the life & death of being good
By Alyssa Sherlock
Content warning: self-harm; suicidal ideation
It’s Monday night, and my dad just picked me up from choir practice. My dad always likes to use opportunities like this to lecture me, a non-stop ramble of enthusiasm on some subject or another. I don’t mind, because I like listening to his warm bass voice and having his attention. Tonight, he’s teaching me about driving. I’m only fourteen, and the thought of controlling a vehicle terrifies me.
"You can always know more about being a driver,” he says, his eyes on the road in front of us, expertly weaving through traffic. “Even when you’re old and you seem to know everything. There was a time I started to go through yellow lights. But soon, I realized I was getting closer and closer to driving through red lights.”
As always, my dad drones on long after I’ve stopped listening, but he gets his point across: overconfidence in driving is dangerous, and it’s good to always be on your guard.
Later in the evening, lying on my bed with my journal and glitter pens in front of me, I make a Bible study lesson for myself, like my pastor at the pulpit on Sunday mornings, doling out contemporary applications from ancient texts. I’m excited that this lesson has become so clear for me.
When Dad was talking about driving, it’s kind of similar to our Christian walk. Sometimes we will start thinking we don’t have to improve anymore; we are the perfect Christian. But then, suddenly, you start to bend the rules.
Then you realize, or you don’t, there is always stuff to be wary of.
My brother and I ride up and down the bay. We’re just old enough now to be allowed to bike past the previous markers; the crosswalk on one side of our little peach bungalow, and the street lamp on the corner on the other. Finally, the whole bay is ours.
Today we make up a game that involves riding halfway up every driveway on the bay, a sort of silly, made-up loop-de-loop bike course with no obstacles. This is as much trouble as we feel like we are allowed to get in, and even then, I feel we are teetering on the edge. It feels slightly risky, crossing over into someone else’s space for a moment.
We get cocky. On one driveway we pause to chat, right at the end of the central street that cuts through the bay. The driveway’s house is a small red bungalow that looks startingly familiar to another house on the same street. We’re trying to pick out the differences between the twin houses when a woman with glasses and white hair comes to the window. “What are you kids doing?” the woman yells, “Get off my driveway!”
My heart leaps into my throat and we scurry away like blinded rats. The driveway game is done for the day, and we head back. My heart is still pounding, and the woman’s harsh words repeat over and over in my head like screeching alarms. We never should have done that. I knew it. I knew we shouldn’t have been doing that.
For the next year, I avoid biking down that street, still imagining the figure of the white-haired woman yelling at the window. I don’t want to feel the guilt, but it hovers over my shoulder, waiting to pounce, punish me for my sins.
In my journal I write lists out of Bible verses with glitter pen, in the bubbly curlicues of a 14-year-old. 1 Corinthians 13, the “Love chapter,” becomes a to-do list.
Love is patient; I will be more patient.
Love is kind; I will be kind.
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud; I will work on my jealousy and pride.
It is not easily angered; I will not be angry.
Love rejoices in the truth; I will not lie.
I pray for God to make me better. Every verse I write is another way I can improve myself, another way I can bring myself closer to God.
I write “JEALOUSY” at the top of a list, then beneath it, the steps for working it away.
1. Be content with myself.
2. Become more like Jesus.
3. Do nothing out of selfish ambition.
Done. Move on.
I wait for the moment of completion. The moment when I can cross out my to-do lists and move forward, become good and acceptable and right in the eyes of the church, and Jesus, and myself. But there is so much darkness in myself, and the moment never comes.
On Friday nights at youth group, we separate ourselves first from the world, and then into girls and boys. Outside, the night is cold and dark, but the small basement youth room is warm, like a cozy blanket on a chilly night.
We’ve been going through a Bible study series on relationships. I don’t know what the boys talk about, but the girls talk about how to prepare ourselves for marriage. Tonight, my pastor’s wife is a guest and she hands out a questionnaire on sickly yellow printer paper for us to fill out as we follow the discussion between her and the other female youth leaders.
We learn how to prepare ourselves for love. There’s a checklist at the top of our questionnaire: Am I mature? Do I love those around me? Am I spiritually equipped? Am I confident and independent? We are told if we bring ourselves close enough to God, someone will find us, like a moth drawn to a pure and holy flame. It seems a sensible enough equation.
During the week, I pray, read my Bible, write letters to an imaginary future husband, and ask for forgiveness for my sins. I spend weeks, months, trying to get closer to God, and hoping I am close. I watch others couple up and wonder what I am missing, where I am falling short. I scribble fervent prayers in my journals, pouring my heart out to God.
I just want everything to be okay. I just want to be okay.
I just want to be good.
Someone didn’t do the chores they were supposed to do. It was me. I don’t want to admit the mistake, feel the guilt. It’s easier to let someone else take the blame. I bury myself under covers and pretend I don’t hear my parents talking.
So I lie. It isn’t the first time. The lying doesn’t rid me of the guilt, a bubbling layer beneath everything I do.
Later, I sit on my bed and scribble in my journal.
Take my lies. Take my pride. Make me better. Make me like You. Make me whole.
