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/

On Being Vulnerable

This last week has certainly flown by. I’ve fallen a bit behind on my writing schedule, and have chosen to be okay with that. I’ve been writing a little less lately, and focusing on some other things — initially I was perturbed with myself for this change in habit, but I’ve decided that making a periodic adjustment is perfectly acceptable, and that the important thing is to always do what is good for my heart and soul and keeps me motivated in general (seems like a solid plan, though not always easy to adhere to …).

I’ve been feeling a bit vulnerable lately, and that could be contributing to my lack of writing — writing tends to do that to me, perhaps because I am documenting intangible things that are from deep within, whether I choose to share them or not. Being vulnerable can be quite difficult, even if practiced regularly. I am reminded of a podcast I listened to earlier this year, in which Brené Brown discusses her research on shame and its relationship with vulnerability, and subsequently courage (it’s a good listen if you have a few moments).

Speaking of vulnerability, I was extremely touched to read Janie Brown’s contribution to the On Being blog this month. Janie’s letter to a friend struggling with mental illness brought more than a few tears to my eyes. Her friend, who later did choose to end her own life, displayed amazing courage in her decision to be vulnerable when she reached out to Janie. She took steps to seek treatment, to find companionship, to hold friends close to help her through those difficult times. And this, for many (myself included) is so, so difficult. It takes immense courage to admit when you are struggling — to ask someone to be there for you, to let them know you need them. Not only are you left vulnerable, you risk rejection, along with a whole myriad of other possible feelings: obligation, burden, fear, shame, insecurity, etc. You experience doubt that people genuinely care, but feel silly afterword because you know truly that they do. Sometimes you are lost in your head and forget that people have told you they care and that you are valuable and important to them. As Janie Brown does for her friend, a true friend carries no judgement. There is only love.

It is also easy to forget that you are valuable and important to yourself. It is easy to forgot to be kind to yourself. In my journey of transformation, mindfulness has been a prominent topic and a difficult practice to make habit — though an entirely worthwhile effort. Attending meditation workshops, working with a meditation instructor, reading Buddhist texts and memoirs, seeking knowledge from those seasoned in the practice have all fueled much of my personal growth, and led to many changes in my life that continue to increase my levels of happiness and satisfaction.

I kept reading through the On Being blog, to Sharon Salzberg’s post, The Concentric Circles of Connection and Lovingkindness. She so beautifully explains:

Classically, mindfulness is really about being present in a certain way, about tuning into our experiences, interactions, emotions, and thoughts with a sense of curiosity and equanimity. It’s an overall sense of openness, and that’s what helps provide us clarity and space to cultivate insight, resilience, and compassion for ourselves and others.

Let me reiterate: compassion for ourselves and others. Through mindfulness we can learn to be gentle with ourselves and one another in a most profound and peaceful way. I can feel it in my soul – the way increasing my mindfulness calms my anxiety, eases my fears, aids me in seeing the good in the world around me, and the people in it. I can come back to this moment and feel at peace in this whirlwind of a world. For this opportunity, I am grateful.

For anyone interested in beginning a meditation practice (or interested in general), I encourage you to check out Community Mediation.  You can watch prior videos and practice at your convenience, or take part in the live feed on Wednesday evenings.

I will leave you today with these beautiful words to ponder from Sharon Salzberg:

Through nourishing ourselves with love and acceptance, we ultimately prepare ourselves to offer lovingkindness to others and recognize our shared desire to be happy and supported in this life.

Suicide, Self-Esteem, and the Power of Positive Thoughts

I have two things on the forefront of my mind that I am compelled to share, so I’m going to go in two directions with this post.  First, this news headline caught my eye this week, and struck a chord with me:  Suicides Prompt State Of Emergency On Navajo Nation.

According to the U.S. Surgeon General, the suicide rate for Native American youth ages 15 to 24 is nearly four times higher than the national average.

In light of this, it is important to note that

Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for 15 to 24 year old Americans.

and

The highest suicide rates in the US are among Whites, American Indians and Alaska Natives.

— American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

My heart is heavy with this knowledge. I know what it feels like to be that sad, to feel that isolated; to have lost all of my light. I also know what it is like to be on the opposite end; to see someone else be that sad, feel that isolated; to see someone who has lost all of their light. My heart is broken with this loss — my own and others.

