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.

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, Breitbart, 33,000 People ARE Killed with Guns Each Year

by

J.C. Schildbach, LMHC

There is absolutely nothing controversial about Hillary Clinton’s claim that, in the United States, “We have 33,000 people a year who die from guns”–except maybe to those who don’t understand how words and numbers work.

Yet, AWR Hawkins, breitbart.com’s “Second Amendment Columnist,” posted a “Fact-Check” column, titled “No, 33,000 Not Killed with Guns Each Year” following the third presidential debate, claiming that Clinton deliberately inflated the CDC numbers of firearm deaths by adding in suicides. This is not the first time Hawkins has posted similar complaints.

What Hawkins fails to do is explain how suicides by firearm somehow fall outside of the “33,000 people a year who die from guns.” Certainly, Hawkins must understand that somebody who uses a gun to kill him/herself is dead, and did use a gun in order to die—making that person someone who ‘died from a gun.’

Using Hawkins’ preferred language of people “killed with guns each year” still doesn’t change anything. A person who commits suicide with a firearm still was, in fact, killed with a gun.

suicide-gun-mouth

Hawkins also strikes out by putting the phrase “gun violence” in quotation marks, saying that the use of that phrase (which Clinton did not use in the quote he complains about) somehow plays into Clinton’s strategy of fooling the public. But, again, killing oneself with a firearm does qualify as “gun violence”–first of all, because it involves an act of violence; and secondly, because it involves a gun. Or you can reverse that so the gun is first and the violence is second—still doesn’t change anything.

I don’t want to get into speculation about things that Clinton didn’t say, but perhaps if she had used the phrase “gun crimes” or had referred to murders using guns, then Hawkins would have a better argument. But Clinton didn’t. So Hawkins doesn’t.

And, in case you’re wondering, the 33,000 figure is dead-on. Here’s a chart, showing the CDC numbers of gun deaths for the years 2010 to 2014 (2014 being the most recent year statistics are available) clearly showing that gun deaths have reached well above 33,000 per year for 2012, 2013, and 2014, and averaged 32,964 per year for the five-year period.

avg-gun-deaths-2010-to-2014

A handy chart of CDC statistics on gun deaths, lifted from Everytown for Gun Safety at  https://everytownresearch.org/gun-violence-by-the-numbers/

Now, I get that gun-loving Americans, including the Breitbart crowd, don’t like to believe anything negative about guns. They also don’t like to believe that they may, at some point, end up so distraught, or so deep in the throes of mental illness, that they might use their guns on themselves, and/or their family members or other loved ones—or perhaps even neighbors or random strangers.

By pushing the suicide statistics aside, or pretending they ‘don’t count’, Hawkins ignores a harsh reality here: that people who own guns tend to kill themselves with those guns far more than they kill an intruder in their home, or otherwise defend themselves from the big, bad, scary world out there. People who own guns kill themselves with those guns more often than criminals use guns to kill innocent citizens; and more frequently than ‘gang violence’ leads to gun deaths.

There is also considerable overlap in the “murder/suicide” category—where gun owners kill their significant others, family members, co-workers, or random strangers, prior to turning their guns on themselves. And because guns are such a quick and effective killing tool, the decision to use them in an act of violence on loved ones or oneself is often impulsive—a few too many bad days in a row, a bad argument following a few too many beers, or even a partner deciding they want out of a relationship, and the gun comes out as the ultimate way to put a stop to whatever is so aggravating.

As for mental illness, Hawkins’ argument becomes even less convincing in the face of all the clamoring about how we don’t have a gun problem in the U.S., but we have a mental health problem. Of course, people who make such an argument are usually talking about the mental health issues of mass shooters. Yet, if we (properly) view suicide as a mental health issue, then the numbers of firearm suicides become that much more disturbing. Gun owners kill themselves at a rate roughly twice as high as the rate of gun murders. That’s a vast mental health issue that’s not being addressed, and that is being exacerbated by guns.

Yes, I know that many of the people who want to argue in favor of guns like to point out that people who commit suicide will find the means to do so, even if you take their guns away–an argument which is demonstrably false in terms of overall lethality. There are many ways to map out the evidence showing this falsehood, including the high rate of suicide by firearm–roughly 50% of all suicides in the U.S. are completed using guns. Another way to conceptualize the difference in suicide methods is to compare suicide completion rates using firearms relative to suicide completion rates using other methods. For instance, plenty more people survive suicide attempts by overdosing on pills than survive suicide attempts using guns.

Those who are willing to brush off the connection between firearms and suicide also sometimes argue that suicide is a matter of personal freedom—of being allowed to end one’s life when one chooses. I will say that I’m not completely opposed to people being able to end their own lives on terms they choose. However, I’ve learned enough to know that people are least equipped to make that decision quickly, impulsively, or while in a deep depression (among many other factors). Very few people attempt suicide while they are thinking in the clearest of terms, or making a rational decision based on a comprehensive review of the facts.

Depression and many other forms of mental illness are notorious for their association with cognitive distortions, aka, “thinking errors”—misinterpreting the world around one, the impact one’s actions have on others, and the view other people have of one (again, among many other factors). As I’ve pointed out before, the idea that a gun keeps one safe is, itself, a cognitive distortion. The suicide-by-firearm statistics make that clear.

There is also, perhaps, a great irony here, in that Hawkins believes he is advocating for gun ownership, when the “mental health” approach to suicide prevention involves removing the means for suicide. That is, safety planning for suicide prevention involves taking away those means most likely to be used in a suicide attempt, while the person at risk for suicide gets treatment.

So, how do we address the mental health problems associated with guns and suicide? Take the guns away, at least until the person moves beyond risk for suicide. Of course, mental health treatment is not predictive. Risk factors can be weighed, and support systems assessed, but given the ease with which a person can use a gun to end her/his own life, a dip back into depression, a few more bad days, a drift away from regular engagement with one’s (positive) coping skills, and the risk can escalate once again.

Hawkins thinks he is supporting gun rights by poo-pooing the statistics on firearm deaths in the United States. But what he is actually doing is pointing out that suicide is twice as big a problem, where guns are concerned, as murder is. His solution is to pretend the people who commit suicide with guns aren’t really people who “die from guns.”

At base, he is arguing that people who commit suicide with guns aren’t really people…or perhaps aren’t really people who deserve the support to go on living.

 

Another Round: American Roulette

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

Pour another round.

Put another round in the chamber.

And let’s play another round of American Roulette.

Dizzy?  Go ahead and get off.

Dizzy? Go ahead and get off.

I’m not talking about felt and chips and all that. I’m talking about American Roulette—where we add more and more rounds, to more and more chambers, in more and more guns, point them all at our own collective head, squeeze the collective trigger, then act all surprised when anybody dies.

Then as the bodies are cooling, we start in on a round of all our favorite follow-up games.

Of course it starts with a round of “America’s Next Top Mass Murderer.” This is where media outlets decide what becomes a national story. It’s a complex formula, involving body count, victim age/status, and location. We have so many shots fired so often, in so many places, that we just can’t let any old killings grab hold of the public imagination.

Hell, the public doesn’t have enough imagination to keep up.

Adult males getting gunned down in the “bad part” of town—doesn’t rate unless there’s an insanely high body count. Okay, that’s pretty much true of any killings in the “bad part” of town.

