Pushing silence out of suicide’s way

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Recently, I decided to take a course called Introduction to Counselling because I’ve been toying with the idea of doing a Masters and before I can even apply there’s a bunch of pre-requisites to be completed. One baby step at a time.

My ultimate goal, a never ending journey in the past few years, is to find a way to do something for money that complements my writing but will bring in more money than my writing has and will enable me to be self-employed.  I love the idea of doing more than one thing to make money. In fact, going to one job, in one place, for the whole day just seems like too many contradictions: a luxury, a penance and some retro fantasy that seems really outdated, especially if you have an artsy background.

Now, those of you who know me know that I’ve had way more than an introduction to counselling in my own life. Been there. Done that. Got the T-shirt. Pretty much already have the PhD in life experience.   But, no, that’s not true because I don’t, have a PhD that is, and because it’s different when you’re on the other side.  Surprise, surprise. Counselling is harder than it looks, and so far, in the class, we’ve only been practicing with fellow students, people who aren’t desperate, or even if they are, aren’t expecting you’ll be able to help them help themselves, for real.

It’s been a fascinating experience because it takes away any illusion one might have about other people being so much more together. They’re not. Simple. Done. Wipe the hands. Everybody’s got their shit. It’s an absolutely hallelujah moment to recognize that everybody’s got their shit and, well, so what?  Next. Moving right along.  The question is, are you dealing with it or inflicting it?

I mean if Robin Williams is done, what hope is there for the rest of us? And I really wonder if that’s what some of the more fragile out there are going to think. I wonder if the suicide hot lines are going to be off the charts this week with people who feel this way after the tragedy of Robin Williams taking his own life.

On  a more positive note, I feel like we are reaching a turning point, a barely visible shift when it comes to depression and other mental illnesses being taken seriously, and it’s been slower than proverbial molasses. People finally get that depression is an illness, not a sign of weakness, and most importantly, it’s real. Don’t dismiss it. Don’t moralize. Don’t ignore the signs. Don’t think you’re better because you’re always just fine thank you very much. Hold the cliches. You know what they are. Think on the bright side. You’re glass is either half empty or half full. Cheer up. It’s not so bad. Count your blessings. What have you got to be depressed about?

When I was in high school and suffered what I consider my first major bout of depression, I might as well have been naked on a raft in the middle of an ocean with nothing but a Bengal tiger and a hyena for company. It was the 1970’s. Depression? What’s that? That’s how alone, how ashamed, how isolated and desperate I felt made worse by how everyone around me reacted by not reacting at all. I could feel the shame. Was I embarrassing them? I can still recall the misery all these years later, and the misery of every time the darkness beyond black has descended. Immobilized. Ashamed. Here but not here. Stuck. And yet still a worthy human being. Right here. Me. Deal with it.

I have experienced the suicide of someone I loved. I know the devastation first hand. His name was Mac Rymal. I have heard about the suicide of someone I played basketball with for five years in high school, attended her funeral, and the pain of knowing how and what she did, leaving behind three young daughters as a result,  is something I think about regularly. I’ve always wondered how her girls, one just a baby at the time, have made out in life and I have never forgotten her. She was the captain of our championship basketball team. Her name was Donna Digby.

It might surprise you to know that the death rate for suicide is higher than the death rate from motor vehicle accidents. It surprised me.

It’s no longer okay for the S words to remain in the closet. Are you thinking of killing yourself?” is a legitimate question. It needs to be asked when it needs to be asked. It won’t push someone over the edge.

It’s so long overdue, one loss after another, to kick those other two S words: silence and stigma, to the curb.

As if She’d Come to Collect Memories

I thought I’d share one of my creative non fiction stories. This was published in The SFU Writer’s Studio Emerge anthology.


Salt Spring Island Chain In Water

As Epiphanies Go

Her psychiatrist gave her an ultimatum.

“Him or me. You’ll have to choose.  I can’t work with you if you continue to go back to him.”

He was 57. A father. Part-time college instructor.

Favourite things?: Pot. Sex. Cigarettes. Baseball. Dogs. Birds. Red wine. Crown Royal. The Simpsons. T.S. Eliot. Teaching. Stan Rogers. Journalism. The CBC. That was him.

She was 37.  In therapy, in part, because of him. And the one before him and the one before that. Take your pick. That was her.

This time she opted for self preservation and she finally stopped seeing him.   Then, about a year later, she decided to call his number. The recorded voice on the other end said, “This number is no longer in service.”

