Today, on what would have been Willie’s 22nd birthday, a look back on a post from a couple of years ago. I’m finding a distance in the grief today that is hard to explain so I’ll just leave this here: A Now That Doesn’t Exist
Today, on what would have been Willie’s 22nd birthday, a look back on a post from a couple of years ago. I’m finding a distance in the grief today that is hard to explain so I’ll just leave this here: A Now That Doesn’t Exist
Today is a certain company’s marketing day with the tagline of “let’s talk”. It’s regarding mental health and before I get going, let me just say that I do think that it’s a great initiative geared towards reducing and (fingers crossed) getting rid of the stigma associated with mental health issues. It is also about trying to make those who live with, and struggle with, mental illnesses not feel so alone. It’s about trying to bring awareness to mental health and the range of mental illnesses that afflict so many. All great reasons for the initiative, and ones that I can certainly get behind. So why am I sitting here this evening feeling so frustrated with it all? Simply put, because mental illness isn’t as “pretty” as it’s been marketed to look like and that is part of the reason why there still IS such a huge stigma attached to having and living with mental illness.
So, let’s talk. Or rather, I’ll write and you can read – or not. Let me open the pages of my son’s journals tonight to you and I’ll share one point of view of the reality of mental illness.
My son struggled with his mental health. He did for years before the day he finally told me was scared of his own mind and that he wanted to die – and that he wanted help to stop himself from doing that. Reading over his journals that he kept during the last year or so of his life, it’s clear that he was dealing with mental health issues that were hidden for a long time. He admits it so it’s not rocket science to notice it. It’s laid out, simply and plainly, that he needed help – help that he did want and he did, eventually, ask for. Maybe it was too late by then though. Like a person who ignores ever-worsening physical symptoms of an illness they suspect they have that they are afraid to have confirmed, maybe he waited too long for help to be effective. Or maybe, even if we had gotten him help two years earlier, at the first signs that he noticed – but that he never shared – it still would have ended the same way; with a steady progression through illness to his death by suicide. Who knows. To be honest, tonight, I don’t really care to even look deeply at that shadow in the closet. Moving on…
His journals speak volumes, literally, of mental health and its twists and turns and the torment that it caused inside of him.
Sometimes it’s sadness that is in his words; he doesn’t want to die and he knows he’ll miss people that he loves. He knows how much we’ll miss him too. His words tell about his feelings of love for his family and how badly he doesn’t want to hurt them…us…. his brothers, his dad, his grandparents and myself. He wants to live and be happy but he doesn’t know how to and he can feel himself slipping away from the grip that he has on what hope he has left. He can feel his mind slipping out of his control or understanding. He speaks with such clarity at times in his writings.
Sometimes though, his words make almost no sense. They are rambling, disjointed tirades that careen from subject to subject. Some full of hatred so intense that his pen has literally ripped the pages where he has tried to convey what he wants to say. Vile, angry words and threats litter the journals seemingly without connection or sense to any reality or reason. The dichotomy of his entries are hard to read through.
His words are mostly full of fear though. Fear is what underlines it all. The fear that he has of his thoughts and his mind and his actions. He voices very real and vivid fears that he has about what he will become, what his life will be like. He talks about how he is afraid that he will hurt other people, people that he cares about even. It’s not pretty, it’s not poetic, it’s blunt and scary. He voices the terror that he has that he will kill, that he doesn’t know what he is capable of because he doesn’t know what his mind is doing and how it is changing. He is scared. Scared enough that he writes the phrase “suicide is better than homicide” more than once when talking about how he just doesn’t know what to do.
He talks about being hopeless.
His voice tells about his regret that he won’t be around to see his little brother grow up, but that he knows it’s for the best, no matter how hard it will be. He rages in his journals about how unfair it is – that he doesn’t know why he is the way that he is – and how much he hates himself. How he just doesn’t know how to get better – different. He is sorry, over and over again for who and what he says he is. Apologies are rampant throughout. He is sorry, but not enough to not kill himself. For that, he apologizes for as well.
