While school was just another place where I didn’t fit in, I was a good student. All of my teachers, from my elementary years clear through to high-school days, would always see me as the model student. Even if I didn’t fit in with my peers, my teachers saw potential in me. Potential that I didn’t know existed. I never felt like I fit in with anyone. For starters, I was quiet and really shy. Being multi-racial didn’t really help matters either. I felt that if I wanted to fit in with the black kids at my school, I had to fit a stereotype and use slang and listen to hip-hop or R&B music. However, because I enunciated my words and had an affection for the grunge music scene, I was almost always mocked. Unfortunately, hanging out with the white kids at my school, I was still always “the black girl” of the group. Seriously, that’s how I would be introduced to others by my white friends. “Meet Karen, she is our black friend, but she is cool.” It was exhausting.
I did have a few friends in high school; there was a small group of us that included a white girl, Hispanic girls and guys, and me. We would get together a lot during my senior year in high school. I was easily accepted by this group of friends, but I always still seemed to feel like I was on the outside of the group. We had some good times together. I remember us all meeting up at a particular friend’s house and we would eat too much junk food in her basement and dance to Billy Idol tunes. “White Wedding” was a favorite of all of ours and I would take my place on my favorite couch in the basement and smile while watching my friends dance together along to Billy Idol. They were all having a good time. I wanted to feel as good as they did. They looked so carefree. They looked so young, like they had their whole lives ahead of them to be whoever and do whatever it was they wanted. That was a feeling that I didn’t share, and I was deeply saddened by that fact.
I did have some good times; one time in particular I will never forget. My family relocated to Rocky Mount, North Carolina, at the start of my senior year in high school and I stayed with some cousins just until I was able to graduate a few months later and then head off to college. My mom wasn’t with me during my eighteenth birthday. It was the very first birthday I would ever celebrate without my mom and I missed her so much. Crystal’s birthday was just two days before mine so I knew that after school this day I would walk to her house and we would hang out together. We already had plans to visit NYC that weekend to celebrate our birthdays. I was actually looking forward to it. The rest of the day I just went through my classes watching the clock and waiting for the bell to ring, marking the end of that period. My eighth-period class was my least favorite class. I had gym. And I can see the cliché of the fat kid that hates gym class but really, I hated it. Not necessarily because I hated participating in the activities, but it was because I hated dressing in front of other girls, and the looks I would get. I never knew if the stares I received were due to how large my body was compared to all of the other girls’, or because of the self-inflicted marks that lined my upper thighs and my left arm. These parts always stayed covered, unless I was undressing. I tried to be modest, not in an attempt to hide my breasts or ass but to hide my secret wounds. I was very protective of my scars and I didn’t want anyone to look at them or question me about them. I dressed for gym quickly and hurried out of the locker room.
After playing five minutes in a game of volleyball, I asked my gym teacher, Mr. Marra, if I could sit on the bleachers because I was feeling sick. He nodded in the direction of the bleachers and I took his cue and began walking toward the bleachers on the far wall of the gym. I wasn’t sick; at least I didn’t feel sick physically. I just couldn’t stand there any longer and play like everything was OK. I was missing my mom, it was my eighteenth birthday, and what I really wanted to do was run. Run as fast and as far away from this place as possible. My thoughts were interrupted when the static of the overhead PA system came on and my name was called. I was being called to the front office. Now what, I thought to myself. I got up and I made my way to the office on the first floor.
As my view of the main office got closer, I could immediately see why I was being called. Crystal was standing in the doorway of the front office. She couldn’t physically go into the office because of what she was carrying. I stopped just in front of Crystal and she wrapped her arms around me in a huge hug and happily exclaimed “HAPPY BIRTHDAY MUFFALOPOGUS!” Crystal always came up with creative variations of my nickname to call me. Crystal handed me the package she was holding. It was eighteen helium birthday balloons. Crystal went to a different high school and had to take two city buses to get to mine––while carrying eighteen helium balloons. I laughed and hugged her again. Crystal was so crazy, and I loved her for it. My day suddenly got so much brighter and I felt better. I didn’t bother going back to gym class. Why ruin a good mood? I walked Crystal out of the door of my school and decided that I was done with classes for the day.
