In season 2 of the BBC series Downton Abbey, the housemaid, Ethel Parks, has a tryst with Major Charles Bryant and gets pregnant. At some point after she is thrown out of the manor, Ethel falls on hard times and, being on the streets, returns later in season 3 as a young, single mother working as a prostitute. This got me thinking, under what circumstances would I have to be, or how far would I have to fall before I too became a prostitute?
That I can even ask myself the question sparked both laughter and concern for those around me. But we see this same act of desperation in Les Miserables. Fantine loses her job and her hope and succumbs to the only life available to her to feed and protect her daughter. In fact, lots of authors are writing these plots and huge audiences are relating to them. There must be a reason.
I propose that, no matter what your starting point, relenting to something as improbable and/or detestable as prostitution is always an option. By the grace of God, most of us will not have to make that choice. But it is always a possibility. What it takes to get you to that point is different for different people. So what I was really wondering as I watched this episode of Downton Abbey was, “Where is my breaking point?”
“Being defeated is often a temporary condition. Giving up is what makes it permanent.” ~Marilyn vos Savant.
Statistically, in the United States in 2015, 17% of adolescents between the ages of 14 and 18 considered suicide as an option. By these numbers, 1 out of every 6 adults that you know has considered, if not attempted, suicide as an option. **See Study and Stats**
Does this shock you?
My first suicidal thoughts were during middle school. I can remember being so angry, trapped, and terrified by my life with my mother that death actually seemed like it might be a better alternative. Even though I couldn’t verbalize my circumstances directly, I regularly kept a journal and once or twice recorded cassette diaries of myself screaming and crying just to release the anger and bitterness I had at being imprisoned by this woman and her illness. While I can’t remember the exact words, I know the monologues were frightening and were not the types of things to be shared with others. In 8th grade, I accidentally gave a tape of music to my best friend Rachel* not realizing one of these rants was still on the other side. I was embarrassed and ashamed. I made excuses and somehow rationalized away why I would have been venting in this way. I assured her the desperation I was expressing on the tape was exaggerated and not really how I felt. But that was a lie. I was desperate.
My first suicide attempt was around the same time and was less an attempt and more a calculated cry for help. I dumped out half a bottle of aspirin in the trash and then took two myself. When my mother came home I told her I had ingested them all. I wanted to scare my mother into paying attention to me. She had already attempted suicide in my presence often enough at this point, that this seemed like the best way to communicate to her my own needs. I was wrong. In fact, she empathized so much with my choice that it became something by which she felt she could better relate to me. Because she saw herself in me, she projected her needs and emotions on my attempt and continued to neglect my needs. She didn’t even suggest I see a therapist. Perhaps it didn’t occur to her that this type of behavior needed help.
My first actual brush with death was in college. It wasn’t a direct suicide attempt. But I had been partying for well over 24 hours straight so it wasn’t exactly a choice brimming with the zest for life either. My good friend, her boyfriend, and I had been holed up in my dorm room doing lines of cocaine for more than 12 hours. At some point, they decided to take acid. I decided to continue to do lines on my own. The life of a seasoned drug user is far less glamourous than many people think. It is not all about parties, dancing, sex, and craziness. On this particular occasion, I spent many hours – but let’s be honest, it could have been hours or even days later because time is hard to gauge in these situations – doing school work and then sitting at my computer playing solitaire. In the middle of a particularly focused game, I began to sweat and I actually felt my heart skip a beat. I honed in and sure enough I felt another palpitation. My friends were tripping hard at this point and were so high that they were incoherent. So I stopped and assessed my situation alone.
Due to my mother’s illness and being so often alone as a child, I was used to being in control in difficult situations. I was used to surviving and finding a solution. In fact, I was sure I could handle the stress and fear of anyone else in the midst of an overdose. But for myself, the choices seemed somehow different. I could increase my heart rate more by succumbing to the overwhelming desire to panic. Of course, the natural scientist in me eschewed this option. I could call an ambulance – risking getting myself and my friends arrested due to our current state and the amount of cocaine and other drugs still in our possession. My selfish, self-protective ego rejected this option. So I came to my final option at that moment which was to psychosomatically convince my heart to slow down until I could better assess my prognosis.
I took several deep breaths then I calmly and deliberately walked across the room to the bathroom – making sure not to alarm my friends tripping their faces off on the bed. As I sat in the bathroom on the edge of the tub, staring helplessly in the mirror at my bloodshot eyes and hearing the arrhythmic pounding of my heart in my ears, I knew I was closer to death than I had ever been. I stared at myself in the mirror. And I began to pray.
“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” ~Khalil Gibran
Even in the worst moments of my childhood and adolescence, quitting, dying, giving up, or giving in were never really an option for me. I knew the depths of hopelessness to which I could sink and yet still endure. I knew the lengths of loneliness and neglect to which I could be subjected and yet still carry on. I knew my strength to overcome because I had undergone so much in life already. Being a fighter comes naturally now. Even in this moment as I faced the very real consequences of my own choices, I didn’t panic. I didn’t curl up and cry. I didn’t even react.
Instead, I confidently and peacefully bargained with God. I told him I was ready to die, should He make it so, because I accepted the consequences of my choices at that moment. I told Him I understood the dangers of my choices and that I somehow knew they were coming from a place of fear. I told Him I knew I was meant for better than how I had been living. I told Him I desired to change and become a better version of myself. Then I begged for a sign and a confirmation from Him that what I believed in my heart was true – that I was loved.
**Let’s be clear for a moment. I am NOT advocating taking drugs and I am certainly not promoting the power of the mind as a solution to stupidity. I share this story only to illustrate an instant in time that, for me, stands out as a defining moment of what I will and will not suffer through. As a pivotal decision in my journey toward the person I am today.**
A clear lesson came for me in that moment as I surrendered my life and my fate to God.
I was not invincible. But I was also not a victim.
I was resilient. Resiliency is an irrepressible spirit buoyed up by hope.
And I had hope in abundance.
I was not the housemaid doomed to fall lower and lower until prostitution was my only way out. I was not the single mother with no job, forced to sell my hair and my body for pennies. I learned how completely in control I am of my choices and my responses to other’s choices. I learned I was a smart, strong woman with the option to choose. I was reminded I am a beautiful daughter of a loving Heavenly father with an infinite future of love and service. I felt how much bigger I was than my past and how much better I was than my present at that moment.
This is not to say that I turned my life around completely in this instant. There were still crack-house drug deals in downtown Trenton, pushing my lover down the stairs in a rage, grappling with a choice of taking my own and my unborn child’s life in a running car parked in my closed garage, and many other detestable events still set to transpire in my future. (Feel free to read more about these in my upcoming memoirs.) But, by the grace of God, in this specific instant I was learning what it takes to get me to my breaking point and, more importantly, how to move beyond it.
Often it is the ones shining most brightly who have endured the darkest times. My positivity, optimism, encouragement, and love for all people come from times when circumstances seemingly allowed for none of these in my life. Because of my struggles, I know what we, as humans, are made of. I know what we can do to each other. I know what we can do to ourselves. And even with this knowledge, as terrifying, shocking, overwhelming, and hopeless as it may seem, I choose life every time.
*All names have been changed to protect anonymity.