I believe in you.

Suicide is in the news again.

Every time it becomes a public discussion I am both reminded of my pain, and relieved of my pain. In 2013 I lost my father to suicide. I feel that it will always weigh heavily on me, though I’ve spent a lot of time sorting through it.

Hearing the words commit suicide is like nails on a chalkboard to me. I’ve heard of a movement to remove the word commit when referring to the act of suicide. Commit. As if it were a crime, the actor chastised and scorned, when in fact they were loved, ill and in pain. The intention of suicide is not a crime against others as much as it is an affront on a sickness that won’t let go. My father didn’t die by suicide to offend you and he didn’t intend to hurt me. I know his suffering — sometimes it is almost too hard to hold on. I am his daughter, and we are alike.

When suicide comes up in the public domain, I am both pleased and devastated. It pains me to hear the statistics: Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US; On average, there are 123 suicides per day; In 2015, 505,507 people visited a hospital for injuries due to self-harm. It will never stop breaking my heart.

I am pleased, however, that we are talking about it. We spend so much time focused on our physical health, but we still stigmatize any discussion of mental health. Times are changing, people are talking — I hope we are making progress.

Today I listened to the On Being podcast episode from 12/9/15 with Jennifer Michael Hecht, Suicide, and Hope for Our Future Selves. At about minute 20, Jennifer explains,

…we have different moods that profoundly change our outlook, and it’s not right to let your worst one murder all the others.

And I found great truth in this. My strongest coping mechanism when I find myself in a depressed state is to remind myself that it will get better, and I know this because it always has. Sometimes when I don’t care if it’s going to get better, when I’m tired of the repeated roller coaster of emotions, the struggle is more difficult — I remind myself how it felt when my dad took his life, and that I have already determined that I wouldn’t cause another to feel this same pain and confusion.

And I keep at it. I keep repeating it to myself. I continue to train myself to say these things, to get out of the moment I’m stuck in and to see beyond it. When I can, I live my life in a way that brings me so much joy that I always have something to look forward to and to know that I am loved, and to do my best to love everyone I meet.

If you are reading this, and you know the struggle, know that we are connected by this very human condition. Know that you have the power to create your own best life, and that you are an amazing, wonderful human being just by existing. The rest is up to you — and I believe in you.


American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – Statistics:
https://afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:
1-800-273-8255
https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

An Invitation

A few people have mentioned to me that they would like to hear more of the story surrounding my father’s suicide. I’m not sure which direction to head; in fact, the last time I wrote about it, I ended rather abruptly.

While I spend a bit more time formulating my thoughts and developing a trajectory, I wanted to begin creation of a page where I invite anyone to ask a question, make a request or offer a suggestion. In time, perhaps a FAQ will organically develop. I realize there aren’t many comments currently posted to this blog, but I have received a fair amount of encouraging and heartwarming feedback privately, and I am thankful for the stories that have been shared with me as a result.

I wish to always be able to put myself out there, to be able to perhaps provide some level of connection for even just one person out there — and the thought of this alone is enough to keep me motivated.

So, dear readers, please feel free to comment below, or if you wish, email me at twentymilehike@gmail.com and will be more than happy to respond. I am happy to keep names and contact information confidential in future writings.

I will end today’s short post with this quote that I adore:

Accept what life offers you and try to drink from every cup. All wines should be tasted; some should only be sipped, but with others, drink the whole bottle

– Paulo Coelho, Brida

On Suicide — Part Three

I realize that I have been avoiding the next piece of this story.  I’ve written it and set it aside.  I hovered over the “edit draft” button many times and then moved on to other things, other topics – other spaces in my mind.  It still feels incomplete and it still feels painful, but the first step is letting go of it.  So here it is … I am letting it go:

The more I continue to write down this story, the more I notice that it is painful. There are moments when I remember that my own heart is not the only reason that these words are manifesting themselves. Two years ago when I wrestled with guilt, I wished for someone else’s words to find me; I hoped endlessly that someone would be able to tell me that what I was feeling wasn’t wrong. I longed for anyone that knew what it felt like to come across my path.

It never happened.

I met other survivors and each time I walked away thinking, “Her story is not like mine. He doesn’t understand. My situation is not the same as theirs.” I don’t want to talk about it anymore, now that the fog has worn off. If someone asked me for advice today, I don’t know how easily I would be able to formulate the words. My dad’s final days were a comedy of errors, you could say. Nothing went as planned; we were all butting heads – my dad, our friends, his caregivers, my then-spouse and his family. And that, my friends, is the most painful part: we were human, and we acted like human beings; human beings with flaws, and with opinions and ideas that clashed. Stress is a funny animal – when you’re under great deals of it, you aren’t very agreeable. When everyone involved is under a great deal of stress, agreements are very hard to come by.

