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Surviving

Guest Posts, Surviving

Rewriting Scars

August 9, 2019
trash

By Rachel McMullen

When the city started charging for collection, my family started to burn our trash. We didn’t even dig a hole, we just tossed a white plastic bag full of mixed garbage on a grass-less part of the backyard and poured enough gasoline on it to start a fire with a huff. We would watch the flames struggle to dismantle the various materials, melting them down into a colorful liquid that simmered with viscosity. As any child would be, I was curious about this unintended chemistry experiment: like a bonobo probing the earth for a protein reward, I poked the blue of the fire to return the plastic syrup cooking within. I dropped down crossed-legged in the dirt and lifted my prize eye-level, admiring the aquamarine ooze of a what was once a toothpaste tube. Bubbles popped in the muck as huge drops curdled from the end of my stick and fell back onto the edges of the still-burning refuse. Suddenly, my skin sizzled as melted plastic tore through my left leg, breaking down each layer as if it weren’t even there. I remember thinking that tin cans were stronger than my own body. As a knee-jerk, but still delayed reaction, I ripped the now hardened drop of plastic away from my skin faster than a Band-aid, ripped it away with all the now-dead skin underneath, ripped it almost hard enough to not feel the pain before the blood came. And when it did, when it cascaded down my leg and ran toward the fire-torn earth, it drew my blood away toward its dusty innards. I sat in quiet meditation, bleeding but transfixed by the mirrored shape still hot in the palm of my hand: a figure-eight, a bowknot without its tails, infinitely emblazoned in discolored tissue. A symbol of our trash, of my body, burning hot in the backyard. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Surviving, Tough Conversations

On Survival

May 10, 2019

By Serena Trujillo

Step 1:

The trick is to stay alive. Like clockwork. There is a clock that lives in the dining room, it is my fathers. It is the only thing in the house he cleans. The clock looks like marbled wood and is shaped like a stain. I am too afraid to touch it and far too small to reach it. “The trick is oil”, my father whispers as I stretch my body toward the plaque of time, “and keeping it high enough so that you and your sisters cannot reach it”. My father is short, I bet I can reach it in a couple of years. He laughs.

Step 2:

My mother tells me to stomp. “Keep your legs and your head up high.” It is a fifteen minute walk to the coin laundry. We go at night because that is when my parents are awake. I am afraid of the dark but I am not allowed to say so I just stomp. It keeps the cockroaches away. It keeps the dark away. The dark can’t be loud, can it? Continue Reading…

Addiction, Guest Posts, Surviving

Everyday Objects

March 1, 2019
heroin

By Elsa Williams

It is the spoon I always hesitate before picking up. It’s mixed in with the rest of the mismatched flat wear in the drawer. But if I need a spoon for one of my daughters, something for applesauce or Ovaltine, I rummage a little longer to find a different one.

The spoon is Oyster Bay, a discontinued pattern popular in the 70s. It looks more or less indistinguishable from the rest of our old, scratched up flat wear. But for me, it has always had a double meaning. A wholesome meaning– cereal, ice cream, coffee – and a secret, forbidden meaning.  Not just “drugs”, but heroin. Not just “doing” heroin, but injecting it.

***

The story starts with a different Oyster Bay spoon. Twenty four years ago, my friend Lila was holding up my roommate’s spoon and giving me a wicked grin.

I had invited Lila and a couple friends over for dinner. And I had asked her to please, please not say anything about drugs. I didn’t want to risk getting kicked out of my apartment, or even drawing too much attention to myself. The rule in the flat was that everyone stayed out of each other’s business, but one of my roommates had taken it on himself to forbid me to have any of my junky friends in the house. He was sullen and mean and seemed a little unhinged, and if he decided to make a stink with the landlord, he probably could have gotten me kicked out. But I wasn’t going to ban Lila from my apartment.

Lila had been my closest friend and my lifeline at school, the one person who understood me. When I got back to school that fall and found her consumed by heroin, I felt lost and abandoned. I was trying to find a way for us to still be friends.

I hadn’t understood what a wide zone there was between “experimenting” and full-blown addiction. Lila was chipping, doing heroin without a physical dependency, but that didn’t mean it would have been easy for her to quit. She was in love with heroin; it was the only thing she wanted to talk about.

