My grandfather died when I was 16 years old. I have no real memory of him – no endearing stories of “the time when Grandpa and I…” I’ve heard I once sat next to him on a piano bench, and that he was very sweet to me, his only grandchild at the time, while I listened to him play. I imagine toddler me probably helped with my chubby toddler fingers plunking away at the keys beside him while we shared our musical moment, creating a piece no one had heard before, nor will ever hear again. A perfect grandfather/granddaughter sonata as only a grandfather and grandchild can create.
By all accounts, my grandfather was quite an accomplished musician who played upwards of 17 instruments. I’ve only been able to play 5 proficiently. I still hope to add a couple more. While your bucket list may have “Tuscany,” mine has “cello.”
When he died, we weren’t informed. No one knew he had a family. There wasn’t an emergency contact the care facility had on file. In fact, we actually didn’t learn he’d passed until almost ten years after the event when my Mom started tracking him down.
My grandfather was laid to rest in a pauper’s grave in Henderson, Texas, where there is no headstone marking the site – only a number. His name was James, but maybe he went by Jim or Jimmy to his friends and family. I’ll never know because I only met him once.
My grandfather didn’t do anything to our family to deserve this end other than suffering from paranoia and schizophrenia. The reason I didn’t know him is that he spent the majority of his adult life in an institution. We didn’t visit. When I asked about him, asked what he was like, my Mom would say she didn’t want to talk about him. When I asked about his family, these great aunts and uncles I’d never met, his siblings, I was told they really didn’t want to have anything to do with him or us because of his mental illness. This seemed odd and a bit hurtful. We hadn’t done anything wrong that I was aware of other than be descended from their brother. How could someone judge me (or them) based on my grandfather’s illness? They didn’t know me. They had never spoken to me. Maybe they weren’t aware of the fact that my family tree isn’t a stick, and I actually have a lot of DNA from fairly diverse pools – not just his or his family’s. His descendants aren’t actual clones. I’m not his clone. Hey, the science of the time just wasn’t there. But apparently because he suffered from a mental illness, I’m not worthy of knowing. I’m not going to lie to you, I’m pretty delightful. I’m also exceptionally modest.
I’m aware of only one photo of him. I found it while on one of my extra-nosey Nancy Drew adventures looking for clues within my Grandmother’s framed photos. I would pop open the backs and look for hidden photos. And that’s how I found him – this young and serious face peeking back at me. A lost memory freed. I took the photo to my grandmother and tween-girl me demanded, “Who is he?” I expected to hear a story about an old friend. Maybe a cousin, or perhaps a boyfriend from college? “That’s your Grandfather.” I was stunned. I just stared at his photo – this stranger who is part of my story whom I don’t know anything about. My only real and tangible memory of him was discovering this one image. It’s now in my frame, displayed on my shelf – no longer hidden.
My Mom learned from his caseworker at the institution that my grandfather was well thought of – that he was a kind and gentle man, and that they had been saddened by his loss.
Over the years, I asked about his mother, my great-grandmother, and learned she’d also died in an institution. I always believed, and likely made-up, that she was institutionalized in North Carolina – that the family had left her behind when they moved to Texas. When I started digging for details, I discovered that not only was she a native Texan, but she was institutionalized in Austin – in a set of buildings that I had worked in. She died at 48 – in those same buildings – buildings whose halls I’ve walked through – buildings where I sat at a desk on a campus where she’d likely looked out upon from a window or even strolled through, as I have.
I taken aback, because I had no idea. We didn’t talk about her. Her illness was a mark on our family, like my grandfather’s.
I pulled up her father’s death certificate. He also died in an institution. The cause of death was from “exhaustion” after having a manic episode. It was near the three-year anniversary of the death of his daughter, my grandmother’s sister, whose death certificate indicates she had head trauma and then died… in an institution. I wanted to throw up. I had gone down this genealogical path in hopes of learning I was descended from Niall Nóigiallach or, you know, Sacagawea. I’m not picky. However, that’s not what I found. I found sadness, loneliness and abandonment in this branch.
I never knew these stories, their stories, because the stigma surrounding all of them, all of their struggles, was so awful that no one dared to openly talk about them. What would the neighbors think? What would the people at church think? What would our friends think? I have always believed my ancestors’ illnesses were a poor reflection on us – that their being ill said something terrible about me – that we would be judged by their suffering. In fact, I know that by sharing this information today, in our “enlightened” society, that some people will take what little they know about me, about things I’ve done (or will do), and they’ll now frame those actions in this particular context. “Oh, mental illness. Well, it runs deep in that family.” I even know that some people will take what they think they know about Jay and try to work my family’s personal history, something that had nothing to do with him or what happened to him, and they will try to weave it into his narrative.
Mental illness is isolating.
Most of us understand the importance of community. Just look at the word – “common” and “unity.” We thrive thanks to our community. It can give us a sense of belonging, of purpose, of identity. It bonds us together, it protects us and it provides us with support through our happiest and hardest times. Sure, there are also downsides. I’m certain the Hatfields felt a sense of community with Hatfields, and McCoys felt a sense of community with McCoys, and while the younger generations at times sought a new community, the elders weren’t having it. There’s us, and then there’s them. Go to any major sporting event, and you’ll find people, strangers, bonded together as they cheer on their team. Put those sides together at the end of the game, and riots can erupt. However, let one tragedy befall America, and we’ll cast aside political differences to come together, because we’re America. That’s also community. Incidentally, I will punch you out if you say something about Texas and you’re not from here.
