Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Of cherry lollipops

“A consistent soul believes in destiny, a capricious one in chance.” – Benjamin Disraeli

I wasn’t raised by religious parents. But one of the things my mother taught me from the very beginning was that “Things happen for a reason.”

All my life, even when I was disappointed with the way things turned out, that thought was in the back of my mind. I never believed in a Supreme Being who moved us all around like chess pieces on a board. But once I got past the initial shock of a negative experience, I was usually able to soothe myself with some thought of fate or destiny.

Things didn’t work out for this trip, because the plane would have crashed. Things didn’t work out with this boyfriend, because my soul mate was waiting in the wings. Things didn’t work out with this job, because there was a better one out there.

And over the years, I have to admit that things DID usually work out for the best, just as my mom always said they would.

But when I became suicidally depressed and all hope disappeared, the belief that “Things happen for a reason” was one of the casualties. Although I had begun suffering clinical depressions as early as high school, I had still always been an optimist by nature. But now so many of the truisms that I’d lived by – “Life never gives you more than you can handle,” “If it’s meant to be, it will be;” “This too shall pass” – became nothing more than trite platitudes. Life had suddenly become terrifyingly random.

Recently, some friends and I were talking about politics, and about the scary state of the economy. We were imagining the solutions we’d bring to the table if elected President. Of course, every idea was impossible. Jokingly, my friend Jake said, “If I were President, I’d give every man, woman and child a lollipop. Because how can you be sad if you’re holding a lollipop?”

“Make mine a cherry,” I laughed.

The very next morning at work, something truly bizarre happened. The public relations director of a local health organization came to talk to me. I’d never met her before, so she brought in a package of information about the organization. And tied to the package, with a ribbon, was a cherry lollipop.

I froze. I had not thought about or seen a cherry lollipop, probably, for years. And suddenly, after the topic came up, here was one. “Why did you put the lollipop on there?” I asked her, and she said, “Oh, it was on my desk, and I figured, ‘I bet she’d like a cherry lollipop.”

I’ll be honest: I ate it. But I kept thinking about the coincidence, because one of the platitudes I’d also always believed was that “There are no coincidences.”

A few weeks later, I went to a Halloween event where a Jack-o-Lantern of candy was passed around. I reached in and grabbed the first thing my hand touched. It was a lollipop. Cherry.

I’m still suffering from a crisis of faith. As they used to say on “The X-Files,” “I want to believe.” I’m having a problem doing that.

But I hung the cherry lollipop from the Halloween party on my cubicle wall at work, and I look at it several times a day. Could there be a message here? Is it possible that despite all my fears, there is a force looking out for me after all? Is it a sign that the Universe is not as chaotic as I’ve come to fear it may be?

I hope my mom was right. I want to believe.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Secrets no one told you

“Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” – Benjamin Franklin

This morning I lay down – cold and cramping – on a medical examination table, my bladder filled past capacity, as an ultrasound was taken to see how quickly my kidneys are dying.

There’s no emergency here. When he diagnosed me with third stage renal disease, the doctor was clear that decades could pass before I might suffer ill effects from a slow shut-down of my kidneys, which are now working at 42% capacity. People donate kidneys, after all. They’re a hardy part of the human body.

I’ve not blogged on “Death to Life” for about six months – since my second “anniversary” of my suicide attempt. During that time, I’ve worked to distance myself from that particular period in my personal history. I’ve thrown myself into my work (both paid and volunteer). I’ve rebuilt trust with friends and family that I hurt – or that I felt hurt me – when my illness was at its peak. I’ve forged new and healing relationships.

But just as I’m forced to remember that day every morning as I put on the bracelets that hide the scars on my wrists, today’s examination was a reminder that I’ve survived a suicide attempt. Unlike surviving cancer or a heart attack, it was a “survival” I didn’t celebrate at the time. It was a “survival” against my will. And with each passing week, I grow more and more estranged from that part of myself. What was I thinking? What can I do to be certain I’ll never think that way again?

You see plenty of suicides on TV and in the movies. But there are things about suicide that no one tells you. Even those of us who have tried and “failed” rarely speak of these things amongst ourselves.

But if you’re considering suicide, I’ll break the silence and tell you some of the things that I found out, which no one else will tell you:

If you attempt suicide, chances are overwhelming that you will survive. There are more than 20 attempts for every “successful” suicide. So when you wake up alive – as you most likely will – you’ll be faced with a whole new set of problems that you didn’t have before.

If you slit your wrists, you probably will not die (even if you swallow a bottle of aspirin first and slice your arteries the “right” way). Instead, you will have scars for life that will make you feel embarrassed and ashamed.

If you overdose, you will probably throw up (even if you take anti-nausea medicine and take the pills with food). If you don’t throw up while conscious, you’ll throw up when you’re unconscious; either way, your body will reject the pills. That’s what your body is designed to do.

If you overdose on acetaminophen (Tylenol), you will damage your liver. “Good,” you think? Think again. Dying from liver damage takes days, even a week. You’ll still wake up alive – you’ll just have to suffer for a long time.

If you OD on Tylenol and are discovered and rescued by emergency personnel within 8 hours, you will be hooked up to an IV of N-acetylcysteine. For 24 hours, this antidote will drip into your body, and you won’t know until the next day whether you will live or die.

If you OD on other medications, such as sleeping pills, lithium or ibuprofen, you will damage your kidneys and other vital organs. This damage may not manifest for months or years, but it will be with you the rest of your life.

In the ICU, if you are agitated and fight against medical treatment, you will be restrained either chemically, manually or both. Decisions will be made for you. You will not have control over the outcome.

During the first 24 hours, especially if you ingested multiple medications, you will be confused and panicky. You won’t know day from night. You won’t recognize people. You will be cold and hungry. But medical personnel will not be sympathetic. They are accustomed to caring for patients who wish to live. They won’t feel sorry for you.

If you attempt to sleep, you will be awakened each hour. Each time, you’ll be asked three questions: “What is your name?” “Do you know why you are here?” and “Are you going to attempt suicide again?” (The correct response to the last question is “no.”) The questions will be barked out as if you’re being interrogated (which, really, you are). The people interrogating you won’t feel sorry for you, either.

Once you pass the critical stage medically, you get to go to the psych ward. You won’t think you belong there, but that’s where they will put you. First, though, they’ll go through your financial situation. You’ll be informed the cost is $1,500 per day. Even if you have insurance, you’ll be out, at the very least, a grand for the ICU. And even though you have the legal right to refuse treatment, they’ll make it very hard for you to leave – whether you can afford to be there or not.

You’ll be in the psych ward at least three days. If you have a job, and you want to keep it, you’ll have to come up with a good excuse for your employer. And once you return to work, you’ll have to worry every day that you’ll be found out. You’ll have a better reception coming out as someone with AIDS than as a survivor of suicide.

In the psych ward, you’ll be at the bottom of the pecking order. Like child molesters in prison, suicide attempters are the objects of scorn. Everyone else wants to stay alive; you did something stupid to wind up dead. And what’s more, you “failed.”

