See You in Hell, My Friend

by

J.C. Schildbach

An impulse buy one morning, exhausted and mildly intoxicated. I worked nights, and so did she—back when we worked at the same place. Whiskey in the morning isn’t all that unusual when morning is your evening…and drinking a lifestyle choice.

I didn’t make the connection until I got it in the mail and thought, ‘Why the hell did I buy this?’

It was a screen-printed sweatshirt, a mock-Christmas sweater, featuring a modified version of the “Sigil of Baphomet”—an inverted pentagram, with the head of “The Goat of Mendes” inside, and the Hebrew for “Leviathan” spelled out, one character between each point of the star.

a-baphomet-xmas

But where was I going to wear this? I wasn’t going to any Christmas parties, and haven’t been in the mood to wear any sort of provocative T-shirts since, maybe, my Dead Kennedy’s “Too Drunk to F*ck” shirt back when I was in college.

Wait…there was also “Thanks a lot, God”…which I printed and sold…a friend’s design.   And a few more are springing up now, including some fart jokes and worse. Let’s just say that within the last decade…wait…I thought of something else. Ok…moving on.

Eventually the fog lifted…Winnie the Pooh worshipping Baphomet…that’s the post she messaged me not four days before she died in her sleep. It came across as a still image, although it was supposed to be a .gif—an altered version of Pooh exercising in front of a mirror.

pooh-baphomet

Her death wasn’t expected at all. She’d had health problems—but not of the terminal kind, as far as I knew—and apparently, as far as she knew.

It wasn’t until roughly two months after she died (and at least 5 months before I ordered that sweatshirt) that the memorial service was held, on her birthday, in the early evening sun of Golden Gardens Park in Seattle.

I was reminded that night that we all know people in different ways. People remembered her as intense and potentially off-putting, while also supportive, nurturing, and teaching. There were tales of wild, dumpster-diving/reach-for-the-brass-ring adventures; and stories of sage advice, a kind word, a wisely snide comment.

Some minor celebrities were there…people whose work I knew, and admired.

I kept quiet…mostly.

The last time I saw her—in real life/face to face—was when we went out to breakfast at a dive up the road from where we worked. She had taken a new position, and was moving off the grave shifts we shared. We were celebrating her new position, and the end of our overnight shifts together.   We enjoyed Bloody Marys, Biscuits and Gravy, and hash browns.

(A few months later, I would move on, too, to another organization entirely).

On that morning I picked up the tab…but only because 1) I have a limited capacity for showing affection/appreciation otherwise, 2) I was essentially her supervisor on those shifts, so it only seemed right, and 3) we had a vague plan for a future gathering where she would get me back.

That final night, while slapping together a playlist on my laptop, I inadvertently started playing a song by Ghost…or Ghost B.C. if that’s how you want to be…”Year Zero”…which our other shift-mate instantly recognized (the chants of ‘demon’ names are hard to miss if you’re familiar with them—Belial, anyone?).

It didn’t take long for her to fall in love with the band. She messaged me later in the day, saying she couldn’t believe she had never heard of them before.

Yes, ours was a soft Satanism, a casual Satanism…something difficult to fathom for those who take matters of eternal life all too seriously. And out of fear of…or concern for…those very same people, I hesitated in completing this post all those months ago…shelved it, sat on it, failed to put it together once and for all.

I neglected to process the grief in a way that made sense to me…or that made sense to the friendship I had with her. I just added it to the list of other head-kicks and gut-punches I was enduring, ignoring, and stuffing…waiting for a time when I assumed the blows would stop landing, and I might be able to crawl off to a dark corner and heal.

For her part, she was Buddhist…or something like it, I suppose. We enjoyed our dark humor more than we ever engaged in any deeply spiritual or religious discussions. I’ve got no legitimate religious/spiritual label for myself. Raised Lutheran, self-converted to agnosticism. My wife accuses me of believing in ghosts, but denying they (or any other spiritual beings or energy) exist.

True enough…but also false enough.

My co-worker and I shared a penchant for self-destruction, and self-sabotage, largely tamed by age to a kind of resignation that we weren’t really capable of being bad people…although we still kept trying to prove to ourselves, and a few select others, in small, stupid ways, that maybe we were.

She was only seven years my senior…so her death still brings shock…even after the steadily-increasing numbers of deaths I experience each year, many involving people right around her age. But most of those are prefaced with diagnoses and attempts at treatment, along with the actual spectre of specific forms of death…usually cancer of one kind or another…not the vague idea of ‘health problems,’ or a good night’s sleep unexpectedly becoming an eternal sleep.

Her picture…the one distributed on postcards at the memorial service, the lyrics to Patti Smith’s “Memorial Song” (“It is true I heard/God is where you are”) printed on the other side, is propped up on my desk at home…a reminder of…what? Not to blow off life? A reminder of the idea that we’re all gonna die sometime…maybe soon?

desk-cyndee

I don’t know

It’s there.

It makes me smile.

Sometimes it scares me into thinking I better get off my ass…but not necessarily acting on that scare.

But, always, it brings me back to that same, old, silly idea…born of tauntaun rides, and sub-par 80s metal…

(Then) I’ll see you in hell, (my friend).