There’s a reason being banished or exiled from a community is such a major punishment: the person becomes vulnerable – physically and mentally. They lose their support, they lose protection, and they lose their sense of identity/belonging – things almost all of us need to survive. At the extreme, it’s why prolonged periods of solitary confinement is so taxing on a person’s mental and emotional state. We are meant to be with a group.
We need each other to survive – to thrive.
Many times those suffering from a mental illness will not seek help – in large part, because of the stigma involved. They have a very real and valid fear that if others found out, they would be excluded from the group. Or they’d be treated to a series of denials in the form of, “You just need to buck up! Smile more! You’re not ‘really’ ill, you’re just not trying hard enough to be happy – to be well – to be sane.” So, people end up suffering and not seeking the critical medical care they need, which can lead to a series of cascading events as they attempt to address their issues on their own.
If I broke my arm, and I walked around with it hanging awkwardly at my side, wincing and grimacing with each jarring move I made, not only would family and friends try to intervene, strangers would likely stop me and say, “Honey, you need help – let me call someone.” No one would even think to suggest that if I just tried harder to have a straighter arm, it would all work out.
That’s another way we’re ignoring issues around mental illness, by telling people who suffer they’re not real.
Ignoring mental illness isn’t working.
Stigmatizing people for suffering, and stigmatizing their families, isn’t working. This failure in our society has resulted in 129 people dying each day by suicide in the US alone, and the numbers are increasing. 1 in 5 adults (20%) in America experience a mental illness. Nearly 1 in 25 (10 million) adults in America live with a serious mental illness. One-half of all chronic mental illness begins by the age of 14, three-quarters by the age of 24. We are failing them.
Since my last post about this issue on September 22nd, approximately 2,838 Americans have died. People who were alive as I wrote my words who are no longer here today. It hasn’t even been a month. Of that total, approximately 440 of those have been our veterans. The men and women who have fought for our freedom – who sacrificed their personal freedom, their families, and their bodies to allow us to enjoy the lives we have today.
Approximately 2,322 Americans who are alive today will be gone by October 31st. That’s too many.
Right now those 2,322 people are struggling. Right now you can make a difference by reaching out to them, while they’re still here – before their pain exceeds their ability to cope – before they’re a statistic, before their family is writing a blog asking for your help.
You can make a difference.
My team is now $230 away from reaching our team goal of $5,000 in support of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). I’m now $400 from my personal goal. I am so grateful and in awe of the support we’ve received. I didn’t tell the team, but I honestly didn’t believe we’d make it this far. A huge thanks to everyone whose been able to make a donation.
We got this far, because as a community we have banded together to say:
- Mental Health issues are important,
- Finding ways to curb the ever increasing number of suicides through research is important,
- Advocacy is important,
- Helping survivors is important, and
- Jay is important
People have occasionally come to me for advice on how to handle complex grief. I’m truly not an expert. I still grieve. I’m still deeply wounded. But I draw strength from my community – from my family, from my friends – they refuse to let me fall.
It will take a community coming together for one last push to reach our goal. It will take a community coming together to reduce the suicide rate in the US 20% by 2025.
We’re so close and we really need your help.
My grandfather lies in a pauper’s grave, because of the misfortune of suffering from a mental illness. A lifetime of grandfather/granddaughter concertos went unrealized, unheard, un-laughed about. A lifetime of grandfather/granddaughter moments of pouring over sheets of music, digging through scores, and having someone see music the way I see music were missed. A lifetime of grandfather/granddaughter hugs never happened. A lifetime of grandfather/granddaughter political debates weren’t enthusiastically debated.
A lifetime of being seen by his family, surrounded by their love was denied this man.
The only thing my grandfather did wrong was have a chemical imbalance in his brain. For that he was punished. For that he was exiled. For that he lies in an unmarked grave.
I walk to raise awareness about mental health issues. I walk to raise awareness about suicide. I walk because they can’t.
I need your help.
They need your help.
As always, if you see someone in crisis, assume you’re the only person who is reaching out and do so. Have a Real Conversation.
I returned to work a week after Jay died. I braced myself as I headed towards my desk; I needed to be prepared to cope with the cards and flowers that people likely left there. I needed to steel myself for the outpouring of sympathy, knowing it would be hard, but well-intentioned. It’s what we did as a group – we came together to support our teammates during their times of loss or need. Plus, for the most part, people generally like me (except that one woman who clearly has no taste). Why wouldn’t I expect a big show of support?
I wasn’t prepared for what I found as I rounded that corner. I found nothing. Absolutely nothing. No cards. No flowers. No little notes. In fact, people kept swinging by to ask me about my vacation, and I stared back at them dully, unable to speak. Others avoided me (for months). In fact, I asked one months later if they knew Jay had died. They did. They explained they didn’t know what to say, so they decided to say nothing. That friendship is dead to this day.
Let me clarify something real quick: I had an incredible core group of coworkers who rallied around me and supported me completely. They attended Jay’s memorial. They sent cards, texts, and called me on the phone. But when it came to telling the rest of the team, they found themselves in an extremely awkward situation. They worried about how to share my news and they had serious concerns about violating my privacy. Their silence on the subject was well-meaning. How do you tell everyone, “Beth’s husband died by suicide?” They decided it was better to err on the side of caution to avoid causing me additional pain. No one wanted to see me hurt more.
