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Guest Posts, suicide, Surviving

Life After Death: A Year Later

November 17, 2017

*Skyler with his beloved books

CW: This essay discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting CONNECT to 74174. The world need you.

By Cati Porter

I am trying to remember the first time I met you, Skyler. Instead, images of you float up out of random events:

— Sitting on our bench swing in front of the house, texting Jacob to tell him you were there, because, well, teenagers.

— Both of your arms in casts, broken from leaping down a flight of stairs.

— In our living room, rocking chair, holding a book from our bookshelf.

I so loved that you loved to read. The Beat writers you loved best. We would talk about Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I loaned you my copy of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. You were already thinking about dropping acid? I didn’t yet know you loved the Grateful Dead.

You were the kind of teenager I had imagined my own son would be, but Jacob was different. He had sworn off books. But with you, your influence, that seemed to be changing.

It’s been almost a year, to the day. Every story has a beginning, middle, and end. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell one from the other, right?

I am a writer. It is how I make sense of things. Please be patient with me.

*

I had just walked in the door after hosting an event for writers. It was a Thursday night in May.

“Mom — Don’t freak out. Skyler took all his pills and he’s on Target Hill.”

Jacob rushed down the hallway toward me. I hadn’t yet put my purse down. It was dark outside – 9 pm. Bedtime. His hand was on the knob at the front door, knit cap pulled low over a mess of knotted curls. He was looking at me for — permission?

I was immobile. My chest. My legs. My face. I did not cry, not yet, though suddenly it felt as if I were behind a wall of plaster. I was moving inside a plaster cast, heavy and numb, like those dreams where you can’t move fast enough. Without thinking, I told him, “Run!”

I pulled the door in behind him as he took off and I dialed 911. It rang. I could hear a woman’s voice:

“Please state the nature of the emergency.

I could already hear the sirens. I drove recklessly. I’ve never before heard sirens and knew so achingly, precisely, where they were going. I pulled up behind the ambulance, threw it in park, jumped out. Normal things like careful parking, lipstick, proper shoes, became trivial, as they still are. Sometimes it takes something jarring to shake you loose.

Though I could not see you, I knew Jacob must be sprinting up the brush-covered hillside in the dark, no flashlight.

At the base of the hill, I could see the fire engine and ambulance that arrived before me. There was a gurney waiting. Two paramedics on the sidewalk, dark suited, faced the hill, watching the brush for movement.

And then, after forever, I could see Jacob leading you down the hillside. Relief rose in me against the panic of what I realized I might have sent Jacob to find.

Another car careened around the bend, at a strange confluence of streets: Dominion Ave and Division Street. The car slammed into park. It was your dad.

Car door swung wide, he got out and began to pace. I had never met him in person before. He was so wiry, tense; intense. Every muscle in his body seemed clenched, his face drawn, hands in fists. All I knew of him was through you, what you had told me. He stood facing me, waiting for me to speak.

“He’s alive,” I said, pointing to where you and Jacob were just reaching the road.

Your dad and I watched the both of you in silhouette against the night sky, gingerly descending. It looked like Jacob was holding you up, the two of you navigating the loose brush and rock. It was then that I put my arms around the neck of this man, your father, a stranger I have only ever spoken to over the phone. I held him as he cried, this tough ex-soldier. He was not at all how I had imagined him.

Jacob walked you over to the paramedics. By now, you could hardly stand. The paramedics lifted you onto the gurney like a loose, sleepy child into bed. I don’t imagine you could remember that. I leaned down to kiss your faded pink fluffy hair. You looked stoned, wasted, delirious. I said, I love you, Skyler, and meant it. Your eyes were open but you were non-responsive. I had never said anything like this to you before, and never since.

Jacob tells me that he had pulled you to standing, too weak to object. He had found you sitting on a rocky outcropping, woozy. You said something like, “It’s okay. Sit with me,” patting the stone. Jacob told me later that he had said no, that he wouldn’t let you die there. That if you were going to die you would have to get down and do it in the ambulance.

At that point, you were moments away from a series of seizures that would require an induced coma to keep you safe for the next few days. What was it like, to be unconscious for days? A little like death? Did you dream?

Jacob, your dad, and I stood by the side of the road for a little while after they had gotten you into the ambulance. Jacob was quiet and seemingly calm though I knew his pulse must have been racing. The ambulance started to pull away. As I said goodbye to your dad, ready to follow, I implored him, this time, no tough love; this time, please: Only love.

*

The last time you attempted suicide, Karissa had just broken up with you. Wasn’t it on Valentine’s Day? I wish we had been able to talk about it at the time. It’s never easy to get your heart broken.

I didn’t learn about it for three days. All I knew was that you had been throwing up, and that Jacob hadn’t heard from you, which struck me as odd considering how close you were. Later, Jacob told me that you had said over the group chat that you’d taken some pills and were throwing up. I’m glad Aaron had the presence of mind to call your dad, and 911. Did they pump your stomach? I think they did. And you were held for observation. On the third day, your dad called all of your friends together after school, huddled up on the sidewalk of the neighborhood by the high school. I had a horrible sense that something was wrong. I pulled up just far enough to be out of sight but I watched them squirm, listening to your dad, in the rearview mirror.

When you returned to school weeks later, I was appalled to hear that Karissa had told you you didn’t try hard enough.

What I didn’t learn until later was that you had given notes for all of your friends, including Karissa, that began, “If you’re reading this now….”

*

This time, rather than seven pills, you have taken seventy-something. All of your anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications.

In the ICU, before you completely lose consciousness, you send Jacob a loopy string of text messages. You say that you want to have a cheeseburger with Jimi Hendrix. You say that since you are still here, you must be here for something. You say that you want to be a crazy writer. Like Ken Kesey. Hunter S. Thompson. And I think, maybe you’ll be okay.