Crystal and I walked back to her house. I would be spending the weekend with her and later on we would be throwing ourselves an eighteenth birthday party. Crystal’s mom was going out of town so we would have the house to ourselves. Crystal’s mom asked her what we had planned for the weekend. Crystal answered that we would be having a party and getting drunk off of jello shots and then going into the city to have fun. The weird thing was, Crystal joked around and played so much that even when she told the truth, her mom would think she was embellishing. Crystal’s mom just responded to her by saying OK and telling us to have fun. I couldn’t believe that she’d gotten away with that. As soon as her mom left, we left too. We had to go to the store to get the supplies we needed. We bought things to make some food and then we went into the liquor store for some vodka. We never got carded so buying alcohol was pretty easy for us. With supplies in hand, we were back at Crystal’s house preparing the food and adult beverages before our friends began to arrive.
I don’t think Crystal and I understood the concept of jello shots, because our shots were made in red Solo cups…which were filled halfway. It was amazing. Soon, Crystal’s living room was filled with lively voices, music, and a bunch of increasingly intoxicated teenagers. A few of our friends would be spending the night at Crystal’s to sleep off their hangover so that their parents would be none the wiser. Once the party died down and there were only four of us left, Crystal decided to ask her friend Barry to take us to NYC. He hadn’t been drinking so he was OK to drive. My friend Tony and I were pretty drunk so we half walked, half stumbled into the back seat of Barry’s car. With Crystal in the front passenger seat and Barry driving, I leaned against the cool window and just took pleasure in how much fun I had had. Anytime I was with Crystal, I always felt like I fit in. This night, I felt like a teenager. I was happy. I was in a good place. My friend Tony had lain in my lap and I absentmindedly ran my fingers through his hair. Tony had the thickest, straightest black hair that he wore pretty long and I loved to play in it. I would imagine that he loved it when I played in it because he never objected.
This night would have been perfect, except that once we got into the city, some crazies rear-ended Barry’s car and then chased us through the city until we found a cop standing at a post and pulled in front of him. That was more than enough excitement for me. I was ready to go back to Crystal’s and sleep off the vodka.
That was the best Friday night I’ve had in, well, ever. Crystal and I slept in on Saturday morning but we couldn’t sleep in too late because we were also hosting a sleepover for the girls in our church’s youth group. This would be an alcohol-free sleepover. Pretty tame in comparison to the previous night. The following day, we all woke up to attend church services. I could honestly say that I felt young and free and happy. My crappy eighteenth birthday actually ended up being the most epic birthday for me ever. And it was because of my wonderful best friend. I could always count on her to be there for me, even when she didn’t even know that I needed her.
After the wonderful fun-filled weekend that I’d had, I was more than ready to go to school on Monday morning. Usually, I had to drag myself out of bed to get myself ready for the day. But not this day. I was feeling good. I was eighteen years old, I only had three months left until graduation, I was going to beOK. I even caught myself smiling as I walked the hallways of my school. Before my trigonometry class, I stopped at my locker to put away my English book and grab my math book. A neatly folded piece of notebook paper fell to the floor in front of my feet as soon as I opened my locker door. I bent down to retrieve the paper. Someone must have slipped this in my locker. I opened the note and read it:
You are so beautiful. I want to get to know you more. I like you. Meet me after 5th period outside of music class. I go to lunch after and I want to ask you something.
Oh my God!! Peter! I’d had a crush on Peter since the sixth grade. He was so cute. I couldn’t believe it. I thought, as popular and as cute as Peter is, he wrote me a note. Oh my God, that means he knows which locker was mine! I can’t believe my luck! Things were finally going so well for me. I knew they would. I figured if I held on long enough, my life would change. And now, after all of this time, the change was starting now. I wished I had worn something a little fancier than blue jeans and a grey sweatshirt, but it would have to do. It was only going on third period so I had some time to daydream about all of the things Peter could possibly have to say to me before he actually said them.
