Earlier this year a show titled ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’ aired on Netflix. I watched the entire series. I am working in suicide awareness and suicide prevention, so against my gut feeling I watched it anyway. In the end I did not like it. Many other people have written why it was inappropriate in its attempts to address the subject, so I will not re-hash them here.
Rather, I have been very reflective as this year ends and have given pause to the idea that I must have at least thirteen reasons why I, myself, did not succumb to death by suicide. I have experienced suicidal ideation many, many times this past year. I have a safety plan. I have a core group of people. I have a semicolon tattoo. I have a ring I wear every day that says “Live” on it. I have a second ring that I also wear daily — it says “Dream”. I am in my second year of a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology. I’ve had the Trevor trainings. I assess for suicide often with others. None of that matters. I still experience suicidal ideation regularly. I still consider it an option, because, well…it still is.
As I have thought about the reasons why I did not succumb to self-destruction this past year, I wondered if I had thirteen of them. I had many, many more than that. Here are thirteen of them…a Baker’s Dozen if you will…thirteen reasons why I did not die by suicide last year. If you had a part in any one of these, I want to thank you.
1. I’m just getting started.
I have waited 46 years to be able to live my authentic life. I gave 20 years of marriage to my former spouse. I gave that time to be my children’s parent. I sacrificed in ways that are unimaginable to those who have not walked this path. I endured thousands and thousands of disparaging remarks about me at church every week and it took an emotional and physical toll on me. Now that I have walked away from my former religious community I no longer hear those messages directed at me, and the pain is lessened. The trauma that occurred cannot be undone, but to be able to put it into context and set them aside as untrue is freeing. Now that the burden of these messages is no longer felt, I am free to explore what it is to be me.
I have some incredible role-models that I am lucky enough to have in my life. I want to emulate them. I want to discover what it is about them that is of infinite worth. I want to know them long enough for them to see me incorporate those parts of them into my own self. I want to be the best version of me that I can become. This will take time. I figure, if I’m lucky, I might live to be 80 years old. I have just turned 49. I have roughly 30 years left…give or take. 30 years for me to practice being me. I’d like to think I will need all that practice to become that thing that I hope to become. The best version of me.
I also want to give myself enough time to make a difference as this new being that I am creating. I am embarking on a significant career change. One that I hope can make a difference for a few people. I don’t know how long it will take to meet those few people and see how we can make their life better. It might take a while. I also might never know who I have helped make a difference with, so I need to make sure I can spread love and awareness to as many people as I can while I am still here. I must stay alive.
2. I don’t want to burden my children with my suicide.
I have made a commitment to myself and to others that I no longer will use shame and/or guilt as motivators for change. I am afraid that my death would send an incredibly negative message to my children and would unnecessarily burden them with questions for the rest of their lives. I do not wish to give them shame or instill guilt regarding how they did or did not treat me along our journey together. Giving them those questions and challenging them with internal issues regarding my death would be brutally unfair.
Granted, there are plenty of questions that will challenge them regarding my life and my continued living, but I believe those questions can be addressed if I am here to answer them. Conversations cannot be had and questions cannot be answered if I am not around to participate in them. I wish to be able to live long enough to reconcile and have meaningful discussions about the decisions I have made. I wish to help my children process their pain, and if that process needs me to be physically present, I would like to have that option.
Additionally, studies have shown that family members and friends who have been affected by suicide have an increased risk of suicidal ideation and destructive behavior. There are also increased risks for job loss, academic drop-out, and increased stigma toward them about their family members’ death. I do not wish any of that on my children. I love them too much. I must stay alive.
3. Dying by suicide would be weaponized by my family.
It is sad for me to say this, but it must be said. My family considers me defective. My family sees my life as going contrary to the will of their version of god. My family has disowned and shunned me for the better part of three years. My death by suicide would be looked at them as proof that they were right in all of their assumptions. I am unwilling to let them claim that victory over me. Additionally, I am planning my second, and final, tattoo. It will be cremation and disposal instructions for my remains, once I eventually have shuffled off this mortal coil. Whoever discovers me will undoubtedly see it, as it will run lengthwise down my torso from armpit to hip. It might even take two lines of text. There are GPS coordinates involved. There are music lyrics to recite. There is travel to be done in the disposal of my ashes and dust.
