Shawn Maxam shares the story of his first suicide attempt and memories from his difficult childhood.
A year after I was initially diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, I decided to write some of my thoughts and feelings on why I thought this horrible thing was happening to me. Here is the unedited piece I wrote back in June 2007.
The Suicide Attempt (2006):
As I slowly opened my eyes I remember seeing my mom and my cousin. As I said hi to them I realized that there was an incredible amount of pain in my throat and mouth as I spoke. I could barely say a word. I struggled to ask them what day it was. The clock read almost 3 pm but there wasn’t a date. They told me it was Monday. I was shocked. I had been in a coma or asleep for at least two days they said. I had been on a respirator in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) because my lungs had collapsed and I couldn’t breathe on my own.
The last thing I remember was crawling to the sink in the bathroom of my apartment to wash down all the pills I had just chewed. The night had started with me sitting alone in the dark on the couch wondering why I should stay alive. What was the point? Life was meaningless? I decided to get the gin that my friend had given me as a housewarming present and along with the alcohol I would take all my anti-depressant medication and anxiety pills. I went to the refrigerator and got some apple juice figuring it would be far easier to drink the gin with a chaser. I decided to first write a pseudo suicide note and post it on the Internet (Facebook). It read:
YOU’RE DEAD AND GONE
10:29pm Saturday, Apr 7
Its when your dead and gone people show you love
That is when they fill the need to kiss and hug
Tell you how much you meant to them, how much they appreciated you
That you inspired them and they wanted to be like you
What about now? When the ears can hear and the eyes can see
Don’t say it after because you feel guilty
I have my regrets about my brother’s death and things I haven’t said yet
Now is the time and the time is now
Because in one moment the one you care for may be here no more
-Shawn “Dead Man Walking” Maxam.
I then sent a text message to everyone in my cell phone stating, “Live a good life”. Sending this text actually saved my life. I also e-mailed my now ex-wife (She was in a psych ward herself for a suicide attempt). As I starting to drink the gin and apple juice (three glasses in five mins) I very quickly became dazed. I swallowed my first bottle of pills and then a friend of mine from graduate school started to call me repeatedly but I just ignored her. Very soon many of my friends were calling. Many of them were aware that I had been recently diagnosed with depression (several weeks later we would find out that I actually had Bipolar Disorder). I collapsed on the floor after crawling back from the bathroom. I went to answer my phone and exclaimed to my persistent friend “I’m ok, live a good life, good-bye”. This was the final thing I remembered.
I was later told that several of my friends were able to convince me (through deliberate trickery) to give them my address and they had called 911. Emergency personnel came to my apartment and broke down my door and had rushed me to the emergency room.
I would spend a total of 11 days in the medical wing of a Westchester County, NY hospital before being transferred to a psychiatric ward of another hospital for an additional 8 days. Upon release I would have to confront aspects of my self that had been very well hidden from not only myself but from everyone who knew me. I had defined myself as one person but life would destroy this faulty identity.
Scared Little Boy (1983-1991):
The running theme of my early childhood was one of fear and intimidation. One of my earliest memories was of my father (who later turned out to not be my real dad) whipping my sister. Now I don’t recall what material the rope or string was made of but I know my sister was only about two years old and the beating seemed very intense. This man was a alcoholic who could very mean and brutal at times but also very loving and caring as well. He would kiss my younger brother and me on our lips and not until my later years did I realize how “strange” this was.
Being so young I can’t recall how often he would be violent but one of my most powerful memories was when he punched my mother on the side of the head causing her to fall down about two or three steps in the front of the building we were staying in. All of this was happening while me, my brother and sister were crying uncontrollably at the site of seeing our mother being beat up by our father.
