a complaint on my behalf with our RA and made it a point to answer our phone thereafter every time it rang. A psychology professor asked me to stay late one day, gave me a book on domestic violence and asked me to come to lunch with her. I have regretted declining that lunch date ever since. A rabbi pulled me into the synagogue office and told me I could stop calling every Friday morning to ask if it was ok if I came to service. He said: “I know you’re Christian, Tiffini, and I don’t care. You will be welcomed here for as long as you want to come.” A Jewish musician named Daniel in the same synagogue told my mom and sister when they came to visit a service: “Take care of her; she’s precious.”
But I was scared of intervention. I ran fast and hard away from light. I was afraid of others discovering the truth and learning that the pretty face was, in fact, a mask for ugliness.
I do not know what would have happened to me had I not given birth to my first daughter. I do not know, but the possibilities scare me. My children gave my life a greater purpose than fear: they gave me motivation and hope. For the first time ever, I had something bigger to do than nurse the shame and fear. For the first time ever, I felt capable of achieving something of great value. For the first time ever, I felt healing. My life turned.
But I remember how fragile it was for a long time. I remember not caring whether or not I woke up the next morning. And I remember, vividly so, the feeling that nothing I did was good. I remember how it felt believing that all praise was a nice lie and that no one would praise me at all if they only knew the truth. Guilt for going along with horrible things traumatized my life, and made everything that should have been bright, dull. I would lie awake, fighting nightmares in which my body was hurting but what hurt more was my own silence.
I have no idea why God saw fit to give me the gift of writing. I have no idea why He gave me my mom, sister or daughters. What I do know is that without those things, I probably would have eventually sought out suicide. It angers me when others claim that suicide attempts are just an attempt to gain attention. No one wants the shame that comes with admitting that you think you are a failure. No one wants the kind of attention garnered by pity. No one really wants to die. Sometimes, though, one bad day bleeds into another bad day until pain soaks through most of your memories and makes it impossible to see how tomorrow will be any different.
I met Mindy McCready back in 1997 and ’98–years in which I was in the midst of trauma at home. Both times, I was struck while in line with how pretty she was. I remember thinking that, if I was as pretty as she was, people might like me. I might like me. She was full of smiles both times, generous with her time, quick to hug. From what I have learned of her, though, she didn’t see the beautiful girl others like me saw. She saw someone deeply flawed, and she tried to cover up the flaws with men, with alcohol and with painkillers. When all that failed, she started trying to kill herself. Slitting her wrists didn’t work. Overdosing didn’t work. Rehab didn’t work. Probably because she didn’t believe anything anyone told her. She didn’t believe in her worth as a human being, not as a celebrity. And she lost hope in tomorrow. Her father, who had been staying her for days before, said that when he left the day of her death, she was “in high spirits.” Did you know that most suicidals get happy right before their suicides? Why? Because they have a plan that will permanently stop the pain.
It hurts my heart. It makes it hard to breathe, thinking that someone else hurt so badly that a gun shot to the head was preferable to life. When I wake up now, I hear birds outside and think about how beautiful their song is. Years ago, I wouldn’t have noticed they were singing at all. I don’t know why I was able to ride through the wave and others aren’t but I do know that my God creates every single heart that beats and that He makes no mistakes.
Mindy McCready was flawed. But she was precious and she was important and she was more than a singer. She was a mom and a sister and a daughter and a friend. Her life mattered. She was loved. She was more than her mistakes. I did not know her, but I understand her. I did not know her, but I know what pain is and shame and hopelessness. I know how easy it is to feel overwhelmed and conscious only of the hurt. But I also know that life is meant not to overwhelm us but as a gift to us. People really aren’t as critical as we think they are: they really don’t scrutinize our every decision the way we think they do. They are not all bullies waiting on us to fail. More than not, they are part of a cheering squad, waiting for us to score. The toughest judge of all is one’s self.
I’m still not like the confident women I admire (though, if truth be known, neither, likely, are they!). But I am content. I know what my purpose is. I know that one day, when I die, there will be some who would mourn; some would cry. Not because I am so extraordinary. But because we all are.