A woman is standing at the front of the church crying, where other times people go to altar calls, kneeling on the speckled green carpet and confessing their sins by raising their hands to the rafters and crying with twisted faces. Today, she faces the congregation, reading from a piece of looseleaf clutched in her hands. Her voice shakes as she reads. My pastor stands behind her with a comforting hand on her shoulder, his face drawn.
“I’m sorry,” she says, through choking sobs.
Sitting in the chair-pew with my parents, I don’t entirely understand what is going on. She’s pregnant. I don’t think she’s married. I understand this is wrong. I don’t understand her wracking sobs, the depth of her sadness, why she’s reading an apology letter out loud to the fifty-some church members. The air in the small church sanctuary is heavy and solemn.
It feels like a funeral.
It usually starts when I make a mistake, and they point it out, tell me I’ve done something wrong. I like to believe I’m a good person because it makes me feel safe. As soon as a flaw is pointed out, everything I was ever told about myself, that I believed about myself—that I’m a horrible, selfish person—is confirmed to be true.
My thoughts spiral into self-hatred, and I would do anything to scratch out the parts of me that make me feel this way. They hate what I did. They hate me. I hate me. I want to scratch out my brain that makes me stupid and crazy and unlovable. Instead, I brush my nails against my arms, feeling their sharp edges.
My brain spirals until my body takes over. My chest is tight, my breath is short and I can’t gasp fast enough to fill my lungs. My entire body clenches in on itself, shoulders hunched, hands: fists. I choke on every sob, every breath. A searing numbness goes from the middle of my scalp, down my forehead and into my face and fingers. My vision goes at the edges, narrowing into blurry tunnel vision. My stomach churns. I gag. I’m no longer a human; just a lizard, poised to run, to disappear. I will do anything to stop this feeling.
I will give this monster the punishment she deserves.
I scratch at my arms harder now, dig in my nails, slice them down my skin. Draw blood.
I haven’t done the dishes today. I didn’t do them yesterday. I’m tired. I imagine the way he sees me: loving, warm, caring partner. Homemaker. I see the way his face lights up when he comes home, the house is clean, the supper is made. I have to do the dishes. I have to clean the house. The house isn’t clean; I was working on other things today. I don’t have enough time. I’m so tired. Nothing is worth anything if I can’t do things to make someone else happy, to make someone else love me.
I can’t do it. I’m not worth anything. I sob at the sink, exhausted, disappointed that I can never do enough. I can never be enough.
Later, he says casually, “Hey, don’t forget to do the dishes,” and I hear: You failed. You didn’t do everything. You need to do more for me. You’re not good enough.
You’re not good.
I scream at him through sobs. “I know, I know, I know! I know I need to do it, but I didn’t and I’m a horrible person.” He looks at me, his eyes wide with terror and I feel that blackness within me, and I know what it means.
I didn’t do it once.
I lost track, actually.
I thought about it every day for a month. I wondered a lot. Let’s not wake up tomorrow. Let’s walk down to the river, just wonder. I put the crisis line into my phone, and my fingers hover but never call.
The first time I was determined. I walked down to the river. I took my phone with me because I didn’t really want to, deep down, and told myself that if someone called, I wouldn’t do it.
I stood with my toes on the edge for a long time. It would be just like jumping in the cold water of a pool. Once I got over the initial leap, it would be easy.
There were some homeless men camping on the bank which shocked me awake. I imagined what they would say. You want to die because you can’t do your job? Well, look at us! You have it so much easier.
I walked back, saw I had missed a call from my sister, stomach sinking. I called my dad in panicked tears. My mom took off work, had to tell her boss what was going on, and came to get me. All the while I insisted, I was fine. I didn’t want to be this person.
I was sleeping on a cot in my old room, now my mother’s craft room, squished in a corner between a bookcase, a desk and scrapbook papers. It felt like a sickbed—slightly uncomfortable, thin mattress, always sweaty sheets—and it was.
I tried so many times, so many different ways, convinced one of them would give me relief, would take this pain away.
In the daylight, friends would come make deliveries of cards and gifts, and stand on the step, me in the clothes I’d worn for three days, my hair not done properly and cut weirdly. They looked at me with careful smiles, and I felt their care through the fog of depression. I thought of what I’d done the night before. How could I be so selfish as to reject this love and run from them? I knew then, facing them, that everything I’d always been told was true: I was filled with sin and hatred.
And that meant only one thing.
I deserved death.
“You don’t like yourself very much, do you?”
It’s been four months of talk therapy. I always knew it, but it seems harsher to hear someone else, a professional, speak it out loud, than to recognize it in myself.
“I just live with it,” I tell her. “I don’t hate myself all the time. Just when I make mistakes. I always believe I’m a bad person for making mistakes.” I just want to be good.
“Self-compassion says that making mistakes just makes us human,” she says. “Let me ask you this: do you hate your friends’ flaws?”
I think of my friends, in all their incongruencies. It’s easier to love them, somehow, than myself. “No. That’s just what makes them interesting. I get annoyed by them, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to be their friend.”