Imagine Han Solo fronting Grim Reaper, or Steve Grimmet, clad in a red, pleather jumpsuit, heading out into the rapidly-dropping temperature of Hoth…or don’t. I really need to learn how to work with Photoshop to get these images out into the world…or not.

At any rate, “See you in hell” isn’t an insult or a threat, but a badge of honor among those who carry themselves as…well, I suppose ‘antiheroes’ is as close as I’m going to get…the people plugging along, trying to do good in spite of themselves…not bucking to be perfect—because who the hell cares about that?—but struggling to be human in a way that supports all other humans, or as many of them as we can tolerate, and…well…all those other damned living things.

So, yeah…

I’ll see you in hell, my friend.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Suicide at the Oscars, part one: ‘Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1’

by

J.C. Schildbach, LMHC

The topic of suicide came up in at least three acceptance speeches at the latest edition of the Academy Awards on February 22, 2015. (Okay, yeah, I’m late to the party again). And perhaps even more astonishingly, two of those acceptance speeches were actually related to films about suicide prevention hotlines. First up is the documentary, Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. (A post about the short film, The Phone Call will follow soon).

Having spent more than five years working full time for a crisis line, and continuing to work in a position sideways from, and occasionally overlapping with, such work, I can’t help but come to these films with something of a bias.

As a matter of fact, I first saw a portion of Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1 on a Sunday morning after coming home from an overnight shift at a call center where the crisis line calls represent only one of many mental health functions with which the staff is tasked. Having spent the bulk of my work week on understaffed shifts, I was perhaps a bit resentful at flipping on the TV to see a scene what Bob Hosk, one of the Veterans Crisis Line supervisors who features prominently in the documentary, described as “five hours here at the hotline” utilizing “about four personnel to help one guy.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think it’s great that the resources were available and the effort was made, with (spoiler alert) a positive outcome for an active duty service member in Hawaii.

In the time since I first saw that segment of the documentary, I’ve become more familiar with the workings of the military in addressing the epidemic of suicide among veterans and service members, and will say it is truly impressive to see the complete change that has taken place over roughly the last two decades—from an approach to suicide and mental health issues that could be described as ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ to one of increasing and highly-promoted access to counseling services, to working with suicide prevention specialists and investing in the crisis line depicted in the documentary, among many other avenues.

But, back on that summer morning, knowing that in similar situations (an unknown caller making a vaguely suicidal statement, then hanging up) rather than having a specific staff member on shift to call a special “law enforcement” phone number at cell phone company to get information on the caller’s location by pinging cell phone towers, and then being able to devote ‘five hours and four personnel’ to find the caller, whichever one of us took the call would typically end up trying to call back, and, failing any respone from that, doing a quick Internet search on the phone number (like they show in the documentary) and then making a call to 911 dispatch in whatever location the phone number (probably) originated, to report that somebody had called and threatened suicide—‘no, we don’t have a name; we don’t have an address; we don’t know how they might do it or if they tried anything yet; we don’t know if there are weapons involved; no, we don’t know much of anything about anything—we’re following our protocol, sorry to bother you.’ Then on to the next call—which could range from a hospital social worker inquiring about a client’s mental health history, to a client with chronic mental illness telling us about his dinner, to someone struggling to get help for a family member with a mental illness, to…

In the case of Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, my sense is that the caller from Hawaii was truly coming from a place of desperation, and, perhaps, wasn’t aware of other options available to him, or just what sort of response might kick in as the result of the call he made. He may have thought that by hanging up, he could just drop the whole matter. He may have scared himself simply by voicing the thoughts he was having about ending his life, and so tried to walk away from that.

But beyond my initial reaction to the portion of the film I saw back on that sunny Sunday morning, and my somewhat-tempered-by-time-and-new-information response now, I have mixed reactions to the film.

I’ll say that, overall, I think it’s an excellent depiction of some of the most challenging types of work that happen at crisis lines, and at the Veteran’s Crisis Line Center in particular, which the film notes “is the only call center in the U.S. serving veterans in crisis.” (A more accurate description would be that it is the only call center in the U.S. specifically established to serve veterans, and specifically engaging the particular protocols of that call center in order to assist veterans. Any crisis line in the U.S. will take calls from veterans, and do what they can to help. Call centers affiliated with Lifeline routinely take calls from veterans and their families, in part because the callers don’t always ‘press 1’ when prompted to get transferred specifically to the Veterans Crisis Line Center. And, while Lifeline workers typically will explain to such callers that they have not reached the veteran’s line, they always offer to help.)

Semantics aside, not all calls to a crisis line are life and death—or even crises. Each time the phone rings, it’s not a given that the caller is a someone on the verge of taking her/his life, or a family member of such a person. But you wouldn’t know that from watching this film. You only get the slightest whiff of the lighter calls, when, early on, the camera moves through the call center, the sound of constantly ringing phones and poignant snippets of dialog, reaching the microphones at just the right time: “really proud of you…Where were you stationed?..So twice you tried to hang yourself before?…Do you want me to send someone there for you?…Did you get injured while you were out on active duty?…diagnosed with PTSD?…If there’s anything we can do for you…”

Okay, so those don’t come across as all that light. That particular scene is one of many subtle manipulations used by the filmmakers—layering audio to create a particular impression of an “always on” call center. For the sake of drama, the filmmakers leave out audio involving callers who are just seeking information or non-emergency services. They leave out the repeat callers who are really just touching base and giving a brief synopsis of their day. They leave out those calls having any of a number of angles that aren’t even remotely related to suicide.