The end of fifth period was finally here and I made my way toward music class. Peter was standing outside in the hall talking to a few of his friends. There were always several girls hanging around Peter and his friends because they were all really cute. I felt myself become more self-conscious as I made my way down the hall closer to Peter. The hall seemed to suddenly be a lot longer than it had been earlier that morning. My mouth was extremely dry as I stopped just in front of Peter. He looked at me and smiled and I smiled back. God, where did my voice go? Why can’t I speak? Peter stood there looking at me, as if waiting for me to say something.
I finally recovered enough to talk. “Hi, uhm, hey Peter.” I could barely look at him.
“Hey,” he said back to me. His friends had all stopped talking and were looking at me.
“I got your note. Thank you for writing it. I can’t believe you think I’m beautiful. I didn’t think I would be your type, you know, because you’re really hot and, well, anyway, I like you too. I have liked you since the sixth grade.”
I looked up at Peter and could immediately read the confused look on his face. “Uh Karen, what note are you talking about? I didn’t write any note.” At this time, the girls that were flocked at Peter’s side had begun laughing hysterically. Even Peter’s male friends let out a few snickers. I was mortified. I turned and walked as fast as I could away from Peter and his friends. I couldn’t believe I’d made such a fool of myself. How could I ever think that a guy like Peter would ever like me? I deserved to be made fun of for thinking any of this was possible.
For the next three days, I became the laughingstock of the school. Kids would walk by me and, attempting to mimic my voice, they would say, “Oh Peter I love you so much, do you love me too?” “Peter, do you think I’m beautiful?” I learned in that time that one of the girls that always hung around Peter was the one that wrote the note and put it in my locker. Apparently, she knew how I felt about Peter and thought it would be hilarious to see what would happen when she put the note in my locker. Yeah, it was hilarious. It was so funny that my embarrassment haunted my dreams and awakened my desires once again to remove myself from a world that took such pleasure in my pain.
The day I ended up in the emergency room at St. Joseph’s was all a confusing blur. That morning, I left my aunt’s house to go to school. The walk there was only nine city blocks; however, I don’t remember anything on my way there. I vaguely remember the time spent in homeroom before I found myself in the main office of the school. I stood in front of a large rectangular brown desk that took up nearly the entire length of the large office. There was a small swinging door attached to the desk that allowed the school personnel access in and out of the different parts of the office. I waited for the secretary sitting behind a much smaller desk in a different part of the office to acknowledge me. Once she had, I explained that I was there to officially withdraw from school. The secretary asked me to wait right there. I watched as she stood from her seated position and disappeared into another door in the office. I stood there nervously for what seemed like thirty minutes, but if I were to guess, my time there wasn’t much more than five minutes.
A short while later, a woman walked up to stand across from me behind the big desk. A file she was carrying as she walked in was placed in front of me on the big desk. Without looking up from the paperwork in front of her, she said to me, “Miss Suffern, you are wanting to withdraw from school?”
“Yes” I answered. “Well, you are well into your senior year and while your grades weren’t as good this year as in previous years, you already secured an academic scholarship to a good college. Taking all of these factors in consideration,” she continued, still without looking up at me, “I can’t in good faith allow you to withdraw. If there is something interfering with your education, I can make sure you talk to someone who can help you.”
I thanked her but declined her offer and turned around and left the office. I thought about what the woman had said. I also realized I had no idea what her job title was. She looked familiar but I didn’t know what department she worked in at the school. I grew more irritated as I played back the conversation in my head. Who was she to tell me I couldn’t drop out of school? I was eighteen years old. Legally, I am an adult, I thought. I can drop out if I want to and it would be perfectly legal to do so. Still, I could have walked right out of the front doors to the school. I could have just walked right out, without any regard to what the woman in the office said. I thought about this as I made my way up two flights of stairs to make it to my second-period English class on the third floor.
I had advanced-placement English and the class size was considerably smaller than the regular English classes. Most of the AP classes were designed that way and I preferred it that way. I wasn’t really big on socializing and being around too many people made me feel uneasy. I loved most of my teachers and they seemed to love me. Even the librarian at my high school liked me. A lot of kids would cut class to hang out at the library at school. The teachers soon got wise to the behavior and a new schoolwide rule was enforced. The only way to have access to the library any time other than a lunch period would require a pass from your current period teacher. Well, the librarian gave me a permanent pass, so I never needed permission to be in the library at any particular time. I loved going there. Being surrounded by books. Every Friday I would check out four books (although the school limit was three out at a time, I had no limit) and every Monday morning I would return the books. After a few weeks of this, the librarian asked me why I checked out so many books if I was just going to bring them back, unread, on Monday morning. When I explained that I did read each book and only returned them because I had finished them, she was more impressed by me and loved the fact that I read so much. That library was my oasis, and I would get lost in it as often as possible.