His journals are scattered with drawings that he has done. They are violent, bloody, morbid depictions. Often without explanation or words to give meaning. I can’t make sense of them and I wonder if even he could have when he drew them. The lone image of a crudely drawn, yet pretty, daisy in one journal is a stark contrast to the death and horror of the others. Another example of the contradictions that exist throughout.
So there is his voice, in a roundabout way. Uncomfortable and scary and awkward. Words that hit too close to home I think for many of us. Words, and the images that they conjure up, that don’t feel good to hear or read.
While we all “talk” today to end the stigma, it’s time to really look and see that what is being fed to us by the the sleek, smoothed out version of mental health issues that greets us in most of the advertising spots today is just one slant of it all. It’s not only sad-looking women gazing out of softly curtained windows while their concerned looking family looks at them from afar (cue soft music in the background here). Mental illnesses look many ways – not all of them ways that we want to see – a lot of them make us want to look away actually. But we have to see, and talk about, all the manifestations if we are going to work to find ways to help them. So there’s my little addition to the “let’s talk” day.
So instead of new words, and thoughts, this.
It’s World Mental Health Day today. A day that is to bring awareness and understanding and support for mental health issues. Instead of the writing I had thought about doing on change and needs and the like, a little something different.
So many people I know struggle and live with personal mental health issues or the impact of those they love who have their own battles.
Today, words are coming hard with emotions on their heels so I’m pulling some older posts that tell what I can’t today.
Hold each other today, in our hearts and souls and bodies if you are able to.
“So, Lola, have you been cutting up your arm?”
That was the comment from the Customs and Border Patrol guard at the USA/Canada border last Friday.
While my partner and I sat in our car and answered the usual questions, that one was unexpected. We were all set for the usual questions about her status as a permanent resident and her non-Canadian passport. All ready for the direction to park the car and head in for her to get the required entry document. All set for that. Standard procedure for crossing the border for her.
Not at all ready for the question directed at me regarding the scars on my arms.
I had no choice other than to answer his question though. So a simple answer of “yes” and I hoped that he was just a not-so-sensitive person who chose to make a not-very-appropriate comment and that would be that. No such luck.
It was followed up with, “Looks like those must have hurt”. Again, my measured and as-simple as-could-be response was provided.
“It was so long ago, I don’t recall”. Trying to hide that I am incredibly uncomfortable with this attention and line of questions. He, I’m sure, knows exactly how uncomfortable he is making me though. Which starts the feeling of anger that I know is not going to be helpful.
He flippantly hands back our documents and directs us, as expected, to park and head in for my partner to get her document.
As we park and walk, I try to pull myself back together from the shock of the two questions and my partner and I agree as we chat that it was out of line and inappropriate. But, we also agree, what can you do? They can ask what they want. There is a huge line up inside and it takes enough time to get to be seen that we have both calmed a bit.
We approach the guard to have the usual done. The standard questions of where are you going, what’s purpose of your trip,how long are you going? His demeanor is a quiet mix of boredom, annoyance and general irritation towards the entire process. He dismissively tells us to sit and he will get back to us. He keeps our passports and documents and the paper I had given him with the address of where we are heading for the weekend.
We expect the next step will be, as usual, my partner to be called back up for fingerprints and a picture and the paper slip to pay and then we will be on our way.
Not today though. After a few minutes, he calls me up.
“Lola, come here”. I look at my partner and we both are a little taken aback but I get up and go to the counter again. The questions come fast and bluntly.
“Tell me the story of what’s up with the cuts on your arms?”
There’s no story. They are scars from some cuts.
“You need to tell me more.”
I’m not sure what you mean. They’re old scars from cuts, that’s all.
“Were they self-inflicted”
“What medication are you on?”
*He looks up from where he is sitting and tilts his head*
“You expect me to believe you aren’t on any medication?”
Yes, I’m not on any medication.
By this point, my heart is pounding and I am doing my best to keep my voice level and my mannerisms as normal as possible. It is becoming very clear where he is going with his questions and my mind is racing along with my heart.
“What’s the name of your psychiatrist?”
