20 Years Ago…
I am restless, always furiously scribbling in the notebook, which is never far from my reach. I believe the words within it will let people know what I was thinking, what I was feeling, and that I was here…after I’m gone. I am 13 years old and wish more than anything that I could have my driver’s license. I doubt that I will ever have that opportunity or experience the rush of freedom that comes with escaping far from here, with the radio turned up, and the windows down.
I always feel alone, no matter who is around me, and yet never alone enough to let my guard down. The exhaustion of existence weighs heavy on my shoulders, causing my posture to slouch and my spine to curve forwards. About a year ago, I began cutting myself for a brief respite from the nearly constant ache of simply being. I know something must be wrong with me, a curse, an illness, or maybe it’s a cosmic mistake that I am here at all.
When I was little, maybe 5 or 6, I used to think I might be an alien. Yes, like a little green Martian hiding in a human suit…that I was left here, for one reason or another, before I was capable of memory. I hoped that one day my real, Martian family would come to rescue me. They would love me, reassuring me that I am exactly how I was meant to be and that this clawing sensation in my gut is all just an allergic reaction to the human suit. I was a kid, okay, cut me some slack.
15 Years Ago…
I can vaguely recall why I am lying in my bathtub but even less so how I ended up here, you know, in the broader sense. There is a small smear of blood on the edge of the tub, even though my fully-dressed body and the interior of the tub have obviously experienced a saturation of running water in the not-too-distant past. The stark contrast of the dried blood against the sparkling white porcelain of the tub is jarring, like the bright gleaming of headlights on newly awakened eyes. Oh, oh god. Now I remember.
During these first few months of being an adult, which I whole-heartedly never imagined would ever happen, I have managed to continue living like I won’t ever have to see my next birthday. The decision to abandon my (albeit absolutely terrible) retail job, getting a neck tattoo in the dining room of a complete stranger, boarding a Greyhound bus with nothing but a duffel bag, going by a new name, a new identity, all of it seems to have been for nothing. It turns out, I can escape a lot of things, but I can’t seem to escape myself.
I am thankful for the momentary numbness, before I register the massive pounding in my ears and behind my eyes, as though my actual skull may fracture from the percussion of this headache. I have the humble, sobering realization that I went way too far this time. The thought arrives almost like a sudden swoosh of “You’ve Got Mail.” Not only could I have died, but maybe I almost did. My roommate swings open the door and drops to his knees screaming with tears already decorating his cheeks. “You’re alive! Oh my god, Kai, you’re alive! I’ve been too scared to open the door and check. You were so still and so quiet after you threw up that I thought, I don’t know…I just…I am so glad you’re alive!”
10 Years Ago…
I am looking at the piece of paper in my hand and I see the words printed on it, but I can’t understand how it is possible. I know they wouldn’t even have let me into this school if I hadn’t gotten my A.A. degree first, but I am not going to let that awareness steal the joy of this moment. When I dropped out of high school, college was the absolute furthest thing from my mind. Enrolling in my first set of college classes 4 years ago was simply for the sake of maybe receiving enough grant money to quit my second job. Now, I am being accepted into a university’s Honors Program, and I am at a loss for words.
Stepping into the auditorium for the Induction Ceremony, I can see right away that I am probably much older than any of the other students here. I overhear a group of three students, just a few seats down from me, whispering excitedly about how amazing prom had been, but that they are so ready for this next chapter. The thoughts arrive before I can even attempt to block them, “I don’t deserve to be here. This isn’t for people like me. I am not one of those kids and I never was, even when I was actually their age.”
Families are gathering, hugging their proud newly inducted Honors students, and discussing where to go for a celebratory lunch. Looking at my phone to distract myself is not mitigating the tears I feel welling behind my eyes. No missed calls. No new messages. Looking up, I see my advisor smiling and waving at me. My jaw must have just dropped because she stopped walking towards me, crooking her head to the side a bit. Shaking her head gently now, she resumes her smiling and treks up the side aisle towards me. “Kelli, I am so happy you could participate in the Induction Ceremony. It was an absolute pleasure to write that letter of recommendation for you. It’s okay if you don’t believe it right now, but you are going to do amazing things. For now, I can believe it for both of us, okay?” Wrapped up in a brief but reassuring hug, I know it’s going to be okay, even if I don’t know how yet.
