Dancing outside my comfort zone

Entering a New Dimension and Asking for Help

Today I did something new and a bit scary, but it turned out far better than I expected. I had a coaching session with Stephanie from Wheelhouse Coaching. Going in, I had no idea what to expect. I simply hoped to gain some insight into which avenue I should be pursuing at this juncture.

Stephanie asked me some tough questions after listening for a few minutes to where I’m at and the challenges I face. The direction she ultimately suggested I take came as a huge surprise to me, yet, in a lot of ways, I guess it shouldn’t have.

I’ve been stagnating when it comes to working on any of my fiction projects and been less than diligent about writing blog posts. Pitching regularly gave me migraines. So where do I go from here?

I’ve been doing a lot of food and wine events as well as some with local flavor like the Nottingham Festival and researching and writing the articles is definitely a challenge. But what I’m lacking is something which will make me and my work recognizable to a wider audience.

Going Back to Where it All Started

Ultimately, Stephanie suggested I resurrect Life After Suicide: Healing and Forgiving which I have not touched since 2009 when I started this blog after my work on the book and the direction I wanted to take hit a brick wall. What came as a complete shock to me was that I immediately felt uplifted and energized!

Long story short, after running all of my errands and doing my hour and a half of PT, I came home, took care of a couple more things, and spent 2 hours revising the first two chapters! It then came to me that I should throw one of them out here for your reading enjoyment, comments, criticisms, etc. But I must warn you: the material is anything but fun and joyful, so read on knowing it is a tale born of some pretty deep emotions and a need to crawl out of a dark and cavernous hole.

If you do choose to read and comment, please accept my humble and heartfelt appreciation. And now, without further ado, here is Chapter 1 of Life After Suicide: Healing and Forgiving c 2016

Chapter 1: In the beginning…

My mother chose to end her life on December 28, 1993, less than a month before a cataclysmic earthquake rattled Northridge and the better part of Southern California. Choosing to remain in bed when my father left for work due to some unspecified malaise, she sought respite from her pain with a bottle of sleeping pills. She didn’t leave a note, nor did we see any warning signs but left behind her 6-year-old granddaughters, her infant grandson, my sister, my father and me. And scores of unanswered questions.

For years, I was angry with my mother. Angry because, as my father struggled with depression and the well-meaning but insensitive questions from friends and family, she’d left him to find her cold body in the bed they’d shared for nearly forty years. Angry because she left the granddaughters who loved her, even when she was making their mother crazy with her opinions on how they should be raised. And angry because she left during a very difficult time in my life as I slogged through an ugly divorce while trying to maintain equilibrium between a high pressure job and two six-year-olds who required more of my attention than time allowed.

My father followed her down that road nearly 10 years later, on September 11, 2003; exactly two years after the fateful World Trade Center disaster, and one day before his granddaughters’ 16th birthday. As near as we can tell, he pondered the lung cancer diagnosis he’d recently received, wrote a note, smoked one last cigarette and put a gun I wasn’t even aware he owned to his head. He did remember, before he left us, to send the girls birthday cards and checks which arrived a couple of days after he was gone. Through most of the ten years following my mother’s death, my dad dated a woman who was freakishly like my mom, in a shorter, more earthy kind of way. The note he left was directed to her and gave her his apologies. To me he left the job of cleaning up after him, and clearing out what remained of both his life and my mother’s while my sister wondered why I couldn’t get the job done faster. I never saw her cry.

My mother taught me how to read and how to bake Snickerdoodles, irritated me with her obsessive–compulsive neatness and loved my daughters to distraction while making me crazy with her “suggestions” on raising them. She also taught me, by actions rather than words, that we have faces we show to our families and different ones we show to our friends and the rest of the world. It saddens me to realize that I never really knew my mother, the mother behind the face she allowed us to see. Then, one day, without warning, she was gone.

