- Will Beall, Screenwriter, Aquaman
I'm not going to get into details. I will only say this much: I was sitting in my car, which was parked in an industrial neighborhood in West Berkeley, when I made an attempt at suicide. While Berkeley does border a bay, I had no view of the water from where I was parked. Yet, shortly into my effort, something happened that made me think of the ocean. The thought was a quiet whisper in the back of my mind.
And I could. In that very brief moment, I could see the waves. That is what penetrated my stubborn intent. Metaphorically, I'd suddenly gasped for air. I was able to stop what I was doing and get help.
It wasn't so much that I loved the ocean. It was just that when I thought of it, the size of the world became so much bigger than my despair. So, I wanted to see waves again. I wanted to smell salt water. In that one quick moment, I wanted to be alive. And on that day, one second of wanting to be alive made up for all the days prior that I'd wanted to die.
I grew up in Northern California, always within an hour's drive to the ocean. I'd gone to the beach many times, but not as often as I could have. It wasn't my favorite place. Sand was gritty and the water was cold. The temperamental rip tides frightened me.
But in that one brief moment when I was 17 years old and poised to die, the ocean saved me.
In the years immediately following, I continued to find the ocean soothing. When I was overly distraught, I would drive up and down Frontage Road in Berkeley. The road is sandwiched between Highway 80 on one side and the San Francisco Bay on the other. I always took these drives at night, with my radio turned up and my windows rolled down. Because it was dark out, the only sign of the water beside me was the reflection of the moon and an occasional headlight. But the ocean was there, I knew. In this way, I drove through romantic heartbreak, irreconcilable fights with friends, and many other types of pain.
I believed I would never again feel brave. I would never again be strong. My life would now be dictated by 'never agains', instead of courage or something new.
Last April, I believed that moving forward meant accepting that my life had stopped. So, that was the acceptance I strove for.
During that weekend, I went to Target. I needed to purchase pasta sauce for our dinner that night. Several of the women, including my friend Caitlynn, came along. Everyone else needed something or other, too.
I want to tell you all about my childhood which was full of trauma, but the stories are long and they all end in the same way. I felt dirty, I believed that I was at fault. At three years old I thought I was at fault. At six years old I thought I was at fault. At eight and nine and eleven, and on and on. I could tell you how and why I believed those things, but that writing is for another time. What's important is how desperately I wanted to be someone else, something else, somewhere else. Just anything other than me.
When I was a little girl, sometimes I'd dream that I could fly. I'd glide through the air, weightless, with the wind in my hair, knowing that I didn't have to land until there was something safe and solid beneath me. I could go anywhere I wanted. I didn't have to be me. I didn't have to be anything at all. I was Tinkerbell and Peter Pan, a fairy and a hero, too. I was brave and lovely. I didn't need saving when I was flying through the air like that. I could save myself.
It was impossible for me to think that something of this world could be as exhilarating and hopeful as flying through the air. I had no context with which to work when it came to believing in something powerful that I could reach out and touch.
My mother was mentally ill. It was the 1970s and my parents were hippies. I grew up in Berkeley and it seemed like all the adults around were on LSD. No one noticed my mother's illness. Maybe they thought she was on LSD too. My father was rarely home and the rest of our family lived in a different state. I was surrounded by people who had no interest in protecting me. When it came to safety in the real world, I had none.
My dreams of flying only lasted so long. Inevitably I would wake up. I'd be back in the same muddied world that I'd wanted to escape. It was so sad to wake up that way. Eventually, the sadness took away all that was good about the dream.
I am not sure how old I was the first time I took a drink or used a drug. I know I was a child. Six years old? Seven? I remember being disappointed that beer didn't taste like 7-Up, and I remember someone giving me a joint and telling me to inhale as deeply as I could. I coughed so hard, I thought I'd never stop. Alcohol and drugs confused me, but they were always around.