No one will ask why you attempted. No one will try to understand your state of mind. No one will acknowledge your pain. Instead you’ll be asked to focus on “coping methods” and “behavioral therapy” techniques.

You’ll be given printouts to help you label your emotions (Anxious! Mad! Sad!). And you’ll be required to attend classes where you paint pencil boxes and glue beads on to purses. It won’t matter if you have a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and Journalism. It won’t matter that you have a higher-than-average IQ. You’ll feel condescended to … and you’ll be right.

But the worst is yet to come, because eventually – after you’ve convinced a board of staff members that you’re “no longer a danger to yourself” (even if you lie) – you’ll go home. There you will face your husband, wife, mother, father, siblings, children and friends.

This is the biggest secret no one will tell you: Your homecoming won’t be like in the movies. Your loved ones will feel angry, hurt, and betrayed. People will think you are selfish and uncaring. Some will think you did it just for attention. Others will think you’re weak. Some will avoid you completely. Others will pretend to accept you, but they’ll avoid certain topics that might “trigger” you.

They’ll edit their speech to make sure no suicide jokes slip out. And if you live with them, they won’t trust you. They’ll take the razors out of the bathroom, and if you’re in the bedroom too long, they’ll ask why. Do you like your independence? If you attempt suicide, you will lose it. Guaranteed.

These are some of the lessons I learned from my attempt. I hope you remember them the next time the thought of suicide crosses your mind. If you’re like me, the urge won’t disappear overnight; in fact, it will continue to pop up again and again. But when I review the list of secrets I’ve disclosed, I’m reminded that suicide isn’t the “easy way out.” It’s the hardest way there is.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Never far away.

“My recovery from manic depression has been an evolution, not a sudden miracle.” – Patty Duke

I should have known it wouldn’t have lasted. And now I have to keep in mind that this won’t last.

It is the particular cruelty of bipolar disorder that one is perpetually on a roller-coaster ride. And on a roller coaster, what goes up must come down.

I have what’s called “atypical bipolar.” What this means is that I never enter a true “manic” phase. I go through periods of time when I feel good, even quite well. But I don’t hit the accelerator that causes many people with typical bipolar to feel “high” and reckless. I don’t gamble our life savings away, I don’t get promiscuous, I don’t call the President and invite him over to dinner.

Instead, if I’m not feeling normal, I’m either in a depressed state or a “mixed state” – characterized by extreme anxiety and agitation. People who are extremely depressed are often so immobilized they can’t summon the energy to harm themselves. But the mixed state is potentially deadly because it combines depression with a raw and awful energy. It’s not hyperbole to say that I live in terror of entering a mixed state again.

I’ve just experienced about six weeks of feeling well – or, at least, as well as I’ve felt since my suicide attempt. I had found closure in some areas of my life and some old wounds were being healed. I was beginning to become more conscious of the things I have to be thankful for. My inner narrative of fear was beginning to go silent, and in its place a new narrative of hope was beginning.

Then I woke up this morning.

I had one frustration, then another, then another. They were all trivial, but like falling dominoes, each one landed on top of the next one until I was yelling, crying, and throwing things around the room. I got to work and there were more frustrations and more anxiety-provoking triggers. Suddenly it was like the last six weeks never happened at all. I felt angry, hopeless, helpless, anxious, and unsure where this mood would take me. Am I going into another depression? Am I going mixed?

The strange thing is that I don’t know which came first – the mood or the triggers. If I had experienced these triggers two weeks ago, would I have reacted this way? Or did all the triggers cause a relapse?

It is a scary feeling, not knowing where one’s moods will go. Right now I am hoping against hope that I will get a good night’s sleep and wake up feeling better tomorrow. Now that I’ve had a taste of the good life, there is nothing I want more than to have it again.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Two years old.

“When you say a situation or a person is hopeless, you are slamming the door in the face of God.” – Charles L. Allen

Today, my world is a “thin place”– in which death and life are much closer together than usual, and in which the ordinary takes on new meaning. It is May 27, and exactly two years ago today, I tried to end my life.

My suicide attempt was neither frivolous nor trivial. I didn’t do it to “get attention,” to make a statement, or to cause my loved ones to feel guilty. I did not expect to be rescued, and I didn’t anticipate “waking up alive.”

I didn’t do it because my life felt meaningless, or because I felt no one loved me (although I did believe, emphatically, that my family would be better off without me). Neither alcohol nor drugs were factors. My religious faith; my career success; my degree in psychology; and my roles as wife, mother and daughter did not insulate me.

A toxic amalgamation of factors had been assaulting me: the near-bankruptcy of my employer, and the financial stress that caused; a series of bad decisions by my doctor regarding medication; and a high degree of conflict at home. But the absolute trigger was something called a “bipolar mixed state” – a relatively rare, but incomparably deadly, emotional and biological condition.

Johns Hopkins psychiatry professor and author Kay Redfield Jamison, who is herself bipolar, writes about the “mixed state” in “Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide.”

“The violent agitation of some suicidally depressed patients is impossible to comprehend unless it is intimately observed or personally experienced … The patients often try to starve themselves, to hang themselves, to cut their arteries; they beg that they be burned, buried alive. The most virulent [symptoms] for suicide is the mixed of depressed mood, morbid thinking, and a “wired,” agitated level of energy. It is singularly and dangerously uncomfortable.”

Poet Anne Sexton referred to it as an unhinging agitation, an “almost terrible energy.” Edgar Allen Poe wrote of it, “I CANNOT LIVE… I [must] subdue this fearful agitation, which if continued, will either destroy my life or drive my hopelessly mad.” Researcher Jan A. Fawcett MD called the mixed state particularly risky because the person “…is experiencing severe anxiety, such as anxious thoughts [he] can't stop.”

This is precisely how it feels. It’s not simply a state of mind that can be changed by choice, will, or faith. Journaling “cognitive distortions,” taking a brisk walk, “trying to look at the bright side…” none of these will make it go away. Loved ones may be neglected, but self-absorption is the result – not the cause – of the mixed state. It is an illness. And a potentially terminal one.

I haven’t been blogging regularly for a couple of months. I’ve been really busy (a good thing), but also, there have been things I’ve needed to think about more than write about. Recently, I’ve moved ahead in some really good ways. I’ve communicated some things with my parents that needed to be said, and I’ve gotten some reassurance and validation regarding an old friendship that has brought healing into my present life.

In other ways, I’m not as far along as I’d like. I still have anxieties about the future that invade my thoughts and make me feel hopeless. I still feel terribly distant from God. And like most suicide attempt survivors, I find that thoughts of self-harm can be comforting, almost addicting, if things threaten to go bad.

But over the past year, I know I’ve helped others in their healing journey, and they have helped me. I’m only two years along the path. Recovery takes time and effort. Today, I’m willing to provide as much of those as I can.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The perils of positive thinking.

