Until I Got Teeth: Surviving Suicide & Finding Freedom in Vulnerability
My story is about my journey to understand what makes people want to live.
I was born a high-achieving humanitarian, with fierce individualism flowing through my veins. In my shadow lived my only sibling, Brett, who was 19 months younger than me. We grew up moving around a lot; I suspect that’s one of the reasons we were so close. He didn’t mind my shadow; I think he felt safe there. I was happy taking up the spotlight. Aside from relocating our lives were kind of boring. We were the perfect family of four. Mom put her energy toward momming & Dad worked, hard. Mom always showed up & Dad always told the truth. I was fortunate to grow up with exceptionally intellectual & authentic parents. I remember wishing things weren’t so perfect. Perhaps I was about to learn a lesson in manifestation.
We moved to Texas October of my freshman year, on my brother’s 13th birthday. He seemed to be adjusting OK, but he wasn’t. On November 7th, 1996 he left school early & walked five miles home to kill himself. I was home alone when I found him, hanging from his closet with his lower body still on the ground. I scrambled to find our cordless phone, which never seemed to make its way back to the charger. I couldn’t undo the knots, so I held him in my arms until the police came. The rest of that day is a blur of sirens & chaos. I remember riding to the hospital in the back of a cop car after what seemed like hours, wholeheartedly expecting them to save him still.
I still hear the words pretty much everyone echoed after the funeral. “Be strong for your Mom & Dad; they need you.” Meanwhile I had just lost my best friend, my family & my perfect life.
I became an only child overnight & in some ways, I became an orphan too. Dinner was no longer on the table in the evening Laundry came to a halt. My mom barely came downstairs. My dad walked in circles, smoking cigarettes in the garage. Parts of them died with him. Overwhelmed by grief, they became shells of people & I became sort of invisible.
I remember everyone’s obsession with “why”, but in my 14-year-old brain it was obvious. It was insecurity. I felt like, even as kids, we were culturally programmed and conditioned to feel insecure. It was the reason the bullies bullied, the liars lied & why some people killed themselves. I wanted to share that message with the world, but there was no platform then. Inevitably, insecurity got me too.
There weren’t many opportunities to talk about suicide 23 years ago. It was still condemned by major religions. (Multiple people told me my brother wasn’t going to heaven, including my Catholic grandmother.) I would try to bring it up, but no one knew how to reply. My parents didn’t want to talk about it either. The last thing they needed was another kid to worry about, so I buried it. I abandoned that girl & began wearing mask after mask, until I no longer knew who I was.
After a weak suicide attempt at 18 (I failed), I accepted the fact that I couldn’t kill myself. My brother had already played that card. So, I began to resent being alive, hard. While my friends went to college, I disappeared into drugs, boys & booze. I self-destructed my way through the next several years, hoping to take myself out in a less obvious way. On one occasion, a few months shy of the 10-year anniversary, I came particularly close. We had been wake boarding & drinking lethal amounts of vodka all day. The bad ideas were abundant. Despite being physically exhausted, we decided to go dancing. I never made it to the club.
Minutes after leaving the marina, at highway speed, I lost control of my car. I didn’t die, but the wreck did a number on my mouth, cracking molars with my metal tongue ring every time it rolled. I had to have some teeth pulled immediately, some lasted through my twenties. I couldn’t afford to fix them then, so instead I learned to hide my smile.
Over the next decade, I cultivated the mask of “adulting” & eventually “parenting.” Shortly after my wreck I got pregnant with my son. What I thought would be another annoying reason not to kill myself ended up being a reminder that I could do hard things. I had to show up hard, every day, because babies have no skills. He and I sort of learned how to hold our heads up together & before long there was another big-eyed boy looking up at me all the time. It wasn’t long before I ditched the bad behavior (except alcohol) & went on to reclaim my high achieving spotlight.
Aside from 3 broken engagements, I appeared to be a success story. I wore that mask well, but behind it I still felt worthless. The truth was that I had spent another decade walking way outside my story, chasing my self-worth externally. I was still suffering in silence about my brother’s suicide & my own suicidality. Whether it was the stigma, or the constant reminder of the trauma & self-sabotage buried in my past, my missing teeth had become another source of immense shame. I honestly thought if I ever had to tell anyone I’d just kill myself, but when the time came to handle it, that seemed extreme. I chose new teeth over suicide, which meant I had to share my dark secret with the cold, judgy world. I held my breath & prepared for my friends to make fun of me & leave…. but they didn’t. No one even cared. In fact, they loved me a little harder for letting more of myself be seen. Just like that, my decade-long suicide narrative was shattered. Maybe I wasn’t worthless after all. For the first time in, ever, I had a future to think about.
Twice in my life I’ve felt purpose, unquestionably, at the core of my being. First, in the months after my brother died, when I wanted to tell the world that “insecurity was the stem of everything wrong in the world.” The second, was when I discovered my power in talking about my teeth. I learned that vulnerability was met with abundant empathy, & that empathy was the anecdote to shame. I broke my silence about my brother’s suicide & my own suicidality. Eventually, after unpacking all my trauma boxes, I shed my shame & found my will to live underneath.
I told you that I found my brother lying halfway on the ground. Why didn’t he just get up? It wasn’t until recently that I realized the truth. He was so desperate to leave this world, that he overrode his own survival instincts & sat through his own suffocation. I approached that level of desperation many times. The programming & conditioning that we experience in “this world” causes us to believe things about ourselves that simply aren’t true. For decades I drank myself to destruction, suppressing pain that I could have been healing through vulnerability.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death in people age 10 to 34, & the tenth overall, but we still can’t be honest about it in an obituary. We’re conditioned not to talk about it; which means we’re programmed for shame. I don’t believe we are living in a suicide epidemic; I wholeheartedly believe we are living in a shame epidemic. Silence turns trauma into shame & shame lives at the core of PTSD. Therapy isn’t enough. I began to heal my PTSD when I realized that the programming & conditioning was optional & I had the power to reject it. I started telling my hidden truths & found complete freedom in vulnerability. I no longer drink alcohol. I now walk deep in my story. I live & breathe my purpose, every day.
Vulnerability is courage. I believe that telling our stories is how we shed our shame & collectively heal the world. It’s my hope that sharing mine inspires you to do the same, & that you find the same freedom that saved my life.