by Jessica Ciccarelli
When I’m right at the height of self-blame, I conjure an image of my brother hanging from a rafter in his room with a chain around his neck. White walls stained from little hands and feet laying, rubbing, and kicking against them. A solid wood bunk in one corner and a busted, burned, nicked black dresser smothered in flung clothes, action figures, old army men, and buck knives in the opposite. My little boy, a broken man hanging in the center.
Of course, it hadn’t happened that way, if it happened at all. He hadn’t tried to hang himself, at least not in that room. That’s maybe the hardest part. I don’t know, not entirely, not for sure, what happened and what didn’t. All the imagining and questioning in the world won’t give me the answer because there isn’t just one. It’s not that simple.
Momma swears up and down he tried to hang himself in the old shed out back between the deep freeze filled with guns and the riding saddles covered in cob webs and hungry spiders. She sees it so clearly, she can tell you the position he was laying in after the rafter broke, when she ran in and found him on the ground. Neck bruised and covered in chain marks.
John, on the other hand, can recall the day down to the most minute detail and swears it didn’t happen. The narratives in his head were winning that day, telling him he was worthless. He confirms the chain marks, but he didn’t try to kill himself. Not that day. Not the way he tells it.
He does say he’d been stuck in his head for days – cycling over and over through his worst doubts and darkest considerations.
When he describes how it felt, he says, “It’s like a current through emptiness filled with every wrong, doubt, or dark thought I’ve ever known or experienced.”
Every time he found a reason to hope the dark cloud overwhelming him would twist and manipulate and ruin everything, blacking out every flicker. The darkness and depression had been overwhelming him for days until every ounce of hope was gone and he found himself in the driveway with a sledgehammer in his hands screaming.
What led him to that driveway, whether he had tried to hang himself or not, was up for debate, but one thing was for sure. All he wanted, all he really wanted was to feel a little less alone – for people to see on the outside how very lost he felt on the inside.
Ten years before my brother may or may not have tried to hang himself, he was an eight-year-old boy with a penchant for dragons, brave warriors, and courageous exploration. I was eleven, and even with three years between us, we were inseparable.
Our quest was always the same. In the wee morning hours, before hair glued to brow and sweat drenched our Louisiana summer days, we’d get dressed, put on our sloppiest tennis shoes, and meet whoever was joining in the far back corner, where our property line met our next adventure.
Across hoof-worn gravel, spotted with tufts of half-chewed grass and mounds of pebbled sheep feces, we made our way to the corner of land where we could squeeze through the barbed wire fencing and begin our quest into the back forest. This was our wonderland. Back here, we were fearless soldiers and bold knights, we were Louis and Clarke, Arthur and the round table, the Terminator and southern outlaws. Upon stepping through, we became characters acting out our wildest imaginations. Imaginings that, as southern kids, often started off with guns.
We’d clean and load our imaginary rifles and hand guns, pack extra ammo in whatever pockets weren’t filled with peanut butter sandwiches and potato chips, and when there weren’t any—which often there weren’t—we imagined those too. This was the one place we were just kids traipsing through the back woods lost in the pure joy of exploring.
Beyond the fence, there’s an empty space covered in orange-mahogany pine needles separating the left wood from the right. This was before the property fence, and there weren’t any telephone lines. It’s just an empty space leading straight through our best adventures, like our own medieval road complete with heroes, steads, and evil dragons. We knew every inch all the way to the dead end where it split off into other properties, as though an escape route to all the neighboring kingdoms.
Walking back, we were accompanied by the constant crunch of pine needles under foot and the occasional caw of voracious crows. Along the left were zig-zaggy lines of pines as far as the eye could see. They were smaller and much younger than normal pines; almost like they had been planted at the same time and were growing uniformly together. For some reason, this always gave me a spooky, you’re being watched sensation I could never quite shake. The right was less uniform and where we spent most of our time. We loved everything about it. You could never see more than a few yards ahead because the trees varied so much in size, width, and placement. Vines, poison ivies and oaks, and other vegetation stretched across in spaces here and there. Splatters of sun around the forest floor.
We never had a particular goal in mind, just one unspoken drive to find something new. We’d follow our medieval road half an hour or so, picking up sticks and smacking them against trees, tossing rocks at limbs, birds, and distant tree trunks.
Ten points if you hit that limb. Forty if you can get the trunk missing bark way back. Three thousand if you hit that bird before it flies off.
The ground was almost never the same. Muddy rains, newly fallen needles, pine cones, and tree limbs ever reinventing our little kingdom. It didn’t seem to matter. The walk came so naturally we didn’t bother slowing down. We’d go as fast as our legs would carry us, then jut off toward the furthest part of the forest we’d walked last. This was part of the fun, seeing how well we could find our way there and how easily we would find our way back. We never even bothered marking the path. These were our woods, and we just knew where to go next.
Along the densest swaths of land, we were army soldiers battling impenetrable jungle with nothing but walking sticks and hand guns. Smashing briar patches, fire flowers, and poison bushes with thick sticks and sloppy tennis shoes hoping to clear a path for the unit we imagined just behind us. Hooting and hollering at any wild boars or jungle cats that dared challenge us.
In wet, marshy areas we became world class explorers seeking precious treasure and mapping the unknown, peanut butter sandwiches and potato chips safely over head as we slopped through sometimes knee-high water. John often took lead fighting beasts and vines, so we wouldn’t have to.
These beasts only seemed to get bigger when he ventured off alone. He’d return some days and regale us with tales of giant boars, dragons, and exotic cats. Each time, he’d won and saved our property and livestock from unspeakable dangers. Then we’d celebrate by retelling the story over and over, each telling with greater detail than the last making the animal bigger and more ferocious. By the end, it’d be as big as the trees themselves.