Nightclubs—the same.

Men wiping out their families? Pffbbt! We’ve grown surprisingly numb to the idea of an “estranged husband” gunning down his wife, kids, and maybe a few additional members of his extended family. But moms gunning down their families? That just might work.

Schools—you can maybe get some traction there, although college shootings are getting pretty passé, as are high schools. Elementary schools—still pretty damn shocking.

Churches—those rate pretty high.

Movie theaters—those practically ARE churches.

So, how about grocery stores? public parks? malls? restaurants? Maybe a library or a museum? How about a nursing home? But, really, I have to defer to the experts for how to rank all of those.

Then, once we’ve determined that a mass-shooting is heinous enough to warrant a spot in the public imagination, we move to a round of “Wheel of Blame,” sponsored by the good, pro-murder folks at the National Rifle Association.

Really, it’s just another form of rigged roulette—38 spaces on the spinning wheel, at least 30 marked “mental health” or “mental illness.” When we get lucky, the wheel stops on one of the random spots marked with something we can really get mad at—like racism, or pop culture, or some “foreign” religion.

Because when the wheel lands on something we can get mad at, then we can do something symbolic in lieu of doing something that might actually lower the body count—like take down a flag that hasn’t had any business being associated with any part of ‘the government’ in the 150 years since that cluster of slavery-supporting traitors failed in their effort to destroy the Union. Or we can blame some movie, or some TV show, or some rock star for inspiring a murder spree. Or we can yell at the President to bomb ISIS, or to stop talking to Iran—because that will fix problems right here at home, where we like to kill our own.

Of course, the Wheel mostly lands on “mental health” or “mental illness” and we don’t have to do anything except say “fix the mental health system”—as if there is some magical way to grant psychotherapists the ability to pluck out those who are going to commit mass murder, plop them into a treatment program, and prevent them from ever getting their hands on all the readily-available guns and ammo out there.

But remember that when you spin that Wheel of Blame, you absolutely must avoid the spaces marked “guns”—those spots just go to the house—instant bankruptcy. Go ahead and say guns and lax laws that allow easy access to guns had a role in gun violence. You’ll get nowhere. Our gracious NRA sponsors, the politicians and media they own, and the screaming devotees of the Cult of the Shiny Metal Bang Bang will all see to that.

And even though it’s gotten pretty tired and unnecessary, we’ll run another round of “Not the Time”—wherein such insightful luminaries as draft-dodging, teen-loving, rock-n-roll has-been Ted Nugent, along with other NRA pets, can tell us that now is not the time to talk about gun control—not in the wake of such a tragedy—as they question the patriotism of anyone who would politicize the deaths of people killed by guns—oops, I mean killed by people with guns—oops, I mean killed by bad people with guns.

What’s so great about “Not the Time”—even though it’s getting really tired—is that we’re almost never more than a few days away from a mass murder, even if we are more than a few days away from a mass murder that really caught the public’s attention.

Oh, hey!  Now give it up for a round of our newest game show: “Open Carry Chucklehead Brigade”—y’know, that trending ritual where gun enthusiasts decide to go stand outside recruitment centers, or in malls, or near schools, or wherever the latest killing took place, brandishing their big, long weapons out of some bizarre sense that such behavior is supportive of those who are suffering the aftermath of gun violence. Hey…uh…guys…we’ve all been talking, and…uh…nobody feels safer because of your presence. For most people, a group of sweaty guys standing around with big guns does not look like safety. It looks like a meeting of the local chapter of the Future Mass Murderers of America.

I know there are plenty of rounds of plenty of other games I’ve left out—like the obligatory round of “False Equivalencies” (people die from using cars, and knives, and dental floss, and ice cream, and…), and the round of “Enforce The Laws That Already Exist” (as if the NRA hasn’t already made sure that most of those laws have no teeth), and the round of “There Are Already Too Many Guns Out There to Fix the Problem” (got it–too tough, don’t try!). But, damn! Those games are getting so dreadfully boring.

So, where were we?

Oh, yeah—pour another round.

Somebody else is picking up the tab.

Or maybe you are.

Pam Geller’s Free Speech Chum

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

Two heavily armed, body-armor-clad, wannabe-jihadists shooting a security guard in the ankle and then getting picked off by a pistol-wielding traffic cop in a parking lot outside a cartoon contest in small-town Texas is not, as Pam Geller would have us believe, some kind of religious war in the United States. Rather, it was Geller’s own failed effort to start a larger fight.

Before I go any further, let me state up front that Geller, along with everybody else in America, has every right to say whatever paranoid, delusional things she wants to say about the inevitable imposition of Sharia Law and the ensuing mandatory ‘honor killings’ by our ‘secret Muslim’ President. She also has every right to hold a cartoon contest deliberately designed to insult a particular group of people over their religious views. Said group of people, or any of its members, has the right to fight back with words, logic, cartoons or delusional rants of their own—but not with bullets, bombs, or knives.

Let me also point out that some people have stated that there are prohibitions against engaging in speech that is designed to incite people to violence. But that doesn’t really apply in this case. If Geller held a rally where she encouraged the attendees to go out and physically attack somebody, then she would be inciting people to violence. Saying something to deliberately offend somebody is not inciting that person (or group) to do anything. Their reaction is entirely up to them.

That said, Geller sailed into Garland, Texas, along with Dutch politician Geert Wilders, to hold a cartoon contest intended to insult Muslims over their belief that the Prophet Muhammad should not be depicted in any physical form—much less in any deliberately offensive form. (Judaism and Christianity, among other religions, have similar prohibitions written into their holy books regarding depictions of holy figures, but plenty of Christians really like pictures and statues of Jesus—unless they’re offensive, in which case they call for bans on whoever made them, whatever paid for them, and whoever hung them on a wall).

Geller’s reason for holding the event at a community center in Garland was apparently related to a Muslim event held there earlier in the year, called “Stand with the Prophet in Honor and Respect,” an event which had been held in Chicago the previous year. In 2015, the “Stand with the Prophet” event had the unfortunate coincidence of having been scheduled to occur shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris.

Geller has stated that her cartoon contest is intended as a response to the Charlie Hebdo attack. The Charlie Hebdo folks, though, were equal-opportunity offenders. That is, they didn’t seek only to piss off Muslims, they wanted to piss off everybody. And they’d been going at it for years. They didn’t just hire their own little paramilitary-force-for-a-day and set about trying to troll militant Muslims.

Geller, on the other hand, tried to chum the waters with her cartoon contest, thinking she’d draw a feeding frenzy of violent jihadists to her little event—perfect target practice for the $10,000 worth of security she hired. What she got instead was a pair of inexperienced, young pups, mouths full of aimlessly-chomping teeth, drunk on the blood and guts of Geller’s antagonism, who bit off way more than they could chew.

We're gonna need a dumber boat!

We’re gonna need a dumber boat!

Geller, when she isn’t directly attempting to insult all Muslims, claims that she is an opponent of Muslim extremists and extremism. However, she does not actually draw that line, or make any consistent effort to explain where that line actually is. To her, Muslims who actually do attack things and people like her cartoon contest and its attendees are seen as proof that she is right about the intent of Muslims to take over America and kill all non-Muslims. Unfortunately, to Geller, Muslims who do not attack are seen as evidence of a quiet, creeping plot—sleeper cells who are biding their time, before they make their move to take over America and kill all the non-Muslims.

