I Want/What If

I spent most of Tuesday feeling suicidal. Not bottle-of-pills-in-hand, primed-and-ready suicidal; smiling, playing-on-the-rug-with-my-daughter, wishing-for-death suicidal.

On Tuesday, if death had come for me, I would’ve said, “Yes, please. I’m ready.”

I still got my son off to his first day of fourth grade (and quietly berated myself for not being “the kind of mom” who posts a First Day of School picture on Facebook and writes something sentimental about her baby growing up). I still prepared meals and even did some housework. Inside, I wanted to die.

I want to die played on repeat for fourteen hours.

In the evening, after gently pulling myself up out of the downward spiral with the careful application of humor, I realized that my wishing-for-death (when I have no intention of killing myself) thoughts are roughly analogous to the intrusive thoughts that started plaguing me after my first baby was born. Every time I stood on a balcony or high-up bridge, I thought, “What if I drop him?” And then this chilling filmstrip would play in my mind: I saw myself carrying my child over to a railing, dangling him over the edge, and letting go. Over and over and over again.

It makes my chest tighten just to write about it. I didn’t want to hurt my son. I was horrified by those thoughts. But I couldn’t make it stop: What if I drop him? What if I drop him? What if…?

It’s relatively easy to separate myself from intrusive thoughts when they involve another person. I take comfort in the knowledge that finding these thoughts upsetting is a good sign. I never feel compelled to act on them. It doesn’t make them any less disturbing, but at least they’re not dangerous.

It wasn’t until Tuesday evening, having weathered the storm of I want to die, that I realized that the same could be said about my distressing “I want” ideas. I used to be plagued by thoughts of consuming massive quantities of food. In my mind, I’d hear, in my own voice, “I want to eat a whole cake.” At the time, it was deeply upsetting. A whole cake?! Who even thinks that? Something is terribly wrong with me!

When I absorbed that “I” into my identity, the “want” became real and valid. I felt there were no choices beyond acting on the thoughts, or white-knuckling through them.

But did I really want to eat a whole cake? No! Cake is delicious, and while the idea of having as much highly-palatable food as one desires is appealing, All The Cake is not better than some of the cake. In fact, as anyone who has binged or overeaten will tell you, All is emphatically much worse!

“I want to eat a whole cake” and “I want to die” thoughts are similar. They’re broadcast by the same brain-radio station. For me, the phrase “I want” pokes at a part that feels broken, deficient (the part that had to hide her true desires in order to be safe and secure), and I believe it. It’s self-emotional manipulation. Because wanting was dangerous, I believe that any “want” is real and valid and damaging. I lump all “wants” together, and point to them as a sign of my brokenness.

But I’m letting myself confuse “want” with true longing. It would serve me better to think of the destructive “wants” the same way I do an invasive, “what if?” thought. I can dismiss the “what if?” (“What if I hurt my baby?”) because I’m confident that the “I” is not who I am. “What if?” does not represent what I—the true, higher-human-self “I”—want.

What did I really want when my mind said “I want to eat a whole cake”? Several things. Often, I just needed energy, and quickly! I have a growing theory that certain urges to binge may have been my brain pleading for serotonin. Then there was a longing for the freedom to eat something delicious, that I didn’t believe I deserved—and the desire to make up for years of self-denial by cramming in as much as possible. “I want to eat a whole cake” was, in a twisted way, a quest for worthiness: Yes, my love, you are worthy of pleasure. A whole cake’s worth.

What longing is hiding behind “I want to die”? I don’t know yet. When the suicidal thoughts receded, so did the desires wrapped inside them. The next time death sounds appealing (I’m not going to fool myself into thinking there won’t be a next time), I’ll see if I can unwrap it.

2 thoughts on “I Want/What If”

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