This was why I loved my English class; we always read interesting books. I liked my English teacher too. She was nice. I remember we had a reading assignment to complete on this particular day so the whole class was silently reading because we all knew we would be quizzed on the material the following day. I made it through the first of five chapters of the book I cannot even remember the title of, when suddenly the words on the page seemed to blur and distort right before my eyes. I closed my eyes tightly and reopened them. This seemed to take care of the distorted vision. I tried to continue my reading when I heard a voice whispering my name. I looked around the room at my classmates. No one else appeared to hear this voice but me. My classmates were all engrossed in the reading assignment. I heard the voice again, saying my name over and over. At this point I was positive that someone had to be playing a trick on me.
The voice started to talk to me. You’re so damn stupid! You’re worthless! No one loves you! No one even likes you! You should just kill yourself; don’t worry, you won’t even be missed. Was no one else hearing these things being said to me? The voice was loud and as clear as day but as I looked up at my teacher, she seemed unfazed by the loud interruption of this voice. I quickly scanned my classroom again and everyone there also seemed unfazed by this intruding voice. The voice appeared to be coming from nowhere and yet it was so loud and overbearing in my head. The voice wouldn’t let up. You’re fat! You’re ugly! I got up from my desk and ran toward the classroom door. I could hear my teacher calling out for me, asking me where I was going, but I didn’t stop until I was out of the door and running down the hall.
I couldn’t outrun the voice. The voice kept taunting me. Laughing at me. The laugh sounded cynical and frightening. Covering my ears with both hands didn’t quiet it. I ran down a flight of stairs and flung the door open that led into the girls’ bathroom on the second floor. I walked over to the bathroom sink and ran the cold water. I decided to splash some on my face. I just needed a jolt to snap out of whatever was happening to me. I looked up to meet my own gaze in the mirror. The same thing would happen to me when I looked in a mirror, any mirror. I stared at my reflection and within minutes, I could not recognize the girl looking back at me. I knew it was my reflection, but I felt disconnected from it. As if I were looking into the eyes of a complete stranger that looked just like me.
The voice snapped me back into my reality. You’re stupid. Just kill yourself, go on. Do it. The voice had a menacing tone this time. There was no one around but me so I knew that this voice was only meant for me to hear. The voice was only talking to me. I couldn’t quiet the voice, I couldn’t make it leave me alone. I knew that the voice would never shut up until I complied with its request. I made my way down the east hall of the second floor. I needed to get to my locker. I stopped in front of my locker and opened it. I grabbed my purple notebook and a blue pen. There was something very important I needed to do first.
I had to tell him. I had to make him understand that this was the only way. The only way for me to find peace. To stop hurting. To forget. If there was anyone I needed to help understand my decision, it was Mr. McNeal. Mr. McNeal was my favorite teacher. I’d had him in my eleventh-grade year for my C.A.S.T class. C.A.S.T stood for Communication, Arts, Science, and Technology class. We had a lot of fun learning how to use video-recording equipment and learning all the tricks of producing and editing and all of the work that went into making TV look good. One day, the class had to make music videos. When it was my turn, I made a video for Alanis Morissette song “You Oughta Know.” I had so much fun that day. Mr. McNeal understood me, and he was so kind. I couldn’t leave this world before saying goodbye to him. I couldn’t help but think that if Mr. McNeal were my father, I would not even be considering killing myself as an option. But he was not, and I was. I had to put a stop to the pain, to the voice in my head. I wrote the note and walked back down to the main office and slipped the note in his teacher mailbox.
