Alexandra Duncan

Science Fiction. Fantasy. Feminism.


**Trigger warning - this post discusses depression and suicidal ideation.**

My 27th year was the worst of my life. I don't know exactly why my brain chose that year to try to self-destruct. There had been the car accident the year before, when another driver rear-ended me at a stoplight while going 45 miles an hour. Then the occupational therapy to recover, along with the endless phone calls arguing with the insurance company about my medical bills, the scramble to find a reliable car for under $5,000, and the stress of trying to scrape together money for physical therapy appointments not covered by my health insurance.

But by 27, I had mostly recovered, except for an inner ear condition that will probably never go away. So, why that year? 

Maybe it was the pressure cooker of pain, anger, frustration, and resentment I had been in for the past 12 months. Maybe all of that broke down the firewall I had built in my brain to keep me from thinking about the gaslighting and abuse my mother, sister, brother, and I suffered at the hands of my stepfather. Maybe being called for jury duty on a child abuse case that spring had something to do with it. Somehow, all of that anger mutated into self-loathing, and I decided everyone I knew would be better off without me.

I never tried to kill myself. I had enough of a grip on life left that when I started having panic attacks and fantasizing about driving my car into walls, I contacted my old therapist and convinced my doctor to put me on antidepressants. I ended up with a diagnosis for major depressive disorder and PTSD, along with a prescription for 40 mg of Celexa. The medicine helped, but slowly. I still remember the day, two months after I started antidepressants, when the windows in my living room suddenly came into focus, and I thought, I still want to be here.

The thing a lot of people misunderstand about antidepressants is that they aren't a magic bullet. They don't turn you into a zombie or a Stepford wife. What they do is give you enough of a handhold that you can get through the workday, make it to your counseling sessions, and start the long climb toward equilibrium again. They make it so that you can reason with your own brain.

It wasn't the antidepressants alone. My husband was amazing and supportive. He went on long walks with me and came to counseling sessions with me when I didn't feel like I could make it on my own. There were the cats, who seemed to sense that I was sick, and sat beside me on the days when all I could do was lie on the couch.

Then there was the garden. 

We were renting a house at the time, with a thin strip of grass between the front porch and the road. We had set up wooden tripods and grown green beans there before, but this year, my husband suggested we grow giant sunflowers, the kind that tower over your head and might have giants living at the top of them. I bought some seeds at a local garden center, and by the end of the summer, the sunflowers were as tall as me. 

We grew them the next year, as well. Watching them grow, caring for something, helped me come back to life. It helped me want to stick around. In the middle of that first summer, I made a promise to myself that if I was still alive in a year, I would get a tattoo of a sunflower to help me remember. 

I didn't have any tattoos. My mother, a nurse, had convinced me that a tattoo was a surefire way to end up with hepatitis. I only realized as an adult that her sample of people was a bit skewed - tattooed people without hepatitis are less likely to need medical care. Still, her lectures probably saved me from getting something regrettable burned into my skin during college, and made me very picky about finding a clean shop with a good reputation later on. 

As of earlier this summer - four years after making that promise to myself - I still hadn't gotten the tattoo. I had other uses for the money it would take - paying off those medical bills, repairing the roof on the house we bought after rent got so expensive in our town that it was actually cheaper to finance a mortgage. But now I was 31, the bills were under control, and I had scaled my counseling sessions back to once a month. It was time. I had already spent hours paging through local tattoo artists' portfolios online and settled on a shop I wanted to go to.  Before I could chicken out, I went in, consulted with the owner, and set up an appointment with the artist he recommended.

My husband came with me. I was worried about the pain and wanted to squeeze his hand. It ended up hurting less than I expected, but I was still glad he came. He and the tattoo artist had a long and interesting discussion about illustration that distracted me from what little pain there was. After two hours on the table, I walked away with this on my back. . .

I don't know if I'll end up getting any more tattoos. Everyone I've talked to says I will, and maybe they're right. The experience was cathartic, in a weird way. It was like a microcosm of the pain and healing I went through between my 27th year and my 31st. What I do know is that if I choose to get another tattoo, I want it to be as meaningful to me as this one.



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