The Epidemic of Suicide

I have always hated Munch’s picture “The Scream”. I just cannot stand the feeling it provokes in me. It’s sad and disturbing and not-shake-off-able.  Last night the news reported that another young man from our local community was found dead. The prevailing thought is that this young man took his own life. This makes four suicide-deaths in our area in almost as many weeks – three of these young people were 18 years old or younger, one was a mere 25 years-old. The vision of Munch’s  The Scream came immediately to mind. I just wanted to scream when I heard the news. I wanted to hold my face and just scream “Noooooooooooooo” until I had no more breath to utter sound.

In our area, suicides are a growing epidemic and I cannot help but think there is a connection between these deaths, the day-to-day stress that families are feeling and the current political distress in our country. My experience is that both my democratic and republican friends are all feeling a collective sense of depression and hopelessness, even if it is for different reasons. I am not sure how we can tell kids that suicide is not an option when we don’t really have a lot options to offer ourselves, either personally or as a body of Americans.  Think about it. Today’s youth are bombarded with news of violence, incidences like the Neo-Nazi’s rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, of the Black-Lives-Matter movement and the backlash of that movement, of three-in-a-row destructive hurricanes, of overall increased concerns for the economy, or increased concerns about people losing access to health care to name just a few.

And none of this accounts for the additional high school specific issues that kids are dealing with every day – growing expectations of academic success, the competitive stress of positioning to get into a “good college”, fitting in, standing up to bullying, saying no to drugs, wearing the right outfits, playing the right sport, or the best instrument in band and so forth. The stress levels that kids experience is astronomical and we are doing precious little to reduce or even mitigate this stress. Instead we say, “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” Really? I have not heard one person- not one news commentator, not one podcaster, not one politician, not one financial expert sending out a message that says anything like, “Oh, don’t worry. This is just a temporary moment of distress for our country. It’s all going to be really great any minute now.” That is not the message being sent. The messages being sent are the kind that highlight the divisions and fractions, they highlight who’s right and who’s wrong, they name call, character assassinate and, in some cases, condone and justify violence and unrest. Do we think that because human beings are between the ages of 13-20 that they are not impacted by these messages? Are we crafting the message that the future is actually worth living?

I want us all to stop the mindless busyness that is the newest addiction in our country. I want us to take a day to create peace - close the schools and stores and businesses, have people gather so we can be together and comfort each other. I want us to breathe, practice mindfulness and for us to remember that every word we say to each other counts. I want us to re-learn the language of kindness and love.  I want to start a national campaign for young people knowing they are loved and valued, that they belong and where they see us living a future of peace and of hope. Where they look at what is possible and they want to contribute, versus looking ahead and permanently stepping off of the ride.  No one wants to hear of another death, another young person who took their life and wonder if they could have done anything to stop it. 

Walking Each Other Home

Walking Each Other Home

I think it was Ram Dass who said that we are all here just walking each other home.  This thought comes to me over and over these days as I struggle with my mother’s declining health. My mother, now 92 years old, has enjoyed really good health until recently. Slowly over the past two years, but more rapidly over the past three months, she has begun to experience increased memory loss and decreased mobility. It is heartbreaking to watch.

My brother and I are largely clueless about how to manage these issues with my mom. We’ve not walked this road before and the experience is like being two teenagers who decide to take road trip in the middle of the night. We have a car that works, we know the general direction we are headed, but we are missing the exact route, the car has no GPS, but we do have a paper map and are using that to plot the route. We can see as far as we can see out of the windshield, but that is nowhere near far enough for us to really and truly see the road ahead. Still, as long as we keep moving, we can see the road and that is something.

My cousins, whose mother was my favorite aunt and the person who taught me a lot of the important things in life, walked this path before me. My aunt passed away a number of years ago, but not without a slow and (at least for us) painful demise.  I can remember feeling furious at God over my aunt’s health. I felt so betrayed. She served him with, as the Catholic’s say, a glad heart; yet He didn’t take her peacefully in her sleep like He should have if He had been the all-powerful, all knowing Oz as I was taught in grammar school. And, even if He truly wasn’t all knowing and all-powerful, He could have just followed my advice. Goodness knows I offer it often enough to anyone who is listening.

These days when I get a concerned call from my mother’s assisted living nurse, one of the first things I do is call my cousins. They have nothing to say in terms of advice, and nothing to offer in terms of things we should do, but they have walked this path before me and that, in and of itself, is a pretty big gift. They have felt these feelings, have watched this similar demise, have felt the injustice of it all and, perhaps the best part, they love my mother like I loved their mother. There is some synchronicity in this circle of love that is soothing to me.

