Why I wont stop talking about suicide.

July 12, 2012.

It was a gorgeous sunny Thursday just about a week past his seventeenth birthday. It started out as an average summer day and by the end was unimaginable. It was the day my son attempted suicide and the day our lives were forever changed. That day is one that we will never forget and even though I speak of it often it is rare these days that I recall the vivid details and searing emotions of it instead my thoughts focus on the after. After his attempt I wanted to make sense of it, I had to understand it. Why was this the only answer he could come up with? During that month in the ICU before he woke up, before he could tell me, a million possible reasons came to me but none were enough to make me understand. After he came to and still weeks later when he was finally able to speak his reason I was still not able to understand. Perhaps that is just the way it is with suicide, it is an idea that is both deceptively simple to grasp and yet also so deeply complex and personal that there is no way for those of us on the outside to understand it.

As a mother I came to appreciate that there will never be a reason that makes sense, so I gave up on understanding the reason and focused on understanding my boy.  Why he felt this was the only way. What my part was in his pain and how I could help. We went on a voyage of discovery through doctors appointments and therapy sessions, down into the vast rabbit holes of the internet and the many avenues of websites and forums. For over a year we searched, we read and would discard ideas. Maybe it was addiction to food or video games? Close but not quite. Maybe it was depression or bi-polar, like me or my sister? Similar but not the same. It wasn’t until he was diagnosed with Asperger’s did it start to make sense. Why he felt like an alien, why he couldn’t understand our love for him, why he shut down during any intense situation or argument, why he bounced on his toes when he walked, why he was the smartest toddler I’d ever known, why he felt this was his only way out and why he had thought about it for years.

During these months of investigation I came to realize how wrong I was about my son and about suicide. I began to grasp the amount of pain a person must be in to consider this as their only option. I also saw that those who survive their attempts often have the same story; once they were on the precipice of death they saw that it wasn’t death they longed for but merely a release from their enormous pain.

It’s been five years and I cant stop talking about suicide.

I talk about it with anyone who will listen, anyone who is open to talk about something so heavy.  Sometimes I talk about it with people who are completely unsuspecting. It comes out in the middle of random small talk as if I was mentioning the weather or what we ate for dinner last night. I am often surprised at how easily it slips out of my mouth. “My son attempted suicide” and then I talk about it. I talk about it because no one talked about it with me, before his attempt I knew of only a very few friends who had faced something like this. After his near death so many people I knew shared about their sister, uncle or grand-dad who had also chosen suicide. I had known these people for many years yet I had no idea that they had lost someone to suicide.

I speak about it now to promote awareness.

I hope that by sharing our story with others they will feel comfortable talking about theirs.  Every single one of the lives lost to suicide has meaning; they are loved, they had an affect on those around them, they are dearly missed. Not one of those lives we lose to suicide can be completely summed up by method of their passing and that detail should not be the only one remembered. I have learned that the more we talk about suicide the less likely it is to happen.  This is the most preventable kind of death; if I can help to stop one family from experiencing it then a slight embarrassment or bit of discomfort in a casual conversation is more than worth it. Those moments of embarrassment and discomfort are another reason why I talk about it.

I talk about suicide to help end the stigma of talking about suicide.

My hope is that if those of us that have this experience open our hearts to the advocacy aspect of surviving a suicide loss or attempt we can prevent many others from losing their lives or a loved one to suicide. My life has taken a path that I never dreamed of, forever altered by that sunny summer afternoon filled with such darkness. Since then I have taken up the task of educating myself on suicide. I have become a presenter for NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) speaking about living with mental health issues. Additionally, I work with the Los Angeles Dept of Mental Health providing suicide prevention presentations and have been trained in Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) as well as becoming a SafeTALK trainer through Living Works. My mission is to change policy and perception on mental illness and suicide.

Talking about suicide has become my purpose and for that I am grateful.

I could not have imagined all that would happen for us after that day.  I could never have predicted the twists and turns, the heartache and heartfelt laughter that would find their ways to us. The storm we survived was dark and ominous yet even the most threatening storms have a silver lining. That is where we live now, in the silver lining and I will never stop talking about that.

Peach Hair, Don’t Go There

To dye for….

I dyed my hair again last week.  The color is amazing and I love it.  It’s peach and blonde and looks like Sherbert melted. It is shiny in pictures which is the only thing important these days. My hair has been nearly every color under the sun; Black, platinum blonde, red, pink, purple, green, brunette, ash blonde, streaked, ombre, even fluorescent yellow like a Hi-Liter marker.

