How (not) to talk about suicide

Last month, I saw a really terrible photo on Facebook of a sign on a bridge that said “Suicide doesn’t take the pain away, it just passes it to someone else.”

Initially, the most frustrating part of seeing this sign for me was that you can talk about any death at all in this way! Really! When someone dies, the still-alive people who loved them are hurt by it. But, because the stigma surrounding mental illness is so strong, we especially love blaming the dead person when they’ve died by suicide. (I mean, didn’t they read the sign?!)

I almost ended that last sentence with “…we only blame the dead person when they choose to die.” But that’s not true either! Terminally ill — physically ill — patients choose to stop treatment all the time, accepting death as an inevitability. And they’re seen as brave and selfless when they do it, writ large.

But when someone dies by suicide, it’s the exact opposite: selfish, intentionally inflicting pain on loved ones, “taking the easy way out.”

Let’s go back to the beginning of that sign for a second. “Suicide doesn’t take the pain away.” Think about this language we use to talk about other terminally ill patients who have died: “At least they’re not in pain anymore.”

So death “takes the pain away” for them, but not for mentally ill, suicidal people? At best, this demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how mental illness works. “Suicide doesn’t take the pain away” compounds guilt on guilt on guilt and not much else. And when so much of mental illness so heavily relies on feeling burdensome to others, to the point that removing oneself from everyone else’s lives is seen is preferable, why wouldn’t it take the pain away — from everyone?

In life, mentally ill people are told to smile more, that’ll fix us. Exercise more, that’ll fix us. Pay a ton of money we may or may not have for therapy and medication, that’ll definitely fix us. There are all things that seem to be in reach for someone not going through it.

So we tell ourselves: “Hey, yeah, I could feasibly go exercise right now!”

But then, inevitably: “Wait…I’m too depressed to do that.”

And then we feel guilty for letting something invisible like depression interfere with such a “simple fix” for our illness.

And then maybe someone does die by suicide after hearing all these “tips.”

And maybe among the mourning of their sudden passing, these questions emerge: What could they have done to better themselves so this didn’t happen? How could I, the still-alive person, have fixed them?

Because the guilt doesn’t just get tossed back to the person who died by suicide. Humanity at large is so goddamn terrible at understanding mental illness that the survivors’ guilt following a suicide actually includes the question “What could I, personally, have done to ensure this didn’t happen?”

When the answer, realistically, is…probably nothing.

If mental illness wants to take someone, it’ll take someone.

(If physical illness wants to take someone, it’ll take someone.)

We like to think we have more control over mental illness — and maybe, in some ways, we do — but for the above reasons, our logic is often skewed.

I’ll clarify now that what I’m not doing here is advocating for you to let your mentally ill or suicidal friends die because it’ll probably happen anyway. Intervention is important, and when executed correctly, can save lives. If you’re worried someone is headed that way, there are still things you can do to support them that aren’t invasive and gross (see: “Exercise more!”).

A few examples:

  • Talk to them yourself.
  • Go physically be with them, if they’re in crisis.
  • Offer to take them to the hospital, to call their psychiatrist or therapist, to set up an appointment somewhere, etc.
  • Call a local crisis response team who’s trained for this (NOT the police, who are very rarely properly trained for crisis intervention).
  • Also: If you’re going to send someone the number for a hotline, make sure you’re doing so in conjunction with the above, and not instead of the above. Sending someone a hotline number who is in no state to talk to anyone, much less a stranger, can come off as cold and uncaring. Take into account that the vast majority of hotlines can call the police without your consent if they deem it necessary. (For the record, Trans Lifeline does not.)

All this said, if someone does die by suicide, no matter how close to you they are, do you know whose “fault” it is? Because it’s not theirs. It’s not yours, either. Mental illness is fucking garbage. You know all those bracelets and shirts and stuff with “fuck cancer” on them? Fuck mental illness, too. It’s all mental illness’s fault.

Anyway! Support those who struggle with mental illness, help break down the stigma surrounding it, and try to make this world a better place for those people, because understanding and a willingness to learn and proper intervention is what’s going to prevent even more suicides, not a guilt-trip sign on a bridge.

