A Searchlight Soul

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

Chester Bennington completed suicide by hanging on Chris Cornell’s birthday, just over a month after Chris Cornell completed suicide by hanging on the 37th anniversary of Ian Curtis’ suicide by hanging.

For those unfamiliar, Bennington was best known as the lead singer of Linkin Park; Chris Cornell was best known as the lead singer of Soundgarden; and Ian Curtis was best known as lead singer of Joy Division.

Now, Linkin Park’s music makes me want to grind my teeth, spit, and curse—and not in a good way. And I never got into Joy Division beyond owning a ‘greatest hits’ collection for a few years as an undergrad. I am, however, a big fan of Soundgarden, as well as another of Cornell’s bands, Audioslave—not such a big fan that I ever made it to a concert. But, living in Seattle, I would see members of the band at other bands’ shows around town in the way back of the early 90s.

cornell dark

How would I know?  Cornell from ‘Fell on Black Days.’

I have no idea if Cornell’s suicide was related to Curtis’ beyond coincidence. But Bennington’s was directly connected to Cornell’s. They were friends, and, from what I understand, Bennington took Cornell’s death particularly hard. Both Cornell and Bennington had struggled with addiction and mental health issues during their lives.

But the takeaway shouldn’t only be that a life marbled with addiction and mental health issues leads to suicide. That makes it too easy for people to distance themselves from suicide, its causes, and our potential susceptibility to its draw.

In the wake of a loved one’s death, thoughts of suicide can arise or increase, and suicide attempts climb.

In the wake of a loved one’s death from suicide, those thoughts and those attempts climb significantly higher.

There are those who have criticized Curtis’, Cornell’s, and Bennington’s suicides by pointing out that they had achieved success, or had spouses, friends, children…all of which should have somehow prevented them from committing suicide, much less having thoughts of such.

That’s a natural impulse—to want to point out why we never would have killed ourselves in similar circumstances. But it’s also false comfort.

Just try to imagine finding yourself in a space where money, success, and a loving family can be discounted as not providing enough impetus to go on living. Imagine finding yourself in a space where you actually feel the people who care about you most will be better off without you. Imagine being so deep into that thought process that you can’t find your way out—that it seems completely logical—that suicide actually seems like the only rational decision.

I could get into explanations of survivor guilt, or what grief can do to people, or the impact of knowing that a friend reached the conclusion that suicide was an appropriate response to the world around them–a world that you were part of.

But I’d rather you think on how declaring yourself immune to something, insisting you are completely separate from some problem, is the first step to blocking your understanding of that problem…or worse, blocking your compassion toward others affected by that problem. You can feel for the families and friends of those who complete suicide without feeling the need to condemn the dead. That condemnation does nothing to help the grieving, or anybody else, least of all you.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

My One-Tweet War with Tyrannosaurus Rump

by

J.C. Schildbach, LMHC

It was a glorious day in early October, 2015. It seems a lifetime ago. Or perhaps an alternate universe ago? Definitely a different reality.

Anyway, a Twitter notification popped up on my phone, letting me know that @realDonaldTrump was following me.

Really? The “real” Donald Trump was following me on Twitter?

Assuming it was a parody account, I hopped over to check it out. And Hoe-Lee Ess-Aitch-Eye-Tee—it was really the for-real real Donald Trump following me.

Okay, maybe he let his youngest kid play with his phone. Or maybe his handlers were busy following everybody that fell into his “target demographic” of middle-aged white males. Or maybe it was all a game to get a follow-back and then dump me.  Who knows?

Current events at the time were mostly swirling around the recent Umpqua Community College shooting. Tyrannosaurus Rump was tweet-defending Dr. Ben Carson’s suggestions that people hit active shooters with chairs.

Out on the campaign trail, the T. rump was getting massive amounts of free media coverage for talking about how there is no gun problem in the good ol’ U.S. of A., only a mental health problem. Here’s just one, tweet-based piece of that coverage from a Washington Post reporter:

philip-bump-on-trump

So, mere minutes after realizing I had a titan of industry as one of my Twitter followers, I sent this tweet out to my newest fan:

my-trump-tweet

I sat and waited a bit for a response from Trump or any of my fewer-than-400 followers. If only I’d known the trick of putting a period before his address. Okay, I still probably wouldn’t have gotten all that much of a reaction, but I can dream, can’t I?