Then, the texts stopped.

The next day, Friday, Jacob says he can’t go to school. I let him stay home and together we wait for news of you.

They keep you in the coma all that day. On the surface, I am keeping my shit together. Beneath the surface every worst thought.

That space of not-knowing, it is excruciating. I leave Jacob at home and go to my office, but I can’t focus. I go into the storage room out back to call my friend Gayle, where I cry hard and long, my face smeared with snot and tears. Her mother had committed suicide by hanging. My problems felt trivial but I knew if there were anyone who would understand what I was going through, it would be her. You weren’t my son, but it crushed me.

I needed something to focus on, something to give me to do while we waited to hear news of you, so she and I hatched a plan. I knew it might sound crazy, or stupid, or useless, but I decided that whatever the outcome, I must do it. She said she would help.

Do you know that there is a high correlation between writers and depression, writers and suicide? I thought you might appreciate that.

*

Over the weekend, I receive regular text updates and phone calls from your family. By Saturday, the seizures taper off, so they bring you up, but, they say, you may or may not have sustained brain damage.

When you wake up, you tell us you can’t remember anything of the days before, but remarkably you seem intact.

You relay to us some of the things you thought you saw while you were out: You believed it that if you stared at the clock long enough, that it would turn back time. The nurses faces melted and morphed into demonic faces.

You seem bemused as the events of the past few days are relayed to you, like you are listening to funny anecdotes about strangers. By Sunday, still in the ICU, your dad says you are ready for visitors. He adds us to the list of family allowed in to the hospital room. If we weren’t family before, we are now. Your sisters keep telling us how Jacob had saved your life. For all the times you have complained about them, I think they idolize you. You are their big brother and they are glad to have you back.

Jacob and I plan our trip to Riverside Community Hospital. Remembering the cheeseburger, I call the nurses’ station to get their okay. We drive through Jack in the Box. Jacob of course knew just what you’d want. When we arrive, you are sitting up in the hospital bed, and your sisters are around you. Your pink hair is disheveled. They have assigned you a “watcher”, someone to be with you in the room at all times, making sure you don’t try to hurt yourself again.

You are elated by the cheeseburger & root beer. Jacob sits across from you and you talk as though nothing has happened. You want to know what’s been going on outside, what your friends have been up to.

When I ask you – we all ask you – if you are going to try this again, you tells us that you are taking it “twenty-four hours in a day”; a puzzling response. It sounds equivocal, but we accept it.

After a little while of sitting and watching these friends, I pull out the book I’ve compiled and carefully bound: Letters to Skyler from Fellow Writers.

In the past twenty-four hours, I have called upon friends and strangers, all writers, to send notes of encouragement and hope — depressed writers, suicidal writers, writers who have suffered through suicide loss. Jacob thought it was a dumb idea but as he watched you page through it, the look on your face, he later said that it was, in fact, a good thing.

They move you from ICU to a regular hospital room, then from there to a mental health facility for adults, because while you’re still only a junior in high school, you are eighteen. I am told that it is a section 5150 hold, aka the Lanterman-Petris-Short Act, followed by a 5350, an involuntary hold for those with a mental disorder who are a danger to themselves or others. These are not unfamiliar terms. Jacob’s uncle, my husband’s brother, also struggled with many of the same issues that haunt you.

There, Jacob tells me, you took up smoking, and kept a journal: “Diary of Mad Man.” Though your dad didn’t want you to have any contact with your friends, we encouraged Jacob to call you, which he did. When the high school released you for the year, we were glad, so close to the end of the school year, and with Karissa there, we weren’t sure what you’d do.

When you finally go home, as promised, I give you my old typewriter. I bring you enough ink & correction tape to last the rest of high school.

Over the summer, things get better. You read a lot, and even write. This makes me happy. Old out-of-state friends come to see you. You took a trip to Venice beach. I am glad when you accept our invitation to go with us on our family vacation to San Diego. You bring your roller blades, Hawaiian shirt, and the Nixon mask. When we talk about the future, you give me hope.

Everything is fine now.

Summer passes. It is time for you to register for senior year. On a Monday morning, Freshman registration, when I registered Bradley, Jacob tells me you registered early. In face, you tell Jacob you shouldn’t have registered at all.

Wednesday night, you go to the drive-in with your dad and sisters. Late that night, you pull the cans to the curb for trash night, say goodnight, I love you, to your dad.

Thursday morning, August 25, 2016, is the official registration day for seniors. Jacob and Bradley are sleeping in and I am speaking with a landscaper on my front lawn, discussing tree removal and grading and water-wise gardening.

Then, my phone rings. I let it go to voicemail. It rings again.

It is your dad.  “He’s gone.”

I don’t have words to describe how it feels to hear those words. He tells me you have hung yourself in the bedroom closet sometime during the night.

Playing in the background, The Grateful Dead: “If I Had the World to Give”, on loop, the same song playing over and over and over.

There in my front yard, in front of this stranger who hugs me and holds me as I curse and cry, I fall apart.

At that moment, I can’t imagine going in the house and waking Jacob to tell him. But I do.

Your dad tells me that when the coroner and sheriff arrived, they found no foul play; of course not. None of us had any doubts. It was awful to think of them using your lifeless finger to unlock your phone, search for “clues”. I try not to imagine your dad undoing the noose, how that must have felt.

Of course, we immediately drive to your house. Jacob and I sat on either side of your dad on the couch, arms over his shoulders, the three of us sobbing. If you had been there — you were there? — we would have been a sight.

