Thursday, November 4, 2010

Romantic suicide. Thursday, November 4, 2010.

“And it seems to me you lived your life / Like a candle in the wind / Never knowing who to cling to when the rain set in.” – Elton John, “Candle in the Wind”

When Marilyn Monroe was found dead on August 5, 1962, the world mourned. It was still early in the decade, and more celebrity deaths were to come, making Americans in particular feel disillusioned in the goodness of the world. But Marilyn’s death was so shocking because she was the very picture of joyful innocence and incomparable beauty.

People wrote stories, poems and songs about Marilyn’s death. Even though it would be revealed later that Marilyn battled depression, and even though her death of acute barbiturate poisoning was ruled a “probable suicide” by the Los Angeles Coroners’ Office, some people believed (and still believe) that Marilyn was murdered.

But many people who do accept her death as a suicide may find in that suicide something to envy. “She was so beautiful.” “We’ll never forget her.” “How can someone that happy commit suicide?”

Elton John wrote, “Loneliness was tough / The toughest role you ever played / Hollywood created a superstar / And pain was the price you paid.” Poet Sharon Olds wrote of the men who carried Marilyn’s body to the ambulance, “These men were never the same. They went out afterwards, as they always did, for a drink or two, but they could not meet each other's eyes.”

Everyone wants to be remembered when they die. People who are suicidal probably spend more time than others imagining what people will say at the funeral, or how the obituary will read. People who want to kill themselves because they feel they have been wronged may put a great deal of energy into romantic ideas of what people will say. “Oh, he was such a great guy. I feel so bad I was so mean to him.” “How tragic she took her own life. I guess I should have taken her more seriously.”

There’s only one catch.

They won’t be around to hear these words of love or regret.

In your mind, you might see yourself hovering over the funeral home or the grave, thinking “Finally!” or “Serves you right for dumping me!” or “This will teach you!” But in reality, you won’t be there. You won’t get the satisfaction. Dead is dead. And you’re not Marilyn Monroe.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

High times. Wednesday, November 3, 2010.

A special column in honor of the failure of Prop. 19.

“I was making frequent use of cocaine at that time … I had been the first to recommend the use of cocaine, in 1885, and this recommendation had brought serious reproaches down on me.” –Sigmund Freud

I tried pot in high school, and I wound up in the ER with a panic attack like I’d never had before. “If I were you, I wouldn’t use marijuana again,” lectured the doctor. Gee. Good idea. But I felt cheated by the whole experience. Wasn’t the whole point of pot to relax?

I’d already discovered alcohol, though – specifically, my parents’ supply of liquor, which I stole and covered my tracks by filling the vodka and gin bottles with water. I never really went out to parties – my parents were too strict. But somehow I managed to hide a pretty significant drinking habit, starting at the age of 14, right under their noses.

I wasn’t partying in a social way. I was, as they call it in psychiatry, “self medicating.” I was already dealing with significant depression and anxiety, and I had discovered that alcohol alleviated both problems (at least for a few hours).

I would soon be diagnosed with “manic-depression” (that’s what they called bipolar in 1980), but I would not be prescribed medication until years later. Alcohol, it seemed, calmed my frayed nerves and lifted my spirits (so to speak). (That I never became a raging alcoholic is probably due to the fact that my hangovers were so wicked.)

At least 50 percent of people with mental illnesses abuse alcohol or illegal drugs (this compares with 15 percent of those without a diagnosis). Substance abuse affects as many as 60 percent of people with bipolar disorder. And an astounding 90 percent of people with schizophrenia are heavy nicotine users. Self-medication seems to be the name of the game. But what might come as a surprise is that there’s nothing new about this.

People (mentally ill or not) have been “self-medicating” since our ancestors began walking on twos. Use of tobacco, marijuana, and coca date back to prehistory. More recently, during the two periods most associated with conservative values – the Victorian era (1830–1900) and the family-friendly 50s – drug abuse was rampant; it just wasn’t defined as such.

Hashish, absinthe, and alcohol were in common use in the 19th century. And opium and its derivatives were ubiquitous. Opiates were found in the over-the-counter “tonics” that filled every medicine cabinet, even in the most religious of homes. Doctors prescribed them for depression and anxiety. Godfrey’s Cordial was a wildly popular children’s elixir that mothers used to cure tantrums and crying spells; it was made of opium and brandy. Yum.

Sigmund Freud both used and prescribed cocaine. Coca-Cola did, in fact, contain cocaine – this isn’t an urban legend. From 1885 to 1929, Coke had coke (though in ever-decreasing quantities). Cocaine was also an ingredient in children’s’ teething medications. A list of famous Victorian drug addicts includes poets Samuel Coleridge and Percey Bysshe Shelley; authors Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens; and even the President’s wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, who wound up in an asylum.

