Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Remember, remember the 4th of November...

...not gunpowder, treason and plot.

A friend's suicide. A landmark anniversary.

Even now, some years are better than others - last year, I was so excited and emotional about the impending American election - it's not often I get up to go to the 7.30am mass - that whilst I remembered Lou's anniversary, it wasn't so hard. Other years have brought an emptiness or a gentle grief. Some years, it feels like the day she died. Last year was easy enough that I thought I might actually be past the worst of it.

How wrong I was. This year, I started crying on Halloween night and didn't stop till I fell asleep. The last couple of days have been better, but I even cried at the end of the All Souls' mass - and as much as that mass takes me to the depths that I love and moves me to sorrow touched with hope - I don't cry in public.

Last year may have been the easiest, but this year has been the worst since the year she died. And because 11 November is tied into her anniversary, I expect I've got at least a week to go.


It all began Thursday, in an Alexander Technique lesson with Sumi.

"You know, breathing IS an option, even over here," came the supportive, yet somewhat tart, comment as Sumi checked my head, neck, shoulders and back, before giving me a sharp look and saying, "You hold yourself very tightly, don't you? You really need to let go."

"Busted," I thought.

Then, on Saturday, I walked into Unique Creations when I saw a friend with one of the kids she babysits, making a plate for the parental anniversary. I admired the design, then my eyes fell on the date. I felt like I'd been hit.

"Oh, is THAT their anniversary? 4 November?" I semi-squeaked.

I gasped, realising suddenly that it had been a day of happiness and normalcy, as well as one of incredible pain. And that was the start.

In her book, "My grandfather's blessings", Rachel Remen posits that when we experience a sudden shock, we hold our breath, just as we do when plunged into cold water, and we need to breathe again to move forward and release the energy of the event and attendant emotions.

I believe that, and I think that most of us have some areas in our lives where we are holding our breath: a death, a breakup, a loss that we perceive to be catastrophic. We may be moving on in others, but until we breathe in all areas of our lives, we'll leave some part of us behind, or it will die of asphyxiation.

That gasp was my first breath in the part of my heart that had been Lou's since that 4 November.

She was working at the Child Protection Line; I was working the Crisis Hotline. Four hour shifts they may be, but they're intense hours - you discuss the tough calls, deal with some of the most difficult issues. Small talk isn't an option. Friendships become intense pretty quickly in an environment like that. Lou and I were no exception.

Lou was the first older woman I could pour my heart out to - my doubts, my fears, my 'I don't WANT to be a doctor; it's what my parents want,' 'I'm not sure I want to do this.' She was one of the first women to listen; the first woman whose love didn't waver when I didn't want to do what she wanted me to do. Well, there wasn't anything she wanted me to do, except be me. She trusted in my ability, she had faith in me. It was an immense gift, the first such I'd received.

She often stayed beyond her hours, as she had grown children and was on her own - she had done the whole of the three day Columbus Day Weekend because no one else showed up. Last time I saw her, her back was to me as she cut out patterns. I didn't want to bother her since she was busy, so I didn't give her my usual hug. It was the last chance I ever had.

The next time I heard her name, the word suicide was part of the sentence - and I held my breath. That part of my heart froze in that moment.

A month later, after a biochem exam, I could hear her Carolina drawl in my head: "You did really well, hon, I'm so proud of you." I shrugged it off, but I got an 88% on that exam, one of the highest grades in the class.

She, who had loved me for who I was, would never, ever have wanted me to freeze in that moment for an instant longer than the announcement.

So why?

Growing up in a family where emotions were held in contempt - by the time I got home after the shift I'd heard about Lou's death, I was so normal, my parents didn't notice - would be the easy answer. But things are never that simple.

I loved her, but I was so angry I couldn't go to her Maryland memorial service before she was buried in NC. I never forgave myself for that. But I was angrier at myself. FFS, I worked at a CRISIS HOTLINE. I dealt with suicidal people almost every goddamned shift. HOW DID I MISS IT IN MY FRIEND?

And so, I could never breathe; I could never let it thaw. I could never forget the intensity of that pain; never be that blind again. I had to be there for everyone whose loved one committed suicide; for everyone who was suicidal or self-harmed; I had to keep getting better. No one else
in my circle was committing suicide on my watch. NO. ONE. One of the demons that would drive me - still does, more often than it should - was born. And when it was too painful for me to bear alone, I made him drive others - no one was good enough, no one did enough for anyone else, nothing.

What I forgot was that if you can't let go of what you're carrying, you can never receive or hold anything else.

When I gasped Saturday, I couldn't hold my breath any longer - I kept breathing...and started crying as what was frozen thawed and started hurting like f***. I had an inkling of how bad Saturday night was going to be, having been that deep before. Deep breath. When the only way out is through, you just batten down the hatches and go. Each day since has been a bit easier, with All Souls' mass offering the space to breathe and grieve, allowing me to drop the mask I had worn at work. Today is 8.45-7 - I'm not looking forward to it. C'est la vie - I've been through much worse. I'll live.

With every breath, I'm letting go a little bit more.

But I'm afraid. I'm afraid I'll forget her; forget how deeply it hurt; I'll forget how to be with those in that much pain; I'll no longer WANT to be with people in that much pain; I'll lose my edge, my vocation, something.