Unfortunately, the side effect was that I did not have the usual support that one would receive after losing a spouse. So, in the absence of a conga line of teary-eyed condolence hugs and cheer-up candy from my coworkers, I began to behave in ghastly ways. I was blunt. I was harsh. I was rude. I was unforgiving and unapologetic. When asked about my vacation, people staggered out of my office backwards while stammering out their apologies. When asked in meetings, “Is everything ok, Beth?” people suddenly wanted to end the meeting early while quickly excusing themselves. I was unpleasant on a good day, and intolerable on a bad day, and there were plenty of bad days.
I finally had to ask a team member to spread the word that Jay had died, because crushing people’s “welcome back from vacation” cheer was wearing me out.
What happened to me was not atypical.
There’s a stigma around suicide and around mental health issues. We, as a society, shy away from talking about it. If it happens in your family, you keep it in the family. I mean, what will the neighbors think? (Well, in my case, my neighbor threw Holy water over the fence into my yard.) What will your friends think? What will your co-workers think? What does it say about you, your lifestyle, your family…? And talking about it, except in hushed whispers, makes us uncomfortable.
Well, if suicide makes you uncomfortable, it should. Here’s why – it’s the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and it’s steadily increasing each year. In 2017, 47,173 Americans died by suicide. That same year, in the US, there were over 1.4 million attempts. There are approximately 129 suicides per day, 22 of those are veterans. Globally, over 800,000 die by suicide annually.
We need to talk about it. Hiding it isn’t working. Silence isn’t working.
People who are struggling need help, and we’re telling them to be silent. We’re telling them there’s shame in having a mental health issue – there’s shame in suffering. However, if they had a chronic condition like arthritis or asthma or even cystic fibrosis, we’d encourage them to seek treatment. If they had cancer, we’d make referrals to well-respected oncologists. We’d offer advice. Hell, we’d become WebMD authorities and merrily hop down every homeopathic trail in hopes of getting them relief.
What we wouldn’t do:
We would never ask a person with a chronic condition to suffer silently. We would never tell them they needed to smile more. We would never insinuate they were making a choice to be ill.
And if a co-worker lost a spouse to cancer, the team would rally around them because we understand cancer. There is no shame in having a spouse die due to cancer.
Like many people who die by suicide, Jay suffered from depression. He’d suffered since he was a teen. Convincing him to see a medical professional was a battle. It took years of talking about medical intervention, and pointing out people he knew who, like him, suffered from depression but were having success with medication. I had to work on removing the stigma of seeking help just to get him to make an appointment. And once his medications started having an effect, he said something that broke my heart, “this is the first time I’ve ever felt happy.” Imagine going your whole life without knowing or remembering what “happy” felt like.
We must keep talking about suicide. We must keep talking about mental health. We must make mental health a priority.
When I first opened-up about Jay and the impact his death has had on me, I received feedback from a couple of people. They shared their personal struggles and said they didn’t fully realize how devastating suicide was to the people left behind; that my stories had made them think. Then last week another friend, also deeply was affected by Jay’s death, shared a similar story.
That’s why we keep talking about it. That’s why we cannot and should not be silenced or marginalized. Talk makes a difference. Talk saves lives.
Last year a co-worker attempted to admonish me by saying, “I don’t think you realize how much you talk about Jay.”
I will never stop.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) will also never stop. Their mission to fund important research into the best ways to prevent suicide, to advocate, educate, and provide support to those who have lost a loved one gives me hope that they will reach their goal to reduce suicide by 20% in 2025.
I believe in their mission.
That’s why on November 2nd I am walking in the Out of the Darkness Walk here in Austin, Texas. I’ve set a goal for our team of $5,000, and a personal goal of $3,000.
I believe it’s a challenging goal, but achievable with your support.
Please help by making a donation today.
We’d also be honored to have you walk with us! Just click the link! OR consider re-posting this blog post, and tell people your story.
But no matter what you decide to do, I ask one huge favor:
Never stop talking about mental health issues. Reach out to anyone you think may be struggling (assume you’re the only person who is reaching out).
Huge thanks to those who have already signed up to walk with me, and to those who have made a donation; it means a lot, it makes a huge difference, and I appreciate each of you!
If you or someone you know is in distress, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:
Crisis Text Line
Text TALK to 741-741 to text with a trained crisis counselor from the Crisis Text Line for free, 24/7
Veterans Crisis Line
Send a text to 838255
Well guys, we’ve reached the point in our relationship where I feel comfortable asking you for a huge favor. I know, I know, you think we aren’t quite there yet in our relationship. You feel that this is a bit soon. I mean we barely know each other, and here I am springing this on you. You haven’t had a chance to brush your hair, tuck in your shirt, or freshen up. Your parents haven’t had a chance to meet me, yet! Trust me, it will be ok. You’ll be fine! We’ll be fine together and your parents will come around and support you.
A Little Background
September 8th – 14th marks National Suicide Prevention Week, and as I mentioned previously, I’m devoting September’s posts to support that cause, and to support the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) who were recently named as one of the 50 Impactful Charities Serving Humanity, the Environment and Animals in Variety.
