Saturday, September 11, 2010
"All of a sudden there were people screaming. I saw people jumping out of the building. Their arms were flailing. I stopped taking pictures and started crying." – Michael Walters, a freelance photo journalist in Manhattan
This photo shows the image I still have in my mind when I think of Manhattan’s skyline. A New York without the Twin Towers still seems unreal, nine years later.
Today, Sept. 11, 2001 seems like the beginning of my nation’s decline. As a result of this cowardly act, in which thousands died, America got tangled up in two wars that would go a long way toward bankrupting our nation and destroying the world’s respect for us. Our rights as citizens would be curtailed, and the majority’s tolerance for minorities, especially religious minorities, would evaporate. In some ways, sad to say, the terrorists “won.”
There are many haunting images from that day, but perhaps the worst are those of the people who had jumped from the building, falling to the ground below. Dozens of those who died that day were killed in this way. Try to imagine what went on in their minds in the moments before they leapt – as flames descended upon them, they had to choose whether they preferred to burn to death or smash into the pavement.
No one referred to these deaths as suicides – although, technically, they were. But these victims faced certain and immediate death either way. As a suicide attempt survivor, I cannot pretend to have the slightest idea what it would be like to have to decide whether or not to jump or burn; but I do understand what it’s like to believe that death is my only choice.
I don’t think anyone who attempts suicide believes they are making a “choice.” They believe that living is impossible because they believe that it is impossible to live without pain, and it’s the pain that they want to stop. In fact, it’s not so much death that they seek, but an end to pain. The phrase “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem” rings false, because they believe their pain will be eternal. So the “choice” they face is constant, lifelong pain – a sort of living death – or a final death.
In that way, people who attempt to end their lives are not so terribly different from the people who leaped from the World Trade Center. They faced an intolerable choice, and they wanted their pain to end quickly.
Objectively, of course, we know that their situations are different. The pain of someone who is clinically depressed or in a terrible situation might come to an end in a non-lethal way. They might be able to undergo treatment, or they might be able to find a way to change their lives, and six months or two years or a decade later, they might look back and be very thankful they did not die. The 9-11 victims would never have had that opportunity.
But from the vantage point of someone whose life feels, at that moment, like a living death, the question of fire versus pavement might seem eerily familiar.
Friday, September 10, 2010
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide.” – Albert Camus
When I attempted suicide, I unwittingly joined a very large club. According to the World Health Organization, about 3,000 people worldwide commit suicide every single day – and for every such death, there are at least 20 attempts.
Some points to ponder today, World Suicide Prevention Day, from a variety of sources:
• There are twice as many deaths due to suicide than HIV/AIDS.
• Between 1952 and 1995, suicide in young adults nearly tripled.
• Over half of all suicides occur in adult men, ages 25-65.
• Suicide rates in the United States are highest in the spring. (It’s a myth that the highest suicide rates are during the Christmas holidays.)
• Over half of all suicides are completed with a firearm.
• Suicide is the third leading death for young people ages 15-24.
• Suicide rates among the elderly are highest for those who are divorced or widowed.
• 15% of those who are clinically depressed die by suicide. However, 80% of people that seek treatment for depression are treated successfully with medication and/or therapy.
• The highest suicide rate is among men over 85 years old.
• Suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the U.S. (homicide is 15th).
• An average of one person dies by suicide every 16.2 minutes.
• There are four male suicides for every female suicide.
As we experience this day, let us reflect on our own pasts, on the fact that we are alive, and on working every day to maintain health so that we each have a future.
Peace/Love, Alizah. <3
Thursday, September 9, 2010
“The Lord helps those who help themselves.” – NOT in the Bible
If you have strep throat, you need to take antibiotics. It helps to drink a lot of liquids and get a lot of bed rest, but other than that, there’s not much you can do to help the healing process.
If you have clinical depression, or any other mental illness, it’s very different. The onus is on you. You can go to therapy, and you can take medication, but there is one hell of a lot of work involved in getting well – and complete recovery is seldom in the cards.
