Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Good Mother. Saturday, Sept. 25, 2010.

“All that I am or ever hope to be, I owe to my angel Mother." -Abraham Lincoln

My best friend, Abrihet, is from Africa. And she is the most amazing woman I have ever known.

Abrihet is a mother of four, including one child with special needs; she has a demanding full-time job in the medical field; she runs a non-profit organization to raise money for medical care in Africa; she is working on her Master’s Degree; and in her “spare” time, she runs marathons. She’s deeply religious, always smiling, and on top of it all she’s beautiful.

Abrihet grew up in one of the most impoverished areas of an impoverished continent. As a child, she witnessed and experienced atrocities and acts of violence that Americans only see in movies like “Hotel Rwanda” and “Blood Diamond.” These life experiences don’t even seem real to us, yet Abrihet lived them, and so did her mother, “Mama.”

In Africa, Mama lived a life of sorrow; she watched eight of her babies die, and only Abrihet survived. Her husband deserted her. When Abrihet and her husband came to the U.S., they were able to send for Mama after several years, and Mama lived here most of the time.

Although she never learned English, it didn’t really matter. Mama communicated with us through smiles, touches, kisses and hugs. Like Abrihet, Mama was always smiling, always showing concern for others. And Abrihet was always quick to attribute any of her own positive qualities to the way Mama had raised her. Both Mama and Abrihet could blame traumas in their lives for being angry, selfish, even violent people, but instead both were bestowed with huge hearts of love and a strong spirit.

A few days ago, Abrihet sent me a shocking e-mail. Mama had died suddenly during a trip to Africa, only a few days before her planned return to the U.S. Mama was only in her late 50s and had been in good health. Abrihet was shattered, and she and her husband were catching the next flight to her homeland in Africa.

Last night we held a memorial service for Mama at church. Everyone was sobbing. The absence of Mama was palpable, and everyone expressed their concern for Abrihet. “Abrihet lives her life helping other people,” said one. “And now the one who takes care of her has been taken away.”

Every day on the Suicide Attempt Survivors board, I communicate with people who want nothing more than for their lives to end. Some of them actively work to end their lives; others simply pray when they go to sleep at night that they won’t wake up.

There is an irony here, a mystery. Even if you don’t believe in God, you can still ask – why, fate? The universe? do people like Mama die, while others who believe they want to die live, despite overdoses and razor cuts? Many suicidal people have told me that when they see a deceased person on TV, they want to “trade places” with someone who is finally at peace. But being in the church, surrounded by weeping people, I imagined how much harder they would be weeping – how much deeper their pain would be – if Mama had taken her own life.

Both Mama and Abrihet were fortunate. Mama had a daughter she loved, and Abrihet had a mother she loved; this mutual love allowed them both to survive unimaginable emotional traumas. Now Abrihet faces life without her mom, but it’s clear her mom planted the seeds that will allow Abrihet to face whatever trials may come.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Twilight years. Friday, Sept. 24, 2010.

“Hope I die before I get old.” –“My Generation,” The Who, 1965

You might be surprised to find out that the highest suicide rate is not among teens, but actually among the elderly. In America, white males ages 65 and up have the highest suicide rate of all – 29 out of 100,000 of them take their own lives. There are plenty of reasons for this, such as suffering from illness or loneliness and depression from repeated losses. But I fear that suicide is going to increase in this age group over the next 10 or 20 years.

On a discussion forum about the recession, someone wrote, “My retirement plan is a Smith & Wesson.” He’s probably not alone. While the poverty rate for today’s seniors is unacceptably high, the poverty rate for tomorrow’s is likely to be higher, and many millions of people won’t know what to do.

My father is in his 80s and reaped the benefit of being born at the right time as well as being lucky. He dropped out of high school, but he was able to get a steady blue-collar union job. Although my mother also worked, the two of them together had no problem covering the costs of a nice house in the suburbs, nice cars, vacations to Walt Disney World and a college education for their offspring.

Dad was able to retire at 65 with two pensions, significant savings, and no debt. Social Security was the icing on the cake. He was able to purchase a 3-bedroom home and a luxury vehicle; when it came time for him to enter a retirement home, he was able to liquefy his assets and go on Medicaid.

The younger wave of Baby Boomers and the older half of Generation X are looking at a very different kind of future. Few of them work for unions and fewer of them have pensions. Instead, they have 401Ks, most of which lost most of their value in the stock market crash of 2008 and have yet to build back up.

Many of them purchased homes as investments for retirement, but when the housing bubble burst their homes lost as much as 75% of their value, sending many mortgages “under water.” Many of these homes will never again attain their original value.

The same people have been hit by a one-two punch of stagnant wages since 1975, and now a recession that has one of 10 Americans totally unemployed and an additional 15% underemployed. Put those two numbers together and you’re not looking at a recession anymore, but a depression. Those who have been laid off at 50 and above, according to a New York Times article this week, face the very real prospect of never being employed again.

Add to that the runaway cost of health care – which has quadrupled over the past generation – and the possible decrease, or even loss, of Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security. The complete picture is that of two generations that will be facing retirement with little net worth and few safety nets.