The filmmakers also choose to escalate the drama in a completely unnecessary way. For instance, the music, most often quiet, involves drawn-out, high-pitched tones that add to the tension viewers are meant to feel—as if trying to talk a stranger out of suicide isn’t drama enough.

I love this woman: Maureen--Crisis Line Responder, Extraordinaire

I love this woman: Maureen–Crisis Line Responder, Extraordinaire

On top of that, the final segment of the film takes place on Christmas Eve. The scene opens with outside shots of the call center at night, American flag flying, trees wrapped in colorful, twinkling lights, as a soft jazz version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” plays–the song adding a sting of dark humor with it’s ‘all our troubles will be miles away’ and ‘let your heart be light’ emotions. The timing of the scene was undoubtedly selected because of the heightened emotions many viewers are likely to have around the idea of a “Christmas miracle” or notions of family togetherness at the holidays. But it also serves to reinforce the popular, but ill-informed, notion that ‘the holidays’—Christmas in particular—are a time of heightened depression and increased suicide, an impression reinforced by a shot of the notepad where the crisis responder has written a quote from a suicidal veteran: “Holidays are depressing.”

There are other things that could be taken as manipulation, but which I think were not only clinically sound decisions, but also place the focus where the documentarians wanted it: on the people working at the crisis line. Not hearing the callers, for instance–while likely done just as much for clinical reasons, as for legal and artistic reasons–provides for greater control over how the information will be presented to the audience, and also removes any impressions viewers might have of the callers based on their voices, or the tones they are using.  While I obviously don’t know the specifics of how any of the callers in the documentary spoke or sounded, anybody who has spent time working on a crisis line knows that many of the callers can come across in a way that, shall we say, challenges empathy. Responders need to be aware of the potential biases they bring to calls, and need to develop skills for de-escalating and connecting with difficult callers. At any rate, difficult or not, hearing the callers’ voices would create a completely different film.

Still, one of the most valuable aspects of the film is in giving voice to the crisis line responders, not only in their moments of calm where they appear to be completely in control, but when they are giving voice to frustrations as well. During one call, Robert, a veteran himself, complains that the response time from police is “ridiculous.” In a separate interview segment, Robert expresses the anger that crisis line responders can feel toward callers: “How dare you take your own life?” But part of the reason Robert’s rawness comes across in a potentially endearing fashion is that the filmmakers also let him speak about his struggles with questions of his own abilities, whether or not he has made the right decisions, or whether he made them in time—questions born of situations where the interventions failed.

There are other responders in the film with whom I had a harder time connecting—feeling a sense of kinship, or understanding their particular reactions, or the ways they tried to connect with callers. I don’t want to dwell too much on my snotty, hypercritical reactions, though—or even mention them in any specificity. For one thing, I know only a very limited amount about what was happening in those particular situations. And I don’t know how those people move about in daily life, or in their routine work at the crisis line.

But why I will most back away from potentially harsh or nitpicky-sounding criticism of any of the responders is because I can’t imagine having to work a crisis call with the knowledge that cameras are on me, and that whatever I do could end up on HBO.

That said, there is one responder in particular, Maureen, who comes across as the undoubted ‘star’ of the film. Little is explained about Maureen or her background, except, perhaps, that she reveals that she has sons, as she is complimenting a caller on her handling of a difficult situation.

Beyond that, Maureen demonstrates the perfectly complicated balance of compassion and detachment that is rare in crisis line workers. She is able to connect to the callers, but does not get visibly drawn into the drama, despite mentioning calls that ‘stay with you.’ Early on, we hear her say, “It’s ultimately the veteran’s decision if they are going to live or die…and as a responder, you have to have a really good grasp of that.” Truer words have never been spoken.

Maureen is able to deliver lines of perfect connection to callers–lines that may seem odd to those unfamiliar with such situations. After asking a caller about how his friend (who died in combat) would react to news of the veteran’s suicidal intent, she listens for a bit, then says, “He’d kick your ass? So he’s a good friend.” Maureen is able to drably ‘contract for safety’ with callers, getting them to promise that they at least won’t kill themselves while they are on the line with her, and then works to expand on that promise.

Maureen is the responder featured in the final scene of the movie—the one that takes place on Christmas Eve. Against this backdrop of heightened emotion, she is tasked with drawing a soldier with a gun out of the desert, and back to his parents, despite much of his life unraveling. She is further challenged by limitations on her involvement—having to direct the veteran’s mother on how to bring him home, and then sitting silently, listening, and hoping it all works out.

In the end, Crisis Line: Veterans Press 1 leaves much to contemplate—whether from a clinical or technical perspective—or any of the other myriad perspectives that could be brought to the film. It is incredibly effective in that it is able to provoke a range of emotions, and could, potentially, be used as a tool for training crisis line workers and volunteers, service members and their families, or really anyone who wants a better understanding of how crisis lines work, how the mental health system can be accessed, or how the military is responding to concerns of suicide among its ranks.