Lila and our two friends were sitting around the rickety kitchen table while I tried to figure out how to make garlic bread in a toaster oven. Almost everything in the kitchen belonged to one or the other of my roommates, and I hadn’t thought much about the spoons, until Lila picked one up, and announced, “What a marvelous spoon. The bowl is so large. Think of how much it could hold.” Then she put it back down on the table and, vamping it up, leaned down to check how flat the bowl sat.

I winced, and tried not to egg her on.

***

Twenty one years ago, I was painting a picture of that spoon.

Lila had dropped out of school, and I felt unmoored. Lila always seemed to know what to do, even if it was a terrible idea. I decided I would take the same painting class she had. I went to talk to the instructor to see if she would let a biochemistry major like me into her class. I always got better grades in art classes, and they helped keep my GPA up. But I also wanted to do this thing that Lila cared about.

Feeling burned by Lila, the teacher asked me, “You’re not addicted to anything are you?”

I said, “I’m fine,” which wasn’t entirely true. Lila and I had started getting high together two months before she left. Now I was the one who was pining for heroin. It was seeping into everything, including all my painting assignments, a series of still lives that were supposed to be about the breakfast table: a spoon, a coffee cup, a small plate. The spoon was taking over.

I wasn’t a gifted artist like Lila, but unlike her, I showed up to class sober, and I did the work. I spent a lot of time studying the spoon from different angles, trying to capture every curve and reflection. The bowl had a teardrop shape. The handle had a fine line down the center and a little scallop on the bottom, like two very thin fingers had been pressed into the metal and drawn up its length. The handle was thick and solid, but the edge tapered into a thin graceful line around the bowl.

I thought I was being clever, hiding the secret meaning of the spoon, but it was obvious to everyone, including my painting teacher. One painting in particular had started out grey, but a little bit of yellow had turned it poison green. The spoon, bent by its reflection in the mug, dominated the picture.

The instructor sighed when she told me, “You obviously have some things you need to work through,” but she didn’t try to intervene. At the end of the class, she said, “When I first saw you, with your green hair and your leather jacket, I was worried. But you really put in the work.”

I moved out of that apartment before the end of the semester, and, as much as I wanted to take the spoon, I didn’t. I didn’t want to be a thief as well as a junky.

***

Twenty years ago, I was scrubbing the back of a different Oyster Bay spoon before my baby brother came over. This spoon belonged to my boyfriend Michael, from a small collection of things his mother had been able to give us for our apartment. I was in graduate school, and we were trying to make a home together, but drugs were taking over. I had been doing heroin off and on for three years, and I was trying very hard to keep everything from spiraling out of control. But I don’t think Michael could imagine himself surviving to 40, to 30, to 25. He would be dead from an overdose within 6 months.

I’d always been protective of my brother, and I didn’t want him to see any of that. I was cleaning the apartment from top to bottom, sweeping up piles of cigarette ash, and pulling orange syringe caps out from between the sofa cushions. And scrubbing the black scorch marks off the back of our spoons. The needle exchange gave out bottle caps to use as disposable cookers, and we should have been using those. But spoons had a certain old school glamour.

When I quit for good, a year after Michael died, I packed the drug spoons away, along with a scant couple boxes of Michael’s things. His mother wanted the flat wear back, and she wanted his leather jacket, and she wanted me to apologize for her son’s death. I was grappling with my own guilt and complicity, but I could not accept her conviction that everything was my fault. I never gave her the apology she needed, but eventually I gave her his leather jacket.

***

Fourteen years ago, I gave the drug spoons to Goodwill. I was sorting through my things, after moving in with the man who is now my husband. I wasn’t sure why I had held onto the spoons. It seemed like a dangerous kind of memento, sure to raise questions if my future mother-in-law found them, so carefully wrapped up with my most precious objects. But I pulled the Oyster Bay spoon out of the Goodwill pile. It was the one spoon that had other meanings: the quiet contemplation of the breakfast table, the careful observation of painting, the accumulation of little things that add up to making a home.

Sobriety has been a process of leaching the drug associations from everyday objects, including the veins in my arms. And I was hoping that even a former piece of drug paraphernalia could find a place in our silverware drawer.