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The promise of blue skies

This is an account of my thoughts and experiences watching from Iowa as the recent North Bay fires descended upon my home county and hometown of Sonoma, California; it takes place between October 9 and 16, 2017. I wrote each of these sections on the days they describe and chose to edit only lightly in order to maintain the uncertainty, fear, and hope that I experienced throughout the week. (I took the above photo during my most recent visit home in December 2015.)


Monday

I can almost smell the fire as I wake up.

My husband is out of town for the three-day weekend. When I see the photos of suburban Santa Rosa, grey and charred and depressingly reminiscent of a postapocalyptic neighborhood in the Fallout game series, I don’t want to talk to anyone.

For the first time in years, my Facebook feed is organized. Updates from the North Bay on top, everything else scrunched at the bottom. Friends marking themselves “safe” from the Tubbs Fire, the Nuns Fire, the Adobe Fire. There is nothing but fire.

My eyes glaze as I read post after post about evacuations, friends who have already lost their homes, how to learn more.

I text Sonoma’s zip code to the county sheriff’s department for updates: 95476 to 888-777.

At one p.m., I finally hear from my mom.

“In case you’re wondering, we’re fine here so far. It smells smoky,” she tells my sister and me, before informing us that our family friend’s house and neighborhood were destroyed.

“They are safe, though,” she adds.

Those haunting, postapocalyptic photos are of their neighborhood. I can’t look at them again.

*

My family is scattered across the country like teardrops in the open ocean, so far away by distance but emotionally one and the same forevermore. Extended family on the east coast, me in Iowa, my sister in Southern California, my parents in Sonoma. Those of us alone and out of danger are horrified. My parents are in danger and my mom hints at nothing amiss except the bag she’s packed, and that my dad hasn’t packed enough.

The alert says they’re evacuating Pets Lifeline. Less than a mile away. Hours ago, Pets Lifeline was the evacuation center for small pets.

“I’m not worried,” the text representing my mom’s projective thoughts reads. I nod, but don’t reply.

*

The trailer for the upcoming Star Wars movie premieres that night. My sister will love the Porg, so I immediately slide a screenshot from the trailer into our group text of it and Chewbacca. Anything to break the tension, to reintroduce any kind of normalcy we can.

“Does Chewie eat the Porg?” my mom asks.

Indeed. Things are almost normal.

 

Tuesday

But even as regularity persists in our hearts, it’s unnerving how utterly routine everything is in Iowa. No mountains, no hills. What would fire be like here? Is our only exposure to fire the hazy, yellow-tinted skies as smoke billows in from the north, signaling its distress, as we idle, comment on the inconvenience, and go about our days with the promise of blue skies in the back of our minds?

*

Every break between sheriff’s department alerts is a long breath of cool ocean air before I’m dunked back down into the water once more.

*

My mom and I compare notes about all the local celebrities who’ve helped others escape their homes or lost their own: Noah Lowry (escaped), Barry Bonds (helped), Levi Leipheimer (lost). “I’ve done nothing,” she writes under a thick blanket of smoke. “Feeling guilty.”

I don’t say that she shouldn’t feel guilty. I don’t say that she has no reason to feel guilty because she could so easily be the next one in such dire need. I don’t say a lot more.

Instead, I send her a link to an article detailing which evacuation centers need supplies. If helping others helps her, then let it help us all.

 

Wednesday

In late 2008, just as I was settling into my freshman year of college, I found I was still on my high school music department’s email list when I received a message about the sweatshirts that all marching band members would have to buy as part of the uniform that year. Not fully assimilated at my new school, I replied to the email and requested one Sonoma Valley High School Dragon Band sweatshirt.

The comfort I felt wearing it then was nothing compared to the comfort it provides me now.

Whenever I run into the bathroom at work to read the latest update from the sheriff’s department, I am Sonoma. When I’m shelving books, I am Sonoma. I glance at our library’s copy of The Girls, written by a Sonoma author, Emma Cline, and feel a sudden warmth.

Teardrops in the ocean. We’re not so far apart after all.