The minutes turned to more minutes, and soon I went off and did something else…like took a nap, or maybe put away some laundry. The TV was on. I know this because that’s where I heard the Tyrannosaurus Rump going off about the mental health vs. guns stuff—the stuff that prompted me to send my not-all-that-clever Tweet.

I saw no further notifications. I hadn’t provoked some backlash from the T. rump’s followers, leading to a ‘blowing up’ of my phone.

I popped onto Twitter an hour or two later, and quickly realized I was down a follower from the last time I had logged on.

Could it be?

No!

Not only had the T. rump given up on following me, the man who would become the leader of the free world (barring any religious-conversion-inspiring results from election recounts) had done this:

blocked-trump

Blocked.

I was blocked.

The tweet that I had thought was a total throw-away, a barely-conceived idea that I’d bounced out into the world, because of some audio of T. rump I’d heard over the local news–had upset the Tyrannosaur (or had alarmed his handlers) to such an extent that I was no longer allowed to even view the stream-of-garbageness that flows from his fingers, into his phone, and out to the worldwide web.

To this day, I cannot even see the wit and wisdom the T. rump shares with the world…I mean, except by looking at any other media outlet anywhere, all of which seem to be obsessed with reporting on tweets from the Tyrannosaurus Rump, or by logging into my dummy Twitter account that I set up mostly for the purpose of playing along with @Midnight’s hashtag wars.

Still, it hurts to know that I caused so much strife to someone who was just reaching out, looking for a friend. How could I have been so careless as to cause so much hurt? Why did I let my mean spirit provoke an instant blockage?

Yes, the man who would unthinkably become the leader of the free world had been so traumatized by my nasty comments that he would cut himself off from me for good. Citizens be damned.

Remember–your President Elect will not tolerate disrespectful tweets.

No, really, remember it.

And if I go missing, well, I regret nothing…well, at least not where that tweet is concerned.

But, really?

That’s what got me blocked?

My friends say worse sh*t to me on a daily basis.
Daily.
I kid you not.
And he’s going to have access to nuclear weapons?
Oh, good god, I probably shouldn’t have made those Tyrannosaurus Rump comments.

Thanksgiving Greetings from an Ingrate, 2016: Where’s the Mashed Potatoes?

by

J.C. Schildbach, LMHC

Okay…this post has nothing to do with a lack of mashed potatoes.  I just love that line.  It’s become a staple of M and my faux-complaining about, well, really any meal–not just Thanksgiving.  Not that we want mashed potatoes at every meal, but anyway…

A friend recently called me out for not being an ingrate. This via a Facebook post, wherein I was responding to her efforts at working through the 24-days-of-gratitude challenge, or whatever it’s called when you note something you’re thankful for every day throughout November until Thanksgiving. I commented that I had been planning to do the same, although “planning” is perhaps too strong a word…it had occurred to me that I could engage in that challenge, and that I had done it in the past…although, maybe not in November. I might have just chosen 24 or 25 random days, having missed the point entirely…or maybe having expanded the point out in the most glorious of ways by refusing to confine my thankfulness to some specific stretch on a calendar. At any rate, not being an ingrate perhaps takes away from these annual posts, but at least somebody gets the point…that I’m not really an ingrate.

To those who don’t know me, it might be easy to imagine I am such. I enjoy complaining–embrace complaining–as an art form. It’s performance. It’s fun. It’s pure joy, garnering accolades and laughs when in the right company—and disturbed, ‘are-you-okay?’-furrowed-brow looks when in the ‘wrong’ company.

You see, when a big portion of your work is devoted to listening, absorbing, and redirecting the misery of the world, complaining is life-saving, life-affirming, the stuff of thanks.

Or not.