On Tuesday, September 10th the Central Texas Chapter of the AFSP are partnering with Phil’s Ice House and Amy’s Ice Cream. These businesses will be hosting an Out of the Darkness Party Time Event. Basically, they’ve agreed to give part of their proceeds from that day to AFSP. In order for AFSP to receive that donation, they need 50 people to go to one of those businesses and let them know they’re there to support AFSP’s Out of the Darkness Walk. Super easy!
Note: This only applies to the stores located at: 2901 S. Lamar Blvd. in Austin, Texas.
This is extremely important to me, and I’m calling in that favor. I need you to not only go, but I also need you to help my team. Here’s what you need to do:
- Walk, Run, Scooter, Bus, Uber, or Drive to the Amy’s Ice Cream or Phil’s Ice House located at: 2901 S. Lamar Blvd.
- Place your order and say, “Hi! I’m here in support of AFSP’s Out of the Darkness Walk.” You can even add, “and I’d like fries with that.”
- Take a selfie of you at Amy’s or Phil’s
- Share your selfie on Social Media (FB, Instagram, Twitter, etc.)
- Tag American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – Central Texas
- Tag Phil’s or Amy’s
- Tag The “Jay” Walkers
The team who has the most tagged selfies has a shot at having the money credited to their team’s fundraising effort.
That’s it! Super easy, right?
Now if you’d like to do a bit more and join my team to walk with us on Nov. 2nd, you can do so here. We’d love to have you! We’ll also be having a team meeting there that night at 6:30 pm where one of our team members, who recently went through AFSP’s training, will give a presentation on how “Talk Saves Lives”.
I’m serious when I ask (beg): Please do this one thing for me; it’s really important, and it’s a great cause. Help us prevent suicides. Help us remove the stigma surrounding seeking help for mental health issues. You can make a difference by doing something as small as eating a burger with friends, and maybe just maybe you’ll save a spouse, returning home from a trip, from living through the abject horror of discovering their partner has lost their battle with depression.
Now mark your calendar, head over there on Sept. 10th, grab a burger, some ice cream (eat it quickly; it’s super hot outside), join my team, and make a difference.
My husband Jay died by suicide. It was not romantic or noble or beautiful or any other positive feeling you might have seen portrayed in a movie. Mozart’s emotionally stirring Requiem didn’t play softly in the background, nor did a dove take flight in slow motion during the event that changed our lives. No, what happened was an absolute horror show wrapped in “Crime Scene” ribbon starring all of his immediate family and friends.
When you look at the statistics around suicide, it’s estimated that a single suicide affects up to 115 people thanks to a ripple effect. So, not only was I deeply affected, but so were his family, my family, my extended family, my friends, my co-workers, the last person who spoke to Jay when he was in crisis, the police officers involved, the victim’s services staff, and so on. You get the idea.
If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you know all of this, and you know that Jay suffered from depression combined with extreme fatigue as a result of untreated sleep apnea. These are all things you know.
Some things you might not know: I now suffer from anxiety and panic attacks that become more pronounced this time of year as we get closer to the anniversary of Jay’s death. (Each year they get better. Yay.) There are moments that my body suddenly starts telling me I’m in danger, and I need to flee. It’s not exactly what you want to be feeling when you’re in the middle of a meeting in a confined space away from the door and there are 45 minutes left on the clock. We’re just getting started folks. Settle in for this fun brain chemistry run amok rodeo!
So, you may be asking yourself, “Beth, why are we here again? We’ve read this one.”
Well, it’s because I have a request to ask of you – not just for me, but for the other 114 people who were touched by Jay’s suicide. If you figure that nearly 800,000 people die by suicide worldwide each year, and each death affects 115 people, then ultimately my request is for the 92 million people who are affected annually. There is an average of 129 suicides in the US per day, which means that the 92 million grows by 14,835 people in the US each day.
My request is fairly simple: I need us, as a society, to work on changing some exceptionally bad habits we’ve fallen into. The kind many of us, including me, have innocently engaged in over the years. Here’s what I’m talking about – I’ll explain by way of offering up a scenario: You’ve had a rough day – the kind where everything has really spun a tad out of control, and you’re kind of frustrated/grumpy/what-have-you. You’re standing around the water cooler chatting up your friends, your family, or whomever you like to chat with, and you want to drive home the point of how exceptionally challenging your day was. Now here’s where you may find yourself at a bit of a descriptional crossroads (or multi-directional highway). How do you drive home the point that you’re kind of irritated with how this particular unfair life event unfolded? You’re a good person, clearly deserving of better! I’m going to offer up a pro tip here: Whatever you choose to say, avoid describing whatever happened as being so bad you really want to end it all. Not only should you not say it, you should also avoid a pantomime of meeting that end. The reason? Of the people gathered around listening to the description of your perfectly awful day, you likely have little or no clue as to whether one of them is among the NINETY-TWO MILLION in this year alone who have been affected by suicide. In this case, it’s better to simply say, “I had a bad day.” We can all relate.
If you are in crisis, please seek help immediately and call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. The Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress, prevention and crisis resources for you or your loved ones, and best practices for professionals.