Elsa Williams is a biomedical scientist living in Medford, Massachusetts with her husband and two children. She is working on a memoir about her early 20s and blogs about feminism and harm reduction at worn-smooth.tumblr.com.


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Abuse, Guest Posts, Surviving

The Inedible Footnote of Child Abuse

February 20, 2019
beets

By Diane Sherlock

Beets.

String beans.

Cooked carrots.

Cottage cheese.

These were the flavors of my childhood abuse.

There was no bodily autonomy in the house I grew up in. No privacy, no warm baths without ice water dumped from above, no agency over my body, and my brothers and I had no say in what we ate. Three seemingly random vegetables were force-fed.  Why those three? Why not? They were the favorites of the reigning narcissist of the house. They were our mother’s favorites. Reject them, reject her. The essence of narcissistic abuse.

I cannot be forced to donate blood, organs, or tissue, even when I’m dead, but in my mother’s house, I had no say in much of anything to do with my body. Suicide ideation became a way of life. Continue Reading…

Grief, Guest Posts, Surviving

Stonehenge, Survival, and Me

January 23, 2019

By Angela M Giles

Today is the day of my father’s death.  He was a successful suicide, which is to say my father failed at living. The loss of him, his choice not to stay with us, hurts, badly. This is something I have to carry, and it is a permanent wound that is deep and open. My body has been carrying so much, for so long.
 
I have been in London over the past days and it has been a satisfying and humbling trip. Satisfying because the time here has been utterly, fantastically delightful. Humbling, because this was a trip that was cancelled after a car accident that I was lucky to survive.

Continue Reading…

Compassion, Guest Posts, Surviving

When The Music Stopped

September 5, 2018
flute

By Elana Rabinowitz

I pushed my thick wooden chair inside my desk and looked up.

The substitute was nothing like Ms. Rudnick, her long Farrah Fawcett hair, her thin frame made me wonder if she ever taught children before.  But here she was for almost a full week now and I was getting restless.

“Okay class, we’re going to do some warm ups.”  She said. “On my count.”

Really I thought?  This is what an IGC (Intellectually Gifted Children) class is going to do?  Shouldn’t we be writing essays or studying history.  I didn’t want to exercise inside the confines of my classroom, but I was a compliment third grader and did as she asked.

I looked over at my friend Virna who winked at me.  I used to sit next to Virna and we laughed ourselves silly in class. Always finding amusement in Templeton from Charlotte’s Web.  Double T, Double E, Double R… I guess we laughed too loudly and now I was in the corner by the window about to stretch my body all the way from Brooklyn to Queens. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, suicide, Surviving

Depression is Still A Duplicitous Asshole

August 12, 2018

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 HOME to 741741. The world needs you.

By Angela M Giles

This weekend marks the four year anniversary of Robin Willam’s suicide. I still cannot watch anything with him in it, it makes my heart hurt too much. I know this is irrational. But it is real. Perhaps it is my fear of seeing a flicker of darkness cross his face, or perhaps it is hearing him say something that hits too close to his end that prevents me. I know how his story finishes, I want to remember enjoying his work.

Suicide is a complicated act, its shroud is depression and it is often accompanied by something else, another disease that really gives ideation heft. In the case of Robin Williams it was Parkinson’s disease, in the case of my father it was alcoholism. In my case it was a combination of diagnosed issues, packed in trauma, tied up in emotional abuse, both at the hands of a lover. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, loss, Surviving

Cross Purposes

June 1, 2018
cross

By Aimee Ross

A cross has stood in that field for three years.

Three years since he smashed into me and the girls in my car that summer night. We were on our way home from dance camp.

The girls escaped the wreck with minor injuries. I barely survived.

He died.

Fifteen minutes from home. We were almost home.

Dear Zachary,

 I’m writing this letter to you because I feel like I have to, even though I don’t know you and never will. I can only know my version of you, and to be honest, it’s not good.

 I know you were the driver of the red Mini Cooper who ploughed recklessly into the side of my gray Saturn Aura that warm July night. I know you were only nineteen, and not one of my former students. And I know that doctors declared you “brain dead” the next day in a room near mine at Cleveland Metro Trauma Center.