In my reading and writing on the topic of suicide, I’ve focused primarily on the factors that surrounded the suicide that specifically effected me — my father was an older adult and in poor physical health. I do believe that these factors play in important role in someone’s decision to end their own life, in addition to the mental health situations that are associated with suicide.  For example, we have the current Right to Die debate, which specifically addresses suicide among the terminally ill. But what about those that are young, sad and lost?

We, as humans, cannot continue to neglect to nurture one another. 

The words we choose to say to one another, and to ourselves, are so very important. If only we knew the turmoil within the minds of people around us, would we speak to them differently? Would we be inclined to act with kindness always? Would we ensure that each of us felt included and important?

If you, dear reader, read no further, I implore you to read the below quote and I encourage you to remember it, print it, post in on your wall, put it in your phone, and to always remember what a strong impact that your thoughts can create.

Keep your thoughts positive, because your thoughts become your words.
Keep your words positive, because your words become your behavior.
Keep your behavior positive, because your behavior becomes your habits.
Keep your habits positive, because your habits become your values.
Keep your values positive, because your values become your destiny.

-Mahatma Gandhi

Secondly, on a much deeper personal, yet related, note, I had a revelation this week. In fact, this revelation was so powerful that I suspect there are others that might feel this way, and that I, being lost in my own head, would never have known — I suddenly, and so powerfully, realized how important my thoughts and words are to my own self-esteem. In my mind, my negative thoughts are truth, and there is little to counter these truths, to flip the negative into the positive. I have simply not been allowing it. I dashed away my own self-esteem with my thoughts, creating unwarranted insecurities that have very prominently been influencing my journey through life.

I have experienced a growing dependency on reassurances from outside sources — allowing any gain in confidence to be gleaned from random compliments, which I fight to believe are sincere in the first place. I find myself attached to my cell phone, waiting eagerly for replies to messages only so I can be assured that someone finds communicating with me to be an activity of worth. When someone is busy, I find myself translating it as, “I don’t want to spend time with you.” I have been feeling broken and waiting for someone to fix me.

And then I reached a breaking point — I finally (and painfully) admitted to myself that I let my confidence wither away to a non-existent wisp that was quickly evading my loose grip. I have been fighting dependence on external sources of confidence boosting, however, I removed my expectations for others, and did not replace them with any expectations for myself. I don’t want to rely on other people to make me feel good — that’s a crutch; a false security and a false confidence. I want to rely on myself, to build a stable, confident foundation of positive thoughts and feelings. But how?

It is extremely painful and frustrating to realize that I don’t allow myself to think and feel positive things about myself. I never really thought about it, but I noticed that when I say, “I’m hard on myself,” what I really, deeply mean is, “I believe that if I have any positive thoughts about myself, that I am being selfish.”

Why can’t I think positive thoughts about myself? Others do. Why don’t I feel that I am deserving? I am seeing someone who is quite possibly one of the nicest people I have ever met — always calm, patient and fair. I asked him, not expecting an answer, “why are you so sweet to me?” He told me I deserved it. I deserved it? A foreign concept. The old me does not deserve anything; the old me has not “earned” the privilege of  having people be nice to me. The old me believes that anything good in life is handed to you because you worked harder than I will ever be capable of working, and if it wasn’t earned, it was because someone felt pity. This is the most ridiculous belief ever. How is it even possible that I allowed myself to think this way?!

The new me knows that it is okay to feel good about myself. The new me believes that I am a likable person, that people enjoy my company and that the man I am dating continues to do so because he actually likes me. The new me is learning that I am intelligent, attractive, active and fun. My friends are my friends because they like who I am and we have fun together; we are adults and we don’t spend our valuable time with each other out of obligation (yes there are exceptions to the rule, but we’ll not go there today).

The new me knows that this is a difficult mind change, but this is the right mind change. The new me is learning to feel good and positive things about myself, without feeling guilty or selfish. I have been feeling broken and now I know I am the one who can fix me.

Dear readers, go forth and be kind to one another– and to yourself. You deserve it. 

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.