Staying Alive

All my life, I have thought about killing myself. I have imagined it a thousand times. When I was a little girl, the film was always the same: My mother died, and I killed myself, so I could be with her. Maybe this was because she always told me that if something happened to me, she would die.

There have been all kinds of films, the most difficult to live with the ones that came after I gave birth to my daughter. I had rolled my eyes the few times I had come across articles about post-partum depression, saying something along the lines of how America had a pathological need to diagnose every human experience as a condition. But if that wasn’t post-partum depression, then what was it? Sometimes, the reels don’t feel like reels at all: Each step is measured, all actions weighty, as if my hands had truly committed them. I come away from these episodes into an invariable state of shock, weak and trembling. How can I think these things? What is wrong with me? Why am not I getting help?

I have tried. The first time was when I was seventeen. That’s what America does to you: You spend your entire life not knowing what a therapist is, then live a year in this country and suddenly need one. The only reason I went in for the second time and continued my weekly visits was the vista of Central Park from a wall-to-wall window in the living room, where we talked. She looked like Morticia, with black hair and nails, the way she would glide across the room in her long black skirt to admonish her son in the adjacent room for making too much noise while she worked. I never heard a sound from his room. Sometimes, I thought there was no son. She became predictable after the first two sessions, and I scoffed at her lack of depth, her textbook questions and assessments.

The second therapist told me after the fourth session that if I were to ever find my freedom, I would need to sever all ties with my mother. I told him it was unconscionable to suggest that an only child might ever consider abandoning her only parent. I left, and never paid for the session. That was one of the times I thought about killing myself.

There were a few other shrinks here and there, all dull and lacking insight I couldn’t glean on my own. One tried to convince me to take antidepressants, and didn’t understand when I told her I’d rather die writing than never write at all. Another prescribed a support group for adoptive parents, and I wanted to ask if he had heard anything I had said about trotting the globe, spinning bottles with politicians, then waking up one morning with a classroom for a workplace and a husband and two children for a family that had quite literally been handed to me on a gold platter I had neither requested nor anticipated. I promised to look into support groups, only because he had preached to the choir of those who had told me for years that it would surely help to spend time with other families who had come together through borders and court orders. Help with what? I left the latter therapist, too, and never made another appointment.

Yesterday, after hours of restless moping, entirely unsure of how to mourn for my friend on the twelfth anniversary of the day he had jumped from the twenty-seventh storey of his office building, I sat down next to my husband, put my head on his shoulder and said, “I don’t even know anymore if I am this sad for him or because I know I will die like he did.”

A few hours later, as I circled the block for the twentieth time, asking my friend to make himself known to me, I pitied myself. It was cold. I had broken now the two hundred eighty-seventh or so promise to stop smoking. I wanted to be with my husband and children, and instead, I was on the street, smoking cigarettes, talking to a dead man, trying to find the ground, a patch of something solid to stand on.

All day yesterday, I asked my friend to come to me, to show me he was still here, with me. Then, I thought, why would he be? The Universe is too intricate and important a mechanism to involve such petty engagements as the tethering of a soul at large to a particular body.

“Show me that you’re still here,” I pleaded the way one does for the very last time. Still, there was no answer, and so I told myself to go home and look at my family. What greater proof could there be that my friend is present than this family, this mystery, this miracle, this beauty of a family that we are?

He has done all he could do for me. See, one of the things I understand would qualify me for at least a couple of diagnoses of mental disorder is that I am as certain as that the sun will rise tomorrow that my friend guided me into teaching, then, on to my son and to my husband, and that without his death, my life wouldn’t be what it is today.

He had been an orphan himself, which had to have had at least something small to do with why he chose to stop living. And he must have thought that my soul would fare better in a teacher’s body than the one of an aimless, reckless nomad. After the second time a man to whom he had introduced me ended up becoming a significant other with whom things ended disastrously, my friend had vowed that he would someday introduce me to a man with whom I would walk through life. I have never doubted that my friend paved the unlikely way to my husband. I often hear him say, “What a guy, such a good soul he has.”

I have always embraced my family and teaching career as a post-partum gift from my friend, who had always wanted to see me happy. I am aware that the certainty of this feeling, this knowledge, really, is cause enough to seek professional help. But the kinds of professionals I need live in the mountains and steppes of faraway lands to which I can’t travel any longer because I’m tethered now. My friend would know what I mean.

Many people have remarked what a beautiful family I have, what a beautiful story we share, what a beautiful life we live. I always thank them because they are right, and I am moved that this is how people see us. But nothing makes me more melancholy these days than hearing what an incredible family and life I have.

Sometimes, I want to tell people that I am the unhappiest person they have ever met. Then, I think I am likely not. I think that most people to whom I might choose to say this have far more pain than I do, and far more reasons to lose hope. I imagine them asking, “What do you not have, Maryam?” “What are you missing?” “How can you complain when you have absolutely everything?” Some would never ask such questions because they know that what we have has nothing to do with wanting to die. But many, including my own mother, wonder what else I could possibly want to feel happy.

We don’t go around our lives talking about the darkness in our minds. I don’t share that all my life I had housed the soul of my five-year-old sister who had blown into pieces two years before I was born, and whose name my mother gave me, for reasons I will never understand, but will hopefully someday forgive. I don’t tell anyone that I had spent all my life trying to expel my dead sister’s soul, once by standing on the ledge of a rooftop from where I was pulled to safety by someone who didn’t want to see me splatter into a puddle on the sidewalk. I’ve never told anyone that once I did manage to expel her, my life became dark, lifeless, without any purpose at all. I don’t tell people that when my best friend killed himself and a few of us went to clean out his apartment, the stereo suddenly powered on, and the Beatles wailed, “Help!” I don’t share what to me is a fact as simple as that the earth is round: That, in death, my friend gave me a new life, a whole new identity, as if he had died and joined a universal crusade for setting lives on proper courses.

We don’t go around talking about how hard it is for us to live; we don’t describe the battles we wage with thousands of demons to get through a single day. So people don’t know. They are not meant to know.

It’s the family that always carries our burdens. They are the ones who are there when things fall apart, the ones who become collateral damage when debris goes flying. And somehow, always miraculously, they are the ones who put the pieces back together.

For those of us with ailings of the mind, dark nights are terribly dark, and light comes only in patches, fleeting, and sometimes terribly rare. Those of us who can, survive by shielding ourselves with normalcy. We follow the motions seemingly seamlessly. We find ways to turn our pain into weapons of minimal destruction, like sarcasm and self-deprecation. We do these things either because our will to live is too strong for us to become cast members in those reels or because there are people for whom life without us would never stop being unbearable, and for whom our willful departure would always be unforgivable, despite sincere efforts to understand.

We fight the demons. We grab onto the light, precarious as it may be, because even more than the peace we know will only come if we take a leap off a rooftop, we want happiness and peace for the people we love, for family.

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