America is America, and so of course there are millions of people who will have American Dream retirements full of trips to Hawaii and daily golf outings. But many millions of others will ask themselves the most basic questions: Where will I live? How will I afford my medication? What will I eat? And I fear that for many of these elderly, suicide may seem the only way out.

When health care was being debated earlier this year, some people said that the proposed plan would result in “death panels” for the elderly. This charge was never true, but I’m afraid that there are, in fact, going to be death panels of a sort. When seniors lose their jobs or must retire due to health problems, many of them will hear, “Sorry, you can’t pay off your mortgage by selling your home;” “Sorry, we cannot pay for your health care;” “Sorry, Social Security is no longer solvent;” “Sorry, there’s nothing in your 401k;” “Sorry, the food pantries are empty;” “Sorry, that medication costs $600 a month.”

To me, that sounds like a death panel. When survival is only for the fittest, our seniors will be among those who suffer the most.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Status: Dead. Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2010.

“The more stories that appear about young people having killed themselves in your area, the more (suicide) might appear to you to be a reasonable response to a particular kind of crisis.” -Dr Jonathon Scourfield

A couple of days ago I read a Facebook status that listed 8 or 9 names and said, “At least they are all together now in heaven.” It was a collection of names of young people, mostly girls, who have supposedly taken their own lives recently.

The death of only one person is tragic. The death of a veritable baseball team of teenagers, all hooked up to Facebook, is, frankly, a little fishy.

Please understand where I’m coming from on this. I was involved when one FB member chose to disrupt suicide prevention boards by stalking herself under a different name, an alter-ego that was threatening to rape and kill her. So many people believed the ruse that they were putting jobs and lives on hold, desperately calling law enforcement.

The young woman finally came clean and admitted she did it for attention, but a few months later she was back, running her own suicide prevention group and at the same time sending private messages to vulnerable girls telling them to “just do it.”

Not long after, another FB member supposedly lost her baby daughter when her boyfriend reportedly beat the child to death. She picked the wrong person to try to manipulate; I happen to be in the media, and it’s my job to investigate things. I discovered irrefutable evidence that no such event had taken place, but plenty of people on FB continue to believe her story.

Where’s the harm, you might ask? After all, it’s just Facebook! Well, there is a lot of harm. You’ve heard, I’m sure, of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” Eventually, a wolf really did come a-calling, but by that time no one believed in wolves anymore. Conversely, people on FB do occasionally commit suicide, or lose family members. The fallout of the fakers is that when these things do happen, people don’t believe it. They have been stung before.

In the UK in 1998, there was a widely publicized rash of teen suicides attributable to Facebook groups. Even the Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, weighed in, warning youth that Facebook causes suicide. There was only one catch – statistically, there had been no rise in teen suicides, no “suicide pacts” identified. It was all a false perception.

But there is an even greater danger. There IS a statistical link between suicide victims and people that feel close to them, either in real life or virtually. One person commits suicide, and friends (or fans) of theirs are at great risk to do the same. These are called “suicide clusters” or “copycat suicides.”

One of the factors that goes into these “suicide clusters” is all the attention the dead person gets. I understand the need for mourning friends to put up memorial pages on Facebook, but in doing so, they might be giving that individual more attention in death than in life – sending a very risky message to others who are depressed and vulnerable. This is why I have said that if a member of SAS commits suicide, I will not put up an RIP page.

If you are someone who has “committed suicide on Facebook” to silently watch as people post loving messages to your profile, or you claim to have several personalities and must “kill” some (perhaps my discussion about Multiple Personality Disorder will come another day), please reflect for a moment about how you will feel if your stunt results in a real death.

We all need attention. But there are better ways to get it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The gift of tears. Monday, Sept. 20, 2010.

“Have you ever known the feeling, when you're too sad to cry? When no tears escape your eyelids, and you can't help but wonder why?” -McJunkie

I’ve been having crying spells lately. I get scared or overwhelmed or angry, and the tears come pouring down. Sometimes it’s just a few teardrops that dry right up. Other times it’s a sobbing cascade that requires me to be locked in the bathroom, where no one can see.

Given the choice, I’d much rather not feel down enough to cry. But I’ve lived through another reality – the absolute inability to cry.

When layoffs started happening around me, and whispers of a company-wide bankruptcy began to surface, I began to cry silently in my cubicle. I also began to cry more in general – at movies and TV shows, even at kind comments.

But then somehow, in a way I don’t think even medical doctors understand, I was hit with a mania and a depression at the same time – the dreaded “mixed state,” during which it is reported that one of two victims will attempt suicide.

Along with extreme restlessness, inability to eat, and insomnia, I had a peculiar symptom – an inability to cry, which actually is one symptom of a major depressive episode.

Frankly, it was a bizarre feeling. I had never been so sad, but all I could do was make guttural sounds. At the same time, I was physically and emotionally numb. It was this numbness that allowed me to tell my doctor in the hospital that I was so low, even the death of a loved one would not have an impact on me. And it was this numbness that allowed me to slice open my wrists and not feel it at all.

Today, a year and a half into my recovery, I see the inability to cry as a major red flag. To cry real tears brings some release. To be unable to bring forth those tears – to have hit bottom so far that even crying becomes impossible – is a very scary place to be.

So right now, if I need to cry I will cry; I have a lot inside me that needs releasing. And I see those tears as a gift, helping to wash my pain away.