Geller also claims she is a defender of free speech, religious freedom, and individual rights. But, again, her position on such freedoms is a bit muddled. For instance, if she is so supportive of religious freedom, it’s hard to understand why she pushed so hard to stop the “ground zero mosque” from being opened, or why she spends so much time antagonizing Muslims in general, accusing the religion as a whole, and all of its adherents, in whatever form, of heinous crimes (and future crimes).

Likewise, Dutch madman Wilders has attempted to ban the Quran in his home country, as well as trying to prevent mosques from being built there—all under the guise of protecting women and other ‘victims’ of Islam. These are not exactly the actions of someone who thinks that the ‘marketplace of ideas’ will lead to the best possible outcome.

In short, Geller and Wilders are in favor of freedoms for those who they agree with, but want to shut down those with whom they disagree, even if Geller’s and Wilder’s disagreements are with vague caricatures of their alleged enemies, or if those disagreements are assumed to apply to all people who fit under a vast umbrella of a label.

Yet, despite Geller’s and Wilders’ proclamations of war, Elton Simpson and Nadir Hamid Soofi do not represent all of Islam anymore than, say, Michelle Bachmann represents all of Christianity, or anymore than Geller and Geert actually represent the concerns of all people as relates to freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Still, if we’re going to ban Geller from her weird little attention grabs, than might we also have to ban things like, say, The Book of Mormon (the play, not the book)?  As much as the authors of The Book of Mormon might have been making a more nuanced critique of religion and what it means to believe, they certainly weren’t out to avoid offense.

And if we’re going to justify Simpson’s and Soofi’s actions as some kind of expected or normal response to Geller’s provocation, then aren’t we moving dangerously in the direction of saying that perpetrators of violence are only acting in ways that the victims of the violence should have expected, and have to accept?

Make no mistake, there are consequences to Geller’s form of speech. The main form of those consequences is that stupid people will agree with her, and will buy into her ridiculous ideas that there is some vast Muslim conspiracy that is mere days away from taking away all of our freedoms as U.S. citizens in order to impose Sharia law. Said stupid people may even commit violent acts of their own, and will certainly engage in forms of speech that are as similarly unappealing as Geller’s. There is also the potential consequence that people of the Muslim faith around the world will view Americans as somehow aligned with Geller’s form of thinking (as opposed to tolerating it, because that’s what we do). Such people may view our tolerance of Geller as evidence of the ill intent of Americans toward the Muslim world, potentially perpetuating a long chain of conflict.

Although I’m not exactly demonstrating this by writing about them, perhaps the best response to people like Geller and Wilders is the response that all but two of the members of the Muslim community in the United States exercised: ignoring them/refusing to take the bait.

Evelyn Beatrice Hall, writing about Voltaire, expressed the core idea of freedom of speech as follows: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I’m not sure I’m actually willing to take a bullet so that Geller can continue to peddle her special brand of targeted, incendiary bullshit. But I’m definitely not ready to make an argument that she must be shut down/shut up (like the arguments she has made about Muslims).

At the same time, I’ve also written numerous pieces suggesting that maybe certain forms of speech should be curbed in an attempt to reduce hostility toward people with mental illness, toward minorities, and toward people who generally don’t find themselves at the top of the power pyramid. Curbing such speech is, of course, a matter of personal choice, and a matter of seeking to be decent human beings. Under the banner of individual freedom, we get to say and do what we want, so long as we aren’t actually hurting anybody in some directly demonstrable way.

Of course, Geller isn’t on some quest to prove what a decent person she is, or what decent people Americans are in their acceptance of diverse traditions and differing viewpoints. She’s not on any kind of mission to promote free speech, despite her claims to the contrary.

And Elton Simpson and Nadir Hamid Soofi went down to Garland Texas with the intent to fight and die, much like Geller and Wilder went down to Garland Texas to try and provoke a fight.

They all got what they wanted—sort of.

Suicide at the Oscars, part two: ‘The Phone Call’

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

It was a great year for crisis lines at the Oscars—or, rather, for films involving crisis lines. Not only did the documentary, Crisis Line: Veterans Press 1 take home a statue, but so did the short, live-action film The Phone Call. And, while Crisis Line: Veterans Press 1 tried (perhaps a little too enthusiastically) to convey a sense of the actual drama that can occur at a crisis line, The Phone Call comes across as a disturbingly simplistic endorsement of suicide-on-demand and irresponsible behavior by crisis line workers, all while portraying a dangerously inaccurate view of the function of crisis lines.

I will begin with the same bit of disclosure I placed at the beginning of my piece on Crisis Line: Veterans Press 1: 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. And I will also offer up a spoiler alert for The Phone Call: if you haven’t seen it, and you don’t want to know exactly what happens, stop reading now.

The Phone Call seems to have generated most of its praise based on the acting of Sally Hawkins (as Heather) and Jim Broadbent (as Stanley/John)—which is undoubtedly solid, even given the ludicrous material. But most reactions seem to ignore any other critical angle—like the crass manipulations taking place in order to make The Phone Call happen at all.

To begin with, the call center where the story takes place seems to be lost in time. Despite the opening shot of the movie panning by a sign that reads “City WiFi Zone,” the crisis center apparently has no computers and no Internet hookup.

Now, I don’t know the current state of crisis line call centers in the UK, or really the state of any such call centers aside from the ones I’ve worked in, visited, or seen in documentaries—all in the United States. But I will say that if a call center in this day and age equips workers only with a pad of paper, a pen, a phone, and a lamp—they are verging on worker abuse. Absent the most dire of funding situations, failing to provide crisis line workers with computers and Internet access is simply unacceptable, given the relatively low cost of such amenities—and the necessity of such items in making it possible for workers to track down lifesaving information—or even to assist callers who are simply trying to access other services.

At one point in the movie, we see Sally Hawkins’ character, Heather, get up from her desk—thankfully she sat at the front of the room near the bookshelves—to try and look up the “mystery caller” in the notebooks where past call records are kept—handwritten on paper.

Add to that the script manipulation of having absolutely minimal staffing. Despite there being numerous desks in the call center, when Heather arrives, there is only one other worker there–Daniel.  At the only time Heather even considers enlisting Daniel’s help with Stanley/John, Daniel is talking with another caller, back turned to Heather, and flipping through a phone book, or some other reference material. She immediately (and completely irresponsibly) determines she can’t get Daniel’s attention—as if muting her phone and calling across the room would have been too much trouble to stop somebody from dying.

'Would you look at that?  Daniel's busy.  Guess you really are going to die today, Stanley.'

‘Would you look at that? Daniel’s busy. Guess you really are going to die today, Stanley.’

Stanley/John is also supposed to be a sympathetic character, the main reason being that his wife, Joan, died two years ago after a long struggle with cancer. As Heather questions Stanley/John about other family members he may have, we also find out that he and Joan tried to start a family, but had only one stillborn child, 25 years ago, and then were unable to have any children after that. Certainly, it’s a sad tale. Certainly, we can understand Stanley/John’s despair.

But just imagine being in the same situation as Heather—or really any crisis line worker—being treated the way Stanley/John is treating her. Stanley/John has decided he is going to die, and has decided that whatever random worker answers the phone is going to have to listen as it happens.