Dear Mr. McNeal,
Thank you for caring about me. Thank you for being there for me and not only being a great teacher but also a good friend to me. I just can’t take it anymore. I’ve tried so hard and for so long and it’s not worth it anymore. I am sorry for cutting school, but they wouldn’t let me drop out. I wanted to say goodbye. I am going to go say goodbye to Crystal too and then I am done. I love you. Take care and please don’t hate me.
Once the note was securely in his box, I turned around and walked out the main office and right out of the front door.
Crystal went to school at a performing-arts high school across town. I always thought it was ironic that Crystal attended a school that was only five or six blocks away from where I lived and I attended school that was only five or six blocks from where she lived. I initially had wanted to attend the same performing-arts high school, but I never applied because I didn’t think I possessed the talent needed to attend the school. I had the money to catch the city bus to get to Crystal’s school, but I decided to make the long walk across town so that I could finalize my plans.
I had decided that after I saw Crystal at her school and said goodbye, I would walk to the Paterson Falls and jump over the side of a steep, rocky cliff and into the rushing waters below. I would probably die from injuries sustained on the sharp rocks below before I ever drowned, but in case the fall didn’t kill me, I knew the rapid, rushing water would. It was a win/win situation for me. As I made the long walk to Crystal’s high school, I was content. I wasn’t afraid of the decision I had made. I knew it was the right choice because as soon as I made it, the voice had stopped torturing me. I was just sorry for how my mom would take the news when she found out. She lived in North Carolina now and I knew she would be upset, but I knew she would eventually get over it. This was something I had to do. I just couldn’t take living anymore. Living was for those alive, and I didn’t feel alive. I didn’t belong in this life, I never had, and I wanted out.
It took me about an hour to reach Crystal’s school. As I entered, I found the main office building immediately and spoke to a friendly lady inside and told her I was there to see Crystal. I gave the lady my name and she asked me to have a seat. She was being very kind to me. I didn’t have to wait long before Crystal entered the office. I stood up and wrapped my arms tightly around her in a hug. She asked me what I was doing there, and I told her I just wanted to see her. We made small talk and I hugged her again to say goodbye. I wasn’t going to tell Crystal of my plans because I didn’t want her to know. Crystal was my best friend and she tried all of the time to help me be happy and it would never work. I didn’t want her to know my plans because I didn’t want to risk her talking me out of them only to have to revisit this whole thing just a little while later. Crystal kept talking to me but she was acting different than her usual self. It was as if she was stalling but I couldn’t imagine why. I thought it was just me and my perception was all off. I wasn’t suspicious of the fact that Crystal kept me talking. We just made small talk. Typical girl-talk.
I figured it was time for me to go. I hugged Crystal a second time. This time it was a little tighter than the first and I definitely lingered with the hug because it was hard to let her go. I told her goodbye again and when I looked at her, I saw that she was looking past me at something behind me. I was turning around to see what had caught her attention when I saw two uniformed police officers walk into the room. Initially, I assumed that something must have gone on at the school and they were there to settle some type of dispute or some truancy issue. I was surprised when the officers stopped in front of me, effectively blocking an easy exit out of the school.
“Miss Suffern?” the taller male officer asked.
“Yes?” I answered.
“Come with us, please,” he said as he put an arm behind my back and guided me out of the school.
I was confused. Why would I need to go with them? I looked back at Crystal, searching her face for answers, but she just looked relieved. I turned back to the officers and asked the taller one with his hand on my back, “Did I do something wrong?” I needed to know. The shorter male officer still had not spoken but he walked close to me on the opposite side of the taller officer.
“No, we are here to help you stay safe.”
Stay safe. I thought, stay safe from what? I willingly followed the officers to their patrol car but I didn’t understand why they needed to keep me safe and whom they were trying to protect me from. They sat me in the back of the car, but I wasn’t in handcuffs.
“Am I going to jail?” I had never been to jail before and suddenly realized that I was worried about the idea of being locked up.
“No, you’re not going to jail, just relax.” The shorter officer finally spoke, and his voice was a lot deeper than I was expecting. Minutes later, the patrol car pulled into the emergency entrance of St. Joseph’s hospital. “Why are we here? Why did you bring me to the hospital?” I asked.