When I showed it to Ollie, she didn’t like it.  She told me “I dont know what I think about your hair.” I thought her response a little odd but I didn’t pay too much attention as we were in the midst of a busy afternoon. I was saying good bye to our friends/hairdresser and getting ready to go out later that evening. As an experienced hair dyer I know color can take some getting used to so I didn’t visit it at that moment.  When Jeff brought it up again later, he said “Ollie doesnt like your hair” I was surprised that she had mentioned it to him, that fact alone meant that it was actually bothering her. I decided to talk to her about it again.

Hair triggered?

“What’s up with my hair? You don’t like it?” It was Saturday morning and I had crawled into bed with her for a heart to heart. My hair was no longer sleek and shiny but slept on, damp from sleep sweat and my bangs were smashed up on the side of my head like Carmen Diaz in “There’s Something About Mary”.

“I don’t know…..” She responded with the only thing 12-almost-13 year olds know how to say.

“New color can take some getting used to. Is there something more bothering you?”

“I don’t know…” her voice was softer, her head sinking further into her pillows, her blanket pulled tighter to her chin.

“Hmm, it sounds like you do know something.”

“Well, it’s just….it’s not like a normal mom.” I smiled perhaps even chuckled.

“When have I ever been a “normal mom”? I had flourescent yellow hair a year ago!  You were OK with that…What’s wrong with this?”

“Yeah I know but yellow is still kinda sorta like blonde.”

“You know this isn’t permanent right? It’s going to fade as soon as I shower.  It will fade out in a few weeks and I will be back to blonde again.”

“Yeah…but I still….I don’t know.” That’s when I notice that she is starting to tear up.  She’s got big round water tear drops welling up in those perfectly browed eyes of hers.

“Are you crying? About my hair?” I asked incredulously.

“I dont know…..” But I do know.  Mom always knows. This is only slightly about my hair. She is concerned about something that is represented in my hair.  My hair is the trigger. A hair trigger if you will… haha if only it were funny then.

“You know I am not going anywhere right?” This is where the tears spill. She cant hold them back any more.

Semi-permanent fears for the future

Ollie’s biggest fear in her life is that Jeff & I will get divorced. That I will leave, in the way that I left before. Her nightmare is that I will walk out and walk away from her as I did to Ethan and I will disappear like a ghost. She has never seen it but she knows what I am capable of.  Never known it intimately the way that Jeff & Ethan have.  Her biggest fear is that she will come to know this.

I know that she wont but I cant make her understand that. I cant promise to never fight with her Dad, never say things in anger, never make mistakes.  The next day she said that she liked my hair, that she was over it.  It’s been fourteen years since I came back and I don’t know if any of us are “over it”.  I don’t know if we ever will be.  Scars heal slowly and stitch closed painfully.

It all comes out in the rinse

I don’t know if my psychoanalysis of the situation is exactly 100% correct.  Perhaps only partly.  She did ask if I was “trying to hold on to my youth” to which I replied “I am still young and growing old gracefully if not maturing the way some would like me to”.  Maybe this time it wasn’t about my past the way my head always tells me it is.  Maybe this time it’s about the future.

Hopefully it’s about something completely normal like her wanting the attention and me learning to accept the fact that even being the cool mom with peach hair there is no way I can prevent that shift, at least not forever, but I will use every bottle of hair dye on the planet if it means slowing it down.  Not because I want the attention, trust me I’ve had enough. I am not trying to delay my own aging, no I want to slow it down because she deserves to grow up on her time and at her pace and when she’s ready I’ll be the first one to say “I love your hair! What color is next?”

 

Fourteen

Lucky Numbers

Fourteen is a lucky number in our house.  It is our family number.  Fourteen is the number Jeff wore on his baseball jerseys, just as Ethan did.  It’s the number Ollie wears on her softball jerseys as well. How old was I when I first met Jeff? You guessed it, fourteen.  Today is fourteen for me.

Fourteen years ago November 7th was a Friday.  It was colder than today, dark clouds filled the skies.  I woke up with a pounding headache my brain dehydrated and veins pumping blood so loudly it felt like it was flowing directly through my ears.  My lip was busted, split open and swollen.  Deep vicious claw marks on my neck were caked with dried blood and starting to scab.  My lower back in agony, I couldn’t stand up straight.  My phone out of commission after its free dive into the toilet the night before.  My life was a wreck and my body bore the physical evidence of it.

