Out of the Darkness: In Search of Solidarity

Last night was the Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk in Boston. I wasn’t there – to be honest, it had completely fallen off my radar – but I saw one participant’s posts on Facebook. I spent much of the night taking note of their updates in my own impromptu vigil.

For anyone who doesn’t know, the Overnight is the fundraiser by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: a 16- to 18-mile walk that takes place from dusk to dawn. I’ve been suicidal, and I know people who struggle with suicidal ideation, who have attempted suicide, and/or have lost a loved one to suicide. It’s a cause that’s near and dear to my heart.

I have yet to participate in the Overnight, but one aspect of it I find particularly attractive is the Honor Beads. There are 9 different colors, 6 of which represent the loss of specific relationships (i.e. child, partner, parent, sibling, relative/friend, and first responder/military.). There are also colors for people who support the cause and/or know someone who struggles.

A green square with a string of beads in darker green. The words: "I wear green for my personal struggle. American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. #OvernightWalk" in white.

Out of the Darkness Overnight image to share on social media. “I wear green for my personal struggle.”

I like that participants can choose to wear green honor beads to represent their own personal struggle. It’s a way to silently communicate: “I’ve been to hell and I’m still standing!” It’s possible to meet eyes with another person wearing green and know they’ve been there too. And if you’re still in hell, it might be easier to connect with others who can understand what you’re going through. Such visibility can be healing.

I first learned about the Overnight two years ago, during a time when I was actively struggling with suicidal thoughts and feelings. At the time I wrote: “Above all, I am walking for myself, because everything we do to promote mental health and prevent suicide benefits me directly. I am walking to save my own life.”

I was very disappointed when circumstances prevented me from being able to participate in the walk, but at least I was able to raise some money to support the cause. I don’t know how many people were inspired or encouraged when they saw me wearing the T-shirt, but one person thanked me.

Words cannot express how grateful I am for the hope, happiness, self-esteem, and health I have now. I no longer feel like my life needs saving; that is something I will not take for granted. (Because honestly, it’s not guaranteed.) I want to do whatever I can to “pay it forward” – to help others who are actively struggling.

Registration is currently open for the 2016 Overnights, which will take place in San Francisco May 21-22 and in New York June 4-5. I haven’t registered yet, but I’m seriously considering it. I’ve started talking to loved ones about forming a team.

I would love to hear from you if you’ve participated in an Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk: what was your experience? How do you recommend preparing (beyond info available on the website)? You’re welcome to leave a comment, or contact me if you want to write a guest post.

Advertisements

Suicide Prevention Day

If staying alive were enough, we wouldn’t be considering suicide.

Another Hope Entirely

To be perfectly honest, I dread and resent this day.  I know that’s a very unpopular opinion, but I’m not sorry.  I just can’t embrace it and write a tearjerker post about my close calls with suicide and how glad I am that I didn’t succeed.

I’m not glad I didn’t succeed.  I’m not actively suicidal right now, but my life is difficult and painful every day.  If any one of my suicide attempts had succeeded, I wouldn’t have to drag myself through that every day.  I wouldn’t have to worry about whether I can find a doctor who will give me medication to manage my chronic pain.  I wouldn’t have to worry about becoming homeless because my disability check isn’t enough for anyone to survive on.  I wouldn’t have to worry about how to get therapy when no one thinks I need help.  I wouldn’t have to worry about…

View original post 333 more words

Listening to Myself – Part 3

I’ve been feeling much better since I wrote Listening to Myself – Part 2 about a week ago. I want to thank the people who reached out to me in response to that post: your support has meant the world to me. I’ve come to realize that I influence more people than I can possibly be aware of, often for the better… even in this time when I feel like I’m barely doing anything with my life. I may never see the whole, but I’m part of something important; something that needs me just as much as I need to remain a part of it. Connected.

I really needed to express what I wrote in my last post: feeling trapped, like I couldn’t express myself, like I needed some really big changes to happen or I wouldn’t feel like my life was worth living. Expressing those things – writing that post – was engaging in the very process of Creation that I felt cut off from. It was uncomfortable, and to be honest I feel guilty about the discomfort it caused others, but the very act of expressing those thoughts and feelings provided some of the relief I sought. It’s also helped me to start making some of the changes I need: volunteering, applying for jobs, spending quality time with Fox and Banji, creating art to enjoy the process, and starting to learn Tai Chi.

