Still Hold Me Close (Self-Portrait), 2021, acrylic, charcoal, relief printing, decorative paper, and hand stitching by Delita Martin. Courtesy the artist
My Body Is My Higher Power
By Gabrielle Lawrence
Edwards Cash Saver is a staple grocer in the surrounding Black neighborhood. It is at the end of a street primed for gentrification, a home for the arts and their trends, and on the edge of an invisible line marked by a simple stoplight.
Visiting Edwards brings me a familiar sense of shame and belonging—being greeted by Black folks and their wandering eyes the second I enter the parking lot. The elders being helped to their car, the mothers yelling at their kids in the aisles, and the small chuckles from folks giving each other a hard time at the hot food counter gather me.
I moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, almost two years ago to pursue my MFA in creative writing. You could say I ran away to Little Rock at the first opportunity to keep doing what had brought me even the slightest bit of feeling. Those brief tastes of skin and flesh were saddled with hopes of finding freedom, redemption, and a motivation for life lost long ago in California. As it turned out, most waking days in Arkansas were filled with aching doubts about why I was there at all.
Back in California, I didn’t understand depression as an extremely common mental health condition that could be learned about, talked about, and treated. It was an ugliness of spirit, that thing that made me different, my chosen chains. Back then, it was also sneakily heavy. It was deeply layered and impacted by surviving the chokehold of capitalism and the crushing knees of white supremacy—let alone by trying to find the words to name these things. The word depression is not good enough to capture this confusion.
The bright red lettering of the Edwards logo and the store’s shiny floors under the buzzing overhead fluorescent lights conjure comfortable memories. Far from home, standing in a sea of neon DEAL signs and CLEARANCE stickers attached to each display box, I know what to look for. I fill my arm basket with ramen noodles or frozen potatoes; food that will last me awhile and be easy to put together in the midst of a depressive episode; something that will stretch the $5.27 in my bank account. I know how to survive, but I am really on my own now. Money slips through my fingers. The dream of an MFA transforms like the morning clarity after a night of risky decisions. I am disappointing generations of people who fought for a better life. I am disorganized in my anger and scared of never having enough for everyone else. Even if I had the tools right now, I wouldn’t know how to use them.
With my body on auto-pilot and a blank stare, I inch closer in the line to the checkout belt. Any sliver of emotion that slips through my hidden body and into my physical body is likely only visible in the pattern of my eyes shifting from the frozen sale items behind me, to the window facing the parking lot, to the floor—worn with gray stains—to nothing.
Cue the cashier—a thin, dark-skinned woman with a slick ponytail and a big mouth. Beneath the way her voice carries across the front of the store, I note the smooth and easy quality with which she scans items on the belt for the customers in front of me. She moves quickly and astutely. This is second nature. She’s been here before.
“You hear Teddy’s lil girl got suspended cuz they found her suicide note?” the cashier shouts to her coworker scanning items in a separate line.
Sometimes you hear something so ridiculous you can’t do much but dissociate, further. First comes the shock and confusion, like you’ve just been dumped into an alternate reality or finally smacked by an edible. Did I hear that correctly? I say to myself. Next, anger spills. As in, what in the Black fuck is wrong with all of you? As in, why is she being punished for suicidal planning and ideation?
Sure, in a thesaurus or perhaps the third and fourth definition of “sus·pen·sion” it could be literally interpreted as a break, but within the context of the school system, it is a punitive measure. Funny thing about learning the language of colonizers, it becomes a habit to look for outs. As a Black AFAB person, understanding every sense of the word and knowing how it may be interpreted by various external audiences is a survival strategy. Breaking, twisting, and rebuilding language itself is a survival strategy. Fighting to find a way back to who you really are through language is also a fight against an environment where your words already mean nothing. Block and swing. Fighting constantly, everything.
“For real?” a different cashier replies from the line to our right.
“Mmhm. She’s in middle school, chile.”
