Forever changed, always grieving. Honoring loss, and my Father on International Suicide #SurvivorDay

Today is November 22, 2014, and it is National Survivors of Suicide Loss Day, a national event sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. In honor of this day, I’m going to be blogging and tweeting messages under the #survivorday and #endsuicide tags, in hopes of increasing awareness and lessening mental health stigma. You can help by sharing this post on Twitter, and by searching on Twitter under those tags and sharing the stories of others who have experienced this loss. If you have been affected, share your story.


Life changes forever when you lose someone to suicide. Their life ends, and your life feels like it’s been shredded into pieces. So many emotions tossing and turning on rough seas. Guilt, regret, frustration, confusion… this list goes on as the emotions battle amongst one another for dominance. But things eventually even out. The seas grow calm, and the sun does come back out.

People don’t treat you the same after you lose someone to suicide. The societal stigma of the suicide is transferred on to you, whilst your vulnerability makes it feel like you’re broadcasting your fragility to the world. I don’t want to be treated like I’m broken. I don’t want to be invited to church, or have Bible verses recited to me. I don’t want to be touched, or have my back patted. Don’t treat me like I’m a freak. Don’t analyze my moods and behavior. Just let me grieve. I will want to cry, and I will appear upset or angry at times. I might eat a lot of chocolate, or other things that you don’t think are healthy. I might want to sit on the couch and watch all nine seasons of The X-Files in one weekend. I might not care too much about dressing up presentably, or venturing out into the world. I might sit and look through thousands of photos, grasping for memories to hang on to. What little social graces I have as an Autistic person might bottom out. My ability to work and my performance at work might suffer. And this might go on for years, as there is nothing linear about this recovery and healing process. Nothing at all. But you’ll encounter others who share you’ll loss, and you’ll meet people who treat you with kindness and compassion.

People look on you with suspicion when you’ve lost someone to suicide. You’re now “that family down the street with the Father who killed himself”. Before, you were “that nice family down the street”, or something like that. This stigma is so great that many times, families will try to hide the cause of death of their loved one. I know this, because my Mother did this. I wrote about it in a blog post, here. What’s even more insidious and insulting is when people infer that if you share the suicide of your loved one, then you’re whoring for attention or grasping for sympathy. That happened to me as well, and it’s despicable. I didn’t want attention or sympathy- I just wanted an emotional break from a high stress career, where people were constantly interfacing with me, and not always with nice intentions. I just wanted the right to calmly exist for a while, without being pecked at.

If you’re in an unhealthy relationship, being a survivor of suicide can make that relationship even worse. It can be the pivot point through which a relationship changes course to become even more severe and abusive. My 2007 marriage had been rocky from the start, with one of my abusive husband’s major issues being that I didn’t want to take his last name. Two months before my Father’s death, my husband had actually driven me to the DMV and Social Security offices, and forced me to fill out all of the papers to change my name on various documents, such as my driver’s license, passport and social security card. He saw these things as symbols of his ownership over me. Within a week of my Father’s suicide, he was already screaming and yelling at me, calling me names in front of the children, and even calling me a “cunt”  and a “bitch” in front of his Mother on Christmas day. He claimed that he was just upset because with my Father’s death, I would be even more “trouble” about not wanting to use his name. This sounds like a stupidly minor thing, right? It wasn’t. My Father hadn’t even been dead for five days, and the cycle of abuse was ramping up. This was huge. It showed me just how abusive and controlling the relationship was, and how I needed to get out of it, as soon as possible. From that point on, I endured him. I even plopped down the money to take him on a trip to Italy and pretend that it was a “second honeymoon”. When you’re being abused, you do just about anything to prevent more abuse… until you find yourself in the position to safely exit.  I finally found that time, and I made my exit, relatively unscathed in the grand scheme of things. Next June will be my five year “anniversary” of leaving it all behind and consciously leaning forward into the light.

 

Here’s some statistics about suicide, from Fierce Goodbye: Living in the Shadow of Suicide (source):

Suicide Deaths

  • Suicide takes the lives of about 30,000 each year.
  • On an average day, one person ends their life every 17 minutes.
  • Every 1 hour and 39 minutes an elderly person kills him or herself.
  • Every 2 hours and 12 minutes a teenager/young adult kills him or herself.
  • Overall, it is the11th most common cause of death, more frequent than homicide which ranks 14th.
  • Among young people, it is the 3rd most common cause of death.
  • There are 4.1 male deaths by suicide for each female death.