I got the news in a voice mail message from my father, sounding nothing like the strong, capable man I’d known and loved my whole life. That, in itself, was enough to shake my world as I’d only seen him cry once, and the experience had been so unsettling that it has stayed with me ever since my tenth year. The details, though, came more slowly. Wading through caramel slowly, in fact. A question from the coroner had Dad searching Mom’s office for a how-to book on suicide. He eventually found it hidden behind some other books on her bookshelf. Clearly, she’d had time to think before she acted. The question I’ve asked myself since is: Was this really her first attempt, or was there more to the story than Dad chose to share?

From my dad’s family I learned how to cope. By coping, I mean keeping things in, not letting those around you see that you weren’t really keeping it together as much as it appeared; that the strong, solid exterior you showed the world was merely a front for how broken, how shattered you were inside, the part which must never be shared. From them I also learned to depend only on myself. You must never expect anyone to take care of you and heaven forbid you should need anyone.

The conditioned aversion to being dependent is, I believe, what drove my Dad to take his own life. He could not conceive of having me, my sister or our children watch his deterioration the way he had watched his mother’s, nor could he conceive of us having to care for him until nature took its course. He was a very proud man, and, from his perspective, did the only honorable and loving thing he could for us.

Families of suicide victims face challenges in the grieving process which are quite different from those who lose someone to cancer or a car accident or even murder. We feel shame, and with that shame, comes guilt. It took me a long time to get past the shame, and to really understand why I felt it in the first place. I came to the conclusion that because Society has been as judgmental and uninformed about not only suicide, but mental health issues overall as they are about homosexuality, it has become a subject that is only discussed in whispers, looking around to make sure nobody overhears. One of the most common of those misconceptions is that family members should have seen it coming and gotten help before the unmentionable act occurred.

According to Suicide.org, the following is a list of warning signs of potential suicide:
• Appearing depressed or sad most of the time.
(Untreated depression is the number one cause for suicide.)
• Talking or writing about death or suicide.
• Withdrawing from family and friends.
• Feeling hopeless.
• Feeling helpless.
• Feeling strong anger or rage.
• Feeling trapped — like there is no way out of a situation.
• Experiencing dramatic mood changes.
• Abusing drugs or alcohol.
• Exhibiting a change in personality.
• Acting impulsively.
• Losing interest in most activities.
• Experiencing a change in sleeping habits.
• Experiencing a change in eating habits.
• Losing interest in most activities.
• Performing poorly at work or in school.
• Giving away prized possessions.
• Writing a will.
• Feeling excessive guilt or shame.
• Acting recklessly.

It should be noted that some people who die by suicide do not show any suicide warning signs.

I have emphasized the note at the end of the list, as I find this particularly interesting, given the reaction of family and friends to my mother’s sudden demise. The site also states that over 90 percent…wait, let me repeat that: “Over 90 percent of all suicides of people who die by suicide have a mental illness at the time of their death.” The site goes even further, though. Just below that startling statistic are two more lines:
“And the most common mental illness is depression.”
“Untreated depression is the number one cause for suicide.”

Warning signs may be more apparent in the case of a youthful suicide as there are many studies and reports about teenage suicide, behavior changes and obvious drug abuse. But statistically speaking, the percent of adults who attempt suicide and succeed far exceeds that of teenagers. In part, this is because, as adults, we learn to protect ourselves by revealing only a small portion of who we really are. When things are painful or difficult, adults often withdraw, but in the meantime, they continue to be responsible, going to work, raising kids, even volunteering. They don’t share their struggles over finances or parents who are aging and need extra care, or marriages that are slowly imploding. They can go through their life, follow their normal routine, being functionally depressed until one day, it just overwhelms them. Because they’re upholding their responsibilities, we tend to overlook or work around their moodiness, their overreactions to simple things, and assume they’re just having a bad day. In cases where the crankiness goes on for a long period of time, people just write it off to the person’s nature and interact with them as little as possible, which, in reality, probably fuels the depression by giving them even more reason to feel alone.

This societal insensitivity is no less damaging to the victim’s family as well-meaning people ask why they didn’t notice or find help for the victim. I remember watching people badger my Dad right after Mom died and wanting to look at them in disbelief, saying:
“He’s not a psychiatrist! Living with Mom over the years, I’m sure he learned to overlook certain behavior to avoid arguments, if nothing else!”