“The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.” – William Arthur Ward

A few years ago, when my husband and I bought our modest little house, we met Danya. Beautiful and charismatic, Danya was our mortgage lender. She carried us through the complicated process with ease, bubbling with excitement. I envied her “don’t worry about a thing” attitude.

Danya ran an investment organization, and shortly after our closing, she invited me to her home for a cup of coffee. I felt a little intimidated as I drove up to her “McMansion” with a BMW in the driveway, but Danya made me feel at home.

Danya was living a true American Dream – and she wanted to share it with me. A proponent of investing using “OPM” – “Other People’s Money” – she confided in me that she’d earned $3 million dollars in less than two years by purchasing apartment buildings, fixing them up and selling them. “This is amazing,” she said, bursting with enthusiasm. “It’s like a dream, but it’s true.”

Danya attributed her amazing success to “The Law of Attraction.” Because “like attracts like,” they say, one’s thoughts and emotions actually impact reality. It’s positive thinking, but not in the usual sense. Anyone knows that if you’re always pessimistic, you’ll be miserable. Or if you go into a job interview expecting to blow it, you will.

But the Law is different. It’s cosmic. One’s thoughts are actually “requests” to the universe, and everything that happens to us – good or bad – is a result of those thoughts. With thoughts of wealth and success, Danya had become a millionaire. She invited me to stay and watch the film, “The Secret,” in her home theatre.

Here was the good news: Danya wanted to collaborate with me! She would even lend me the capital, knowing that I didn’t have a spectacular income. Between the OPM and the Law, she said, "There is literally no risk, Alizah. If you allow positive spiritual energy to come into you, you can do this too. And you’re just the kind of person who would be great at this!"

There are many believers in the Law, and I truly don’t mean to offend. But I couldn’t help but wonder, what about people in Africa who are starving? Or small children who are abused by their parents? Did they think negative thoughts, which resulted in their misfortune? The idea of making extra money certainly appealed to me. But a little voice inside my head said, “Finish your coffee and tell her you don’t have time to stay.” So I did.

I kept her offer in the back of my mind, though. I checked for her online every few months and saw Danya’s success grow exponentially. She was named a “Success Story” in a financial magazine, and her testimony about the Law of Attraction showed up on a number of websites. I started wondering if I should take her up on her offer after all...

Then the housing bubble popped. The economy tanked. And my own field of publishing began to collapse. I became sick, very sick. I attempted suicide. And in recovery, Danya and her Law were the furthest thing from my mind.

Today, while writing an article about mortgages, I was reminded of her. I dug around a little and was stunned by what I found. Danya’s out of business. She’s declared bankruptcy. And her properties – including her personal residence, where I had coffee that day – are in foreclosure.

So what happened? Did Danya stop thinking positive thoughts? Or was she simply another casualty of America’s financial meltdown?

I have to work at being optimistic. It doesn’t come naturally. I’m well aware that seeing the glass as half-empty makes me feel discouraged and sabotages my mental health. Because I make optimism a conscious priority, most of the people who know me see me as a cheerful, upbeat person – and would be shocked to know about my battle with suicidal depression.

But I feel like I dodged a bullet here. My innate skepticism – my rejection of “think yourself rich” – may have saved me from financial ruin. You see, there is a difference between looking on the bright side, and being blinded by the light.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

You want my help. But you don’t want my help.

“We fear violence less than our own feelings. Personal, private, solitary pain is more terrifying than what anyone else can inflict.” –Jim Morrison

I’m standing outside your door at night, in the freezing cold, ringing you on your intercom.

Who is it? You ask.

It’s me, Alizah, I say. You called me five times, and told me you needed to talk. So here I am.

An hour goes by; an hour of you and me and the intercom and the cold. You have a different answer each time: I’ll come and let you in … Who is this again? … I think you should go to where the people are … I’m out of cigarettes … I can’t push the button, something bad might happen … I’m not home, I’m out of town … Why aren’t you in your car if you’re so cold? … Don’t come in, it’s dangerous here.

I begin pushing buttons at random, until someone in the apartment finally lets me in. When I get to your door, it’s open. You greet me with indifference, wearing a thick winter coat, pacing slowly around the room and muttering to yourself.

You wanted me to come talk, so here I am, I say. So can you tell me what’s happening?

You respond with sarcastic rage: Well, if you don’t know what’s happening, then you don’t know much of anything, do you? You should know by now what’s happening! You talk to them behind my back. You post mean things on my Facebook page. You’re trying to turn my daughter against me. Why are you here? Who is paying you to be here?

I sit down and keep my voice low. Hun, I’m not talking to anyone about you. I didn’t post anything on your Facebook page. I’m here because I’m worried about you, and because you called me and asked me to come. So here I am. Will you talk to me?

Two more hours pass. I ask questions, gently. Have you talked to any of your family? When is the last time you saw your doctor? Did he prescribe any medication for you? Are you taking it? Are you sleeping? Are you eating?

Your responses vary. Sometimes you break out in tears. Sometimes you stare at the wall. You pick up a magazine and pretend to read. You look in the refrigerator. You turn your head away and mumble. Then you attack, accusing me of conspiring against you with people I don’t even know, saying that you had faith in me and I betrayed you.

But you don’t answer any of my questions.

You tell me your daughter is ignoring you. During my visit, your daughter pops by. She says she needs to run an errand but will be back later. When she leaves, I say, See, your daughter is talking to you. When? You ask. Just now, I say. I don’t remember that, you say. And you start digging through your purse.

Is there a doctor I can call? Do you want me to drive you to the crisis center? Wall. Refrigerator. Mumbles. Then more accusations.

I’m very concerned about you, I say. I don’t like to leave you like this. I want to know that you’re going to talk to a professional about this. Do you remember that this happened before? And you went to the hospital for a while, and then you were better for a long time? Do you want to feel better again? If not for you, for your daughter?

You’re just like everyone else, you snap. ‘Get help, get help.’ I know how to drive to the doctor. I know where the office is. I don’t need help from you. I thought you would help me, but you won’t. I don’t know why you came here. But I want you to leave. Now.

It’s gotten very late. I apologize. I say that I’m willing to help mediate between you and your daughter, but you have to work on her own recovery before I can do anything more. (I make a mental note to call NAMI this week to get advice, but I already know the answer: If you don't want treatment and you're not an immediate threat, there is nothing anyone can do.)

So I come home, after three hours. Last time you were this sick, family and friends did this dance with you for six months. Tonight, I did my best for you. And at this moment, that's all anyone can do.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Don’t look now. It’s a long way down.

“My recovery from manic depression has been an evolution, not a sudden miracle.” – Patty Duke

One day last week, I was feeling pretty darn good. I was seeing certain things in a more positive light. I was getting hopeful for the future. I was feeling self-confident because of the way I’d handled some challenges in my life.

I just happened to have an appointment with my doctor on that day, and I told him I was feeling more optimistic. “I think I’m going to get through this,” I said. He replied, “I know you will.”

The next day, something happened. It’s not even important to say what it was; it wasn’t that important. It was just a disappointment, one of those things that everyone experiences. And I felt myself fall off the cliff.

