I don’t know how you all are feeling today. I hope you’re doing alright. I hope that if you’re not doing alright, that you can find a healthy way to feel a little less crappy.
Disclaimer: This post may bring up some hard feelings for you, so maybe don’t read it until you are ready, and maybe have a plan of how to manage the feelings if they do come up (like write a blog post, teehee).
With the passing of Robin Williams and the immense sadness of a generation raised on his movies, empowered by the internet to communicate their every feeling, I held off on my “RIP RW” comments until I could manage some of my feels and talk to you honestly about what it is like for a survivor of suicide to experience the emotional roller coaster that happens when a celebrity dies by suicide.
First, let me say that we do a crap job of talking about death in this society. We dehumanize it or we glorify it. It’s a complicated thing. Who is allowed to die peacefully? How do we deal with death as a society when information is available immediately? What is lost when we do not have the quiet time for reflection that is supposed to happen after someone dies? There is a reason that some religions and cultures have periods of grieving (i.e. sitting shiva in the Jewish tradition, rosaries in the Catholic tradition). It is a time for the family of the deceased to be close together, away from prying eyes and only let in those who are close to the family. It is a period for reflection, for sadness, for support. It is a time to turn inward and look at difficult feelings.
As I scrolled through my news feed yesterday afternoon on the way back from a wonderful trip to Los Angeles for my friends’ wedding, I came across a picture of Robin Williams with just “RIP” in the caption. In the pit of my stomach, I knew it was suicide. I had read the news of his returning to rehab to regain focus and manage his depression. He had, in fact, taken some precautions and tried to seek help. I felt an all too familiar cramp in my abdomen slowly seize my entire torso. My brain went a bit blank for a while, and my body began to sink back into a sad place, a place I couldn’t manage and was trying to avoid.
Let me try to explain.
For me, trauma and depression feels a bit like being shot out of a rocket, into a pit of sludgy quicksand. You are suddenly stuck, sinking slowly, with no way out. But you aren’t even really fighting it. The shock has numbed you, and all you can do is sit in the sludge and get consumed by it. There is a dark haze that starts to sink over your peripheral, it closes in like a storm. Maybe this accounts for the term “tunnel vision” because you really do start to lose the way you “see” things. If you can focus at all, it’s only on one thing and not even that well. It makes your brain numb and slowwwwwww and even when you want to try at something, it somehow stops you dead in your tracks.
So I searched the news sites for more information, leading myself down a very very dangerous rabbit hole. I mostly avoid the news. I read enough to stay informed on important issues, but I try not to let it get the best of me because when I really start digging, it often does. I kept looking and looking, trying to find out some more hard facts. Growing up in San Francisco, Robin Williams is kind of a legend. Friends used to go trick-or-treating at his house, so many people I know have met him, say what a charismatic, wonderful, and soulful being he was. He is a household name. For people in my age bracket, he was a major, MAJOR part of our upbringing and his movies are ingrained in the fabric of our jokes, personalities, sensibilities, etc. He had a big hand in raising us. So I somehow let myself pull the thread of news articles, and pull and pull until I found myself so unravelled that I couldn’t even speak. I of course found the Marin County PD report. Big mistake. I dug a little more and more until I had come to a solid conclusion about how he died. It sank in all day during the ride home and when I came home, I cried a little and then went on about my day. It wasn’t until I read everyone’s posts, tweets, and sad memories that I became completely unhinged. It took me two episodes of Orphan Black and two True Blood episodes to quiet my mind enough to go to bed.
It has taken me nearly eleven years to learn what works and what doesn’t when I come across feelings that are hard for me to manage. I haven’t even really figured it out all the way, but there are some steps I take to make sure that I am safe. Sometimes that means that I have to put my feelings on hold until I am in a safe space to really examine them. Sometimes it means eating a huge bowl of ice cream and watching my favorite show until my mind quiets down a little. Sometimes it means reaching out to a network of friends who know my history with this sort of thing and will get the clue if I start talking a certain way or using certain words. I suggest highly that you find at least one person that you know you can talk to about anything and come up with some sort of code: red safety word that means you really need to talk. Not like, “I’m upset and I need to complain”, but like “I’m in a really unsafe space and I need someone to listen to my process”.
Everyone needs a witness sometimes.
Sometimes you don’t need someone to give you any advice or to solve the problem for you. Sometimes you just need someone to listen to all of the crazy shit that’s flying around your brain and not worry that they are going to judge you or freak out. Throughout your life, that person may change. Some friends can hear hard thoughts about some topics and not others. It’s important to feel out who you can talk to about what and keep a mental database so that you have someone to talk to when things take a turn for the worse. That being said, you also need people who know when enough is enough and who will push you to get help when you really need it.
