Cutting the Past
By Sarah Panter
Monday, July 9, 2001
That therapy appointment that I was supposed to have today, didn’t happen. I was looking forward to going and when I got there, they told me that she would be with me at 1:45, at or around 2:15, I got up and started having an “episode”, that’s what I’m gonna start calling my out-of-control crying, screaming, and anxiety attacks. I started crying really bad and asked the receptionist what was going on. There was a Mexican woman who went in to see the woman I was supposed to see before me. She was taking forever because of the language barrier and the receptionist said there was someone else before me still. She told me to calm down and keep waiting. I was crying really bad and requested a cup of water so that I could take a Xanax. I went outside for a minute to calm down. I went back inside to keep waiting. But I was losing it fast. I started hyper-ventilating because I was trying to keep from crying in front of all the people in the waiting room. I started digging my nails into my arm and I left three marks. The woman sitting next to me tried talking to me to make me feel better and/or calm down. I couldn’t take it anymore, so I went back up to the receptionist and tried to reschedule, but the next earliest appointment for this particular woman was July 20th. So, then I told her to cancel my appointment because I couldn’t wait any longer. By this time, I was really hysterical. I stormed out of the place and someone came after me, but I kept walking and ignored them. I screamed and cried uncontrollably while driving home…that wasn’t really a safe combination, but I was on the cell phone with my mom for most of the drive which really helped. When I got home, my mom was already on the phone with the mental health place that I just came from. I got home in time to hear most of the conversation. She raised some hell. In a nutshell, she basically told them that they need to get their fucking act together because her suicidal daughter was in no emotional condition to calmly or rationally deal with their bullshit. They managed to miraculously squeeze me into see this same woman on Wednesday, which is my birthday, they also set me up to see a doctor that day too. So help me if they try and tell me I need different medicine because I don’t trust these public health losers. I trust Dr. Simpson, and so far, only Dr. Simpson. And I won’t mind if I have to sit in the waiting room for a little bit waiting for him. I don’t know if I mentioned that I called __________________ or not. Well, I did. I pretty much told her that she and Dr. _________________ are quacks. I let her know that I don’t trust either of them and I let her know how God awful that hospital in Lumberton was. She replied that basically, if I wanted to continue therapy there, I would have to use one of their doctors because it would be easier for them to correlate with each other. So I told her to go ahead and close my file because I would rather drive all the way to Southern Pines for my therapy, than to stay with them. That made me feel better. Now, more about today, I went to the post office and picked up my “certified letter” from dad. It was a birthday card and a postal money order for 50 dollars. So I was able to deposit 600 dollars in my account today. Mom and I went out later to finish running my errands that I didn’t do on the way home because of the condition I was in. We went out to eat at a new place in town and we bought paint by number things at the drug store so that we would have something to do in between packing that would keep our minds diverted. I talked to Josh and the conversation was alright until it turned toward the depression books he bought me and then it turned into the subject of me wanting to continue to cut my arms. I refuse to ever go back in the hospital, but until my medicine starts working properly and I can get a solid start going in therapy, I can’t just stop cutting. He said he wouldn’t get mad at me for doing it, but he wouldn’t just sit back and watch me do it. I don’t remember what he said, something about making sure that my mom knows or something like that. When he and I got off the phone, my mom and I talked about it and her response was similar to Josh’s. Well, I hate to tell them, but I’m going to cut again, I’m in too much pain. I’ll feel guilty as hell about it, but I need fresh cuts to look at, my arms are healing. The only thing I’m afraid of is being committed. If someone commits me to the hospital, I have no fucking choice. Mom and Josh might not do it, but Dr. Simpson probably would. That’s the only thing. However, my appointment with him isn’t until next Monday. Maybe by then the cuts will heal enough so that they blend in with the other ones. I have to do it tonight. I feel the tears starting to gather and I know that once I do it, I’m gonna fuckin’ break down. A birthday card from my dad was the trigger because this is my first birthday without him. Josh is gonna be the only man in