The cross was first pushed into the earth less than two weeks after the accident. My mom, who drove past the site twice daily on her way to and from the hospital, was infuriated by it. She thought it was made of Bud Light boxes. I’d been past the site since then a few times, but I had never stopped. I never wanted to be in that space long enough to think.

Until now.

After the accident, visitors told me rumors about you. Even my own daughters. They knew people you partied with. They also warned me of your Facebook memorial page, but I didn’t listen.

I looked too soon.

You—the party boy with swag—were loved, and by many. They called you Zach. Throwing bangers, getting baked, and blowing smoke at the camera consumed the posted memories and fuzzy photos.

 Something kept telling me to visit the scene.

And I needed closure.

So, armed with notebook and pen and ready to record the epiphany I was sure to have, I drove there alone one mid-summer afternoon. I expected to cry, feel relief, be cleansed. The trauma would finally make sense.

As I approached the busy state route’s intersection, I noticed the warning signs of road construction—at least I wouldn’t have to worry about traffic. I parked along the berm across from the site, realizing I had no intention of leaving my vehicle anyway. I would just be here, feel here.

A friend of your mother’s told me you had trouble with the law, and I know your driver’s license had been suspended at least twice before. You even spent time in a detention home. I wonder if other rumors about you and your buddies playing a very dangerous driving game to earn points for traffic violations were true.

Beyond the intersection, a cross made of two perpendicular skateboards—not beer boxes—jutted crookedly out of a grassy slope. The ground climbing from the ditch to the tilted cross was still scarred. Dry brown gashes in the earth, like my three-year-old wounds, littered the rise where energy from an inelastic collision was absorbed. The scars, evidence of an outside force. Inertia disrupted.

 And then there’s your family. Good people, I heard. I know you had dinner at home with them that evening. You asked your dad for the car, the one titled to him but given to you, so you could go to a friend’s house. You were on your way when you crashed into us. I also know your family loved you. Just moments after finding out you had passed—after being asked about donating your organs—your father and sister hugged my brother. They cried, said they hoped I would “pull through.” I imagine your mother was broken in a corner, lost in a sea of tears. I know your parents—an older, more settled couple—adopted you and your sister from another country far away. Maybe they couldn’t have their own children. Now they can’t even have you.

Why did he run the stop sign? How fast was his car moving?

 The most devastating thing I know about you, however, isn’t that you disregarded a stop sign or might have been speeding that night. What’s most devastating is that you were driving under the influence. The highway patrol officer who came to inform me I was the “victim of a crime” said so. They don’t know how fast you were going, but they do know that you had marijuana and benzodiazepine in your bloodstream.

And then the toxicology report. I researched. Benzodiazepine, an anti-anxiety medication, can induce everything from euphoria to a hypnotic state, just like the recreational drug marijuana. Together, the two would have produced an amplified high, as well as an amplified tranquilizer effect. He might have been so high he didn’t know what he was doing. He could have been asleep at the wheel.

Why did you do that, Zach? Why?

Did you smoke pot and do drugs so often you drove stoned all the time?

Did you forget you had family and friends who loved you, a whole life ahead of you?

Did you think you were invincible, maybe even above the law?

But none of that matters. The outcome is the same.

Three beautiful girls, teenagers on the dance team I advised, were riding with me on the way back from dance camp that evening. I couldn’t protect them from you. You could have killed them. You almost killed me. I believed my daughter, also on the team, had left ahead of us, but in fact, she was only moments behind in a different car. You could have killed her that night. The thought makes me sick. I love her, just like your parents loved you. Our worst fear as parents happened to them: you didn’t come home.

I stared at the cross, thinking about what onlookers would have witnessed that July evening. A car shooting from the darkness and crashing into another. Impact in the intersection. Crunching metal, shattering glass. A body catapulted through a car’s sunroof and against the unforgiving road, as momentum propels both vehicles over a ditch to rest less than twenty feet apart. Airbags deployed, windshields buckled, a smoking engine. Four trapped inside mangled metal. Passersby stop, phone calls are made, and moments later, the chaos to save lives ensues. The scene is flooded with light, engulfed in disembodied voices, and swarming with firemen, ambulances, and highway patrol.

 Your parents must miss you desperately. I imagine they didn’t know about your regular drug use. I wonder if they were shocked, horrified maybe, to find out. I’m sure they have forgiven you by now, though—you were their only son.

