The first and last time I attempted suicide, I was six years old. I was living in what our modern media culture would call a “stable, two-parent home” in the suburban American Midwest with an older brother near in age who was my daily playmate. We had nice enough things and plenty to eat. My father was a banker. My mother was a housewife studying to be a nurse. Our backyard was pretty with lilies of the valley and an evergreen hedge, and we lived within walk of our elementary school and the sound of ice cream trucks. But somehow, I wanted to die. You can see it in my face in pictures taken around the time. I am an exceptionally slender, large-headed girl with enormous eyes in a pale oval face. The eyes are sad. The expression is as melancholy as a post-Crucifixion Madonna’s.
The idea of suicide must have occurred to me after my mother’s only sibling, my beautiful aunt Linda, took her own life. My middle name is a shortened form of hers, and knowing that I felt irrationally connected to her, before, after, since. Maybe I loved her because she was that kind of pale German beauty who has a soft voice and a pretty laugh. She had a big, shaggy sheepdog, Bitte, that kissed everyone, and she gave me the only stuffed animal I have kept into my 40s, a hairless polar bear with the worn-out music box removed from its back. Of all the adults I knew, she was the kindest. Or so I thought then–maybe because she lived in another state, and I rarely saw her. Maybe because she was good at talking to children, keeping adult things at bay, no matter how owl-eyed the girl. When the fantasy of her ended, the world was just that much less hopeful. After she died, I did not expect I would be understood, or loved. Not then. Not again.
I was the difficult child to my brother’s obedience and charm. I didn’t say the right things, the polite things, and if something went against my ideas, I would not cooperate. Like the time in pre-school my nice lady teachers wanted me to cut and paste a collage of cars from magazines. I didn’t like cars, and I wouldn’t go along. I’d sat for over an hour refusing to craft, guilty of refusing to craft, when my mother was ushered in and forced to ask me why I wouldn’t do what the other children were doing. No. I refused to take on the nickname of Sissy, younger sister to my older brother, because I was no sissy–and I told that with blunt determination to the doctor in front of whom my father had dared to call me that hated word.
I didn’t want to be a girl, wearing the homemade dresses my mother made out of denim and gingham, decorated with strawberries and sewing notion borders. I couldn’t keep my tights from bagging around my knees. My thumbs stuck out when my mother put on my shirts. They always caught. I wouldn’t keep my clothes clean when I played. There were too many interesting things about worms, and things to be made with dirt, like poisoned burglar pies. My thin hair wouldn’t hold a braid, a band, or a barrette. Sometimes my mother would get so frustrated by my inability to just be the girl she imagined I could be, I should be, she would hit me with a hairbrush or jerk me around while my stuck thumbs twisted until they seemed about to break. But I had a high tolerance for physical pain, and my ability to feel my feelings was at a similar remove. I wanted to wear my hair short and dress like a boy. I wanted to be as free as a boy, and as loved.
I can remember when the idea of attempting suicide occurred to me: not the why, but the how. I had been running while chewing gum and choked on it. I was still light enough then that without a second thought my mother bent, picked me up by my ankles, and shook me upside down until the gum fell out of my throat and hit the the wood floor beneath. I don’t remember her reaction or mine. Except that surviving what could have been my accidental death gave me an idea about how to die on purpose.
Not long after, without telling anyone, I attempted suicide in the room I shared with my brother, the walls papered with Disney characters. I took out the gum I’d hidden, unwrapped and chewed as much as I could fit in one cheek, and fell asleep. I reasoned I’d be dead by morning from choking.
Unsentimental. Unceremonious. Just like that. I had followed a course of logic.
It is possible for those of us with Asperger’s to run on that kind of cerebral autopilot. Feelings might be as far from the sides of the plane as clouds and as invisible as turbulence. Until dark lightning penetrates the craft. Irradiates us. Months or years later, we may finally come to feel its effects.
So what? I survived till morning. I woke up. And I was disappointed–not disappointed in a keen, piercing way, but disappointed as a dull inevitability, as dull as the thought I often had as a child that I would run away if I had somewhere to go. The truth is, I wanted to run away as much from myself, from what I was and how I had been defined, as from any place: that American beauty of an outwardly ideal family life.