As I write, coastal Maine is hunkered down under what we hope is this winter’s last dose of ice and hazardous travel. Friday’s freezing morning mist coated even sand particles, making my unpaved driveway a slippery, treacherous mess. In the afternoon, a freezing rain frosted the pine needles and slicked roads. By Saturday, it had bent trees and broken branches.
Still, our streets and yards are preparing to welcome spring. Before the ice hit, a thicket of crocuses was already blooming in my front yard. Budding daffodils are 4 inches high. Tightly furled tulip leaves have begun to push through the soil.
Most of the spring bulbs in this yard were planted more than three decades ago, when I began to create my little legacy in flowers.
Until then, I had spent dark years through my teens and early adulthood. I cried so much during my adolescence that I propped a favorite stuffed toy at one end of my bed and designated that area “my crying corner.” Throughout my days and nights, I heard a voice tell me over and over, “You shit. You schmuck. You fuck up. You fuck everything up. You can’t do anything right.”
Popular psychology of the time suggested that the voice was a “tape” from life experience that I could replace with alternate content. The first problem with that theory was that nothing in the life of an overprotected, small town Maine kid would account for those words. I could not have heard them.
A Very Successful, Totally Depressed ‘Screwup’
The second problem was that I was already working really hard at creating alternative content, and it wasn’t working. I captained my high school’s math and debate teams, was valedictorian of my class, was named a National Merit Scholar and a Presidential Scholar. I entered college as a 16-year-old sophomore.
Still, the voice kept chanting its prophecy of disaster. No matter what I did, the voice wouldn’t shut up.
I used my senior year of college for networking that let me go directly from commencement to my chosen career job as a daily newspaper reporter. Within two years, I accepted a promotion that brought my annual income to what my father was then making at his career peak. The 60 percent raise was so large that the company instituted a new policy to prevent anyone else from being able to win a similar compensation increase.
And still the voice kept telling me I was a total screwup.
My Daily Comfort: I Could End It
No great wonder, I suppose, that my number 1 form of self-comfort was to promise myself I could kill myself at any time. I reminded myself almost every day that suicide was an option. Some people put their heads on their pillows each evening and smile at the memory of the good things that occurred during the day. I pulled up my blankets and gave myself a wan smile as I told myself out loud, “I’m going to kill myself.”
By the time I was 23 years old, I must have promised, out loud to myself, that death was an option on more than 2,000 days. I was making great money, living with a big crowd of people I adored in a huge historic house, and still reminding myself almost daily that I could die any time I wanted.
How Many Promises Before I’d Follow Through?
It all came to a head one chilly October afternoon. Who knows why one day is more desperate than another? All I know is that as I pulled into my street parking spot after work, I wasn’t just promising: I was ready.
The New England sun had already dropped, and the lights from the kitchen and dining room shone warm onto the walkway. I knew that the moment I opened the front door, three children would hurl themselves at me and wrap themselves around my knees. But I couldn’t bring myself to stir from my car.
At that moment, a different voice spoke to me — the Voice I know as God.
“Plant bulbs,” it said.
“Huh?” I said. I mean, talk about a non sequitur. I’m sitting in my VW Beetle ready to die, and God is telling me to plant bulbs? Seriously?
“If you don’t have a reason to live til spring, plant bulbs,” God said.
I got out of the car, lifted my briefcase from the back seat, and slowly put one foot in front of the other until I reached the steps. I climbed — one, two, three, four — and opened the door.
The kids wrapped me in hugs as soon as I stepped across the threshold. I could smell the dinner nearly ready. When we all sat down at the huge dining room table, I asked my roommates if they’d consider chipping in to buy spring bulbs for the yard.
A few days later, with more than 100 crocus, daffodil, hyacinth, and tulip bulbs in a clutter of small brown paper bags around me, I began to dig. Every afternoon after work, I’d use the last of the late afternoon sun, plus a bit of the lamp light spilling from the living room windows, to dig out beds for my spring beauties. By the end of the month, the bulbs were tucked in for the winter and my death wish was temporarily at bay.
I’d love to say that I was free of suicide impulses from that day forward, but that wouldn’t be true. I continued to console myself at the end of bad days — which were most days — with the promise I could die. The count must have hit more than 6,300 days by my best recent estimate. And I continued to stay alive by planting bulbs — and remembering that God cared enough about me to tell me directly what to do.
A Dead Woman Doesn’t Need to Die
Who knows why one day is more hopeful than another? This Holy Week, I finally understood what it means that “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). I don’t have to kill myself. In fact, I can’t kill myself.
I’m already dead.
There is no “Carlene” who can be eliminated by her own choice. There is a catastrophically failed Carlene who has already been eliminated by her own (inadequately informed!) decision to let God take charge of her life. And now there is a still inadequate Carlene who is becoming more competent daily as she is being “transformed into his image with ever increasing glory” (2 Cor. 3:18).
“Ever increasing glory.” Imagine that.
I still plant bulbs. I keep watching for them to poke through the soil, then reach skyward and bloom. And I have learned to plant other bulbs — bulbs of kindness, encouragement, and service.
And now I have something to say to that voice that wants me to die.
“I can’t kill someone who’s already dead. And God’s operating this body now.
“I can’t wait to see the glory that is yet to come.”