The truth is, that's just not true - I'll never forget how much that hurt and I'll never want to stop easing that pain for others. I just won't have that intensity of pain right under the surface. I won't drive myself and others to impossible lengths - as one of my friends said, "Do you believe that no one will kill themselves if you're around?" If I'm honest, I think some part of me thought the answer was 'Yes.' Without that pain, that impossible drive, I'm more able to be there, more able to help - more flexible and agile in my responses. I'll have a greater variety of responses too if I'm not so driven by my pain. Pain tends to blind us.

And my arms will be empty and open to hold something new. It's what Rachel Remen might call an endbeginning. And the thought of standing there with empty arms, not holding anything, is terrifying. But I need to stand there in faith and trust - because beginnings always come.

I will get there one day - but I can't force it and I can't predict how it will come. I need to breathe through it, find my way by the light in the darkness - sometimes alone, sometimes with others by my side.

But for right now, let's just say it hurts like hell. Coming out of numbness into feeling always does.

And I like to think that somewhere, Lou is looking down at me, saying, in that North Carolina drawl, "You did really well, hon. I'm so proud of you."

Thanks, hon. Me too - and I'll see you on the other side. Till then, miss you, love you.


Anonymous said...

How could you miss 'it' in your friend? When you know someone well, especially if your NF-ness is to the fore of your life, it helps you know people far more than SJ types would know people, I think.

So how could You miss it?

People can be adept at hiding their innermost feelings and what they really think. And an interest in other people, always genuine, allied with care for them is often a very useful way of covering up what is really going on in their lives. So much so that even really astute people can be fooled (not that these people want to fool you - just because talking about what bothers them deep down is either too painful [something you personally have identified elsewhere] or just does not seem worth it, because it is too selfish to do so and what right do they have to burden anyone else? Other people have more right to live etc etc)

Others who have these feelings put people off by grouchiness or surliness - often a sign that you are touching on sensitive ground. But it is the quiet and kind people who can be adept at hiding feelings and putting up smoke screens oh so effectively that you do not even know they are doing it.

At least in some of these people's minds is the sequence of thoughts that say 'Talking about your own needs is wrong, others are more worthy or important.' or 'I have to comfort you or help you, I know you need it. Maybe I'll tell you things, but I don't want to take away from you, and you are what counts' or the really deep seated belief that 'actually, the world really would be a far better place without me there. After all, you were OK before you met me, so you are sure to find someone else. You won't really miss me in the long run. And let's face it, the trouble and aggro I cause would mean the world would be a far better place without me.' So ultimately, I suppose those thoughts win out for some people. And the shame of it is, that they really do not think they are being selfish or potentially hurtful to others...they have got to the point where they are convinced they are doing what is best.

You who have studied counselling and are perceptive will either see that this makes sense, or see it as semi-illogical nonsense. Fortunately you have the option to print or not to print. But maybe, just maybe it may help someone somewhere to understand what some people go through, perhaps.

Ariel said...

I'm inclined to second everything Anonymous has said. I think there's only one thing I would add, which is that if she cared for you - and clearly she did - she would have been all the more likely to try to hide what she was feeling from you, consciously or not. I think it's often easier to talk about darker feelings with someone who is removed from your life, be it an official therapist or someone anonymous who works at a hotline. People involved with you can't be trusted to be objective and unbiased.


Irim said...

Thank you, both of you for this.

[People involved with you can't be trusted to be objective and unbiased.]

No, of course not. But they can be trusted to CARE. And sometimes that counts for a hell of a lot more than objectivity. xx

Ariel said...

No, of course not. But they can be trusted to CARE. And sometimes that counts for a hell of a lot more than objectivity.

That's true, and I don't exactly disagree with you, but... the important word here is "sometimes". I think that sometimes it actually can make things worse.


Anonymous said...

But they can be trusted to care...

Well, yes. And that fuels them in some sort of way, helps them to stay on track 'at least I am able to accompany her on her journey...' However, there may come a point where/when even that energy is just not there any more, the energy that propels them into caring or responding to someone. So what happens then? The thoughts of 'well the world would be a better place if I wasn't there...' or 'I just want to go to sleep and never wake up again...', which have been lying in the background, are uncovered once more - and without that energy that makes one care and respond - these thoughts take over.

It would be nice to think that one could spot when someone like that needs a hug or other form of affirmation, but part of that person's self defence scheme is to oh so cleverly hide when they need help - because their needing help will take away from your/other people's needing help, and that just wouldn't do, would it?

And sometimes once that decision to depart is made, there is a temporary flow of energy, an apparent increase in vitality or life - because at last that person is doing something genuinely useful that will really benefit the world and others round them. People observing that person will be fooled 'oh she seemed fine today' or 'she seemed quite busy, but calm'...

But no. This person is under the impression that they are now doing a single unselfish benefit to all act, that will be the best way they can care and sort of show their care for others.

I can remember how when I came close to doing the same act myself, that one thought troubling me was 'is there a way this can be achieved so that it will look as if I just fell asleep and never woke up again?...for then no-one will have the possible pain (although they'd be silly to have the pain, because I am too worthless to merit much pain/care on their part) associated with suicide, and they can reconcile someone dying just like that far more easily with their own existences or belief systems...'

There were other thoughts connected with the whole process, but they are not necessarily relevant to this particular situation. And whereas I am not trying to take anyone's side in this, I am merely attempting to throw light onto a situation for what it's worth.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for providing a safe haven in which this and related topics may be aired and discussed without fear of censure. It means a lot to me to be able to say what I think about such matters without interruption or disapproval - I live in a community where fairly strong views are held/aired, not always with the understanding that comes with experience. So thank you for providing a forum where voices can safely be heard. Thank you.