I am fearful that should I end my own life prematurely, my family — and let me make this clear, I refer to my family as my siblings and parents — would try to weaponize my funeral and remember me not as I am today, but as they wished I was. My disposal instructions are not for them. Rather, they are for my children. You see, by the time I do reach my expiration date I plan to have reconciled to the point where we can honor each other in our individual truths. Honor each other’s positions of pain. Cry with each other in our moments of joy. Say our goodbyes then with clean hands and pure hearts. I must stay alive.
4. Friends let me do my laundry at their house.
Seriously. This one is a biggie. After divorcing and selling our home I purchased a 31-foot Airstream and have been living in it for the past two years. I do not have laundry facilities in my Airstream and short of heating up water and washing delicates in plastic tubs, I am either reliant on laundromats or the kindness of my friends. Yes, I have washed my undies many times in the shower, sink or plastic tub, but more often than not, I have been the thankful recipient of my friends’ hospitality.
When I know I have the chance to use a real washer and dryer, I make the most of it. I wash everything. Clothes, towels, bathmats, washcloths, dishtowels…everything that can be run through a washer that needs to be cleaned gets the royal treatment. Since I am pretty much a minimalist at this point, I can go for nearly a month without doing laundry, and when I do it’s usually a couple loads of darks and a load of whites. It’s not a lot, but it is enough.
During the time the laundry is being done, my amazingly generous friends open their hearts and their homes to me. They entertain me. They feed me. They let me unwind and they let me sleep. During these short visits I can truly decompress and enjoy the company of their friendship. I can enjoy their smile and we can have conversations too lengthy for online chat or text message.
The laundry as metaphor stands for so much more than just clean clothes. Doing my laundry means I get to engage with the world outside my aluminum-clad, 240 square-feet of shiny abode. I am lucky that I have good friends that know doing my laundry is just a symbol for something much, much bigger. I am leading a very Walden Pond sort of life, which at times, necessitates a trip into civilization for the things the woods cannot provide. I must stay alive.
5. I’m too flippin’ stubborn.
I believe tomorrow’s version of me is screaming, begging, and pleading with today’s version of me to just hang on. Tomorrow’s version of me deserves to live her day to the fullest, even if it full of pain and sorrow, much like today’s version of me is experiencing life right now. Yesterday’s version of me is also shouting, just as loudly. I hear her say, “I stayed alive yesterday…you better not end things now.” I hear her screaming that.
There are three versions of me. Yesterday’s version, tomorrow’s version, and today’s. I am constantly stuck in the middle of the past and future versions of me pleading for today’s version to just hang on. They are very stubborn. I don’t want to disappoint either of them. I must stay alive.
6. I mailed my gun to an out-of-state friend.
Remember when I said I had a safety plan up above? Yeah? Well, here’s how it played out earlier this year. I was feeling extremely suicidal. I had a tremendous amount of emotional pain from a very specific incident. I laid curled-up in bed and wondered if the pain of all this shit was worth it. I decided that it might not be. I decided that even if it was worth it, it would just be really easy to not have to deal with the pain and make my exit premature. I was imagining a life without me in it. Not one that I never inhabited…this wasn’t a ‘Jimmy-Stewart’s-angel-gets-his-wings’ moment…but one where I could just leave quickly and quietly and without any fanfare. A long, pensive moment where I could imagine an existence without trouble, inconvenience, or disappointment. I liked that idea. I liked it a little too much.
I keep a Glock 9mm handgun in the Airstream with me. It’s unloaded and safely tucked away. The ammunition is also stored separately from the handgun and is also safely tucked away. As I began to imagine this life void of troubles, I began to ideate heavily on the handgun. I know how to use it very well. I had even needed to put our family dog down with it just a few years prior. I knew how it worked and I had already dispatched a life with it. My hands are no stranger to the splatter of warm blood. If these thoughts are gruesome for you to read, then consider yourself fortunate.