It’s all a matter of perspective. Much of the ‘wrong’ company involves people in my same field, but with a vastly different view of how we need to approach life in order to receive the blessings of thanks, or the thanks of blessings, or whatever life-denying positivity they think will cancel out the darkness of the season…that same darkness our ancestors feared was the impending end of time.

ingrate-thanksgiving

Blurry and off-color…just like misplaced anger!

When I set out to write this annual exercise in ingratitude/gratitude, I tried to think of a good Thanksgiving story from my past.

As I’ve noted in previous ‘ingrate’ posts, I have very few specific childhood memories of Thanksgiving. It was just some day off from school—two days actually–where things were, perhaps, much worse than school…having to put on church clothes only to have a meal that wasn’t particularly interesting.

Perhaps my emotional deficit around Thanksgiving is that it comes between my own balls-out/dress-up/mess-up-the-house-with-monster-decorations/get-candy enthusiasm of Halloween, and the hyper-sentimentality/religious significance/songs/smells/twinkling-lights/PRESENTS!! of Christmas.

How can Thanksgiving compete with that? New Year’s doesn’t fare all that well in comparison, either. Perhaps as a child, I was too close to family, too frequently in contact with them, to realize the value in being able to meet up yet again.  Getting together with family is something that’s become far too infrequent, with siblings spread out across six states, and cousins across at least four more that I know of.

In the absence of the frequent family gathering, I have grown to love, if not the sham history of the holiday, then what the idea of the holiday represents…coming together, helping each other out, recognizing what we have, and why all those elements are potentially so great.

Again this year, my immediate family and I are going out to eat for Thanksgiving–at a favorite restaurant where we’ve enjoyed Thanksgiving dinner before. Again this year, it is a function of our work schedules. That is to say, we could request time off, but, as with every year of the last decade, I work in a 24/7 operation, and M works at a school that caters to doctors (who work in a 24/7 operation). So, we pick and choose which holidays to celebrate more or less enthusiastically.

M was insisting she wanted to make a Thanksgiving meal this year. When the idea was first proposed, I went along with it. Then, at some later time, the kid and I ganged up on her, and pointed out that she had to work the day before, and the day after, Thanksgiving, as do I.  Well, actually, I’m working the day before, the day of, and the day after Thanksgiving, which means a portion of the argument rested on what a pain it would be for me to help do the shopping and cooking and all that, while still attempting to get any sleep–have I mentioned that I work nights?  Coordinating the menu, the purchase of the food, and the preparation of the food, was far more work than we were all ultimately prepared to do, all for just the three of us.

We managed to nail down Christmas plans that would allow more time before and after that holiday to indulge in such excessive amounts of preparation and work, and still get in a fair amount of relaxation, all in the company of family. I’ll hold to my feeling that thanks shouldn’t be a chore, and that holidays should be centered around a desire to celebrate, rather than an obligation to go through the motions of celebration.

I am incredibly thankful, once again, that I have the great fortune to pay to indulge in the hospitality provided by others. And once again, I intend to tip with guilt-laden generosity.

Wherever you are today, I hope you have reason to recognize your situation as one of great fortune as well.

Happy Thanksgiving.

 

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.

 

Escaping the Groundhog Trap

by

J.C. Schildbach, LMHC

I’m not a big fan of Groundhog Day—the holiday or the movie.

As a kid, the holiday just confused me. Why a groundhog? Can’t you just see if you cast a shadow yourself? Or if a bush, a stone, a dog…anything casts a shadow? I wondered at the particular properties of groundhogs, and why their shadows might be somehow different than those of any other thing on the planet. I suppose I never quite felt like anybody adequately explained the magical properties of particular varieties of burrowing rodents for me to really get behind the holiday or its alleged meaning.

The lack of a real explanation is one of the things that keeps me from enjoying the movie, Groundhog Day as well. What caused this to happen? And why is the resolution what it is? What would make any magical powers of time control so interested in getting Bill Murray’s character, Phil, together with Andie MacDowell’s character, Rita? Perhaps a resident of Punxsutawney is one of the aliens from Edge of Tomorrow who accidentally infected Phil with the time control powers. But that can’t be it, because then Phil would’ve had to die every day, and he only died on some of those days.

