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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Three Frightening Movies that Aren’t Traditional Horror, or Suspense, or…

Well, Halloween is over, but who cares? You can still keep on scaring yourself, right? Only, rather than the usual gore and mayhem, how about some unsettling horror, the kind that makes you question the reality of the movie, it’s characters, and your own thought processes?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of the traditional monsters-and-bogeymen (bogeypeople?) style of horror. But sometimes it’s good to be scared by things that aren’t quite so over-the-top. And speaking of over-the-top, you’re probably already irritated with all the ‘Early Black Friday’ specials and the ‘Holiday’ ads anyway.

The movies listed here also get at some small bit of what it is/might be to cope with various forms of mental illness, or to deal with others who are struggling with it. They spotlight what it is like to be unsure about what is happening, and to have a difficult time understanding what constitutes legitimate forms of support. These are movies that cause a tightness in your chest, and not the kind that is alleviated by the next hissing cat springing out of a cabinet, or garden tool splitting open some body part or other.  They carry with them the kind of dread that has a real impact.

And I’m going to say there’s probably a good chance that these movies should come with some trigger warnings, in case that’s not obvious from the descriptions.

Safe (1995): From Todd Haynes, writer/director of Velvet Goldmine, I’m Not There, and Far From Heaven, Safe sees Julianne Moore as Carol White, a woman who, after much confusion from a wide range of medical, mental health, and ‘other’ providers, is diagnosed with Environmental Illness, a disease that makes her hypersensitive to various chemical agents that are common in everyday life in modern American.

But is she really suffering from anything, or is the disease a physical manifestation of the sheltered nothingness her life has become? The only people who claim to understand her and her disease have clear motivations for convincing her she’s sick, while those who tell her she’s fine seem to lack any concern for her whatsoever.

As much an indictment of the “American Dream” of being completely carefree (there’s no such thing as “safe”), as it is of various forms of mental and physical healthcare, and the lack of clear, irrefutable knowledge to address all maladies (despite ‘professional’ claims to the contrary) Safe will have you clearing your throat, checking your temperature, wondering just what that smell is, and…wait, that’s probably not the best way to encourage anybody to watch a movie.

Safe is a bit difficult to track down. They don’t have it available on Netflix in any format, and Amazon only has it for sale as a DVD or Blu-Ray. Here’s a trailer (that kinda sucks)…

Affliction (1997): Written and directed by Paul Schrader (writer of Taxi Driver, and writer and/or director of numerous other impressive works), based on a novel by Russell Banks, Affliction sees Wade Whitehouse (Nick Nolte) descending into unreality, or perhaps hyper-reality, during what should be the routine investigation of a hunting accident. Having grown up in the shadow of an abusive father, played in frightening fashion by James Coburn, Wade never quite makes it out into the light that might help him establish some reliable sense of self.

An occasionally brutal meditation on familial abuse, PTSD, and other forms of trauma, this one is a slow crawl over gravel, peppered with the occasional hot coal. It’s available right now streaming or by disc on Netflix, as well as on Amazon Prime.

Here’s a trailer (that isn’t all that bad…)

Take Shelter (2011): From Jeff Nichols, also writer/director of Mud, Take Shelter stars Michael Shannon, aka General Zod and numerous other amazing roles, as Curtis, a man convinced that tornado season is bringing something much more sinister than twisters. Curtis jeopardizes his job, his financial security (including money saved for a cochlear implant for his daughter), his friendships, and his marriage to Samantha, played by Jessica Chastain, to build a storm shelter that can keep his family safe from not only storms, but perhaps the end of the world.

Nichols keeps the audience off balance by providing plenty of information that is clearly accurate, or at least witnessed by people other than Curtis, and also including a number of elements we can’t be so sure of. Is Curtis the only one alert to the signs of danger all around? Or is he suffering a breakdown of some kind?

Take Shelter is currently available via disc on Netflix, via Amazon or AmazonPrime in multiple formats, and on Starz—both on-demand and in the regular schedule.

Here’s a trailer (which is pretty darn good)…

So, happy no-longer-Halloween season. And remember, Thanksgiving and Christmas are still a good, long way off…as well as being great times to share disturbing films with family and friends.

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.

 

Suicide Notes from the Cosmic Web of Coincidence

Back around Christmas, I posted a piece about how, contrary to popular belief, the ‘holiday season’ is not the most suicidal time of the year. I’m gonna let you in on a little secret…spring is.

I wasn’t giving the idea of springtime suicide all that much thought, until the news of a note from Kurt Cobain’s wallet—mock wedding vows that turned out to have been penned by Courtney Love—bounced into the news for a day or two, and I realized I’d been hearing about a lot of recent suicides–well-known and mostly-unknown.

