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.

Advertisements

Graveside

19 years ago today, I watched dirt pile over my best friend’s casket. I watched as what was left of her was lowered into the ground, inch by inch, the physical space between us mounting. I loved her, I did. 

Since that time, I’ve visited her grave often. I talk to her. I smile at her. I cry with her. I’ve moved away and still I sit with her when I’m home. Sometimes, people ask me if I still have friends or family in my hometown, and I want to say that’s she’s there. I want to raise her from the dead, keep her going. 

Last year, for the first time, I heard her whispering to me. I felt her presence. I experienced the games she still played on me. Now, you may not believe any of these experiences, you may think that dead is dead, but I know it in my core. I know she’s always around, wreaking havoc. Kokopelli girl. 

Today, as I was sitting in the sun at her grave, and I saw 2 blue dragonflies fly around us, finally landing on her headstone. Dragonflies are the sign of my spirit animal, my patronus. They mean I’m on the right track, where I need to be. That I’m doing the right thing. I had my angel sitting on the headstone at the same time, and I felt watched, guarded, protected, loved. I looked at her headstone and said, “i release you.” And she was no longer lingering, but the love and protection were still there. Peaceful girl. 

And always, I carry her heart. I carry it in my heart.

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.

Welcoming

Disclaimer: if religion and God offend you, this post isn’t for you.

It’s day 4 of Lent, my first Lent, and I’ve asked the universe to guide me into places I have not been able to see. 

On Ash Wednesday, at 2 am, a woman from my cancer support community here died suddenly from toxicity from chemotherapy treatment. After 20+ years of suffering from metastatic breast cancer, she decided to try one round of palliative chemotherapy, against all her instincts. 22 days after that horrible infusion, she was admitted to the hospital for what seemed to be pneumonia, and she never left the ICU. It was a horrible, unexpected, horrific tragedy for which no one was prepared. 

This woman was beloved by my field because she was the shining example of the empowered patient–asking questions, educating herself on her diagnosis and prognosis, and making her own treatment decisions based on her care goals. She inspired me personally and professionally, and my heart is empty and broken. I’m beside myself with feelings of grief. 

So, on Wednesday, I attended Eucharist, received my ashes, and I devoted myself to not numbing my feelings so that I could be open to receiving answers through the spirit. I have been grappling with so many things about which I just cannot make sense. 

This morning, while in meditation, I remembered a dream I had two nights ago. The only religious image that I still love from childhood actually came to life. The image is called “Journey’s End” and depicts a weary traveler being warmly greeted by Jesus with an embrace. It has halted me many times, even when I no longer considered myself a Christian. It is the message I have always needed.

In that meditation, I was struck by the thought of birth and death being exactly the same. Have you ever experienced a birth, where people are so anxious and excited and planning for the baby to come, trying to hurry the induction of the child so that the baby can be passed around lovingly in its first few hours of this life? 

Well, I wonder what it feels like for the family in heaven who must part with that beautiful soul in order to send it down to earth for the life it is about to live. Do they worry if the child will come back? Do they wonder if they’ll still have the same connection? Do they worry that the child will forget them? There must be such grief and loss in heaven when a baby is born, when they have to say goodbye to one of their own, someone they love so so much.
The first natural death I witnessed was my grandmother’s. She was 94, completely lucid, and allowed me into the room when she was dying, holding my hand. She was beautiful. Just before she took her last breath, she looked across the room, stretched out her hand and said, “Dad? Karl? It’s you.” And just like that, she was gone. She had a welcoming party to greet her and it was her time to transition. That memory has never left me, and I’ve heard so many similar ones to that. 

So, just as we welcome, with outstretched arms, the babies coming into the world, I am comforted by the notion that when we die, were being welcomed back. That while I may be weeping the loss of my friend, a woman of such beauty and substance, she has a group of friends and family awaiting her to say,

“Well done, good and faithful servant; thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” Matthew 25:21

And just like a new baby, on the other side, we’re welcomed with anticipation and delight. Oh, what comfort is in this thought. 

Farewell, M. I will miss you until I see you in the welcoming party. 

Black Albatross

It was more than 18 years ago now,

The day I watched your face

Turn from violet to blue to an icy white.

I stood there, holding your hoodie.

Complete shock.

This accessory smelled more like you than you.

I remember my mouth going dry from surprise and terror and fear and panic.

My ears recall the utter silence. Pin drop.

Those fibers on the black lining, rubbing.

Your body, more limp, making you look like a hanger, no longer holding up your clothes.