Beyond that, the movie just follows the theme of so many movies from the 1980s about how great small-town America is, and how some cynical guy from the big city needs to learn to appreciate that. As for Murray’s arc in the movie, it’s rather similar to Scrooged.

The audience is also expected to root for Phil to ‘get the girl,’ even after he uses his powers of time repetition to manipulate one of the local women into sleeping with him, and then trying to manipulate Rita into falling for him by pretending to like everything she likes—information he gathers from her in conversations she will never remember.

Ultimately, Phil has to get through one day being kind and helpful, rather than acting like his usual, egocentric self (but, again, why is this the resolution—and would it really matter whether Rita decided she liked him or not?). But that last, single day of generous Phil doesn’t feel much different from the videogame-style resets that go on through the rest of the movie, or in Edge of Tomorrow, and hardly seems like a long-term change to his character as much as it feels like him resigning himself to being a decent human being for one day if he ever wants to get out of Punxsutawney. How is his decency not just more manipulation—another possible route out of the repetition he is trapped in?

Many people have labeled Phil’s situation in Groundhog Day an “existential dilemma” or otherwise termed the movie as existentialist. Properly speaking, though, if Phil’s was an existential problem, he wouldn’t have a long period of being able to make whatever decisions he wanted with no thought, responsibility, or consequences at all, only to be pushed into making the “right” decisions–as judged by whatever power kept him perpetually trapped in Punxsutawney on a particular day–until he did what was deemed correct by that power and the “spell” was broken. He would be responsible for whatever he did, and nothing would compel him to do anything.

groundhog drive

The most important lesson of all–Don’t drive angry.

Still, it’s something of a tribute to Groundhog Day, the movie, that it has become synonymous in our culture with repetitive behavior or situations. And it is perhaps the fantasy that we could relive a particular day until we did it right, managing to impress everyone around us, and connect with our one true love in the process (as well as the opportunity to indulge in a great deal of irresponsible behavior along the way), that has led it to this level of popular recognition. Or perhaps it’s the underlying idea that we are trapped by our own behaviors in repetitive cycles, and that we can change ourselves in order to achieve a better life—along with the wishful notion that we need to be good people if we really want to get what we want.

After all, the idea of breaking out of repetitive cycles and habits, or perhaps of creating better habits and repetitive cycles, along with being better people…good people…our best selves, is what underlies much religion, philosophy, and, yes, therapy.

We all struggle through our own behavioral patterns, habits, and the potential sameness of our days, the rut of weeks, months, seasons, and years. But no bizarre fluke of time is going to trap us in a loop and push us to do things differently and become better people, or pursue what we want. That’s on us.

Whatever I might think of him, Phil found out that it wasn’t a groundhog, or the celebration that surrounded a groundhog’s shadow, that was at the core of his problem. Rather it was his own shadows, the darkness he threw out into the world.

So maybe Groundhog Day is the perfect time to look around at our own shadows and what they say about our forecasts—how much more winter we may have in store—and then think about what, if anything, we want to do to change that.

Happy Groundhog Day.

 

Guns Don’t Kill People. Stickers Kill People!

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

For decades, “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” and “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns” did the job of letting tough guys/tough gals let everyone know that they viewed more gun violence and the threat of gun violence as the number one solution to gun violence.

But, with the Internet opening us up to increasingly contentious arguments with complete strangers, and with gun violence reaching into more and more corners of American life—claiming the lives of children at school, moviegoers, and people coming together to worship, to name just a few, the National Rifle Association (NRA) had to get more creative in promoting their simplistic ideology that guns are always the answer.

After all, how do you sell mass murder to people? How do you continue to convince people that guns are the answer to guns? How do you adapt the idea of mutually assured destruction—so effective in the global arms race—to the micro level, getting people to think it’s a great idea right in their homes and neighborhoods?

Well, you come up with more dumb slogans that are effectively meaningless, mostly untrue, and promote the continued stockpiling of weapons among the decreasing percentage of American homes where people actually keep guns.