Another scenario: Let’s say you did something daffy. (I’m sure people do “daffy” things still, don’t they?) You’re a bit embarrassed. You can’t believe how dopey it was – how preventable if you’d only been on your game. Your friends are laughing with you (some possibly at you – friends can be jerks). Just leave it there. You don’t need to put a finger to your head and pretend to blow out your brains; it’s not necessary. Your temporary embarrassment isn’t worth suggesting you should die over it. We get it. It was goofy. Atypical for good ol’ you.
Where This All Came From
Today I sat next to someone who shared a personal story – a tragedy, and I acknowledged how difficult and stressful that time of their life must have been. Then they proceeded to tell me how they “nearly” ended their lives in a particularly graphic way – hand gestures, the whole bit, to really drive the point home that their life had been tough. I just stared. What they described so casually, so nonchalantly was exactly how Jay died so hopelessly, so tragically. I became agitated, which started triggering an anxiety attack. I counted things, I breathed, and then I counted more things because my supervisor frowns on me saying the words that immediately pop into my head in those situations. (He hasn’t explicitly told me “no” though, but I think he relies on my better judgment to help me navigate through those rougher waters.)
From there I decided to write this appeal to everyone and ask that we just stop for my sake, and for the sake of everyone else – for the 92 million affected people. Suicide is not a joke. It’s not a punch-line for your bad day or for things spinning momentarily out of control. It’s serious, it’s tragic, it affects far too many and we shouldn’t make light of it. We shouldn’t wish it on ourselves when we’ve had a bad day, had to spend time with the in-laws, seen a bad performance, or whatever your trigger is that makes you feel like you need to punctuate your displeasure by suggesting you wanted to die. How awful.
Me? I want to survive that bad moment, that bad day, that bad year, that bad performance and look back and say, “Damn, I’m a badass! I made it through again!” Because there is very little in this world that I think would be made better by me not being a part of it.
Yesterday, 19 people – friends and family – walked in memory of Jay. Yesterday, our team joined 186 other teams in promoting the mission of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to “save lives and bring hope to those affected by suicide. [They] create a culture that’s smart about mental health by engaging in the following core strategies:
- Funding scientific research
- Educating the public about mental health and suicide prevention
- Advocating for public policies in mental health and suicide prevention
- Supporting survivors of suicide loss and those affected by suicide in our mission”
To learn more about them, please follow the link provided above.
I want to take this moment to thank those who of you who sent their positive energy into the world yesterday in support of us and this cause. I want to thank those who volunteered your time and energy to be out with us on a cold Texas day. (To my friends living in the Northeast, it was cold!!! You don’t know! It was practically an arctic wasteland! Freezing. I’m sure I turned blue. I also”may” have worn four layers. Though, I suppose in all fairness, I did only plan for three, which is a perfectly reasonable amount when the temperature drops below, you know, 50 – heretofore be known as “FACT!”)
I want to thank my team who worked so hard to raise donations for this cause, and who many also contributed. We got 80 donations!! WOW!
When we started, I thought $500 would be a long shot, but I was hopeful. When we went over $3000, I was incredibly blown away and touched by everyone’s generosity. You guys are helping to raise awareness, to fund research, and to help remove the stigmas that surround seeking help for mental illness. As we know, asking for help is never a weakness; it takes great strength.
That brings me to you guys – our donors. THANK YOU! We couldn’t have done this without your support. Several of you were kind enough to give multiple times, to multiple team members, and it all is going to such a worthy cause.
I am truly humbled by every one of you who participated.
I know over the past two years, several of you outside of my core group of family and friends have worried about me – about where I’m at in this journey, and you’ve wondered how I remained strong (sometimes, not “strong” so much as how I was able to continue to keep my head above water on the bad days, and there have been many), and to you I say look at the picture above. Look at those faces and know those are only a few of the people who have stood by me through all of the hard times. That’s my village – the people I love. They represent the ones who, when I was at my lowest moment – July 9, 2016 – stopped everything, turned their cars around, and walked through my door to create a protective shell. We wrapped our arms around each other that day, because I wasn’t the only one who lost someone that day – Jay was a youngest son, a baby brother, an uncle, and a friend. We’re the ones left behind, and we’re the ones who stood strong yesterday as a group to honor him, and to remember that Jay was not one event on a horrible day in July; he quick witted, funny, and absolutely beautiful.
I love you guys!
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
WARNING: The following post contains certain details regarding Jay’s suicide, and the aftermath. It may be inappropriate for some readers.
Did you know?
My question in return: Can you tell? At what point in that text exchange would you get Jay help? Tell me. Please. What is it you think I missed?
I was exhausted after my trip to LA. While I’d had a decent time, seen things I’d never seen before, done things I’d never done before, I was woefully short on sleep, and I hadn’t really had a chance to talk to Jay in private. The few moments I was able to steal to have a private chat involved me nearly crying while saying, “I just want to come home,” and he patiently reminded me that I’d be home soon. I asked if we could come back. His response: “If it’s still there.” 🙂
I woke up that morning still tired, but happy. Finally! I was going home. Jay would get me from the airport, we’d get lunch, and then I’d face-plant like a champ.
On the way to my terminal I found a penny on the ground. I snapped it up. A good omen; it was going to be a great day. I don’t touch pennies now except to drop them on the ground if they’re handed to me.