In the end I decided to retrieve the Glock from its case, tear it down and remove the barrel from the slide. Before I did that disabling maneuver, I paused and held it, just briefly. I locked back the slide, checked the chamber and magazine to make sure they were all empty and racked the slide, cocking the trigger. I dry-fired the weapon and the click of the trigger was followed by an indescribable silence. I couldn’t feel my heart beating. I was holding my breath. Everything was quiet. Realizing in the moment what I had done, I quickly removed the slide and took out the barrel. The next day I mailed it to a friend of mine who is keeping it locked in her safe for me. She is part of my core group of people. Her life has been touched by suicide as well and she understands the seriousness of the business at hand. I knew I could confide in her my thoughts and actions and that she would help protect me from myself, free from any judgement. She knows the pain of losing someone to suicide. I must stay alive.
7. I am just now able to understand my trauma.
During the past year of schooling we have been taught about trauma. I have gotten a more complete understanding of what different forms of trauma can look like and how they can manifest as behavior or thought patterns in adults. I have also been forced to look inward and analyze my own life in ways that have been extremely painful, yet amazingly cathartic. As I am understanding my own trauma, I am able to organize it somewhat sequentially and put events in order that were before quite nebulous.
I have led a life of relative privilege, yet at the same time I am forced to recognize that I have also led a life with major points of trauma. I am understanding my trauma and how it has played out in various ways in my life. I am able to own my life experience on my own terms and I am not held hostage by it. Instead of being a victim of my life events, I am now able to use them as points of information, awareness, and understanding. It can help to inform the life experiences of others as they are shared with me. On occasion, I have met with clients whose life path has mimicked mine in nearly every regard. Instead of being emotionally activated and react negatively by my own past, I am able to hold my experiences aside and sit with the client in their own moment of crisis.
My trauma has shaped who I am. My trauma does not become my ultimate destiny however and I can work proactively to try to undo the effects of much of it. I cannot erase it all, but the parts that remain can be contained in a healthy manner. Understanding my trauma also helps me to form empathy for those individuals, groups, and institutions that have either created or maintained its presence. In some instances, my increased empathy has decreased my anger. I have been able to process other’s behavior within the context of their own life and even some of their own trauma. Understanding systematic oppression and rejection has allowed me to reclaim power from institutions who denied me my own reality and legitimate existence. I am unable to travel back in time to relive my life on my own terms. That would be an impossible reality to expect. Instead, I am able to live my life moving forward with enjoyment which is free from shame and guilt resulting from prior trauma. I must stay alive.
8. I have a hope that there might be a light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.
I’m finally starting to cut through the fog of everything. When I say everything, I really mean it. Every. Single. Thing. I am questioning everything I’ve been taught, everything I’ve learned, every relationship I’ve ever had, every breath I’ve ever taken (OK…maybe not to that literal of a level…). But for real I’ve had to follow the Admonition of Yoda, which is to say, “You must unlearn what you have learned.” The buzz-word of 2017 has been “deconstructed”, but that’s exactly what I’ve done with my life in nearly every way imaginable.
I am reassembling the pieces on my own terms and at a measured pace. I am finding that slowness is excruciating, but necessary. I am seeing that my life has hope and can have some truly meaningful purpose. It did in the past, and I do not discount the big things which I was able to do. It does not mean that I have jettisoned every relationship I have had in the past, because there are many that are critically important to me. It means simply that I am unloading myself from the burden of other people’s expectations of me and I am creating my own. In that self-determined life that I am the author of, I am saving a good chunk of blank pages toward the end that I am reserving for there to be a bright future that is full of light. Those pages haven’t been filled in yet. They are at the end of my metaphorical unlined Moleskine notebook and are wrapped up with a white satin ribbon to be filled out when the time is right.
As I am working through my own stuff, dissecting my soul on a cycle that is frequent and lengthy, I am able to pluck out the parts that are not helpful to me and toss them into the proverbial cleansing pyre. Those things that are left are visible for me to inspect frequently and sift through them in an ongoing process that I hope will never fully end. I feel like I am Jiro making sushi. Finding the perfect rice. Finding the perfect piece of tuna belly. Finding the perfect water. I am like Heizer on his lifelong quest for the perfect 340-ton boulder. Like both Jiro and Heizer, I believe that these seemingly impossible objects are worthy of the chase. This journey of personal introspection and cleansing is worth engaging, even necessary to a healthy life, particularly if that life is devoted to helping others heal. It is the path that is as important as the arrival. Perhaps even more so. I am in the process of discovering my personal Ikigai. I must stay alive.