Just read any comment thread on any article about gun violence or gun control, and it’s guaranteed you’ll see the tried and true “outlaws” and “guns don’t kill” slogans in there right alongside the NRA’s other branding strategy updates: killers will find a way to kill even if they don’t have guns; we just need to enforce the laws that are already on the books; Chicago has strict gun laws/high gun violence; mental illness is the problem, not guns; and so on.

One of the latest buzz-concepts is that “Gun Free Zones” are the problem, not guns. Put that little “gun free zone” sticker in the front window of a business or school, and it will attract mass shooters like fruit flies to old fruit.

Of course, just like every other NRA-sponsored motto, it defies logic, and isn’t actually true in any demonstrable way.

First of all, let’s take a quick look at the origins of the “gun-free zone” campaign. Of course anyone arguing on an Internet comments thread could look up the “Gun-Free Zone Act of 1990”—say, on Wikipedia which shows how completely stupid the “gun-free zones kill” argument is, but why bother knowing anything when it’s so much easier to get angry while being completely wrong?

Beware citizen!  Steer clear of this sign or you might get shot!

Beware citizen! Steer clear of this sign or you might get shot!

Basically, the act was put in place 25 years ago to keep high school students from bringing guns to school and shooting each other. Sounds pretty reasonable. Of course, gun lovers jump off at that point and say it didn’t work.  Kids are still shooting each other.  And, of course the only way to make sure kids stop shooting each other is to make sure more kids have the means to shoot each other.

Yet, as much as it may or may not have kept little Bobby from sneaking a gun into school in his Incredible Hulk backpack, one thing that the Gun-Free Zone Act did NOT do was prevent armed security personnel—and other authorized parties—from carrying guns in schools. In other words, gun-free zones are not actually gun-free. Ideally, they are free from guns in the hands of people who are not supposed to have them—just like the rest of the entire country.

That is to say, The Gun-Free Zone Act, and all of its attendant signs and window-stickers, was a politically-motivated band-aid measure that really didn’t do anything except make a few bucks for businesses that print signs and stickers.

Before the Gun-Free Zone Act, it was illegal for kids to bring guns to school and shoot each other. After the Gun-Free Zone Act, it was still illegal for kids to bring guns to school and shoot each other. The big change was that after the passage of the law, kids could get in lots and lots of trouble for bringing a gun to school, even if they didn’t actually get around to shooting anybody with it.

Due to other situations of gun violence, like mass shootings in post offices and office buildings, numerous business officials, and government bodies also decided they would declare their workplaces “gun-free zones”—basically meaning that employees were not supposed to be packing heat at their cubicles, or while stocking shelves, or sorting mail.

Somehow, though, we’ve gotten to the point where the NRA, and all of the people who parrot the NRA talking points, apparently think it is somehow unreasonable to prevent, say, junior high kids from bringing guns to school, or to keep Jerry in accounting from having a loaded weapon tucked in his waistband while he microwaves his Hot Pocket in the breakroom.

Despite the proliferation of numerous “gun-free zone” signs and stickers, schools and businesses were still free to have armed security personnel on site. And, thanks to “concealed carry” laws, which exist in several states, and often contain provisions to explicitly allow concealed carry in gun-free zones, plenty of people can actually take their guns into “gun-free zones.”

And lets be clear. Umpqua Community College—the latest site of a well-publicized mass shooting, if I get this posted before another one happens—was NOT a gun-free zone, as so many pro-gun folk are claiming. That is, concealed carry is allowed on the Umpqua Community College campus, so long as people are legally allowed to have their guns with them via concealed carry permits.

Still, there are plenty of pro-gun folk, even those who are aware that concealed carry is allowed on the Umpqua Community College campus, who inexplicably–even immediately after acknowledging that concealed carry is allowed on the UCC campus–cannot stop claiming that UCC is a gun-free zone. Apparently, allowing guns in a gun-free zone is not enough to appease some people.

Perhaps what the NRA is pushing for, with it’s blame-the-gun-free-zones campaign, is to allow open carry in schools, and everywhere else.

But what the NRA is actually demanding is the removal of gun-free zone stickers and signs. After all, the NRA has already crafted and passed many laws that have rendered the gun-free zone laws moot.