*

I’m angry that some of my friends who marked themselves “safe” on Facebook received a text message at 12:30 in the morning to evacuate. Whether they wanted to show everyone they were a part of something big, or whether they truly thought they were safe, it doesn’t matter now. Safety comes and goes with the winds that bring the fires ever-closer to Sonoma, hopeful ebbs coupled with disastrous flows as the “safe” messages are soon replaced by photos of the myriad cars streaming out of town. The ebb of maintained community, the flow of panic. My parents are not yet among them.

*

In the group text, I bring up the message we all received from AT&T telling us they won’t be charging overages through Saturday, and we joke about the ways we could use up as much cellular data as possible. Then my mom sends a photo of her at work, out of town, wearing an N95 particulate mask to shield her from the smoke lingering outside.

The sheriff’s department interrupts our brief moment of solace. Advisory evacuations of northern Sonoma are underway.

“I’m on my way home,” my mom writes next. “I don’t want Dad to be alone.”

 

Thursday

Thursdays are my days off from work. I wake up at 7:30 a.m. Who can catch up on sleep when an alert could come in at any minute that could signal my parents’, my city’s, impending doom?

*

I want nothing more than to be at work, where cell coverage is sparse and text messages dissipate in the infuriatingly clean air, eighteen hundred miles from the havoc wrought upon Sonoma, where friends are swapping masks for inhalers in hopes that one of their chosen remedies will protect them from the smoke, while even those who evacuated long before sleep on cold wooden floors in San Francisco (or even farther south) and can barely go outside not as much for the choking air but because every time they look to the north, they remember what they left behind, and try even harder to remember what they may have lost forever.

*

My parents find a hotel room for the weekend in Carpinteria, which is where my sister lives, just south of Santa Barbara. I suggest it because, more than likely, there won’t be many vacancies near the Bay Area, but also because I think it would be nice for at least some of our family to be together during this time.

They never use the word “evacuate.” Evacuating is for victims, people in affected areas, people who’ve had sheriff’s deputies knock on their doors and don’t have time to say anything but, “Get out! Now!” because those residents have been awaiting this moment, those residents have been packed for days, those residents made arrangements out of town.

My mom uses the phrase “skip town,” as if she’s the one who’s done something wrong.

 

Friday

They say the wind was supposed to be bad the previous night, but it wasn’t, because the only alert this morning concerns Napa County. I wonder if the eerie quiet I’ve felt in Iowa is the same as what some in Sonoma must be experiencing.

I relax; I feign normalcy. I retweet some information from a Sonoma reporter I recently started following. I allow myself to feel hopeful that this might end soon. I take my planned vacation, a six-hour drive not unlike the one my parents took the day before. As my lower back twinges in the unfamiliar cloth seat of the rental car, this is the thought that keeps me from complaining, even in my head. My parents just did this drive, and they were leaving something behind, not running toward something. My parents just did this drive. My parents…

The quiet is bad.

 

Saturday

My eyes spring open before I am ready.

Mandatory evacuations.

One quarter-mile from my parents’ house.

Did they water it down before they left?

What did they take with them?

Do they know what might happen?

Are they prepared?

What are we about to lose?

*

I take back all those retweets from the previous morning, feeling like I tricked anyone who read them.

*

For the first time, the group texts abruptly end.

For the first time, the distance may as well be nothing. For the first time, I may as well be able to peer outside my friend’s open window, inhale lungfuls of smoke, and gaze upon the hellscape no longer beyond the horizon. For the first time, I can’t help feeling that I have everything to lose.

 

Sunday

I read that the high school’s evacuation center is still open, has still been open. Every few hours, I learn that another bar on the Plaza, which was under a voluntary evacuation earlier in the week, has reopened. They still don’t have electricity, but they are welcoming weary post-evacuees, entertaining, and giving away food and drink in spite of it all.

 

Monday

The late morning text alert I receive is, for once, not an alert. Press briefing. One p.m. Fairgrounds. The same as every day.

Evacuations are being lifted across the valley, but the air quality is still terrible. Roads are still blocked off, but rain may be coming soon.

Two good days in a row feels like a trick, so I stay silent on social media. One errant retweet could bring this all back. But even still, I feel the distance between myself and Sonoma growing again. The flames can’t reach me here.