John/Stanley sobs, makes vague statements indicating he has taken actions to kill himself, and refuses to provide information under threat that he will hang up to prevent anyone from tracing the call and sending an ambulance. The audience has to accept that either the call center does not utilize caller id—further putting workers in a terrible situation—or that John/Stanley blocked his information, in order for the whole ‘hanging up’ thing to really work as a threat.

Stanley/John eventually reveals that he’s taken “Antidepressants” that he got “from the doctor.” But killing oneself with pills tends to be a lot trickier than most people realize—at least to do it in the calm, and apparently quick way that Stanley/John manages, all while allowing for a conversation and a quick death before the ambulance crew can arrive and try to revive him—and without his body doing its damnedest to try and expel the deadly pills he’s ingested. Then again, perhaps Heather waited a good long while before calling for the ambulance, as she was looking through notebook after notebook to find the right person named John who lived around the corner from the Boston.

The big moment of connection for Heather, where she (mostly) accepts Stanley/John’s decision to die, is when Stanley/John asks in a pressured tone, “Can you just stay there and talk to me? Are you allowed to do that? Can’t you just stay there and talk to me and hold my hand? Isn’t that alright?”

Heather’s answer: “Of course, I can. I’m not going anywhere.”

There are an infinite number of much better answers Heather could have given at that time. For instance: “No, that’s not allowed, Stanley/John. I’m not here to make you feel better about killing yourself. And, to be honest, if I was really doing my job, my co-worker, Daniel, here would know everything that was going on, and probably already have an ambulance heading your way.”

Instead, in the course of the short conversation, Heather passes up numerous chances to make more than just a conversational connection with Stanley/John. For instance, Heather and Stanley/John discuss jazz, including Stanley/John telling Heather he could teach her how to play tenor saxophone properly. Yet, rather than latch onto that, and suggest that Stanley/John maybe teach music, or otherwise get back into music, Heather doesn’t push on that point of Stanley/John’s ambivalence at all.

In fact, beyond asking about immediate family, Heather does nothing to find out if Stanley/John was involved in anything else in his entire life beyond his relationship with Joan. Work? Friends? Family? Hobbies? Pets?

Heather also does nothing to explore what Stanley/John has done to deal with his grief over the loss of his wife. All we know is that he got antidepressant pills from his doctor. Apparently, Heather takes this as evidence that Stanley/John really has made a valiant effort to deal with the kinds of normal struggles anybody feels at the loss of a long-time companion. ‘Oh? You got a prescription? Wow—that was very brave of you. I’m sorry you still ended up feeling something.’

And perhaps the most obvious thing Heather leaves out is asking how Stanley/John’s wife, Joan, might react to Stanley/John’s decision to kill himself. Or maybe we are meant to accept that Joan is the kind of person who would want her husband to die—that she’s something of a monster, and Stanley/John is really stressed out because he’s two years late on following through with their suicide pact.

Throughout the conversation, Heather lets Stanley/John bully her into not talking about the things she should be talking about, all with the threat that he’ll hang up, and the assertion of his ‘needs’—how he just can’t go on without Joan, but really needs someone to ‘hold his hand’ at the end.

We are supposed to find it comforting that once Stanley/John insists that it is, in fact, too late for a rescue, he compliments Heather, saying, “you’ve been wonderful. You’ve been a wonderful friend to me.”

But Heather is not Stanley/John’s friend, and isn’t supposed to be acting in that capacity. And really, if Heather was either doing her job right, or actually acting in a capacity as Stanley/John’s friend, she would have done more to try and help him.

And then we get the most maudlin endorsement of suicide ever committed to film—we see the ambulance arriving outside Stanley/John’s home. The camera switches to an interior shot of the home’s front door. We see someone arrive, and…it’s Joan! We never actually see Stanley/John, only hear him talking to Joan for a while.  She talks about how she’s “been looking for” him, and they both agree that they’ve missed each other. So, we get this reunited-in-death sap that makes this suicide seem cute, since it helped an old couple get back together.

'What, John?  You've gone and killed yourself?  You go to hell for that, don't you know?'

‘What, John? You’ve gone and killed yourself? You go to hell for that, don’t you know?’

It’s no surprise that director and co-writer Max Kirby comes out of the world of commercials and music videos. The Phone Call is practically a commercial for suicide, with all the depth of the average music video. It’s a concept piece that tries to press emotional buttons, while keeping the audience from engaging in too much thought.

As we watch The Phone Call, we are not meant to think about the value in going on with life, and finding meaning after loss. We don’t even get a serious look at suicide, depression, or mental illness, because we are given only the most surface reasons for Stanley/John to kill himself. We are supposed to take this all as somehow romantic—the sad, old man who just can’t go on without his wife. Isn’t it sweet that he’s killing himself?

And perhaps even more aggravating is the summation of the movie from its official website: “Heather works in a helpline call centre. When she receives a phone call from a mystery man, she has no idea that the encounter will change her life forever.”

I’m not sure exactly what we are supposed to take away from this tagline—that the big change in her life is that she is now carrying the burden of having sat through this man’s death, while being derelict about trying to help him? The big scene we are supposed to take as evidence of change is one in which we see Heather following through on part of the conversation she had with Stanley/John—to go back and visit a jazz club she used to frequent. We see her getting cozy with call center co-worker, Daniel, a potential relationship that was hinted at early in the movie. ‘Gee whiz, isn’t it nice that all it took was the suicide of an old man to make me get out and live a little? Isn’t this rosé delightful?’

To clarify, my reaction to the movie is not meant as some discussion about the right to die, but about the way crisis lines operate, and the absolutely awful way this is portrayed in the movie. It is simply not the job of crisis line workers—paid or volunteer—to just “hold a caller’s hand” while that caller dies by his/her own hand.

It is a hazard of working at a crisis line that one may end up on the phone with somebody as that person dies. But this is much different than such an occasion being the purpose of that work. A police officer has the potential hazard of being shot on the job—but it is not the police officer’s work to be shot on the job. A teacher may be subject to the hazard of being verbally abused or even hit by an angry child—but it is not the teacher’s job to be verbally abused or hit.

And what kind of horrible people would you be attracting to work at the crisis line if you told them that part of their job was just to listen as people die? What would be considered an appropriate level of intervention if just letting people die was considered an acceptable or even desired outcome?

Heather, like any crisis line worker, when confronted by questions of listening versus intervening, should make it clear that, as much as crisis line workers are there to offer support, they are required to intervene in order to prevent callers from completing suicide. And with experience and training, one will gain a better idea of just when that intervention needs to take place.

In the case of The Phone Call, there was an admission that a suicide attempt was already underway; and for all intents and purposes, Heather did nothing. We are supposed to see that as somehow touching, and even life-affirming.

Don’t just feel about that. Think about that.

 

And now for the obligatory ending: If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the national (U.S.) suicide prevention hotline 1-800-273-TALK.

 

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.

Happy Birthday to Me II: Contemplate This on the Cake of Woe

by J.C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP, Fashion Icon

(for part one, click here https://respecttheblankie.com/2013/09/20/happy-birthday-to-me/ )

Check out this picture:

It's 1971--do you know where your emotions are?

It’s 1971–do you know where your emotions are?

Pretty amazing, right?

