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On Suicidality, “Girl Interrupted Syndrome,” and the BMV photo

To begin abruptly: I’ve been some degree of suicidal since I was fourteen. I don’t think this makes me special. In fact, I think I’d be more of an individual if I’d always wanted to live. These days, more melancholy girls have a Lexapro prescription than a driver's license. I don’t have a license, but I do have the Lexapro and a learner's permit that’s been renewed three times. Each time your permit expires, you’ve got to go to the BMV and take the test. It’s not hard, but at least one person in the room always fails. Last time, my ex took me. For over an hour we sat next to each other while we waited for the lady behind the desk to call my number and I could feel a pointed annoyance like a heatwave in the chilly room. I think they were finally tired of driving me around. They broke up with me for other reasons, but I can’t help but wonder if part of it was the driving thing. Maybe the stench of impending end was upon us that day; usually, the people at the BMV are real assholes, but the man behind the desk had kind eyes and when he saw my birthday on the screen, he offered me a smile.

“We just need a little more time, yeah?”


Most people hate the BMV. But once I saw the most beautiful gay man with hair so white it hurt to look at. And there’s always a family speaking Arabic, which I feel almost giddy listening in on. It’s not like I actually understand a word of it. Still, you can feel the sanctity of it even in the stale BMV air. In another life, I would’ve learned Arabic. In another life, I would have a driver’s license. In this life, though, I’ve done almost nothing. Time passes and I think of ways to make my life interesting. I collect half-hearted hobbies like roadkill, disregarded crochet hooks and embroidery floss and antique globes, and let them stink up my room until there’s just bone left, a reminder of the very death they’re meant to ward off.

It’s time to renew my permit again, but I’m not sure I’ll actually do it. Sometimes I think not even the beautiful voice of a Syrian mother could rope me back into the place again. I’d probably kill myself before I’d sit in the lobby with a bunch of fifteen-year-olds waiting to take the test (just kidding). Really, though, none of them would care. My woes about aging would mean nothing to them. The BMV staff would forget about my four permits before I even made it out the door. This is the foundation of my problem—everything that fuels my neurosis exists only within me. It’s a reverse sort of solipsism. The meaning lives entirely outside of me. I am the unsure thing amidst an ever-real, ever-present world. Still, I clutch the wheel and am convinced I am going to die. Again, a contradiction: suicidal and scared of car accidents.

I’ve often wondered if, perhaps, I don’t really want to die. But I think of killing myself often. I do not say this to elicit shock or concern. I have been, am being, treated by professionals who have staved me off from regrettable action. I have friends who care for me, a family who has been there for me, so much love in my heart and beauty in my life that I can hardly bear it. So, I’m forced and gifted to keep living, to suffer like the poets and the painters, only with nothing to show for it but a pile of bones and three expired learner’s permits.

A life so driven (or really, slowed) by an unwell mind warrants infinite questioning regarding What exactly is wrong up there? There have been diagnoses, DSM-approved discoveries and medications to deal with them, psychiatry and therapy and a brief stint in a facility during high school. Perhaps there is some truth to be found in the pathology of it all. Genetics, childhood instability, brain chemistry. Mostly, though, I fear I’ve made myself this way.

In this recent era of mental health awareness, there is truly no shame in sharing with the world that you are “mentally ill”. In many ways, this is a good thing. People receive help for their mental illness, women and other minorities are not institutionalized in the same abusive manner, accommodations in classrooms are legally protected. However, amidst such progress, a valid concern has been raised against a possible consequence of the way we have come to view mental health in the modern day: the romanticization of mental illness. In such criticism, the term “girl interrupted syndrome” comes to mind. Used to refer to Fiona Apple listeners who smoke Marlboro Reds in ripped tights while waxing poetic about their fucked up heads, the term and its implications have become a very real worry in my relationship with my own mental health. As the protagonist Susanna posits in the memoir from which the term originates, as well as its movie adaptation starring the beautiful young Winona Ryder, “Was I ever crazy? Maybe. Or maybe life is... Crazy isn't being broken or swallowing a dark secret. It's you or me amplified.” In other words, maybe turmoil is just a condition of living in this world. Only when we lean into it, clutch onto it as an identity, does it become an issue. Those particular girls to whom the term “girl interrupted syndrome” refers are notable in that there is nothing actually wrong with them. Rather, they are responsible for their own misery, cultivating woe as an aesthetic until it becomes a form of expression and, ironically, self-imprisonment. Such behavior implies a level of privilege, selfishness, and immaturity. Real people are really suffering; why should you choose to be in pain?

So, is this my final prognosis—a Sylvia Plath wannabe destined to listen to Eliott Smith on repeat for the rest of my life? I live in undoubted privilege. My music taste is as textbook as it gets. And I’m certainly guilty of having used my diagnoses as the sole lens through which to view myself, letting my identity be inherently macabre on the basis of my mental state. I understand the desire to feel different, to alchemize your suffering into something delectable.

On the other hand, it would be dishonest to attribute my entire condition to my own mental fabrication. The agony I feel is very real. Even at seven years old I was plucking out my eyelashes and imagining death in horrifying detail. Still, I wonder if things would be different now had I not consumed certain media during my adolescence, had I not seen girls brag about their stints in psych wards like the only path to artistry is pain. I wonder, too, if my sickness is innate or if it’s a result of a desperate yearning to make myself into some terrible, beautiful martyr. I don’t think this is actually the case. To be gentler with myself, then: Somewhere in me lies a fundamental hurt, and I also might have hurt less in my life without the influence of romanticized suffering. It can all be true at once.

I will probably get my license someday. I will probably step foot in the BMV again and I will probably live through it. I will probably want to kill myself again and I will probably live through it. I am probably a part of my own suffering and, hopefully, I will be a part of my own liberation. So, whether or not it’s my own doing ceases to be a question. Instead? How do I live through this? How do I legitimize my experiences while still fostering an awareness for my own tendency toward self-enabling? If I can crystalize my pain, can I also resurrect the skeletons of my halted potential? Such power must all come from the same source, right? The BMV will probably have to wait until I figure this all out.