Suicide Attempts

  • In an average year there are 734,000 annual attempts (estimated, no annual national data available).
  • For every death by suicide, there are 25 attempts.
  • Among youth, there are 100 to 200 attempts for every death – often used as a cry for help among the young.
  • Among the elderly, there are 4 attempts for every death – the elderly are most often the most lethal in carrying out the attempt.
  • There are 3 female attempts for each male attempt – males are more lethal in killing themselves, i.e., using guns. Nearly 60 percent of all suicides are done with a firearm.
  • 5 million living Americans (estimated) have attempted to kill themselves.

Survivors (Family members and friends of a loved one who died by suicide)

  • Each suicide intimately affects at least 6 other people (estimated)
    Based on this estimate, there are approximately 4.5 million American survivors of suicide.

 

People read these type of statistics and feel a slight twinge of sadness, but no real momentous push to understand or change this pattern, as the statistics are just numbers. They lack humanity. Mental Illness is highly stigmatized in this country and treated as a personality flaw. A weakness of character. People feel that they can’t get treatment or assistance in dealing with mental illness because it can severely impact their employment, or the custody of their children. People can lose their jobs. Married persons dealing with depression and receiving treatment for it know that in the future, if divorce rears it’s ugly head, their mental health might be brought into the spotlight, and used as a reason for them to not be a “fit parent”, or even as a basis for the divorce itself. These are just some of the reasons why people suffer in silence and don’t get help.

My Dad isn’t a number or a statistic- he was my Father. He loved chocolate covered pretzels, listening to ZZ Top, and one of his favorite movies was Blade Runner. He was a person, and now he’s gone. He was so much like me that we didn’t always need to use spoken words. Just sitting in silence was fine. Losing him was like losing half of myself, and I’ve had to reconnect with my inner child to get it all back.

My Father suffered in silence and didn’t get help. He was born in 1941 and was of the generation that perceived mental illness as a major weakness of one’s personality. Despite the fact that he had attempted suicide before the age of twenty years old, by driving his car off a bridge, he still felt that way. He never got help for his life-long battle with depression. He didn’t want depression on his health records, because it would take away his ability to do the one thing he really loved- being a private pilot. My Father loved to fly, but he could not fly if he had any mental health issues or antidepressant medications listed on his medical records. He would not pass his “medical”, he would not have license to fly. Two years after my Father’s suicide, the Federal Aviation Administration lifted this restriction. My Father left a stack of photos on his desk, as the only evidence of a “suicide note”. At least half of the photos in that stack were of planes he has flown, or him standing next to those planes. When the 2008 stock market crisis occurred, it hit my Father hard financially. He had to sell his small plane (a 1968 Piper Cherokee) that autumn. Approximately two months after his wings were clipped, he ended his life.

They say that there are five stages of grief. I personally feel that there are many more than that, and that they don’t arrive in the same order, or the same intensity. In the two years after my Father’s death, I feel like my life went off the rails. I completely lost any ability to cope with stress, or confrontation. My anxiety and own symptoms of depression intensified. My insomnia became so bad that my doctor gave up on Ambien and began prescribing me a heavy-duty drowsiness inducer, the psychotropic medication called Seroquel. Yet I never felt rested, and I never remembered a single dream. I felt like my body and mind were falling apart, and on a daily basis, shadows were wrapping themselves around me, as I fought to shake their grip. I lost my direction, and I lost my focus.

Not long after my Father’s death, I realized that despite his struggle to function within our family unit, he was actually very much the balancing element that made it possible for me to engage on the most basic levels with my Mother and Brother. With my Father gone, I soon learned what my Mother and Brother truly thought of me. The relationship grew so toxic and abusive that in March of 2012, four years after my Father’s suicide- I packed up everything I owned and left my Mother and Brother behind. I left no forwarding address, and I didn’t tell them I was leaving. Arriving at the decision to go “no contact” with my family was not an impulsive one, it was very carefully planned and decided. The end result of it is that I don’t have any immediate family, but I do finally have happiness, confidence, and a positive outlook.

Yes, you read that right- happiness, confidence and a positive outlook. I’ve fought hard to get to this point, and I know that I have a long way to go. I’ve moved far away from where I lived before, and had to leave behind toxic relationships- even ones that were blood relationships. I no longer have to drive by the cul-de-sac outside my Mother’s house, where my Father took his life, so I’m no longer plagued by seeing his body, slumped over and covered in a white sheet spattered in his blood. That’s something I can never un-see, but at least I’m not consistently being reminded of it. So I’ve been able to shift my perspective to honoring and celebrating my Father’s life. Because no matter how he died, my Dad was a great person, a loving Father, and a strong role model for me. I just wish I had a chance to tell him that before he left, but the opportunity never presented itself.