“So, if you could rid yourself of the bad, flawed parts of you, would you? Even if that changed who you are?” my therapist asks over the phone. My room is bright with sun this time of day, and the grass in the backyard outside my window is long and overgrown, but lush green.
I consider. Get rid of all my flaws, everything that makes me fucked up? Even if it means some sort of sacrifice of myself?
I remember my nails digging into my skin, trying violently to dig something out.
“Yes,” I say. “I would.”
Some might call it God’s love, some might call it genuine faith, some might call it healing.
I dig through and find in the ashes the life-giving pieces of my faith. I know I am loved. I know I am not broken, or imperfect, or need to be constantly striving, because I am accepted as I am now, unconditionally. Those messages seeped into me too, somewhere, even if they aren’t the ones my body absorbed. Now, I try to bring them to the surface, out from the dark, murky depths of guilt and shame. Everything mushes together now, like fingerpaints: the good and the bad, the ugly and the beautiful, those lines I drew so harshly once, now just a satisfying slop of colour that I massage between my knuckles, ready to slop it over a fresh canvas. That blank page is terrifying, but full of so many possibilities.
“I think we were always told to work towards being like Jesus,” my brother says, looking out across the moonlight reflected in the lake beside us. The two of us have wandered away from our cousin’s wedding festivities to the dock by the lake at the nature centre. It’s a wedding I wasn’t sure I would be alive for, in the depths of winter. It’s eerily quiet and calm. “But that meant we were never okay with who we were.”
I look up at him. It’s been years since he was my “little” brother. Now he’s almost a foot taller than me, and his hair, out of its usual ponytail for the wedding, flows past his shoulders, his normal frizz nicely contained with gallons of curl cream I helped scrunch into his hair hours earlier. He doesn’t normally dress up, but today he looks put together and happy in his snug-fitting dress pants and collared white shirt patterned with fish. I love these moments, when we wander away from the exhausting family socializing to be on our own, and he’s willing to chat, which doesn’t happen often. The end of July night air is cool, but not yet cold. It’s a beautiful night.
"But the core of Christianity is that God loves us no matter what, in all our flaws,” I say. “We don’t have to be perfect for God to love us.” I’ve spent years pulling apart the hate and love I’ve learned, and the difference between doing and being.
“Do you ever feel self-hatred?” I ask. “I feel it a lot.”
He thinks for awhile. Conversations with my brother involve a lot of waiting. I don’t mind. “No,” he answers. “For me, I think it’s about not being able to provide.”
I know well the narrative of men as provider. I also know well the years of depression he struggled with after years of struggling with the failure of being unable to pass university courses or get jobs. I remember the months he didn’t leave his black-walled room, angrily snapped at us when we tried to enter. I thought I’d lost my happy little brother forever.
“How do you see me?” he asks. “Do you think I’m capable?”
I smile, already knowing what he’s getting at. He could be a therapist, if he wanted. Or he just knows me. “Of course,” I say. “You’re the smartest person I know.” I sometimes wish he wasn’t so extremely introverted, so other people could know that silly, incredibly smart, capable side of him. He’s one of the few that understands me well enough to call me out on my shit. I don’t feel the need to keep a guard up with him. At the same time, I’m glad I’m one of the few that gets the privilege of knowing that side of him.
"But I don’t see myself that way,” he says. “Last fall when you were depressed, you kept on saying all this stuff about yourself, how you couldn’t do anything or were stupid or whatever but that’s not how I see you at all. You’re so capable.”
I smile. “Maybe we should work on seeing ourselves the way we see each other.”
My brother drives me home from the wedding with the windows cracked open. I feel everything, the refreshing night air piercing my senses awake, the moon and prickled stars shining through the sunroof from the cloudless night sky. I’m here, now, after months of severe depression and crawling back to a place of life and love. Sitting beside my brother in the car as he revs the engine and shifts quickly up, pushing the speed limits in our parent’s black MINI cooper, I don’t feel the need to be anywhere else. I don’t need to be anyone else. I don’t need to do anything but be here.
When he drops me off, I call, “Love you!” not expecting a reciprocation, and not needing one, because I know he loves me. It’s a joke I make that my brother’s way of saying “I love you” is no response or hanging up or shutting the door.
This time as I’m walking up the sidewalk he yells, “Love you too!”
I have to come back to get something from the car and he says, “Hey, it wasn’t supposed to work that way, I was just supposed to drive off.”
I grab my stuff and say, “But you looove me! You said you looove me for the first time!” We laugh. I feel everything in my body.
I am divine, good, loved. I’m glad to be this person, here, me, alive.
Alyssa Sherlock is the author of the illustrated memoir this is a love story: poems and essays on friendship, love, and mental health (2023). Alyssa writes on the themes of mental health, family, and friendship in her fiction and creative non-fiction. In 2022, she was shortlisted for the CNFC/Humber Literary Review Creative Non-Fiction Contest. She regularly interviews other writers and storytellers about their work through her newsletter, love letters to storytellers, and occasional “In Conversation” pieces in the Winnipeg Free Press. She lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba (Treaty 1 territory).