TRIGGER WARNING: This post directly describes suicidal ideation and behaviors

I almost killed myself at 13. I stayed home from school one day and told my mother I had a migraine. My plan was to swallow the bottle of migraine medicine my doctor had just prescribed me. I don’t remember which medicine it was; I don’t even know if it would have worked. I don’t know why I didn’t go through with it. I just didn’t. The universe is funny that way. 

No one ever found out about it. I didn’t share my almost-attempt with anyone, not until I was 21, in college, going to therapy. I buried it so deep inside myself I forgot it had even happened. I lied to myself about my suicidality for years. I didn’t want to be suicidal. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was suicidal. That I still am. There is so much shame in suicide. 

I still don’t know what to say when I do something dangerous and my friends ask me why. You’ve survived so much, they say. Do you want to die?

Just not sure.

I want now what I wanted at 13, 16, 17, 19, 21, and 23. A reprieve. A break. Some relief. 

I wanted someone – anyone – to see how much I was hurting, to take some of that pain away. I tried everything: sex, alcohol, cutting. I was quiet about these behaviors. I had to be. No one could know what I was doing to myself, just as no one could know why I was doing it. Especially not the adults, who would’ve told my mom. When she found out I was cutting myself she said slit your wrists and kill yourself

And my little sisters. They couldn’t know I wasn’t okay. That most days I hurt so bad dying would have been a relief. How I hated myself for feeling that way, for considering the possibility of abandoning them, leaving them alone with my mother. My mother, a poor, volatile, single mom who is always sick with something. 

Back then, I was a suicidal teenager who cut herself almost every day. I was also researching emancipation. Researching foster children and runaways and what becomes of them. 

I still don’t know whether what my mother did to me was actually abuse or just a rough childhood. We didn’t get along after I started middle school. Some days, I’d get home from school and she was happy. Other days, I avoided her however I could because I was afraid. She didn’t hit me; she only ever got physical a handful of times. She yelled and threw things and slammed doors. She refused to buy me things I needed: clothes, school supplies, and toiletries. Mostly, she used her words. Threats and insults and obscenities. My sisters were still little then. Still good in my mother’s eyes. She would hurt them too, but not until I was moved out and far away. 

My mother was my best friend until I turned 11. 

I have a list I run through every day in my head. 

The mile markers of my childhood, are categorized by the grade I was in when each thing happened:

Second grade: we got evicted from our apartment. My mom, my sisters, and I moved in with her mom, my grandma. My dad moved in with his mom. My best friend Brooke died.

Fourth grade: we moved to New Jersey.

Fifth grade: my grandpa died.

Sixth grade: my mother’s car was repossessed. My step grandma kicked us out of her house. For a couple nights, we were homeless. My 9 year old sister attempted suicide. In her letter, she said she was sorry but that she knew I would be happy. 

Seventh grade: I changed middle schools and met the boys who would become my best friends. I was sexually assaulted. I almost attempted suicide. 

Ninth grade: I cut myself so deep I thought I might die. It was an accident. My history teacher noticed the bandage on my arm and I made up a story but he reported it to my guidance counselor anyway. She promised not to tell my mom if I agreed to meet with her every week. 

Tenth grade: we got evicted from our apartment. I moved in with the family I babysat for. The family I still come home to on the holidays. My adopted mom and dad, my bonus siblings. I stopped cutting myself. I found my family.

Eleventh grade: we moved to Myrtle Beach. I moved out of my mother’s house for the last time. I got a job at McDonald’s. I was raped. 

Twelfth grade: I got into almost every college I applied to. I could only afford the University of Tampa, so that’s where I went. My sister attempted suicide for the second time.  

It’s always been hard work, keeping myself alive. I know now that I didn’t want to die at 13, not really. I wanted a way out. An escape. Somewhere I felt safe. 

In New Jersey, where I spent most of my childhood, there were temporary escapes: my best friends who lived down the street, cheerleading practice, sleepovers, babysitting. These escapes were like Advil: they kept the pain at bay. 

When my mother moved my sisters and I from New Jersey to South Carolina, I lost those escapes. We moved in with one of her old coworkers and her six adopted children. We rationed food and had a cleaning schedule. There were two dogs, four cats, and eight kittens. Everyone fought. My mother’s threats grew worse. She said she was done taking care of me. 

And she was. When I ran out of deodorant and asked if she could buy more, she said no.  

That’s when I got my first job in the service industry. I was a front-of-house worker at McDonald’s. I used the money I made to pay for all of my necessities: toiletries and clothes, and oftentimes my own groceries. I worked everyday after school, sometimes walking 40 minutes from my high school to my job. Work became the one thing I had that my mother couldn’t take away from me. Having my own income helped me survive, but the work itself and the people I worked with kept me alive. 

Once, when we were arguing in the car, my mother told me to get out on the side of the highway and I did. We were still new to South Carolina and I didn’t know where I was. I called my coworker Jackie. She was the only number I had and we’d worked together maybe three times. She and her boyfriend drove up and down 501 until they found me. They didn’t ask questions. We went to Chick-Fil-A and got ice cream and drove around some more until I remembered how to breathe. When I saw Jackie at work the next day she smiled and said are you ready to learn how to use the headset

I smiled too. They only let the good employees work the drive-thru, and I was becoming one of them.  