Sometime during that final night, we learn that you had messaged Penny in Seattle: “Are you awake?” No response. That was the last word from you to anyone.

Later, Penny messages the instructions you had messaged her. She honored your wishes to send it to Jacob, “should I lose this battle”. Penny kept her promise. It detailed who should get what, including that Jacob should get some of your ashes: “Put them in a pipe and smoke it or I will haunt your ass.”

In the days following your death, I learn that together you and Jacob have tried LSD, sitting on that same rocky outcropping where he found you that night.

When your dad reads the note, it is only then that we all realize that you have been planning this all summer. All of your friends seemed to feel your death was “inevitable”. They knew the end was coming. Jacob knew. But they kept your secrets. I want to hug them. I want to slap them. I want to stare at that clock until the hands spin back to before.

Your dad says that Jacob can smoke your ashes, but only if he wants to, and only in your bedroom, with him, while telling him stories about you.

Instead, Jacob orders a pendant — an eagle, to match your dangling sterling silver earrings. The day before your death, we learn that you’ve lost one of them, walking through our neighborhood. In the days after, we walk for hours, scouring every glint in the dust. Later, we learn that the mortuary has misplaced the other. This is a blow. This feels like metaphor.

The last time we see you alive, we are driving past, headed elsewhere, always in a hurry. Jacob stuck his head out the window and shouted. You waved goodbye. The next morning, you were gone.

Now, Jacob carries a small piece of you around his neck. You went to his graduation — wherever he goes, there you’ll be.

The other night, I asked Jacob if he still thinks about you. He says every day. That you come to him in his dreams every night.

Your dad thanks me, because he thinks those letters gave you two one last summer.

I thought words could save you. But maybe, in some small way, these words are saving me.

Cati Porter is a writer, editor, mother, and arts administrator living and working in inland southern California. Her third poetry collection, The Body at a Loss, is forthcoming from CavanKerry Press. She is founder and editor of Poemeleon: A Journal of Poetry and Executive Director of the Inlandia Institute. Find her on the web at www.catiporter.com

We are proud to have founded the Aleksander Fund. To learn more or to donate please click here. To sign up for On being Human Tuscany Sep 5-18, 2018 please email jenniferpastiloffyoga@gmail.com.

 

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Books I Will Read Again, Guest Posts

Books I Will Read Again: The Art of Misdiagnosis by Gayle Brandeis

November 15, 2017

When I finish a book, I do one of three things with it: donate it to a local book drive, pass it along to a friend, or keep it on my bookshelf to reference and read again. This space is filled with the books I keep. I hope you like this feature, and I hope you like Gayle’s book. -Angela

The Art of Misdiagnosis is out this week, buy it here, or at your favorite independent bookseller. 

By Angela M Giles

Gayle Brandeis is an amazing writer of poetry and prose and I have been waiting for this book from the moment she announced the project. Although I truly enjoy her writing and look forward to whatever she publishes, Gayle and I share a strange commonality that made me especially keen to read this- we both lost a parent to suicide. Our losses occurred under very circumstances to be sure, but she and I experience a type of grief that is still a bit shadowy in our culture, and it is a grief that is wildly complex. I was curious to see how she was approaching the subject and what she would make of the story of her mother’s suicide and of her own survival in the face of it. It’s a complicated emotional space to be sure, and in this book Gayle navigates it with grace and clarity and honesty. This is an important work, and not just in terms of grief literature. You can also read it for a discussion of family dynamics, or a discussion of mental illness…just read it.

I asked Gayle about her mother and what she would say to her if she could give her a copy of the book. What would she want her mother to understand about why she felt the need to write their story? This is her response: Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Relationships, Starting Over

At the End There Might Just be Peace

November 12, 2017
shame

By Sarah Cannon

Remember the mindfulness training you felt cynical about back when Matt was hurt? It was and was not a long time ago. It’s like a lifetime has been squished into less than a decade. Or how about David, do you remember him? He was the counselor you were seeing before the accident, then again afterward. He had perpetual pit stains on his pastel button-ups and always asked you what you were doing with your anger. This was back when your focus was driving Matt to out-patient rehab sessions twice a day then showing up to feed, clothe, educate your children, and also work for money. You gave David a blank look and said something petty with a hanging question-mark sound at the end, like, “I don’t know, probably running around the block makes me feel better?” Then you didn’t pay him and he had to fire you.

Remember before the accident, when you had that dorky ‘wish’ cork board? You spent a whole Sunday gluing inspirational pictures and words and pinned it to the ceiling above your bed. It had a numerical figure written on a physical dollar in the center to symbolize the salary you wanted in five years. Matt poked good-natured fun at you, and you defended it, saying it was your five-year plan. You liked your poster so much that you called up Hannah and the two of you crafted a woman-specific plan you were convinced Oprah would buy the rights to. Want More, was the theme. You tore the poster down and threw notes for the Want More program into the fire after the accident.

“Isn’t it a miracle?” everyone kept saying after Matt nearly died. Then they began saying, “Things will get bet better,” when they saw you weep. And you wanted to say, “Everyone keeps saying that,” but you mostly smiled your gummy grin and hoped they were right. Continue Reading…

Anxiety, depression, Guest Posts

The Woman Who Stares at Clocks

November 6, 2017
time

By Tasha Kerry Smith

I wake each morning to the sound of silence and stare at the clock. Plastic, pink, old-style alarm clock with big numbers. The little hand crouches at nine and the big hand is in between the 2 and 3. I will wait till it hits 3, exactly a quarter past, before moving. Starting every activity on a concrete number helps me know where I start and finish. In the waiting minutes the voice speaks its filth: You’re worthless. Lazy. The world would be better off without you.

