“What is your project about?” is the question that often comes up in the non-fiction writing Mastermind I signed up for last month which goes from early January to late June. Good question, I say. I’m hoping to write about my brother’s suicide and how it changed the course of my life, how I turned to alcohol, how life went on and how it turned out to be actually OK. Tears usually well up in my eyes when I start talking about my brother Jeff as I get choked up explaining what he meant to me, how I feel it’s important to talk about suicide, out in the open. Let’s talk about all the crap. But I don’t want it to be a downer of a book either for there is so much hope in surviving and coming through to the other side. The others nod, understanding what I mean about hope. It’s really a story of resilience, overcoming the shit life throws at you, surviving and even thriving.Continue reading “Therapy”
I knew the musical Dear Evan Hansen was based around the suicide of a teenager and despite having that experience in my life, I didn’t give much thought to how it would make me feel. My brother’s suicide was deep in my past, 32 years ago, a whole lifetime away or so it seemed from where I was. Yet it was a fresh wound on Saturday evening as I sat in the darkened theater on West 45th Street catching tears in a well-used tissue.
Before I go further, I must let you know I absolutely adored the show. The cast, the music, the writing. Phenomenal. I will definitely see it again when it tours in my community and I’ve already downloaded the music on my phone. It’s kind of folksy and very Broadway at the same time. Live theater opens something in my heart and I know I would not want to live without it.
This morning as I was doing my own kind of meditation where I lie in bed and send prayers and good thoughts for the day, I asked God to help me see what I should be in the world. On Sunday night we went to mass at a local Catholic college and it was amazing. For me, amazing doesn’t happen at mass all the time, but that night I felt so in tune with what the priest was enthusiastically asserting in his homily and it was all about being who and what we are supposed to be.
It didn’t come to me in a thunderbolt as I mulled this over in bed today but my thoughts drifted to a letter I need to write to a family member to set my side of the relationship right. It’s something I let go too long but it’s never too late, right? The letter needs to be hand written, something I haven’t done in many, many years.
Into my mind popped a vision of a yellow notepad, a notepad I used abundantly during the summer of 1988 to write letters to my brother, Jeff, who had taken his life 17 months prior. I was in the anger stage of my grieving process. It was the summer after my sophomore year of college and I was unable to find employment where my parents lived and so my uncle generously found me a well paying flag person job and I went to live with him, my aunt and young cousins 100 miles from home.
Standing in a u-turn on a major highway, alone for 12 hours a day gives a person quite a bit of time to think. I did a lot of that, headphones in my ears as I listened to the soundtrack of that summer: Walking in Memphis, Simply Irresistible, Hands to Heaven and everything by Phil Collins. When I hear these songs I can be transported back to that summer like it was last week.
Back to the yellow notepad. I would be exhausted at the end of the day and even though I had a boyfriend living nearby, I mostly spent the evenings in my room, scrawling out these lengthy messages to my dead brother. I was trying to come to grips with the why, a nearly fruitless endeavor for suicide survivors. This was long before I heard of the concept of a suicide survivors group. I also eschewed therapy, preferring to go it alone (a common theme in my life).
I wrote on those notepad pages until my hand hurt and then would carefully pull the pages from the pad, fold it in thirds as though I were about to tuck it into a number 10 envelope and then deposit it in the top drawer of the dresser. By the end of the summer the drawer was full but I was no closer to the answers I sought. If I packed them up as I left for my dorm that fall, I don’t remember.
Writing on that yellow pad was an integral part of my very long recovery process. Like the songs of the summer of 1988, I can’t see a yellow pad without remembering the angst of my nocturnal writing during those summer months. If I could write a letter to my 20 year old self, I’d tell her it was going to get better. Time heals all wounds is a trope no grieving person ever wants to hear even if it is true.
Somehow, over time (lots and lots of time), my heart patched over and I was able to work through my grieving process. I was able to go on and work with other survivors, listen on a hotline as people called in with the things that weighed heavily on their mind. Is remembering the notepad part of God’s mission for me? I think it is, at least for today because it was the first image I saw when I looked at Twitter this morning. I will keep seeking the clues He sends me.
The death of Kate Spade, only a few days old, has hit me hard for reasons that are hard to explain. I have read story after story, all the same version with very few details and I’m trying to make sense of it all. I do not own a Kate Spade bag, nor any high-quality statement bags save for a heavily discounted Coach bag purchased at an outlet because I can’t pull the trigger on anything over $100. I am all for clothes and shoes but for some reason cannot make the leap for an expensive purse.
I think what bothers me about this death as with all suicides is that the person did not see better days ahead. Could not comprehend in that moment or in the vastly larger blocks of time of their depression – days, weeks, months, years – that things would eventually change and make living bearable. Life is hard and we don’t always know in what ways for the people who walk among us. Some of us cannot comprehend a life that is so bad it is not worth living anymore. We think of them as selfish or weak. I do not.
Like most others, I experience those times when I’d rather not live either. Life can be HARD. I too have experienced many bad days on end where it seems like it would just make sense to pack it all in. Just drift into the nothingness of death so as not to have to deal with the hard stuff. Thankfully, these are fleeting thoughts because I remind myself that whatever it is, this too will pass. I also don’t have the guts to formulate and follow through with an actual plan. There is also the fact that my brother took his own life when he was 21 and I was 19. I saw the devastating results of suicide first hand and I couldn’t do that to someone else. Instead, I chose to seek help from a professional when necessary.
It doesn’t really matter what the backstory was for Kate. She was in so much pain that she couldn’t live anymore. Mental health holds a stigma as does addiction and these are a deadly combo when left untreated. My heart goes out to her family, for their long road ahead and the public scrutiny this death seems to demand. For many years I chose anger and denial in dealing with my brother’s death. I also succumbed to addiction as one of the byproducts. I had to forgive him and myself and even though it has been a hard road, I am better for my trip down it.
There was also a time when I was passionately involved in suicide prevention. I anonymously answered phone calls, often late into the night when the other person would cry or lash out or simply hang on the line in silence. Do suicide prevention hotlines work? Do people use them? I never felt adequate enough when I was on the other end of the line. Their voices and hopelessness stayed with me through the next few days as I went about life. Eventually, I couldn’t do it anymore for my own mental health. I wish I had answers but I don’t.
If you think you are out of options with nowhere to turn, please reach out. The National Suicide Prevention hotline is 1-800-273-8255.
RIP Kate Spade.