Mental Health Awareness Month

Last Thursday I was sitting in an elementary school cafeteria waiting on the little girl I mentor. I was armed with pizza, spicy Funyuns (both by special request since it was our last day together), and a folder containing a collage of the various projects we worked on over the year, a photo magnet of her with the Googly Eyes eyeglasses propped back on her head, and a note reminding her that she is an amazingly smart, talented, and funny person who is unforgettable (one of her worries). My heart rate was spiking, there was a pressure in my chest, and I recognized that I was having a small anxiety attack. I closed my eyes and took deep focused breaths. “You’re ok, just breathe. Focus on your breath.” My heart rate didn’t come down.

When I got back to work, I still felt the pressure pushing down on my chest. All of the small things were suddenly too much. My colleague with asperger’s dropping by to over-explain something, which normally doesn’t bother me, made me want to pace back and forth. Then everything came to a head when another colleague, whom I adore, requested help with something quite simple. I’m not sure what played across my face in that moment, but they stopped speaking, stared at me a moment, and said, “you know what? I’ve got this.” Which was a good thing, because where I normally feel like a super hero who can do darn near anything, I suddenly just couldn’t. Their request was overwhelming and impossible. In fact, their request was freaking me out. I started sobbing at my desk trying to logically work through what was happening. I repeated, “you’re ok, you’re ok, you’re ok” – the mantra I’ve used since Jay’s death to help me re-focus, and then I quietly whimpered out loud, “I’m not ok.”

For those of you who don’t know me, I don’t cry easily. I get mad easily at perceived injustices (don’t take on one of my people; I’m always on their side). I fume easily. Heck, if you need someone to rant along with you, I’m your girl. I also have a long fuse. Hrmm… I guess I did just say I got mad easily. Well, life is full of contradictions and so is this paragraph. Your main take away from this is that I’ve never been much of a “cry-er.” At least that was true until Jay died, and my anxiety attacks began.

Once I calmed down, I dug around my brain looking for the root cause, then I realized that in addition to it being the last day I would ever spend with the girl I mentor, and she had quietly announced over pizza that her 29 year-old aunt had passed away over the weekend; she didn’t understand why (the news took me completely aback). I had her talk about how she felt and then had her tell me stories about her aunt. I also realized it was exactly two months until the 3rd anniversary of Jay’s death. The brain is such an amazing and complex thing, working ever so tirelessly behind the scenes (thanks, brain – you’re a champ). And still, even with a basic understanding of the psychology and physiology behind my anxiety attack, I felt like I was being weak. I felt pitiful and pathetic. I felt like I wasn’t trying hard enough to keep it together. “Oh no! It’s two months until an anniversary. Oh dear! You’re not going to see your mentee anymore. First world problems, Beth. Boo hoo. No one has ever experienced that before. No one has ever lost a spouse before. It’s not like you saw it. Stop being a baby over nothing and get it together. What is wrong with you?”

I told one person about my attack, because I didn’t want to burden anyone else over a trivial meltdown, and even then, I assumed the person I told thought I was being overly dramatic – that clearly I was sharing the news because I needed attention. It’s highly unlikely that that’s what they thought, but I wasn’t thinking clearly. I was using them to personify how I felt about myself.

Well, today I decided to share that small story about my anxiety attack for a few reasons:

  • There is a stigma associated with mental health issues, and I am part of the problem. Where I can talk to you logically about depression, bi-polar disorder, or schizophrenia on the one hand, and how the person is not at fault for suffering – how they are at the mercy of the chemicals in their brains, I absolutely will not forgive myself for crying at my desk – for not powering through – for embarrassing myself by not being stronger. It’s just an anxiety attack, get it together. In fact, typing it now doesn’t change how I feel about myself, and that’s a problem. Every time I tell someone about Jay and I cry, I also get on myself. You see, I’m also part of the problem. If you think the way I do, you’re part of the problem, too.
  • May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, and we all need to be aware.

Below are some statistics from the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), and from the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention (AFSP) that are important for you to know:

Key Mental Health Statistics Include:

  • 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. lives with a mental health condition.
  • 1 in 25 (11.2 million) adults in the U.S. lives with a serious mental illness.
  • 46.6 million adults in the U.S. face the day-to-day reality of living with a mental illness.
  • Half of all lifetime mental health conditions begin by age 14 and 75% by age 24, but early intervention programs can help.