Healing is a long and complex process, for there isn’t a single point ahead of me through which I will feel that I have truly healed. It’s not like that. Most days I feel fine, and I think of my Dad every day. Other days, I feel triggered as a swell of painful emotions rushes forth and my voice starts to crack as my eyes well up with tears. Guilt is one of the most difficult emotions that I’ve been dealing with in being a survivor of my Father’s suicide. Things were not on good terms with my family when he died. I continually ask myself, if circumstances had been different, would I have been able to prevent his death? Would I have recognized the signs in his behavior? Would he still be here, if the one person so like him in this world, had been there next to him? I can’t answer any of those questions, because I can’t change the past. I can allow myself to feel torrents of guilt, or I can understand that “why” or “what if” are the two biggest questions that survivors ask themselves. I can’t change what happened, but I can keep his memory alive.

With the alarming statistics regarding suicide, you most likely know someone who is a survivor. You might know someone who is a survivor and not know they ARE a survivor, because they’ve chosen not to divulge this information due to the stigma surrounding it. I’ve chosen to be open about the circumstances surrounding my Father’s death, because I think that people being open and sharing their experiences is one of the only ways that this stigma will shift and hopefully change. Let’s face it, people are not comfortable with the mention of death, and even less comfortable with the mention of suicide. Why is that? Does it have to be that way?

For months after my Father’s death, I hoped that I would dream about him at night, but I never did. I don’t know if that’s because my sleep cycles were so messed up due to insomnia, or because I didn’t remember my dreams, but I eventually did have a dream about him, which for me, represented beautiful closure. In my dream, I was walking through an airport, on my way to get to a connecting flight, and I looked to the right.. and saw my Father, standing in line to get on a flight. He was as he was when he was younger. Maybe 1965 or so… dapper, dressed in a suit, hair slicked back… incredibly handsome. I stopped and watched him, and as his ticket was scanned he turned and looked at me, smiled and gave me the thumbs up. The jetway lit up brightly, and he walked down it…

 

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I leave this post off with a poem, which was written on a scrap of yellow legal paper and given to me by a kind woman named Lori, when I was sixteen, and hospitalized after my first suicide attempt. It was my first night at the hospital, and I was on suicide watch. Lori sat with me all night long, talking to me, trying to help me to get to sleep. She wrote me this poem by Emily Dickinson, and told me that when I understood it, I would know I was getting better. I’ve kept this poem in my memory and in my heart since that night in 1986. I still have that piece of paper, taped to the inside of a little blank book, safe inside the drawer of my nightstand.

A great Hope fell
You heard no noise
The Ruin was within
Oh cunning wreck that told no tale
And let no Witness in

The mind was built for mighty Freight
For dread occasion planned
How often foundering at Sea
Ostensibly, on Land

A not admitting of the wound
Until it grew so wide
That all my Life had entered it
And there were troughs beside

A closing of the simple lid
That opened to the sun
Until the tender Carpenter
Perpetual nail it down —

Adult Autism, social networks and the ongoing struggle to fit in

This post has been stirring about in my brain for some time, but it’s more apropos in light of my recent disconnection from Facebook. Adult Autistics are a varied lot, so you have to throw any preconceived notions out the window. Not all Autistic adults are introverted, and most sincerely crave some sort of interaction with other people. We want to feel those connections. We want to feel accepted within a group, a clan, a family or a tribe. Sometimes we might feel like we’ve found that connection, only to realize that we feel out of place even amongst people like us. I can tell you this is true, for I live every day, perpetually reaching out into the world, yet the vast majority of the time feeling disconnected, or that my attempts to socialize are just lost in the aether.

I see online groups of people, clustered around their united interests, interacting in ways that appear so natural. I watch their posts flicker on my screen as I scroll and think perhaps I just need to learn how to imitate their wording, or their sentence structure. Or include emoticons. Or write about certain things and not other things. The amount of resources that goes into trying to establish such connections might be astounding. I am positive that during a polar vortex, that I could heat my house with the fanned flames of my most concerted efforts. I comment on things and my words look strange to me, and they feel sharp and uncomfortable, as I know my words are just symbols representing how hard I am trying to fit in.

I often feel like a solitary, floating island… sending out smoke signals and morse code mirror signs to ships passing on the distant horizon. I just can’t get through. I just can’t make real connections, and it doesn’t matter how hard I try, it just doesn’t happen. I’m always afraid of saying the wrong thing, posting the wrong link, following the wrong account, or inadvertently upsetting someone with my words. My written words are much better than my spoken words, for they have less likelihood to stutter and ramble, from tangent to tangent into a vortex of my own uncomfortable confusion.

This is why I prefer the company of dogs, I tell myself. This is why I like to sit and watch the baby cows play, I tell myself. This is why when my Son is grown and moves on in his life, I will be experiencing empty nest syndrome of pterodactyl proportions. This is why I will start to keep chickens, I tell myself. This is why I will have pygmy goats. This is why I want to learn to keep bees. So I am never without interaction, but absent of the forced vulnerability I feel so persistently with my fellow humans.