My morning is unremarkable but carried out at a tense pace, as if I have an A.M. conference call with the UN though I’m freelance and set my own schedule. I eat a small breakfast standing by the sink; brace myself for the dog walk. On bad days, when the voice is loud, I don’t like going outside. Too much activity. Too many people. Deliverymen shouting orders. Shoppers running errands. Dogs barking. Horns honking. Every noise hurts. I weave through them, head down, and make for the beach, where the dog can roam and the voice creeps into the quiet: Worthless. Hateful. Bitch. It’s takes physical strength to restrain it. My mind is shot.

To cope, I watch the clock, plan my day, giving each task a time slot. If I complete a task within the allotted time, I relax. If I don’t, I panic. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Shame, suicide

Sex, Guilt, and Suicide

October 29, 2017
suicide

CW: This essay discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting CONNECT to 74174. The world need you.

By Donna Baier Stein

The first boy I fell in love with in college hung himself from a tree north of San Francisco, a short distance off the Pacific Coast Highway U.S. 101. I don’t know exactly how far up the highway from the Golden Gate Bridge or exactly what kind of tree. I do know at least one of the secrets that led him to take his life and how damaging long-lasting guilt can be.

Decades later, I decided to write a story in which he—let’s call him Don R.—was a character. I had to research “suicide by hanging.” The gruesome physical details I read made me regret confronting the painful memory. I realized that because I hadn’t seen Don’s body, part of the terrible impact of his act had bypassed me. But I also realized, after he appeared in a second story and a third, how much and for how long, his choice to end his life affected me.

When Don took his life, I—and his other friends and family—were halfway across the country in the Midwest. I was in Lawrence, Kansas—a listless undergrad who had returned, to my own and my parents’ dismay, from a semester at Bryn Mawr. I felt like a failure. My academic drive faltered, my mood plummeted. I found myself looking for any reason to affirm that life was really, really painful.

My first sight of Don R.’s high-voltage grin jolted me. His blue eyes sparkled, and he bounced as he walked around the K.U. campus—sometimes affectionately called “the Athens of the Midwest”—in his white leather Adidas Pro sneakers. We met through mutual friends, and when he asked if I’d like to go see Easy Rider with him, I grinned back an enthusiastic Yes. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts

Hang On Little Girl

October 20, 2017
girl

CW: This essay discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting CONNECT to 74174. The world need you.

By Sara Bartosiewicz-Hamilton

Wouch…a cross between whoa and ouch.

 

I obviously don’t do this task often enough…but, as the queen of spreadsheets to keep myself organized, I’ve been working through some work that’s been patiently waiting. I’ve been working in the spreadsheet for almost an hour. My eyes just caught a glimpse…the last time I was in this spreadsheet: 8/29/16.

 

Whoa…almost a year ago…holy shit…quite literally, a week before my whole world would cave in…wouch…

 

I tried to remember what I would have been doing at that point last year…I stopped. Why relive the painful summer we had? To most people, the day they found out you killed yourself is the day of trauma for them. For us, it had been building up to your grand finale for a couple years – no one wants to acknowledge that…it’s easier to just embrace one single day of trauma and pretend we hadn’t been living in hell long before.

  Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, suicide

Mental Illness is a Terminal Disease

October 8, 2017
suicide

CW: This essay discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting CONNECT to 74174. The world need you.

By Kellie Julia

The picture above is of three of my most favorite people, 2 are gone. My gram died at 93 of natural causes. My son died at 31 and there was nothing natural about it.

I gave my son’s phone away this week to someone who really needed it. It seems like an easy enough thing to do but I cried for hours after. I saved the last text message I had from him which said “I love you too”, that was 5 days before he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. That was 5 months ago.

I still wonder what would have happened if I had gotten to his house 5 hours earlier than I did, what if I would have begged him to please hold on just one more day. No matter what I did or said for many years I could not take his pain away. Believe me, I tried. Do I find comfort in knowing that he is free of pain, yes. Would I rather have him still in pain but here with me instead, yes. Do I feel that is selfish of me, yes. Many suicidal people believe that the world would be a better place without them. Is it? No! Mental illness is a terminal disease and it should be treated that way. Continue Reading…

Anxiety, Guest Posts

Walls

October 2, 2017
walls

By Cheryl Jacobs

I never know when it’s going to happen, the sensation of pressure on my body, trapped, breath catching in my throat, desperate to escape. It makes me feel crazy.

I pay attention to traffic, think about what time I leave, the roads to take, all to avoid Los Angeles congestion.  I don’t like the feeling of being caught, pinned in.  But this morning I have an early therapy appointment and, as soon as I make the turn onto Olympic Blvd., I see only bumper-to-bumper traffic.  I ease my car in, all the while talking to myself.

“Relax, breathe, it’s okay, it will ease up soon.”

But it doesn’t.  I’m caught in the middle of three lanes of traffic moving slowing forward, connected by some unseen muscle keeping us tightly joined.

My car inching along, stopping entirely for minutes at a stretch, I feel the unwelcome tightening of my body.  The feeling of entrapment rises up, no exit, no exit, no exit, acutely aware of the hardness of the metal surrounding me, pressing, leaving no room to move left or right.

Panic rises like vapor, choking me. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Mental Health

A Reluctant Dance

September 28, 2017
dance

By Diane E. Baumer

Plastic and expressionless, they lay in a pile, haphazardly tossed in with the fluffy pink elephant, the snow white Dalmatian with dark black spots, and the bright orange snake with the long red tongue named after my uncle Don.  Of my treasured dolls, my favorite was Chickenhead.  Her indelicate name came from my grandfather, who had aptly described her ratty coarse brown stand-up hair, the product of months and months of being grasped in a tiny hand and dragged along to every engagement that could ever be considered important in a 6-year-old’s life.