But I don’t want to talk about that today. Like I said, this is the painful part, and I want you, dear reader, to know that it’s okay to set it aside sometimes. Sometimes it’s quite alright to let things go and move ahead. Sometimes you have to admit to yourself that certain things make you feel like hell, and then allow some other things to make you feel better. There were a host of things that I could have been angry about, but I could not focus on them all at once; in fact I can barely stand to focus on them now, more than two years later.

Let me tell you about painful things that are in the past: they are in the past. At some point I needed to make a conscious decision to stop thinking about the catastrophe that was my dad’s in-home care. I had to stop thinking about how I felt wronged and hurt by the people that I had no choice but to trust to care for my father, because it was in the past and there was nothing I could do to change it. Trying to find some semblance of justice didn’t change a damn thing. I didn’t make me feel better. In fact, dare I say, it made me feel far worse. I needed to let that go.

Since I made the decision to stop feeling guilty, to stop feeling wronged, and to stop dwelling, I have been able to find a happier place for my mind. I can focus on being in the present moment; I can experience joy. It’s not easy. It takes time. And it takes some effort to know that processing is not the same as understanding. I realize in retrospect that I ran into a block where I wasn’t healing; I couldn’t stop grieving because I was trying too hard to understand.  It is important to realize that sometimes you can’t understand.  And that’s okay.  

I remind myself constantly to be in the present moment. To just be. And this is quite alright.

Part One | Part Two

On Suicide — Part Two

I miss my dad almost every day. I say almost because some days I like to forget about the things that bum me out. And thinking about my dad usually does. Not the part where I remember him fondly—but the part that comes after, where I remember that he isn’t a phone call away anymore. I miss my mother, also. Some days I miss my mother so much it hurts—especially on the days when I miss my dad. She was the one woman on this earth who had the power to always make me feel better, no matter what. Always. Mothers are some kind of magical people who bring joy to the hearts of their children no matter what age they are. And I will admit to a secret of mine: I keep a journal of letters written to my mother. I started it when I moved away from home. I tried to give it to her when she was lying in a hospital bed dying from cancer, and she refused it, telling me to “keep going.” So I did. This is what makes me feel close to her again and brings me comfort.

So let me try to connect these thoughts together: My darling mother, the most amazing, most beautiful, most kind woman I’ve ever known to exist, was diagnosed with cancer in 2010—less than one year after she finally saw her only child marry. Things had been good.

And then things became bad.

My mother passed a mere four months after her diagnosis. I was awake at 3:30 a.m. when hospice called the house. I had had one final outpouring of love and emotion alone at my mother’s bedside before we called it a night and went home to rest. That was the night she passed and I was the one to receive the call.

At 3:30 a.m., on that fateful night, I walked into my parent’s bedroom and woke my dad from his fitful sleep. I held him as I gave him the news he already knew was coming and I felt a man’s heart truly break. Forty years they spent by each other’s sides. I couldn’t blame him for giving up.

Fast forward about two years. I was happy to see my dad finally livening up a little. He learned to cook and balance the checkbook and figured out where the grocery store kept the bread. He even reconnected with a cousin halfway around the world and finally took a long vacation to visit. I was so happy that he was finally coming out of his shell. He had a lady friend he spent time with; she would visit and cook and take him out to see things. Again, things had been good.

And again, things became bad.

Around two months after my dad’s trip, he woke up in the night feeling funny. He didn’t think much of it, other than maybe that he was coming down with something. He got up in the morning, went to work, as usual. About an hour later, a friend saw him leaning against the wall for balance, and then my dad went home. His dear friend thought this very strange behavior for the old man, and he called him. It was then that my dad admitted that something wasn’t right and that he thought he should go to the emergency room.

That afternoon I received a call from this friend—my dad had suffered a stroke. A minor one, they told me. He was doing okay. He was upset that his friend called me and told me and he tried to convince me he was fine.

I was conflicted. Was he fine? Did I leave work and make the five hour drive to see him right away? I went through this so many times with my mom, I decided to go that afternoon. He said he didn’t want me to go, but when I saw him, his eyes showed me otherwise. I saw so much in my dad’s eyes from this time until the end, that I felt it was a shame that I never got to know him so well before then. A damn shame that he never let me in until it was almost too late.  And still I ask myself if that was my fault or his.

Part One | Part Three

On Suicide — Part One

Very recently there has been a fair amount of media coverage on the topics of mental illness and suicide. The death of Robin Williams, while as tragic as all untimely deaths may be, has brought these issues to the forefront of our society and has acted as a relevant catalyst for necessary and long overdue discussion. I have been feeling the urge to finally publicly share some of my own personal experience on the subject matter. Some people know about this portion of my life, and others don’t, but here I am now, putting it out there.