Life was difficult at that time due to financial challenges. My mother was just a 23-year-old Jamaican immigrant with only a 6th grade education. We had moved several times in the short few years of my life mainly in and around the borough of the Bronx. One night we were awoken by smoke, screaming and yelling. There was a fire in our building and I can still recall the large fire trucks outside of my window and remember how were we going to escape. The ladder on the fire truck couldn’t reach us. When telling the story my mother says she threw us to the firemen which sounds quite ridiculous. My mind only jumps to me and my siblings sitting in the back of a car (possibly a police vehicle) waiting for our mom and dad. We were sitting there in our underwear watching our home burn down. No one could have seen how fires would later play a critical role in causing my family to be homeless several times over. We spent the night or possibly a few nights in a shelter. This shelter was very similar to the set-up used for hurricane victims where everyone is placed in a large space together with tons of cots closely placed next to each other. It was quite a scary place for us youngsters and I assume for our very young mother. After several days of trying to find a temporary place for us stay with friends or family my mother made the very difficult choice of placing us in foster-care.
Initially our youngest brother was separated from us but after several days my sister and me were reunited with our baby-brother. I remember our foster parents to be overall pleasant and sweet people. They were older individuals, possibly retired. I don’t remember seeing any other kids (biological or foster) in the house. After a ten months with we were returned back to the care of my mother.
Rather shortly we would once again return to the foster-care system. This would once again be based upon factors outside of my mother’s control. My mother was involved in a minor car accident, which injured her. At the same time as my mother’s accident my siblings and I became very ill. Our mother took us to emergency rooms and doctors four days in a row and she was told that we just had the flu. Finally attending Jacobi Hospital because she herself felt tremendously ill a nurse noticed that we had Scarlet Fever and rushed us to the pediatric wing of the hospital. Told that we had been sick for four days the nurse said that if we hadn’t been vaccinated that we all have died with 24 hours. I remember being shot in my little bottom with a needle and being offered apple juice for comfort. We all were going to be okay but unfortunately our mother had to be hospitalized.
Our mother was still on “probation” with Social Services who quickly showed up to the hospital. Our mother was told that it was in her best interest to put us back in foster-care voluntarily because involuntary cooperation would allow her to have less rights and trying to regain custody would be more difficult. Once again me and my siblings were painfully separated from our mother. We started crying and were put into a van to be transported to our new home. We drove across a bridge to get from the Bronx to our new home in Queens. My younger brother Shawnel was still crying when we arrived. The sister of our foster mother quickly tried to make him feel comfortable by giving him something…a toy maybe.
Since we were taken straight from the hospital we had no clothes and had to go shopping for new clothes the next day. Our foster mother had four older children already. Two were in the armed forces. One was in the Marines and the other had joined the army. My foster father was a New York City cop.
Our foster mother was a woman with a very angry temper and she was very controlling. I remember having to sleep with my face turned to the wall and my hands placed at my sides. As a five year old this was incredibly difficult to do but nonetheless the expectation was there. Our foster mother would wake us up by pinching our butts, legs or ears. If we disobeyed her we would receive a beating or be hit with a wooden paddle that was approximately a foot long and two inches wide. I remember being beat for crossing the street too many times while taking my brother and sister to school. I have no idea why I crossed the street two or three times but someone in the neighborhood informed our foster mother who thought it was unacceptable behavior and I was the one punished since I was the oldest.
Even my foster mother’s own children were afraid of her. My oldest foster sister who was a teenager had to bring me home several times and had to be back by a specific time herself or face the wrath of her mother. My oldest foster brother, who was the Marine, had adopted the belief that corporal punishment was the best method to raise children as well. Early on he told me to look at his hand. He put the hand of large twenty-something year old man in my seven year old hand and told me to feel how heavy it was. He told me to never do anything that would cause him to lay his hand on me.
There were several traumatic times in my foster mother’s home. One was when my sister had to learn how to write her name. My foster mother locked herself in a room with my sister for what my young mind thought was several hours. The screams I heard from that room still haunt me today. My sister’s name is ________. Even today I having trouble remembering what is the proper way to spell her name. I am sure her young mind had had the same problem. Also the intense pressure of having to spell her name correctly or be hit with the wooden paddle must not have helped.