For our entire childhood, he was the little boy who ventured in the backwoods, in love with animals, wandering, and forever finding a better story to put smiles on faces that already knew too much of struggle.
It all returned when we walked up the crooked back steps, through the hole ridden screen door, past the piles of laundry and thundering washer, and waited for the next storm of high heels and combat boots. But when that blonde-haired, blue-eyed little boy grinning ear to ear told us about his dragons, the storm paused a little longer.
Fast forward ten years, he stood in the front drive surrounded by parked cars, dogs, and family with a sledgehammer in his hands, screaming.
The day had started off well enough. He’d asked for a ride to town—to escape for a while. But Sarah had said no, and he lost it a little. Or a lot given he was holding a sledgehammer. It wasn’t like he was going to use it. He just needed them to understand, to see on the outside how totally lost and overwhelmed he was.
It was different when the pain was in your mind. It’s not like a broken arm. You can see a broken arm. No one can see a broken mind, and that’s how it felt sometimes. Especially in a place where mental illness was often more a sin than health concern. It made him feel so very unseen. It made him want to scream it to the world and look as broken as he felt.
He found himself swinging the sledgehammer frantically. Sarah was just a few feet away in her beat-up Ford Taurus trying to pull off, but he was swinging right in front of the road out. She couldn’t find a way to pull around him without doing serious damage to her car.
He didn’t think he’d hurt her. He didn’t intend to. Really, he just wanted it all to stop – the mutterings, the hate, the pain. Maybe, if they knew how much it hurt, he’d feel less alone. Maybe, they’d love him as much as he loved them. He didn’t know what he’d do if they didn’t.
“I’ll do it. You don’t think I will, but I’ll do it.” He said.
Momma stood to the side begging him to calm down. Tears ran down his face mixing with and smudging driveway dust. He ran his sleeve across his eyes and tried to inhale. He couldn’t make it stop.
“I don’t want to, but I will.” He said, hands shaking.
I always heard different stories about whether he actually hit her car or not. John swears he didn’t. Sarah says he did, but only near the bumper. I don’t honestly know, but I do know she managed to get around him right as Daddy pulled down the drive.
Not long after Daddy got home the cops pulled in. At some point during the worst of his episode, Momma had called out of concern. The episode, though, had already begun subsiding by the time they arrived. Almost upon seeing the cars, John dropped the sledgehammer and cooled down. Lights flashed blue and red as they stepped out, but the only proof anything had occurred were the chain marks along his neck. And, they couldn’t hold him on chain marks.
By then, Momma was hysterical from the day’s events. Hours of fighting John on whether anyone loved him, whether they’d miss him, or if he should even bother to live had worn on her. When she tried to convince the cops John needed help, holding and supervision, they had to choose between the woman shaking and crying and the two seemingly composed men swearing she was crazy. There was no question who to believe.
With no proof of danger, the police pulled away. Shortly after, Momma, Daddy, and John went inside – past the chain hanging from the cedar on the side of the house and the couch covered in puppies on the front porch.
Days later, she checked herself into the psychiatric facility two hours away.
To this day, I’m not entirely sure what happened. I often go through the story in my mind imagining each version, but I never get any closer. What I do know is each person unequivocally believes their version. I know they can recount to me the exact events, as though they happened yesterday. And I know they were forever impacted by their version of the events.
Years later, I spoke to John again about the day:
John… I want to ask you about a story I was told a few years ago.
I know these sorts of things can be re-triggering, so if it’s too much you don’t have to talk about it.
I want to ask you about the day you attempted to commit suicide.
Well, I had buried a gun in the back woods…
So, you never tried to hang yourself?
Hang myself? God no. I’ve never tried to hang myself.
Momma told me a story about the day with the sledgehammer…
Oh yeah, I didn’t try to kill myself that day, not that day.
I’d always assumed he’d tried to hang himself that day. There was no reason not to. It never occurred to me he might have an entirely different account of what had happened. But it’s in these differentiations that you find the humanity, the people behind the illness.
I remember the retelling of these stories with an almost childlike awe. They’ve been told to me as naturally and nonchalantly as a child’s fable might be taken off a shelf and read aloud, except mine are real. My characters are real people, and they suffer incredibly for the things they’ve unjustly undergone. My characters hurt, love, cry, and try every single day to be better than they were the day before. And they are judged constantly for the poverty and mental illness they never asked for or deserved.
In my mind, I see the place surrounding these stories so clearly. I can still see the cedar tree standing resolute beside our house. Its strong branches and resilient base have been watching over and shading the property for more than my twenty-six years. The initials JC sit engraved in the center bark while pieces molt around it. A chain hangs down with wood stretched across and wire drilled through. Imperceptible remnants of blood, meat, and intestines from butchered sheep, deer, and hogs run down link to link.
The screen door to its left is worn and ripped from its many years of use. The wooden one behind, just as aged, has seen so much–the life, laughter, and struggle of all too difficult years.
I look at my brother and struggle with dual images – a broken man fighting demons to reach whole and a little boy who’d do anything to give a broken family a reason to smile. I see both the boy who tried to hang himself to escape the darkness and the man trying to show the people he loves the pain hiding in his mind.
These are the narratives of my life, the stories that have shaped who I am. I’ve learned: the question isn’t which is right, but which is more true.
And the answer is, it depends.
Photograph by Kristina D.C. Hoeppner.
About the Author:
Jessica Ciccarelli is a southern, gothic memoirist from the swampy, backwoods of Dry Creek, Louisiana. Her was most recent publications include “On Becoming a Storyteller: a Memoir” featured in Burning House Press and “Broken-Down Fords and Angels,” “Forever Changed in a Second,” and “Road to New” in The Learned Pig.