If you have a mood disorder, you know what cliff I’m talking about. You literally feel as if you are crashing. You ruminate, you cry, you rue the day you were born. You wonder whether you will ever be happy again.

But worst of all, you have a hazy idea in your mind of what it was like NOT to feel this way. You could have sworn that only recently, the world seemed different. Wasn’t it only yesterday you believed you were capable? Wasn’t it only yesterday you believed that you were loved? Wasn’t it only yesterday that colors seemed a little brighter, that honey tasted a little sweeter, that music sounded a little more beautiful? Wasn’t it only yesterday…?

People that don’t believe in the existence of bipolar disorder often point out that everyone has emotional ups and downs. This is certainly true. But most people aren’t paralyzed by those ups and downs. Most people have an ability to compartmentalize. A person may have a concern, but be able to tuck that concern in the back of his mind so he can concentrate on other things.

With bipolar, there’s no compartmentalizing feelings. For me, a feeling like anxiety or depression is like a drop of dark liquid in a beacon of water. It changes everything. There’s no “getting my mind” off something. The feeling of worry or sadness is all there is, and it feels like a permanent condition.

After a day or two, I began to feel better. It was partly because my situation resolved itself (sort of), and, I believe, it was partly because medication has made it easier for me to change my emotional trajectory. No, medication has never “solved my problems,” nor has it allowed me to ignore realities of my life that I don’t like.

But in the past, a minor disappointment could bring me down for weeks – maybe longer. Today, I still fall off the cliff, but now I have a bungee cord. I’m able to climb back up. That’s a good thing.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Politics from hell.

“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly, and applying the wrong remedy.” – Earnest Benn

I’ve been away from my blog for a few weeks. A number of things have taken my time and attention. I’ve been traveling out of state; I’ve been working on special projects; and oh yes, the political shit hit the fan. It seems the whole world has been protesting something. And so have I.

IRL (“In my Real Life”), I happen to be a very politically active person. It’s impossible not to be, given my profession as a journalist. I don’t want this blog to become my political bullhorn, and for the most part, I’ve avoided making political statements. I don’t want to debate here; I have other outlets for that. My topics here are mental health and suicide. That’s what “Death to Life” is about.

But sometimes worlds collide. And that’s happening right now.

IRL, most of my family and friends feel politically as I do. A few do not. I enjoy debating the topic on Internet forums, but I do not enjoy debating with loved ones, so I don’t do it. In fact, I really try not to argue with anyone at all, about anything (the subject of several of my past blog entries). After all, I’m a peace activist. I go to the anti-war marches. I want everyone to get along. That’s who I am.

But things are heating up right now in a way that I fear will devastate the mental health community. All around the nation, budget cuts are being proposed that will cause hundreds of thousands – eventually millions – to lose health care coverage they depend upon for medications and/or therapy. Health facilities are being closed. Social workers, nurses and therapists are being laid off.

At the same time, America’s economy continues its decline. I have my opinions as to why this is happening, but this blog is not the place to share them. But I can say, with certainty, that the more unemployment increases, the more foreclosures occur, the more bankruptcies declared … the more suicides will happen. These very fears were the trigger for my own attempt.

A few days ago, I was reading an online forum when I happened upon a post written by a relative of mine. In her post, she was complaining about me. She didn’t use my name, but she didn’t have to; she was very specific about certain details. And in the post, she mocked my political views and my concern for the lower- and middle-classes.

I have not shared the story of my suicide attempt with my extended family. But I had to let her know how I felt, and I had to give her some idea of why I felt that way. I wrote her, privately, to let her know I’d seen her insulting post. And I told her that I happen to have a life-threatening illness (which I now consider bipolar to be; it certainly threatens MY life), and that I had chosen not to share my diagnosis with family.

I told her that because America has no national health plan – something she strongly opposes – I have to live in fear that I’ll be laid off from my job and won’t be able to afford treatment for my illness. I told her that I have many friends with various health conditions that can not get health care, and other friends who must depend on government-provided care, which may now be discontinued.

I told her that people I love might die as a result of these policies – policies I believe are less about necessity and more about greed. And I shamed her, because she happens to be enjoying a wealthy lifestyle, angry that she has to pay taxes, at the same time as she condemns those who are less fortunate.

My relative never responded to my message. I’m glad she didn’t – frankly, I don’t want an argument OR and apology from her. I simply needed her to know. She doesn’t know what life-threatening illness I have – maybe she thinks I have cancer or AIDS. I really don’t care. I can pretend to be nice to her at family outings, and that’s good enough.

I’m afraid. I’m afraid for my country and its future. I’m afraid for “the least of these” – the minorities, the children, the disabled, and yes, those with mental illnesses. The cards are stacked against us. And I’m not going to debate about that.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

J’accuse. Thursday, January 27, 2011.

“Consider the source.” – My mom

I got accused this morning of being something I’m not. And it’s not something I really am, deep inside, but just in denial of it – it’s demonstrably false.

This individual has been a thorn in my side for years. Her behavior and attitudes are unbelievably narcissistic – I’ve never known anyone remotely like her. She obsessed with her looks, and what she believes is her intellectual superiority to everyone around her. She is convinced that everyone envies her, and that her beauty and brains (neither of which is that apparent to me) are the reason why most of her family has disowned her, and why she cannot find a job.

When she came into my life as the spouse of a relative and I began to get to know her (mostly through e-mail, as they live far from me), I was first taken aback. Then, for a long time, I was simply amused.

But things kept piling up and piling up, and eventually, I went from amused to irritated to downright offended. I found it impossible not to read her frequent, long e-mails – they had a draw similar to a car accident you happen to be driving by; you can’t help but crane your neck to see. And she went from criticizing my relatives to criticizing my religion, my profession, and finally my very existence.

“Everything goes perfect for you,” she wrote a few weeks ago angrily. “You’ve never had to work at anything in your life.” This from someone who never went to college, who never raised children, and who never held a full-time job or supported a family. (And someone who, at least to my knowledge, has never had to fight the demon of bipolar depression.)

Still, I let it all go, which is just how I am. I finally got an e-mail, cc’d to 50 of her friends, that complained about some particular things near and dear to my heart (and mind). To be honest, I’ve been stressed out lately, for about 20 reasons – so her timing was not great. I responded – respectfully, but firmly. I didn’t “yell,” I didn’t swear, I didn’t namecall. I simply pointed out where she was missing the boat, and requested she not send me any more such e-mails.

Even though I knew what was going to happen, I was still clobbered broadside when it did. In my inbox this morning was a veritable manifesto of my faults. “YOU ARE HARD-HEARTED,” she wrote, suggesting that I: 1) see a doctor and 2) pray to God for mercy – because I am so unloving, so uncaring, and just so downright MEAN. And she made it pretty clear that it will be difficult for me to communicate with my relative in the future – him being the only reason I’d put up with her so long in the first place.

