Morning, Mourning

February is tough. When everyone is celebrating love and infatuation, love is not what’s in my mind.

March is rough. When people are dancing around, claiming bonuses, when Spring springs, I feel the withering inside.

January, February, March. Q1 of every year, I’m reminded why I work in death. Why death hits home. His birthday was January, but he died in March. Her birthday was February, but she died in September. Her birthday was October but she died in March. His birthday was February and he died in February. Birth, death, love. Tragic loss. Zig-zagging through my first quarter of the year, breaking my heart open again.

But morning seems to always come.

Mourning seems to start the morning after… When the haze burns off and you’re left with truth.

I’m still mourning.

This week, this week this year, has been incredibly difficult. The son of my dear friend, who took her life 7 years ago now, turned 10 last month. He’s beautiful and smart and gentle and kind. And she’s missing out. I’m staying in the home of friends equidistant between where she jumped off a bridge and where her son sleeps. I’m drinking in that bridge, and that boy. He’s stronger than I. More compassionate.

Tomorrow is the 6th anniversary of the death of my best friend K-Rock, who overdosed in a Bronx apartment. The last time I got to feel his arms around me, where we had our last long talk in person, was a mile from where I’m sleeping this week. I am literally at the center of my pain.

Two nights ago, I spent the evening with the man who nursed me through that pain, who drank some of this heartbreak for me. And who still loves my broken heart. We were out catching up after years with no contact, celebrating the anniversary of a project we’d completed long ago.

A project that is the perfect metaphor for our amazing love affair: “Madness: A fast-paced game with no turns.” Its market differentiation was that it had stops built into the game.

Bittersweet. Celebrating the end of the Madness.

But really, we were getting closure. A different kind of death–the end of a love we’d shared, the end of the hope I had for reconciliation, the death of the memory. Painful, but necessary, in this season of tragedy. And I got to do what I wish I could have done with those I lost to abrupt death: the four things that matter most: “i love you”, “Please forgive me”, “i forgive you”, “thank you”. Just as he always knows to do, he gave me everything I needed. intuitively.

In July of 2013, he gave me something even more special. He took the time and energy to help me find just the right succulent to plant at the grave of my K-Rock. He took a shaking, crying girl through a graveyard for over an hour, searching for her best friend. When I was ready to give up without finding him, the man by my side forced me to keep going. He calmed my nerves, eased my pain, and told me it was worth it. It was 120 degrees outside, the sun beating down, and he was miserable, but he gave me what I needed. Intuitively. And we sat there, shoes off, talking to K-Rock until I could say everything I needed to say. Until I could introduce them properly. Until I could seek closure and find it. That day could quite possibly be my definition of bliss. I felt complete, unconditional love amidst the chaos. I learned what it means to hold space. And to be held.

Above anything, without fail, he was my friend. He was my shoulder while mourning all my other friends.

And yet. Last night, I walked out with closure. It is the morning after mourning. And I’m grateful for the shoulder, but I need it no longer. In the end, that death of the relationship, the hope of one, rather, was necessary for the dawn to break. And break it has.

What trauma therapy has taught me is that sometimes, we must re-enter a place in the past to feel all the feelings the place must teach us. So I am here, in the center of my pain, watching the sunrise come up after mourning. The loss never seems to lessen, but I can tell the pain will subside.

Good, bad, happy, sad, with or without shoes. Feel it all.

Preferably with a friend.

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Wondering

I spent all evening

With someone

Who reminded me of you.

First, the face, the hair, the height

then, the accent, the snarky comments

the playful, professional flirting.

It was like looking at you,

hearing you,

Watching you hear me.

I wonder,

Without all the red tape,

What could it all have been?

I remember the night we finally kissed.

Electric, heart-pounding

Unexpected.

I thought you were a cocky suit

With a fancy title and a fancy job

And raging insecurity.

I was right.

The night you came over

You melted in my arms,

Took off the armor,

And cried in my room.

In that moment, I loved you.

Not the tough exterior, the pomp,

But the jelly inside.

The kind, doubtful, sad soul

With the sad eyes.

I saw those same sad eyes tonight

And I loved them just the same.

If we’d met in another place,

At another time,

Would you still be curled up

Talking about fantasy novels

About administrative law

In my room,

Your head on my chest?

Would you be grieving with me?

Could I have made those sad eyes smile?

