Saturday, August 7, 2010
“War is hell.” – William Tecumseh Sherman
“Momma, I haven’t killed anybody here and I hope I never have to kill anybody,” wrote Texas Army Specialist Joseph Suell from Iraq. He chose, instead, to kill himself with an overdose of amphetamines and ibruprofin, leaving behind a wife and three small children. He was 24.
The Military has always had to cope with suicides, but they’re dealing with something new. The number of suicides is like nothing ever seen before. According to a recent AP article: “In the year that ended Sept. 30, 2009, 160 active duty soldiers took their own lives — a record for the Army. The Marines set their own tragic record in 2009 with 52 suicides. And this past June, another record was set — 32 military suicides in just one month.”
When men and women join the Military, they agree to lay down their lives for their country. They go through incredibly difficult basic training that molds them physically and mentally to be able to fight and survive. But I’m sure none of them go in expecting to take their own lives.
Those who know me know that my family and I marched against the war the night before our country’s “Shock and Awe” raid on Iraq. My heart sank the next morning as I watched the news. I felt for the innocent Iraqis that had to be getting killed with all that firepower, but also for the American soldiers who would eventually die in the conflict. But it certainly never occurred to me then that we’d be there a decade later, and that so many soldiers would have died by their own hands.
War is something terrible, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder follows many soldiers home. Our country is failing the very people who said they would die for their country by not providing adequate physical and mental health care to them when they get home, and for allowing such an astounding number of Veterans to become homeless.
And meanwhile, what has really been accomplished? Besides spending billions of dollars that could have been spent on health care and housing?
I guess it’s what they call “collateral damage.”
Friday, August 6, 2010
“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” ~Ray Bradbury
Today was a bittersweet day at work. On the one hand, I received several e-mails from readers of our magazine, praising me for the articles I wrote for our most recent issue. “You are remarkable at writing,” one reader told me. “It is a spiritual gift and quality given to you.”
Even though I’ve been writing professionally for more than two decades, and have received a number of awards for my work, it still means the world to me when I hear such praise for doing something that comes to naturally to me.
On the other hand, two writers I know contacted me, hoping for work at my magazine. Their own publications have shut down, and they’re out of work. I’m getting more and more of these contacts lately. Unfortunately I didn’t have any positions to offer them. I don’t know where my own publication will be two years, or even six months, from now.
Times change. There is limited need today for buggy whip-makers or typewriter repairmen. Likewise, the need for print journalists is decreasing due to the Internet, and the means to pay them is decreasing due to the recession. Sidney Harman’s recent purchase of Newsweek – for one dollar – sent chills down the spine of every print journalist.
Harman will be slashing the staff and more and more of the magazine will be online. Eventually, the print publication will cease, and the number of writers needed there will shrink to a handful. It’s a story being repeated at magazines and newspapers across the country and around the world. The magazine I work for (not Newsweek) is surviving for now, but no one knows what the future will bring.
This is the situation that brings me the most anxiety. This is the situation that depresses me the most. I can take medication to help with my bipolar, but even Eli Lilly can’t make a pill that will guarantee my future employment. My suicide attempt occurred during a mixed mania, but the backdrop was a series of layoffs and pay cuts at my employer that left me devastated and afraid.
A lot of people, trying to be helpful, remind me that I can always write no matter what happens to my job. They send me articles about making a few bucks by blogging. They suggest I write a book. (I’ve written two, and believe me, books are a labor of love.)
Well, I’ve got a secret: It isn’t about the writing at all. It’s about the mortgage. It’s about insurance. Truth be known, I’d be quite happy at a job that required no writing, as long as I could pay my bills. I can always write on my own time, and I don’t mind writing for free. What I need is not to be a writer, but to support my family. I’ve been fortunate to do what I love for money, but these days, it’s no longer true that you can “do what you love and the money will follow.” Times have changed.
Anyone who knows me knows I am one of the least materialistic people around. I’m more than satisfied shopping at second-hand stores and driving a decade-old economy car. It’s not about things, and it’s not about status. It’s about the security of knowing I can cover basic expenses – and like SO many people these days, I no longer have that security as I look into the future.
I do, however, have lots of company. My fellow journalists share my fears, as do so many people in so many different fields. No one knows where this roller-coaster is taking us. And we’re all riding in the same car. All we have is today. And for now, we have to be satisfied with that.
Thursday, August 5, 2010
“Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. And if you can't help them, at least don't hurt them.” – Dalai Lama
You would think, having survived a suicide attempt, that I would be able to stop others from doing what I did.