I don’t have a psychiatrist
*again, he looks up at me and sighs*
“The name of the physician whose care you are under?”
I’m not under a doctor’s care
“Were they from suicide attempts?”
No *I briefly think of making a joke that if they were, I could win the prize for worst attempt ever for where I cut, but I think better of it and just go with the “no”*
“Then why did you cut yourself?”
It was a particularly rough time in my life and I just did
“Were they done more than 5 years ago?”
Yes *lying, it’s clear at this point that I am actually running a risk of not gaining entry is how it is starting to feel*
“If I check your permanent medical file, will I find records of suicide attempts that you have not told me about here?”
No. There aren’t any.
*He sighs loudly and asks me to read out loud the address where we are going that is printed on the paper we are heading* I do so and think the questions are done. No, they are not. He’s not giving this up that easily apparently.
“What do you do for a living?”
I manage a clinic. A paramedical clinic in Victoria BC
*He smirks a little* “You hold down a job huh?”
Now at this point I am seething with anger inside but trying to stay calm. He then starts asking again about medications in the car etc and brings my partner up. After some standard but still insulting questions, this time directed to her (“16 years in Canada and STILL not a citizen huh?”), she is fingerprinted, photographed, pays her fee and we are on our way.
There ends the most blatant example of judgement and what I took as a personal harassment.
When I try to take apart the layers of what exactly it is that I am so angry about in that interaction, I find that it is so many things.
The fact that two border patrol guards felt that they could openly and without any reason, interrogate me on something that has nothing to do with my legal request to enter the country is clear. They felt that they have every right to question me, or anyone, on anything – no matter how personal or applicable (or not) to the situation. The disgusting truth is that they can do just that. They hold the power to deny entry, to turn you away. Possibly for more than just that one time even. As my partner pointed out when I asked “who the hell does he think he is???” … he has the uniform and the gun and the power. It really is that simple. And it really isn’t right, but it is the way it works.
It was tears that I held back as we left the building and made our way towards the car to leave. As we walked past other guards I made a point of smiling and chatting and looking as unaffected as I could. Acting as opposite as I felt inside. The overwhelming sense was to just get as far away from there as I could, as quickly as we could. I felt embarrassed and I felt shame, but most of all anger was building up.
By the time we reached a rest stop two minutes away, the tears hadn’t come and they weren’t going to. Instead I had discovered just how furious I was over the questioning. Who were they to make a judgement about who I was based on my scars? Because the truth is, that is what they did. They saw scars that are clearly from self-inflicted cutting, and they made an immediate and decisive judgement that I need to be, essentially, screened. Screened for what? To determine if I am mentally ill? If so, how so? Am I going to be a danger to myself or others? Am I going to harm myself – or kill myself – while in their country? Is my mental health status something that should be a deciding factor in whether or not I can be given entry to go camping in their country? If I go by the questions that I was asked, then the answer to that is yes; and that is disturbing.
I have struggled with shame about my scars. I do hide them at work, and for reasons similar to this. I know people judge and assume when they see them. I know they are viewed as physical evidence of mental instability or weakness. So I keep them hidden when I am at work because I am in a position of management. I can’t be seen as weak or incapable or unstable. All things that we all are, from time to time, and all things that these scars are perceived as proving. My moments of weakness do not, in any way, diminish my strength. Ever. Yet that isn’t how our culture sees this.
So we drove away and I was angry and felt violated in a way. I was offended and indignant at how I was treated and questioned. I am a 44-year-old woman, I know and own my strength. I know what demons I fight and what road I walk every day and I am finally at a point where I hold my head high and rarely ever feel shame anymore. I have my moments but they are fleeting. What if I had been a young person though and had to face that? What if I was still very much in the midst of trying to not look at my scars because of the repulsion I felt towards myself when I saw them? What if I already was judging myself and feeling myself to be unstable, shameful, broken and wrong, like those guards tried to make me feel? What then? Who gives them the right to humiliate and belittle and almost casually decide to cause that kind of hurt to a person?