I’m not saying that all adult Autistic people are lonely, or that they are codependent in their craving for human interaction. We’re all vastly different, and even in our own differences, which can vary from day to day and year to year.

Some days I am fine with little to no interaction. I often joke with my Son and tell him that if I wasn’t his Mother, I would surely have signed up for a one-way mission to Mars and have been perfectly fine all on my own. But other days, I do want to interact with people. It doesn’t take much to fulfill this basic necessity. Unfortunately, most of the time I feel as if I fall short. And I’m left talking to myself, tweeting or posting into the void in between days.

Sometimes my attempts at socialization feel like a 6th grade science experiment, where you have iron filings and a strong magnet. Some days, I feel like the end of the magnet that pushes the iron filings away, lost in that inner void of force of the workings of nature. It’s physics. It’s a line that can’t be crossed. It just is.

Sometimes attempting interaction feels very uncomfortable, and even vulnerable. It’s a strange sort of anxious uneasiness, this forced interaction, this reaching out in hopes of connecting but knowing that more times than not, your attempts will be met with radio silence… it’s the post on Facebook you write, sitting and hoping that someone sees it and hits the like button, or makes a comment on it. It’s the blog post you write and share on Twitter, just wishing that it would be seen, or shared, or related to. It’s the post you make on reddit, scared of it getting down voted and moved off into the netherlands. It’s the daily outreaching tendrils of your psyche that you send outward into the world, searching for some sense of togetherness.

There’s only so far that observing the social intricacies of others goes. Scripting my interactions and conversations falls flat after a while. Why can’t we communicate with music, or pictures, I wonder? If words fall flat, perhaps I can share with you a Satie Gymnopedie, and you can respond back to me with a Chopin Etude. Perhaps?

This might be my shortest blog post on record. Either I am learning to be more succinct with my words, or there’s only so many ways you can write about mismatched social interaction, full of hope and good intention… and how this one thing just so happens to be one of my greatest challenges and frustrations as an Autistic woman. I’m going to share this post now, sending it forth into binary land, where it will then land on Twitter. And I will sit, watching it’s static existence, wondering if my words will connect on any of the numerous possible levels. We neurodivergent folk differ from one another in just as many ways as we differ from neurotypicals, but through it all, we are very much the same in one crucial way. We all want to connect.

 

 

Autism ≠ Developmental Delay

Sonnolenta:

Another beautiful blog post from Emma and Ariane. A MUST-READ for parents of Autistic children, especially any parent whose child has been recently diagnosed!

“There are so many things Emma can do, that I cannot. Her mind, as she so beautifully described it, is a “wonder, channel changing, multi-screened on fast forward” thing of beauty that defies all limits placed upon it. My daughter amazes me every, single day. As always, Emma said it best and it bears repeating, “Autism is not a developmental delay, rather it is a different road entirely” and what an amazing road it is!”

Originally posted on Emma's Hope Book:

There were few things that led us more astray than the idea of autism being a developmental delay.  Last week Emma wrote, “Autism is not a developmental delay, rather it is a different road entirely.” I was reminded of this last night as I watched a video from 2006 when we took Emma, who was then four-years old, to meet the late Stanley Greenspan.  (This post is not about Stanley Greenspan or his method.  His name is brought up only because of the video that inspired this post.)

Watching that video last night was brutal.  The private hell of regret is a cruel place to linger.  Emma described her experience of watching the video last night as “wading into the marsh of worry and fear, but quiet love was there even when the days were dark.”   In typical Emma-fashion she generously and compassionately reminded me that it was not…

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Stand-up Paddleboard (SUP) on Tugalo Lake (Georgia/South Carolina)

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On June 19, 2014, we loaded our Tower inflatable SUPs into the car and set out for Tugalo Lake. This lake is awesome because it’s completely isolated, and has no development on it. When we SUP, we always choose a day during the week, and try to go places that have little boat traffic. In other words, as little sensory onslaught as possible is the name of the game. There’s nothing worse than being an Autistic person on a paddle board and having screaming jet skis cutting perilously close to you while their drivers laugh and yell as if it is some fun game for them. That’s happened.

Tugalo means “forked waters” in Cherokee, and it forms part of the natural border between GA and SC, lying partially within both states starting at the confluence of the Chattooga River and the Tallulah River. There’s only two ways to get to it- one road in Georgia which is so steep it requires 4WD, and another road in South Carolina which is way, way off the beaten path, steep, and unpaved. We chose the SC route.