I spent all evening

With a man who looked like you,

Felt like you,

And, beside him, someone who knows you.

Find your way.

Take off the suit.

Remove your armor.

I’ve seen you without,

beautiful, vulnerable, deeply personal.

You matter.

Matter more.

On suicide

When I was a child, my mother used to allow me to wander the library unattended. She is a genealogist, and for the most part, the library is where there were computers or other machines that connected to archives. I tagged along, happy to be left alone to explore my wonderland. 

I remember the moment I first laid eyes on that spine in the philosophy section. At first, I was drawn to the idea of a German female author (Emile Durkheim) talking about suicide. Little did I know it was a Frenchman postulating on the reason why people turn to suicide. I sat in the aisle, my back to the shelves, searching for answers. Turning the first page, I realized this book, this crisis, this epidemic of existential proportions, was older than me (1897!) I wasn’t the only one searching for answers. I had not come up with this concern myself. 

I was twelve years old. 

A year earlier, I had spent hours in the same library, reading my summer book list from start to finish, at times tagging along with my mother, and other times persuading my friends to come with me. To explore the library, full of possibility and knowledge. I rarely read non fiction, rather traveling through the young adult classics and fantasy sections, save for my time spent reading biographies of the greats: novelists, classical musicians, architects, artists. I was obsessed with the world’s beauty. I longed to be part of a world where beauty and luxury existed. I believed it was possible. 

At twelve, I experienced loss from suicide. She was 14, a girl I more than loved, a familiar. My tribe. My heart.

Sitting there, alone, tearing through Durkheim, I searched for the answers no one could give me. Why? How? What does this mean? Can I catch it? Is all hope lost? What happens to her now? To me? Why does this hurt so much?

The answers in this book puzzled me, frightened me, excited me, angered me. Mostly, they left me pondering more often how suicide happens. I was searching for answers and it just prompted more questions. 

That year, I began to tempt fate myself. It wasn’t like playing Russian roulette. I was alone and in pain. I was searching for answers, for comfort, and I found nothing. I’m convinced that my obsession to solve the puzzle of how pain turns into death, how people die in pain, has kept me alive. 

At 14, I became involved in group therapy where other survivors of suicide came together to communally ask the questions I found in the book. Some weeks I went to every group offered. It was then when I came to the realization that the pain that causes a suicide is transferred from the victim to survivor. It creates a link that perpetuates pain, and the only way to relieve it is to discuss it, in community. 

I started my own group, then found others with whom we started a non-profit. It became the thing I woke up for every day. I developed a peer mentoring program, an adolescent survivors of suicide group, then a train the trainer program that was taught throughout the country to peer mentors in high school and resident advisors in college. I created spaces where people could continue to ask Durkheim’s questions. I was obsessed with finding the answer to this problem through the pain left behind in survivors. 

But when I left these groups, when I came home, I was often in more pain. I was more disconnected. People were still attempting and completing, dying, all around me. Despite the hours logged managing a suicide hotline and teaching others about suicide prevention and self care for grief and loss, I never received the help I needed. 

Lesson 1: Sometimes the helpers need help too. Often, the helpers find little help. No one sees them as having weakness.

When I was 16, after the loss of my sister and grandmother, I created a plan to take my own life. The most serious of my several  attempts landed me a spot first in the emergency room, then strapped to a gurney in the back of an ambulance, and finally placed in an inpatient psychiatric facility for adolescents. “Why did you attempt to take your life?” A weary nurse asked upon intake, removing the laces from my shoes. I responded that I no longer could be in my family of origin. And, because of that, I had no one left alive who was safe. 

In this place, I had conversations with children and adolescents who had the risk factors and warning signs I used to teach teens when discussing suicide prevention. I was the hypocrite, and all I could think about was studying for AP exams. They were my only hope for leaving my family behind. I craved safety I had only read about in the books from the library. In this place, we openly talked about pain, about anger and loss. We all chased Durkheim’s questions. Alive but dying inside, we collectively pondered how we’d gotten to this point so early. 

Sadly, we didn’t come to conclusions. The majority of those I shared space with for 9 days died by suicide or overdose, or became incarcerated for drugs or violence. 

Lesson 2: Pain is rarely just physical. No substance, legal or otherwise, can lessen its grip.