Chickenhead lived with the rest of my dolls and stuffed animals in a tall cardboard box tucked in the corner of a closet in the master bedroom that spanned the front of the house; my parents’ bed was in the center of the room, and I slept at the foot, in a kid-sized bed, complete with railings so I wouldn’t fall out.  I’d sometimes crawl in the closet during the day, or late at night when I couldn’t sleep. With the door closed, it was dark as night and it was so quiet it would almost shut out the tense but hushed quarrels from the living room.  It was child-small, but comfortably cozy, filled with that woody smell that comes with old houses and hardwood floors.  I did all my thinking and wondering and worrying there, even though my mom said I was too young to have anything to worry about.  The way I saw it, though, she only had me to look after.  I had her and Chickenhead and Mrs. Beasley and all my other dolls to protect.  I remember one morning when dad was home and we were sitting on the red couch in the living room – mom called it a divan in those days – and he took my doll dressed in the pretty pink gingham dress and threw her against the wall, laughing.  I watched her, eyes wide and unblinking, tumbling through the air in slow motion, skirt flying up and exposing her shamefully.  She hit the wall with a thud and slid down, landing in a heap on the floor, unmoving.  My dad’s laughter echoed in my head, as I sat there, horrified.  “That,” he said, “is what happens to little girls when they misbehave.”  He tousled my hair.  “But you’re a good girl, aren’t you?”  My chest felt tight; I couldn’t catch my breath. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Mental Health, suicide

Seeing You After Suicide

September 15, 2017
suicide

CW: This essay discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting CONNECT to 74174. The world need you.

By Alyssa Limperis

I get obsessed with suicide. I don’t want to kill myself. I don’t want anyone to kill themselves. But whenever I hear that someone committed suicide, I can’t get it out of my head. I get obsessed with them. I read everything about their life and try to understand when death became their only option. When death became an exhale to an unthinkably laborious inhale. When was that moment and was I around to witness it? Was I deaf to the noise of the final last gasps?

It’s strange but once someone dies of suicide, I start expecting to see them everywhere. I look for them on the streets, waiting to hold them and see them in peace and say it’s ok. I love you. So many of us love you. We are holding your pain and overnight, it has become our own. We didn’t know it had gotten this far but you are not alone and we will hold you until the pain dulls. I look for these people on the street to tell them how important they are to us and how the days without them have felt like months. But they aren’t there. They won’t be there. Instead, we now have to find them and carry them with us through the remainder of our journey here. We will have to see them in a memory, find them in a song. We will keep them with us but they don’t get to stay. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, memories, Sexual Assault/Rape

Freshman Orientation

July 26, 2017
memory

CW: This essay discusses sexual assault. If you or someone you know has been assaulted, find help and the resources you need by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673, or visit www.RAINN.org.

By Shannon Brazil

All those parenting cliches you hear, it goes by in the blink of an eye and its over before you know it. I hate to tell you, but they’re all true. Five minutes ago our firstborn stood between my husband and me holding our hands and we swung her into the air. One, two, three, wee. Now, the oldest of four, fourteen years old, she walked in front of us wearing my old Doc Martins. From the actual 90s. Her hair, long bleached blonde. Day-glo blue at the tips. The three of us pushed through the double doors of her high school and the sign that read, Freshman Orientation Night.

Inside the building there were glossy linoleum floors. Florescent lights overhead. And the bright, boundless energy of teen volunteers. We handed maps. Maps that were highlighted in pink to mark popular sites like the caf and the gym. My stomach pulled into tight twisted knots. Knots that made sense. The grief of babyhood to childhood to adulthood. All wrapped up in my daughter. Except not.

Except a hard something clogged the back of my throat somewhere near the cafeteria. I fished a cough drop out of the bottom of my bag. Told myself to get a grip. On the down-low I joked with my husband about how much I hated high school. My husband was an A student. Me, I barely made it through. Head in the clouds, my grade school teachers said. Doesnt apply herself, they said in high school. Late-bloomer, the guidance counselor had hoped. But she wasn’t making any promises. Lucky for my kids, I was a mom who defended the dreamy late bloomers of the world. I would help teach each one of them how to apply themselves in their own good time. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts

Instructions

July 24, 2017
wait

By Meg Weber

I. Before

Wait for the elevator to open, the green one in the lobby of the hospital where she gave birth to you. Wait for the doors to close, buttons to light up, the soft rise of the lift and the faint ding of arrival. On the sixth floor, walk the sterile hallway to the same room she was in last time. Brace yourself to see her, frail and exhausted, curled up in her hospital bed.

Wait for her eyes to peek open just long enough to notice you before she returns to fitful sleep. Feel your veins pulse with more emotion than you want to swim through. Wait for her to wake up again or for the shift change. Wait until you can’t bear to wait anymore.

Turn your attention to the view: forested hills to the north, evergreens for miles. Watch cumulous clouds drift across the bluest blue sky. Notice contrast and light. Feel hope and despair. Take photos of the clouds to add to this week’s study of darkness and light strewn across the spring skies of Portland.

Send a photo of the slightest wisp of a cloud to the person who carries you through your grief. Tell her it reminds you of your last time together. Wait for her text reply. Hope that this one won’t be swallowed in the ether but will arrive like an arrow of compassion sent directly to your heart. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts, Letting Go

The Seven Stages of Alone

July 23, 2017
alone

By Jenna Tico

Like most roads to hell, it is paved with vision boards. Watered with four-dollar wine, and the metaphorical blood of the men who have “wronged you.” There is at least one volume of sad poetry; probably bought on impulse while waiting in line at the bookstore, impossibly dense text in one hand (“I’ll finally have time to read Kafka!”) and a cheap spiral notebook in the other. Later, you will label this your “INTENTION JOURNAL,” and stare at it each night before going to bed; with every intention of cataloging your intentions, but instead, watching four hours of Lifetime original movies. Which like most roads to hell, are paved with vision boards.