She was confused. Had he moved? Had it been that long since she’d talked to him? She felt compelled to check in even though she knew it was probably a bad idea. Something inside of her wouldn’t let her not go see him.

She drove south across a bridge where industry lines up behind ditches, fish boats tower in dry dock and the road to the marina T-bones at the river. Turn left, drive all the way to the end, you’re there.

She got out and walked down the metal ramp to the dock below. Her footsteps crunched on the frosty deck.  It was October 31. Halloween. When she stepped onto the porch, his floating home dipped slightly. She opened the screen door and knocked hard. She told herself that no matter what he said, she wasn’t going anywhere. She wanted to talk to him.

After a long absence, the place looked even more dilapidated than she’d remembered. It was the first time she’d realized that its outsides were a likeness of his insides: worn.

She’d knocked louder the second time and when he opened the door, and the sun streamed into his eyes, he hesitated until he saw that it was her. She thought she detected a smirk.  He stared at her briefly.

It was a surprised pause. Then,  all he said was “Come in.”

She gave him a hug and he responded, loosely, as if he was already somewhere else.

“What the hell’s wrong with your phone?”

He shrugged. She noticed and ignored it.

As they moved to sit down, she was nervous. Small talk. So unlike them. She scanned the room as if she’d come to collect memories.  The wooden bookshelves, his flat pipe, the blue tea tin he kept his pot in.  The way the sun streamed through the dusty blinds and hit the bottom step on the stairs that led to his bedroom.  His dog. His cat.  That ugly chair, the one he was sitting in, the one she hated that bled white stuffing because it doubled as the cat’s scratching post.  Even the smell, nicotine damp and river moldy. She took it all in.

It was so cold inside that she kept her coat on.

He didn’t offer her tea.

She didn’t know why then, but she figured it out later. He knew that she would have asked for milk and then she would have seen that his fridge was almost empty. Inside her head, she began a debate, back and forth, back and forth. She was trying to figure out how to say what she hadn’t even counted on needing to say before she’d dropped by. She didn’t know why saying the words suddenly felt so urgent.

He was complaining about his best friend, his neighbors.

“ I’ve told him before, don’t come over here at dinner. He doesn’t listen.  It’s so disrespectful.  I’m sick of him.”

She remained silent. Her silence punctuated his anger, gnawed at her confusion. “I’m sick of all of them,” he said.

It was out of character; a rant, petty, angry, unreasonable.  She knew that now was not the time for her opinions.

Instead she took a breath before she said it; the words sounded broken, a fragile plea bargain.  “I still love you, ya know.” Her voice cracked.

“I know.” That was all he said.

Sometimes there’s no point in saying what won’t change a thing. She got that.

She never intended to stay long and n0w she was ready to leave.

When she got to the door, she said, “I don’t know what to say.”

“There isn’t anything to say.”    He emphasized the word “isn’t”. He sounded annoyed.

Imagine. Them . Nothing to say.

She walked back along the dock up the ramp. Halfway to the top she turned slightly to see if he was watching her through the kitchen window. He wasn’t.  She looked back again just in case. She looked back three more times and as she drove away she noticed a starburst of light reflecting off the top left hand corner of the windowpane. She’d never seen that before. She couldn’t stop examining it. It seemed imbued with meaning.

She didn’t know what she thought or felt. Every nerve in her body was trying to tell her.  For most of the rest of that day she thought about him. She told herself that maybe, in a few days, she’d drop by again. As soon as she had that thought, she knew she wouldn’t

A week later, her phone rang just after five o clock. His best friend’s voice, the one he was mad at, was on the other end. She was surprised. He’d never called her before.

Just  two words. “Mac’s gone,” was all he said.

“What?”

“This morning. Early. In his car.

She heard him. She just wasn’t sure she understood. She instinctively knew it was a time for self-protection.  Maybe they just couldn’t find him. Maybe he’d just needed to get away.

“Where?”

“Other end of the marina. Stranger found him. Engine still running. Firemen smashed the driver’s window to get at him. It was too late.”

She inhaled. A sound she’d never heard before, the kind that ramps up like a siren, as if someone had jabbed her, the sound a small animal makes when it’s injured, leaked out of her.

A few days later, she opened one of the typewritten letters he’d left for her.

The last line said:  “So that’s it. I’ve spent all the money. Smoked all the pot. Drank all the wine.  I have enough cigarettes to last me through this last night. And, truth to tell, I never wanted to be sixty anyway.”

As epiphanies go, she didn’t care much for that one.