No, no, I don’t mean the fetching haircut accentuating the perfect, potato-esqe shape of my head. That haircut was a dad special a la 1971—the hairdo all of my brothers and I had by dad’s decree. I’m thinking a “1” setting on the clipper.   Quick and easy, nice and tidy.

And, no, I’m not talking about the fashion, although I am pretty damn suave in that dual-layer, v-neck with mock-turtleneck, combo. Or, more accurately, I guess that would be a mock-mock-turtleneck, given that it’s not even a real mock turtleneck, but just the neck and a little bit of the chest of a mock-turtleneck sewn into a shirt. The dead giveaway is that the striped part of the outfit is short-sleeved, and who ever heard of a short-sleeved mock-turtleneck? Right? The dove-gray slacks perfectly compliment the olive stripes sandwiched between the ocean blue stripes that match the mock-mock-turtleneck.*  Still, I’m thinking that this getup would definitely make it into a top ten list of my all-time most fashionable outfits, such is the limited ability I have to dress myself.

No, I’m not even talking about the gift, proudly displayed—that Fisher Price Little People airplane—the red winged version. Pure brilliance of design, down to the weird, yellow plastic string tied to the front so it could be pulled along the ground, the pilot, head flipping back and forth, ever vigilant. Of course, the pilot eventually wanted to break free from the tarmac, and I obliged. The plane today (still in a closet of my mother’s home, or perhaps in a box in the “workshop” of my house) is missing the door, and a chunk of one of it’s horizontal stabilizers, courtesy of a few attempts over the years to see if I could get the thing to fly properly. Perhaps such confusion over aerodynamics is tied to why I became a therapist, and my older brothers went into the “hard sciences.”

Anyway, any other guesses as to why the photo is so amazing? The cake? Well, I did reference it in the title of this piece, I suppose. And it is pretty impressive—home-baked, double-layer, chocolate frosting on devil’s food, set atop a shimmering, crystal cake stand, the candles, playfully askew. But, that’s not it, either.

Are you ready for it? The big reveal?

What’s so amazing about this picture is that it was taken, by my mother, one week after my father’s rather unexpected death. That the picture is so normal, that it fits in so perfectly with the small parade of yearly birthday pictures of all of my siblings and me (all featuring the birthday kid, with a cake and a gift, either posed alone or with that year’s cadre of siblings) is what is amazing to me.

My mother managed, seven days after what I assume was the absolute pinnacle of the sadness and distress in her entire life, with that sorrow still hanging heavily over her and the entire family, to make a cake, wrap a gift, and provide me and our family with some small bit of normalcy. I can imagine my mother just realizing that it was her duty to do so, that she signed up to have kids, and, well, that’s what you do when you have kids…you soldier on and keep things as stable as possible even if everything just collapsed right out from under you.

I have always wondered (and I suppose it wouldn’t take all that much to ask, but since mom will be reading this, I’m sure I’ll get an answer of some kind) if that plane was purchased before or after my father’s death…since it wasn’t until after my father’s death that what would be my first plane ride—out of Nebraska, and on to Oregon—would even be a thought. Was it a gift meant to help prepare me for that trip, or was it merely a coincidence? Was I fascinated with planes at the time? Was it just kind of a cool thing my parents thought I would like? Or was I manipulated by television commercials telling me I wanted that plane?

As a bit of an aside, here’s a Fisher Price commercial from 1972, including the plane, and narration by Dick Cavett. The gentle pitch to parents (although the images would definitely grab the attention of children) is rather quaint now, compared to todays ads telling kids that they MUST HAVE THESE TOYS NOW!!

At any rate, one thing I never noticed in this photo until I scanned it and really looked at it earlier this morning—is that the door behind me opens onto my parents’ bedroom—or what had recently become only my mother’s bedroom.   I can clearly see the same bed that my mother still sleeps in through that open door just behind me.

Not long ago, I told my mother that one of my earliest memories was of going into her bedroom (I believe after being told to leave her alone) and finding her lying on her perfectly-made bed, crying. I asked her why she was crying. I don’t recall that she said anything, only reached out to me and put her hand on my arm, which I had rested on top of the bed. Soon thereafter, somebody—a brother? Some other relative? A family friend?—stepped in and ushered me out of the room, closing the door behind us.

In my mind, the setting for this memory always defaults to our house in Oregon, because that is the only house my family lived in that I consciously remember. But seeing that, in this photo, the bed is covered in a white bedspread, just as it always was in our house in Oregon, it is easy to imagine that same scene playing out here, in the Nebraska house, although to ‘block out’ the scene would require flipping certain elements in different directions. I can definitely imagine that the dining room furniture in the photo here would have provided me with some measure of blockage between me and whoever (may have) told me to leave my mother alone, just as the short distance between our dining room and my mother’s bedroom in the Oregon house would have given me that tiny bit of time to do the same. Nebraska in September (probably more likely) or Oregon in November, it makes sense to me either way.

Getting back to the specific elements of the photo, certainly, other mothers have done the same as my mother did, in similar circumstances, just as other mother’s have fallen apart. Certainly, plenty of fathers have also had similar experiences following the loss of a spouse, and the effort to carry on and keep things stable for their children (or of falling apart). But it’s my birthday, and if I want to tell my mom she did an amazing thing—then I get to do that.

So, happy birthday to me, and thanks, mom!

 

*Color matches approximated using Ingrid Sundberg’s “Color Thesaurus” which can be found here: http://www.boredpanda.com/color-thesaurus-char-ingrid-sundberg/ .  If you have suggestions for better labels of the colors in the photo, feel free to submit them in the comments section below.

Dad’s Grave

by J.C. Schildbach, MA, LMHC, ASOTP, Preacher’s Kid

The Summer of 1977 is forever burned into my brain as a collection of hallowed moments experienced while on a cross-country, family car trip in a Pine-Green Chevy Impala Station Wagon: Seeing a lightning storm roll toward St. Louis from the top of the Gateway Arch, enjoying a traditional Chinese wedding banquet in San Francisco, swimming in Lake Michigan, watching “Star Wars” at a theater in Chicago when we were unable to procure tickets to the King Tut exhibit. (As a decades-long fan of the movie, it pains me to note that I nodded off sometime after the scene of R2-D2’s capture, later jarring awake to the battle cry of a Tusken Raider).

There were days-long visits to farms in communities we had lived in before I was old enough to remember, where I got to ride a horse for the first time, play in a rubber raft in a flooded cornfield, and experience the frightening speed of an angry mother pig as a newfound friend and I were made to race it to the fence of its pen after said friend pelted the sow with a dried-out corn cob. There was the morning I inadvertently released the inmates of a henhouse as I made a rather misguided effort to helpfully gather the eggs before breakfast, and the wonder of first experiencing the Beach Boys’ “Endless Summer” surf anthems from a landlocked farm community in the midwest.

Somewhat more mundane moments have stuck with me as well—attending a Saturday night church service in Sheboygan; staying up late to watch “Sssssss” on TV on a rainy night in Independence, Missouri; settling into the perfect stereo situation in the back seat of the Impala as my brothers played Blue Oyster Cult’s “Agents of Fortune” on the car’s cassette deck—“This ain’t the Garden of Eden,” indeed.