Stage One: Shock

It’s a Nicholas Sparks world, and we’re all just buying tampons in it; and at some point, you probably meant to be here. You probably caught a movie (or twelve) that taught you that, to live the life of your dreams, you must have one of two things:

  1. an easily accessible window, should John Cusack arrive with a boombox, or
  2. a self-induced period of solitude in your twenties; preferably in a rent-controlled apartment; preferably one with exposed brick.

And at some point, the sea of boyfriends inevitably parts; in its place, their echoey chorus of “I’m just not ready” and the expanse of that which you always thought you thought you wanted: Alone. With no end in sight. A space that, while sanctioned by sitcom, remains exhaustingly absent from the cultural consensus on womanhood. Everyone tells you to spend time alone. No one seems to understand, nor believe, that you are.  That the beast of your life leading up to this point, every dream you had for the people you’d loved, has sunk its teeth into your apartment. Noticeably absent of exposed brick. Likely missing several essential qualities, such as street parking, and glue. Continue Reading…

Addiction, Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood, parenting

Poison In My Home

July 16, 2017
poison

By Kirsten Wasson

There is poison in my home. And the poison is my son.  My one and only child—Jonah, my soulful-eyed, shy-smiling son who paints landscapes of rocks that seem to have opinions, empty shimmering roads, and mounds of land floating in green fields rippling on the canvas. My son, an actor-hopeful who, with no help from anyone managed to get himself a manager for acting, a contract with L.A. Models. Jonah, my only living family–only child of an only child of only children, my blood, heart, and soul. My poisoned and poisonous son.

Maybe the poison is the reason my hands are shaking. Maybe it’s the reason I walk around and around my apartment like an addict looking for where he hid his last pill. Maybe the poison is the reason I keep wanting to get to CVS to buy bleach and then wash my son’s dingy gray-white  shirts; I want to make something clean.

It is the week of Thanksgiving.

It’s been exactly a year since Jonah came to the full realization that all the memories and dreams about his father touching him when he was about 3 are accurate. A year ago, Jonah flew to Syracuse, New York for Thanksgiving at his dad and stepmom’s house. He spent three days there. Then he got back on the plane, and ordered a drink–after having been stone cold sober for two years and eight months. Working the steps in a rehab, and then a sober living community, and then moving on, out into a relationship with Anna, and working in a rehab. After all that, he just got on the plane and ordered a drink.

Jonah didn’t tell me about the drink on the plane; he told Anna, and said that he thought he was able to have a drink with her now and then. She was naïve; she didn’t understand addiction. She loved Jonah. He said he wanted to be able to have the occasional drink with her, that he’d decided he could drink like a “regular person.”  And so, Anna drank like the regular person she was, while he drank like an addict, keeping bottles in his backpack and on the grounds of their apartment complex. He was also consuming pot most of the day, though she didn’t know.

One night Jonah got furiously angry at something small and then furiously sad at something small and, Anna told me later, he said in a wild, quiet voice that he’d realized in Syracuse that his dad had molested him. “I knew it when I got in the car with him at the airport.  When I looked in his eyes.”

Anna repeated this to me a month and a half later; she called me just as I was getting into the elevator at school in Westwood where I taught English as a Second Language.

“I have to talk to you.” Anna’s usually low, gravelly voice was squeaking.

“Hold on. I’m getting into the elevator. Is Jonah OK?”

“Not really. Call me back.”

I rode the elevator down, imagining he’d lost his job as an R.A. at the rehab, or they’d gotten into a bad fight. I walked out of the building and across the alley to the Westwood Village Memorial Cemetery where there were benches for me to sit, and where no one but the dead could hear the conversation. Anna started with some background, about having been at her wit’s end with his recent behavior–mood swings, violent nightmares, and general erratic behavior.

“And he’s drinking. All the time.”

“What?! When?” I was shocked. He was, as far as I knew, completely sober.

“Since Thanksgiving.  Since Syracuse.”

“What?!”

“Kirsten, that’s not even the point. Jonah told me something. Those nightmares he’s having…they’re about something…that happened to him.”

It was about 4:30 on a hot L.A. February afternoon, and the graveyard was just getting cool, as the sun lowered and the sprinklers came on. I stood up and walked to a spot near the wall of famous dead, Marilyn Monroe among them. It had surprised me that Marilyn didn’t have a mausoleum in the cemetery; just one square in a bank of lost lives. But she did, every day, have fresh flowers, jammed into the alabaster cup by her name and dates.

“I don’t know what you are saying.”

“Jonah made me promise not to tell you.”

“I’m sure he did, but I need you to tell me.” I could feel that she wanted to tell me but felt loyal to Jonah. Anna and I did like each other and, to some extent, trusted one another.

“The dreams about being hurt. When he was little. Those are real.”

I remembered an awkward conversation with Anna a few months earlier; Jonah was working the night shift at the rehab center, and she and I went to a movie and had Chinese food.  She seemed both listless and worried, not like her usual tough, lively self.  She told me that Jonah had bad dreams about being chased or attacked, and would wake up flailing his arms, even trying to hit her. I listened but couldn’t really hear it, and I shelved it in some drawer of my brain. But now I remembered the conversation, my own uncomfortable-ness, and my thinking Anna was whining.