It remains to be seen if the film will help draw more workers and volunteers to crisis services, or perhaps scare more of them off. And this is where I have the most difficulty with the film. How much is too much when trying to convey the intenstity of real-life situations? What level of manipulation and film-making technique serves to create understanding, and what level serves to drive only emotional response?

Granted, the vast majority of people who see Crisis Line: Veterans Press 1 will never work in a crisis line call center. But, there’s always a chance they might need one.

So (obligatory ending)…

If you are concerned that somebody you know may be struggling with thoughts of suicide, call (or get them to call) the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255—Veterans Press 1.

A Christmas Wishbone

by JC Schildbach, LMHC

Christmas morning, I found myself cleaning the remains of a chicken and stuffing out of the Crock Pot, to make way for the roast I was going to crock—which I suppose made it a crock rather than a roast.

As I scooped stuffing from the pot, and rent that flightless bird’s flesh from its bones, I came across a fully intact wishbone. I paused in my work, rinsed the wishbone, and set it on the kitchen windowsill.

Not quite a partridge in a pear tree, but you take what you can get.

Not quite a partridge in a pear tree, but you take what you can get.

Continuing on with the operation, packing the chicken and stuffing away, neat and tidy in Pyrex containers, then prepping the roast…er, crock…the tradition of wishbones rolled around in my head. I’m not talking about the origins of the whole wishbone thing—where it came from, who was first to practice it, but rather, the more personal memories around it.

I can’t say as I have a whole lot of specific personal memories around wishbones. I know if mom was cooking a chicken, then there would be at least a minor squabble around who would get the wishbone—or, perhaps more accurately, when somebody found the wishbone, there would be a minor dispute around who would get to break it with the lucky discoverer. If one of my older brothers came across it, there would be inevitable teasing, just to see if they could get a rise out of one or more of us.

And then there was that time I won the wishbone-breaking contest and was rewarded almost instantly with the new bike I had wished for, and then felt bad because I could’ve wished that my cousin Brad’s hypochondria would be cured instead.

Okay, that never happened.  I don’t even have a cousin Brad.

I thought on how I had witnessed my kid and her best friend, when they were probably about seven years old, engage in the wishbone-breaking contest immediately on finding one during dinner, despite my having never taught/explained it to my kid. There is, perhaps, some lesson in there about kids picking up all kinds of things beyond the specifics of what their parents teach them, but I’m not really sure what to make of that, or its importance. Weird things permeate the culture? I failed in this particular instance of ensuring that I was the one to pass a bizarre superstition on to my offspring?

I briefly entertained the question of whether two people could conspire to wish the same thing, thereby increasing the chances of the wish coming true. After all, so long as they didn’t speak of it afterward, they couldn’t truly know what the other had wished. A wishbone technicality would still invoke the magic—right?

At any rate, as soon as my wife got up from her mid-morning nap, and got herself a cup of coffee, I presented her with the wishbone. She immediately grabbed hold.  I warned her she needed to think on her wish. She closed her eyes briefly, then gave me the nod.

It was on.

After a few seconds, she remarked on how the wishbone was too wet (from its days packed in chicken-fat-soaked stuffing at the bottom of a crock pot) and not likely to break.  She relaxed her effort. There was a brief pause where I hadn’t quite processed what she said or did, and continued on with the match. Then, just as I followed her lead, conceding that the wishbone was, perhaps, too saturated to complete the fight, she resumed the pull, and…snap. She won. Was it a brilliant strategy, or dumb luck? I didn’t ask, just conceded. Victory was hers.

Victory is hers!

Victory is hers!

I like to believe she wished for something like I wished for…you know, that silly garbage about another year of relative happiness, good health, and enough stuff.

Still, I daren’t ask. Because maybe she did wish for that same silly garbage. Or maybe she wished for world peace. Or maybe she wished for a new bike.  Or maybe something much better…or much worse.

But whatever it was, I don’t wanna jinx it.

 

 

Teddy in a Dress, Broadway Joe in the Toilet

By J.C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP

As with so many largely pointless childhood stories, the exact why and how of Mego Joe Namath ending up in the toilet are lost to time, blurred in a haze of retelling and embellishment, and perhaps a heavy dose of blame-shifting.

I’ve always carried a sense that whatever bad happens to me, I am somehow deserving of it, usually because I can trace a path through the exact actions I took that led to the consequences. When it comes to arguments with siblings, those paths are usually pretty clear.

With Mego Joe Namath, the clarity’s not there, perhaps due to my own desire to forget.

Mego was a company that once largely had the corner on the action-figure market, manufacturing all of the DC and Marvel superhero dolls, most of which were crafted with identical bodies—the hands, feet, and heads the only variable parts—with clingy, fabric, footy-pajama-like costumes to provide the rest of the customization. Anyone familiar with Cartoon Network’s “Robot Chicken” has seen plenty of Mego toys.

Mego Joe Namath, who had a decidedly different style of dress compared to the superheroes, was a birthday gift from my paternal grandmother. It was totally unexpected, given that she usually only sent cards with checks or cash for birthdays, and a Hickory Farms gift pack as a family gift at Christmas—something that, to this day, makes it mandatory for me to include summer sausage in my Christmas Eve festivities. Mego Joe Namath was also totally unexpected because I had zero interest in football—and may not have even known who Joe Namath was at the time.