 It is quiet here today at this place. Peaceful, even. Bright sunshine, a gentle breeze, midsummer warmth. The perfect setting for something—anything—to offer understanding. Redemption maybe. A setting to offer forgiveness.

But I am finding it difficult to do.

I am alive, but another mother’s son never went home.

We all make mistakes and poor choices. I know this. And if you had lived through the accident, maybe you would have apologized. You probably would have been sorry, too. If you had lived through the accident, maybe you even would have changed. You probably would have stopped being reckless, too. But maybe your life ended because of how you chose to live it. Maybe change would not have been possible for you. I don’t know.

I wait.

I don’t want to hate you, Zach.And I don’t want to be so angry . . . still. I even want to try to forgive you.

Nothing happens. I don’t even cry. I slide the pen back in my purse, toss the notebook to the front passenger seat, and head home. If only the intersection had been closed three years ago. If only we had taken another way home. If only he had been sober. If only he had stopped at the intersection’s sign. Then we would not have had our path crossed. T-boned. Crushed.

But I just can’t yet.

 Four lives altered forever, another life lost.

Sincerely, Aimee, the woman whose life you changed

A cross marks the spot.

Aimee Ross is a nationally award-winning educator who’s been teaching high school English at her alma mater in Loudonville, Ohio, for the past twenty-six years and an aspiring writer for as long as she can remember. Her first book, Permanent Marker: A Memoir, was just published in March 2018 (KiCam Projects). She has also had her writing published on NextAvenue.orgwww.lifein10minutes.com, and www.SixHens.Com, as well as in Beauty around the World: A Cultural Encyclopedia (ABC-Clio, 2017); Scars: An Anthology (Et Alia Press, 2015); Today I Made a Difference: A Collection of Inspirational Stories from America’s Top Educators (Adams Media, 2009); and Teaching Tolerance magazine. You can find Aimee online at www.theaimeeross.com.

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Guest Posts, Mental Health, Surviving

Triggered

January 12, 2018

By Jessica Standifird

The building looks new from outside, but this office feels old. The carpet is beige and stained, dust has made nests in the corners, and all of the furniture is from the 1980s and trying really hard to be comfortable. A large wooden desk sits in front of the only window, files with paper tongues sticking out are littered across its surface. There’s a computer monitor with a scheduling calendar displayed on the screen.

The psychiatrist my disability lawyer sent me to sits across from me in a rolling office chair. One leg kicked up over the other, ankle on knee. I’ve already forgotten his name. His hair is running away from his face, apparently so quickly that what strands remain are left to the wind. His glasses are gold medal frames stuck so deeply into his nose that I imagine he has to pry them off at night. He is angular and at ease in this place. He is Ichabod Crane in his forties, post a divorce he hardly even noticed.

The chair I’m in is in the middle of the room. There is nowhere to set my purse and drink but on the floor. I am an awkward island in a sea that is past its prime. My palms are damp.

We started this appointment by Ichabod bursting into the waiting room and accusing me of being late. When I said I thought I was supposed to be there at ten-thirty, he admonished me. Continue Reading…

#metoo, Guest Posts, Sexual Assault/Rape, Surviving

A Vacation from Your Brain

November 29, 2017
brain

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 Whitney Bell

I wish I could forget his scent.

When I moved there the air smelled of salt and thick heat. Citrus sometimes, beer others, the dichotomies of fresh and clean, smoke and sweat, coconut lime. Perfect for an adventure seeker.

Live music poured out of bars, boats floated out for sunset sails, restaurants served the catch of the day, crab legs, lobster tails.

I got a job by the beach waiting tables, and rented a cute little bungalow with a front yard jungle. I read by day, drank wine by night, sang karaoke, and danced. Met new people.

I can’t tell you why I trusted him, other than I trusted people. He reminded me of my friends back home. Friends I’d slept next to and always been safe.

I can’t tell you why I hung out after the bar closed, other than I worked second shift, drank until 2am, and that was my lifestyle, the after-party.

I can tell you I didn’t know about boundaries. I was new in town and lonely. But where I was from, inviting someone over wasn’t a sexual invitation. Continue Reading…

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, your girlfriend 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.