my house on my birthday. The tears are blurring my eyes now, I have to either cry or cut. I’ll probably do both. This pain is too much for me to not be able to do the thing that provides me with comfort and security. My nose is starting to run. I wonder if my mom took the rest of the box cutters out of the desk. Those are my favorites because they’re the sharpest. If she took them, there are plenty of Ginsu knives in the kitchen that can cut cars in half. Let me go check…score one for the cutting team, there are box cutters in the desk and I’ve got one in my possession now. Is Dr. Simpson right? Am I being selfish, am I acting like a child because of making my mother and my boyfriend worry so much about me? Was he referring to my cutting, or my emotional outbursts and the things that I say? I don’t know, but I have the blade pushed all the way up, now all I have to do is take a few swipes at my arms. I like it when the blood trickles down my arm. My hope is that I’ll cut myself, start an “episode” and wake up my mom to come see what the commotion is all about. I better hurry, I think my Xanax is starting to take affect and my desire is slowly dying. Here I go…about to take aim at my arm…I have to get myself worked up and make myself feel pain, it’s getting harder as more of the Xanax is getting absorbed into my system…I’m having a hard time moving the blade across my arm…so far, two miniscule cuts that are hardly bleeding, I didn’t even feel it, I hardly put any force on the blade, but the tiny droplets of blood that are surfacing are enticing. I think I like the blood more than the pain because quick swipes at my arm…I hardly feel it but there’s always plenty of blood. It’s quicker like yanking a band-aid off. Let me do a bigger one…it’s still taking me a minute to move the blade against my skin…probably because I’m thinking of mom and Josh and what they would say…a small gentle swipe that I can’t even see, there’s no blood. I want to see blood…a harder swipe, small, only tiny spots of blood…let’s try for large drops of blood. The quick pain feels familiar and comfortable…this is great, I hardly feel the pain and yet the blood is getting greater…it might start running down my arm in a minute…the drop is widening, I feel the sting now. Gotta get a towel, cuts are getting deeper and bloodier, running down my arm, can’t stop, can’t cry. There’s blood on the razor, don’t want to go to the hospital, tears coming, breakdown about to happen? Why can’t I stop? What am I doing to myself? Why do I do this? Why can’t I stop? Do I wake up mom? Will she take me to the hospital? Lot of blood on the towel…want to keep cutting, tears flowing, blood still coming out, God help me I don’t want to stop, more cuts, more blood, wake up mom? What do I say? What will she do? Thoughts of dad hurt, tears flow with the blood, dad messed up on the return address on my card, he started to write Sanford, but had to write Matlacha, not enough blood, left arm is a bloody mess, other arm? No there’s room left over here, color of box cutter matches blood from my arm, it’s too late now, I can’t take back the cuts and change my mind, have to keep going, not satisfied, they’ll be so mad, I have to pick up the blade and keep going, cuts have to be longer, I hardly notice the pain as I slowly drag blade across for longer cuts, tears are coming and going, towel is getting bloodier, I can’t stop, do I wake her up? What will she say? Will she take me to the hospital again? Will she have me committed? She went to bed thinking I was gonna be alright. It’s 1:13, I wanted to be in bed by 1:00, a few more and then I’ll wake her up. Running out of room on forearm, slight stinging, blood is smeared, don’t know how many there are. Just a few more then I’ll wake her up. Hard to find space now. They’re not even and parallel like they’ve always been. Towel is pretty bloody, didn’t bother with tissues or toilet paper this time. I can’t stop, I can’t cry. Beautiful to me, no one else, have to wake her up now. I see one more space, there were actually several places, have to wake her up now. ~
I close the spiral notebook. The details of July 9, 2001 are the last words written in this edition. Though one glance into the trunk reminds me that this was certainly not the last to be written. There are many other journals stashed here, lined up in chronological order. My obsession with organization dictated that my trunk of memories be set up in that way.
Around me, there is anything but order. Old uniforms are piled to my left. An assortment of rarely used items are scattered across the bed. It doesn’t bother me because I know the mess is necessary. I don’t often open the large trunk. A lifetime of mementos and journals is buried in the closet that runs the length of our bedroom. Items of trivial value have repeatedly been stacked and stashed on top making it difficult for the one time I felt intensely compelled to open the trunk and find this particular passage in the long line of filled journals.