After all, I know how it feels to want to die – or rather, to want the pain to stop in the only way you can imagine it will. I know how it feels to look into the future and see only darkness, to pray to a God that doesn’t seem to answer, to wrestle with pain that threatens to be never-ending.
And now I have a friend who wants to die. She wants to die so badly she’s attempted to take her life several times in the short time I’ve known her.
Because of the Facebook circles I travel in, I know a lot of people who are suicidal, and I’ve communicated with them on many occasions. But I’ve gotten to know this young woman particularly well, even though it’s in cyberspace.
We’ve talked not just about suicide, but about lots of things friends talk about – our families, our talents, our fears, TV shows and the things that make us happy. She’s a writer, like me; she’s smart, like me; and she has a wicked-dark sense of humor, like me. So maybe that’s why we click even though we’ve never met face-to-face. I can honestly call her a “friend” – not just in the Facebook sense, but “IRL.”
My friend has suffered trauma in her life – not just once or twice, but on multiple occasions over many years. Just dealing with one or two of her traumas would cause most people to be depressed. I can’t imagine someone suffering as many traumas as my friend has and not have the idea of suicide cross his mind.
Nothing can erase those experiences from my friend’s life. But there is hope for her. Many people care for her, and many people have been praying for her. Inpatient treatment has been made available, but my friend chose not to stay in the facility. Therapists have worked with her, but she’s not honest with them about the depth of her depression and her unrelenting wish to die. She treats herself poorly, the way she’d never treat a friend – or probably a stranger, for that matter.
I care about my friend, and I want her to live. If she dies, she’ll leave an empty spot in my life – and in the lives of many others. She knows how I feel about her, and other people have expressed their feelings as well. But my friend decided a long time ago that she’s worthless, that she’s not worthy of life. And so our words fall on deaf ears.
When I attempted to take my life, I did not feel I was making a “choice.” I even wrote at the top of my suicide note, “THIS IS NOT A CHOICE.” Today, I see that it was – a strange kind of choice, different from other kinds of choices in that it’s borne of desperation, a “choice” made when there seem to be no other choices.
But I want to open up my magic bag of anti-suicide tricks and tell my friend that she does have a choice, that there are resources available to help her, that there are people who care for her deeply. There is a door for my friend, but I can’t walk through it on her behalf, and neither can anyone else. She needs to be the one to walk through it, or decide to leave it closed.
How I hope she will decide to open the door and find the treasure that is on the other side.
“You were not a mistake, for all your days are written in My book.” Psalm 139:15-16
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
“I spy, with my little eye…” – Children’s rhyme
One of the casualties resulting from a suicide attempt is the ability to take yourself for granted.
You may have entertained the thought of suicide for months, years, or decades. But once you actually take the pills or cut your skin – once you actually turn that intangible thought into a concrete action – you cross a line from which you can never retreat.
In a moment, you find out that you are capable of doing the unimaginable. Your life is forever divided into two parts – before your suicide attempt and after. And “after” is a fragile place to be.
Maybe it depends on the reasons you chose to take your life. If it was 20 years ago and you were a teenager heartbroken about the loss of a love, and you’re happily married (or happily single) today, maybe you no longer find the thought so disturbing. If your situation is ongoing – a lifelong fight with depression or bipolar, or life circumstances that remain challenging – the thought might be much more threatening.
My own attempt was the result of a devil’s cocktail of life stressors and a massive chemical imbalance. There was a time in my life – as recently as only a couple of years ago – when I didn’t have these particular stressors, and when my bipolar was pesky but under control. But now, I will be dealing with these situational stressors for the foreseeable future, and I live in fear that my body and mind will again go haywire.
And so I spy on myself. I watch every move I make. I double-check every thought. Like a survivor of breast cancer who notices every microscopic change to her breast, I spy on my sleep, I spy on my eating, I spy on my speech, I spy on my work habits. I’m feeling very sad today – am I going into a clinical depression? I seem a little hyper today – am I heading for mania?
Getting sick again is not an option for me. I have a family that depends on me. I have a demanding job that I need to keep. And so I take my meds on schedule, and I talk with my therapist, and I make sleeping and eating priorities. But still I’m afraid. And so I spy, with my little eye…
Tuesday, August 3, 2010
“YOU are NO better than anyone else. I don't give a rat’s behind if you attempted and survived ...What the hell does that have to do with anything? You have NO business at all, trying to help people.” – Part of a PM I received the day I started the SAS group
I remember how I felt when I was 16 and my best friend’s mom killed herself. My first reaction was shock, followed by red-hot anger. How could this woman care so little about her daughter? Didn’t she want to see her daughter grow up? I felt the same anger three years ago when a friend of the family killed himself. He’d left behind a grieving family, and I was furious at him.
