By Kimberly Zapata
I have always been a bit of an overachiever. I walked early. Spoke early. I began reading just before my fourth birthday, and I tested into the “gifted program” — an accelerated educational “track” for those with above average comprehension skills and/or IQs scores — shortly after entering elementary school.
When I was just seven years old.
I have also always been a bit of a perfectionist, which is to say I get bent out of shape when I make a mistake. I cannot stand the idea of slipping — or screwing — up and I cannot cope with failure. At all. (When I was in the first grade I cried when I received a B-plus instead of an A-minus on my spelling exam.)
At the time, my teacher was alarmed. She called my mother in for a conference. She told her my extreme self-loathing and self-condemnation was a cause for concern. She told my mother I was too young to be so damn serious. I was too young to be so damn hard on myself, and she then suggested my mother get me help.
“Kim may need help.” But, she added, otherwise I was a great student. I was an active, happy, and involved student, and I stayed “picture perfect” for many years.
Many, many years.
Unfortunately, my grades only told half of the story. My college plans and “future” plans only told half of the story, and behind closed doors I was harming myself. I was cutting myself. I tried — and failed — to kill myself.
Behind closed doors, I was making plans for a second (and final) attempt because I couldn’t take “it” anymore. I couldn’t take the emptiness, the hopelessness, and the pain anymore. I simply couldn’t handle life anymore because I was struggling with undiagnosed depression. I was wrestling with a fractured mind and a broken heart and, without a diagnosis, I felt crazy. Life was crazy, and the idea of living another day was daunting — at best.
My life was hopeless.
Ironically, no one thought I had a problem. Not my family, my friends, my teachers, or my school counselor because I was acting “normally.” I was functioning “normally,” and I wasn’t only meeting expectations, I was exceeding them, i.e. I wasn’t just a straight-A student, I was enrolled in 9 clubs — or after school activities. I left for school at least an hour before the day began and stayed there late into the night. As long as the building’s doors were open. And I worked harder, and studied longer, than ever before. But the truth is I was desperately trying to avoid myself, and my mind.
I was desperately trying to avoid the stillness and the silence, because when life stopped, the thoughts started. The “shit” started. When I wasn’t surrounded by chaos, I was swallowed by sadness. I was consumed by sorrow, and I realized life was hopeless.
I was hopeless.
You’re stupid. You’re pathetic. You’re hopeless. No one loves you. No cares about you — and no one ever will — so why bother? Why keep fighting a battle you know you cannot win? Just give up. Just give in.
Maybe this was my fault. My perfectionist nature had taught me to downplay my pain — and my symptoms. I had never let anyone hear me scream, or see me cry. Like, ever. (Not even today. Not even at my father’s funeral.) I never told anyone I felt empty and worthless: that I wanted to die. That I dreamed about dying. And I never told anyone that I had plans and pills and a suicide note in my back pocket.
For an entire year, I had everything I needed to end my life within arms reach.
But my success — and societal perception — was part of the problem too because, statistically, suicidal teens are reckless. They are withdrawn. They are loners. Suicidal teens are unable to keep up their grades, and they certainly wouldn’t be active members of the drama club and choir.
Suicidal teens wouldn’t be working to win scholarships or opting to sing solos on stage. Or so “they” said. Or so the statistics seemed imply.
Unfortunately, statistics aren’t foolproof, mental illnesses don’t adhere to a one size fits all list of symptoms, and depression is unpredictable and varied. Suicide is unpredictable and varied, and the face of suicide is both foreign and familiar.
It afflicts 4.0 students and senior citizens. Mom’s, “blue collar” men, business men, doctors, and CEOs.
So I ask that today you get to know my face. You consider my story. Because while I was the student who had it all together — while I am a mom who likes to think she has it all together — in my case, “high-functioning” didn’t mean healthy. Because I am the face of suicide.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.