9. I have more photographs yet to make.
For the majority of my life I have been a photographer. I have worked on hundreds of commercial projects and a dozen or so of my own personal long-term bodies of work. Even though the current period of my life is devoted to learning how to become a therapist and implementing a dramatic change of life, I am still a practicing photographer and am making images when and how I can. I have put many of my projects on hold. Some of them have been as long as 25 years in the making and are still unfinished. Some as recent as three years old are continuing to mold my therapeutic practice.
I have also been a photographic educator. For six years, I taught adjunct photography in Utah at some very fine institutions. I have enjoyed my time as a teacher and professor and truly yearn to return to the photographic classroom at some point. How that looks in the future remains to be seen. How I can incorporate my new career choice of therapist and my past careers of photographer and educator have me very excited. I have seen it in various ways in past classes and I am enthusiastic about developing some classes in the future that can combine the various paths I have worn in the sod of life.
I am also excited about the idea of becoming an entirely new type of photographer. I am retraining my brain to think in new ways. To consider new viewpoints. To see things much differently than I have in the past. I have an entire storage unit in Utah that is filled to the brim with camera equipment, supplies, film, paper, chemicals, and my entire archive. My life’s work is contained in a 12x20 foot box nestled in the Wasatch. One day I will rebuild my darkroom and studio and engage once again in my story telling. That has been my preferred method of photography in the past. I am eagerly waiting to see what stories I will want to tell in the coming years. I must stay alive.
10. I don’t want to disappoint people that I wasn’t strong.
I have been blessed with a tremendous network of friends. It is broad and wide and it is becoming more diverse every day. When people I meet hear my life’s story and its cycle of loss and gain, I am told repeatedly how much they admire me. I have been told many times, “You are my hero…inspiration…role model…” I am beginning to get people who turn to me for advice about important things in life. Apparently, I have something interesting to say and to share. I do believe this is true on a small scale, but I’m not sure I see it to the level that many around me do.
We need to be careful who we put on a pedestal. Use caution when you use the phrase “You are my hero”. The person hearing it generally doesn’t want to hear it. I know this is true because I have had many frank and candid discussions about this very thing with the people that I actually do put on a pedestal. It is a good reminder not to place people there. It is a lot of pressure to have people begin to put you on a pedestal. Honestly, I have done nothing…let me repeat this…nothing to deserve being put on a pedestal. I have merely survived.
The heartbreak that would be felt by those people who have supported me so far in my life by me ending my own, is frightening to me. I do not wish to inflict that type of pain onto anyone. This is a similar motivation that comes from not wishing to harm my own children. I am a people pleaser by nature and I want to make everyone like me. Deep down, that is a core need of mine that is a result of early child and infant trauma. I am learning to cope with the need to please everyone and I’m understanding the power of boundaries and the strength that is contained in the word “no.” That being said, the potential hurt from causing others pain keeps my heart beating. I must stay alive.
11. I like good food too much. I would miss it.
I really love food. All kinds of food. I spent nearly 3 years in South Korea and I love cucumber kim-chi with every fiber of my being. I’ve never met a raw fish I didn’t like. Keto-be-dammed, I love my sour-dough bread. My favorite truck is neither Ford nor Chevy…it’s Taco. I have cases and cases of Mexican Coca-Cola that populate my dreams. I am relearning to enjoy the taste of water. There is an Italian Cookbook I want to write that will require me to eat a lot of food from Italy. I must stay alive.
12. I have a size-10 skirt I really want to wear again.
This is not a mistake that the love for food and the size-10 skirt are back-to-back. I have this battle with myself like so many others do. This love for eating and this desire to be thin. I am not immune from the apparent dichotomy these to ideas seem to create. But, the truth is, I want to live long enough to fit into this particular skirt. It’s nothing fancy. It’s just a size-10 pencil skirt. Right now, I’m a begrudging 14 because I’m at my winter fighting weight (or so I tell myself). I’m usually a 12. I’ve been, for a short time, a 10. I liked being a 10…in size at least.