Broadway Joe ponders the great mysteries of memory and intent.

Broadway Joe ponders the great mysteries of memory and intent.

I like to attribute my sense of confusion over the story of Mego Joe Namath to my grandmother’s penchant for revisionist history, as if some of her mojo got on that Joe Namath doll, and made it impossible for me to own up to the specifics of what happened. A refugee, along with my grandfather, to the U.S. of A. just prior to WWII, grandma squished and squashed the family history into something palatable for that era, and then for a later era, the story always holding too many contradictory elements for anybody who knew more than the small slice she was dishing up at any particular time. And, I should also note, I don’t know that grandma was the source of the stories. I just don’t know who else to blame.

In Grandma’s telling, we came from a line of German barons, low-level royalty of sorts, but we were also Jews, dodging Hitler by changing our name from Schildberg to Schildbach.  I’m not sure which part of the story is harder to swallow–that a Jewish family attained noble status in Germany, or that our family’s heavy Lutheran leanings were born of a conversion of convenience–a cover story that resulted in such a complete abandonment of our heritage that the family attended church–well, religiously–and my father became a pastor. We were Nazi fighters, or fighters of Nazis.  Or perhaps we were communist fighters, or fighters of communists. And maybe, just maybe, we were Nazis fighting the communists, or vice versa. However it turns and churns, we were never whatever was bad.

And whatever happened, the family got out of Germany at a pretty good time to get…so hooray for not ending up dead for some political or religious leaning or another.

The shifts in my rememberances and interpretations of the Mego Joe Namath saga could also be attributed to my last memories of my grandmother. She had come to visit my mother’s home around Christmastime during my college years. Before I made it home for the holiday break, my younger brother had already sent notice that grandma was spending most of her time in front of the TV complaining—frequently about communists and gay people—and this was in the days before Fox News. I can only imagine what mainlining such misappropriated anger would have done for her, when a news story about the Soviet Union would send her into a grumble about how we don’t need communists on the TV at Christmas, or seeing Brian Boitano in Olympic trials would launch her into a confused rant about how “they” had accused one of my cousins of being gay—maybe she meant the United States Figure Skating Association, although that seems unlikely.

At some point, I conflated these late memories of my grandmother with why she ever would have sent me a Joe Namath doll in the first place. I figured that maybe, in my early primary school years, she had become concerned because, along with my girly curly hair, penchant for art projects, and general lack of interest in sports, I carted around a dress-wearing teddy bear named Cindy. Grandma may have decided that the antidote to such anti-masculine behavior was a doll that played football. And, speaking of things I really don’t remember, I’m not sure where the teddy bear came from, or why I was convinced it was female and asked my mom to make a dress for it, but I suspect that my sister had a strong hand in all of it.

It was also by my sister’s hand that Joe Namath ended up in the toilet. I’m sure there were numerous warnings leading up to the actual toilet incident. I just don’t remember the triggering event. It could have been that I snuck into her bedroom while she was in the shower, and played 45s on her portable record player. I thought maybe it had something to do with me stealing her Sunshine Family Farm chicken again, so I could make fart noises as I made it squeeze out eggs—but the timeline for that toy’s release placed it far too late to match up with Mego Joe’s trip to the pool. It may have been that I stole Sunshine Family dad’s sweater, so that Mego Joe Namath would have something to wear other than his football outfit—a likely possibility, given that, while Joe’s shirt went into the toilet with him, he was not wearing it.

Chances are, the event that led to Joe taking the plunge was little more than my bragging about how grandma had sent me a present but hadn’t sent one to my sister…or some other antagonistic foolishness…singing an annoying commercial jingle over and over again, calling her names, suggesting she was in love with somebody…I could be pretty damn annoying with very little effort. I can’t remember if the event took place in one fell swoop, with my sister grabbing up the doll and accessories and dropping them all in the toilet, or if it happened in stages, with me refusing to give up whatever it was I was doing that was annoying her, as she dropped items of clothing into the toilet, one by one, finally plopping Joe in as the final measure.

There is also the matter of just who hit the handle on the toilet, flushing as much as would go down—which I think was only Joe’s shirt, football, and helmet—maybe one of his shoes, too. Joe himself was spared the trip to the sewer by dint of his size, or positioning–an inability to navigate the crooks of the toilet piping.

I have a vague recollection, obscured by the lies that took place in its wake, of staring down at Joe in the toilet after my sister stomped triumphantly out of the bathroom, evil grin on her face, or maybe with her standing right there, relishing my disbelief. And as I looked, and imagined having to fish him out of the toilet to clean and dry him off, and admit my sister got the best of me—that she had completed an unspeakable act I was sure she would never dare—I was filled with anger…anger that could only be redeemed with destruction. Joe would go down, a sacrifice to Mars, and I would blame it on my sister, pleading with my mother to punish her for the destruction of such a beloved gift.

Truth is, from the time I got Mego Joe Namath, I was puzzled. What the hell did I want this for? But it was a toy, right? A gift? Something I obviously was supposed to want. And given my unnatural attachment to objects, I had to keep it. It had to mean something more than I could quite fathom. It was as important as all material things, as all toys I longed for…right?

