I Wanted to Drown Myself in a Lake at Five Years Old
My earliest and most vivid memory was of walking on thin ice, hoping it would break, wishing I would drown in a lake. More than anything, I wanted to die.
Illness, medication, and old age erased the blissful salad days when I felt like an alien and a stranger in my own skin. But the fleeting memories tell me I was generally an average child except for getting in trouble with my brother when we got caught vandalizing the vacant house next door with some older neighborhood kids. The hoodlum boys were breaking walls and smashing windows while my brother stood watching, scared we would get caught at any minute. The only damage I made to the house was stomping on bits of glass on the floor, but when the grownups showed up, we got in trouble for the big stuff as well.
But the memory that stands out most, in an almost unnatural way, was later that year after I started kindergarten. I wouldn’t say I liked school, but when you are that young, you are not given a choice to go or not. My brother and I trudged to and from school because times were simpler then, and parents rarely worried about their kids getting abducted, especially in Rapid City, South Dakota.
It was winter, but that day was unseasonably warm. I remember splashing through the puddles with my big snowmobile boots and snow pants, knowing I wouldn’t get my longjohns wet and not caring anyway because we would be home soon. My brother, Lee, was angry, because I was in no hurry, and he wanted to watch TV. He was walking 200 feet ahead of me, looking back every so often to scream at me to hurry.
As we left the school grounds and headed through the park, I saw the lake we passed every day. It was usually frozen, but even my 5-year-old senses could tell me that the ice was thin and, therefore, dangerous.
While I stared at the lake, my mind was going through all the reasons I never wanted to go back to that school, and how unfair it was that I had to be stuck in a hot room all day with people that scared me. Back then, I didn’t know what hallucinations were — all I knew was I could hear their minds when their lips weren’t moving, and the things they told me were frightening and evil.
I didn’t particularly appreciate hearing the darkness from their heads, especially the teacher who I knew wanted to put her hands around my throat and strangle me until blood came out of my ears.
I didn’t like the way she smiled at me because her eyes were dead.
So when I saw the lake, the first thing I thought was that I could die out there on the ice, and there was nothing I wanted more than to fall through in the fifth year of my life.
When I stepped on the edge of the ice, I could feel it give, and as I walked out, water splashed under my feet. I got to the middle before Lee saw me, and when he did, he gave out a little yelp and shrieked at me to come back to the shore. He ran as hard as he could to get to me and almost did before the ice gave way under my feet, and I plunged into the frigid water. He tumbled in after me, hoping to save me before I drowned.
The one thing my 5-year-old mind hadn’t contemplated was that the water was little more than a foot deep, and even though my big boots and snow pants filled with water, I was in no danger of dying.
Lee grabbed me by the arm, and we pushed through the ice to the shore and stood on the bank, cold and wet. He asked me if I was okay, but strangely, he didn’t yell at me. We just walked home to explain to my mom why we were soaking from head to toe.
I remember being sad that I didn’t die.
The first time I remembered this memory from my childhood, I was sitting in a worn Naugahyde wingback chair in the office of my therapist. She was sitting across the desk from me, only looking up from her notes to ask me questions.
I liked her a lot, and even had somewhat of a crush on her, but not in a creepy, stalker kind of way. She was petite, had short auburn hair, and stared at me angrily with piercing green eyes when she didn’t get the answers she wanted. She smelled of vanilla and her office of sandalwood, and I always felt safe when I was with her.
More than anyone else, she was the one who was able to get me to remember the trauma in my life. She helped me to remember being molested by a neighbor boy and comforted me as I cried, and also pulled the memory of that day at the lake out of the confusion in my head.
At that time, I was on so much medication that I couldn’t appear human anymore. All my emotions were medicated away, and the only time they came back was when my therapist pulled a painful memory out of my molasses-memory.
The day I told her about almost drowning, we sat and looked at each other for 5 minutes without saying anything. The silence wasn’t uncomfortable — I know she knew I needed a little time to collect myself.
She asked me where a five-year-old would ever get the idea to kill himself.
I didn’t know. It didn’t come from my parents, who were the most loving, God-fearing, and compassionate people I have ever known. There were no deep dark secrets I was hiding at home that I remember, and back then, there was nothing like the internet. I might have seen something on television, but my parents were always careful about what we watched as kids.
The only thing I could think of was it could have been the voices that spoke to me in the dark — the ones I never told anyone about because I thought all kids heard them.
As much as my therapist probed, I never remembered anything else from that time in my life, and I wished I could, because if I could explain why that little kid wanted to die, maybe I could figure out why the adult me was so incredibly fucked-up in the head.
I never did find answers because she left for private practice after having a baby, and I never connected with another therapist enough to have any breakthroughs. She was unique — most doctors and therapists could care less if I lived or died.
I often wonder what other memories would have surfaced if I could have explored my mind further. I fear now everything is lost, but back then, my mind was still not damaged as much, and we could have probed further.
What makes a child want to drown himself in a lake?
I wish I knew.
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