At 18, i completed my first thesis on suicide, mainly highlighting and applying the works of Durkheim and others from that era to collected experiences from suicide support groups I facilitated and suicide hotline calls I managed. I analyzed themes, still desperately searching for answers. My cerebral approach created distance from my own pain. 

I was surprised when my mother asked to read my paper. 

One evening, after one of our long drives down the coastline, my mother taught me about my family history of suicide. My premature birth was a result of her own attempt following my father’s desertion just weeks before. I was horrified. Upon sharing this with my stepfather, he recounted the many times he prayed when my mother and I would take our iconic coastline drives. She used to write suicide notes, stating she was going to remove us from the suffering. She was going to save me from my future pain. 

Lesson 3: Pain can be genetic. It can be contagious. 

They say “you’re only as sick as your secrets.” In a family or environment where safety is rare, where love is conditional, where trust is optional, and loyalty is constantly questioned, children are never taught to seek community. They do not learn how to ask for help or share pain openly. The pain, suffering, anger, and loss is not resolved, and grief continues to take hold. 

Eventually, if not resolved, isolation, desperation, and paranoia sets in. Hope is lost. The existential noose pulls tighter, the box closing in, and options become limited by the weight of the pain. 

Lesson 4: The only way out is through.

What have I learned now, in my many years of continued research, exposure to survivors and victims of suicide attempt and completion, and from my own treatment for trauma? 

  • How someone dies fundamentally changes your memory of them. 
  • A shared distribution of weight lightens the load for everyone.
  • Pain is only lessened by the reduction of stigma and the increase in open discussion about what brings the pain.
  • Pain leads to shame, which leads to isolation. 
  • Some of the best medicine is community.

I have dedicated my life to making better memories. Only when we talk openly about and process the pain is it possible to remember people, places, and things with greater fondness. Only when we feel safe can we process the pain. 

Safety and community can break the cycle. Safety and community are the answer for which I have been searching. Safety and community, not substances, reduce isolation. Safety and community prevents suicide; it creates and maintains the best memories. It creates a beauty in this world that, too, can be passed from generation to generation. 

Lesson 5: It’s ok to fail. It’s ok to ask for help. 

I am forever grateful for the ones who have picked up the phone or answered my cries for help. There have been many along my path, and I remember them all. Thank you for reminding me that life’s beauty is not just something I can read in the fantasy section. 

And for the hundreds of souls who I have lost along the way, especially my heart, you continue to drive me to search for the answers, to create solutions. We can do better; we must be better. I carry your hearts in my heart. 

In the end, only kindness matters.

Sunny days

It all started with
The cave by the beach,

Just south of home,

Carved into the cliff,

Where I used to bring my secrets,

Where I grieved in secret,

Loved in secret.

The safest, most painful place.

I wish you could have been my secret there.

These places have accumulated over time.

The grass below the rose garden 

Where we’d lay on our backs and watch the summer clouds.

The meditation garden in the grotto,

Where I witnessed God within my heart.

And then there’s your home.

My safest place I never knew.

The strength of the red rim, nestling the town below in its expansive arms.

Sitting in the water of the stream, kissing your face, while the dragonflies buzz about.

Soaking up the hot summer sun on our bare chests and backs and legs.

The beading drops of cool water refreshing us under the heat of a sunny day, running off us.

Light glinting from our blue-green eyes, consuming one another’s souls.

The silence of the gravesite, where my best friend lies.

Where just the memory of your presence there soothes me, just knowing you met him in your home towns, including me.

Surrounded by succulents and lizards.

Surrounded by birds and dragonflies.

The family cat and its rodent prey.

Surrounded by your loving family, sitting in your family home, watching the sunset.

Smiling. Home. Safe. Loved. 

Summer gods on sunny days.

Ash & Ember 

That last camping trip, the one at the wedding by the beach, I remember laughing hysterically as we tried to pitch the tent. As we created a space on the shady side of the dune, under the warped trees. I remember putting out our sleeping bags, holding hands as we lay on top of them, looking up at the top of the yellow tent. We watched the light and shadows coming down on the roof. We listened to the leaves rustle, to one another’s breaths. I said we should do this more. You squeezed my hand and agreed. 

It had been rocky for a month or more by that time. We talked and cried almost every day, you slipping through my fingers like sand. I even started backing off, hoping to keep at least some of you in my grasp. If I only leave him alone, I’d think to myself, then his nerves will calm and he’ll stay. But you weren’t staying. You were suffering from existential breathlessness. Choking on the embers of our heart spark. 