I’m so grateful for this space where I can express my most powerful, “dangerous” emotions safely. I’m so grateful for the people in my life who respond with concern and a desire to help however they can, without denying me my autonomy or pressuring me into silence.

I’ll admit my first instinct is to want to apologize for causing others – especially people I care about – discomfort and anxiety; sometimes it’s tempting to just take it all back and pretend to be “fine.” Let the machine run smoothly. But human emotions are important; they inspire us to do what is necessary for our individual and collective well-being. To say I “made” anyone feel a certain way is just plain inaccurate. I wrote a post expressing painful thoughts and emotions I couldn’t express anywhere else or in any other (safe) way. People read my post, experienced emotions (gasp!), and responded however they were willing and able at the time. That some responded with concern is nothing to feel bad about. It’s something to be celebrated! I’m part of a family; members of that family care about and do what they can to help each other through times that are more difficult, times of vulnerability.

Measuring Recovery: Part 2 – More Burns Depression Checklist

I reviewed my overall daily and weekly scores on the Burns Depression Checklist in my previous post, Measuring Recovery: Part 1. I’ll be taking a look at daily scores for subcategories of the Checklist today.

Subcategories

Thoughts and Feelings

The first category consists of 10 items describing one’s subjective experience, including: “feeling unhappy or blue,” “feeling hopeless,” “criticizing yourself or blaming yourself,” and “difficulty making decisions.” Criticizing/blaming and other items related to self-perception seem to be causing me the most difficulty. On a scale from 0 to 4, I tend to rank criticizing/blaming from a 2 to 4 – moderate to extreme.

Activities and Personal Relationships

The second category consists of 7 items that describe behavior and subjective experience related to work/hobbies and social life. Although I do seem to feel worse on days when I withdraw from my social network, the items I see myself struggling the most with are “motivation” and “loss of interest in work or other activities.”

Physical Symptoms

There are 5 items related to sleep, appetite, sex, and “worrying about your health.” This is the category I seem to consistently score the highest in. Even on really good days when my thoughts, feelings, and behavior would suggest otherwise, my body seems to be depressed. I guess this is why it’s so important to exercise.

Suicidal Urges

The final category asks 3 questions: thoughts? desire? plan? Fortunately this is the category I score the lowest in – usually a 1 in thoughts and 0s in desire and plan.

My Scores

Scores for the Burns Depression Checklist are determined by ranking each item from 0 to 4, where 0 means you didn’t experience the symptom at all during the given time frame (1 day to 1 week) and 4 means it was “extreme.”

Instead of tracking each item separately, I decided to look at my scores for overall categories. To standardize the scores, I divided the total score for each category by the number of items in said category. As a result, all the scores represented on the chart/graph below are between 0 and 4.

My (standardized) scores on the subcategories of the Burns Depression Checklist from July 29, 2013 through August 24th, 2013. The gap represents 2 days when I did not complete the checklist.

My (standardized) scores on the subcategories of the Burns Depression Checklist from July 29, 2013 through August 24th, 2013. The gap represents 2 days when I did not complete the Checklist.

What a Mess!

Although at first glance the graph/chart above appears to be chaotic, there are a few noticeable trends.

* First, with rare exceptions, all 4 lines tend to move in the same direction. If one line is going up, the other three most likely are as well, though the angle might be different. (One or more scores may stay the same.) Same is true if they’re going down. In other words, on good days (low score) I feel better and perceive myself in a better light and am more active and have less suicidal urges than on bad days (high score).

burnschart01a_0811-0814* The blue line (thoughts and feelings) starts out with a noticeably different shape from the other 3. By the end of the 4 weeks, however, it is moving in better unison with them. The “thoughts and feelings” subcategory seems to be more internal, while the other categories relate self to body and self to outside world – if such a dichotomy is truly relevant. I’m inclined to say there was a disconnect between these two aspects of my experience that has been (at least temporarily) resolved.

Another way of looking at it is that the biggest disconnect between the blue line and the others is around August 11-14, when I was grieving the death of my undergraduate mentor. It makes sense that I would experience increased sadness, crying, even guilt during such a time, without necessarily having a comparable increase in other depression symptoms.

* Whereas near the beginning of the 4 weeks there are noticeable vertical gaps between the lines, by the end of the 4 weeks the lines tend to overlap. This is especially true of the blue line and the red line, representing thoughts/feelings and activities/personal relationships respectively. How I think and feel is very closely related to my engagement with the world; I’m not sure whether the closeness of that relationship has actually increased or I’ve just become more aware of it. (This is, after all, a self-report measure.)