Suicide Statistics:

  • Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.
  • In 2017, 47,173 Americans died by suicide.
  • In 2017, there were an estimated 1,400,000 suicide attempts.
  • The age-adjusted suicide rate in 2017 was 14.0 per 100,000 individuals.
  • The rate of suicide is highest in middle-age white men in particular.
  • In 2017, men died by suicide 3.54x more often than women.
  • On average, there are 129 suicides per day.
  • White males accounted for 69.67% of suicide deaths in 2017.
  • In 2017, firearms accounted for 50.57% of all suicide deaths.

Mental health is such an important issue, and affects so many that you owe it to yourself, your friends, and loved ones who may be struggling to educate yourself and gain a better understanding of mental health issues. You owe it to yourself, your friends, and loved ones to help remove the stigma that often prevents people from seeking the help they need. Understand that mental health is not a weakness, nor is asking for help when someone is suffering. Once we as a society embrace that idea, then we can begin to work towards making real changes – changes that get people the critical help they need – help that is affordable, and available to all.

Below are resources from the NAMI website for you to use if you find yourself in an emergency or crisis situation:

In An Emergency

If you or a loved one is in immediate danger calling 911 and talking with police may be necessary. It is important to notify the operator that it is a psychiatric emergency and ask for an officer trained in crisis intervention or trained to assist people experiencing a psychiatric emergency.

In A Crisis

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – Call 800-273-TALK (8255)

If you or someone you know is in crisis—whether they are considering suicide or not—please call the toll-free Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) to speak with a trained crisis counselor 24/7.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline connects you with a crisis center in the Lifeline network closest to your location. Your call will be answered by a trained crisis worker who will listen empathetically and without judgment. The crisis worker will work to ensure that you feel safe and help identify options and information about mental health services in your area. Your call is confidential and free.

Crisis Text Line – Text NAMI to 741-741

Connect with a trained crisis counselor to receive free, 24/7 crisis support via text message.

National Domestic Violence Hotline – Call 800-799-SAFE (7233)

Trained expert advocates are available 24/7 to provide confidential support to anyone experiencing domestic violence or seeking resources and information. Help is available in Spanish and other languages.

National Sexual Assault Hotline – Call 800-656-HOPE (4673)

Connect with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area that offers access to a range of free services. Crisis chat support is available at Online Hotline. Free help, 24/7.

Please consider making a donation to one of those organizations – to help fund research, and help promote education for mental health issues.

In November, I will be participating again in the Out of Darkness Walk here in Austin, Texas. If you’d like to support AFSP and their mission during Mental Health Awareness Month, please consider making a small donation of $10 to our team the “Jay” Walkers. You can do that by clicking HERE. Be sure to visit the AFSP site to gain a better understanding of how your donation will be applied. As always, thank you.

Pick Up the Phone

Thursday night a good friend of mine experienced what I imagine is one of the most profoundly painful and tragic moments in her life. Her 30-year-old son murdered her husband at their home. Their tragedy played across the local news with photos of police officers entering the lobby of their condo, their son pinned to the floor, hands behind his back, an officer’s knee holding him in place, and finally his mug shot. One article tried to paint this in Middle Eastern tones: “the family of Middle-Eastern male descent.” (Last I checked, Algeria was in Africa, but hey we’re ‘Merica, we don’t do geography; we do sensationalism, and we do it well. I mean, let’s just ignore the bit that his mother is American; it’s not as interesting that way.) The truth of the story is it’s not about nationality; it’s a tragic story about mental illness.

For reference: This is the friend with whom I recently spent the evening painting a tilted Eiffel Tower while sipping wine a couple of weeks ago; she’s the reason you all got a blog entry and a photo of a terrible painting. She’s the person I’ve floated in a lake with laughing, stayed up with until all hours of the night watching movies, enjoyed countless meals and countless glasses of wine. (There was the time I got completely tipsy with her sister, giggling madly in her kitchen.) We’ve shared a million stories, a few hardships, and we’ve laughed. (I mention this again, because it’s such a key component of who she is as a person.) Her laugh is the kind that lights up a room. Everything about her is open, welcoming, kind, and thoughtful. She’s exactly the person I would like to be when I grow up, and it’s why she has been my mentor for years.

She’s also the person who came over after Jay passed away to take care of our beagle, Sam, which allowed me to celebrate Jay’s mom’s 80th birthday. Jay, who was rarely one to say he enjoyed someone, really liked both her and her husband.