At some point the drinking and smoking began to be appealing instead of baffling. I was 11 or maybe 12, when I started drinking in earnest. Not all the time. Just at some friends' houses and at most parties. Some and most. That was all. What did I drink? Which drugs? The answer has always been the same. Some and most.
I am sure I had all kinds of reasons for drinking and using drugs. I can't pinpoint just one. The reasons are a mishmash, just as they are for most alcoholics and addicts. However, I can tell you what kept me drinking and using, at least for the first few years.
I'd figured out how to fly again.
Addiction is crafty. It will rip you up and tear you apart, but first it ensnares you with seduction. I'd drink or get high, and everything about my life that had felt dark suddenly seemed to be light. I liked that. A lot.
I spent years hoping that alcohol and drugs would make me feel like a fairy and a hero. I wanted to be brave and lovely again. I wanted to be flying. I still wanted to be anywhere other than where I was. But just like the dream so many years earlier, soon enough no matter how much I drank or used, I just couldn't exist in the fantasy anymore.
For close to a decade I tried to survive by drinking. Then I tried getting sober. But, I used drugs. Then I stopped using drugs. But, I drank again. So I stopped drinking. But then I started using drugs again. There were periods of sobriety but they didn't last long. I wanted to believe that I could switch this, or stop that, or change something, and that all would be well. I was in search of a cushion, but everything remained hard. I desperately wanted something magical to save me, but nothing ever did.
And surely there'd be no saving me if my feet were planted on something solid. There'd be no loveliness, no courage, and no hope. I could see no way around it.
Everything is lighter in water, even grief.
It's funny the details we remember, and the ones we choose to let go.
My mother took her life in April of 2002. When my brother called to tell me, my four year old son was home. I don't remember what my son was wearing that morning. His pajamas? Had I already dressed him for preschool? But, I do remember that he was eating breakfast and humming the theme song to the Spider-Man tv show.
Does whatever a spider can!
I still think about it. When a woman becomes a motherless daughter is there some warmth inside her that is forever extinguished? If so, I remember the moment it happened.
I'd suffered loss before. But it wasn't until my mother died that I fully understood what it meant to have a piece of me die alongside someone else.
Honestly, that grief was so intense, I don't know if I would have lived if it weren't for a woman I worked with named Mary. I didn't know her that well, but a few weeks after my mother died, Mary told me that she was going to take me to the ocean so that we could surf.
I was 32 years old and I'd never surfed before. I would have thought that learning would be impossible. But my mother's death seemed impossible. The world was not what I thought it was. What was the point of assigning anything to categories of possible or impossible, anyway?
So one day, Mary and I made the two hour drive from Oakland, where we lived, to Capitola, a beachfront town just south of Santa Cruz.
I will always remember that day. I remember that the board that Mary lent me was close to 9 feet tall. I was certain it was too big. There was no way I'd be able to manage it, I just knew. I asked Mary if she thought that it would be better if we rented me a shorter board.
"Nope," she answered. That was all she said.
When we got to the beach, Mary stopped and scanned the water.
I had no idea what a channel was, but I followed her nonetheless. As we got closer to the water, I was nervous and began to slow down, but Mary just kept walking. If anything her stride became more forceful. More determined. We were going to walk right into the ocean, without looking back.
I took all my cues from Mary. When she laid her board atop the water, I laid mine down too. When she hopped on her board, I did the same.
"Paddle!" She instructed. So I did. When the first set of waves came in, Mary kept paddling forward, but I hesitated. When you are laying prone on a surfboard, a wave headed right for you is a formidable thing. I froze.
"Turn your board over and get back on." Mary instructed.
"Arch your back. When you are going over the wave. Arch your back, and keep going," she said, laying her hands flat on her board and demonstrating.
I was a duckling that first time in the water. I followed Mary, paddling after her, wherever she went. She didn't waste words. If I did something almost right, she let it be. If I was being tumbled or falling over, she'd give me specific advice. "You're too far forward." "Lean this way, not that way." "Don't look at the board."
When it was time for us to turn our boards around so that we could start surfing, Mary continued to give me advice.