After years of abuse, a lifetime truly, I was finally finished.  I had no more ideas, no more people to use, no more money, no more options.  I had lost my job, lost my friends, lost my family, lost my son, lost me.  I lost everything I had ever loved, ever hoped for, ever wanted.  I hated myself.  I hated who I had become.  I hated that it was all my fault.  I seethed with despair, rage, frustration, and self loathing.

Nothing would ever be the same.

My life would never be the same.  My son would never be the same.  My family, my friends, my world would never be the same.  I was paralyzed by that thought; Nothing would ever be the same. If I had only known how right I was, if I had only known how wrong I was too. The life I had known was gone.  Gone were the endless binges of excess.  No more couch surfing, no more driving my dealer around for freebies.   Cross country crime sprees? Done for.  Yes, my life as an addict was over.  What I traded that for was a terrifying unknown.

How could I know what the future held?  I could barely focus on the moment.  At that time, each moment held only pain and guilt.  Every thought filled with remorse.  Each day another endless slog through depression.  Wishing eternally that somehow something would change.  I had tried to stop drinking earlier that summer, some inkling in my heart that there is where my problems festered.  I just didn’t know how to stop.  How do you stop something that is integral to your personhood? I started drinking at 9 years old, nearly twice as many years later how could I just stop.  Who would I be? Who would I become without that part of me? Me, the life of the party! The one up for anything! Fun and crazy party girl, yep that’s me! What would happen to her?

The more things change…

When I look back now, fourteen years later, I am in awe of what became of me.  In those first few months of sobriety I went to jail, almost got my sister evicted (and she didn’t even live there!), my room-mate over dosed, my job required a 1.5 hour bus ride each way, I had no place to live, I had to do 100 hours of community service (ok maybe it just felt like 100 hours).  If anyone had told me that all that shit would flow downstream onto me I would never have agreed.  I would have run straight back to the bar or to my dealer and gotten good and toasted.

I am so glad I didn’t because what also happened was glorious. What also happened was I found out who I am, who I really am through meetings and 12 step work.  I went back to my son, and he forgave me.  My family and I reunited and I even got one of them to get sober with me! I rekindled a relationship with my ex where no one ever thought we would.  I gave birth to a daughter who has never seen me drunk.

The more they stay the same, sort of.

Fourteen years have passed since I last drank alcohol or did cocaine.  I am not perfect.  My life is not perfect.  My issues and the issues they caused did not just vanish.  I still have to clean up my wreckage and make amends to those I scarred so deeply, I just get to sleep at night now.  Today I get to look in my eyes in the mirror and not shy away.  I can forgive myself.  I get to live a life so far beyond my wildest dreams that I look back and think, silly girl what took you so long.

If you are struggling, feeling hopeless, questioning your life and life decisions – please know you are not alone.  You are never alone.  There are whole rooms full of people who will love you and teach you how to overcome.  All it takes is a teensy bit of hope and a smidge of willingness to change your life.  The rest takes care of itself in record time.  No matter how tall your problems feel, we have been there.  No matter how lost you are, we can help you find your way.

I thank God everyday for the miracles He has blessed me with.  I didn’t deserve any of them.  Now the only way for me to repay them is to offer my hand to those still suffering with the hope that they too will find their way.  Each of us trudging our paths of happy destiny – and you know what, I am still the life of the party, still crazy and fun, still up for (almost) anything….only now I know we will all make it home safe.

 

The Bully States

September is upon us.

In other parts of the country the weather is getting colder, states where leaves are starting to change, fall is coming.  Here in sunny sweltery So Cal we are facing a triple digit heatwave as our kiddos head back to school.  Last school year, starting in about October and continuing through the Spring my sweet little girl dealt with a bully.  We nick named her Arizona.

It started with the age old love triangle.  Arizona liked him, but he sorta liked Ollie.  The crush of my crush is my enemy is how it began but then morphed into standard school yard shenanigans.  Once the crush had died, the bullying remained.  Arizona’s taunting comments, rumors were spread, social media blockades as sides were chosen and eventually it ended with a threatening note (quoting Tupac!) found in Ollie’s P.E. locker. Finally a trip to the principal to put an end to the torture.