“Arguably the most scenic lake in Georgia South Carolina, 597-acre Lake Tugalo is also one of the most remote. The incredible beauty of 1,000-foot walls rising straight up from the water’s edge and the possibility of truly trophy-sized largemouth bass make Lake Tugalo an interesting trip indeed. Georgia Power’s 155-foot high Tugalo Dam forms Lake Tugalo on the Tugaloo River. Oddly, the spelling of the river differs from the spelling of the lake and dam. In the Cherokee language “Tugalo” means “fork of a stream.” The dam is just downstream of where the Tallulah and Chattooga rivers join to form the Tugaloo River. Since it is so remote and nearly inaccessible, Tugalo does not receive heavy fishing pressure. What access points there are require a steep and winding drive on unpaved roads. Kayakers and whitewater rafters use the access point on the South Carolina side as a take-out after braving the class V rapids of the Chattooga River upstream of the lake.” (source: Trails.com)

The day we were there, we saw only two kayakers, who had been camping on the Georgia side, and two fishermen. When they say this lake is isolated, they’re not exaggerating! At certain times, I was worried that my little Mini Cooper was not at all well-suited for the drive. When we parked, she was covered completely with a thick layer of sparkly granite-based road dust. The SC boat ramp area is paved and has plenty of parking, a bathroom, a docking area, as well as large stepped concrete platforms going into the water. There was a family playing in the water on these steps when we kicked off.

We paddled from the SC boat ramp down to the Tugalo dam, then up the Tallulah River fork, towards the Tallulah gorges and the power station. The power station itself is a beautiful red brick building, nestled deep within two mountain gorges. We got close to it, but not so close that a scheduled water discharge from the station could be harmful. The power station was built in the early 1900′s as part of a major Georgia Power project, consisting of the creation of several dammed lakes with hydroelectric power generation. Some interesting history about the Tallulah Gorges area, here.

As we paddled into the Tallulah Gorges arm, we started hearing distant voices in the forest around us. We couldn’t hear what they were saying, and it was very eerie! Then we heard a dog whining. We stopped talking and stood still, waiting to see if we heard the sounds again. Nothing. Just the soft sounds of water lapping on our boards, and birds whistling and chirping. We began talking again, and there it was- we heard the voices again! I shouted out “HELLO!” and I heard someone else shout back “HELLO!”. After doing this a few times, I realized that the voices we were hearing were OUR voices. We were in a deep gorge with rock walls and our voices were echoing. Soon our dog Stella realized this too, and she spent most of the time in the gorge howling with delight and curiosity as she heard the ghost dog howl back.

A lot of people giggle when they see Stella wearing her bright orange doggie life preserver. They don’t seem to understand why a dog should be wearing such a device, but when you’re paddle boarding, it’s very important! Dogs like to jump off the paddle board, and it’s very difficult to get them back on. Stella’s life vest has a handle on it, so I can easily pull her back up on to the board. I’ve been knocked off my board before, whether by a rude boater, or just losing my balance, and when this happens, it’s always a shock to the system. And probably Stella’s, too. Having her in a life vest provides me with an additional flotation device, and a dog will always swim toward the shore, so I can hold on to her until I get my bearings, and am able to get back onto the board. In case you were wondering, yes- I ALWAYS wear a life vest when paddle boarding. A lot of people don’t, but the one time I didn’t wear one, I had a scary experience with some teen girls on jet skis and I almost lost my paddle (they don’t float), lost all bearings, couldn’t get back on my board, and got water up my nose and in my lungs. It was very frightening, so lesson learned- always wear a life vest!

We found a few small waterfalls along the way, and we stopped to have a snack and go for a swim. While I love swimming while I SUP, it’s always exceedingly difficult to get back up on the board when I’ve either fallen or jumped off. Our SUPS are inflatable, so they are thicker than regular rigid SUPS. This makes it difficult to get back on once you’re off. My Son told me that I looked like a sad manatee trying to get back on my board. :)

Directions to the SC boat ramp can be found here, if you’re interested in experiencing this lake for yourself! We will definitely return next season.

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We Need to Talk about Mental Health and Suicide. Now.

[Content Warning: Discusison of suicide, mental health stigmatization, possibly disturbing text description]

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This might be the last thing my Father saw before he died. This is the tree above where he was sitting when he took his own life.

 

Life was forever changed on December 20, 2008. It was the day that my Father committed suicide. His attempt wasn’t a cry for help, it was a carefully placed hollow point bullet from the barrel of his own gun. He had just undergone surgery to remove a cancerous growth from his colon five days earlier. The surgery was successful and his prognosis was excellent. There was no note, only a stack of photos that it is believed he had viewed and then purposefully left before leaving the house and yard he shared with my Mother, and sitting down on a bench under a tree, in the cul-de-sac immediately outside their home. The coroner told us he died instantly.