I take a deep breath, waiting to be immersed in a fiery expanse of endless dread once more. I am measured, cautious, unsure. And then I exhale, purely, deeply, the start of the week’s anxieties into the fresh air, and none of it comes back to hurt me.

I’m publishing a book! And another one!

In 2015, I wrote a young adult novel called Bright Eyes during National Novel Writing Month. In 2016, I wrote its sequel, When Light Falls.

After months (and in the case of Bright Eyes, almost two years) of stressing about whether they were good, stressing about whether I should consider showing them to anyone, and stressing when I finally did, I’m happy to share that I’ve decided to self-publish both books!

I need to say right away that none of this would be possible without the wonderful Casey Baumberger, who I profiled in December as she prepared to self-published her own NaNoWriMo novel, Breaking the Pocket. Getting to speak to her about her process and her motivations for self-publishing was what made me consider following her lead, and I’m so, so incredibly grateful for her cooperation (and her support, as she’s one of a handful of people who’s read a Bright Eyes draft!).

At this point, I’m not sure what the publishing schedule will look like. I’d love to get Bright Eyes out by the end of 2017, but that will depend on a few things I can’t put on a timeline just yet, including editing time (shoutout to Macy Griffin for offering to be my first copy editor). After Bright Eyes goes out, I envision When Light Falls following it in a few months, if not sooner.

Now that I’ve finished rambling – but, really, thank you to everyone I’ve mentioned, as well as the dozen or so people in my acknowledgments section so far – I’d like to show you the synopses I wrote for both books during their respective NaNoWriMos (I’ve very vaguely tweaked the When Light Falls synopsis to avoid minor spoilers, FYI):

Bright Eyes:

Emily has just graduated from high school and is moving across the country to start college in the fall. But before she can leave her hometown behind, she has to spend her summer contending with Alexa, her longtime best friend who is suddenly maturing way faster than she is, her parents who own a business together and can’t stop bickering, a boy that she’d never thought about like that until recently, and Kelsey, her mysterious soon-to-be roommate who refuses to divulge much about herself in their e-mails to one another. When Emily makes a chance excursion to Kelsey’s hometown a month before they are due to move into the dorms, Emily finds out why Kelsey has been keeping her personal life to herself – and Emily isn’t so sure she can deal with what she learns.

When Light Falls:

The beginning of college has come and gone, and Emily is settling into life with her new roommate, Kelsey. While she thought they could be the best of friends – or at least, pretty good ones – Emily is finding that sometimes in college, the people you go in knowing aren’t always the ones you’re closest with. Can Emily make new friends so far from home, or will her college choice lead her to lose more than she thought she’d gain?

Meanwhile, Kelsey is having a rough time at college, but she’d never admit that to anyone. Even though she has more time to herself now that she doesn’t have to co-parent her three younger siblings, she’s learning that free time can lead to making some questionable decisions if you’re living life by your standards for the first time. As Kelsey sinks deeper into a dangerous life she never imagined herself living, she grows more jealous that her roommate seems to have it all together and wonders if going to college, even to get the education she needs for her dream job, was the best idea.


Thanks again for everyone who’s supported me so far, and I can’t wait to share these with you!

To Dave Fichman: Ten Words

One morning in 2005, I arrived to my high school World History class earlier than usual and found my teacher busy scrawling onto a cardboard coffee cup.

“Have you ever done this before?” he asked, holding up the cup after he’d finished writing a particularly long item. “Made a list of your favorite words?”

“No,” I replied, intrigued.

He explained, “I read an article earlier today about it. There are a lot of really great words out there. You should make a list.”

So, in honor of my dear departed teacher, Senior Project mentor, and the man who once startled me in the waiting room at the dentist as I was shaking my cell phone so he could point out with a grin, “You know, it won’t work any better if you do that,” here is my own list of my ten favorite words, which I have edited every few months for the past ten years:

  1. acatalepsy
  2. conglomerate
  3. frigate
  4. nomenclature
  5. penchant
  6. proxy
  7. verklempt
  8. vestibule
  9. obnoxious
  10. desultory

I’ll miss you, Fichman. Thank you for everything you did.