Arizona to Virginia

As we discussed the new school year and the inevitable reunion with Arizona reminded me of my own bully, Virginia.  (The irony of these two states and the current political turmoil is not lost on me but I digress.) She was a few years older than me, junior or senior to my freshman class.  I had never met her, didn’t even know her name when she started taunting me.  Hurling insults across the quad, following me in the hallways whispering with her friends, it’s like one day she just decided to she would make my school day miserable.

J-Walking

A friend informed me that merely walking was my crime.  She didn’t like the way I walked.  I can look back and admit that I had quite a strut in those days.  Confidant, defiant with more than a little hip swagger I was a rebellious teen, far too experienced for my age, had definite issues with authority and no qualms about confrontations; I showed all of that in my stride.

At the time I couldn’t understand why she would go out of her way to be mean to me when I had done nothing to instigate it but as any survivor of adolescence knows, it wasn’t about me – it was about her.  Her issues, her insecurities, her own perception of herself and I was merely the mirror.  Knowing that now, or even then subconsciously, was not enough to stop the fear and anger and frustration that filled me to shaking every time I saw her on campus.

Full Stop

As days and weeks slid into months of stress I became determined to end it.  If it had to come to fist-a-cuffs then so be it, bruises would heal, the psychological torture was endless.  I stopped avoiding her and stared right back at her dirty looks.  I didn’t move out of the way in the halls.  Until one day the perfect situation unfolded.  It was mid-period and I was out of class to use the restroom, she was in the hallway with one of her friends and with no teacher or student witnesses they began to follow me, talking loudly behind my back, making rude comments that were obviously directed at me.  Including a threat along the lines of “Keep walking bitch if you know whats good for you”. My heart was racing, my fists began to clench and I stopped in my tracks and spun around.

What’s your problem?

“What is your problem with me??” I demanded.  “What did I EVER do to you?  I can’t remember anything that I have ever done that deserves this??” The stunned silent shock on their faces was priceless but I continued. “I don’t even know you!  You have never even met me but you act like I did something heinous to you.  So here you go, let me have it, tell me what I did……”

Her friend noticeably paled and took a step back as I started walking toward them, fists clenched with months of pent up anger.

“You want to fight me??? Then let’s go!  Here we are, no one is around….you keep whispering threats about it.  Lets go, if you want to go.”  My entire body was tense like there was an electric current running through me.  My voice raised and started to shake. Part of me hoped she  would lunge and I can tear into her, part of me was terrified of fighting a stranger.  The moment passed with no punches thrown. “So that’s it huh?” The tension in the air dissipated.  “Good.  Leave me alone then. I am done with this.”  I turned and walked away (the whole time bracing for a sucker punch but none was laid.)

A Dramatic Twist

Virginia never bothered me again.  Glad to be done with her, she faded into the faces in the hall. I might have never thought of her again if it weren’t for Mr. Woods, our Drama teacher.  I took Drama all four years of high school, surprised? I didn’t think so.  Mr. Woods was a great teacher and I loved that class.  Improv, lip syncs, pantomime, who cares – to me it was freedom from regular school, creativity and fun in the middle of school day.  It was also mixed between the grades and we often read or saw assignments from other periods in our class.

One day Mr. Woods read a poem to us.  It was a beautiful piece about a dysfunctional family, their neglected son, how he strives to be perfect, how he hopes to get their attention and how it is all for not.  It is tragically sad as it ends in suicide, no loving resolution, no happy ending.  I had tears in my eyes hearing that poem.  My heart leapt at the familiar pain and need for love, I hung on every word…. Until he read the last line…. “By Virginia Robinson”.

She wrote it.  My bully wrote it.  I realized how much alike we were, both struggling with pain far to large for our innocent teenage hearts.  She must have a similar amount of agony in her life, causing her to bully others, causing her to hurt inside.  It struck me that if not for her being my bully she might have been my friend.

For the Future

I cant say what will happen with Ollie & Arizona.  Perhaps the best is for them to not speak, to fade away into the faces in the halls. Over the years I have learned that there are many reasons people are put in our paths.  There is a lesson for Ollie in this, even if they are not meant to be friends or even friendly.  While I hope it wont take her 25 years and a daughter to figure it out, for me I am grateful for Virginia.   She taught me to stand up for myself, and I haven’t stopped.  I learned that others people perceptions are just that, I can only be true to me.  She showed me that under it all, every one is hurting in ways we might never see.