The Valley and the Peak

There are 2 days in particular that I think deserve some special attention.

burnschart01a_0816The first is Friday, August 16th, when we went to visit the bed & breakfast / potential wedding venue. It was a wonderful vacation; I felt energized, socially and otherwise engaged, I was active, and there was little room for self-criticism, sadness, and so on. I swam until I was completely physically exhausted – but felt amazing – and then enjoyed s’mores with my loved ones and friendly new acquaintances. Fox and I got to spend some time in a beautiful secluded outdoor area and be romantic. I felt so much more alive than I had for so long …

And yet, while I was swimming, I couldn’t help but think about drowning. For one day I was relatively free from depression, but a nagging voice remained, reminding me that all is not right in my brain. Is this a common thing, for someone who loves swimming but only does so when on vacation to think about how easy it would be to drown? I seem to remember a time when all I cared about was the feeling of the water rushing past my skin, the exhilaration as I propelled myself forward using my own energy, bursting through the surface of the water to fill my lungs with life-giving air, and the glorious feeling of weightlessness. Sure, it’s important to take safety precautions. But I always trusted myself to take them. This time I was less sure.

I should also point out that I completed my checklist for the 16th a day later, from memory. I like focusing on the positive aspects of that day, but there was some frustration and anxiety related to getting there, waiting for Fox’s parents (who hit traffic), and learning it was more expensive than we’d expected. I can’t know for sure whether or how my scores might have been different if I’d completed the checklist that night. I can say with certainty that, even with the frustration and anxiety, it was a much better day than I’ve come to consider “normal.” I woke the next morning feeling alert and refreshed – how wonderful!

burnschart01a_0819The second day I want to focus on is Monday, August 19th. I’ve noticed a tendency for my symptoms to oscillate, bad days (high scores) followed by good days (low scores) and vice-versa. It makes sense that, not long after such a good day (such low scores) I was bound to have a bad one (high scores). This turned out to be the worst day since I started my self-assessment.

I don’t really want to repeat what I’ve already said about this day, so I invite anyone interested to read No Space for Me (the post I wrote that day) and the paragraphs near the fourth picture under “Context is Everything” in Measuring Recovery: Part 1.

Suffice it to say – perhaps combining with the “natural” oscillation that would have occurred anyway – my experiences that day contributed to a very dangerous mental and emotional state, which is reflected neatly in that day’s Checklist scores. My scores on Thoughts and Feelings and Activities and Social Relationships both averaged a 3 (“severe”); my senses of agency, social belonging, and satisfaction in life were shattered. I was exhausted and slept during waking hours because that was the only relief I could find from my pain (Physical Symptoms average score 2.8). Not only did I think about taking my own life, but I wanted it to end and I even began contemplating a plan (Suicidal Urges average score 2). I think my fears were what kept me from going any further with it – particularly because I would have had to make noise, which increased my chances of getting caught doing something that definitely was not allowed.

While I’d much rather never feel like that again, I’m grateful for that fear.

Especially since all 4 scores dropped pretty dramatically after that day, and have been staying in the 0-2 range (for the most part) since. I have concerns about my lifestyle, things I want to change or do differently; those kind of require me to be alive. So do my long-term goals.

And the people I love … sometimes I need space from them, sometimes they drive me batty, and yes sometimes I forget they are here … but they’re way too important to just abandon so suddenly. I can’t live for them – I’ll be miserable – but I want to live because I want to spend time with them. I want to share joy with them; to be connected to something bigger than myself. I don’t know what comes after death, but I know what can happen in life because I’ve already experienced a decent chunk of it. And yeah, there are not-so-good moments, but there are also moments that can be wonderful.

The days when I lose sight of this are the worst days, the ones when I score the worst (highest) in all 4 subcategories. I don’t know how realistic it is to try and keep believing in it, blindly, when everything I’m experiencing (through that horrible depression filter) says otherwise. But I can look at this chart/graph and see how the scores oscillate. A bad day will be followed by a good – or at least not-so-bad – day. I just need to give myself a chance to wake up to it.

