Suicidal at Seven
by JS LEE
At seven years old, I already knew to protect my innermost feelings. I loved to write. A relative gifted me a locked diary—which I treasured but did not trust. In a household with surveillance cameras in bedrooms, boundaries weren’t up for discussion. I positioned strings in desk drawers so I’d know if someone had been snooping. When I arrived home from school to find my diary missing, I knew I was in trouble. My heart pounded for days but I tried to act normal. I couldn’t focus in school or at home, awaiting the confrontation.
My adoptive mother finally arrived at my bedroom door. She held up my diary and spat out a rhetorical, “Want to tell me about this?” and walked away. I followed her into her room and she locked the door.
Looking back, I think something inside me wanted her to read it. I’d known she’d been snooping for a while. Perhaps I was testing myself—testing her—to see what would happen if she found out. Of all the scenarios that ran through my head, I couldn’t have imagined how it went down. She sat at the head of the bed and I sat at the foot. She opened my diary, the tab to the lock snipped off, and screamed out my most private words—my goodbye to the world and everyone I knew in it. With each shouted sentence, I retreated deeper into my shell. That’s how I always survived her rage—by going far enough inward where she couldn’t reach me.
Among the chaos, I heard I was wrong and ungrateful. She asked why I’d write such hateful words, but it didn’t seem she really wanted an answer and I couldn’t find the right words to say.
When she cooled down a little and asked, “What do you think we should do about this?” I started to rise from the pit.
I was half-hoping she’d have a solution, and half-thankful I got to decide—as I imagined her solution would be some sort of punishment. My suggestion was, “Let’s tear it up and flush it down the toilet.” She was happy with my idea. We hovered over that powder pink toilet, watching my words disappear. But the pain never did. I just learned to hide it better.
She ended the conversation with, “I don’t want to see you write another thing like this. Let’s never talk about it again.” I nodded, feeling let off the hook. It’s interesting to me now, as an adult, how she never really tried to understand why I hurt.
For decades to come, I blamed myself: for feeling suicidal when the rest of the world thought I ought to feel lucky; for not being strong enough to kill myself, and not being strong enough to want to carry on living. I thought I was defective. As the years went on and the traumas piled up, I continued to blame myself. I figured I somehow brought things on. And maybe in some ways, for some of them, I did. My behavior became destructive. Perhaps I subconsciously hoped someone or something else might take my life so that I wouldn’t have to feel guilty for doing it myself. I abused alcohol and drugs and mixed with untrustworthy people. That said, those people I gravitated towards were not unlike my adoptive parents.
When I think back on that first and crucial cry for help, I can’t help but wonder what I might’ve done had that been my child. I can only guess, based on what I now know I craved. I’d like to believe I’d have hugged her and, in a calm tone, asked what was happening that made her feel so bad that she wanted to die. I’d want her to know she could trust me, and that nothing she said would get her in trouble. I’d find a good child psychologist that specialized in trauma and adoption, and make sure she went. My adoptive family had plenty of money when I was young. We had a limo and a vacation home. Money wasn’t the problem. Dealing with reality was. Of course there’s no way to know for sure, but had I received proper care back then, I might’ve been spared decades of anguish, and years of self-hate and self-harm. At some point in my healing, I began to see that I never really wanted to die; I just wanted the life that I had to stop. It’s only been a couple of years since I truly understood why I was suicidal so young. I wish I had a safe person to talk to then, and resources to change my situation.
There’s a sentiment I see echoed in society too often: that we owe our suffering for who we are now. That assumes we’re all doing well and are happy—that we’ve all made it. It excludes those who didn’t survive. After much hard work, I’m doing fairly well. I’m stable and happy. But I don’t think I owe my suffering shit. Had I not been emotionally neglected, I’d likely still be doing well. Perhaps better.
Since #NationalSuicidePreventionDay is here, the one message I hope to get across is: please listen. There are many reasons people want to die. I don’t think we should judge which reasons are valid or those who have died by suicide. To be honest, I still feel my reasons were valid—but I’m glad I pushed on and that I’m here today living the life I created. We shouldn’t bully or guilt people into staying alive or abuse their trust. Instead, we should learn from people’s stories and try to do what we can to make life feel worth living for all. Sometimes it’s as big as making systemic change by voting and changing policies. Sometimes it’s working to support endangered communities and youth. And sometimes it’s as simple as being a good listener.
* If you are an adopted person looking for resources to help yourself or a loved one, please check out this website.