Then there was the 1950s. The post-war years ushered in an age of prosperity that Americans can only dream of today. For the first time, there was a financially-secure middle class, and the “American Dream” of a house in the suburbs, an automobile, and a yearly vacation was in reach for millions of Americans.

But along with that discretionary income (and an undercurrent of fears: the bomb, Communism) came an increase in the use of mind-altering substances. Alcohol was everywhere – it was not uncommon for people to drink in the office (anyone watch “Mad Men?” My mom says its portrayal is quite accurate), at lunch, and at “cocktail hour” at the end of the business day.

Virtually everyone smoked, virtually everywhere. (In my favorite “retro” photo of my mother, she’s at her baby shower, eight months pregnant with me, with a martini in one hand and a cigarette in the other! She’d cut way down on both habits during her pregnancy, however, even though her doctor assured her she didn’t need to.)

There were also “Mother’s Little Helpers” – Valium and Milltown, which were passed out to bored and anxious housewives like Skittles. Amphetamines were also used for weight loss with little consideration for their abuse and addiction potential. Studies of the era reveal a population that was “tuned out” a decade before the next generation would be condemned for using pot and LSD.

And while there is hullabaloo over the use of prescribed psychiatric medications, at least antidepressants don’t affect people in the way barbiturates or amphetamines do. It seems we’ve evolved a bit from that. In fact, while the use of alcohol and most “hard” drugs is associated with an increase in suicidal behavior, the use of SSRI’s has actually been linked to a decrease in suicide. (The anti-pharma people won’t like that, but it appears to be the case.)

The news today of California’s voting against Prop. 19, which would have legalized pot, saving law enforcement money and bringing in tax dollars, strikes me as ironic and silly when our nation faces its greatest threats to stability since World War II and Great Depression. Just as the poor will always be with us, so will mind-altering drugs. The question is whether their use will be considered a moral offense, or whether appropriate medical treatment will be available for those who self-medicate.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Addiction. Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010.

“Just cause you got the monkey off your back doesn’t mean the circus has left town.” –George Carlin

Merriam-Webster defines the word “addiction” as “persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful.” Of course, that’s an incomplete definition. Modern psychology allows for the concept of addiction to actions, like sex and gambling, in addition to substances.

Why do people get addicted to substances or behaviors? Well, usually, because they feel good. They override negative feelings like depression and anxiety, at least at first. Usually, they release endorphins. (So does “cutting,” which is why it can be such a tough habit to break.)

Author Susan Rose Blauner (“How I Stayed Alive when my Brain was Trying to Kill Me”) adds something else to the ever-growing list of addictions: suicidal thinking. For 18 years, Blauner says, she was addicted to the concept of suicide. She was obsessed with the idea of her own death. She attempted to kill herself on numerous occasions and was repeatedly confined in psychiatric wards. She finally beat the addiction with a combination of meds and therapy, but she admits she still thinks of suicide from time to time.

Does labeling suicidal thinking “an addiction” seem far-fetched to you? It doesn’t to me. Actually, it makes a lot of sense. It’s been long documented that often, just before a suicide attempt, a depressed person suddenly cheers up – because they believe their pain will soon be over. If you’re faced with more problems than you think you can handle, thinking of “Plan B” can actually be comforting. Why wouldn’t this flood the brain with those endorphins? And if it does, why wouldn’t suicidal thinking be, literally, addictive?

A writer on the Suicide Project says, “I get this relief/joy/etc by thinking/phantasizing[sic]/dreaming/planning about suicide. When contemplating suicide I have control to some degree, I feel I can control the time and way of my death, and I can stop pain and fear.” For this individual, suicide is a way to exert control in a life of chaos, and the idea of death is actually soothing.

But the anonymous writer goes on: “Like with any addiction you need a stronger and stronger dose, and where phantasies [sic] once were sufficient, I now am at the stage where nothing is good enough but the real thing. This past weekend I very nearly killed myself, and I know I am capable of because I years ago I did a (very serious) suicide attempt.”

Some people aren’t just addicted to suicidal THOUGHTS; they’re addicted to suicidal ACTIONS. They OD or slit their wrists again and again and again. Family and friends may eventually develop compassion fatigue, and it’s common to say these people are “just seeking attention.” But I think it’s more than that. I think they have become addicted to suicidal actions; they’ve gotten accustomed to calming themselves and feeling in control this way. Their actions do more than simply antagonize the people around them: any suicidal gesture can be fatal, whether it’s “for attention,” an addiction, or whatever.

How do we heal from addictions? A good model is the 12-Step group. I wondered whether there is a Suicide Anonymous, so I Googled it, and sure enough, there is. Just like AA, SA follows the 12 Steps:

1. We admitted we were powerless over suicidal preoccupation that our lives had
become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we
understood Him.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to
them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would
injure them or others.