One second, I hear the click-clack of the cashier’s keyboard and the produce rolling across the metal. A second later, I am a teenager in the front passenger seat of my mother’s Toyota. She is switching lanes on the brown-walled freeway with a blank look on her face—not happy, and not angry either. Perhaps she is just focused on getting home and starting dinner. It is approximately six o’clock in the afternoon. I had wandered around campus for a few hours after school let out waiting for my mother to emerge from Los Angeles traffic. To pass the time between pick-up and finally getting home through the traffic, we begin a forced conversation about how our days went. Something leads me to share my realization that I might’ve been depressed in middle school.
“Yeah, it was obvious you were depressed,” she replied. “I knew. Everyone did.”
There is nothing but the sound of tires scraping asphalt.
She does not tell me it is okay to be this exhausted so young. She does not tell me she tried to get help. She says, I knew. Everyone did.
Mmhm. She’s in middle school, chile, the cashier with the big mouth says.
My physical body takes one step forward. In my hidden body, I crouch down in a room with no walls, holding my knees into my chest. It’s not black, nor white, but gray. This is a spiritual place, and the echo of water droplets fills the void with sound.
I do not have to see the presences in this room to feel them. I do not know if they are ancestors or angels, devils or gods, but I do know that they are listening. They understand things that I do not have to explain. On my knees as if in prayer, I can feel the weight of the world without breaking. This is how I came into this world—not alone.
Almost like a small reflection, in that she’s far away, but still very close, Suicide Girl crouches in front of me. We are toe to toe. We are kin.
Like a sour candy on my back palate, I feel her. I feel a lifetime of struggling with the belief that something is inherently wrong with me. I feel my mother at my bedside at three a.m. speaking in tongues. She prays for deliverance. She prays for protection. My teeth gnash at the memory of being offered criticism instead of compassion. Bruises and welts resurface to the sound of love, that cracks like a lash, and care, that slams like a door. My introduction to this life felt like everyone and everything was trying to kill me. I survived long enough to get to graduate school in Arkansas as an early twenty-something, but I took what I learned about myself iinto the world and it killed me anyway.
A mini foil balloon sticking out from a grocery store endcap reads GET WELL SOON, and I float back down to my physical body in the checkout line.
To get out of this uncomfortable situation, I need to be quiet, unnoticeable, and small. I struggle to don a meek smile that might grant me invisibility. Beneath what seems like a vegetative state, I am absorbing everything constantly—I take it, I swallow it, and I learn how to survive with it, but at this moment, I flirt with rupture at the seams. Making my way through without drawing any attention is my survival strategy for avoiding more of that shame and isolation; that weight of my brokenness. Yet Suicide Girl will not let the rest of me go—her hands have not fallen from my shoulders.
“He can’t figure out why she wants to kill herself,” Big Mouth says. “He tells her she’s pretty every day. Doesn’t know what’s wrong with her.”
Behind pressed lips and watering eyes, a growl of laughter grows within my belly. It kicks my lower back, tightens in my chest, and gurgles like a scream in my throat. The cashier clocks me with her side-eye, as quickly as she scans the items in front of her. We now stand face to face; I don’t know what I should say to her. Should I cuss her out? I want to. Even if I respond to her calmly, I’m afraid it will start an argument. If I speak up, I’ll risk leaving the store defeated, invalidated, and embarrassed—the same way I do after trying to communicate openly with my family and friends. I should give her some of my shame for not understanding Suicide Girl or respecting children as human beings.
In a flash, I see her as a mother. She’s old enough. She has that sense of urgency. The air of life experience? What do her children see when they look at her? When they get hurt, do they run to her? How does she comfort them? She was a child once, too, of course. Perhaps expecting her to show compassion, without considering the absence of it in her own childhood, would be too easy.