Maybe that’s why mental illnesses are so often viewed as moral failings. “If she only tried harder …” “He needs to help himself …” “Stop wallowing in self-pity…” “Happiness is a choice!”
The problem with such statements is there is some truth to them. Those of us who struggle with mental illness are correct in identifying our problem as an “illness” that is not our fault. But it doesn’t follow that we can be passive, waiting for someone or something to come along and “make us better.” There is no Wellness Fairy that can sprinkle us with pixie dust and take our depression and anxiety away.
This sucks. It’s why I have so often begged God to take my bipolar away and replace it with some visible, physical disease – something that no one can look down at me for having. Something with a simple cure that will disappear with the right injection.
That said, there is another problem with such statements: they are overly-simplistic, and often condescending and hurtful. When I was very sick, I was told that I was being selfish and choosing (even wanting) to look on the dark side of things. I wanted desperately to get well, so I sent away for several books on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (“Mind Over Mood”).
The problem, these books told me, was in the way I was thinking. And fixing it was supposed to be simple – just replace negative thoughts with positive ones. David Burns MD’s books informed me that the chemical imbalance theory of depression is a myth. I filled up more than seven notebooks with my “cognitive distortions.” At one point I was writing in my cognitive distortions journal every half-hour.
I tried. I tried. I tried. I wound up in that motel room.
So is it my responsibility to get – and stay – well? Yes, it is. It’s my responsibility to see my doctor, be honest with her, take my medication, eat properly, get enough sleep, write my blog (which is part of my healing process), and – yes – work to keep negative thoughts in check. There is a place for cognitive therapy.
But there was a time when I WAS too sick to help myself. And I don’t care what anyone says – I did not want to feel like I did, I did not choose to feel like I did, and I was literally unable to change my thoughts and feelings.
Recovering from mental illness does require you to make the effort to climb out of your own hole. But sometimes, you do need help to find the ladder in the darkness.
Wednesday, September 8, 2010
“The man who strikes first admits that his ideas have given out.” ~ Chinese Proverb
One of the earliest lessons we learn in life is that it’s not OK to hit. It’s not OK to hit mommy, or your big brother, or the dog.
But many of us learn another lesson at the same time – it’s OK to BE hit by someone bigger than you.
Confusing? I think so. Much as I don’t want to turn my blog into a soap box against spanking children, I just can’t ignore the connection I see between being hit in childhood and growing up to either hit others or accept being hit by them.
Certainly, it doesn’t happen all the time. Most people who smoke don’t get cancer; most people who drive without seatbelts don’t die in a wreck; most people who grew up with lead paint in their home don’t develop brain damage. It’s the “I grew up … and I turned out OK” argument.
But a significant subset of people who grew up being physically “disciplined” become men or women who either batter or are battered. Once hitting is justified, I believe, it becomes a slippery slope. Moreover, it’s unnecessary. It’s very possible to raise loving, thoughtful, well-behaved children without hitting them; it just takes a little more thought.
Someone I care about very much has been hurt badly by someone who claimed to love them. It doesn’t really matter whether my friend is male or female. Statistics actually show that women in relationships batter their partners at about the same frequency that men do; the difference is that men are larger and stronger, and tend to cause more severe injuries. And there is domestic violence in homosexual and lesbian relationships as well.
It doesn’t really matter whether my friend or married or single; a battered partner can feel (or actually be) trapped and unable to end a relationship for any of a number of reasons, whether or not there is a marriage certificate. The question “Why don’t you just leave?” can have very complex answers. And the most dangerous time in any relationship is when the abused person separates from his or her abuser.
It doesn’t really matter whether my friend “did something” to “cause” the abuse. Beating someone is never justified. We can argue about what constitutes “emotional” or “verbal” abuse, but once fist meets flesh, all of that is moot. It’s not OK to hit someone. Does someone provoke you? Walk away.
The Washington State Domestic Violence Fatality Review notes a strong correlation between domestic violence and suicide. Not only are abuse victims more likely to commit suicide than the average person, but so are abusers. Most tragically, the abusers often take their partner and children out with them when they go.