So the media coverage. It was mostly a shit show. Some media outlets were tasteful, some where completely inappropriate and those were the ones that did me in. When a news agencies post about death, sometimes they forget about tact and they forget about the individual reading the article. They publish for the sake of getting the information to the people and they don’t hold themselves accountable for how the information is received. This happens all the time and is the main reason I don’t watch the news on tv and I limit my reading to key issues. If I didn’t I would be so depressed at the state of the world and it would keep me in a perpetually unsafe place mentally. I struggle with the balance in the news of getting the headline out with actually fact checking and waiting until facts are available. Here is a statement from the CEO of the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention on why safe reporting is important and what it looks like: http://www.afsp.org/news-events/in-the-news/unsafe-reporting-on-suicide-can-cost-lives
Also, if you really do need someone to talk to right now, look for some resources here: http://www.afsp.org/ or http://www.afsp.org/coping-with-suicide-loss/find-support
or call: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Sometimes it’s okay to wait and to listen.
Let me be clear. It is okay for people to process their feelings however they need to. It is okay for people to post “RIP Robin Williams” if that is what helps them deal with loss. But for me, at this point, sometimes a barrage of “trending: Robin Williams” facebook posts with little blue lightning arrows and pictures of Aladdin and the Genie hugging just send me into a frenzy and make it really hard for me to hear myself think. So I logged out. But it didn’t stop me from wondering if there was any breaking news. It didn’t stop me from hoping that finding out the details of his death would somehow put my mind at ease (tip: it hasn’t).
Every time I hear about someone I know or know of dying by suicide or dying under horrible circumstances it does send me back into a grief state. It does require some management and it does make it difficult for me to focus on everyday tasks and activities. Sometimes it means that I need to stay quiet and listen to myself. Those thoughts aren’t always nice, but if I don’t hear them out, they just lie in wait to attack me when I’m feeling weak. I forget who said it, but it’s like a memory that you don’t want to touch and when it comes up, it burns like you accidentally touched a hot pan on the stove and you recoil so you don’t have to deal with it. But that doesn’t work for me. Sometimes when these feelings come up, I need to talk to someone about them. Sometimes I need to wait until my brain has enough information to tell me how I feel so I can express it.
I encourage you to find a method of management for these rough feelings and see what works and then stick to it. Make your brain memorize the steps so that it can go into auto-pilot when things get crazy.
Also, look at pictures of cute animals. For example: http://www.sophiegamand.com/#/flowerpower/
Feel free to message me or send me an ask if you need some tips. Take a look through the Survivor Pro Tips, I hope they help you find some comfort.
Feel better tomorrow.
Sometimes, in between creating new Pro Tips, I go back and look at what I have made so far. It’s important for me, mostly so that I don’t repeat myself, but also so that I can keep in mind what these really are.
Last night, I had a dream. It was one of those jumbled dreams that mixes memories with your minds inventions, that leaves you feeling haunted the whole next day. In my dream, I was in Matthew’s room, but it was a different room. It was painted over, but the original color was starting to come through the cracked paint on top. I was doing some writing in the room, not sure what it was about, maybe about Matthew. Whatever I was writing was making me upset, his mother was coming to check on me. But the room was suddenly extremely disheveled. The paint began to crack more and more and the room was messy (something that would never occur currently in there, as it is used as an office now). While looking at the paint, trying to peel it back, I noticed that not all of the colors were the correct color, and this upset me. Then everything got really mixed up and muddy. When I woke up, I didn’t know how to react, but I was suddenly hit with the actual memory of his room and the aqua color that filled the walls, his bed in the corner, his computer along with all of his techy projects on a table, a dresser, his closet with no door. Bits and pieces of computers and plastic strewn about, a rubix cube. I was flooded with the memory of him in it, but also the memory of the emptiness after he died.
After he died, when I finally went into his room, it was so heavy in its emptiness. The emptiness was suffocating. All of his things were still there, everything still in, and out of, place. But then some things jumped out at me. The book he had been reading the last time I saw him, a GED text book, abandoned on a top shelf in the closet with no door, a picture of me from school, tacked to a bulletin board, all by itself. His computer, which he had completely wiped clean, hard drive emptied and stripped. His message, carefully penned on the wall in permanent marker. The weight of his gone-ness was so oppressive, the air, deflated. I could feel the absence of his life.
This is a memory that I have not had come up in several years. I know there is a lot of dream theory that suggests dreams help you sort through and process things that your mind cannot/does not during the day. Also maybe that the color of the paint being wrong is somehow tied to my feeling like memories get distorted and that we start to weave a narrative around a memory until it becomes something different entirely. Either way, it brought me back to my list. It brought me here, searching for an existing pro-tip that would remind me of something, that would nudge me forward, etc. I could not find one which encompassed everything I needed in that moment, (which clearly means that there are tons more to write) but one did stand out as relevant.
44) Grief is a cycle. It goes around. And comes around.