My Aunt wrote a hasty obituary for him, that revealed next to nothing about him as a person. It ran in the local paper, and there’s not a single trace of it to be found online. The next day, my Mother cleaned out his every belonging from the house and either threw it away, or sent it to the Goodwill.  There was no funeral or memorial service. His body was cremated, and the black plastic container holding his ashes was stuffed into a closet shelf in the room he had used as an office. Not a single photo of him appeared in the house from that day onward. My Mother took them all down. My Mother was angry, my Brother was angry. They both felt, and stated- that he was a selfish asshole. They wanted to know why, and were frustrated and annoyed that there seemed to be no answer  to their questions. Neither my Mother nor my Brother had ever experienced depression in their lives. They simply could not fathom why someone would take their own life.

My Mother made his suicide all about her. Her anger, her frustration, her shame. And shame is the key word of this post, because she was truly and totally ashamed of what my Father had done. Along with suicide comes shame. The person who took their life suddenly becomes a coward. Or someone who took the “easy way out”. Some religions teach that suicides go to hell, and that their souls are forever lost. Suicides are given all sorts of treatments in literature, for example- in Dante’s Inferno, those who commit suicide end up in the seventh circle of Hell, where their bodies are transformed into trees where they are eternally tortured and pecked upon by Harpies. Society, religion, literature, culture, music and art are all part of the stigma. History is rife with a long history of the stigma that resides with mental illness and suicide. As someone who was always preoccupied with the opinions of others, my Mother didn’t want anyone to know that her husband had killed himself. Surely it would reflect negatively on her as a person. She decided that we would all tell the world that he had died of cancer. After all, he had just had surgery for cancer, so technically, he had cancer, right? That’s what the story would be. Cancer.

He had no loose ends, no work relationships, no friendships. So no one ever needed to know. No one would know, right? We just all had to pretend. Because his mental health was such an embarrassment. What he did was such a black mark on the family name, right? This would all have been fine except for the fact that I felt that people did need to know. I didn’t feel that people should be ashamed of what he did, or that fact that he had been battling depression on and off for years, yet always feeling like he couldn’t take antidepressants or attend therapy- only weak people did that. The stigmatization of mental health issues ran deep with my Father. It prevented him from feeling like he could openly receive the help he needed. He might still be here if openly discussing mental illness wasn’t the huge pink elephant in the room. As someone like him, who had inherited his predisposition for depression and anxiety, I understood what he was going through. I even understood how he came to his decision to leave, as I had myself been hospitalized for severe depression and a suicide attempt when I was sixteen. So I wasn’t ashamed of him, and I felt the need to be honest about my Father’s passing.

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Me and my Dad, in 1997.

 

I tried to continue along at work, but I soon realized that I needed to take some time off. At first, I let my customers know that my Father had died, and that he had cancer. I did a fundraiser thing for the American Cancer Society in his honor, through Ebay. But then my emotions and sense of what was right got the best of me, and my frustration over having his mental health stigmatized upset me further. I finally came clean about how he had died, and told my customers I needed to take some time off to grieve and process all that had happened. Most people were very wonderful and kind, but others I sensed that they felt I was lying about his death to garner sympathy. I was correct in that hunch, for about 18 months after his death and the subsequent downward spiral of my own depression and inability to function properly at work on numerous levels, a group of former customers started a hate website against me. It was called “Rant 4 the Ugly” and their mission was essentially, to take both me and my business down. At one point, they devoted a whole thread to discussing my “fake story” about my Father’s demise for attention, as well as examining my inability to comprehend “normal” social boundaries, and how my behavior had become “bizarre”. Your behavior would be bizarre too, if you were a depressed undiagnosed Autistic woman, dealing with severe anxiety and insomnia, in an abusive relationship, with unsupportive family and massive career stress, trust me! (Screen capture thanks to a friend who was looking out for my best interests during that difficult time).

But the story wasn’t fake.  I wasn’t lying. Here’s my Father’s death certificate. I have blurred out my Mother’s name and addresses for her own safety and privacy, but here it is, clear as day… and I’m not ashamed of what it says. Our society has such deeply ingrained stigmatization of mental illness and suicide that it was deemed improbable that I was telling the truth about my Father’s death. That’s how pathetic we are as a society in relation to this monumental problem. Because, you know, the only way that someone would admit something like that? Is if they were fucked in the head, like these women wrote that I was. God/Goddess forbid that I was actually telling the truth not for sympathy, but because it was the truth, and I have always been outspoken about social justice issues, even in my work. And what human being going through monumentally traumatic life changes doesn’t want or need for a little bit of sympathy? My family treated me like garbage, and my husband regularly abused me. I had no one to turn to, yet I was a horrible person for reaching out to the only people I thought I had? Apparently, and that’s pathetic for a person to be attacked for that. I’m not ashamed of my Father, and my only lie about his death was in not fully describing his cause of death in the first place, but rather, chalking it up to what my Mother’s wishes were- that he had died suddenly of cancer. But you can see it right there- “Self inflicted gunshot wound to head. Massive blast injury to brain. With destruction”. The truth. The fact that almost six years after his death I still feel I have to justify how I reacted to it and grieved reveals volumes about our societal stigmatization of mental illness.