Sure, plenty of mass shootings, and just plain old shootings have happened in areas that were labeled “gun-free zones,” just like numerous shootings have taken place in areas with no such labels.

But there is zero evidence that any mass shooter ever chose a target specifically because it was labeled a gun-free zone.

And despite the frequent existence of “good guys with guns” in the very same locations where mass shootings take place—whether those are labeled gun-free zones or not—there has not been some sharp increase in citizens preventing mass shootings as the number of guns has proliferated in the United States, or some great reduction in the number of mass shootings as mass shooters get scared away at the possibility that there might be people with concealed carry permits on hand.

In other words, as much as the NRA pushes the idea that more people with guns means that mass shootings will be stopped, there are still a huge number of mass shootings, and just plain-old shootings, taking place in the United States. As much as the NRA has succeeded at establishing more concealed carry and open carry laws, the shootings haven’t stopped, or even decreased.

But it’s so much more convenient to for the NRA to launch polly-wanna-cracker slogan campaigns to its ready audience of parrots than it is for the NRA to engage in any substantive reform of laws that might actually improve the safety of all the “good guys with guns,” as well as those of us who really don’t feel the need to keep guns.

Of course, the NRA exists to provoke gun sales, not to concern itself with public safety.

In fact, the good folks at the NRA have gotten so desperate to distract the American people, that they are blaming an ineffectual band-aid law for gun violence.

So, let’s do it. Let’s take down all of the “gun free zone” signs and stickers tomorrow. All of them. Everywhere. And let’s repeal the gun-free zone laws. They’re nothing but a symbol anyway. It won’t do one stinking thing to stop gun violence, just like taking down the Confederate flag did nothing to stop gun violence.

But maybe we can shut down the talking point about gun-free zones a little quicker.

Then all the people who are suddenly so fixated on stickers and signs as the source of gun violence can get back to working on all those fixes for the mental healthcare system.

Happy Anniversary: Flagpoles and Drawers

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

On the night I first met my wife, M, I climbed to the top of the flagpole outside the Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood. As I reached the top, one of our fellow party-goers shouted out, “Go, monkey-man!” So I did what anybody would do in those circumstances. I clung to the pole with only my legs and feet, and beat my chest, gorilla-style, then threw out a few flex poses before shimmying back down.

It was a display of bravado, born of a desire to show up two younger men at a party. Both had attempted, and failed, the climb. As a pair—perhaps one as the interested party and the other as “wingman”—they had attempted, and failed, to initiate multiple conversations with M that evening, never making it beyond an exchange of pleasantries.

M has no recollection whatsoever of the pole-climbing stunt.

What she remembers of me from that night is what she refers to as my ‘patience’ at speaking with her throughout the evening. M was born and raised in Japan, and her English was imperfect. Add in a raucous party soundtrack, and the swirl of a crowd, and communication could get choppy.

But patience didn’t figure into my perspective of the meeting. Having the attention of a beautiful and (per her own description) weird young woman was not the kind of thing that required a great deal of patience on my part. If seeking out mutually understood vocabulary extended the conversation, and scored me points for being attentive and ‘patient,’ then so much the better.

Out of control party people.

Out of control party people.

The guest of honor at that birthday party, our mutual friend D, had driven both M and me to the party. Shortly after our arrival, M set to work on the birthday gift she had brought–a sort of origami kit that formed a miniature chest-of-drawers. At first, D had intended to share in the crafty construction, but was frequently drawn away by other guests and obligations. After the umpteenth interruption, D suggested I take her place at the table where the paper furniture was being assembled.

The DIY furniture that brought us together--more complex and much smaller than anything from IKEA.

The DIY furniture that brought us together–more complex and much smaller than anything from IKEA.

In previous months, I had been subjected to some of D’s other attempts at matchmaking. And, at the time of the birthday party, possibly unbeknownst to D, I was casually dating the host of the party, D’s soon-to-be-ex-sister-in-law (hey—I had nothing to do with the divorce—that marriage fell apart before I even met her).