I hope my friend can find safety from the person who has hurt them. And I hope that person realizes that it’s not OK to hit. Maybe that person learned in childhood; I don’t know. But someone who abuses someone I care about abuses me as well.
Tuesday, September 7, 2010
“The smaller the mind the greater the conceit.” – Aesop
Know what I think is weird? That some of the most beautiful, intelligent, talented people I know feel badly about themselves, while some of the most ignorant and boorish people I know have a little too much self-esteem. What’s that about?
One might think that if a little self-esteem is a good thing, a lot might be better. But it ain’t necessarily so. It is very possible to be deluded into thinking one is smarter than one is, more interesting than one is, more attractive than one is. I know this is true because I’ve met some of these very people. And the results can be devastating.
Parents who care about their children’s self-esteem may nurture it in one of two ways. They may help their kids to have a realistic sense of their importance, talents or abilities. Or, they may shower constant praise, shielding their kids from some unpleasant truths: None of us is more important than anyone else in the world. And we’re all good at some things but inept at others.
A friend of mine, Stefan, was born into a family of sisters – I think he had five of them. He was the youngest, and, I imagine, the prize their parents had been hoping for. When I met him, I was in high school and he was 10 years older than me. He became a good pal of mine – not a boyfriend; I found him too annoying.
Stefan was fixated on his appearance; he was cute, but by no means gorgeous. He was obsessed with his great intelligence; he was bright, but by no means the sharpest crayon in the box. He got fired from job after job, because the bosses he worked for, he believed, never appreciated him. He was the cat’s pajamas, or at least he thought he was.
Unable to secure long-term employment, Stefan finally went into the military. Basic training may have knocked him down a notch or two; I’m not sure, because I didn’t hear from him very often after that. Within a few months, he’d met a young girl out west, 15 years his junior, and married her only a few weeks later. In less than a year, he had a baby boy, and the girl had left him, disappearing with their son. Stefan disappeared too; his phone number was disconnected, and my cards to his address came back “UNABLE TO FORWARD.”
Around 2 a.m. one morning, my phone rang. It was Stefan, and he was drunk.
“You know the bitch left me, and she took Justin with her,” he slurred.
“I heard,” I mumbled, wiping the sleep from my eyes. “I’m sorry, Stefan. What happened?”
“I said. She was a bitch,” he spat. “She was a stupid bitch. And I’m going to find her. And when I find her I’m going to kill her. I’ve got a closetful of guns. And after I kill her, I’m going to blow my brains out.”
“Where are you living now?” I sat up, alarmed.
“You think I’m going to tell you that? Then you’re a stupid bitch too. This is the last time you’ll hear from me. Because we’ll all be dead. I hope you’re happy!” He slammed the phone down.
The next day I attempted to locate his family. This was in the days before the Internet, and I had few options for tracking people down. Many years have passed. I was never able to locate his parents, who had moved; nor was I able to find out where he was stationed (he had a very common last name). I had to let it go.
I never did find out whether Stefan killed the mother of his son, and/or himself. The only thing I know is that Stefan was up so high that when he fell, he had a very, very long way to go.
Monday, September 6, 2010
“Oh, you hate your job? Why didn’t you say so? There’s a support group for that. It’s called EVERYBODY, and they meet at the bar.” – Drew Carey
Today, people in my country, the United States, celebrate a national holiday called Labor Day. Labor Day was founded more than 100 years ago by our labor movement, and is “dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers.”
It’s a bittersweet holiday this year, as our nation now has an official 9.6% unemployment rate – and that number doesn’t include people who have run out of unemployment benefits, who never had benefits in the first place, who have given up looking for work, or are working at a job far below their educational or experience level and still can’t pay the bills.
People who have crunched those numbers come up with a much higher figure – as of today, 21.5%. Essentially, we’re looking at figures similar to The Great Depression of the 1930s. And many of those people who are fortunate enough to be employed right now are like me – they’re worried about the future of their own employment as the Recession continues on and on. Or, they are trapped in jobs they detest, in bad working conditions, because they can’t find anyone else who is hiring.