You’d cleaned your room. Spotless. Pledge.

No feelings, just data. Vacuum.

You and me, alone, in a clean room.

You lifeless, me dead inside. Mirrors.

I didn’t do anything. I just stood and watched. I’ve regretted that.

It was our only time alone before all the tears. I’ve regretted that too.

I remember you like you left yesterday.

Wearing socks.

I’ve stayed quiet with regret for so long.

What would I say if no one would judge?

I’d talk about the sigh of relief my chest exhaled when I saw your lips turn blue.

Knowing I could get out and not worry about you.

Chasing my dreams without thinking of the mess you’d become.

I’d tell someone that the last words that left my lips in that room was, “i couldn’t save you. I never could.”

It wasn’t I’m sorry or I love you. You were my loss, but a loss.

I’d express my anger that you left me at the worst time, without a friend. A best friend. You rejected me.

How I gave up my bunk beds because you’d slept on them with me, because I couldn’t stop seeing you hanging.

How you made me more different than I already was. Now I was the girl with a dead friend. Now I’ve watched someone die. Now I have even more issues.

Unrelatable and alone.

How you knew. You knew I had no one to help me with this. No one to turn to.

I wanted to yell at you, to call you selfish. But that wasn’t correct.

I would say I have never quite gotten the hang of being around dead bodies because you were the first. And there was nothing comforting about it.

How every time I’m around one now, how every time I even see Jesus on a cross I see your face.

How I never understood. How I don’t understand. Did you not trust me?

How sometimes, in those first few days, I slept easier knowing you were safer.

How sometimes, in those first few years, I hated you. I hated me.

Guilt. Relief. Anger. Calm.

You changed my life for the worse.

A terrible scar across my heart.
All I could show was pain or nothing.

For so long, nothing.

In a child, out an adult?

Protecting you then honoring you?

Who does that for me?

And all I seem now is selfish.

If only I felt safe enough

To say it while still alone in your room.

Perhaps then, this pain could dissipate.

Over-staying Our Welcome

On the first day of 2017, I completed re-reading Joan Didion’s amazing work The Year of Magical Thinking. It got me wondering, might we mix up fate at times, causing us to extend our time on earth, past that which might be planned? Do we make choices that can alter our ending?

Joan Didion is a master of vulnerability. Joan Didion is not the semblance of joy, but her deep feeling encourages the path to joy. Some of my favorite moments:

John Dunne, on Joan’s Birthday (a bittersweet memory):

“Goddamn,” John said to me when he closed the book. “Don’t ever tell me again you can’t write. That’s my birthday present to you.”

I remember tears coming to my eyes.

I feel them now.

In retrospect this had been my omen, my message, the early snowfall, the birthday present no one else could give me. 

He had twenty-five nights left to live.

On self-awareness:

I think about people I know who have lost a husband or wife or child. I think particularly about how these people looked when I when I saw them unexpectedly–on the street, say, or entering a room–during the year or so after the death. What struck me in each instance was how exposed them seemed, how raw.

How fragile, I understand now.

How unstable.

On changing the timeline:

I realized that since the last morning of 2003, the morning after he died, I had been trying to reverse time, run the film backward.

It was now eight months later, August 30, 2004, and I still was.

The difference was that all through those eight months I had been trying to substitute an alternate reel. Now I was trying only to reconstruct the collision, the collapse of the dead star.

I firmly believe that we don’t need the physical death of a loved one to experience the grief about which Didion writes. It could be the death of an emotional connection, the death of hope, the death of our physical bodies as we know it. We all want to control the timeline, we all want to change things. We all seem unstable and fragile, for however long or short a time.

In 2014, I suffered the disconnection, the emotional death, of my relationship with someone with whom I held dear–closer to me than anyone I have ever experienced. The first quote, the memory Didion shares of her husband, is one I know well. This partner gave to me something no one else could ever give: encouragement. He was my tireless supporter. And he taught me every day, “You’re stronger than you think.” For over two years I have been trying to substitute an alternate reel, only yesterday to realize that, perhaps, the reel had already been altered.

Do I think that we change the course of our lives through our actions? Yes.

Do I think we overstay our welcome, that we wander onto paths that weren’t made for us? No.

No. For we will learn much on our journey, but we’ve got an ending coming that is set as our destiny. Whether this life or the next one, we will be at Journey’s End all the same.

“It’s great to have an ending to journey toward, but it’s the journey that matters in the end.” –Ursula K. LeGuin