Someone once asked me at what point I felt that I had truly moved on from Matthew’s death. I plainly told them that you never actually let it go or move on, but it becomes less loaded and less oppressive as time goes on. I remember his mother sending me a quote, shortly after he passed. A quote by Anne Lamott:
“You will lose someone you can’t live without,and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp”
So I suppose the Pro Tips are my limping dance. And that this dream is the grief coming around. And that’s fine. The one thing that I try to explain to people who have recently lost someone is that it really hurts to remember. For a while. It takes a long time to not have memories tied to extreme emotions. But you have to hear them out. If you don’t hear them out, if you bury them and ignore them, they become sort of distorted and infected. And then every time they come up, they are painful and they stab you in the gut, or the heart. You kind of have to look at them like scars. You can see them as ugly or disfiguring, or you can see them as an addition to your story, a plot twist that makes your journey unique.
I may not have wanted any of this, but this is where I’ve ended up and I’m glad I can be here to share this piece of my story with you.
Thanks for reading,
This past weekend, I spoke at the opening ceremony for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s “Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk”. It was my third time walking and my first time speaking. It’s also the first time I have been actively engaged with the suicide prevention community. It was an extremely powerful experience and I am trying to wrap my head around how I feel about it and process some of the struggles I had with it.
I was starting to feel discouraged about my speech and the fact that I felt it was a little dry and canned, especially compared to the extremely emotional speech of the closing speaker, which has received a huge response. I realized that although the response to my speech has been quieter, it has been there. My speech was never meant for people who would feel comfortable enough to spew their love all over the place on the internet. It was meant for listeners and for people who are more shy. For people who have never seen someone who looks like them talking about something like this. My position within the suicide prevention community as a woman of color is extremely important to me and to my own community. It’s important for me to be visible and to share my story. Many communities of color have a very hard time addressing depression and mental health issues for a variety of reasons. One is lack of access to resources for help. Another is the stigmatization that many people, also people outside of communities of color, face when it comes to these issues. When you have a mental illness or are facing some hardships emotionally, in some communities it is not okay to ask for help or to talk about it. You are supposed to keep that sort of thing to yourself, but that’s another post for another time.
I may not have struggled with some of the things that other people who participated in the walk did, but my story is as valuable and as important for people to hear. When I was in the thick of my depression, when people walked away from me, were scared of me, didn’t know how to help me, my family and my community were there. The Overnight Walk didn’t save my life, but it has been my chance to show that I saved my own damn life with the help of my family and friends. I wanted to die every single day for YEARS. I struggled to find a piece of reality to hold onto that meant enough to me to not die. I wanted badly to stop feeling pain and I didn’t know how to even begin to heal myself. I scraped my way uphill and it wasn’t rainbows and sunshine, it was fucking hell. I felt lost in a world of distorted memories and fabricated narratives. There were so many nights when I was convinced I would die in my sleep from heartbreak. But you know what? I didn’t. I woke up every day and I made a conscious effort to survive. I decided to say no to death and no to addiction. I struggled just as hard and fought just as bravely and it’s my job and it’s my turn to shine for others now.
This in no way discounts the struggle of others, but I challenge you to see each struggle for what it is, an individual experience. One is not more important than the other.
We crave connection and resonance when we listen to others speak of their experiences. I hope that for someone in the crowd, what I said resonated, and that it lit up a small piece of them that they’ve been hiding in the dark, afraid to share. I hope that after my speech, folks who are in the lowest, darkest times see that you can actually survive. That it’s not easy, but you can come out of the other end of the tunnel, intact, if a little damaged. It has been over ten years since Matthew died. I have had a lot of time to sort out my feelings. But I am nowhere near done. His loss will haunt me forever, like a broken bone that gets sore when it rains.
I wanted for other people to see that you can become a whole person again. That whole doesn’t mean you haven’t lost anything. Whole simply means that despite loss, you know who you are, you do the best you can every single day, and that you have reconciled with your choices, your flaws, your past, and your present. That you can look to the future and see yourself there.
Soda Popinskis 6-9 pm tomorrow night! On California and Polk in SF. We’ll be bartending, raffling off some sick ass prizes and selling shirts designed by me! Come support my team’s fundraising efforts for suicide prevention, awareness, and research and support for those affected by suicide, depression and mental illness.
I rarely post personal things here, but I really need your help getting to my goal of $2,000. Ten years ago, I lost one of my closest friends to suicide. Since joining the Overnight Walk three years ago, I have raised over $5,000 to help suicide prevention and research, survivor outreach and research programs, screening programs at universities and other organizations, and support groups. I have also found a place to share my story and help other people share theirs.
This cause is so very close to my heart, and I know that a huge part the Tumblr community is so very aware and I would love your help getting this out there.
Please read my story, share, tell yours, get the word out.
Thanks so much,