In my Mom’s case, I had heard from some of those same relatives that the mere suggestion she had a problem and should see a doctor would cause her to go ballistic. (I might add that one of those relatives suffered a nervous breakdown, herself, less than 30 years earlier.) I know for a fact that my dad never really learned to cope with her anger, except to withdraw into himself until it passed. It’s like saying,

“I know the stove is hot and I’ve felt the pain of a burn before, but I’m going to put my hand on that hot burner anyway.”

How many of us are stupid enough to intentionally repeat an action we know is painful, or at least highly uncomfortable? Isn’t that the true definition of insanity: knowing what the result of an action will be, but doing it over and over, hoping for a different outcome?
Suppose we do notice and try to intervene? Would our efforts be met as well-intentioned, or simply as meddling, and quite possibly make matters worse? Mental health issues aren’t exactly table talk either. Only recently has seeing a psychiatrist or a counselor been less likely to cause speculation about nervous breakdowns or schizophrenia and thoughts of that crazy cousin nobody every sees, or dear Aunt Agnes who’s “delicate” and who the children have learned to tiptoe around on the rare occasions she comes to visit.

In my mother’s case, although the people around her were aware she showed more than a couple of the signs in the above-referenced list, as she continued to insist she was fine, there wasn’t a lot anyone could do. With a teenager, you can force them into counseling, albeit with questionable success, but with an adult, it isn’t quite so simple. Unless the person actually threatens to commit suicide, exhibits otherwise dangerous behavior, or attempts suicide but fails, they cannot be forced to accept medical treatment.   As with teenagers, I have my doubts as to whether forcing treatment is effective anyway.

Just as an alcoholic won’t be able to quit drinking until she takes the first step and admits she has a problem, a person suffering from depression is difficult to help until they themselves admit that something is not right. Even if we had been able to coerce mom into talking to a psychiatrist, would it really have changed the outcome if she was unwilling to accept the treatment or take any drugs prescribed in their proper doses? That is, of course, assuming that the doctor she might have chosen would have made the effort to extend her treatment behind pharmacology, or that she would have followed a program which required effort beyond ingesting a pill every day.

It makes me wonder if my aunt’s nervous breakdown frightened my mother more than she let on, and was instrumental in sustaining her defensiveness and refusal to admit what she was feeling was not normal. My memories are vague with regard to the period of my aunt’s commitment to a mental institution, but as my mother was close to her, I’m sure she suffered, seeing someone she loved being forced to admit she was unable to cope.

Even more insidious are the plethora of television commercials advocating this pill or that to help “manage” depression, which typically include the dire warning: “Possible side effects include increased suicidal tendencies.” That is certainly something I want to give to a person who is already depressed and possibly suicidal.

Included in the Coroner’s amendment to my mother’s death certificate are the statements: “Acute Triazolam and Flurazepam Toxicity” and “Ingested Prescription Drugs”. Clearly, a respected member of the medical community prescribed these seemingly innocuous sleep aids, either related to or sold under such names as Halcion, Ambien and Xanax, to a woman who had far greater issues than lack of sleep. Which begs the question: If a patient complains of insomnia, is a doctor required to look for underlying causes before prescribing sleeping pills?

According to an article published by CNN in December 2011 with content provided by the Mayo Clinic, every single sleeping pill mentioned had the warning that they may not be safe for someone who “…has a history of…alcohol abuse…or depression”. The article further states:

“Before prescribing a medication to help you sleep, your doctor will ask you a number of questions to get a clear picture of your sleep patterns. He or she may also order tests to rule out any underlying conditions that may be causing difficulty sleeping.”

This leaves me wondering, if doctors are taking adequate precautions before prescribing sleep aids, why do so many depressed people have prescription sleeping pills in their medicine cabinets?

