Never Say Never

I remember now the moment I fell in love with you. 

It was faster than I anticipated, 

occurring through my fear and pain.

I had a panic attack, and you,

You sat down in front of me, 

Your hands on the sides of my face,

Demanding my eye contact,

Teaching me to follow your breaths.

“Slow inhale, and hold.

Exhale. Let the tears come. Let the pain in.

Calm down those nerves, my darling.

Breathe in. Expand your container.

Breathe out. Empty it all.

I’m here, you’re held.

Never alone again.

Breathe in, composure.

Breathe out. There’s a smile!

See. You’re okay.”

With that, love. 

Expansive, all consuming, 

Forehead touching,

Transformational love. 

With those breaths, I fell farther

Down the rabbit hole that is your heart.

Never alone again.

And I believed you.

Every time you said it, I did.

Until the very end. 

Until the day you left,

When you looked back, saying,

“Never say never.”

No matter how far you are, 

I still feel those hands,

Soft and strong, 

calming my nerves. 

When I need a friend.

I still smile when I think of yours.

“There it is!” You’d declare.

They are the moments where I continue

To fall in love with you

Even still.

Advertisements

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.

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.

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. 

Reflections

Today, in the budding, cold, drizzling spring, I was out wandering in the woods. When coming back to the cabins where I’m staying, I stumbled upon a small grey bird (i’m not a bird fanatic and could not identify readily) doing its best to shield whatever was in the nest it was covering. I stopped and marveled a while. At the resilience of this bird, at its diligence in protection. Then, while I slowly disengaged, I saw my reflection, clearly, in a mirrored object that sat inside a room, through a clear window. I saw myself in a mirror, through a window. And this hit me:

Reflections

What was it?

A large, glassy, reflective

Mirror-like substance

That revealed those

Fragile, now broken views

Of your pain with your dad?

Was I just the conduit?
Was I too like the one

You’ve come to distrust?

Where you were skeptical already?

Were the structures not mine to break?

But, rather, the stone, or raindrop

Rippling the reflection,

Reminding you of its pull?
We are alike. Were alike.

I recall him less over time.

Cancer survivor.

Rags to riches.

Instigator, rabble rouser, hippie tree hugger.

Lover of music, gestalt, experience.

Tactical, technical, spiritual.

Angry. Impatient. Stoic.

Withholding of affections.

And then, like magic,

The light switches on, and…

CHARISMA.

Well traveled but humble.

Always pushing the edges.

Overwhelming.

Yes, so alike.
If only I could cover that puddle,

Keep a placid surface,

Unruffle your ruffled feathers,

Shield you from the uncertainty,

Give you a nest in which to roost.

If only I could be more

Than the mere reflection

The force and not the imprint,

Even just a quiet one.
But that’s not me.

That’s not my role with you.

Letting it all play out

Grows my patience, and tries it, too.
One day may it be you

Who stares back.

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.