I received Jay’s text letting me know he wouldn’t be picking me up. I guessed it was another anxiety attack. People, crowds, traffic… it was frequently overwhelming, but while I understood, I was still disappointed, and quite frankly a little irritated. I would need to get a cab. My idea of how the day would go shifted a bit, but it was manageable, and I knew I’d walk into the house a little mad despite knowing that sometimes Jay couldn’t do all the things. While I was waiting to deplane, I checked my wallet – ah, enough for a long cab ride. It wasn’t the end of the world.
I walked onto the concourse to hear my name being called over the loudspeaker. Please pick up a white courtesy phone. I almost didn’t, because I got it – I had to find my own way home. Thank you. I didn’t need them to tell me. “Ma’am, let me get my supervisor.” “Hello, am I speaking to Beth, and your husband is Jay, correct? I need you to tell me where you are. You need to stay right there, and an Austin Police Department officer will come get you.”
I knew Jay was in trouble, but he’d just texted that he wouldn’t be able to get me. Something must have happened outside the airport. “Are you ok?” Nothing. I’d forgotten that “airplane mode” held texts, so the message he’d sent wasn’t new. In fact it was about 25 minutes old. He was already dead. The officer approached me. “We’re going to walk to our office here in the airport.” “Has something happened to Jay?” “I don’t know, I’m supposed to take you to the office, and a Pflugerville Police officer is going to come talk to you.” Why is she coming out here to talk to me? Did Jay have an accident? Did something happen with one of the neighbors? I started working out a plan to get a lawyer. I’d get recommendations. I knew lawyers, just none who specialized in the type of field I thought we might need – criminal law.
Officer O’Neil arrived, “Are you Beth? Are you married to Jay? Do you live at this address?” and then she told me the news. Lies. I just got his text. There wasn’t time for him to be gone. There wasn’t time for a police officer to be dispatched. Why would she lie? I stared at her and fell apart. Not Jay. “He let us know, and told us we needed to come get you. That’s why I’m here. Let me take you home”
The house was surrounded in crime scene tape, and two victim services volunteers waited for me on the driveway. “You’ll need to stand out here. The police are going through your house and collecting evidence. He’s in the backyard. Your dog is ok. When they clear the kitchen you can go into that room. Here’s some information you might need. Is there anyone we should call?”
Calls were made. People started arriving. “Beth, they’re taking him away now. Do you want to touch him through the body bag?” “You’re going to have to have someone clean up your patio. Here are numbers to call of companies who specialize in that. Do you know where your insurance information is?” “Ma’am, we need to act quickly. Jay is a donor, and we would like your consent to take…” “Beth, so-and-so is on the phone, they want to talk to you.” “Where are Jay’s meds?” ”Had he ever expressed any intention of harming himself?” “Did he suffer from depression?” “Here’s the number for the medical examiner. You’ll need to call her.”“We’re taking his gun as evidence, do you want it back?” “What do you want to eat?” “Where is your Dad? We need to help your Dad.” “What would you like us to do with his body?” “Have you thought about where you’d like to hold a service?” “Is this ok?” “Is this what you want?” “Was there a will?” “Your neighbor told us she threw holy water over the fence and prayed for Jay. Wasn’t that nice?” “Beth, tell us a story about Jay?” For several days my life was filled with questions, so many questions, and insurmountable sadness; it was completely overwhelming.
I only had one question that I’d ask out loud when no one could hear. “Why didn’t you kill me, too? WHY?! I hate you.” because being alive in a world without Jay is really f*ing hard. It’s still hard. (Important side note: I feel I need to say that I am not, nor have I ever been, in danger of self-harm. I’m too curious about what the next day holds.)
I died that day. The Beth you knew vanished, and I’m sorry guys, you just get this – an actress uniquely skilled at playing my role. My ability to sympathize is completely wrecked. Within weeks of his death, people outside of my main group of family and close friends started, and continue to, come to me with their sadness and their woes, as if I’m now uniquely qualified to guide them through their hardship – as if I can impart some wisdom, and I’m thunderstruck by how much I genuinely do not care. So much so that I have to shove down the urge not to express that sentiment out loud in order to hide how truly damaged I am. Let me qualify that a bit to say that there is a small amount of sympathy that manages to still cling on, much like “hope” in the story of Pandora, and it’s reserved for those closest to me (and their kids). In fact, if I’m teetering around the abyss of in my mind, all it takes is one well-placed, “Aunt Beth!” or “June?” and I’m paused – able to draw back – momentarily me.
At a friend’s suggestion, I recently took a personality assessment that looks at personal strengths, and the one I apparently lead with is “empathy.” I was surprised until I read its description. Basically, it said I’m decent at picking up on others – their emotions, their unspoken questions; however, “[I] don’t necessarily feel pity for someone’s predicament – that’s sympathy.” And I don’t. I used to, but I just don’t. Again, with the heavy qualifier that I do when it comes to my family and closest friends. I have real limits on how much of other’s burdens I can shoulder, and it’s not a lot. Does it grow? Sure. And I reserve it for the people who made up my protective phalanx – my vanguard. Your next door neighbor’s hairdresser’s cousin who is suffering unimaginable hardship is sad. I am sorry for them. Don’t text me hoping I will console you.