But there was one great disappointment in the whole epic adventure: the trip to my father’s grave in a small town in Nebraska. The victim of a stop-sign-running driver, and the shoddy engineering of the late-60s AMC vehicle he was driving, my father, the local Missouri Synod Lutheran minister, lost his life in the late summer of 1971. I am writing and posting this on the 43rd anniversary of that unhappy day—a day I was too young to remember or properly process—a day that gave birth to the attachment issues referenced in the subtitle of this blog.

Pops at 21...on his way to change the world.

Pops at 21…on his way to change the world.

The occasion, for me, was already lacking the appropriate sense of solemnity, with the shouting from a baseball game just across the road filling the bright, evening air. Things seemed even further amiss as we headed in the direction of…well, what seemed to be nothing.

Where was the towering monument? The magnificent marble Pieta? Or at least a moderately ornate cross?

Being a big fan of horror movies, and fascinated with the ornamentation and mythology of the church, I had built up the idea in my mind that my father’s grave would be marked by something appropriate to his stature as an important religious leader. My ideas were perhaps weirdly informed by my recent reading of Scott Corbett’s “Here Lies the Body”—a story set in a graveyard, and involving a massive grave marker with a statue of a pointing, judgmental angel—not to mention occult symbols scrawled in blood, and a murder mystery. On top of that, to pass the time on the drive from state to state, I had also read and re-read a book of “real life monsters,” which included stories of Vlad Dracula, and Haitian zombification procedures.

So when I saw the flat, drab grave marker, I wouldn’t say my heart exactly sunk, but my 8-year-old mind certainly underwent some shifts in its understanding of the world–shifts I filed away for later examination.

A little over a decade later, when I bought a copy of Tom Waits’ “Blue Valentine” album, and heard the song “A Sweet Little Bullet from a Pretty Blue Gun” (about the 1977 suicide of a 15-year-old girl who jumped from the 17th story of a Hollywood hotel with her guitar) which contains the line, “Nebraska never lets you come back home,” that scene of my father’s grave came back to me, despite not having given it much thought at all in the interim.

The passage of time, and hopefully the acquisition of some tiny bit of maturity, led me to reassess the precise meaning of my father’s grave. I realized that that grave marker wasn’t about his importance in the world, or his stature in a small Nebraska town. It was just some sign, marking the place where the material–or perhaps more preciseley, the matter-bound–part of his existence was left. His influence, his importance, extends way beyond that little concrete or stone marker.

My father’s influence in the communities he served extends to this day, in part through the connections my family made in those communities.  His impact, which, combined with the hard work and diligence of my mother, who raised five sons and a daughter in the years after my father’s passing, extends out into the world in myriad ways, through the hard work and community involvement of all of my siblings and their children—all in their own ways striving to make the world a more humane place.

For my own part, struggling to understand my father’s path in life before it was cut short, and trying to find my connection to it, has been a lifelong endeavor. And while I may have, at times, viewed my father and his life in weirdly iconic terms—iconic in the sense of symbols, signs, and signals to the outside world—I now view it as iconic in the sense of legitimate meaning and influence, the ability to impact the world positively by being a decent person…the same sort of influence I can only hope to emulate.

Happy death day, pops!

Suicide?!? Shazbot!

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

Before we get started, let me just mention that I spend the better part of my workweek involved in crisis intervention and suicide prevention. And let me note that anybody’s reaction to the death of another is going to be personal, and related to the kind of connection between them.

Now, let me tell you something horribly, selfishly, insensitively awful about me.

When I first heard of Robin Williams’ death by suicide, my thoughts were, more-or-less in this order…

1)  Damn!

2)  60-something-year-old man…history of mental health issues…history of substance abuse…makes sense.

3)  I wonder what else was going on with him.

4)  I am NOT going to write a blog post about this.

5)  Uggh! There’s gonna be a shitload of extra calls on the crisis line tonight!

Somewhere down the line was, “Shazbot!!” I totally f*cking wish “Shazbot!!” had been my first thought.

Anyway, before you climb all over me for my previously-mentioned insensitivity and selfishness, or whatever you might want to call it (I think I’ll call it “appropriate clinical detachment”), let me explain, in order of those thoughts.

1)  Yes, “damn!” It was shocking and unexpected to hear such a thing, essentially out of the blue. As for the context…I received a text message from my daughter about Williams’ death while running a plethysmography assessment (look it up). What this means is I was sitting in a small, dark, very stuffy and hot room running what I imagine would seem to most people to be a very disturbing clinical assessment to determine what kinds of really terrible things might lead to…ahem…responses for somebody with some admittedly inappropriate arousal patterns.

In such a situation, I didn’t have a lot of options for furthering a conversation or following whatever breaking news may have been happening. I had to shelve whatever thoughts or emotions I was having, and continue on with the assessment.

(You may ask why I wouldn’t have turned my phone completely off during a forensic assessment, but the reality of it is that the trace of the assessment is being recorded for later review, where it’s much easier to spot problem situations, and that turning my phone off only leads to things like my daughter destroying a sliding glass door because she locked herself out of the house on a cold day in early March—long story—well, not really, I think I just told it).

2) Which leads to…”60-something-year-old man…history of mental health issues…history of substance abuse…makes sense.”

Sitting in that dark, stuffy, hot room, staring at a double-lined forensic “trace” on a computer screen, with few responsible options available for furthering my knowledge/understanding of the situation, the defense mechanism of clinical detachment kicked in. Think about it, yelling “Oh my God!,” or sobbing openly, or exclaiming, “Shazbot!” all would have been pretty inappropriate.

At any rate, the quick run-through of Williams’ risk factors is the kind of clinically detached comment that I suppose is hard for a lot of people to take, especially when it has not been filtered at all. I can’t speak for everybody in the field of counseling/therapy, mental health, or even crisis intervention and suicide prevention, but there’s an odd dichotomy that exists in most people who get involved in such fields: we tend to be highly sensitive people; we learn to be very objective about that sensitivity.

If I wanted to get all sci-fi, I could say people in this field are empaths…empaths who have honed their skills away from making them one big, raw nerve, and toward using that sensitivity to discern a deeper sense of what is happening in others without being overwhelmed by it. Most of us have some pretty pronounced defense mechanisms. So, ideally, our training leads to an ability to pick out risk factors and make judgments about how those risk factors affect a situation, so that an appropriate course of action can be taken. Such risk factors are not predictive, but tend to be more actuarial.

Furthermore, the assessment of risk factors tends to weed out irrelevant elements. I’ve heard so many people go off about Williams’ fame and money as if that should have kept him from suicide, but those factors are irrelevant to a suicide assessment…except perhaps in the context of Williams’ available resources for obtaining help. But, and here’s a big generalization (as well as a big but), for somebody who is at the point of committing suicide, the concept of “help,” regardless of one’s resources, has become rather abstract and unreachable. From such a viewpoint, the available “help” appears to have been exhausted and shown to be inadequate. So, pushing past the money and fame, if one looks at Robin Williams from the standpoint of demographics and his personal history, he fits into a high risk category—or, rather, multiple high risk categories, even before other information about his health was revealed.

3)  “I wonder what else was going on with him” was merely a further part of the assessment of risk and what led Williams to his course of action. In suicide risk assessment, this is a huge factor. (Can I get a ‘duh’?). If the demographic factors alone played the deciding role in whether somebody was going to commit suicide, then we’d have near-universal suicide by people who fit into the same demographic categories as Williams.