"Paddle! Paddle!" She'd yell, encouraging me to keep moving. "Pop up!" She'd yell, at just the right moment, so that I knew when to stand. "Yes!!!" She'd yell, if I made it to my feet.
Nineteen years ago, I knew nothing about healing. I lived through that time because I followed Mary to the ocean and I let her teach me.
By that time, I'd already learned how to skate around the worst of my alcoholism and addiction. I was always pretending. Living with trauma makes you a good pretender, by necessity. So I knew how to do it. During my early thirties, I spent a lot of time crafting the person I thought I should be. I created art and I made brownies. I volunteered at my children's school. I joined moms' clubs and played bunco and drove my son to and from Little League games. I knew what I wanted my life to look like, and on paper I was passing.
In my late thirties, I didn't want my life and I didn't want to be myself anymore. I wanted out. I'd plan dinner parties and water the houseplants one week, and I'd land in a psych ward the next. I couldn't shake this thing, this wanting to die.
No matter how good I looked on paper, no matter how much I espoused enlightenment in my writing, I couldn't keep it up. The hurt and unhealed parts of me kept tapping me on the shoulder.
Paper is good for collecting ideas and wishes, but it is not a foundation.
Early into those years, I stopped going to the water. Mary told me she was worried about my distancing myself from this thing that had been so important to me. I was frustrated with her words and the intention behind them, so for years we didn't talk.
Looking back, I think the reason I let my attachment to the ocean go is because the water was so healing, and I didn't believe I deserved to be healed.
I didn't want healing, I wanted to be numb. So, in my thirties, my psychiatrists became my drug pushers. I didn't complain. As my life began to crumble under the weight of my drug use, I didn't care. I didn't want my life anymore, anyway. No art related accolade, brownie made from scratch, or Little League game was going to change that.
What happened is that I died, except I didn't.
I often call my second attempt at suicide 'the miracle of a few minutes.' I was 44 years old and the attempt was much closer to being successful than my first had been. It was only because of CPR that I lived.
I was out of ideas and I had no more stories to craft. I'd tried it all and nothing had worked. I had what we, in recovery circles, call a hard bottom. It took losing everything for me to pry my fingers off the hope that I could be someone else. I didn't slide or step into recovery, I came crashing in. Everything about the first couple years of my sobriety had to do with rebuilding. Myself. My relationships. My faith. My hopes.
I did not do it alone. I could not do it alone. I was angry and scared the first year. But, a lot of people stepped in and supported me. Other recovering alcoholics were everywhere. They recognized that one alcoholic talking to another is one of the greatest gifts of recovery. So they talked, and I listened.
The people around me wouldn't stop telling me that I was a miracle. That my life was a miracle. That my getting sober was a miracle. I don't remember exactly when, I just know that there was a day when I started to believe them. The miracle of my sobriety and my life. They'd been given to me.
I fell in love with John during that second year. He was also an alcoholic in recovery. And years earlier his brother had died by suicide. We had that kind of heartbreak in common. We understood each other and were pulling for each other, always.
Our relationship was so sweet sometimes, and not as sweet at others. But it was real. The way we loved each other. How hard we tried. All of it was real.
Everywhere in my life I was surrounded by astounding reclamation. Love, circumstances, recovering addicts and alcoholics. I believed that every life could be reclaimed anew. I'd been given a second chance. I could do anything. Couldn't we all?
No matter the situation, everything was going to be alright. I just knew.
Miracles happened. I knew.
There have been a few times in my sobriety when I've questioned whether being sober made anything better. This would be one of those times. Even today, I can't tell you if it might have been easier for me that first year after John died, if I'd just been drinking.
What I do know is that if I'd started drinking again, things would have been worse for the people who loved me. It would have broken the hearts of my closest friends. John's family was so torn apart, and my drinking would have torn them apart even more. And I know, if I'd started drinking again, it would have destroyed my son.