5 Years Ago…
“Congratulations, Kelli! We are so proud of you!” My friends are shouting their praise as they swarm me with tight hugs and soft pats on the back. My fiancé is standing next to me, smiling proudly, and showing me photos from the graduation ceremony. Two years ago, only one person I knew had attended my undergraduate graduation ceremony. It had been a day filled with an immense, tangible, sense of accomplishment for me…but not one of joy. Today feels so much different. Yes, I am proud of my accomplishment, and more than a little relieved that I survived the MPH program in one piece. Yet, the feeling washing over me right now, giving rise to tiny bumps standing at attention across my forearms, is gratitude.
It has not been an easy two years. Adjustments to my medication, switching counselors multiple times to find one that is the right fit, and the decision to take an extra semester to graduate have all been tough to manage. There has also been so much adventure, joy, and a plethora of experiences I would have never even imagined possible for myself.
Family is a complicated concept for me and I imagine it might always be. Today though, I know I have family…they chose me as much as I chose them. Many members of my family are close in age to me and are already brilliant scientists and engineers. They laugh unabashedly, loudly, like they are calling forth all the goodwill the universe has to offer. Sometimes they argue loudly too, switching in and out of languages I can’t understand, gesturing sharply when trying to make a point. They wrap their arms around me, embracing me openly and without hesitation, gathering together in the many photos taken. I feel gratitude, comfort, and acceptance. Yet…I cannot help fearing loss. Now I am living a life I fear losing and I kind of don’t know how to make sense of any of it.
1 Year Ago…
I am being introduced to a professor and asked to assist with the submission of a research protocol. My years of experience in research administration are already proving helpful, even though this is the first semester of my Ph.D. program in Public Health. I happily agree to assist and inquire about the research topic for the protocol…suicide prevention. My breath seems to catch momentarily, but I quickly compose myself. I remember to smile and now feel my head nodding idly to convey my acknowledgment of the subject matter. My advisor and the other professor walk out of my office with smiles, seemingly resuming an entirely separate conversation.
The protocol details a community-based participatory research (CBPR) project, in collaboration with a large partnership of community organizations, agencies, and health systems. The purpose of the Growing Hope Initiative is community outreach, engagement, and education for suicide prevention in Pinellas County. Though I have some previous experience with CBPR projects, I am in awe at the level of applied research integration throughout this project. I finish making the last edits to the protocol and preparing it for submission by the Principal Investigator.
I listen intently to one introduction after the other. I note names, occupations, and affiliations. My name is called, causing my eyes to dart up toward the screen from where they had been glued to my notebook. Unmuting my computer, I suddenly find myself struggling to form the basic words necessary for a very simple introduction. “My name is Kelli Agrawal and I am a first-year Ph.D. student in the College of Public Health at the University of South Florida. I am just here to listen and observe…so, thank you for letting me be here.” Wow, what a stellar first impression. I lay my forehead on my desk and sigh as soon as the meeting is over. There is no way I am going to be invited back.
It’s been almost exactly one year since I began assisting with the Growing Hope Initiative. I have hundreds of pages of notes from the community engagement events, planning meetings, and suggested edits to grant proposals, manuscripts, and conference presentations. This work has been life-altering, life-saving…and not just for the community members we’ve reached…for me too.
During my 14 years of professional experience in the field of health and wellness, I have been passionate about many topics and causes. Suicide prevention, though, is not simply a topic I am passionate about; it is also the reason I am here. It is how I am able to learn, work, grow, and be here each day. It is more than one initiative, one program, one training, or one number (988, by the way…). It is not a “calling” or my life’s purpose. It has now become my way of life.
At this exact moment, I can hear the cheers of the Auburn game filtering through the open door to my home office. My husband is waiting patiently for me to join him on the couch with my incredibly charming commentary on every single play made during the next two to…eight hours. Not every day is this easy, this joyful, this peaceful. I know that, and some days, I feel it more than simply knowing it. Medication, counseling, support from friends and family, support from my fellow NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Connections group members, and the kindness I’ve learned to show myself…all help me get through the tougher days. More than anything though, it is the indisputable and undeniable knowledge I’ve gained from my own life experiences that…I can survive the pain, it won’t last forever, help is available, and the future remains unwritten. Hope is always possible.