I am unsure of how to articulate the reason I am writing you. There is an F. Scott Fitzgerald quote, "In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning." I have been experiencing a soul-crushing depression that I can only utter through vague quotes and other people's words. I'm 24 and am not experiencing your typical quarter-life crisis that seems to plague everyone I know. I have I guess been working through an unconscious drama of screwing up everything that I do. I can't hold down a job, almost failed out of college, and seem to tarnish every interpersonal relationship that I have.
Last year I was engaged and in graduate school. This year, I am still living at my parents', didn't complete my grad school application even, and am in the process of losing a crappy retail job that I can't seem to go to without a panic attack. It feels as if my life has been a serious of continuous failures starting from childhood. I was only marginally praised for academic achievements, so I focused my attention on excelling in school. I had a dream of going to some big fancy schmancy Ivy League school and becoming the next Susan Sontag.
In high school, I let all of that fall away. My dreams and aspirations vanished and I clung on to anything remotely stable. On top of that, I was sexually molested by a close family member and similarly aged acquaintances. I have told only very few people about this; my parents do not know and I don't think that to say anything would make anything better. The family member is a patriarch; he financed my college education and I am forced to interact with him often.
So in this quarter-life crisis that is so much more, I turn to suicide. On a daily basis I try to talk myself out of it, stating that my current boyfriend would probably be scarred by my dying, and my best friend would be sad. Everyone around me seems to just be manipulative in a guise of trying to make me happy: quit your job, don't quit your job, dump your boyfriend, go out with me. Move to D.C., move to NYC, move anywhere and be with me. Yet I am completely paralyzed; I don't want to do these things. I don't know what I want to do or where to start.
I don't have health insurance, and I really don't have anyone to turn to, so I've turned to you. I'm honestly at the bottom of the barrel. In the middle of the night I wake up wanting to cry. The past two days I've cried continually in private, over what I'm not sure. I don't think I'm asking you to solve my problems, as they are far too huge to be addressed in an advice column. I guess all I am asking for is an empathetic ear and some sort of inspiring advice that perhaps I could keep inside me.
Three O'Clock in the Morning All the Time
Dear Three O'Clock in the Morning,
You are a beautiful, strong, smart and courageous person who was abused. The abuse was a crime. You are suffering the effects of this crime, as surely as if you were mugged on the street and landed in the hospital. If you were mugged on the street and landed in a hospital the doctors and nurses would take care of you. They would say, Did the perpetrator get away? Did the cops catch him? Will you have to testify?
But this crime was different. It happened in secret. The criminal is writing checks for your tuition. He is right there, standing in the window, writing you a check, smiling at you, saying here is your tuition. This tuition you gratefully accept. Yet you know what he did. So you are in a bind. You are being tortured. It is a silent, secret torture. No one must know that the man writing the checks for your tuition is the man who sexually abused you. So the torture works on you in silence.
You cannot reveal the man who did this. It might destroy people you love. It might destroy you. It might destroy him. So you shut the door on it. Behind the door you have shut there is rage. It is frightening to contemplate the dimensions of this rage. If you gave vent to it no one knows what might happen.
But it is a lot of work containing it, and containing it does not make you happy but tires you out and wears you down and fills your sleep with nightmares and you grow depressed. You fail. Your failure feels good in a way because that is how you feel. You have been destroyed and your failure expresses your destruction. You cannot speak of the destruction but you can act it out. You think of suicide. You think if you die it might solve things.
But dying wouldn't solve things.
And if anybody is to die because of what happened it shouldn't be you. You are innocent. You are good. This isn't your fault. Somebody harmed you. Somebody betrayed your trust. Somebody committed a secret crime against you and walked free and wrote you checks for tuition.
Dying wouldn't solve things. It would only make the tragedy worse. So you need to find a solution to this tragedy.
You are going to find a person who will understand what happened to you and help you. You deserve a beautiful life. You are going to have a beautiful life. You are going to overcome what happened to you.
So write these words down and keep them with you and say them to yourself: I am a strong and beautiful person who was abused. I am going to find a person who will understand and help me. I am going to have a beautiful life.
This is the voice of the strong and beautiful person who was abused. She is still with you. Let her speak. Let her speak through you.
By speaking these words you will find the strength to act. You may not believe me. Just try it. Even if I am wrong, what is the harm? Try it. Try speaking these words of hope: I am a strong and beautiful person who was abused, and I am going to find someone who will understand me and help me.
Then take action.
Find a crisis center near you. Visit it. Just go there. Just go there and sit in one of their chairs and fill out their forms, and say you need to talk to somebody. Tell them you've been crying and thinking about suicide. Just tell them. They will know what you're talking about. It has happened to many people, and anyone it has happened to knows what it's like and will recognize your voice and will hear her story in your story and will nod and say yes, that happened to me too, and yes, I got depressed too, and I got suicidal, and I protected the family member who did it, too, just like you did. But here I am now. The secret came out and things got better.
You will hear these words and you will find a new family of the similarly abused, a family of similar survivors. So don't leave the crisis center until you talk to someone. Wait at the crisis center as long as you have to until you can talk to someone. Sit in their chairs. Look at the posters on the wall and the people coming in and out. Wait for someone to talk to. It is a life-and-death situation. If you wait all day and they are closing up and turning off the lights, don't get up and leave. If you have to wait outside until they turn off the lights and lock up the building, don't leave until you talk to someone. Wait in the parking lot for someone to come out and get into her car if you have to. Don't leave until you talk to someone. Say what happened. Say how you've been feeling.
I say go to the center, not just call, because your parents' house is the house of lies and fear and you may need to get out of that house to speak the truth. But what if you are too depressed and afraid to leave the house of lies and fear? Then go into your room and use your phone. Call 1-800-656-4673. Tell them you've been crying every day and thinking about suicide.
You need to do this. It will not be easy at first but after you do it you will feel a glimmer. You might not know what to call the glimmer. It will be a glimmer of how you felt before all this happened, simple and innocent, no big deal, piece of cake, just a kid, what a kid feels before the door slams shut and dark things occur. After you take some action you will feel a glimmer of something you remember. You will see that there is a way out of this. There is a beautiful life waiting for you. No one can take it away from you. It is yours.
"Since You Asked," a collection of your favorite columns by Cary Tennis: On sale now at Cary Tennis Books. Buy now to receive an autographed first edition!
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A scholarly postscript: That "dark night of the soul" quote appears in the essay "Handle With Care" in the 1945 New Directions volume edited by Edmund Wilson titled "The Crack-Up." It goes like this: "Now the standard cure for one who is sunk is to consider those in actual destitution or physical suffering -- this is an all-weather beatitude for gloom in general and fairly salutary daytime advice for everyone. But at three o'clock in the morning, a forgotten package has the same tragic importance as a death sentence, and the cure doesn't work -- and in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning, day after day. At that hour the tendency is to refuse to face things as long as possible by retiring into an infantile dream -- but one is continually startled out of this by various contacts with the world. One meets these occasions as quickly and carelessly as possible and retires once more back into the dream, hoping that things will adjust themselves by some great material or spiritual bonanza. But as the withdrawal persists there is less and less chance of the bonanza -- one is not waiting for the fade-out on a single sorrow, but rather being an unwilling witness of an execution, the disintegration of one's own personality ... [ellipses Fitzgerald's]
"Unless madness or drugs or drink come into it, this phase comes to a dead-end, eventually, and is succeeded by a vacuous quiet." -- ct