This is my story about being a suicide survivor. It’s a little gruesome. A little sad. And I hope a little encouraging. Either way, it’s part of my life and never in a million years did I think it would turn out this way.

I lost my father to suicide.

He didn’t have a stroke and die. Well, he did have a stroke, but that was about six weeks earlier. I suppose you could say that the stroke did kill him, since it completely killed his will to continue living in its aftermath. What it says on his death certificate as his official cause of death by injury is “gunshot wound of head.” It’s a little troubling to read.

For some reason it was more upsetting to see it on paper than it was to see the room where it happened: Pieces of skull, spots of brain, splatters of blood, the hole in the wall where the slug made its final resting place. My then-husband and brother-in-law kindly removed the bedding before I arrived, however, a part of me feels like it would have given me more closure to take in the scene in its unaltered entirety. I have not spoken with the woman who found him. She did leave me a voice mail several days later and she didn’t sound too overly traumatized. She’s either become accustomed to these things or she did a lot of praying. Or both. I can only speculate.

In fact, I can only speculate about most things it seems. I may think I know what my dad was feeling and why he made this choice, but I am fooling myself if I think I understand. I don’t know his feelings—only my own.   Among those myriad stores of feelings is one that stands out significantly: Guilt.

There are a lot of websites and books and whatnot that tell you that when you are a survivor of suicide, it is not your fault. It is normal to feel this way, but you must learn and know that it is Not Your Fault. You are not responsible for other people’s thoughts and feelings. You cannot do these things for them. But what if it is your fault? What if your last words to someone were, “You are an adult. Do not make me babysit you.” I’ve been known to choose poor wording.

My therapist tells me it’s not my fault. Knowing it and thinking it has helped me to cope. But feeling it is something else. Throughout my entire life, my father had made it very clear that he was not interested in growing old and suffering in any way. He had no intention of having his ass wiped for him, and he had no problem with the self-infliction part of this. Let me repeat: He was very clear on this. As it turns out, he wasn’t bluffing, and sadly, I was the only one who actually believed him. So, is it my fault for allowing him the mechanism to execute his plan? Is it my fault for telling him (years ago, mind you), “if that’s how you feel, so be it, but I’d like for you to say goodbye first, and I’d prefer if you went outside” (for the record, he did neither of these things, which really broke my heart). I knew it was coming, though I didn’t know when. I knew this was his plan from day one.

So point being, it still feels like my fault because I didn’t try harder to stop him from wanting to do this. My most pointed effort (and after an internal struggle, no less) was telling the social worker in the rehab facility that my father has spoken of suicide and had the means to do so. I figured that I did the right thing because I did what she did: nothing. My husband suggested that I remove his guns from his house before he came home from rehab, and I struggled with that also. I knew he’d be extremely unhappy with me if I did that. I also had told him time and time again that he was an adult and he was allowed to (and encouraged to) make his own choices. This would just send the opposite message now, wouldn’t it? In the end, I know I didn’t kill my father. It was his choice. But the feeling remains.

His life was his battle, not mine. I have my own battle.

Part Two | Part Three

Dad and I

Dad and I, circa 1984.

On Death

Originally published on 7/22/15

I feel like death has been a big topic in my most recent public writing.  Even in my not-public writing.  I am seemingly becoming somewhat seasoned in handling it.  My last public entry, however, was after watching Marco Simoncelli die on live television — not someone I knew, but someone who I admired and had photographed and was hoping to see blossom into a seasoned veteran of his sport.  On top of that, I lost both parents, and two grandparents.  There have been others, but none so public and none so poignant.

Today I received the news that a good friend of some of my friends has passed on, also doing what he loved.  This was an individual I had met through my climbing gym a handful of times and I knew that he was a super awesome dude.  His moment was also captured on camera, as part of a sport that he loved and lived for.  Life is dangerous sometimes.

I’m not going to go into details about the what, where and how; nor will I discuss the inherent risks that some of us take to do the things that free us.  Rather, this sobering day requires more of a reflection of life in general.  I had a conversation today that revolved around this, and how much risk we are all willing to take to do these things — these things that we must do, purely for the goodness and health of the soul; things that appeal to the depths of our being, like nothing else can.

Do we all really know what these things even are?  I am still discovering this.  Well into my 30s and I am only beginning to learn what honestly moves me, frees me, and swells my soul into the size of a mountain.  How is it that only now I am learning what grows my spirit?  What puts the biggest smile on my face?  What makes my heart sing?  If I have learned anything from knowing people who are considered “extreme athletes” it is that there is no time to waste.  Recently something occurred to me:

Everything we do is to fill the space between birth and death.
Do what makes you feel good.