I don’t remember if I woke up my mom after finishing that journal entry. The details of what followed that night of intense self-injury could easily be found in the next journal in the series. I do know, however, that I was not committed and I was never again a patient of a hospital psych ward. Though the next year I would return to the same hospital that assigned me Dr. Simpson four times on an out-patient basis for ECT treatments that would change my life.
Having found what I was looking for, I stand. My legs and arms feel weak. It’s possibly that an hour of sitting awkwardly on the floor has contributed to this wobbly feeling. I know better though. This is a by-product of anxiety. Ironically, this feeling of weakness was most prominent during the summer that journal number 18 was written. Every day that summer I dealt with increasing anxiety through each morning, culminating in the instability of my legs. I would always lay down mid-afternoon and take a nap. Upon waking, the feeling would be completely gone. I think now though, this familiar weakness is not so much the result of building anxiety. It’s more of a relief as the anxiety has left. Two days of depressive symptoms that appeared out of nowhere baffled me. Wanting to cry this morning for no reason was frustrating. And now, after reading my own words from 17 years ago, they have been the cure. I feel peace and calm now. In an instant, I have come to the realization that feelings of depression every now and then are okay, especially considering where I am as opposed to where I was the night I wrote those words.
To say it seems ‘so long ago’ that I was staying up late to cut myself with a box cutter seems cliché somehow. I have learned that the older I get, the faster time goes by. I have heard it’s the same for everybody. But when talking about mental illness, the concept of time going quickly or slowly doesn’t apply. There are times—the good days—when it goes by faster than you’d like. Inevitably, there are the bad days when you long for the clock to tick faster. The pain, the mental anguish, it’s all just something that you wish would go away in a hurry. It never does. And of course, sitting cross legged on the daybed of my youth with blood running down my arm from self-inflicted cuts, I never thought there would be a time when making myself bleed would be no longer necessary to feel good. It seemed then that I would never get better. Therapy would never work and I would never find a medication that would help me. But now, gazing down at my forearms and only seeing very faint pale pink lines I know the truth—it was possible, I did get better.
Not many people know my history. As a teacher, it’s not something they need to know. What would the parents of my students think of their child’s teacher if they knew about the trio of medications I have to take every night to maintain my mental health? Or that I graduated from college later than expected because my psychiatrist forced me to take a semester off so that I could receive four ECT treatments, commonly known as shock therapy? When I began my post-college career as a teacher, I was only 22 years old, and yet, I felt like the oldest 22 year old I knew. But that was o.k. with me. By the time I graduated college, I had already achieved a secure sense of mental stability, vowing to never again be in the same place I was. To never again intentionally cut myself. I owe that security to a psychiatrist that I will be forever grateful for. He has long since retired, but what I was able to get from him as his patient will always be imprinted on my very being. The inner calm I have now is also due to my husband. He entered my life just as I was beginning my descent into bi-polar hell, and he never left my side once. Days like today, when the weather outside is dreary and a rogue wave of sadness had come over me, he worries. We both worry. It is a part of our life that we are conscious of my mood, prescription refills, and psychiatry appointments.
After making a copy of the July 9th stream of consciousness, I carefully slide journal number 18 into its place in the trunk. Something about relocking the latch and shoving all the odds and ends back on top adds to my feeling of relief. Perhaps it was the glimpse back into the dark abyss that helped me to remember where I have been and where I am now. Some people I have talked to about journal writing have said that they destroy their journals when they fill one up. It’s therapeutic for them apparently. I can understand that. My journals, all the way up to 34 at this point, will never be destroyed if I can help it. It is my intention that my journey through teen angst, mental illness, and the everyday struggles of being an adult, documented in my own words, will be passed down to the generations after me. One day when I’m long gone, I want my future grandchildren to read my words and know that even though their grandmother suffered through an addiction to self-injury caused by an intense depression, she overcame it. She fought hard and persevered through it. She didn’t give up and neither should they, no matter what it is that they’re faced with. There is always a way through. Always.
I am a wife, a teacher, a wannabe writer, and a lover of all things crafty. Wearing my heart on my sleeve is my m.o. I wonder about the world around me and think deeply. Life hasn't always been kind to me, but it is what you make of it and I have made one that I'm infinitely proud of. - Sarah Panter