As everyone has, I’ve been criticized in my life, and I don’t like it. But hard-hearted? Unloving? Uncaring? Mean? These are foreign concepts to me. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever been accused of any of these things. If anything, it’s been the opposite – I’ve been considered too sensitive, or maybe too clingy, too easily hurt.

So the thing I’m trying to figure out is why her words bother me so. They bothered me so much when I read them this morning that I threw up my breakfast, and cried on the way to work. Her words kept jumbling around in my brain. When I got to the office, I went into the women’s room and stared at myself in the mirror, trying to understand the charges against me – charges brought by someone so insecure that she actually believes she’s too perfect to be hired. Why do I let the rantings of an unbalanced individual unbalance me so?

Because there is a part of me that sucks in the negative like a sponge. Give me a compliment, and I soon forget it; say something nasty to me, and I swallow it whole, like a crockpot full of maggots.

She and I are both under a delusion. Hers is that she is perfect; mine is that I’m deeply flawed. I don’t think she’s willing to look for a happy medium. But I am.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Using my feelings words. Wednesday, January 19, 2011.

“I am feeling angry and frustrated.” – Adam, age 5

My friend Makayla has a 5-year-old son who has autism.

Makayla had already raised three older children, who are good scholars, athletic, sociable and well-adjusted, so she realized early on that Adam was different.

At 2, Adam was not yet talking. But he was typing. He used a small computer keyboard to ask for milk or cereal. As he grew, he did more and more complex work on the computer, but resisted potty-training. He resisted hugs and other forms of gentle touch, stiffening up and crying.

Adam would fixate on a particular detail of a toy, such as a tire on a truck, for days. Sometimes he would sit and scream for no reason, but usually Adam was well-natured, even as he avoided gazing into anyone’s eyes. The family gave him the moniker “Peaches” because of his angelic round face and “sweetness.”

Makayla knew Peaches wasn’t developing normally. And as a highly-educated medical professional, she was familiar with the way medical systems work. So she was shocked when doctor after doctor refused to diagnose what appeared to be an obvious case of autism. His second year went by, then his third, then part of his fourth. Despite being basked in love by his family, Peaches could not be touched and had yet to say a word. Makayla knew that any special therapy for her son would have to start as soon as possible, and precious days were ticking away.

Makayla was even more shocked when Peaches finally did get a diagnosis of autism – only to be prescribed therapy that would cost more than $1,000 each week. Makayla’s insurance would not cover the cost, but Makayla was willing to move the sun and the moon for peaches. She paid for the therapy out-of-pocket for several months until she found a different employer with a different insurance plan.

Today, Peaches is a different child. You can see his world opening up around him. He greets people with a giant smile and a hug. And he is talking.

One of the things Peaches is learning to do is to label his feelings, and the feelings of others. On the wall of his room is a chart with faces, expressing anger, sorrow, joy. Peaches uses stickers to say how he is feeling, and he’s learning to speak the words.

We were at the store the other day, and it had been a long day for Peaches. It was time to go, but Peaches wanted to spend more time looking at the toy cars. “Your dad will be home for dinner soon, Peaches,” Makayla said gently. “It’s time for us to go.”

“Leaving before they want to makes people feel angry and frustrated,” Peaches said to his mom. “I am feeling angry and frustrated.”

A deal was made – five more minutes in the toy department in exchange for helping to fold laundry later. Peaches was satisfied. No tantrum necessary. No battle of wills. No spankings or public spectacles.

It struck me that most children learn about feelings by osmosis. Most parents don’t systematically explain to their kids what a feeling is, what to call it and how to express it. Too often, feelings are discouraged, ignored or punished. Some feelings, especially when experienced by children, are understood to be “bad,” like (for example) anger and frustration.

I’m working with my therapist now on “anger issues.” Somewhere along the line in the process of growing up, I learned to detest my own feelings if they weren’t positive. I became phobic of anger – mine or anyone else’s – and unable to endure it or express it in a reasonable way.

Too often, I avoid simply saying the words, “I am angry” or “I am frustrated;” instead, I swallow the feeling and eventually explode, breaking glass and kicking cabinets. I’ve had to pay to repair a hole I put in the wall in an apartment. I’ve broken objects like flashlights and coffee mugs. I lost my voice a few weeks ago because I sat and screamed in the car. In no case did I simply tell someone how I was feeling.

Peaches may be a 5-year-old child with autism, but in some ways he’s way ahead of other kids, as well as many adults, including me. He’s learning to speak his feelings. As an adult, I’m just now beginning to learn to speak mine.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Pants on fire. Monday, January 17, 2011.

“The worst lies are the lies we tell ourselves. We do this because we’re afraid.” – Richard Bach

My depression lies to me. Maybe yours does too.

My depression tells me, “You are no good at what you do,” when I have a whole list of commendations and awards.

My depression tells me, “You suck at your job,” when I got three promotions in two years and nothing but stellar reviews.

My depression tells me, “Your friends don’t care about you,” when they send me e-mails asking me out for coffee or dinner.

My depression tells me, “You’re a horrible daughter,” when it would be so much easier to walk away rather than take over my parents’ affairs – and I haven’t.

My depression tells me, “You’re a neglectful mother,” when my son is a young man who has turned out very well.

My depression tells me, “You’re a terrible wife,” when my husband reminded me last night how much he loves me.

My depression tells me, “You’re a terrible housekeeper,” when that is not the measure of a person. (At least I hope not.)

My depression tells me, “You’re ugly,” when I used to model.

My depression tells me, “You just waste time on Facebook,” when every day someone contacts me and thanks me for what I write and do, and that means so much to me.

My depression tells me, “You’re pathetic to be on medication,” when I tried to heal myself for many years and found the illness winning.

My depression tells me, “You’re worthless,” when my family, my job and my church would not be the same without me.

My depression tells me, “You don’t deserve to live,” when apparently that’s wrong as despite depression’s attempt to the contrary, I happen to still be here.

My depression likes to tell me lies. And when I feel vulnerable, I believe them. I think it’s time for me to tell my depression to shut the fuck up.

What do you think?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Working for pride. Thursday, January 13, 2011.

“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

Yesterday I talked to a young woman who was thrilled to be pushing a broom.

Kristina has a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. Before she went into treatment, she said, she had never worked at any job for more than a couple of weeks. Her delusions would get in the way of basic functioning, and she’d either be fired or quit.

She wound up on disability and SSI, but that process took almost two years. She had no access to medication, counseling or treatment of any kind, since in the U.S., these “privileges” usually come attached to full-time employment. In the meantime, she found herself on the streets, turning tricks for the most basic necessities. “It was horrible,” she told me. “If I was still living like that, I’d be dead.”

Unemployment in the United States is still pushing 10 percent (and total unemployment is approaching Great Depression levels). But the unemployment rate for people with mental illness is 90 percent.

Ninety percent.

In a place like America with so few social safety nets, and no health insurance for the unemployed and for part-time workers, that is a sobering figure. A huge number of these people wind up on relatives’ couches (if they’re fortunate) or on the streets (if they’re not).