On this note (and on a very personal and sensitive one), I watched both of my parents suffer deeply as they passed from this world to the next, and both were in pain, both had regrets.  My parents sacrificed much for each other, for me, for what they thought was the “correct” direction for life.  I don’t wish to speak ill of either of my parents, for I loved them dearly and they were both wonderful individuals.  I want to say one thing though — that if I had known what suffering their ends would bring, I would have pushed them out the door to do the things they always spoke of, but never “got around to” doing.  It is cliche, but I am now going to say something I believe to be very important, and I want you, dear reader, to really think about it; take it to heart, if you will:  Do not, under any circumstances, put off what you know will touch your soulDo things.  Go places.  Get a wild hair up your ass to try something new and do it. Don’t miss out on life.  Do things that might kill you, and do them with a big fat smile on your face.  Don’t ever, ever, sit around one day and wish you had done something that would bring you joy.  You cannot take back regrets. 

An End and A Beginning

The first post of a new blog might always be the most difficult — It stands out entirely on its own, nothing to precede it, nothing to follow it, nothing to soften the stark reality that this is the very first post. It’s lonely here; this one solitary, individual, single post, standing on its own. I hope you don’t judge too harshly.

I had many hopes and many grand plans for this ephemeral introduction to what may turn out to be a very personal bit of me laid out for the world to devour. So vulnerable. So telling. It’s possible it will not even be read …

But, setting these thoughts aside, my subject matter came to me in an unexpected whirlwind. I will preface with the fact that death has been a prominent topic in my personal writing, and that death has found its way to me on many levels in recent times. Death is one of the most difficult things I have learned to cope with. Three days ago I received word that my grandmother had passed on. And I took my whirlwind of a mind out to the desert for clarity … to mourn in my own special way. With four hours of Friday afternoon traffic in Southern California behind me, a trunk full of minimal camping gear, a gallon of water, a sandwich, a notebook, a half liter of wine and my one broken soul, the hot summer Joshua Tree afternoon welcomed me. What the desert showed me during this time was magical.  These are my notes:

Joshua Tree Sunset

The sunset is a phenomenal tangerine glow, upstaged only by the cotton candy clouds petering into vapid wisps of gossamer and lace; puffs of cotton and tendrils of soft woolen thread.

I am drinking wine atop an inviting granite podium, adjacent to a grandstand of cracked and mottled rock; boulders that have no business congregating in such a vast expanse of humble Joshua trees. Horseflies hum around lazily, as if the world was only theirs, and not also belonging to jackrabbits the size of terriers and the substantial cicadas that sing for all the desert. Somewhere nearby a bird calls for our amusement, crying out to its brethren or a possible mate, with only hope and beauty in his joyful, yet somber, voice.

The sky changes again, transforming into a lemonade glow filled with cream and honey; reflections of the heavens. Night is coming and the desert is teeming with life; beauty that never ends, but evolves before us if only we might chance to open our eyes.

And yet the sky continues to change, on fire, the heavens ablaze.

Now, the full moon rising from behind a bank of solid clouds, through wisps of the night. Lightening flashes in the distance, telling of a storm that may wet us in the night. I’m glad I pitched the rainfly before dark. The subtle glowing from within the tent feels like home and comfort, and the moon, continuing to rise, illuminating the desert in a cool yellow glow.  The moon, rising, a brilliant illuminated orb of mottled glass, searing the night, as it cools from the day. Wisps of wind, puffing through the grove of boulders, bring sounds of night insects, alive and hungry. Stars so vibrant, shimmering between streaks of cloud cover, surround the full moon, as if bowing down to it, nodding to its complete godliness. For this full moon dulls even the sun’s performance.

And now I sleep, the call of the cicadas surrounding me, my bed in the midst of mountains blackened in mystery, the moon to guide my dreams and watch over me.

The night was pregnant with nature’s activity: buzzing, singing, howling.  But all sounds faded into a surreal nothingness that brought about a silent, pastel swathed morning. The sky began to blue once more, as if the single bird call was awakening the sun, summoned to its sentry above the desert.

And with this, my soul was cleansed of all its worry; my thoughts became serene and I was able to take the calm of the desert home with me. Death can (and I argue, must) provide for us a catalyst to clarity; to deep thought, and to connection with our innermost being. There will be more on this topic to come, but let me not overwhelm with one single post …

… one solitary, individual, single post, standing on its own. I hope you don’t judge too harshly.

Joshua Tree Afternoon

Sometimes a walk to nowhere takes you to the most important place you can go.