Preventing Violence through Courage and Compassion

I was so inspired to read about Antoinette Tuff, who prevented a mass shooting at her school by talking to the gunman – both trying to understand him, and trying to help him relate to her. She was terrified, but she did it anyway, and saved over 870 lives. Meet Antoinette Tuff.

copyright Every Joe / Antoinette Tuff

copyright Every Joe / Antoinette Tuff

The Forge

A video recently showed up on my Facebook feed; it is a message from Eric Lim (whose sister committed suicide) to anyone who’s hurting – essentially, to stay strong. Its central message is to use the pain as a source of strength, to turn “destruction into creation.” My initial impression was that it was too violent, and I didn’t like the message that the hits would never stop, nor that I should let myself be forged into something.

But the second time I watched it I could see past my emotional responses and appreciate how realistic a portrayal of emotional suffering – particularly from guilt – it is. I want someone to wave a magic wand and make it all go away, so I’ll be happy and healthy and whole again. But that’s not reality, and claiming that it is really wouldn’t help anyone. Pain and suffering are a part of life; some of us seem to have more of it than others. The point is that we’re not alone, and we don’t have to let it break us, and we’re not “abnormal” or “crazy.” As much as it sucks, my pain and the depths of my emotions and my ability to live with them are my greatest strength. My depression symptoms are actually the worst when I’m struggling not to feel.

I’m going to post two links to the video. The first is the initial context I viewed it in: a page on Upworthy. I really don’t like the way they portray it because their focus is on how heroic Eric is; they call him “superhuman.” They separate him from the rest of us, those who really struggle to see our pain this way, those who don’t feel like we can fight the monster. Good for him, but I’m the scum of the earth, what can I possibly do? I don’t want to be forged into something that can “hit back” – does that make me a horrible person? Clearly I don’t deserve the help offered near the end of the video.

Upworthy: "Put a cape on this guy, because the way he fights this monster is superhuman."

links to the video on Upworthy.com

The title of the Upworthy page creates a dichotomy: man vs. monster. The monster at least seems to be Eric’s sister’s suicide, a choice she made, an action she committed in a time of crisis. Some of us, who have at least considered and may have attempted suicide, may get the message that we are the monster the superhuman hero is fighting.

In other words, it pits the loved ones of those who lose their struggle with suicide against the people who actually contemplate, attempt, and/or “successfully” commit suicide. We are the monster. We are the thing that makes the people who “survive” us superhuman. The antagonist whose only purpose is to highlight the awesomeness of the hero.

I really don’t think that’s what Eric meant to do. I think he needed to work through his own pain and wanted to send a message of hope to us, the people contemplating suicide because we don’t think we can take any more hits from the monster. He speaks directly to us. The first thing he says at 1:00 is, “I love you,” and at 3:00 he says the core of his message for anybody hurting – I’ll let it speak for itself.

the Forge; two figures fighting in fire

links to foranybodyhurting.com

I’ll admit, as great as it is that Eric Lim was able to reach out to us through his own pain, I still feel like this is by and for people who are concerned about and/or affected by others committing suicide. So much – practically all – of the information and perspectives you find about suicide is from the perspective of outsiders, people who aren’t contemplating it for themselves and may have never contemplated it for themselves. Medical experts. Professionals. “Survivors.” I feel like I’m an exhibit at the zoo. All the information about me is by and for people outside the cage of suicidal ideation, who are looking in, studying me, and trying to figure out how to prevent me from exhibiting a certain behavior.

But my voice never gets heard. And more importantly, I never get to hear directly from other people like me. I tried searching for information on suicide from the perspective of people who have contemplated it, are contemplating it, and/or have attempted it. It is, at best, extremely hard to come by.

There’s an article in Health Sociology Review Vol 22 Issue 3 that looks promising, but I haven’t been able to access its full text because it’s too recent. I had to put in an inter-library loan request with my school library to gain access to an article, published in 1990, about feminist perspectives on studying suicide. I’m also struggling with two obstacles: 1) I’m sensitive about this topic, so I find it more difficult and more frustrating than usual to try and sort through potential (primarily online) sources of information, and 2) I often have trouble determining which search terms to use to get the most relevant results.

I also have another gripe about language. At Relay for Life, which raises money for the fight against cancer, very specific terms are used. A person becomes a “Survivor” the moment they are diagnosed with cancer and stays one, regardless of whether they are in remission, receiving treatment, or terminally ill but still breathing. Those of us who love people who currently have, or once had, or died from cancer are called “Caregivers.” We’re respected, but we leave the limelight to the people who actually have/had cancer.

