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I was nine years old when I knew I wanted to die. I tried to hang myself from the clothesline of my mother’s backyard. I received no sympathy but I did receive a beating. Apparently, I made my parents look bad to the neighbors who might have been watching. I can’t remember what could have triggered this; I just remember an overwhelming sadness that would follow me for the next thirty-three years of my life. But I was lucky. I was lucky because I had at least one thing to hold onto – writing. Through sorrow, through shame, through much pain, it was that lone gift (drawing came later) that gave me comfort. Today, at fifty, I’ve gone on to write two novels, four short stories, a hill of essays and poetry, and several speeches for different individuals, all of which remain unpublished due to my fear of publication. So as you can see, even at my age and the years of recovery I have, I still have my issues. Regardless, writing still remains a source of comfort and looms monumental in my recovery.
It makes me wonder, how many other nine year olds didn’t make it? It makes me wonder how many others in general never found any kind of lifeline to grab onto like writing did for me? They are so important, lifelines. You don’t have to have a mental or emotional illness to need something to hold onto and too many people easily let go of these lifelines through fear, discouragement and frustration. Maybe there was something in your life that kept you afloat in choppy waves, something that provided you with a small light in a dark cavern. Maybe it’s that guitar that now sits forgotten in your closet, the one that got you through the withdrawal symptoms. Maybe it’s those oil paints and brushes that you used once or twice to express a deep sadness or even an incredible joy you once felt, but now they sit carefully boxed up on a shelf in the attic. Maybe dreams of publishing a magazine about horses is what got you up in the morning or dreams of starting a senior citizen basketball team is the only thing that’s keeping you young. The point is, whatever your lifeline is, hold onto it and don’t let it go just yet. There’s life in dreams. Today, perhaps your life is taken up by a regular nine-to-five, and if you’ve recovered enough to be able to cope with such a thing as a part-time or full-time job, then God bless you. But don’t forget the lifelines that got you there, and don’t confuse a lifeline with a survival technique, something that may have worked for you in the past but is proving harmful for you now. Perhaps your survival technique meant you having to be hard and cold in response to a hard and cold situation you were once a part of, but now that particular survival technique is only alienating you from potential friendships and holding you back.
No, lifelines are something that’s altogether different. Don’t forget your lifelines. You can still play the guitar or paint your masterpiece on the weekends. Libraries are loaded with information on how to start a small magazine and turn it into something that could rival Sports Illustrated or Vanity Fair if that’s what you’re going for. And I happen to know a whole lot of men and women in their mid-sixties who make Kobe Bryant look like he’s moving in slow motion. They’re just waiting for someone like you to lead them.
When I think of the people I admire, I wonder what they were like at nine years old. Were they being loved the way I wish I’d been loved, or were they thinking how life wasn’t worth living, the way I was thinking back then? If they were, what was it that changed their minds? What made them grab hold of a passing lifeline instead of a hanging noose? And where would any of us be if these people had chosen destruction over their gifts of music, art, sports, entertainment, medicine and business that they now share with us? What if writers like Ray Bradbury, Stephen King, Michael Crichton, Isaac Asimov and the great Edgar Allan Poe had allowed their own bouts of depression, discouragement and mental anguish to take themselves out of the picture before they even scrawled one word? What would have become of me and all the other writers like me? Through dark days and bright ones, I’ll continue to write. Oh, and draw, too! And one day, I’ll be published. I’m not worried.
John Chavis is a columnist for Painted Brain News.