I still think of her often, of her emotional poem more than her biting words or dirty looks.  I wonder why we were put in each others paths for those brief moments now long gone.  Whatever darkness hurt her so long ago I hope that she is healed.  I wish she knew how much I loved her poem and how much I would have liked to be her friend.  I think we both could have used one.

 

A Grand Canyon of Irrational Fear

My husband and I finally succumbed to tradition.

We packed up our kids and headed to the most time-honored family vacation of all American family vacations;  The Grand Canyon.  Short and jam-packed our trip itinerary was to drive to Williams, AZ stay the night, train to the Canyon, tour, sleep over, sight see, train back to Williams, home.  (Well, we drove to Laughlin and then home but that’s a different story.) As with most of our trips the things that we planned were not the parts that hit us the hardest.  Those things are impossible to plan, but they always seem to appear somewhere amidst the souvenir shops and photo ops.

During dinner our first night in Williams, Ollie noticed a zip line across the parking lot.  Williams was the last town on Route 66 before the I-40 bypassed it.  It is still a tourist favorite due to its proximity to the Grand Canyon, the railway and its rich history.  There are 50’s cars and Route 66’s shields on almost every corner.  The zip line had a red & white 50’s era Chevy coupe as its passenger car, hiding the motor that pulled it’s passengers about 100′ into the air before releasing them to slide screeching (by sound effect) into the “garage” below.  She had to try it.

Zip lines and thrill rides

Ollie & Jeff set off to see about the zip line and Ethan and I went to see about a nap, however both were cut short when they returned to tell us that we all had to go.  Something about 3 paid rides and Mom rides for free.  So the entire family heads off for a ride.  Jeff & Ollie go first, from where we stood watching it seemed like a smooth ride.  However they both look shaken as they disembark. Worried about Ethan holding, they say the car tips a little, its sorta jerky, it goes fast in reverse.  The ride operator does not look worried.  Ethan is unfazed.  The car, which is truly only two seats hanging below the zip line engine, your feet dangle freely, two straps to belt you in arrives and we climb in.  I tell them I will hold onto his paralyzed arm “just in case”.  In case of what I have no idea, Ethan weighs twice as much as me if he was slipping there is nothing I could do but they seem relieved that I am holding on.

We start our ascent in reverse, it does climb quite fast.  Small bump as we get nearer the top and the last several feet are much slower as we get to the very top.  Paused above the small town for a moment, Main street was right below us. The sun set is stretching across the sky towards us. Fingers of pink, purple and yellowy orange drug across the clouds like fingers on a lake.  The darkness of the night rushing to take the place of the last drops of sunshine.  It was gorgeous and then we are in free fall.

Sliding down the line towards the street, across the parking lot, and safely back to the end of the line.  Jeff and Ollie are nowhere to be seen.  They are not on the platform waiting for us.  They are hiding down the stairs, away from view, afraid to watch us fall.  Terrified that something might happen to him.  Ethan and I chuckle at their over zealous caution.

Standing on the edge of fear

The next day we arrive on the edge of the Grand Canyon.  Each of us in awe of its beauty, immediately impressed by its danger, humbled by the realization of our insignificant blip of time here on Earth compared to the millennia it took to carve through these rocks.  Ollie is especially concerned.  Warning each of us to stay away.  Pleading with us to keep clear of the edge.  That night she has a nightmare.  She is crying as I try to soothe her.

“He fell, mama.  I dreamed that he slipped and fell. I’m scared for him, here.”  Her anguish is heartbreaking.  Her fear legitimate.

“It’s only a dream baby.  He’s not gonna fall.  We will all watch out for that.  I know we get scared, but that’s because we almost lost him.  We are much more aware of losing him.  It is only natural for us to worry, but we need to be careful not to be overcome by fear.”

Moral of the story

I am not sure what the moral of this story is.  My husband and daughter expressed fear that are only natural considering all we’ve seen but I am often caught off guard by the amount of faith I have that everything will be ok.  None of us can predict what will happen in our lives, we can make plans, have goals but those are merely hopes and dreams, life happens in the middle of those stories.  Tangents we never dreamed of take place and lead us far from our plans.  These too shall pass.  I pray that my family heals from the fear of loss,  I pray that you find whatever you may have lost along the way.

Life may at times be terrifying, but you can’t beat the views.