Hence, one of the things that is always asked of people expressing suicidal thoughts is some variation on “Is there anything in particular that’s leading you to feel this way?”

The big idea behind such a question is to open up a conversation with someone who has, perhaps, not had such an opportunity to discuss what’s going on with them. A lot of people who attempt suicide, or are headed in that direction (here’s another big generalization) have been very closed off about their thoughts, and what they’re going through. Sometimes, broaching this conversation, being able to “normalize” suicidal thoughts (let people know they’re not as rare as they might think), and giving somebody a chance to talk through their immediate experiences, can lead to a person discovering that they have supports and strengths they weren’t considering when they were staying closed off and keeping it all to themselves.

4) The idea that “I am NOT going to write a blog post about this” came from a number of places. As someone who works in suicide prevention, and who writes a (mostly weekly) blog it seemed almost obligatory for me to at least note Mr. Williams’ passing. I shudder at “obligatory.”

Also, following any highly-publicized suicide, a whole slew of TV pieces, articles and blog posts (among other things) commenting on suicide and depression and the lives of those who complete or attempt suicide go flooding out into the world. It makes sense that people want to find out what happened, or understand how it could’ve happened, or share their personal feelings, or pay tribute, or say obnoxious, ignorant things…and there is often plenty of overlap in all of that.

And all of the posts and articles, and TV pieces close out with the phone number for Lifeline, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, urging people to get help for themselves, or for anybody they know, who is considering suicide or having suicidal thoughts.

As I’ve noted in other posts, I don’t do death too well. And I don’t really like talking about a particular celebrity because they died, or talking about suicide because that’s how someone famous died. I don’t generally shy away from talking about suicide, but I’m not deep into worrying about what celebrities are doing in their private lives. At any rate, when such conversations happen, I find myself slipping too far into the clinical, or just keeping my mouth shut. As for Robin Williams…I’m pretty sure I saw the entire run of “Mork and Mindy” and the “Happy Days” episode that spawned Mork, although I couldn’t really tell you much of anything about any of those storylines…as apparently memorable as they were, what with the rainbow suspenders and flying eggs and all. I’ve seen several, but definitely not all, of Williams’ movies.

Williams, like almost any accomplished artist who is around long enough, and productive enough, is going to put out work that is great, and some that is less great. The last thing I saw him in was “World’s Greatest Dad”—strangely enough, a story about a man who becomes a sort of celebrity after he ghost-writes a suicide note to cover up the fact that his teenage son died from autoerotic asphyxiation. I really enjoyed this movie, like I’ve enjoyed all of Bobcat Goldthwait’s movies (the ones he writes and directs). They tend to involve a kind of dark humor and exploration of at least mildly taboo subjects that are right up my alley. And, as a special bonus, “World’s Greatest Dad” was partly filmed at a bookstore and “mall” about five minutes from my house.

Williams as the most talkative mime ever in "Shakes the Clown"...shattering expectations for better or worse.

Williams as the most talkative mime ever in “Shakes the Clown”…shattering expectations for better or worse.

But then again, I had also written some spotty notes about how “Good Will Hunting” is one of numerous movies that gets the therapeutic relationship all wrong. I could continue on about liking how “Alladin” made good use of Williams’ rapid-fire joking, as did “Good Morning, Vietnam” and how he did some good stuff around mental health issues, like “Awakenings” and even “Patch Adams.”

I could tell of how I once spent half of a 9th-grade biology class trying to stop laughing uncontrollably after attempting to relay part of a Williams comedy routine to my lab partner (who is still my closest friend, not counting my wife). To completely butcher the joke, it involved Williams doing an impersonation of E.T. saying “ouch” because he was standing on his testicles.

5) Which leaves only “Uggh! There’s gonna be a shitload of extra calls on the crisis line tonight!”

I’ll concede that this is a pretty damn selfish thought. But, to provide some context, the call volume on Lifeline, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline on Monday, the day of Williams’ death, was double the call volume of the day before. On Tuesday, August 12, Lifeline had its highest call volume ever in the history of the service.

It’s true that not all of those calls involved people with suicidal thoughts, or suicidal intentions. The calls were not all from people standing on a bridge, or sitting in their living room with a gun in their lap, or lying in bed with several containers of pills and a bottle of gin beside them. Many of the calls were people asking how to get help for people they know. Many were people upset and sad at Williams’ passing, and just trying to process their own thoughts. But many were from people struggling with suicidal thoughts and intentions, several of them consumed with the idea that if Williams, with all he had achieved, was going to kill himself, then why shouldn’t they?

And, of course, people being the way they are, whenever the Lifeline number gets widely published and shared around on social media, there were more than the usual number of prank calls. (Quick note, kids: DO NOT prank the Lifeline—we have to take suicidal threats seriously, which means you might get a visit from the police as the price of your little joke, and as the price to the people of your hometown, who now have police officers responding to a non-emergency situation because you thought it was funny to be the kind of asshole who mocks people suffering from depression).

On top of the massive increase in Lifeline calls, most of the Lifeline call centers also serve as local crisis lines, and there was a huge uptick in the calls to local crisis lines (I don’t have specific numbers on this one yet, but trust me). Several of the Lifeline call centers, including the one I work in, also serve multiple functions within the local mental health system. To say the least, things got a little overwhelming.

I could go on about a number of other factors involved here, like how, while some call centers may be able to call in additional volunteers to address the short-term spike, generally speaking, the staffing, as with any business, is aimed at addressing an ‘average’ workload.  And there isn’t any way to suddenly increase the number of telephone lines and work stations to deal with what is, ultimately, only going to be a short-term (even if massive) increase in call volume.

By Thursday night/Friday morning, things seemed to be calming down a bit, easing back down to normal…at least in terms of call volume.

But we’re all still left with the sadness and the loss of an entertainer who reached people worldwide, and the struggle to understand and accept whatever this means to us personally, or societally, or clinically.

And, oh yeah…

If you or anyone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE call LIFELINE, the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, at 1-800-273-TALK.

Requiem for a Snake

My daughter’s pet ball python, Smeagol, died over the weekend. We had no reason to think anything was wrong with him. The last time I observed him for any length of time—Friday, as I was yawning through the long pauses of eliminating a computer virus—he seemed just fine, climbing the ceramic branch/rock fixture in his cage. Sometime between then and Sunday, he vomited up his last meal—a partially-digested black mouse, eaten several days before—and shuffled off this mortal coil, while coiled on the floor of his cage.  I first took notice because he was lying there with his “nose” up under his body, which would have made it extremely difficult for him to breathe—had he still been breathing.

Smeagol was only about ten years old—not all that old for a ball python. And he wasn’t around long enough for me to resolve my mixed feelings about him. To put it mildly, I am not a big fan of snakes. To put it less mildly, they freak me the f*ck out. Constrictors, like Smeagol, don’t raise a panic in me as bad as smaller, squigglier snakes, or, of course, vipers and the like that can cause all manner of swelling, necrosis and more complete death with a single bite. But, still, he was a snake. And for me, that took a lot of getting used to—or not getting used to.