After the initial, obligatory background questions, M and I quickly learned we shared an affinity for writing, hard rock, and violent cinema. It was a stiltedly animated conversation, with small bursts of excitement at each common reference point, and a fair amount of laughter over our often-clumsy attempts to bridge the language gap.

origami drawer

The actual miniature chest of drawers–still alive today.  Thanks, D!

The flagpole incident took place hours after the chest of drawers was completed, when we had all filed outside in the final moments before the party dissolved into various groups loading into separate cars and heading out in multiple directions.

I didn’t see M for another two months after that—when a family emergency led to D gifting M her ticket to an Alice in Chains concert that I was also attending.

The night of the concert unofficially marked the start of our ‘courtship’—a shaky period of largely reckless interactions, tempered somewhat by fortunate circumstances, that ultimately necessitated a definition-of-us conversation. To even our own surprise, that talk led to us abruptly moving in together and setting a wedding date—in no small part due to the impending expiration of M’s student visa, and the uncertainty surrounding her ability to return to the U.S. if she were to head back home to Japan.

Looking back, I’m still awed by the strange urgency of our coming together—a time I still picture as the two of us tumbling along on the front edge of an avalanche.

But I wouldn’t hesitate to ride that avalanche again, or to climb any number of flagpoles, in order to embark on that same path of mutually-sought understanding and love–a path we’ve been traveling for over half of M’s life, and almost half of mine.

Happy 22nd, M!

Happy Birthday to Me: Camp Pooparazzi

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

Mos Eisley Spaceport: You’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy…or a more kickass birthday present for an 11-year-old!

After a week at camp...Mos Eisley Spaceport Cantina, where the droids wait outside.

After a week at camp…Mos Eisley Spaceport Cantina, where the droids wait outside.

There’s probably a photo somewhere of this Mos Eisley Cantina playset (and, yes, nerds, that is a blue Snaggletooth figure in there) with me posed proudly behind it. I was going to joke that my mom took the picture of the playset without me because she got tired of waiting for me to get out of the bathroom. You see, I had been at Outdoor School for the previous week and was emptying my bowels of a week’s worth—well, five-ish days worth—of camp food, over the course of several emergency trips to the bathroom.

TMI? Well wait, there’s more.

Anyway, I was going to joke about my absence from the picture, but the truth is, my mom was really cool about letting me stage a scene with my new toy and take a picture of it. Keep in mind that this was back in the days of film rolls, which were a bit spendy to buy and to print, and with no guarantee that the pictures were going to turn out. You couldn’t just delete the file and take another. No, you snapped those precious pictures carefully, over the space of however long it took to complete a roll of 20 or so pictures, then popped the roll out of the camera, took it to the store and waited days for the lab to process them. The stamp on the back of the photo shows that it didn’t get developed until April of the following year.  And, as you can see, I didn’t quite get the focus right.

Don’t get me wrong. The story of the excessive time in the bathroom is true. As I said, it was the week of Outdoor School at Camp Yamhill—meaning I had been away from home on my actual birthday, which fell on a Thursday that year. They brought us home on Friday.

Outdoor School was ostensibly to get 6th graders out into the wild to learn about the miracles of nature all around us—although I can’t remember a single part of the curriculum, aside from a lesson on erosion.  The lesson was memorable to me for what we didn’t learn, or, perhaps for how we didn’t learn it.  the camp counselor took us out on a hike, stopped along the trail by a fairly steep embankment that rose up and away from us, and then emptied some water out of a cup onto the embankment. The small group I was with had no idea what the counselor was getting at by showing us this.  And he got really annoyed when one of our group asked if he could show us again—because the counselor had already emptied all the water out of the smallish drinking cup he’d carried all the way out to this point on the trail.

Being something of a teacher’s-pet-type, I really wanted to be able to answer the counselor’s questions. But also being of a perfectionistic bent, I didn’t want to offer up mere guesses that may have been wrong. I finally said something, in response to him asking me a direct question. That led to him asking me follow-up questions. But I just didn’t know the answers. I hadn’t read up on erosion prior to the hike, and wasn’t particularly familiar with the concerns involved. Ultimately, exasperated at our lack of inquisitiveness and inability to follow the lesson as he presented it, the counselor just told us the answers we would need to fill out the worksheet on erosion that we had brought along in our camp folders.