Suicide (prevention) Land is a whole different story. For some reason people who might not have even known their loved one was contemplating suicide until it happened are called “survivors.” People have suicidal ideation. People attempt suicide. People commit suicide. People try to prevent suicide. But are there any clear terms to refer to all these people? Would such terms even be helpful?

I’m not even sure what terminology would apply to me. I know I don’t want to die anytime soon and I don’t have a plan, but sometimes I think and feel like dying is the best/only option and “I should kill myself.” I struggle with it almost every day. AND I’m still alive.

Fuck this shit. I’m a Suicide Survivor. A person who struggles with thoughts about suicide and/or self-harm and guess what? “I’m not dead yet!” I truly feel for people who have lost a loved one to suicide, it must be really horrible. I don’t mean to discount their pain. But until they’ve had to live from day to day with being the biggest danger to their own well-being – and all the stigma that comes with it! – they are not “Survivors.” No more than I am a Cancer Survivor, having never had cancer myself, just because I went through the agony of powerlessly watching while multiple loved ones died of it, in part due to patterns of behavior they enacted upon themselves (i.e. smoking cigarettes).

I respect the difference between feeling pain while loving someone with the disease, and being the person who has it. People talking about suicide / suicide prevention should do the same.

NewProjects

With only 11 days until the Out of the Darkness Overnight, it’s seeming less and less feasible for me to participate. I haven’t been training, I’m nowhere near the $700 I’m required to raise, and I haven’t made any travel plans or hotel reservations. Mom keeps saying, “Maybe this isn’t the year for you to do this.” It hurts like hell to hear it, but at least half the reason why it hurts is because at least part of me thinks she’s right.

I was finally able to express how her feedback is affecting me: “When you say things like that, I feel depressed. I feel like I suck.”

“I don’t think you suck. I just think you have a lot going on right now, and maybe trying to do this on top of it isn’t the best idea.”

She has a point. A lot of things have been going on to get in the way of my preparations for the Overnight:

  • my response to the 15-year anniversary of my father’s death
  • moving back in with Mom
  • moving back in with Mom
  • the extreme self-deprecation and anxiety that forced me to drop the last 2 pre-thesis classes I need to complete my master’s degree because they increased my self-harm risk
  • lack of social support
  • midterm and end-of-the-semester stress
  • anxiety over Mom’s surgery
  • Mom’s surgery
  • visiting Mom after her surgery
  • taking care of Dog and rats
  • turning to the computer (rather than walking or other forms of exercise) for escapism
  • depression symptoms
    • fatigue
    • lack of motivation
    • self-harm ideation and thought imagery
  • social anxiety; not wanting to be seen

Yes, I could have made different choices. But I think blaming myself for not preparing for the Overnight would be like blaming someone for losing a poker match in which the best hand ze was dealt was a pair of deuces. Sometimes, your best option is to fold.

When I expressed all this to Fox, he suggested a brilliant compromise: instead of attempting the overnight walk in Washington, D.C., I can do my own, shorter, walk locally. I can time it for when Banji and other people I love and trust can make it. Mom can come – even if she can’t walk the full route, she might be able to walk part of it. Just her physical presence as a supporter would mean the world to me!

I can even still ask people to chip in what they can to donate to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). We might even raise some awareness; I can wear the shirt I received for raising $100 for the Overnight and maybe my supporters can wear matching shirts in a similar color (ooh, getting together to decorate them might be fun!) … that kind of thing usually gets people to wonder what’s going on; even explaining our shenanigans to just one person might make a difference.

The AFSP even has tools for creating your own campaign that I can use! They offer a variety of ideas; endurance events (e.g. walks) are only one option.

I’m thinking of making a campaign I could link to from this blog, actually. One idea I have is to invite readers to commission posts on topics of their choice related to my experiences with mental illness, mental health care, and possibly other topics – all with the caveat that I will only share information I feel comfortable and safe sharing. What do you think?

Another project I’m planning is an herb and vegetable garden. Fox is on board with it; I love the idea of having someone to garden with. We’ve done some research and decided to start small, just a handful of plants in a few pots, preferably raised off the ground so we don’t have to bend too much. It’s a way for us to get outside in the fresh air and sun, do something that resembles physical activity, connect with nature, and possibly even grow our own fresh (preferably organic) produce! – that is, if the squirrels don’t eat it all …