When my wife questioned my dislike of snakes, and more specifically, my queasiness toward our daughter’s pet, I told her that snakes are essentially tubes that crap out of one end, and bite with the other, and that being shat on and bit are not high on my list of favorite things. I didn’t explain to her how, when I saw a snake just out and about, say, in a field or a forest, I would completely lose my mind. She’s only come close to witnessing a subdued version of that once or twice. She still tried to convince me that Smeagol was cute—and he was as far as snakes go. He was pretty, even, with a funky black and brown pattern, a white underbelly, and a face that looked to be smiling.

Smeagol investigates some ice cream.

Smeagol investigates some ice cream.

We had invited him into our home under the thought of good parents supporting our child’s interests. Back when she was in the fourth grade or so, our daughter got caught up in the idea of having a pet python. I told her if she could save up the money for a snake, I would buy the cage—a large, glass tank, with a screened, slide-out lid—for her birthday. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure she would meet the challenge. Ball pythons are not cheap; and I figured something else would capture her attention before she finished piecing together the money. But cash received as birthday gifts put her over the top of her fundraising goal, and she held me to my promise.

On the night we first brought him home, Smeagol bit my daughter, who admittedly was not exercising any caution whatsoever toward a small, confused animal who had just been stuffed into a box and transported through a cold, November night, to his new and unfamiliar home. I tried to tell her to just put the box in the cage and open it there, to let him come out in his own time. But instead, she set the box on a table, flipped it open, and reached in. Chomp!

Granted, when Smeagol bit anybody, it was more like a nip, designed as a quick warning. But he invariably drew blood with his little, hooked teeth when he did it. It was lightning fast, too, almost impossible to escape once he had a mind to do it. I know of two occasions, aside from his first few minutes in our home, when Smeagol bit my daughter. I also remember him taking a shot at one of our dog’s noses. The dog was just curious and unsure what to make of Smeagol. Smeagol took the dog’s face, with its looming mouth, to be a threat. Both dogs steered clear of him after that—she because she’d been bitten, he because I like to believe he shared my general belief in the benefits of snake avoidance.

Although it’s not good to speak ill of the dead, at times I wondered if Smeagol was perhaps something of a jerk among pythons. But then I figured he had, on average, only committed about one quick bite every two years—not bad considering everything he was put through, including visits to my daughters’ classrooms, and my wife’s classrooms, where he behaved around preschoolers and grade schoolers, even when one or two of them made lunging grabs at his face.

Personally, I never got bit by Smeagol, most likely because I kept my distance, even though, with my daughter spending less and less time at home, it fell to me to take care of most of his feedings and cage cleanings. My wife was the main one to spend time “playing” with Smeagol–letting him roam outside of his cage or drape himself over her shoulders. But, sometime in the last year, he bit my wife as she tried to retrieve him from behind a huge bulletin board that was leaning against a wall. Prior to the wife-biting incident, I had a theory that Smeagol’s likelihood of biting someone was, like with German Shepherds, tied to some sort of fear-sensing mechanism. With that one bite, my theory went out the window, as I knew my wife was the only one who had always approached Smeagol with a complete lack of fear, and a full sense of trust and love. This one bite sharply reduced my wife’s willingness to provide Smeagol with passes outside of his cage.

The need to take him out of his cage, or rather the need to keep him in a cage, or perhaps, the whole situation of pets in cages, had become increasingly troubling for me in the past few years. Part of my growing discomfort had to do with seeing Smeagol, essentially a wild animal who had grown to about four feet long, confined to a glass box, where he seemed to spend a good amount of his time searching for a way to get out. Snakes, as a rule, are pretty darn good at finding ways of getting in or out of wherever they want. So I imagine being trapped in such a way was maddening for him.

Part of my growing discomfort had to do with having dogs who have fairly free rein to go anywhere they want within the house and backyard—something I marvel at from time to time in the sense of, “Wow!  We have some fairly large animals just wandering around our house.”

When I was very young, we had a dog that was on the scene before I was, and who didn’t have much use for me, and vice versa. I never marvelled at her, and rarely even realized she was around.  Seriously, I can barely recall her existence, aside from some vague memories of my siblings’ reactions from around the time she was put down. I also didn’t give much thought to the idea of keeping animals confined to cages. In junior high and high school, well after the dog was gone, I acquired quite a few reptiles and amphibians (no snakes), and occasionally rodents, that were kept in a variety of fish tanks, mostly in my bedroom. Hell, once, with the help of my younger brother and a friend, I even transplanted a (slightly-larger-than-puddle-size) pond’s worth of native Oregon frogs (tiny little creatures) from their home in the suburban wild to a tank in our backyard—never thinking about just how difficult it would be to sustain that little ecosystem as the summer wore on and the heat became unbearable in that glass box. They were tadpoles when we caught them, and monitoring their transformation to frogs was pretty amazing. But we could have just visited the pond repeatedly and gotten the same basic show, all without wiping out the small frog community.

The vast majority of the reptiles and amphibians I collected met with premature deaths, often for reasons unknown, but more often through my own failings. There was a red-eared slider (turtle) who died shortly after I fed him bologna, unaware that turtles cannot physically process fat in their food.

There was the fire-bellied newt who escaped his cage (how a newt climbed out of a fish tank with only a few inches of water in the bottom, and a few flat rocks and a small branch poking out of the water is beyond me). I found the newt several days after his disappearance when I stepped on his dehydrated, crunchy little body, tangled in the shag carpet downstairs by the front window. I can only imagine the adventure he had making his way down the steps.

There was a procession of anoles (small lizards they sell in pet stores as chameleons), one to three at a time, who all caught the same wasting disease, despite thorough cleanings of the cage between inhabitants.

Various other turtles and lizards succumbed to death prematurely, with no real indication that anything was wrong until they woke up dead.

Later, well before my daughter acquired Smeagol, she had a pair of Russian dwarf hamsters—one of which completely consumed the other, except for its pelt. I kid you not.  There were no bones left or anything else aside from a well-preserved fur, in the style of a stripped and cleaned item you would find at an actual furriers. What was left of the devoured hamster would have made an excellent rug for, say, a beetle’s bachelor pad. I’m not sure if the consumed hamster died of natural causes before it was cannibalized, or if the carnivorous hamster just decided he’d had enough of corn and seeds, or maybe had had enough of her roommate’s bad habits.

But enough with the tales of animal woe. At this point, I’m going to make a little pledge in honor of our too-soon-taken Smeagol. I’m done with pets that have to be kept in cages. I don’t want to contribute anymore to the kind of recklessness that involves people boxing up animals in the first place. This is not to say that I think it is inherently wrong to have pets that are kept in cages. I suppose in some cases, it makes life more pleasant and less dodgy for the animals, and hopefully involves children learning some measure of responsibility, and hopefully a great deal of kindness and love. But in my personal weighing of the situation, I’ve made too many dumb mistakes. And I’ve failed to provide adequate levels of life outside the box. I’ve apparently failed to monitor properly for signs of illness, and to make sure I was avoiding harm.

Smeagol deserved a greater measure of freedom than he got. Of course, a ball python could do worse in life than to have a safe, warm home with regular feedings. But a snake native to the East coast of Africa probably could have done much better than to be kept in a glass box in the Northwest corner of the U.S., cared for by someone with a large measure of phobia aimed at him.

So, peace to you, Smeagol. May you pass through the fires of Mordor to the place of white shores and beyond—a far green country, under a swift sunrise.