But I believe it was me who hit that handle, not only to get my sister in trouble, but because I was finally presented with a way to get rid of that weird, incomprehensible, whatever of a gift. The guilt of trying to flush him was roughly comparable to the guilt of not wanting him in the first place. Perpetually vexed by the tension between trying to accept and do what adults expected of me, and the desire to just melt down or blow up, I was a bit of a mess as a child…as I suspect all children are, in one way or another.

Feeling that you want what others think you shouldn’t, and that you don’t want what they think you should, is a hell of a thing.

So, Joe didn’t go, but he didn’t stay whole. And that became excuse enough for me to leave him behind…something incomplete I had an excuse to no longer play with. Back to teddy bears in dresses for me, with only a small lump of guilt for the subterfuge visited on Joe. And grandma, living several states away, never needed to know.

 

 

IT’S (not) THE MOST SUICIDAL TIME OF THE YEAR!

It’s common knowledge that the holiday season, and more specifically the days around Christmas, sees a spike in suicides.  Right?  Wrong.  Not true at all.  But lazy TV news writers and reporters, and scores of jackasses who can’t think of anything original to say, and can’t be bothered to perform a simple Internet search, repeat this same fallacy year in and year out.

Now, I could lay out a bunch of statistics for you here, but that’s boring and stupid and it will take you roughly six seconds to perform that Internet Search I just mentioned, which will turn up well over a quarter-of-a-million articles, almost all of which start off with the same, basic statistics.  Okay, jeez you lazy jackasses—click the link if you don’t believe me:  https://www.google.com/#q=Christmas+suicide+spike

The myth about Christmas-time suicides was most likely birthed by an episode of “The Brady Bunch” wherein mother Carol loses her voice, and is unceremoniously kicked out of the church choir just before Christmas.  Youngest daughter Cindy prays to a mall Santa, who manages to deliver the Christmas miracle of snow in Southern California on Christmas, but can do nothing for Carol’s voice.  On the afternoon of Christmas Eve, Carol is locked in her bedroom, knocking back snifter after snifter of Brandy, and wrapping presents.  As she finishes using the scissors to curl a ribbon, the song Carol was supposed to sing in the church choir comes on the radio.  Carol begins trembling with anger, then viciously slashes at her wrists with the scissors.  A short time later (after a commercial break) housekeeper Alice, attempting to deliver fresh pillowcases to the bedroom, realizes something is amiss, and kicks in the door.   Alice uses her apron to keep Carol from bleeding out as Marcia, fresh from her driving contest victory over Greg, hilariously pilots the family station wagon through an open-air holiday market to the Emergency Room.  Once mom is medically stable, a doctor, played by a pipe-smoking Paul Lynde, tells the family in a happily sadistic voice, “You’re lucky she lived—Christmas is absolutely the worst time of year for suicides.”

(Notice there was no actual mention of a spike in suicides.)

Following the episode, the network aired a public service announcement that involved the Brady kids singing their hit single “Sunshine Day.”  Mike and Carol step into the foreground as the music softens, and say, “The holiday season can be tough.  Don’t let suicide ruin your sunshine day.  Get help.”  Strangely enough, it was revealed several years later by the Parents Music Resource Center that back-masking on another Brady Bunch hit, “Time to Change” involved the first known use of the suicide instructional phrase, “Down the street, not across the road,” voiced by one Paul Lynde.

Now that your mind is totally blown, let’s get at the heart of the matter in all this.  I don’t really care that people mistakenly think they know something about suicide in terms of just the basic issue of them being wrong.  What is problematic is the idea of normalizing seasonal suicide.  That is to say, when it is repeated over and over again that people kill themselves around Christmas, it can seem to those suffering from depression, or suffering from various other situational or seasonal forms of depression or mood disorders, or even just having normal reactions to aggressively annoying family members, that Christmas isn’t such a bad time to kill oneself.  Join the club.  It’s normal.  No big deal.  Suicidal gestures also get a pass in this form of thinking—‘maybe they’ll realize how much they’re hurting me if I hurt myself.’

Now, I’m all for normalizing suicidal thoughts—suicide not so much.  Bear with me here—I think it’s valuable for people to know that suicidal thoughts are not a rare occurrence.  Suicidal action often follows people believing they are all alone and that nobody understands them.  If people realized that suicidal ideation occurs to a lot of people, and along a scale of ‘Maybe I should talk to somebody’ to ‘Holy shit! Why am I heading out into the woods with a loaded gun and a fifth of Monarch gin?’, then they might recognize that seeking help is a good idea.  Furthermore, if more people were aware that a friend or family member expressing suicidal thoughts is not an occasion to panic or to plug one’s ears and start screaming ‘La la la—I can’t hear you!’ but an opportunity to open up a dialog and seek out help, then we could make some more progress not just on suicide, but on mental health issues in general. 

In the good ol’ U.S. of A. we love our stories of suicide, murder, and mayhem.  We love a good tragedy that we can sum up with a banal, and ill-informed comment like “Well, Christmas is when suicides occur the most.”  What we have a harder time with is actually acknowledging that we have feelings other than ‘happy’ and ‘murderous,’ and that there are plenty of things that make us sad.