The city that never sleeps, but occasionally takes a sick day

(Possible emetophobia trigger – in text only – below.)

About an hour before I left Manhattan on Monday morning, bound for the antiquated-as-all-get-out LaGuardia airport, I read an article in the New York Times detailing the plight of the “sick passenger” (and those unlucky enough to share a train with them). Just as life imitates art, art imitates life: as I was preparing to get off the E, completing my final train ride of this trip, I heard the unmistakable sound of retching from the other side of the car. Before allowing myself to dwell upon it, I sped out of the just-stopped car as quickly as I could manage with a medium-sized rolling suitcase in tow.

Aside from that anecdote I wish I didn’t feel the need to tell, some good things happened on my weekend jaunt to New York, too. A lot of good things.

On Saturday, I passed the 50,000-word goal for this year’s National Novel Writing Month. While I have yet to actually complete my story, I believe this ties my 2009 speed record – 21 days – for reaching 50,000. Unfortunately, this means I am less motivated to complete it now, since I’ve been running on fumes for the past 10,000 words trying to reach the goal. But that’s what the month is all about: quantity, not quality. I have the rest of my life to aspire to the quality of work I expect of myself in any other circumstance.

To celebrate my achievement, I visited an overall Cute And Fun bagel shop in the general Gramercy Park/Stuy Town area (neighborhoods are AWFULLY CONFUSING when you’re not a local and the place in question is situated on the border between two of them – but I digress). I have to say, while I mentioned on Facebook that it was surprisingly my first NYC bagel experience that didn’t involve a Dunkin Donuts, the bagel I had was almost indistinguishable from the ones I inhaled regularly at Ultimate Bagel when I lived in Spokane. Which isn’t bad, necessarily – it just made me miss Spokane a little bit.

Saturday evening, after enjoying some (cheap!) Peruvian food, Lee and I (you remember Lee, don’t you?) headed out to Brooklyn to see Real Enemies, which I cannot accurately describe in my own words, so I’ll use BAM’s instead:

Bandleader and composer Darcy James Argue’s (Brooklyn Babylon, 2011 Next Wave) 18-piece big band Secret Society melds minds with filmmaker Peter Nigrini, writer/director Isaac Butler, and designer Maruti Evans to investigate America’s fascination with conspiracy theories. On projection surfaces teeming with found footage, live video, and historical texts, the narratives behind the Red Scare, the Illuminati, Edward Snowden, and alien sightings are meticulously examined and interrogated. Musical motifs from Argue’s exuberant score mimic the byzantine “everything is connected” inner workings of mass collusion to plumb the grassy knoll and give paranoia itself the probe.

You know how people say things are roller coaster rides of emotions? This was that, except more true than any time anyone has ever said it before. (Aside from this indescribability, I really just liked the music. Who knew professional musicians were that good at their instruments? I need to get out more.)

Later that night, I learned that there is a laundromat called Spin City at the corner where the protagonists of RENT live as we wandered around Alphabet City trying to find a suitable place to eat. We ended up at a diner with a health department “B” grade, chanced it, and didn’t die.

Sunday, I had the double pleasure of paying $16 to see a 2-D movie (Mockingjay Part 2, and I at least didn’t feel ripped off once I watched it) and having dinner with my NYC relatives (and Lee) at my aunt and uncle’s apartment. (The above photos were taken from their balcony.) I learned only that day that my grandparents didn’t know I was coming, so it was a really great time surprising them – especially my grandma’s reaction when she saw the person I came with was not the husband she had just watched me marry in July.

And then on Monday, I was an earwitness to a Sick Passenger, saw some ultra-casual (read: ultra-blatant, but thankfully nonviolent) racism on the part of the TSA, ate two Auntie Anne’s pretzels in two different states, and landed in Iowa, where I suddenly remembered that it gets cold and snows in places that are not New York, where it was a balmy 50 degrees all weekend.

I know I haven’t written here in several months, and I promise I have many solid (or at least “plausible”) reasons for that – being back in school, for one – but it seems like leaving Iowa every once in a while tends to help spike my creativity. If I had unlimited funds for travel…you know, I’ll just try my best to write more anyway.