When I heard the news I was standing in our crowded cafeteria. My face crumpled, and I ended up in a ball in our lobby. I knew her husband; he was a beautiful person, the kind that exuded warmth, kindness, and genuine calm. He was brilliant, but quiet and self-assured. They had been together since college, had traveled the world together, and had been true partners who’d built an incredible life for themselves and their family.

That’s a small glimpse into my beautiful friend.

I hurt for her. Her life fractured into a million pieces Thursday night. I worry about who will be left behind as some lightness left my friend.

People say this a lot, and it always rings hollow, but realize I am sincere when I say: I wish I could take some of her burden. Because of Jay, I know what I can handle, and I can take on more and continue to move forward. I wish she could hand some of her pain over to me; I can shoulder it.

I’m going to switch gears here to talk about communication etiquette, because it has weighed on my mind the last couple of days, and I’m doubtlessly going to get a bit preachy. (Aside to my editor, David: David, you have my permission to slash/burn/fix/re-state what is about to come out, because I feel a wall of ranty little words are on their way, and they all want to explode out of my face and from my fingers simultaneously. My fear is they won’t make sense. So, would you kindly help me make sense?)

There have been some great/significant improvements in communication since the day Alexander Graham Bell first spoke the words, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.” We’ve gone from a reliance on messengers, to telegraph lines, to the point where now I have an English professor in Japan who, after waking up in several hours, will declare, “Oh crap, why doesn’t she warn me before she’s about to post?” And all of it is arguably great, especially since it’s a rare day that I want to have a full-blown conversation on the phone. The way I work, like many of you, is I have a thought bubble, I send it out, and in minutes I may or may not have a lunch date tomorrow. That’s what instant communication does well – the short, unimportant, day-to-day stuff. It tells my boss I’m going to be late, my friends I’m sitting in the back booth of a restaurant, links to an article I might find interesting, shares a playlist, or shows a photo of some place I wish I were standing and enjoying with you.

What it doesn’t do well? Important things like communicating a great tragedy has occurred that may deeply affect the recipient.

When I learned of the recent tragedy that befell my friend and her family, I sent out three text messages that basically read: “I need to talk to you, please let me know when you have some availability. I am ok.” (Long ago, a friend of mine and I agreed that any bad news should involve a statement of how you are so no one is unduly alarmed. Fun fact: If I don’t include the words, “I am ok,” then please feel free to worry.)

I needed to talk to these folks in person, because I was not about to do a disservice to the severity of this event by glibbly linking an article with a few words of, “Oh hey, FYI just letting you know my friend’s life fell apart.” <insert sad face emoji so you know I’m sad>

Pick up the phone. If you can type a text that is that important, you can pick up a phone. If you can’t, if you don’t want to deal with the reaction, it’s ok – call someone who can. You know your friends, you know their strengths, so find that person who is better at delivering news than you.

Where I Make This a Bit About Me

Most of you know how Jay died – maybe not the details, but you can probably imagine it was bad. (It was in fact bad.) You can imagine, or you have seen, the abject pain it inflicted and still inflicts. With that in mind, when you hear that someone I care deeply about suffered a traumatic/violent loss, take a few beats to think about what you’re going to say to me and how you’re going to deliver that news. Really think about whether sending a mugshot and a short text is the best way you can think to let me know. Think about your motive. Why is it important that you tell me, and that you tell me in this way? Are you truly affected or are you swept up in the excitement of the story where a person’s life not only fell apart, but it fell apart in such a big way that all of our big city news outlets are reporting on it? Are you telling me because you’re worried about me and how I’m handing it, or are you trying to suck a little more marrow from my own personal tragedy? Also, be thankful that beating up messengers has gone out of fashion (though probably not in Florida).

I received approximately five text messages that day, along the lines of “Hey, did you see what happened to Rita? It’s in the news. <story link><tear face>” And I received exactly one call outside of the three people I asked to speak with that day.

If you have bad news to deliver, pick up the phone. Don’t send me a text. If you must text, then please purchase two tickets – one for me, and one for you – to Florida. Let’s talk about it there. Once we’re done, you can Snap Chat, Tweet, FB, Instagram it all… if you’re able.