Although neither of the drugs found in my mom’s system were marketed under the brand name, Ambien, I found a study conducted by Scripps Medical which found that sleeping pill users were five times more likely to die younger than non-users. Although the study was unable to include cause of death, it did include filters for secondary conditions and found that the death rates for sleeping pill users vs. non-users remained the same. As expected, the spokesman for the company claimed that the study results were flawed and stated: “People taking the medicine should discuss what’s causing them not to sleep and address those issues,”

Easy to say, but do the pharmaceutical companies really caution and encourage doctors to follow this advice before handing over a prescription?

What I’m saying is not that the medical profession is responsible for my mother’s death, but that it has become much simpler for a person considering suicide to obtain the means to end their life as painlessly as possible. Are we thus increasing the odds a person we avoid due to their terminal crankiness will take their feeling of isolation to the point where they just throw in the towel and swallow a bottle of pills? Assuming the existence of underlying problems, can we really help our friends and family members avoid making this irrevocable choice?

To my knowledge, neither of my parents threatened suicide before they committed the final act. But in my mom’s case, I really have to wonder:
Was this really her first attempt?

Again, I encourage comments, questions and suggestions, but I also encourage you to share your stories if you, too have lost a family member to suicide. It only seems to become note-worthy when someone famous takes their life. Though I’m grateful the media takes up the banner and increases awareness while helping ease off on some of the stigma, there are far more regular people take their own lives than famous ones. Those of us left behind can and should help each other through the very unique brand of grieving we experience.

And what would be a blog post without gratitudes, so here are mine for tonight:
1. I am grateful for new opportunities and methods which help ground me.
2. I am grateful for the crazy, busy schedule I’m becoming a part of.
3. I am grateful for WTGOM and the 11 day weight loss challenge which force me to improve my habits and form new, better ones.
4. I am grateful for the lessons I’m learning and the people I’m learning to trust, as much as I’m grateful for the ones I’m learning NOT to trust.
5. I am grateful for abundance: opportunities, lessons, new people, old friends, revisiting and revising, health, peace, harmony, philanthropy and prosperity.

Blessed Be

I invite you to visit my Facebook pages, Sheri Levenstein-Conaway Author and HLWT Accounting. Please also drop by my website, www.shericonaway.com and check out my Hire Me Page. I’ve created these pages as a means of positive affirmation and would be very grateful if you’d “like” them or leave a comment! Thank you!

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Comments on: "Sharing New (and Old) Experiences" (2)

  1. Hi,
    I am really touched by your this post sheri.. I lost three people in my life due to suicides and there’s nothing more guilty and shameful feeling except that .. Firstly I pay my younger teenage brother whom I lost 28th May,2012 , another my uncle and my cousin last year .. Although the with my brother I feel guilty , guilty of he told me that he would be live anymore but I took it to be a prankster .. Now my each day n every moment of life is living hell, I regret it , I regret not listening to him n even more believing him . Also the society I really got o see the darkest sides of the most helpful and the best people around then . It broke me even more .. The ones who would call you near and dear ones turn into foes and back stabbers.. They not only assassinate the deceased character but leave no swine unturned in destroying the family involved emotionally . But after reading your thoughts I’m relieved that yes somewhere in the world someone had the same experience and atleast I could put my heart out n feel better ..

    Thankyou for hating such a personal n intimate story .. May all the souls find peace !!!

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    • Shaily, I’m so glad you shared your experience. Suicide still has a lot of shame attached to it, and since the actual victim is no longer around, people think they’re justified in attaching that shame to the survivors; the very people who are in shock and feeling unbelievable guilt and pain. In fact, I started this blog 6 years after my dad’s death to both continue my own healing process, but also to reach out to others with the same experience like you who have felt the feelings and dealt with those who can’t possibly understand, but can manage to be cruel. I hope you read back a ways in the blog to my earlier struggles. I’ll also continue posting chapters of my book in the coming weeks, but feel free to reach out to me privately as well. Know this; none of those deaths were your fault. They were choices made by the people who took their lives. It doesn’t matter if they threatened before acting. It’s still their choice. I’m wrapping you in a warm, loving hug. Be well and I hope you learn to forgive yourself and see you were never to blame.

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