During our busy hours, there was so much to do I didn’t have time to think about what I might walk into when I got home or how much easier everything would be if I just died. I focused on what was right in front of me: memorizing orders, handing greasy paper bags out the window to our customers, ensuring no one forgot their coke or sweet tea, and double-checking the sauces in each bag. Most of my coworkers hated the night shift. We usually got slammed right before we were supposed to get off, especially during the summer. 

I welcomed the rushes. Getting through every peak assured me that all turbulence passes. That chaos and hardship and stress are all survivable. I wasn’t safe at home. My new school made me anxious and afraid. 

McDonald’s was my haven. 

I got good at running the drive thru alone. I could take orders on the headset, make drinks, bag food, and hand it out the window all on my own. I got so good my manager let me assign everyone’s positions at the beginning of each shift. He let me give breaks and make cuts. My coworkers came to know I was in charge when I was working. Most of the cooks were older, college-age. Front of house was mostly high school girls, like me. 

Everyone was kind. 

That December, I got a text from the woman my family had been staying with, telling me my mom had moved out and taken my sisters with her. She said she didn’t know where they went but I could stay with her. My mother was gone and I was alone. Afraid. Relieved that my mother was gone and devastated that I didn’t know where my sisters were. I reread the text, cried in the break room. 

I cried a lot in the break room. No one ever passed judgment or pried. They understood I was 16, 17, 18, and alone. Motherless, fatherless. Some days it hurt so much it numbed me into nothing. My coworkers weren’t unsettled when I had those days. Jackie said I could sleepover whenever I wanted to. So did Macy and her mom. They both worked there, that’s how Macy and I became friends. We had the same days off. We went to amusement parks and ate Taco Bell on the beach at night. 

On weekends I drank with the boys: Alfred and Benji and X. They were all good friends, but Benji especially took care of me. He snuck extra vegetables in my snack wraps when he was working. We were only supposed to get chicken, lettuce, and cheese, but I’m a vegetarian so for me it was just lettuce and cheese. He’d give me cucumbers and tomatoes, and extra extra honey mustard. Sometimes, on slow days, he’d even put salt and pepper on them for me. The first time he did it I was so surprised. I hadn’t asked for anything extra. This was a kindness unfamiliar to me. 

When it was cold or he wasn’t feeling well I made him tea with lemon and honey. He said I made it really well, and I was proud to be able to offer him something. 

This is love, I think.

I don’t know whether any of them knew that their kindnesses kept me alive. That I thought about work whenever I felt the impulse to cut myself or pop the leftover oxy I found in the bathroom closet when we first moved to Myrtle Beach.  I considered my coworkers my protectors. I felt valuable when I ran the drive thru. Those last two years of high school, McDonald’s gave me comfort and purpose and safety. 

I had no family at home and no friends at school. My life was a dead zone. 

McDonald’s was my lifeblood. It’s been seven years since I worked my last shift there. I probably wouldn’t recognize anyone anymore. And yet. I still keep in touch with a couple of my coworkers. Benji and Macy. 

They know where I’ve been, how hard I fought to not die. How hard I am still fighting. They are still kind and supportive, still life-giving. 

Even now, the Carolina Forest McDonald’s keeps me alive. I breathe for the job and the people that saved my life. I breathe for the girl I was there; young and afraid and alone and desperate to have anyone or anything to hold onto.

I am 25 now, a graduate student with one year left in my degree. I am free of my biological mother. This is my own life; a life I built for myself. 

Recently, I attended a suicide prevention training. I volunteer at a resource center in my area, where we do a lot of crisis intervention. During training, we talked about asking the person directly if they are feeling suicidal and persuading them to get help and developing a safety plan to keep them alive. It’s called QPR: Question, Persuade, Refer. We talked about how suicide isn’t actually about dying but regaining some control over their life. How most individuals who attempt or complete suicide don’t actually want to die – they want their pain to end and they’ve lost sight of a life they can withstand living.

I thought about my own relationship to suicide. How much I’ve struggled with suicidal ideation, and how many people I love who’ve attempted or completed suicide. It hadn’t occurred to me before then that suicide gives someone back a sense of control over their life. That it’s a decision someone makes on their own, something that can’t be taken away from them. That so many people who are suicidal can stay alive if we learn how to listen to them. If we help show them that there is another way out. 

The woman who led the training also talked a lot about practices in living.

Practices in living are everything we do while we’re alive. Shower. Talk on the phone. Sit on the front porch. Go for a walk. Snap our fingers. Breathe. She talked about how when someone who is suicidal calls the hotline the most important thing is that we keep them on the line because as long as they’re still breathing into the microphone they’re still alive; for them, calling the hotline is a practice in living. 

In high school, working at McDonald’s and spending time with my coworkers were my practices in living. Their kindness helped me hold on to hope. Their existence kept me alive.

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