We hear about how suicide forever impacts the lives of those who are left behind, and that suicide is selfish. We read about how survivor’s lives are spent forever questioning why their loved one left, and how much pain it has caused them. But I want to stop and ask you to consider the extremes of pain that your loved one was in, if you have lost someone to suicide. I want you to consider that they hurt more in those last moments than you may ever be able to conceive hurting. And that regardless of whether they would or wouldn’t have been able to recover from their severe depression, they made the decision to end their lives- usually after a long dance with mental illness.

My Father made a huge decision, to end his life- forever. He appears to have researched it to a great extent to make sure that his attempt would work, right down to type of gun and bullets used, and placement of the shot. This was not a snap decision on his part. While I wish my Father was still alive, and I mourn his loss every single day, I respect his decision to end his life. I feel that what he did was one of the bravest things he ever did. I don’t feel that it was selfish. I respect that he had been battling with depression and anxiety for a long time, and that he felt that it was the right time and the right place. He even went so far as to end his life outdoors, on public property- so as not to harm the value of the house he and my Mother owned. That’s not the action of someone who is insane, that’s planning ahead.

I have wanted to write about how Robin Williams’ suicide affected me, for a while. In truth, his suicide was very triggering for me because I feel that my Father always slightly favored Robin Williams, and when he was being silly or joking around, he reminded me of him. This might sound strange, but I enjoyed Robin William’s films much more simply because he reminded me of my own Dad. You’d have to have known my Dad personally to “get it”, but here’s a picture of us, when I was about 8 months old. I still see pictures of Robin Williams in my news feeds on a daily basis. His portrait is still appearing on magazines as I stand in line at the grocery. Even seeing the words “Robin Williams” reminds me of my Father, who was “Robert William”. Thoughts of my Father are more prevalent than ever in my life, not that a day goes by without thinking of him, but it’s felt more painful of late. It ebbs and flows.

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Robin William’s death was certainly a great loss, and much effort has been made to try to understand why he took his own life. When someone famous such as him commits suicide, we as a culture react in a way that reveals just how much we stigmatize mental health issues. Because he touched so many lives, his death opened wide a torrent of articles exposing the stigma of mental health issues. Here’s an example of one such article, from the Huffington Post: Robin Williams, Connectedness and the Need to End the Stigma Around Mental Illness

Articles such as that present so much data about suicide rates and their growth, but they do little to actually change the situation. Sure, people start talking about it, but next thing you know, the next celebrity drama erupts and their attention is turned away. It’s sad, but true. We see this every day on social media, where ground-breaking scientific achievements barely trend, whilst the most insipid celebrity fame stories trend for days. Such is our world.

I think it’s important to start discussing mental health issues such as depression, at home. For instance, my Son is twelve, and he knows how his Grandpa died. He also knows that I have battled depression for most of my life, that I’ve taken various medications, and that I was hospitalized. I am not ashamed for him to know these things about me, nor should I be. They are part of who I am, and the person I’ve become. There is surely a genetic component at work, as my Father and I were always so alike, and we both suffered from depression. It’s not worth it to try to cover up these family issues and bury them, as if they don’t exist. As a loving parent, it’s my important task to teach my Son about his family history, and enable him with knowledge about the symptoms of depression, what depressive thought processes are like, and how depression can affect every aspect of one’s life.

I was about fourteen when I first became depressed. I was severely depressed for two years before I acted on the suicidal ideation I was experiencing. No one recognized that I was severely depressed, I assume they just thought I was being a “teenager”. My teachers didn’t notice. The guidance counselor at school didn’t notice. My friends didn’t notice. NO ONE NOTICED. I have no idea how not a single person noticed anything amiss, because I had to have been flashing warning signals all over the place. But that’s my point. No one noticed. I notice the slightest change in my son’s body language, tone of voice, sleep patterns, social behavior, or demeanor. I don’t just brush these things off to chance, I always ask him if he’s alright. He knows that it’s important to talk about your feelings, and we talk about his often. I’ve told him how depression feels, and how it changes how you think. Depression is an illness, just like catching the cold or flu. It might appear invisible to others, but it feels anything but invisible to the person suffering from it.