Hearing the specifics of Cobain’s wallet note, on a local radio show as I drove home from work, knocked down a self-imposed wall that had prevented me from engaging with the stories of recently-released information and evidence from Cobain’s death, leading me to think back on my memories from that time.

Back then, my wife and I were making a living designing and printing T-shirts out of our apartment, selling them at the Fremont market, and through ads in a local paper, The Stranger, and in national publications Spin, Vibe, and Rolling Stone, as well as doing custom jobs for businesses, bands, and other organizations. News of Cobain’s death had managed to elude us until I saw it in a Seattle Times headline, there on display by the sales counter at a gas station/convenience store across the road from our apartment, where I had gone on a late-afternoon beer run.

As with most deaths, my reaction was one of stunned silence–an unvoiced, “Wow, that’s weird.”  Back home, I hemmed and hawed and didn’t quite manage to relay the information, instead turning on the TV news and waiting for the story to come on.

We had only recently confirmed my wife’s first and only pregnancy; and it hadn’t been long enough for us to share the news with friends and family. I couldn’t stop thinking of that photo of Kurt, Courtney, and baby Frances from the cover of Spin. Cobain, not even a year-and-a-half older than me, had achieved what we were all supposed to want—right? Money, fame, a family—all while getting to tout his artistic integrity and give a big middle finger to…well, whoever he wanted, I guess. He was just getting started. He could continue on being a vital artist, or get old and boring, or become a recluse, or whatever he wanted. He had the resources now, and…

Kurt and courtney and frances

Well, if I steer clear of the conspiracy theories, he killed himself. How was that even possible?

Looking back through a lens of pop culture references, I think of Tyler Durden confirming that we weren’t all going to become millionaires, and movie stars, and rock gods. But Cobain had become that…or at least two out of three.

Also, prior to Cobain’s death, I’d read interviews with Eddie Vedder where he talked about being depressed and drinking too much wine, and I was worried Vedder was going to kill himself…intentionally, passively, or accidentally. Cobain said plenty of dark things, sure, but he was just kidding…right?  And, yeah, I had all the Nirvana albums, and all the tracks that turned up on compilations, credited and uncredited…No Alternative, Hard to Believe, The Beavis and Butthead Experience

In my earliest thoughts about this post, I had some germ of an idea about making a connection between Cobain’s death and my current work…like Cobain’s death had some impact on the trajectory of my life, and…oh well, whatever, nevermind. I think we all try to fit various life events into narratives that make everything add up into some kind of “everything happens for a reason” bumper sticker idea…as if the suicide of a celebrity I had never even met was meant to guide me to my purpose.

It was a good 12+ years from the time of Cobain’s death until I bounced back into school with the intention of becoming a therapist, and then a few more before I had gotten involved in suicide prevention, almost more by happenstance than by a powerful drive to do so. I found out I was good at it–able to handle the stress of trying to redirect people in crisis—trying to suss out what it was they were after, and find a way to address that (which often just comes down to listening and validating the underlying emotions of their distress).

Cobain may have been one tiny thread among numerous others leading up to where I landed, just like the other people I knew (mostly peripherally) who had taken their own lives—or tried to—the bulk of them in spring. But Cobain was never some overtly motivating factor. In fact, I think if I cited him as a big reason for my work, it would be kind of ridiculous… “Man, Cobain’s suicide really changed me, and I decided I wanted to help people.” But to be clear, I have no harsh judgment for whatever factors direct people to engage in ‘the helping professions.’

A supervisor of mine, who was instrumental in providing me with the fundamentals for dealing with people struggling with suicidal thoughts, theorized that the increase in suicides in spring might have something to do with the dashing of expectations…that slogging through a cold, dark winter is one thing when everybody has to put up with the cold and the darkness. But when spring starts peeling open, turning itself toward the sun, grasping those opportunities to grow…and you’re still stuck in that winter mindset…cold, despondent, unable to see the sun or feel its warmth, or to even care about dragging yourself out into it…well, that’s when you lose hope.

In thinking about springtime suicide, I’ve had this other little germ of a thought…that when we are constantly exposed to the idea that everything happens for a reason, it can have the inadvertent effect of making people seek out connections for why they feel shitty. And when they can’t find particular reasons…or perhaps the reasons they find are viewed as trite or easily resolved by the people around them…or maybe the reasons they find all land in the arena of self-doubt, shame, or a sense that they are apparently deserving of the bad things that have happened to them and the lack of happiness they feel…well, it can hurt that much more.