I will never be 5'8”, 105 pounds, and thin enough to snap in two. The reality is much different. I’m a 5'11” Amazon that can hide the extra 25 pounds I’m carrying around pretty easily. Yes, I know I’m fitting into all the stereotypical body-image issues that women and girls have been fighting for years. Guess what? I’m no different. Body-dysmorphia is a real thing. I get it. I understand it. I have it. All the time. I cannot escape it.
I secretly wish I had an eating disorder. I really do. At one point during that first of two-years living in South Korea, I got an intestinal parasite. Yep…I had a tapeworm. It was a miracle. I lost at least 20 pounds off of my then 19-year old thin-as-a-rail frame. I have often wondered how I could raise another tapeworm in a healthy, loving, symbiotic relationship. I would promise to keep it well fed and happy. In return I would only ask that I fit into my size-10 skirt. I am not sure a tapeworm is a realistic dream. Nevertheless, I must stay alive.
13. I’m finally starting to like myself.
If you know me you know that I have a very difficult time accepting compliments. I use a metaphor where I take your compliment or your nice words and I hold them close just for a second, then I put them over there in a basket. Then I push the basket away from me. Just out of reach. Then I stretch a little farther and push it way out of the way. I like to keep your kind words and compliments away from me. If I don’t have them in my possession they cannot be taken away from me. If they are removed from me and they weren’t truly mine, then the pain is lessened. It can’t hurt to have something withdrawn that wasn’t emotionally mine already. Of course, this is all a ruse. But not really. Try to give me a compliment and you will find that I immediately deflect it back to you or onto other people. I have a few select friends that are helping me work through this. I take their compliments genuinely. I hold onto them for a while longer than most. I am practicing keeping them warm and close and not putting them into the basket. This has taking a very long time to get to this point. Years, in fact.
My inability to accept a compliment stems from attachment issues formed in the earliest months of childhood. I am learning that the first six months of my life were turbulent and full of periods of attachment and separation. There are at least five weeks of my life where I do not know where I lived. I do not know, other than being in the care of the State of California, who took care of me. There is a black hole of my earliest days and there are emotional and developmental issues as a result. One of them is my incredible lack of self-worth. My primitive brain was given messages repeatedly that I was not worthy of being held. When I became attached to one person, that person would either abandon me or not be invested in me emotionally whatsoever.
When I finally arrived at the place where I was to be held permanently, I was adopted into a home that was in the middle of recovering from serious trauma. There had been a death of an infant in the home within the prior two years. I do not know how that affected me because I have not been told much regarding the environment in the home at that point. I have a gut feeling that my presence in the home was more triggering than healing. I have stood outside that home several times looking at the walls and wondering what was going on inside at that period of time. I do not have any answers at all.
As I am working through those events chronologically and making sense of them, I am literally healing my brain from trauma. I am using the events of my adoption as my current photographic essay and it is bringing some degree of understanding. Feeling calm regarding that tumultuous period of my life is also increasing my degree of empathy. Empathy for my birth mother, who at nineteen, single, unemployed, and in college, struggled to take care of a newborn infant that she was ill-prepared for. Empathy for the state system that took me in and more than likely did the best job it could considering the circumstances. The Summer of Love was 1967 and I was born in late September of 1968. I wonder if I am the fall-out of the bohemian and hippie subculture that was so prevalent in San Francisco at that time. I am also developing empathy for my adopted mother who was surely reeling from the death of her infant daughter to SIDS which resulted in my adoption. I do not know the emotional state in the home at that time, as it is a topic of conversation that she refuses to have with me.
Contextualizing my life is teaching me many lessons. One of them is that I have intrinsic worth regardless of the actions or beliefs of others. I am worthy of the space I occupy in the Universe simply because I am. I am who I am regardless of what I possess or the notable things I have achieved. I am who I am due to the nature of who I know I am, how I behave to myself and to others. Deconstructing everything includes deconstructing me.
Rebuilding me is hard work. In this work are many twists and turns. I compare my life right now to being a dry leaf that is blown into the meandering stream. I have very little control how it turns out, so I accept it for what it is, and where it will go far-off in the distance. So far I like what I see. I still have many leftover warts, but I am processing them appropriately I believe. Some will just take time to work out the kinks. There is a lot of living to do. I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep. I will also most certainly burn and rave at close of day. I must stay alive.
December 31, 2017
This was originally published as a blog post.