Unemployment and mental illness tend to feed off each other. Extreme mood changes, delusions and hallucinations, or confusion can make it difficult to do most jobs, or even to get the kind of education or training needed for a basic job. On the flip side, the stress of losing a job often triggers severe anxiety and depression.

People who are unemployed also have a suicide rate twice as high as those who are unemployed.

But there are little spots of hope, and one of them is The Hope House, which offers a gathering place for people with mental illness, and a variety of services including supported employment. I went there yesterday to write a story on it, and I was shown quite the welcome.

The Hope House – located in a renovated Victorian – is a place where people can hang out without experiencing stigma or judgment. They can talk about mental illness without worrying about what someone will say. They can have a sandwich, play a game of bridge or pool, watch a video. And they can work with counselors who can connect them with jobs and provide the occupational and psychological help some need in order to stay at a job long-term.

For Kristina, “long-term” means over a year now. This is huge. The longest she’d ever stayed at a job in the past was less than a month. “I’m on medication and I’m feeling a lot better now,” she says. “I’m not hearing voices anymore and I can go to work … I like my job a lot. It’s only a few hours a week but that’s OK. I get to see people and I like to make things clean. I like to keep busy, you know?”

I speak to Ken, her counselor at The Hope House. He says that at one point, more than half the members there had jobs through their supported employment program. That figure is down to one-third because of the Recession. “We really hope it changes soon,” he says. “Most of these people are surviving on (Disability) payments of $600 a month. You can’t even rent an apartment on that.”

Things aren’t easy for Kristina. She considers herself extremely lucky to be working at a janitor two days a week, to be getting a disability check, and to finally be receiving medication. But she has to rent a small one-room apartment with another girl, and there is still virtually no money for “extras.”

But she has something today that she considers priceless – a feeling of pride. “When I was sleeping with guys for money, you know, and I didn’t have anywhere to stay, I thought about wanting to die,” Kristina told me. “When I go to work and clean things and talk to people, it makes me feel good to be here.”

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Not like us. Tuesday, January 11, 2011.

“No! I won’t pay debt with a currency that’s not backed by gold and silver! No! I won’t trust in God!” – Jared Lee Loughner

You know what we want?

We want Jared Lee Loughner to be mentally ill.

For those who might have been hiding under a baobab tree for the last three days, Jared, a college student in Tuscon, open fired in a Safeway supermarket, killing six (including a little girl and a federal judge), and injuring 14 (including Democrat Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who at this moment is clinging to life after surviving a bullet through the head).

Gone are the days when we had to wait for the next day’s newspaper, or even for the evening news. Within minutes of the shooting, the Internet lit up with pieces of a puzzle that may never be completely finished.

Was Jared strange? Did he have problems relating to people? Of this there can be no doubt. Campus police had been called five times to address concerns about Jared’s behavior, including one time when a teacher felt threatened by Jared’s reaction to failing an assignment.

He’d been having angry outbursts in class, talking in nonsense sentences, and becoming more and more immersed in government conspiracy theories. A classmate told Fox News, “A lot of people didn’t feel safe around him.”

Nevertheless, Jared obtained a gun – a Glock 19 handgun, to be exact.

Armchair psychologists around the country snapped to attention. Within a few hours of the shooting, the media was tossing the term “paranoid schizophrenia” around, even though no one knows – even now – whether Jared has any sort of diagnosis at all. The failure of the “mental health system” was blamed. TIME Magazine printed six “warning signs of mental illness” that had been ignored, allowing the tragedy to happen.

Jared smirked for the cops, and his mom and dad cried and expressed shock and grief in front of the TV cameras. Neighbors said no one knew the family very well, but it was reported that his dad drank a lot of beer and was quick to anger. Jared was said to have been a loner, a bit of an outcast, and a pothead who wore his hood up even in the hot summer.

So yes, it appears that Jared may have a screw loose. But is he “mentally ill?” Did he have no idea what he was doing, even though investigators found a note in his room that said, “I planned ahead?”

This is a case with a little bit of everything. Jared is said to be prone to “right-wing rants.” Was this about politics? Or was it about the pot? Or was it about his parents?

Come on, come on! There has to be a reason.

Through the decades, there have been killers that turned out to be demonstrably mentally ill. And because the entire point of news is to inform people of significant events, we tend to hear – and remember – more about those individuals.

But here’s the truth – if you know someone with schizophrenia, the chances of him being a violent killer are about the same as if you knew someone with blue shoes, or a wheelbarrow, or a Springer spaniel. (The chances of someone leaving your neighborhood bar being violent are a great deal higher.)

As Slate Magazine explained it:

Your chance of being murdered by a stranger with schizophrenia is so vanishingly small that a recent study of four Western countries put the figure at one in 14.3 million. To put it in perspective, statistics show you are about three times more likely to be killed by a lightning strike.

Why do we want Jared to be mentally ill? Why are we waiting so eagerly to hear the words, “Jared Lee Loughner is a paranoid schizophrenic?”

Because we’ll feel so relieved if he’s “different” somehow. Because then we can say, “Oh, it’s because of that,” and close the book.

Because we want “him” not to be “us.”

Friday, January 7, 2011

The illusion of honor. Friday, January 7, 2011.

"Whosoever killeth a human being... it shall be as if he had killed all mankind, and whoso saveth the life of one, it shall be as if he had saved the life of all mankind." –The Koran

On New Year’s Eve, a green car drove up in front of All Saints Coptic Orthodox Church in Alexandria, Egypt, during the holiday service. A few moments later, a bomb inside the car, filled with 100 KG of explosives as well as glass, nails and iron balls, went off. Twenty-three people inside the church were killed, and more than 100 injured.

Details remain sketchy as of this writing. Depending on the news source, the bomb was planted by someone on behalf of Al Qaeda, or not. The man in the car was a suicide bomber, or else the bomb went off prematurely before he was able to get away.

Whether or not this particular act was the work of a suicide bomber, it affects me directly because I happen to have personal ties to the community that was attacked so brutally. And we hear stories every week of suicide bombings all over the world. What happened here on 9-11 was a gigantic suicide bombing, using airplanes. The media quickly spread stories about the perpetrators committing “jihad,” expecting to be rewarded in paradise with 72 virgins.

It’s not the first time suicide has been used as a war tactic. In 1945, the Japanese – who were losing WWII – began filling planes with just enough fuel for them to crash into a target, and began sending their pilots on “kamikaze” missions. The word kamikaze means “divine wind,” and even today, Japan has one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world. Culturally, the Japanese have tolerated suicide, even encouraged it for reasons of “honor.” Today, unemployment and work stressors are the main reasons for suicide in Japan. “Suicide Clubs,” which people join so they can commit suicide together, are growing as a result of economic hardship.

So it would seem that Islamic and Japanese cultures approve of suicide, even promote it, which is a foreign thought to those of us in America and Europe. But if you scratch under the surface, there’s more to the story.