It seemed at times that my foster mother not only disliked my sister but she actually hated her. My sister has always been a picky eater. This trait really annoyed my foster mother who demanded we all ate everything on our plate before leaving the table. Many times my sister disliked what was served or was unable to eat all the food. Once she could not help but vomit up her food on the floor. I remember my foster mother telling my sister to eat the regurgitated meal and she pushed my sister’s nose up to the pile of disgusting food on the floor before telling her to clean up the mess.
Another instance involved me playing with my speak-n-spell. It was a very popular education toy from the mid to late eighties. Once while playing with it in the backyard the toy fell on the ground and the batteries popped out. I picked it up and was attempting to put the batteries back in. My foster mother came out and asked what was I was doing with it. She took it out of my hands and smacked me across the face with it busting my top lip open. Through the bloody lip and the tears I answered that the speak-n-spell fell and that I was just putting the batteries back in. My foster mother looked at me and in a unapologetic tone replied okay.
Her uneven angry and volatile temper was not just projected onto the children but also on her husband. I remember her threatening to shoot him with his gun because she believed he was having an affair. She wasn’t afraid of prison and gladly wanted a reason to go she said. I was constantly forced to sit at the dinner table and read My Book of Bible Stories to my sister and brother. This happened probably several times a week. Yet, there were good times as well including family BBQ events and trips to the park to play basketball. Three more foster children would eventually join the family. One was a slightly developmentally-challenged boy and a brother and sister (who our foster mother would later adopt) were the children of crack addicts.
During one weekend when we visited our mother, during the transition phrase to return back to her care, I was told that the man I thought was my father wasn’t and that my real dad was in Jamaica. Wow, this was exciting! I spoke to him on the phone and couldn’t wait to meet him. There was also another surprise. I had a older brother as well. This was great, now I had somebody to look up to I thought. My father and brother would come to America in late 1988 and visit me at my foster mother’s house. It was great to meet them both.
We eventually were returned back to the custody of my mother who was now living with my dad and newly discovered older brother. My sister had her own room while the three boys shared a room. My older brother was a little chubby, had a weird Jamaican accent and really couldn’t read. My mom would help him improve his problems and he was put back one grade (a common practice when children emigrate from the Caribbean because it is assumed they have an inferior education system). We would play and fight with each other. That was normal for four children all born a year apart. My mom and dad quickly started having problems. One night I awoke to the sounds of screaming and yelling. I was too scared to open my eyes so I laid on my top bunk bed terrified. The next morning my mother would ring the doorbell with two police officers and she took my and my younger brother and sister from the apartment.
We went to live in the basement of a man who I later discovered was my mother’s boyfriend. Still unclear of the full story I know he played a role in the terror of the night before. Allegedly my dad wanted to kill him, my mom or both of them. I have never really asked either of my parents about that night and I rather not. Smaller and more cramped the basement was far less comfortable than a “real” apartment. One day we came home and our place was ram-shacked with clothes everywhere. We had been robbed but what the thief had taken was not immediately clear seeing as we did not really have anything of value.
Out of nowhere around the time I was ten years old my mother surprised us by saying we were going to go Jamaica. All four of us children were going even though my older brother was living with my dad. This was interesting, scary but exciting as well. I had never been on a airplane or even gone to another country. Not recalling the plane ride I remember that Jamaica was very hot when I exited the plane. The air was very humid. We took a car to place called Duhaney Park in the parish of Kingston. We walked into a house and we were introduced to a woman named Aunt Beverly (Aunt Bev for short) even though she was not my mother’s sister. I don’t know how we were were all related. We were also introduced to our Uncle Devon who was my mother’s brother. What! Our mother had another brother. That was the lesser of an even greater shock. Our mother planned to leave us in Jamaica for a undetermined amount of time. Wait…why weren’t we informed of this earlier? She would return to America and send money back to take care of us. She said she would be leaving in a week or so. My older brother Shane would be staying with my dad’s brother in another part of Jamaica.
To be continued…one day
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