A client suffering from depression recently told me that she feels that at this time of year she can’t just back out of obligations other people have placed on her.  If she would rather stay home and sleep, read, or watch a movie than go out to the seventeenth Christmas party she’s been invited to in the last two weeks, or spend Christmas Eve and Christmas day shuttling between various relatives’ houses for hectic feeding-frenzies and gift-giving-orgies, the people around her slip into panic mode—as if any expression of a desire to spend time alone is an indication she wants to go kill herself.  She attributes this insistence that she be happy and perpetually moving to the idea that Christmas is the time people kill themselves.  In short, she ends up feeling exhausted and out of sorts, because she is trying to prove to people that she is not suicidal—which, she jokingly added, just makes her want to kill herself and/or leaves her in fear that she might drop dead from exhaustion.

So…yeah…Christmas doesn’t, as a rule, provoke suicide.  And if we could all embrace the real ‘holiday spirit’ of actually connecting with each other, instead of pushing ourselves through marathon ‘base-touching’ sessions with people we ignore the rest of the year; if we could learn to communicate a range of emotions, and respond with caring, rather than indifference or panic, we might realize that because we are each dealing with our own, personal situations, all times of the year are the most wonderful time of the year (and the most depressing time of the year, and the most mundane time of the year, and…) Continue reading

THE WAR ON CHRISTMAS AND THE FIGHT AGAINST COGNITIVE DISTORTIONS

In A Charlie Brown Christmas, Linus points out to Charlie Brown that he has taken “a Wonderful season like Christmas, and turned it into a problem.”  And while I would never compare a beloved figure like Charlie Brown to ridiculous cartoon characters like Bill O’Reilly and Sarah Palin, the people who push the idea of a “War on Christmas” are engaging in that same mindset of turning a wonderful season into a problem—and all allegedly because they love it so much.

When Charlie Brown complained about Christmas, it was because, “I know nobody likes me.  Why do we need a whole holiday season to emphasize it?”  This is what we in the therapy business might call examples of thinking errors, or cognitive distortions.  Look beyond your pantophobia.  Challenge those thoughts, Charlie, and what do you arrive at?

“I know nobody likes me.”  That’s what we might call “All or nothing thinking.”  As a little hint, almost anytime you say that everybody or nobody is doing something, that’s pretty much a distortion—a false statement.  What would a challenge be to that thought, Charlie Brown?  I bet Linus might feel a little offended at being considered a “nobody,” as I doubt he would say he doesn’t like you.  He’s a pretty good friend to you, offering support at every turn.  So, there are people who like you, and you know that.

Now how about the idea that there is “a whole holiday season to emphasize” that nobody likes you?  Well, since we’ve already successfully challenged the idea that nobody likes you, the argument is already flawed, but what else?  Might we call this magnification?  It’s definitely an exaggeration, as if an entire season was there just to make you feel bad.  Is it everybody’s desire to make you feel bad that drives the holiday season, or is there something else going on?  I think your good friend Linus hits on at least one different explanation.  Lights please.

So, now it’s your turn Bill and Sarah.  How about the phrase, “War on Christmas”?  Are there any problems with this phrase?  How about magnification?  Blowing things out of proportion, kind of like Charlie Brown did?

First of all, “War” is a pretty harsh word.  In the most real sense, it means organized, focused acts of aggression and violence.  People get killed.  Property gets destroyed.  So, certainly, in the United States you can’t mean that there is, properly speaking, a war going on with Christmas as its target.

Even in its more hyperbolic meaning, as when it’s applied to a concept, the word “war” is usually attached to actions that have a demonstrable, negative impact on the thing against which the war is being waged.  For example, the “War on poverty” was intended to have specific impacts that “damage” poverty or put an end to poverty.  One might fight poverty by trying to increase employment, reduce hunger, and ensure adequate access to housing.  There is a coordinated plan of “attack” with goals to be achieved and measured.

So, maybe instead of saying that there’s a “War on Christmas” you could say, there’s a “Push for recognition of non-Christmas holidays” or maybe a “Movement to make participation in Christmas celebrations elective.”  Sure, those phrases aren’t that catchy, but they also help steer away from connecting anger and violence with Christmas, which really seems like a great goal, don’t you think?

“But…but,” you may be saying, “the War on Christmas has a demonstrable, negative impact on Christians!”  Careful, now, we don’t want to get into emotional reasoning, believing something is true just because you had a feeling related to the thought.  Let’s look at the impact the war on Christmas has on Christians in the United States.

In order to measure the tangible impacts, we would have to have some specific examples of what this War on Christmas involves.  Let’s see—there’s the matter of some stores having employees say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” and utilizing the same language in their ads.  But does that really hurt anybody who is filled with Christmas spirit and good will toward all her/his fellow human beings?  Or does it actually make sense, in the United States, a pluralistic society which was in no small part established by people looking for freedom to worship how they wanted, to expect that people will celebrate whatever holidays they want in whatever way they want?