What if I saw, only after unleashing my wrath, the complexity of her own experience like scales falling from my eyes? I notice a peculiar silence after the cashier says Doesn’t know what’s wrong with her. She doesn’t tell us what she thinks about Suicide Girl. None of the employees or customers say anything, actually. There isn’t even as much as a contemplative church moan. This is not a call-and-response. Perhaps it is just a call.
How do you make sense of this body under colonization? How do you reconcile the tension between knowing that something is not quite right about this, but being gaslit into believing the world just is the way it is?
You tell yourself that it owes you nothing.
The imprinted trauma of colonization, capitalism, and white supremacy breeds violence in our most intimate spaces. It chasms between the people who actually do understand us and between our understanding of ourselves as individuals. It is a kind of torture—tender in its terror—to live every day to the tune of all the sacrifices that were made for you as if you are the most loved in all the world; then to wonder why you are alive if you are loved but not understood, accepted, or protected. This is the very literal impact of these systems on a personal level.
Somewhere, someone hangs their head and shakes it. Somewhere, someone feels the rush of a warm breeze across their face. Somewhere, an avalanche of love cascades from someone’s head to their feet. Their breath skips and their muscles release as if it arrived much later than it should have—but still arrived no less.
No matter if I react or respond to the gossip the cashier shared, the moment would end in tears that would serve no one. The priority is not losing my shit and looking crazy in a place where I already feel like an outsider—it would simply aggravate my wounds. I am constantly in a room full of people who “don’t know what to do with me.” I am living through a punishment I was afraid of.
Before I leave, I lift Suicide Girl to secure my grip, and I carry her with me through the swooshing double doors. I take her with me because I know that this moment is not what she deserves. I take her with me in anticipation of what is to come. I take her with me because she is part of my family now. At least here, in my body, there is a space where her pain and her anger are valid. I pack her away in my flesh; in the meat of my thighs and beneath my shoulder blades. Though I have no foresight, even for my own life, I will nourish her as I nourish myself.
During my first few months in Arkansas, on my commute back from night class, the thirty-minute stretch between the university in Conway and my home in Little Rock was full of fear. This was truly the wilderness. Even though my very first time crossing the state lines was on the I-40 freeway, in the evening, it transformed. The night here, as opposed to Los Angeles, was actually night. There were very few streetlights, digital billboards, or glowing signs, almost no strings of stoplights illuminating the path ahead. In my headlights I could make out the asphalt and the faint lines of giant trees that made me feel small. I could really see the sky. It felt uncomfortable because it was new. Yet, by the end of my first year, I found a home on the quiet night roads in the truth of the city.
I drive through winding old-money neighborhoods and on bumpy, pitch-black roads behind the safety of my locked car doors—pushing myself a little farther each time into the safety of old, green trees. I crank up my music loud and I lose myself in the rhythms.
In the daytime, I listen for the sound of my own voice. At first, I am critical of it and even tell myself I am losing my mind. Still, I see beautiful sunsets and breathe in the four seasons. I find lush, silent company in the landscape itself. This was the way that I came into the world—not alone. I can taste, in tender slices, the marrow. Suddenly, I have not missed a single thing.
Each day in Little Rock, another part of my body is coming back to life clumsily, like a foot after being slept on too long. As numbness becomes static and static becomes pain, I watch my hopes of redemption, my understanding of the world, and myself crumble. I am in a place that is both new and old. I am in the past and present at the same time, putting together the pieces of what was passed down to me and how it was stored in my body all while trying to chart a way forward into the future.
I create a space inside my heart to feel the pain and for it to be okay.
I do not assume to know what you might want to say, Suicide Girl. I do not want to stuff more words into your mouth, or cage you in with who I think you may be. I wish simply that you recognize your own voice when you hear it. Learning to create freedom and acceptance of yourself may not always look pretty but it will create a world of possibilities for everyone around you—including people you may never meet.
Even though I often wake too exhausted for the day, I hope the joys I’ve found in carrying myself forward have made your circle a little bit larger.