And I take things wrong – very wrong. The most well-intentioned words get flipped into something you absolutely didn’t intend. Something as simple as, “You seem like you’re handling things well. If I were in your shoes I’d be devastated,” as a testament of strength sounds like, “you clearly didn’t care about him; you’re not sad enough.” There are more examples, but I know if I list them, someone will read themselves into what I’ve said, and then I have to negotiate their emotions, and I can’t. I just can’t.
You see, you’ve lost part of me, and in its place is a newer me.
On November 10, 2018 I will be walking to raise funds for Suicide Awareness as part of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of Darkness Walk. It starts at 10am and is approximately 5k. If you’d like to make a donation, you may do so at this link:
I have set a personal goal to raise $500.
A huge thanks to all who have already contributed to this walk or through my Facebook campaign; it means a great deal to me.
If you would like to walk with me in memory of Jay, and would also like to raise funds to support this cause, we’d love to have you. Click here:
If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.
In seventeen days it will be the second anniversary of Jay’s death. There have been two missed anniversaries, 24 missed monthiversaries, and four missed birthday celebrations (both mine and his). I count each one. And it’s been heavily implied that time is running out. I should stop mourning. I need to pack those emotions up, and stow them away. Surely, enough time has gone by. You can’t still be sad. Time heals all wounds, right? And your hour glass just ran out of sand, chica.
So many careless words spilled at my feet. Words that amount to, “Buck up little camper! It’s time to move on! You’ve had two delightfully self-indulgent, sad years, so let’s turn that frown upside down! Pssst, also we didn’t want to mention it, hun, so of course we are, we’re all impossibly bored now. I mean “boo hoo,” am I right? Whoopsy poo, someone just spoke that thought bubble out loud. AWKWARD! I should really lay off the wine!”
Little spoken reminders litter my days letting me know there’s a cutoff date on expressing my feelings. There’s a cutoff date on my mourning. There’s a cutoff date for sharing my loss.
“You can get away with saying that for now.”
“You don’t realize how much you talk about Jay.”
“Don’t worry about [what you just said], she can handle it now.”
I get it. I do. It’s exhausting. You’re over it. You’ve moved on, but I’m still here. Me. Your friend. Moving through time, yet some how fixed. I’m still sad. Maybe not like I was, but it ripples beneath the surface sometimes bubbling forth at unexpected or inconvenient times. Sometimes erupting. Maybe not all of the days – some of the days – fewer days. And parts of me are permanently damaged – never to be fixed.
A broken teacup – pieced back together – whole in structure, but fractures ribbon through the beloved and familiar pattern. Made whole again, still beautiful – new, similar – not the same.
And while my sadness doesn’t define me, I do get sad. My heart aches. The tears spill.
I recently discovered the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website, which has a number of great resources, and I truly wish I’d found them sooner. That lead me to the local chapter’s website where I found this beautiful manifesto from one of their members. I need you to read this, and keep me in mind – keep Jay in mind.
Revised by Farren Smith with credit to Laura McCord
I will not get over this regardless of how much time has passed. There is a wound in my heart that will never heal.
I will speak my loved ones name whenever I wish. They existed – a beautiful person and I will not allow them to be forgotten.
I will cry for my loved one whenever I feel the need – be it in the grocery store, the middle of a restaurant or at home in bed and I will not feel embarrassed.
I believe I lost my loved one to an illness not unlike cancer, diabetes or heart disease. That illness might not have been visible, but it was no less real – or deadly.
I will not allow any stigma to fall on me because of my loved ones choices. Their decision was made from an unimaginable pain and a desperate attempt to end their suffering. No one – not even my loved one is to blame.
I will allow myself to feel no matter what emotion I experience whenever I feel it. Be it guilt, anger, resentment, rage or laughter at a fond memory. I will accept these feelings as a natural part of grieving and express them however I need.
I am entitled to the same respect and kindness, sympathy and dignity shown for the survivors of any other kind of death. No matter the cause I lost someone I loved dearly. My grief is justified and no less important than anyone else’s.
I will allow no one to slander or smear, belittle or demean the name or memory of my loved one. Their death is in no way a reflection of the person they were and I refuse to let one action define them.
Finally, I accept that I will never be the same person I was before this loss and I will not pretend otherwise for anyone’s comfort. In fact, I will demand that others in my life accept these truths and accept me.
And I say all of that as a reminder to everyone that I’m not over it. That there’s no time limit on my feelings. I’m not going to reach July 9th and shrug and say, “well, we had a good run sadness, but Jay isn’t going to be more alive if I cry one more time. AMIRITE?” You’re all right: I am still very strong and I am still funny and cheerful and goofy, and all of those other adjectives. But please don’t shut down my sadness, or ask me to move on, or ask that I not speak the name of my favorite person because you’ve heard it enough, you’ve moved on, or you’re quite simply bored with it. Because if you truly are, that’s fine, even understandable, and you can also move on out of my life. No hard feelings. Best of luck to you. May you never know sadness.
On November 10th I will participate in the Out of the Darkness 5k walk for Jay in Austin, TX. I would love it if you would join me or support my team. There will be a second walk in Dallas – a 16 mile Out of the Darkness next June. That one starts at dusk and ends at dawn. You truly are walking out of the darkness. As you walk across the finish line, the path is illuminated by luminaries, representing those who were lost. The ones who weren’t able to make it out of the darkness.