We can’t change overnight an entire society’s perception and how they deal with mental illness, but we can do it gradually with education and awareness. They say that children are too young to be told about these sort of things, but then we read about alarming statistics of grade school children attempting suicide or succeeding. “Almost 40% of kids attempting suicide make their first try in middle or even elementary school, according to research that suggests that kids who think they want to kill themselves are considering it long before previously assumed. About 1 in 9 children have attempted suicide before their high school graduation, but learning that they’re making plans as early as elementary school is especially chilling.” (source: TIME Magazine)

I am a survivor of my Father’s suicide, and that is often a very painful place to be. But I am certain that all of the collective pain I’ve felt and will feel- can’t hold a candle to the pain my Father was enduring. I am often conflicted with emotions as I selfishly wish he was still here, but then feel at ease in knowing he is now at peace, and all of the suffering he experienced in his life has ended.

I took my Son to see the movie Interstellar last week, and spent a lot of the movie choked up in tears, feeling that swollen, scratchy pain you get in your throat when you just want to melt into giant, choking sobs. It wasn’t the movie that made me feel that way- it was a certain one of my favorite poems by Dylan Thomas, which made it’s way into the film, metaphorically related to the struggles inherent to not just the characters themselves, but also, humanity. That poem is “Do not go gentle into that good night”, and it’s a poem I’ve read many times since my Father’s death. I can recite it from memory, and it will follow me every day of my life and into my own old age, which I hope to be long, fruitful and full of joy. I leave you with that poem:

 Do not go gentle into that good night
Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Isaqueena Falls/Stumphouse Mountain Train Tunnel, Walhalla SC (3/15/14)

I photograph just about every hike we go on, and I have so many of them I have never shared! If you’re not interested in hiking, feel free to browse my many other autism-related posts. I like to share our hiking excursions because they’re a big part of our life, our process, and our journey. Being close to nature and getting out into the fresh air is a large part of who we are.

This adventure was on March 15, 2014. We drove just up the road to visit Stumphouse Mountain Tunnnel, and also Isaqueena Falls. This area has lots of places to picnic and is managed by the town of Walhalla. There is a pay envelope area and it cost us $2 to get in.

Stumphouse Mountain Tunnel is really eerie, and a very fun experience to visit. It’s much larger than you expect, and you can feel and smell the dampness as you walk through pitch blackness, deep into the mountainside. The tinkling sound of dripping water accompanies you the entire time. Warning- it can get a little creepy, too. The tunnel was built with hands and black powder explosive, but never completed because of the Civil War. Many Irish workers lost their lives during it’s construction, giving way to legends of ghosts and graveyard lore. C enjoyed scaling the rock wall next to the tunnel exterior, like a little mountain goat, then we explored some old train cars that were left there when the project was abandoned. One of the train cars had “Robert”, which is my Father’s name- spray painted on it. I miss him every day and sometimes wonder just how often the universe is speaking to me…

Isaqueena Falls is a lovely 200 foot waterfall, which you can view from the platform, or hike down a rugged trail to it’s base. I skipped the trail, as this was a few days after we moved, and my back and body were screaming in pain. Legend is that the falls is named for the Cherokee Indian maiden, Isaqueena, who rode to the nearby fort to warn of a pending Indian attack and then escaped pursuing Indians by pretending to leap over the falls, but actually hiding beneath them.

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Truth and Compass: Universality and Difference Inside and Outside of Autism

Sonnolenta:

This is a wonderful post. It speaks powerful words about the reality of our Autistic children. Autistic children grow up to become Autistic adults. Shouldn’t we be teaching them total self love, respect and honor of their neurodivergent selves? Yes, we should. This is the greatest blessing we can give them.

Originally posted on Ray Hemachandra @ Golden Moon Publishing:

Nicholas Hemachandra at the base of Rainbow Falls, South Carolina, yesterday.

My son, Nicholas Hemachandra, at Rainbow Falls, South Carolina, yesterday

There’s this meme among some autism and special-needs parents and groups, shared on social-media graphics and bumper stickers, in fundraising activities and chat sites, that we parents are, essentially, the most wonderful people in the world: self-sacrificing saints chosen by God to raise these children — that we, if not our children, are very special, indeed.

Autism parents are just like everybody else, though. There’s no reason to think we’re not a perfectly randomized selection and cross-section of parents generally and people generally.

Which isn’t to say we aren’t special and precious and divine. We are — just like everybody else.

We’re also flawed. We struggle sometimes. Some of us are kind, and some of us aren’t. Some of us are selfless, and some of us are self-absorbed. Some of us are good parents, while some of us are poor parents…

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