Join Me in Supporting the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

On July 9, 2016, while waiting to disembark from my plane, I turned off the “airplane mode” setting on my phone, and a text came through, “I won’t be able to pick you up today.” It was from my husband. I wasn’t alarmed; sometimes the world could be too much. Sometimes he couldn’t handle the cars darting about, the crowds of people; it could make him extremely anxious. It could be paralyzing. To me that text only meant I would have to take a taxi home. It’s just what it was. Then I walked onto the concourse, and my world started turning upside down. A voice over a loudspeaker summoned me to a white courtesy phone. From there I was met by a police officer who told me another officer, from the city where we lived, was en route to talk to me. That officer arrived, and I was informed that Jay had passed away. Impossible. He had just sent me a text. I was taken home to find my house surrounded in crime tape, and people from victim’s services waiting for me on my driveway. My husband, the person I had been with for 17 years, was now gone, and my home was a crime scene.

Not only had I lost my husband, my best-friend, my co-conspirator, and my favorite person; I had lost my identity. I was no longer a wife, a best-friend, the other half of the best part of us. I had lost purpose. The house had fallen silent.

It’s still silent…

There is a stigma associated with mental illness. A belief that if a person just tried harder, manned-up, not been a baby, they’d have been fine. A belief that a person is actively choosing to be miserable.

So, let me set the record straight. Jay didn’t die because he was weak. He didn’t die because he couldn’t “fake it till he made it;” a regimen of “more smiling” wasn’t the cure for his depression. Jay died because he felt hopeless. Jay died because he felt that seeing one more doctor to adjust his medication was pointless, and that it ultimately wouldn’t change how worthless he felt inside. He felt another appointment with an ENT still wouldn’t fix his untreated sleep apnea. He felt like a disappointment. And the depression combined with extreme fatigue made him feel like he was going insane. I cannot begin to imagine how his last day ultimately unfolded, but I do imagine he felt that he’d finally get some relief. I imagine he felt like he’d no longer disappoint everyone in his life. He would no longer disappoint me.

Let me say here what I had told him on many occasions: he was never a disappointment. He was beautiful.

There is a stigma associated with suicide. After a week of being gone, I returned to work braced to read the condolence cards that were doubtlessly waiting for me on my desk. There weren’t any. My desk was exactly the same as it had been before I’d left. No cards, no flowers, no acknowledgment. In fact, some people who knew Jay had died avoided me. We thrive in our communities, and to be denied this thing that is almost a given was traumatizing. No one did it to hurt me; for the most part they love me. It was that no one was quite sure what to do given the circumstances. Those who didn’t know would innocently drop by to cheerfully ask how my vacation went, and I got the unenviable task of explaining, “Jay died.” I finally had to ask people to spread that news, because I couldn’t cope with telling one more person and watching their faces fall.

If Jay had died of anything else, there would have been a card. I would have been embraced by my community. People would know what to say. They would know what to do.

And because of that same stigma, I wouldn’t tell people either, because I knew I’d be judged. I hadn’t kept my house in order. I hadn’t stopped him. What was so broken in our lives that my husband would choose suicide? What had Beth done to drive someone to make that choice? I kept silent to avoid whispers.

That stops now.

Next Saturday, on November 10th, I will walk in the Out of Darkness walk – a fundraiser for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I will walk for my husband. I walk for my best friend. I walk for my favorite person. I will walk for me.

On November 10th, my team will walk for a lost brother, son, uncle, and friend. A few will walk for me – to hold my hand, to peer into my face and see if I’m ok, and they will keep me strong as they continue on this endless vigil – my protective vanguard.

Together we will walk to support the other survivors out there, the people who need strength, who need a reminder that despite the tragedy, they’re still here, and they’re still ok. We walk in the hopes that the funds we raise, the awareness this walk brings may prevent another family from joining us. We walk to help remove the stigma that surrounds depression and suicide.

So I ask you one final time: Won’t you please join us? Whether it’s by spending a couple of hours walking beside us on November 10th to walk around the state’s capitol, or through a gift to this organization? I strongly believe that what this organization is doing for survivors, and for those who struggle is important, and it is vital.

If you’re unable to give at this time, that’s ok. Share  a kind word, a show of support, a story, something about your love for Jay, for me, for this amazingly strong and resilient family; it means the world to us.

I think I can speak for everyone when I say that we love and appreciate each of you.

To make a donation, please click the link below:
Support the Out of Darkness Walk – For Jay