I could walk away and, while those feelings swirled and whispered, they were silenced and soothed by my resolve that I know I’m not those things. Even with that resolve though, I slipped on a long-sleeved shirt today to go into the store. Last week I wouldn’t have. And that makes me angry. Angry that no matter how I may see my scars and no matter how much I know I cannot be judged by what society says they mean – I still will be.
End the stigma of mental health concerns? Still looks like there is a hell of a long way to go.
I came across an article today that was reviewing how we can talk about suicide, specifically how we can help prevent suicide. It spoke to how a person can reach out to someone going through a depression or who they think is suicidal. Great ideas and yes, we need to hear this. We need to be reminded that if someone is thinking about suicide, asking them if they are, will not make them do it. It’s not enough though to just know that and to reach out to someone. That’s great to know that it’s ok to mention the proverbial elephant in the room but there’s something else that I think you need to say. You need to tell them it’s ok to talk and open up. Tell them that you want to hear it and do what you can to help ease what they are dealing with. Most importantly though, and something that wasn’t mentioned, is that you need to convey that you won’t make what they are going through into WHO they are in your eyes. Judgement free. Easier said than done.
There is, undoubtedly, a stigma that is attached to admitting that you are not doing ok. It’s hard to admit that you are having a rough time getting out of bed or doing anything other than existing. It’s hard to reach out and admit that keeping the mask on for everyone else’s comfort is getting to be too much to keep doing. Opening up to someone, even a detached professional who you have no personal connection to, is daunting. Judgement is what we are afraid of. Being labelled as weak or incapable or broken, irreparably, is a huge fear. And one that is unfortunately, well-founded. No matter how much we talk the talk as a society, the truth is that people still make those judgements. It’s not pretty to admit, but it IS the truth.
It’s one of the many reasons why I have, and still, struggle with reaching out and being open. It’s one of the reasons why I am always – always – “ok” at work and never admit that I could barely get my ass into the office after a night of trying to just keep myself safe from myself. It’s one of the reasons that I censor what I tell my friends even. I don’t want them to see me through the same lenses that I see myself sometimes. Because the truth is that I have that judgement inside of me; for myself. It’s been programmed to be there since as far back as I can remember. It’s just the way our society is. It’s not ok though.
Those of us who fight depression, suicidal thoughts or any number of mental health disorders know the voice of judgement. We know that voice all too well. The one that tells us we are a burden if we share how we are really feeling. But worse, it tells us that we will be labelled, slotted and sorted and that those labels will stick. It’s a tape that plays inside our heads and gets louder as we sink deeper.
Having struggled for most of my life with cycles of depression and now fighting through it again along with grieving (think rollercoaster without seatbelt feeling on that one), I know that it will get better. I know that without a doubt. Maybe I don’t believe it when it’s an especially rough time, but I do know it’s true. What I fear, and I know others do too, is that I will never be seen as anyone other than the “broken” me who reached out. I am afraid that even when it is better, that will be who you see. That’s what holds me back so often. That I know my confident, happy, joyful and optimistic self is who I am is the truth. That is who I am. My depression puts a sheet over me and hides that person every now and then. The fear of letting myself be seen in that rawness is that THAT is ALL the person will ever see of me. That they will forever look and see who I was in that moment and not who I am without the covering that was shrouding me. After telling you that I don’t know if I can keep going, will you always see me as I was in that moment? When the shroud is off and I am vibrant and healthy again, will you be able to see that instead of the darkness that I had shown you? That is a valid fear for those who live with depression and other mental health disorders. That is the root, for many, of why they are hesitant to talk or reach out.
I am not my depression and I am not the moments when I can’t see past the darkness. None of us are. We need to talk about this because the room is too full of elephants now.
Time moves along and life goes with it. It’s been just over four years and I have been looking back differently this past little while. Looking back in a way that also look forward.
I have been going through old writing, organizing and sorting them as I try to combine computer files. It’s been stirring up a lot of feelings and it’s been forcing me to look back at some things that I have been very successful at shutting out the last couple of years. Remembering isn’t always a good thing I’ve discovered. I’m also seeing that to heal, you have to face things. I’m not a fan of that concept. Unfortunately, that doesn’t stop it from being true.