It is hardly an insult to say “Happy Holidays,” unless you consider referring to Christmas as one of multiple holidays (which literally means “holy days”) insulting. So, what is it about “Happy Holidays” that is so offensive?  Isn’t it more offensive to establish an atmosphere in which people think that “Merry Christmas” might be a challenge—a test to see if they’ll say “Merry Christmas” back in order to avoid a fight?  What is it about Christmas that makes anyone want to start an argument, especially anyone who views Christmas as a positive thing?

So what else have we got?  Public schools deciding not to include specifically religious (Christian) songs in their “holiday” (not Christmas) music programs?  Does it really hurt you if the kids sing “Frosty the Snowman” and “Winter Wonderland” rather than “Greensleeves” and “O Come All Ye Faithful”?  Well, how about this—how many of the “War on Christmas”-endorsing crowd would be happy to find out that all the kids in the local public school had to learn a specifically Muslim song for, say, a concert in honor of Ramadan?  Or if they had to learn a Jewish song that was more religiously-based than the Dreidel Song?  Or maybe the Dreidel Song is offensive enough to anyone who actually believes that there is a war on Christmas.

So, let’s stack up the allegedly negative impacts of the “War on Christmas” against what goes on in the United States every year during the “holiday season.”  Christians, and many people who celebrate Christmas out of tradition rather than out of religious conviction, decorate their homes, and often various community gathering places.  Churches have one of their busiest times of year, including plenty of singing, praying, and programs wherein children perform religious songs and plays while dressed as shepherds, wise men, and the Holy Family.  Stores certainly decorate and make a variety of specifically Christmas-related items available.  I know I can walk into almost any major department store, and even a huge number of specialty stores and find nativity scenes of various sizes, Advent calendars, Christmas tree ornaments, Christmas cards, and on and on.  Where’s the real damage?  The destruction?  The horrible losses?

Acknowledging that other people in your community don’t share your same traditions and religion does not mean you are under attack, and definitely does not mean you are involved in a war.  To believe as much is a massive cognitive distortion, a mental filter siphoning out the good of Christmas in search of a reason to be angry rather than to be filled with joy, love, and the Christmas spirit.  People asserting their right not to be Mannheim Steamrolled by Christmas excesses are not armies or even shoe bombers, just people saying, “Hey, we’re not all like you.”

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Therapists and mental health professionals of various stripes are not automatically opposed to religion.  (And, contrary to popular belief, the holiday season is not the time of year with the most suicides, at least not the most completed suicides).  I have seen firsthand, and participated in, some of the incredible good that people of faith can accomplish.  And I think various expressions of faith and spirituality are wonderful when they are used as part of a person’s support system and coping skills.  Plenty of people derive great strength from their faith, rely on it to provide meaning in their lives, and engage it to look for the good in others.  And I’m pretty sure Jesus said something about being able to tell Christians by their love, and not by the ludicrous complaints they make in an effort to sell books.

But maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe spirituality is not intended as a source for expanding one’s view of the greatness of all creation, and one’s place in, and connection to, it, including one’s ties to one’s fellow people.  Maybe spirituality is the best tool for narrowing down one’s focus to the pettiest things one should really be angry about.  Hunger?  Economic injustice?  War?  Violence?  Why bother with addressing any of that when you can get angry about City Hall having a “holiday tree” but no manger scene, or perhaps a manger scene, but also displays for Chanukah, and Kwanzaa?

What does it do to a person when she/he uses spirituality as a source for anger at those who don’t express their beliefs in the same way she/he does?  What does it do to a person to make Christmas a source of personal anger at other people, not because she/he despises Christmas, but because she/he claims to love it?

Linus, engaging a pure sense of Christmas spirit, shows that love is transformative and life-giving.  It brings people together, and challenges their notions of separateness, selfishness, and persecution.  So, take a cue from Linus this…ahem…holiday season and engage that sense of love and joy.  You may just end up feeling less like “nobody loves me” Charlie brown, and more like “Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown.”

I WAS A MERCENARY IN THE WAR ON CHRISTMAS

I fired the missiles at the exhaust port then yanked on the reins of the goats that were pulling my sleigh, steering them up and away from the trench (goats being the sleigh-pullers of choice due to their magic-corn-induced ability to fly in space, not because of their association with certain dark lords).  They flew hard, keeping us just inches ahead of the debris from the explosion of the Christmas Star.  It was a direct hit!  We had destroyed the Christmas Star!

We knew it was just one battle—a minor setback for an enormous holiday—that another star would almost certainly be built.  But, still, we flew back to our secret outpost and had a ridiculously ornate awards ceremony at an ancient, abandoned, pagan temple.  As the Princess slipped a medal around my neck, I swelled with pride.  I thought, “Take that, Christmas!!”

* * *

Many years have passed since that first assault on the Christmas Star.  I won’t detail all that has happened in the time since, only say that I am a changed man.  Now my days of rebellion are behind me.  Still, ever a mercenary at heart, it only makes sense to go where the money is.  And the real money is on the side of Christmas.

Plus, all I have to do on this side of the war is sit around and whine and complain that people are attacking Christmas, despite the fact that it is ever-present from early October until sometime in January.  But as a white, American male, that is my birthright—to complain that traditional values are coming under attack, just because there are people in this county who don’t do the things that I do, and fail to honor my traditions while I berate theirs.

Take that, Christmas, indeed.