10. Continued to take personal inventory of ourselves and when we were wrong
promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God,
as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to
carry that out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we tried to carry this
message to those who still suffer and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

I think it might be a good idea to join. What about you?

Monday, November 1, 2010

The funny thing about grief. Monday, Nov. 1, 2010

“Tears are the silent language of grief.” –Voltaire

A dear friend of mine lost her beloved mother suddenly last month. In our church we have repeated observations of one’s passing. We honored her “40th day” over the weekend.

My friend is still overwhelmed with grief. She functions for a while, as a wife and mom and employee, and then the reality of her loss hits her and she sobs. On Saturday, she was surrounded by friends and loved ones who held her, prayed with her and gave her Kleenex. Our society has a “built-in” arrangement for people who a bereaved. Funerals and memorial services serve the function of keeping caring people around the bereaved so they don’t have to suffer alone.

But it’s a funny thing about grief. We all expect that when someone dies, there will be grief. But there are other losses that cause other kinds of grief – silent losses, losses of intangible things, losses we experience but don’t label, losses we might sense but don’t officially recognize.

There is, for example, the loss of a dream. This can occur in many ways. It obviously occurs in the case of a divorce, the birth of a child with special needs, or the loss of a job. But it also occurs when you simply come to the realization that life is not going to work out as you had anticipated. You realize that your mother, your father, your children, your spouse, your job, or even your faith is not what you’d thought – and yes, there is a loss involved.

I had a “happily ever after” in mind. That train has been derailed, and I don’t know what direction it’s taking me in now. Things I’d taken for granted now appear far from certain. The world is a scarier place than I’d thought it was. I feel nostalgic for a period of time that existed only a few years ago.

My depression over the last couple of years has had a strong undercurrent of grief in it. At my very worst, I have felt loss as keenly if someone I had loved dearly had died. But I haven’t had that kind of “obvious” loss, like the death of a parent, spouse or child. So there are no ceremonies addressing my situation. If anything, I have been encouraged to just buck up and deal.

But I still feel the loss. And Hallmark doesn’t make any “Thinking of you as you’ve lost your dream” cards.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The scariest Halloween. Sunday, Oct. 31, 2010.

“When did the future switch from being a promise to being a threat?” --Chuck Palahniuk

It was exactly two years ago today.

It was Halloween, a fun day at work. Most of the staff of our publication was in costume for our annual contest. (I was a black cat.) We were looking forward to the potluck and to the weekend. And then we got word that we were having an emergency company meeting.

What followed was surreal. A room full of ghosts, goblins, witches and worlocks was informed by management that after three years of record profits, our owners were now facing bankruptcy. A number of changes would be taking place at once: we would be losing our 401K match; there would be compulsory furloughs to lower our salaries, and almost half the staff – about 150 people – would lose their jobs. Trick or treat.

To be honest, the reality of the situation didn’t hit me right away. It was too big. I survived the first round of layoffs, which I knew I would; my position is not redundant. I went from doing the job of one person to doing the jobs of three. If anything, my position was even more secure. And we were able to survive that bankruptcy threat.

But as the weeks went on, and the US economy continued into freefall, things got scarier and scarier – and I got sicker and sicker.

Of course, I had been in a battle with anxiety and depression for many years; these were not new to me. But I had never faced this kind of stress before. Every week or so there was an article somewhere about how our industry – much like the automotive industry and the real estate industry – was failing, and every day at work people whispered in the halls about friends who had lost their jobs and homes.

Layoffs continued – always without notice. People would come to work in the morning to find their belongings in a brown cardboard box. And I began to feel like I was living on Death Row. Would my job and home be next? Would we be living out of our car?

As my anxiety spiked, I talked to my doctor about it. His answer was to drastically change my medication regimen – and then, in the worst timing imaginable, he was not able to schedule me for a follow-up appointment until the following spring. The new medications made me sick, and I had to quit taking them. I got sicker and sicker over the next few months. The rest, as they say, is history.

My counselor says there are many kinds of environmental anxiety, but financial anxiety is the worst. The loss of economic security, she says, can often impact a person’s mental health more than the death of a loved one. Although it will be at least two years before the data can be crunched and a firm connection proven, social scientists believe there has been an increase in suicides since Fall of 2008, when the Recession began. Unemployment, foreclosure, and bankruptcy are all risk factors for suicide.

It’s not about materialism. The idea of losing all our belongings – our “stuff” – isn’t what scares me, or, I believe, most people. “Stuff” can be replaced. It’s the fear of what happens next – where will we sleep? How will we be kept safe? What will we do about medical care?

And now it’s two years later. The Recession, they say, is over – but they call it a “jobless recovery.” That, to me, is no recovery at all. And people are still scared to death.

It’s been the longest Halloween ever. Boo.