All of this is scary news to people who care about suicide. According to John L. McIntosh, a psychology professor who researches suicide trends at Indiana University, “There is a link (to suicide) with circumstances that come along with a Recession, such as unemployment and home foreclosure … People who have lost their jobs commit suicide at rates two times to four times as high as those who are employed.”
In addition, health insurance is tied to employment in America. People being treated for depression, and perhaps being stabilized on medication, usually lose their health care when they lose their employment, making a bad situation worse and potentially more deadly.
Speaking of health care for those with depression and other illnesses, many American states lack “parity” laws, which means that many people can work and have health care benefits, but those benefits do not include mental health care. And once someone has been diagnosed with any mental illness, that illness becomes a pre-existing condition – which means that an individual might be unable to purchase health insurance at any cost. Some of these laws are changing, but not in time for people now in crisis.
It’s scary out there, in many ways. And it doesn’t look like things are going to improve soon. As we celebrate Labor Day this year, I ask anyone with a stable, secure job they enjoy to thank God for their situation. For those concerned about layoffs, or unhappy with their positions, I hope you can research other possibilities. And for those that are jobless, I pray that and that you find employment soon … and that you will hold on to life.
Sunday, September 5, 2010
“Life is too precious, do not destroy it. Life is life, fight for it.” – Mother Teresa
A month or so after my attempt, I was in the office when I heard my husband out on the patio saying, “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do.”
I went through the patio door and found him bent over the bushes behind the house, looking terribly concerned. I followed his gaze, and there she was – the tiniest bunny I had ever seen.
She was all alone, and far from anywhere where there may have been a nest. It was obvious she had been abandoned, or had at least gotten lost. She was frozen in place, her heart beating so fast I could see it through her brown fur. She was about the length of my finger.
“I don’t know what to do,” repeated my husband. “I don’t want to leave her here. There are birds of prey all over.”
Instantly I was in love with her (and I don’t know why I call it “her” – she just seemed female to me). She had tiny ears and giant black eyes. There was a tiny star-shaped white spot on her back. She was the very picture of vulnerability, and I wanted to save her.
“Do we have any milk?” I asked our son. He checked and said we did. We don’t own an eye-dropper, so I asked him to pour me a small saucer full. I tried to give her a drop on my finger, but she wouldn’t take it.
“What about lettuce?” I asked. “No, but we have strawberries. Want one?” “Sure, bring one down.”
I put the strawberry in front of her, to see what her reaction would be. She nibbled on the greens – that was good news. After she nibbled a couple of them, I pulled the rest off and placed them in front of her, but she wasn’t interested in more.
My husband brought me a soft towel, and I picked the bunny up and put her on my lap. She tried to walk a bit, but she seemed either injured or very weak. It was getting windy out, but bringing her inside was out of the question – we had two cats, and even if we locked the cats up, the smell of the cats would probably terrify this little bunny.
I asked my son to check online to find out if there were any organizations or services that would take an abandoned bunny. He checked local shelters and animal rescues, and in each case the answer was no. Two of the sites also included warnings that infant rabbits almost never survive human captivity, no matter how well intentioned.
So I sat outdoors with this little bunny in my lap for hours. I stroked her tiny back and memorized her markings. I talked gently to her. At that time, her life seemed more precious to me than my own. I did not want her to die. I desperately wanted her to live a bunny rabbit life, stealing carrots out of our garden and hopping through our flowers.
When it grew dark, I put her back under the bush and came inside. The next morning I checked first thing, and she was gone.
Months later my husband was looking out into the back yard, and called out, “Look who’s back to visit you!” There was a brown bunny hopping around beside our garden. “It’s the baby!” I said, and my husband agreed, “I’m sure it is.”
Of course, we both know that most likely, our sickly baby bunny had met an untimely end in the claws of a bird or the paws of a feral cat. But I let myself believe that our visitor was THE baby bunny. Because her little life was precious to me.