“Mr. McNeal received the note that you left for him. He alerted the staff at your friend’s high school to keep you there until help arrived. We are here to help you.” It all began to make sense now. I felt betrayed. They were protecting me from myself. I sat quietly until the taller officer parked the patrol car and then walked to the back door where I was sitting and helped me out of the car and into the hospital.
As I sat on the hospital bed in a gown, the nurse checked my temperature and blood pressure and looked inside of my nose, throat, and ears. “You have the cleanest ears I’ve ever seen,” he said after his inspection. I noticed how young and male the nurse was. Not to sound sexist or anything; it was just the first time I’d seen a male nurse. Since nurses were predominately female, I just thought it was interesting.
“Yeah, I am kinda obsessive about cleaning my ears.”
The nurse smiled at me. He turned to walk out of the door, but stopped short before leaving. He turned around and walked closer to me. My body tensed up, as it always did when anyone got physically close to me.
“Honey, I don’t know your story, but I just wanted to tell you that you are a beautiful girl and you need to just hang in there, kiddo. There is still so much more life that you need to live. Just don’t give up.” He gently placed his hand on top of mine and gave it a small squeeze before walking toward the door again. “The therapist will be with you in just a little while.” And with that, he walked out of the door.
Suddenly I was self-conscious. I felt as if everyone in the hospital knew why I was there. I didn’t like that. It made me feel like people were looking at me. I already felt that people were looking at me but it was even worse now. I couldn’t believe this. I had already made up my mind and decided to tell the doctor or whomever came in the room that I had no intention of killing myself. And then they would let me go and I would go directly to the Paterson Falls to complete the job I had set out to do that morning. I just realized that I was super tired. I lay down on the hospital bed and closed my eyes. I could see myself standing at the falls, looking down at the rushing water. The sound was deafening and it was beautiful. There were huge jagged rocks at the bottom that were slick with water and the water rolled and bubbled invitingly over them. I could feel a calming peace take over me. I knew that now was the time. I walked closer to the edge of the rock that I stood on. I looked down and walked closer and closer until my feet no longer touched solid ground and I was falling and falling. I never screamed. I fell silently for several seconds and I never hit the bottom.
I was jolted back to reality by a hand gently placed on my shoulder and a male voice asking me if I was awake. I must have drifted off to sleep because the next thing I knew, there was a young male dressed in a light-yellow button-down shirt hidden underneath a blue argyle sweater vest. I could see that he was also wearing khaki slacks. He had a badge clipped at the hem of his sweater. His name was Michael Smith and he had some letters behind his name; I’m sure they were his credentials. Michael introduced himself by first name only. He let me know he was here to do a psychiatric evaluation to determine if I would require an inpatient stay. I was still a little groggy from my impromptu nap. I didn’t say anything, but I sat up and dangled my legs over the side of the bed. Unconsciously, I gently began kicking my legs back and forth, waiting for Michael to speak again. The silence was rather uncomfortable. After what could only be describe as an eternity later, Michael began asking me questions.
“How long have you felt sad?”
“I’m not sad” I lied.
“Have you ever heard voices that no one else heard or saw things that no one else could see?”
“Nope.” Again, I lied, but I wasn’t going to admit the truth. “Have you ever thought about or wanted to kill anyone?”
“No.” This time, I told the truth. All of my thoughts of harm were directed at myself.
“How long have you engaged in self-injury?”
Instinctively I covered my exposed legs with the blanket on the bed and used my right hand to cover the scars on my left arm. I never answered Michael. He went on to ask me more questions about my sexual history and experiences as well as about my drug use. These were really personal questions and even if I hadn’t had a plan to lie to sound sane so that I could be released, I would not have answered these questions anyway. I lied in response to all of those questions as well. I wanted him to finish so that I could get out of there. I had a meeting with Paterson Falls and I didn’t want to be late.
“OK, Karen. That’s all of the questions I have for you. Sit tight, we are preparing a bed for you, and then a patient-care technician will come in to transport you.”
“Wait, what? A bed for me? Why?”
Michael was already up and walking to the door. He stopped before opening the door and looked back at me. “Karen, you’re being admitted to the psychiatric ward. I have reason to believe that you are a danger to yourself and you require an acute care that will be provided for you here.” With that, Michael walked out of the door.