What I didn’t learn until later was that you had given notes for all of your friends, including your girlfriend, 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 your ex-girlfriend 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 fact, 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.” 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.

 

Join Jen at her On Being Human workshop in upcoming cities such as NYC, Ojai, Tampa, Ft Worth and more by clicking the image above.

 

Join Jen at Kripalu in The Berkshires of Massachusetts for her annual On Being Human retreat there by clicking the picture above. March 2-4, 2018.

 

Guest Posts, Marriage, Surviving

Flamethrower

April 21, 2017
water

By Lori Fetters Lopez

Some days it’s enough that he breathes. The exchange of air grates on my psyche like the high-pitched squeal of a six-year-old at the sight of a spider. A childhood dream to be a pilot, he sits with his hands grasping the yoke of a computer flight simulator. At his perch, he can turn from the pretend to the surreal. An endless choice of television shows filled with intolerable stupidity, followed by commercials selling drugs with side effects more damning than the symptoms they claim to cure. It all culminates into a farce. He’s been deployed for months and I’m left with only the memory to fuel my fire.

Hands on hips, I look at the obstinate water softener spewing its juices over my walls. I’m lost in incredulity wanting to collapse into the wet. Yesterday, I replaced the damn thing, the day before, the water heater. It mocks. Disgusted, I walk into the garage where the car lays in shambles begging me to crawl beneath its underbelly hoping for an altered result. First, the valve cover gasket, then the radiator, and now the gas tank.  The large door stands open revealing that another rain has brought our grass to grow. The lawn mower sits in the corner, a pigheaded child too engrossed in a video game to go to the bathroom, it leaks. Fixed before he left, obvious the repair was in vain; the first fill drains onto the floor. The mailbox leans forward as if reaching for the next letter too long overdue. Someone crashed into the pole and I replaced it. Too tired for more, I forgot the concrete anchor to gird its pole. I could call someone, pay someone, but that’s not who I am. I persevere. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Mental Health, Surviving

Mother And Daughter: An (In)Complete History of (Almost) Suicide

March 12, 2017
suicide

CW: This piece discusses suicide and suicidal ideation.

By Amy Buchanan

One of my earliest memories is this: Sitting in the passenger seat of an old, beat-up blue Volkswagen, tracing a raindrop with my finger as it slides down the window and swallows up other raindrops along the way. My bare feet don’t yet touch the floor. I’m barely tall enough to see the gray world outside. My pajamas are twisted up, cutting a red line into my neck. My mother’s boyfriend opens the door and ponderously shoves a wastebasket full of my socks into the back seat. He is a bear of a man; I adore him, but he can be scary. This morning he is scary. Just sitting next to him brings anxious tears to my eyes.

“Where are we going?” I ask.

“I’m taking you to some people. You’re going to live with them now.” He forces the car in gear, and we begin to drive away.

“Where is my mom?” I cry, a keening sound too big for my small body.

“Who the hell knows. Probably going to the ocean to drown,” he looks at me. “She doesn’t want you anymore. Now shut it.” Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Racism, Resistance, Surviving

But What Does This Mean? Racism, Unity, And The Next Four Years.

February 6, 2017
racism

By Kristina Newman

This morning I woke up in the middle of the night to the screams of my daughter crying. I panicked even though this was not a new occurrence to me. We never let her come in our bed anymore but this time I needed to see her. As I snuggled her in bed my anxiety grew and my stomach clenched.

I thought about how this is only the second time I have been truly scared for my life and the life of my loved ones as a result of what was going on in the political world. The first time was when the announcement we were going to war in 2003 was made. I was in the car driving from California to Arizona with my dad. I remember asking him, “but what does that mean?” I meant, what does this mean for me? What does this mean for you? What does this mean for America? Will bombs reach our shores? How will our lives change after this?

14 years later I find myself asking the same questions. I understand who won, but what does that mean for me and the ones I love most? What does that mean for our country? I am a black woman who is married to a Jewish man and raising a biracial daughter. I am an ally to the LGBTQ community and many of my dearest friends and family identify as such. When their community bleeds, my heart bleeds too. I have friends whose parents and students and loved ones are immigrants. There are Muslims who are rightfully scared for their lives and have been since September 11. These are the communities I am most scared for. Continue Reading…

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