“Someone hurt him?” That made sense. Nine years of wondering why my son was so troubled, so angry, and a drug addict in and out of four rehabs. I had a cold, clarifying feeling I’d just been slipped a piece of paper with an essential clue. I got off the bench and started to stride across the graves, their wet, glistening grass.

“Was he…abused? Like, molested?”

“Yes. And he knows who.”

For a second I thought. “His dad. Is it Art?” A bizarre conclusion, but I was spinning, and reaching toward what made no sense, and what might just make perfect sense.

She was quiet.

“If it was his dad, Anna, then say nothing.”

Anna said nothing.

It felt like a thin, silver snake slithered inside my bloodstream, moving from my head, down my neck, into my heart cavity. Around me, the sprinklers were shuddering, rhythmically spraying into the air. The bottom 4 inches of my slacks were soaked. I was shocked, but not that surprised that Art had molested our son. I couldn’t have known back when it was happening because it didn’t happen when Art and I were still in the house together. I realized that, tried assuring myself with the idea that because I didn’t know, this was not as horrible as it was.

Here’s the “sense” it made: my ex-husband had been emotionally sadistic to me, and our sex life consisted of me tolerating a number of things I hated. I never once climaxed with him in ten years, and he didn’t care; I was, he told me, “frigid.”  There was also the glaring fact that Jonah had had a lot of intense tantrums from three to four whenever Art came to pick him up. I had thought the tantrums were about the divorce and separation anxiety. My therapist said it was normal. More things fell into place, including the baby talk Jonah used after returning to my house.

Three weeks after Anna told me, I brought it up with Jonah, despite Anna’s request that I not. I had to hear it from my son’s mouth, and know what he was feeling. We were in Woodland Hills, sitting on a bench outside of Trader Joe’s.

“Please don’t be mad at Anna, but she told me what you remembered. Or realized. About your childhood. When you were little.”

Jonah stood up, walked stiffly and swiftly around the bench. “I can’t fucking believe she told you that.” Then he threw himself on the bench. He looked away from me, down Ventura Boulevard, his long legs crossed at the ankles, his arms folded in a white t-shirt, his profile so defined: large forehead, long eye-lashes, full lips, and strong jaw. So like my mother’s, I often thought.  Without turning toward me, he said,

“Well so now that you know. Can you imagine that Dad would do that?”

“I can.”

He asked me a few questions about why I could, and I told him, without too many details. Still not looking at me, Jonah commanded: “Do not say a single word to Dad. Not a word. I would lose it. And become crazy.”

“Okay, Jonah,” I nodded.

A few days later, I found a therapist specializing in trauma, and Jonah saw her for a few visits and then stopped. She’d told him she needed him to be sober. Jonah was drinking, and also—although Anna didn’t know nor did I, imbibing pot all day.  By May, he’d lost his job at the rehab, and Anna had thrown him out. I didn’t blame her; he was yelling all the time, and punched a few holes in their walls. He was driving drunk.  He was poisoned and poisonous.

A funny thing about Jonah is that he always gets work, and always works hard. So, he got a certificate as a security guard, faked the drug test somehow, and got a job at L’Hermitage, a luxury hotel in Beverly Hills.  For four months, he lived in air b’ and b’s with four beds in a room or hostels, and worked nights at the L’Hermitage. When he spotted a celebrity, he’d text me. Escorted Tom Cruise and crew down elevator. Seemed nice. A lot of fillers in that face.” I’d get messages on my phone under my pillow as I was falling asleep. “Saw Cher fall down in the hall. Completely drunk. Pretty like a ghost.” I’d squeeze the phone in my palm until it started to sweat. My boy. At least he’s in touch. He is working. My son was damaged and in pain and I could do nothing.

Jonah was twenty-four years old, financially self-sufficient. I couldn’t make him go back to rehab, and he wasn’t even admitting that the drinking and pot were a problem.  I thought about Jonah all the time during that summer and saw him every few weeks. His affect ranged from forced smiles, “It’s all good, Mom,” to raging about Anna to crying about her. He shut me down when I brought up the molestation. He lost his contract with his modeling agency, and his acting manager was clearly almost done with Jonah because he missed appointments, and probably his auditions were lousy.

After years and years of therapy and Al-Anon, I know I can’t guide my son. I kept mumbling to myself the one Al-Anon slogan I could almost stomach, “Let Go and Let God.” Sometimes I prayed. Sometimes I hoped he’d get caught driving high and go to jail. Sometimes I thought about buying a gun and getting on a plane to Syracuse. I mean really thought about it. I looked up gun shops and the rules about purchasing a weapon in California.

In October I went to Chicago for a work conference, and let Jonah stay in my apartment and use my car; I was still thinking I should do things to help him. I was still in denial.  When I called to see how things were going, he screamed at me for checking up on him.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?! Leave me alone, Mom!”

“I’m worried about you driving when you’re tired and…maybe high?”

“I have a life, Mom. Or I’m trying to. Leave me the fuck alone.” He hung up.

I realized I’d made a mistake by letting him stay in my place and use my car, but all I could do was to ask God, who I wasn’t sure I believed in, to not let Jonah die.

When I returned, my apartment was a mess. Mad, worried, but not yet aware that Jonah’s life was close to imploding, I swept and swabbed and folded laundry. And then I found the piece of paper stuck in the couch that listed the drugs he’d bought, how much they cost, and the days he’d bought them. I recognized “Ox” for Oxycotin, but didn’t know “Roxies,” “Norco,” or “Girlfriend.”  He was doing opiates and cocaine.