So I became an advocate. I began writing about suicide prevention. People told me that my story of recovery went beyond trauma and alcoholism. That it included the distinction of being both a suicide attempt survivor and a suicide loss survivor.
I didn't have to think about it for long. It was like that day in Aptos a few months earlier. Yes, I wanted to try the surfboard.
Sean waded into the water with me. I was glad because I could barely hop on the board. Sean could tell by my nervousness that I wasn't sure I'd be able to do this, after all.
"Look, you don't even need to stand up," Sean reassured me. "Just hang on."
I held my breath when I went hurtling toward the shore. I was not underwater, but I was not standing on the ground either. When I got closer to the shore, the board did what it will do when it slows down. It became unstable, rolled over, and dumped me into the water. I was fully immersed and everything was the sea in that moment. I could taste it and smell it. I could see nothing but bubbles and light.
Oh good. I am going to live.
I'm no good at it. Well, no good if you are talking about the technicalities of the sport. If you are talking about perfection straight out of the gate, that's not me. If you were to look at the line of people in the water, I'm not the one you'd think was 'a natural'.
When I am working on techniques, I tumble and tumble. My legs bruise and my wrists strain. My back pinches. I have swallowed mouthfuls of saltwater again and again. Once, I had dinner with friends hours after I'd gotten out of the water. Sitting at the table, I turned my head to sneeze, and it was ocean water that came running out of my nose.
I am not particularly pretty in my wetsuit. I am round and bulgy. I look even worse in the water. If I am not falling or tumbling in a wave, I am clinging to my board with red eyes and snot on my chin.
If I were surfing in order to look good, or if I had a timeline for being adept, I would have quit long ago.
But looks and competency are not my goals. And thank God for that. My ability to set those things down means that I get to come back to the water again and again. My efforts are not about being good.
"Talk to Rod," the man at the cash register said. He nodded toward a man at the end of the counter.
When it comes to surfing, I need all the good hands I can get.
Next, he laid down on his board and demonstrated the rudimentary pop up. After, he stepped off the board and waited for me to try.
I stared at him. Then I stared at the board. Then I stared at him again.
I took a deep breath and laid down on the board, belly first, just as he had. He suggested I start by pretending to paddle. That part I could manage. After all, I knew how to paddle.
"I don't even know what that means." I replied.
He explained that goofy footed meant right foot in front. Well, maybe I was. So we agreed I would use my goofy foot. But then, inexplicably, I used the left foot again.
I nodded. That had to be the problem. But then I'd try again, and it would be my goofy foot that I'd lean on first. At times I was tripping over my own feet.
"No, no... never... never cross your legs when you are popping up..." Rod explained, stating the obvious.
"This is the most memorable lesson I have ever had. I will never forget this lesson," he said, which was kind. He didn't say that this was the most irritating lesson he'd had, or that I was the most hopeless student. He said the lesson was memorable.
After a while, we both sat on the ground behind the board. I was looking at my feet. Rod was scrutinizing the board, no doubt thinking about a new approach to teach me. I was thinking about 19 years earlier when Mary taught me. I thought about the first time a wave flipped me over and what Mary said when I was ready to give up and turn around.
"Turn your board over and get back on."
"We need to get in the water," I said.
"Good, good." Rod said.
"Yeah, I forgot that I remembered how to do that," I replied, laughing.
It was a ridiculous desire - but it was the wanting, not the likelihood, that took my breath away.
When we got out of the water, Rod shook his head.
"I've never met anyone who goes in the water, so that they can learn how to practice on the shore," he said.
What I was thinking about was my mother and how I found solace the year after she died. And I was thinking about John and my belief that I'd never really experience joy again.
My body remembers what to do.
"See that man?" Rod asked. "He's here all the time. He just stands there. He doesn't move, he doesn't do anything. Just stands."
I watched the man. It was true, he was perfectly still.
"I get it." I said. "Look at what he's staring at,"
I found mine.
Top Right: Caitlynn Wakeman, who changed my life in a Target Store