I came across a writing today from many years ago. A journal entry from when Willie was just a couple of weeks old. A picture actually of a handwritten journal entry that I made for him. A recounting of his birth. I did it for all my sons and I guess I had taken a snapshot of his to keep with his journals that I photographed before I took them to the hospital to be reviewed. I read it over and it hurts to remember that time. Not just that time but the loss of all that he was, and ll that he’ll never be. It also made me think though about the rest of his story. His too-short life and the tumultuous last few months of it before his suicide. A life is, after all, a story. After almost an hour scrolling through blog entries and writing drafts, I realized that I have no account of that. There are bits and pieces of it told in numerous posts and writings, but nothing that captures that journey that saw him move from a pre-teen boy to the 16 year old tormented by his mental illness who saw no hope to stay in this life. Nothing written to tell his story’s end. I also realized that needs to change.
It’s time to put it all together.
There are many times in my life when I am frustrated at my inability to say what is in my head at the time that it needs to be said. So in order to get something out that should have been expressed then, here it is now.
I was speaking with someone recently about the death of my son and she nodded and said “I know exactly how it feels to lose a child, I had a miscarriage.”
Well, let me start by saying that no, it’s not the same thing. That may not be a polite or compassionate thing to say but it’s the truth. The polite thing is for me to say “thank you” and express sympathy for her loss. Which is what I did. But what I wanted to say was that it’s not the same thing, thanks very much for trying to connect and empathize but this sentiment in particular infuriates me.
Now I’m not saying that one type of loss or grief is better or worse or harder or easier or more or less. What I am saying is that comparing the loss of an unborn child to a death of a 16 year old is not maybe the best way to express sympathy. Having had miscarriages myself, I can relate to what that loss is like, and trust me, it’s not the same thing. When a pregnancy ends, it’s traumatic. You lose a life, no doubt about it. A life that is connected. literally, to you. You lose what could be, the potential, the “someday” of a child that is growing and becoming. You lose the dreams that you have for that child, for your life with it, your family that you see forming already in those first few weeks. But let’s be clear, to use that loss to empathize with a mother who has lost a 16 year old child is not appropriate.
To lose a 16 year old child is different. It’s to lose a child that you carried, gave birth to and held as an infant. A child that you sat up nights with and held while he cried or threw up or was so congested with colds or croup that his breathing was a raspy struggle some nights. A child that you watched try to learn how to hold a spoon or a crayon or put on his own socks and shirts. A child that you watched his joy and giggles as he experienced the magic that we as adults forget about in everyday life. A child that you spent hours upon hours teaching to read and the to see the pride in his face when he read a full sentence all by himself – and understood what that meant! A child that you patched up scraped knees and elbows after every new bike or skateboard attempt. A little boy who still ran to you and threw his arms around your legs when someone new talked to him. A boy who it scared you to let him walk to school alone, but you did it anyways because he wasn’t that little anymore. A boy whose personality grew and solidified and became more and more “him” every day as he got older. A boy who was outgrowing every pair of pants and every pair of shoes almost as soon as you bought them. A boy whose voice cracked and deepened those last few months as his shoulders broadened and his height shot up. A child that was becoming a young man that was still your baby no matter that his 16th birthday was just a few months past.
To lose that is not the same as to lose the thought and the potential of that. Plain and simple. I get it, people don’t know what to say, they are uncomfortable and they try to find something to say that will “help”, but this isn’t it.
One loss isn’t worse than or better than, they’re all different. I can’t relate to losing a partner even though I’ve lost a son. It’s a different type of relationship; to lose someone romantically and intimately connected to you in the way that a partner is, is inherently different. The relationship a parent has with a child is so vastly different from one that is between two people who love each other in a committed relationship. It’s not about comparing, it’s about recognizing that all loss from death is not the same so let’s stop trying to say we understand if we don’t…and the next person who says they can relate because they’ve had a miscarriage is going to get a response from me that speaks my mind and may not be all that polite.