Instead, why not embrace the idea that plenty of things in life happen for no reason at all, except, perhaps, for the culmination of random factors and arbitrary decisions…the cosmic web of coincidence…which can end up dropping anyone down a deep dark hole? (Arguably, this is a ‘shit happens’ bumper sticker argument, but I like to think of it as much more involved).  And why not embrace the idea that darkness is an essential part of being human? As much as happiness may be the goal, as much as we may all want to be millionaires and rock stars and movie gods, even the millionaires and rock stars and movie gods among us can’t completely avoid disappointments, disasters, trauma, and loss—hell, a lot of them are born of that negativity (although I don’t want to promote any ‘tortured artist’ stereotypes).

None of us get to insulate ourselves against negative feelings. Those negative feelings–even feelings of suicide–are actually much more common than people think. But when we’re so fixated on happy, and so fixated on the idea that we can ARRIVE at happiness once and for all, with just the right combination of attitude and effort, we set people up to wonder just what is wrong with them when happiness seems so elusive.

So, check in with your friends and family this spring and every spring (and every other season for that matter). That celebration-free, often contact-free, stretch from New Years Day until the world starts warming up in spring can be long and dark as hell…and when spring rolls around, and people are left feeling like they are still disconnected and down in a hole, despite all the blossoms and rays, that darkness can become something much more overwhelming.

 

 

From Seed to Cocktail–In Memoriam

I had just been talking with a co-worker about growing tomatoes, and how I was late planting the tomato seeds I’d gotten at a friend’s funeral back in October, when I found out that that friend’s wife, Jodi, had died.

As usual, I’m struggling with the appropriate response…both virtually and in the real world. I’ve been on her Facebook wall repeatedly, tapping out letters and words that I then delete, feeling confused about just what is the appropriate response in the time immediately following the death of a friend.

After all, Facebook is where you wish “Happy Birthday” to people you rarely, if ever, see face-to-face, right? I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with posting an RIP message on somebody’s Facebook wall.   But to honor the person in this case, there’s a need for something other than drive-by (surf-by?) condolences. And, no, I’m not considering this piece to be the adequate response.

The message I kept reworking essentially came down to this…

Jodi had been battling that vicious monster since before I met her, over 12 years ago. She fought with such grace and tenacity that I was sure she would outlive us all. And if the kindness one unleashes in the world, and the reverberations of that kindness, count in the tally of one’s years, then I’m sure she will.

In case there’s any question, the above isn’t one of those bullshit eulogies, like when Richard Nixon died, and suddenly everybody remembered what a great guy he was, despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary.  Everybody who met Jodi loved Jodi.  And I’m pretty sure that would have held, even if she had been tied to some ridiculous scandal that led to a widespread loss of faith in American democracy.

Jodi was just one of those people who was funny, warm, and fun to be around. She could slap you with a sarcastic comment that made you instantly feel like a part of her family. She seemed to have a bottomless well of good will and giving. She was the kind of person who lived her life, with cancer, better than most of us live our lives in good health.

A friend of mine from college, Jared, had a semi-serious theory that when a person dies, that person’s soul explodes into a whole bunch of little pieces, which blast out into the world, and attach themselves to the souls of all the people who ever loved that person, becoming a part of all of those people. Jared’s evidence for this was that, when his grandfather died, he was suddenly taken with the urge to go out fishing—something that he had never done, but his grandfather had done religiously. Jared described a beautiful, solitary day out on a lake, where all the love he had felt for his grandfather resolved itself into a sense of peace in regard to his grandfather’s passing, and the meaning of his grandfather’s life, and the lives of us all.

Now, I can’t say that I subscribe to Jared’s theory of exploded souls.   But a weirdly similar sense of “exploded soul attachment” hit me shortly after I received the news of Jodi’s passing. Of course, I was knocked off balance. I wondered if I should leave for the rest of the shift, out of concern that I might be overwhelmed with the demands of assisting people through crisis situations. I gave my co-workers a heads up, essentially enlisting their help in ensuring I didn’t make a mess of things.

But instead of the feared distraction and destruction, I felt imbued with a sense of caring and connection with the clients, which is often difficult to engage. That is, as something of a survival technique for the job, it’s necessary to avoid getting caught up in the drama and emotion of the lives of clients, while also being able to convey a sense of empathy. It’s a difficult balancing act to keep an appropriate sense of distance, without disengaging. But all I felt was calm, a sense of presence with the clients that can be difficult to maintain while also staying on top of the other elements of the job.

Supposing for a minute that the theory of exploding souls is true, my piece of Jodi’s soul manifested itself in the feelings of calmness I experienced—an ability to connect and remain in the moment. Even my exchanges with clients I have spoken to hundreds of times were a bit more ‘in the now.’

I’m going to try to hang onto that little piece of her soul.

And for now, I’m going to get those tomato seeds in their pots, and think on how glad I am to have had the opportunity to craft and share a few lakeside, breakfast Bloody Marys with Jodi.

bloody mary