Let’s raise awareness. Help honor Jay, and do our best to help destigmatize mental health issues. Will you take a walk with me? Because I’m here to tell you that I will continue to honor him, to celebrate both him and his memory, and I will never stop.
And I will not recognize a deadline.
If you followed the recent news, you may have noticed that we lost two beloved celebrities last week. And I’m here to tell you that their loss had zero real impact on my life. By that same token, I also recognize that their deaths strongly impacted those around me, and they definitely impacted their friends, family, and business partners who find themselves struggling with “what comes next?” I understand that struggle. I live with it EVERY SINGLE DAY – every time I walk into this house.
Like many, I read the articles to try to glean the facts. What happened? How did we end up here? Then the follow-up articles came out – those discussing the inevitable confusion of people who don’t quite understand depression – the “but they had so much to live for – they were adored – if only they could have seen that…” – those folks who naively believe that simply smiling will destroy all the demons. The “yay life” cheerleaders. The ones who view the victims as people who just need to toughen up a bit, to believe and fully embrace that tomorrow is a brighter day – the ones who see the victims as unfortunately having a bit of a weak constitution – the very ones who add to the shame that prevents people suffering from mental illness from seeking much-needed help – the ones who unwittingly are part of the problem. And I was fine with these reactions, because they weren’t unexpected.
Then I read more follow-up articles designed to increase clicks and further milk the celebrity death interest, articles with a different angle – with new, exciting perspectives. By Friday I started shutting down while I processed all the words that were out there. Granted, I may have been unconsciously drawn to articles that would upset me, and I may have latched onto a line or two that skewed my abilities to fully comprehend all that I was reading. I’ll own that. But what I felt like I was reading, and what I definitely reacted to, was this idea that the people around suicide victims were at fault for not doing enough. That it was through their failures to listen, to get this person the necessary help, to ask the person if they were suicidal, or to remove any means for the person to carry out the act that ultimately led to their special someone’s death. And let me tell you, I absolutely refuse to abide these sentiments.
Yes, we should always listen, yes, we should point people towards getting help, and yes, we should remove all judgment when that person is speaking frankly about their intentions. That said, unless you are a trained mental health expert, you are NOT a trained mental health expert. The best thing you can do is encourage them to get help from a professional. And if, at the end of the day, after you’ve done everything you can, they choose to take their own life – that is not on you. How dare those authors even lightly suggest that the people around the victim are culpable when we, the friends and family of the victims, deal with our own guilt, guilt we’ve piled on our own shoulders whether deserved or not, every single day. We don’t need the help figuring out where we could have done more, and we don’t need fingers wagged in our face by people who lightly perused a website about suicide trying to increase their organization’s readership.
In my previous blog post, I warned that this month I was going to be blunt about suicide. If you are sensitive to this type of story, I strongly encourage you to stop reading at this point. I’m not kidding.
I struggled trying to get Jay to seek help from a mental health professional for years, and it wasn’t Jay I was struggling with – it was the stigma surrounding what seeking that help involved. I had to find cases of acquaintances and friends who were under care – people he respected – to make it ok. And one day, after the meds had finally taken hold, he looked at me and said, “this is the first time I’ve felt happy.” Do you know how hard that is to hear? To hear the person you love more than anything in the world has never experienced true happiness, and to wonder what it was like for him to finally have that weight of depression lifted. My personal default setting is “happy” and if I’m truthful, it’s probably better defined as “goofy.” My idea of a perfect day would be to twirl in the parking lot every morning, arms outstretched and sing, and I cannot imagine a world where that is not my truth. So, to hear someone I love, my best friend, has never felt that way before, made my heart hurt. Imagine a world where you’ve never known true happiness.
Well, the thing about antidepressants is they need to be adjusted and changed, and the person needs to be monitored, which was what I was talking to Jay about in our last real conversation before he died. His depression prior to his death had returned with a vengeance, and that was combined with his untreated sleep apnea – something that wasn’t being addressed by his C-PAP machine. Severe depression plus extreme fatigue is a deadly cocktail. We talked about going back to the doctor – that the meds and lack of sleep were not ok. Or more precisely, I talked about it and Jay got quiet, because he knew when I came home from my trip I was going to start pushing that issue – that’s what I do.
My brother-in-law and I live with the guilt of his death EVERY SINGLE DAY, but don’t you dare imply it was our fault – that we failed Jay, that we didn’t talk to him, we didn’t listen, or pay attention, or wrap him in bubble wrap, because at the end of that day, after all of our talks, Jay walked outside and shot himself in my backyard, and that’s on Jay.
And if we want to play that “what if” game… if I had removed the gun, he would have asphyxiated himself in the garage, if I had removed his car, he would have likely poisoned himself, and if I’d removed all cleaners/medications, etc., he would have found something else. He was in extreme mental pain, and he was highly motivated.
And my brother-in-law and I both dream about him, and in both of our dreams we have to explain to Jay that he died, because he doesn’t understand what happened or why he’s dead – because he had a mental snap. Imagine repeated nights where you have to say, “baby, you were ill and you died” to this beautiful soul who was only 40 years old.
And nearly every day is a varying degree of hard for us without some detached writer pontificating about suicide and attempting to assign blame.
Step the fuck off.
So please forgive me if I’m not more upset about two celebrities when, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 123 people die by suicide EVERY SINGLE DAY. Where are those articles lamenting those lost, and equally as important, souls?