Japan is largely Shinto, and the Shinto religion allows suicide for a number of reasons. However, the Japanese government recognizes suicide as a major problem it its society. The suicide rate increased almost 35 percent in 1998 alone, to almost three times that of the United States, with people jumping in front of trains and leaping off high places all over the country. “Honorable” or not, these individuals leave grieved families behind, destabilizing their communities.

The Japanese government calls the problem of suicide “very serious,” and has released a nine-step plan, called a “counter-suicide White Paper,” which is intended to curb suicide by 20 percent before 2017. Among the Paper’s goals are a change in the culture’s attitude toward suicide.

And as my Moslem friends will tell me, Islam in general rejects the beliefs of the suicide bombers and condemns the work of such terrorists. “Jihad,” they explain, simply refers to a divine struggle – which can be internal – and in no way promotes the killing of non-Muslims. And while the Holy Bible contains no verses condemning suicide specifically, the Koran has several, including “And do not kill yourselves, God is merciful with you. And whosoever does that (kills self) with aggression and inequity, we will make them suffer in Hell fire, and this is easy for God to do.”

The true martyrs in the Coptic Church bombing were the thousands of Egyptian Muslims who showed up at Coptic churches all over Egypt last night, to serve as “human shields” during Orthodox Christmas celebrations. By attending Christmas services in order to prevent radical Moslems from bombing them, these Muslims put their lives, and their families’ lives, at risk – not just now but for the foreseeable future, and all on behalf of strangers of a different religion.

While the families of suicide bombers are often given financial awards by radical Islamic organizations, these Muslims who protected Christians are on their own. But I believe their sentiments are much more typical of the average Muslim. And I believe they’re a million times more brave than any suicide bomber.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

All in the family. Thursday, January 6, 2011.

“Genes and family may determine the foundation of the house, but time and place determine its form.” – Jerome Kegan

My sister-in-law thinks my big brother, Charles, is bipolar.

She wrote me about his extreme mood swings, bouts of anger, anxiety and depression. Moreover, she complains that Charles can’t communicate and doesn’t understand how she feels. She’s frustrated, but she’s also terrified – Charles has been out of work for months, and he’s been mentioning suicide.

None of this should be too surprising. I’m bipolar and our father is autistic. Charles is just acting like one of the family. Obviously, he took after Dad in his difficulties with empathy and communication, and my brother and I are very much alike in other ways.

The interesting thing, though, is that Charles never knew Dad. Charles has spent a grand total of three hours with our father, when he came into town a couple of years ago and had dinner with him. He’s spent a little more time with me – three short visits; in total, about a day.

Charles was born in the 1950s to a teen mom, before Dad ever met my mother. It was the “good old days,” and when the girl turned up preggers, her parents whisked her out of town so she could have her baby in secret. Charles was taken in and raised by relatives. Dad never knew their whereabouts, and back then, didn’t even consider the option to look. Charles and I were adults before we even knew of each other’s existence.

I visited Charles this summer, and even though the visit was short, I was taken aback by how similar Charles is to Dad, and to me. Charles is definitely not autistic, but in so many other ways – his mannerisms, his tastes in entertainment, his sense of humor – he’s a reflection of me, of my Dad, or both of us.

And now his wife writes me about bipolar, which is really weird because I’ve never told her that I’ve got that diagnosis myself. And she’s afraid Charles will kill himself, and she knows nothing of my attempt. She wants him to see a counselor, but there’s no money for that.

Anyone who has had more than one child will tell you that we are born with different temperaments. One’s first baby might sleep though the night and smile at every new face from birth, while the next one screams for hours and is petrified of strangers. It’s undeniable we learn behaviors from our parents, but it’s also obvious (to me, anyway) that we don’t come into the world tabula rasa.

I learned of perhaps the world’s most extreme example of this in college, when we studied “The Jim Twins.” Jim Lewis and Jim Springer were identical twins, raised apart, and reunited at the age of 39:

Both had childhood dogs named Toy. Both had been nail biters and fretful sleepers. Both had migraines. Both had married first wives names Linda, second wives named Betty. Lewis named his first son James Allen, Springer named his James Alan. For years, they both had taken holidays on the same Florida beach. They both drank Miller Lite, smoked Salem cigarettes, loved stock car racing, disliked baseball, left regular love notes to their wives, made doll furniture in their basements, and had added circular white benches around the trees in their backyards. Their IQs, habits, facial expressions, brain waves, heartbeats, and handwriting were nearly identical. The Jim twins lived apart but died on the same day, from the same illness.

I get the chills whenever I read about The Jim Twins. And while their case is extraordinary, it begs the question of what is nature and what is nurture. It doesn’t let parents off the hook – children do “live what they learn.” We have a billion examples of that. But we have, at the very least, tendencies to react to that parenting in different ways.

I’m so sorry my brother is going through this. If I only knew him ...

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Temper, temper. Wednesday, January 5, 2011.

“And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.” –John 4:16

Dear God,

I haven’t talked to you much in a long time. Since I went through my really hard time, I haven’t been so sure that you’re there. Other times, I feel like you’re there, but that you don’t really like me.

I pray to you at church, but mostly I just feel sad when I do. I try to pray at work or before bed and my mind just goes blank. I’ve heard of “the dark night of the soul,” but I don’t know how long it’s supposed to last, or how to get out of it. Maybe you can help me.

I’m praying to you now because I feel really bad for losing my temper with my Dad a couple of days ago. You know that I’ve been trying to make arrangements for him to be able to stay in his rest home, and there’s been lots of paperwork and financial stuff involved. You know that he’s autistic, and so it’s been hard to communicate with him all my life. And you know that on top of the autism, he’s developing dementia.

So I promised myself as I was driving over to the home that I would keep his autism and dementia in mind and that I wouldn’t get frustrated with him. After all, he’s a tiny, 85-year-old man in a wheelchair. He’s sharp as a tack in many ways, but in other ways, he’s clueless and can’t help it. You know that, and I know that too.

But Lord, a half-hour meeting turned into a 5-hour, complicated mess, and Dad is resentful of me taking over his affairs. He doesn’t comprehend that I’m trying to keep him from being evicted for forgetting to pay rent, and that I’m trying to protect his health by letting the rest home take over his blood pressure and cholesterol medications. He’s not cognizant of the fact that he is forgetting whole conversations a few minutes after they happen, or that he’s too confused to keep track of his checkbook.

Instead, God, he’s pissed. He thinks the County and the doctors and the rest home are just nosing into his business. One minute, he’s asking for my help and thanking me. The next minute, he’s resentful and angry and he’s shouting at me. Finally, I lost my temper and shouted back. I shouted so loud I’m surprised that the nurse didn’t come running!

I told my Facebook friends about what it was like to have an autistic father. Lord, you know better than anyone that my feelings about my dad are really mixed up. I don’t know if I love him, or hate him, or both.

When I feel angry at him, I’m not just angry at that immediate situation – I’m angry about all the times he hurt my mom and me, even though he never meant to. I’m angry because I learned a lot of dysfunctional things from him, and it’s taking me decades to unlearn them. I’m angry that I didn’t have a “normal dad” who would have been there for me when I needed the reassurance that only a father can provide. I’m angry that I have to parent him when he really never parented me.