But last year, overwhelmed by my bipolar illness and various life circumstances, I tried to do the same thing. Even now, I find it hard to believe. And last spring, as my year anniversary crept closer, I became desperate to share my experience with other attempt survivors. But I couldn’t find any.
Statistically, there are 20 attempts for every completed suicide. But all of the “Suicide Survivors” groups I found in my city were for grieving family members left behind, not for attemptors. Logging on to Facebook, I did a search for people like myself. I found four “suicide survivors” groups on FB, but they were all aimed at family members. So I started “Suicide Attempt Survivors.”
Within a few hours, I had some members, including one woman, “Leslie,” who ran one of the groups for family members. Leslie, whose mother committed suicide last year, requested to post information to help the bereaved. I explained that my group would be, specifically, for ATTEMPT survivors – since there were already several groups on FB for family members. Attempt survivors unique emotional needs, I said.
The response was a flurry of PMs in which Leslie called me “cold hearted” and a “bitch,” and reminding me I was “no better than anyone else.”
Since then I’ve received a number of PMs that I’d consider a kind of hate mail, many of them containing profanity. And I have to keep an eye on the SAS group wall, as occasionally someone will manage to squeak in as a member of the SAS group just to post something angry. One person said that just by having a place for attempt survivors to go, I was “causing people to commit suicide.” One warned we would all go to hell. One was furious that the group existed because it reminded him of his own attempt, and demanded me to delete it.
I also have members forward me PMs they’ve received, with sentiments like “If you want to die, then JUST FUCKING DO IT,” “You’re pathetic!!” and “Everyone is SICK of your WHINING.” One individual wrote a suicidal person to say “If you wanted to die so badly, you wshould (sic) have been killed at birth.”
Some of the people who send these messages are cyber-bullies, but not all of them. Some are simply people who have lost loved ones to suicide, and they are still overwhelmed with pain and anger.
When a loved one commits suicide, anger is a common response. After all, from the vantage point of those left behind, someone has chosen to leave them forever. Family members are mourning a death different from any other. And the object of their anger is no longer here. So they do the next best thing – they lash out at others who have made this choice but lived. Those who have made multiple attempts and are still suicidal seem to be the biggest targets of this rage.
I want the SAS group to be a safe place for attempt survivors. So if angry words are posted to the wall and I don’t see them right away, I apologize. Likewise, your private inbox should not be a place where you receive angry messages. Rather than taking it personally, or fighting back with your own venom, I ask you to delete such messages and block the senders.
Remember that this anger is borne from pain. To be left behind in these circumstances is a terrible thing. Surviving family members may not be able to understand the pain we have experienced, but we may not be able to understand their pain either.
Monday, August 2, 2010
“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family – in another city.” – George Burns
This weekend I traveled out of town to an annual reunion of my extended family. Aunts, uncles, cousins. They are an unusually happy, loving and tight-knit group – I’ve never met a family quite like them. I’m the black sheep who lives out of town and falls out of touch except for the holidays.
We played a game: match the person with the adjective. We were given a list of family members, and a list of positive adjectives – smart, strong, athletic, pretty, funny – and voted via secret ballot to match each person with an attribute. We were allowed one vote for ourselves.
One of the adjectives was “survivor.” I cast a vote for that on my own behalf. It would be a secret, known only to me. Because as much as I love these people, and I know they love me, I’ve not shared my battle with bipolar with them, nor have I told them of my suicide attempt. They would be mortified – so much so that I don’t know if they would know how to behave around me afterward.
How I wished I could tell them, if only to break the “stigma” that exists around the topic. I also feel horribly isolated – I have my group of Facebook Friends that know my story, but IRL, I can count those who know on one hand. But I’m not prepared to deal with the fallout that might occur if I start telling people, especially people I care about. Will they pity me? Will they be disgusted? Will they look for someone to blame? Will they judge me? I don’t know, and I’m afraid to find out. It’s a lonely feeling.
Claire, one of my cousins, is going through a divorce. Quietly, embarrassed, she confided in me that she had started taking antidepressants. I joked that I don’t know anyone who’s NOT on antidepressants right now, and she felt better. How would she have felt if I told her my whole story?
At the end of the day, it was time for the results of the votes to be tallied. The adjective assigned to me by my relatives was “creative.” That was fine with me. But I happened to look at the ballots, and was surprised to see that I got TWO votes for “survivor.” One was mine. Whose was the other? Someone out there knows that in some way, I’m fortunate to be alive. And I may never know who.