***

Lucky to be alive, my son. Jonah does not feel lucky. He feels, he told me recently, “tainted.” I never heard him use that word before, and it’s not one I’d imagine him using. “I never feel clean, Mom. No one knows what I really look like–on the inside.”  I wanted to tell him he was beautiful and clean and good on the inside, but I don’t know what it feels like to be molested by a parent when you’re three years old. I don’t know how you carry a secret—one that you don’t even know the meaning of—for years, then find it inside dark dreams and feel it within yourself like a heavy, aching weight that will not let you go.

***

When, in late October after my Chicago trip, I told him I had found the scrap of paper, he shut me down. Into my cell phone I spoke sharply but still trying to sound like a person who understood him, telling him I knew he was doing pills and cocaine.

“I think you probably want me to know, Jonah. You left that paper for me to find…don’t you think?

“I fucking did not. You think you are so fucking smart. Have me all figured out. You don’t even know what that paper meant.”

“I looked up the things I didn’t know.”

“Aren’t you a genius, Mother.”  I don’t know who hung up first.

Every day I worried. Every day I tried to lead the life of the normal. I succeeded about twenty percent of the time. Most days I floated blankly through my new job as a counselor at a high school, then grocery shopping, yoga, talking to friends on the phone, making dinner, lying on the couch for hours watching tv. I got especially attached to “American Horror Story,” where the evil spirits, self-mutilation, and toxicity resonated.

Then in the middle of November, we had a conversation about his “tapering off.” Jonah called around ten one night from L’Hermitage on his cigarette break. I was still up, very alert, as I’d been waiting for months for this call.

“I know I can’t do this any longer, Mom.  I want to stop the opiates. I know I can; I did it before, right?! I’ll taper off. I am tapering off, actually.”

“Right. But before–you were in rehab, taking suboxone, that helped with the cravings, and you had around-the-clock professional care.”

“I want to quit, Mom. I’m already down to half of what I was using the last few months.”

Wanting to believe him, I said he could stay at my house the week of Thanksgiving—for 6 nights. During that time he would decide if he were going to go to rehab again or not. Monday he’d have to leave—for rehab or back to one of crappy hostels where he’d been staying.

The first few days I cleaned up his addled messes around my apartment after he left for work at noon, and then watched my favorite show. Scenes of carnage and violence—a decapitated witch spewing racist epithets, a couple having sex in a filthy hotel room, both aware of a stinking corpse in the bathtub, a woman gouging out her own eyes with a kitchen knife—these scenes kept me steady.

On Thanksgiving, Jonah and I went out to dinner. We both dressed up.

His pants wouldn’t stay up because he’d lost so much weight. I gave him my belt. I drove us  to a place I’d seen in a local magazine that looked classy and funky. The waitress flirted with him–as every waitress has ever done since Jonah was around nineteen. Jonah was warm and funny and sweet to me. He asked me about work, and whether I ever thought I’d meet the right man and how much that mattered to me. I didn’t flinch when he ordered a beer. And then I ordered a glass of wine. My salmon was perfectly grilled. On the way out, I asked the flirty waitress to take a photo of us.

It was like getting to see the sunlight after months inside somewhere cold and dark. I bathed in the strange grace of our being out to dinner together–a mother and son on a holiday–a bath made of milk and honey and normalcy. For the hour and a half we were out together, I did not think about whether Jonah would choose to go to rehab. I did not think about the fact that this was the anniversary of his recognizing that his father had molested him, and his starting to use again.

He had the couch, and I went to sleep in my bed for a few hours. I woke to hear the TV blaring.  I came out, and Jonah had fallen sleep in his clothes on the top of the sheets and blanket I’d left for him. His phone was right by my foot. I turned off the TV, and unlocked his phone; his password was his birthday. So I saw then, that earlier the same day he’d contacted someone to buy “chrissy.” That, I found out online–back in my bedroom–was crystal meth. And from what I could see on his phone, he’d been doing it for months.

I should have known: the weight loss, the staying up all night driving around after the hotel job, a certain hollow look in his eye. I should have noticed that hollow look. But he’d had not that look before, because he’d never done meth before. I pulled the covers off my bed and lay down in a hard nest on the floor next to my son. He was completely still on the couch.  I listened  to him breathe, thought of him breathing in his crib at two. Sometimes I slept on the floor next to him back then. His breathing calmed me, and I didn’t want to sleep next to Art. Now Jonah was sweating, and occasionally moaning. Eventually I went back to my bed because I saw we were both ghosts of our former selves, and if I were going to be the parent I better get sleep.

And although I intended to confront him in the morning. I could not. I thought he might run away if he knew I’d discovered the crystal meth. I needed time to think, to talk to someone else. There were three days until Monday. So I let him sleep late, shower, go to work. “Bye, Mom. See you tonight.”

Jonah leaves my apartment with a furtiveness that makes me nauseous. I feel the wet heat coming out my eyes. Then I pick up Jonah’s clothes, turn his pockets inside out. I look in his toiletry bag but find only toothpaste and floss. There is poison in my house, and the poison is my son, his pain, his attempt to numb his pain. My blood, my heart and soul. Now I know: My meth-addicted son. I walk around and around my apartment like an addict looking for his last bit of dope, last sources of known relief. My poisoned and poisonous boy.

Kirsten Wasson works as a college counselor at a high school in Los Angeles; four years ago she left a job as an English professor in Ithaca, New York, to move to LA and begin her life over at the age of 50. For many years she wrote a blog about the experience (www.lostandlaughinginla.wordpress.com), and she is now finishing a memoir on the subject. Kirsten has previously published a book of poetry with Antrim House Press, and her non-fiction pieces appeared in The Ithaca Times for ten years. Active in the L.A. storytelling scene, she recently won a “Best Of 2016” at the SHINE storytelling venue in Santa Monica.

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