I think we cannot underestimate the value of having people in our lives who have walked the same road before us.  In fact, I think it is part of our obligation to be there for people who are experiencing what we have experienced before them pay-it-forward and all of that. I cannot think of anything that contributes more to people who are struggling, than knowing they are not alone in the struggle. I vividly remember people who have held my hand when I was struggling, and I remember vividly those who walked away. I also remember the feeling of belonging when someone held my hand through the struggle, as well as the feelings of loss and hopelessness when people who could have reached out walked away instead.  I am sure my brother and I will be pay-it-forward people.

So, here’s to a life where we all reach out whenever we can, and take a hand.  We are all here to just walk each other home, to be there for the people who we may not even have met yet, and for people who might not even know they will need to be walked home.  

In Remembrance of David Fischer       

In Remembrance of David Fischer                                                May 8, 2017

 

I found out last night that a former student, David Fischer, passed away three days ago. He is the fifth or sixth student from that graduating year that has passed away, just 8 years after they received their diploma. He was 27 years old. I cannot stand the thought of the loss of another student. Each time I hear of another death, it is surreal. It seems like it can’t really be happening, except there would be no reason for anyone to call and say that someone had died if they hadn’t, so I always know it is real.

As I think back on David, I realize that there is something sacred about remembering the deceased. There is something to thinking back to the last time you saw the person, what you knew to be true of that person, what you knew the person would do, or would never do, which people loved him and which people hated him  It all comes back in a heartbeat, all at one time, the memories flooding in like a wave.

I was one of the people who loved David dearly. I can remember him vividly. I would venture to guess that anyone who ever met David remembers him vividly.  One of my all time favorite kids describes him as “unapologetically himself”, which was so true. He was tall and slender, frequently wearing a bright pink sweatshirt from Victoria’s Secret. When he was in high school he stripped the color from his hair and then re-dyed it pink, which then washed out so it was white-pink. He used a lot of product, so his hair stood out as though it had a life of its own, refusing to listen to anyone, not unlike David himself, by the way.

David was also fairly talented with a curling iron and wore sparkly blue eye shadow, which he applied in a particular way, creating what we called his “signature eye.” One time he created his signature eye on a female classmate and it was so not her style that it looked really weird on her. She told him she hated it. He told her it didn’t look good because she was ugly. As you can imagine, the girl did not react well to this and drama ensued. David was not unkind, but he was unfiltered.  Those of us who loved him best suffer from that same affliction – unfiltered comments. Sometimes inappropriate, poorly timed, unfiltered comments. It takes one to know one.

Despite and maybe even because of this lack of filter, David had a way of getting into people’s hearts and they couldn’t help but love him.   One time a teacher sent David to the Assistant Principal’s office because he had plugged in his curling iron and,  

while waiting for it to heat up, he started re-applying his make up during an afternoon Study Skills class. The teacher thought he was off task and disruptive, while David argued that he had no work to do, his assignments were all completed and handed in to the teachers. Sending David to the office for being disruptive seemed like the biggest joke ever. He was six feet tall with white-pink hair, plus the pink sweatshirt, and the signature eye shadow, so his mere walking into the classroom was disruptive!!  The assistant principal changed his class so that he sat with another teacher who adored him and who, to this day says that he was one of her favorite kids of all time. When he graduated he gave her a portrait of himself as a drag queen as a parting gift, a gift she has to this day.

I don’t know what to say to David’s mother, but I am searching for words that bring her some comfort. She is an amazing mother. When we found out that David passed away, almost everyone commented on how lucky he was to have had a mother who not only loved him, but who also “really got him.” It took us a really long time to figure out that she was a big shot attorney. You couldn’t ever tell that from talking to her or from our interactions. With us, she was always just an involved mom who loved her son and who accepted him for who he was in the world. I feel like we all became better parents for having walked that journey with them, and for having had her as a role model who taught us radical acceptance.

We tell our students, “Once you are ours, you are ours forever”, and it may be the most important thing we ever tell them. It is so true. We mean it for each and every one of them. It’s personal for us that way. I haven’t seen David in a number of years now, which I regret. We’ve had so many students come and go in the almost twenty years that our team has worked at the school, that it is impossible to keep up with all of them. We hate that. We hate when we don’t see the alumni and when they don’t keep in touch, although we also understand that they have lives and that we were a part of their lives a long, long time ago now. Still, we worry about them like it was yesterday. I am not sure if that is the impact of working in a high school, if it is the impact of being middle aged, or being an Italian Catholic or a combination of all of it. I just know that I miss seeing them, and I fear that they might forget how much we love them.

So David, here’s to your white-pink hair, your signature eye shadow, your curling iron, your artistic style of weaving in and out of life. Here’s to our having walked along the same path as you, for the privilege it was to have known and loved you. I hope that you rest in peace and that you know that you are ours and will be ours forever.