Lord, you know all of that – and you also know how terribly, terribly guilty I feel for being mad. My father loved me as best he could, especially when I was a little girl. He provided for me. Unlike many fathers, he never laid a hand on me. And he can’t help being autistic or having dementia. Being angry at him for not communicating or for being confused is like being angry at a rock for being hard.

I have a sense that he won’t be around much longer. Only you know when that will happen, God, but it seems we fight every time we talk, and I’m so scared that he will die and our last conversation will have been an angry one. I don’t want that to happen. I need your help.

I’m going to try to talk to you more often, God. I hope you’re listening. I really miss you.



Monday, January 3, 2011

Good grief. Monday, January 3, 2010.

“When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” –Kahlil Gibran

My dear friend Abrihet lost her beloved mother at the end of September. I wrote about Mama’s unexpected death and about Abrihet, who is the most amazing woman I have ever known. Do I worship the ground on which Abrihet walks? Well, almost. At the very least I see her as one of the strongest, most capable people I’ve ever had the good fortune to have as a friend.

It’s been a hard few months of Abrihet. Her mother lived with the family, and the two were like best friends, so the loss of Mama in Abrihet’s daily life is palatable for her. The first few weeks after Mama’s untimely passing was a study in cultural differences for me. Abrihet and many of her friends are from Africa, where it is customary to put a very public face on one’s sorrow.

As one website on African traditions put it, “Females of the family of the deceased and their friends may undergo mournful lamentations. In some instances they work their feelings up to an ostentatious, frenzy-like degree of sorrow.” One of only a very few Caucasian Americans at the memorial, I witnessed that kind of emotion, and as Abrihet wailed in her native language, my heart was ripped open. I could barely stand it.

Still, it made sense to me – in a way, more sense than our silent and restricted ways of grieving in America. Rather than stuffing their grief, as so many of us do, the Africans let it all out; the bereaved are encouraged to scream and cry loudly to express their sorrow. Americans, in contrast, tend to expect the bereaved to mourn silently and get back to the business of living as soon as possible.

But Abrihet straddles two worlds. She’s lived in the US since she became an adult, and is as “Americanized” as can be. Abrihet is a medical researcher and an emergency room RN. She’s raising four children, and running a non-profit organization raising aid for Africa. Life in America is complex and busy, and it doesn’t allow for mourning time.

For a few weeks after Mama’s death, Abrihet looked positively ashen. Already tiny, she had lost weight, and she had dark circles under her eyes. She could not smile or laugh. As time went on, though, Abrihet began to return to her usual self. Her color returned, she looked less emaciated. Her face began to soften, and eventually I saw her beautiful smile again. Make no mistake: she was a different Abrihet, an Abrihet without Mama. She would never be “the same.” But I began to recognize my dear friend again.

Over the weekend, I participated in a fundraising event for Abrihet’s non-profit organization. Abrihet’s familiar smile and mannerisms were there. But as I was getting ready to leave, she pulled me into another room. She wasn’t doing okay, she confided. She was still crying a lot; she was still having problems sleeping. Mama’s loss was constantly on her mind. A friend of hers had suggested she try antidepressant medication. What did I think…?

Abrihet wasn’t asking a medical question; she’s a medical professional and knows more than I do. She was asking a spiritual question, a moral question, a social question: Is it wrong for me to still be grieving? Is there something wrong with me?
Some people here on FB seem to believe that because I take medication, I believe there’s a pill for every ill.

Let me say once again for the record that I do not believe this is so. I’ve written about the difference between sadness and clinical depression. I’m not in favor of drugging small children or feeding 20 different meds to grandpa. And while I’m no doctor, when it comes to Abrihet, I see bereavement and not clinical depression. They are different things.

In Africa, when someone dies, the family stays together in a room for a week or two and all activity stops. In the United States, we get two “bereavement days” off work if we are lucky. In Africa, death is seen as an entry to another life. In the United States, despite the fact that many people consider it a “Christian” nation, the spirituality of death has been sanitized away. We’re encouraged here to get past the business of death as quickly as possible.

Abrihet is trapped between these two worlds. And while she knows that she cries in private, I know that in public her “self” is on its way back. I don’t see how antidepressants could do anything to help her that her brain and body are not doing naturally already. She needs to be patient with herself as she goes through this transition.

I told Abrihet to speak to her physician about the antidepressants. It’s my sincere hope that he suggests bereavement therapy instead of prescribing medication. Painful as it is, Abrihet is experiencing a good grief, and someday, she’ll be on the other side.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

To begin again. 2:13 a.m., January 1, 2011.

“An optimist stays up until midnight to see the new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old year leaves.” ~Bill Vaughan

Dear Diary,

I just got home from a little celebration to welcome this new year. A million people have gathered in Times Square tonight to celebrate the Earth’s orbit around the sun. Around the world, almost everyone on the planet is merrymaking. It’s the biggest party there is.

A year ago tonight, my husband, son and I were at a public event. I remember that night well. It was the first New Year’s Eve after my suicide attempt, and even though my attempt had happened earlier in the year, I was still quite depressed.

At first, being surrounded by children with balloons and adults with hats and noisemakers just seemed kind of irritating. But at some point, as I was watching people dance, I felt something inside me shift. Maybe, I thought, this could be a new beginning. Maybe there was hope after all.

If there is one word to sum up the emotion of a New Year’s celebration, it’s optimism. For one night, the vast majority of human beings join together as if to say, “We can begin again, and we can do it better this time around.” If you think about it, there would be no other reason to celebrate a particular passage of time. The point is that things are new and fresh, and there is opportunity and hope. Like the birth of a baby, the beginning of a New Year symbolizes possibilities.

Part of that optimism is reflected in the concept of the New Year’s resolution. When my son was 7 or so, I explained New Year’s resolutions to him, let him think for a while, and then asked, “So what is your resolution going to be this year?” “To learn more about roly-poly bugs,” he announced. For a 7-year-old, learning about a bug just might be considered self-improvement.

Actually, he kept his resolution, which is more than can be said for most adults who vow to quit smoking or start exercising. But part of the importance of a resolution is simply recognizing an area of one’s life that needs to be changed. That’s a big chunk of the battle.

This year, I resolve to do one thing: to continue to recover. I’ve already come a long way from that big celebration a year ago, and my “support group” on Facebook is a huge reason for that. I’ve taken other actions as well – getting proactive about my career options, reaching out to be closer to old friends and to make new ones, and finding a new therapist. Despite dark clouds of economic doom, despite some legitimate fears of what the future will bring, I still feel more optimistic tonight than I did one year ago when I first felt that tiny wave of hope.

Tonight, I’m hopeful that I’ll continue on my upward trajectory of healing. I’m hopeful that my loved ones will have a safe and happy year. And I’m hopeful that the dear friends I’ve met in the SAS group, some who have become like family to me, will continue to make a decision each day to stay in this world.

It’s the first day of a new year. We can begin again, and we can do it better this time around.