Prior to that month, just prior, you started bringing up marriage. We played with planning, with where and when and what it would be like. You wanted to wear shorts. I countered with cargo pants. You wanted to wear tie dye. I conceded. You just wanted a party. I just wanted you. And then, the flame started smoking, sputtering. Fear froze out the flame, just leaving the ash.

The night before the wedding, you and I trekked in the dark to a bonfire, full of your family members. Your fear, your shame started coming through, making your nervousness show. We walked and walked and walked in the dark, talking things through. I tried comforting you, I tried everything to comfort you, but your nervous system was hypervigilant. Your pain resonated and broke the ribs around my heart. 

I knew something, that night, sitting around the bonfire with your family. I knew that you losing faith meant me losing you. The person in my life more important than all the others. I knew that this was the time when the special wave of love, the raging wildfire, would collapse back into mediocrity, the fire snuffed out. That once the cloud of smoke dispersed back into the air, once the wave collapsed back into the body of the ocean, the euphoria of what we had would disperse too. I had seen my great love, I had experienced the extraordinary. 

Even the best things diffuse back into a world we call normal. Sometimes waves can be ridden for hundreds of miles, other times only moments. Sometimes our moments of bliss are seconds long, some lifetimes. But, just like a river, you never step into the same one twice. You change the earth around you, and it is changing all the time. 

Heart beat, heart break. Ash, ember. Ember, ash. 

Recovery.

“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved…The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.” –Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart


End of February 2015 I shot a commercial for Vonage telephone service, a service I used and loved for many years because it gave me precious time with my brother who lived in London. The photo on the left is a shot of me after the day wrapped. Little did I know that my life would fall apart only a week later and that I’d cancel my Vonage service and delete my relationship with my brother only months later, the day the photo on the right was taken (September 2015).

Things fell apart. A week after my fun on set, at the top of my career, in love with my life as it was, I was diagnosed with cancer. This distanced me from my family, my friends, myself, my job, everything. I lost 40 pounds (photo on left: 143 pounds, right: 103) and my hair. I lost my job, my boyfriend, some friends, and my sense of stability.

And during that time, people complimented my appearance. It devastated me, and I broke. I hurt everywhere, physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. That photo on the right was an unhealthy version of me. I remember being cold all the time, walking through a cognitive fog, suffering from spontaneous incontinence, and really exploiting that small amount of hair that stayed attached to my scalp (the rest I had to shave because of the bald patches). I cried every single day. From pain, from loneliness, and mostly from fear.


Photo on the left: 6/5/15. Two years ago. I’d completed a complete cycle of chemotherapy (7 doses over 7 weeks), 8.5 weeks of radiation, so many scans and biopsies and blood tests, 1 surgery, and all the misery I could have imagined. I had just been discharged from the hospital after my first surgery, the surgery that would remove the rest of my cancer. I couldn’t move from the pain, I had a catheter in still, and I was vomiting everywhere. My hair had just started to fall out, in chunks. I had an open wound where my labia used to be. And this was the day I wanted to die, when I couldn’t take anything any longer. I couldn’t imagine anything worse than that moment.

But that wasn’t rock bottom. Over the next 6-8 months, the bottom fell out from under me and I experienced the depths. My body changed and healed, but I completely lost my footing emotionally, mentally, spiritually, financially. I was broken. Literally everything in my life changed. I experienced so many endings that it shook my cobwebs loose.

And that’s when the healing started. I met my therapist in the city where I moved, and she gave me the room, the capacity, to experience everything in a messy, ugly, angry, irrational, emotional way. I began to learn what self-love feels like–being ok with all the emotions I’d been bottling up for so long.

Those cobwebs that shook loose allowed room for things I could not previously accept: joy, self-respect, humor, silliness, childlike behavior, spontaneity, forgiveness, and love. I discovered what God means to me, and where I can find, accept, and celebrate spirituality. I am continuing to discover these depths inside of me, knowing now what Pema has tried to teach me for years: the things that shake you to your core remind you what inside of us is indestructible.

“To live is to be willing to die over and over again.”

Today is my cancer survival day. Happy birthday, new body. Thank you for bringing me to my knees so that I could learn how to pray.