To be sure, I have scads of memories of the week—just not about the stuff we were sent out there to learn.

For instance, there was the terrifying moment when, during dinner one night, they announced the birthday girls and boys for the week. Those few of us were supposed to go up to the front of the dining hall and stand there while the rest of the campers sang “Happy Birthday.”

I froze, despite the heat of a deep blush rising in my face.

Painfully shy, even around most of my own classmates, we were at camp with sixth graders from multiple schools—people I had never met before, and would experience only for a few short days, and in a largely cursory manner. My tablemates urged me to go bask in the attention. One of the female counselors came around in an effort to weed out the birthday campers. But the counselor from my own cabin, who went by the name “Lightning”—a name I had previously associated with a horse from Nebraska—quietly waved her away and shot a look at my tablemates, with the message to leave me be. I was immensely grateful in that moment—until a sense of regret crept in at my deliberate avoidance of what was supposed to be a fun and kind gesture by the camp organizers.

But there were plenty of things I dove right into.  We made “hobo stoves”—unthinkably unsafe tin-snipped coffee cans, with cardboard tightly rolled into tuna cans and set ablaze—to cook hamburger patties.

There were the camp crafts, and camp games—and, hey trendsetters with more energy than me, if there aren’t already adult Capture the Flag leagues, somebody needs to get on that.

And then there was Alan—a camper from another school who landed in the same cabin I was assigned—the mighty brown pelicans (all the cabins were named after endangered species)—and who almost immediately got into an argument with one of my classmates. That escalated into a physical fight by Tuesday, which resulted in a cabin-transfer for Alan. The loyalty of sixth-grade boys being what it is, I, of course, painted Alan as the villain in the situation. But regardless of my perceived need to choose sides, it was alarming and confusing for me to see two complete strangers develop such an immediate and intense animosity for one another, over essentially nothing, and hang onto it with such energy.

There were the camp sing-alongs including the camp theme song, which, as far as I remember, consisted solely of repeating “Camp Yamhill” over and over again at varied rhythms and pitches.

In perhaps the ultimate shot at provoking horrible embarrassment in the campers, each cabin group had to take turns performing skits on different days. We, the brown pelicans, did a skit so profound and accomplished that I can’t remember a single thing about it—aside from various cabin members arguing about the details of the skit until the absolute last minute—details still undecided as we took the stage in a swirl of hushed, urgent, and contradictory orders given by multiple self-appointed artistic directors. ‘Thank God,’ I thought, ‘we are not being graded on this.’

And there were the campfires each night—where I frequently caught myself staring through the darkness at one or the other of two crushes, there faces illuminated by the yellow-orange light of the fire, as acoustic-guitar-toting counselors led us in songs. I’m guessing we sang classic rowboat songs, like “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” and rounds of “Row Row Row Your Boat.” But the song we sang at camp that stuck with me most as I reached the landmark of wisdom that is age 11, was Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game.” A counselor or two would sing the various verses, campers joining in on the chorus:

“And the seasons they go round and round

And the painted ponies go up and down

We’re captive on the carousel of time

We can’t return we can only look

Behind from where we came

And go round and round and round

In the circle game”

…which would be a lovely and poignant place to end this post if I didn’t feel obligated to point out that, not actually knowing the title of the song, or the correct words, for years I sang that last line as “The circle again” as well as substituting “captured” for “captive.”

Also, I still haven’t explained that bathroom situation.

So, on the first day of camp, shortly after arriving and heading up the hill to get settled in our assigned cabins, I walked across the open space to the communal bathroom. Multiple other boys were cycling in and out. I procured a stall and began to relieve myself. A sudden commotion interrupted the peace of my flow, as an eruption of shouting, laughing, and the banging and slamming of the (lockless) door rocked the stall adjacent to mine.

From the various yells, I quickly discerned that a classmate—the occupant of the next stall over—was now the subject of a sneak-attack photo.  The horror!  Captured on film in the act of pooping!

At that very moment, already wary of having to use public restrooms as a general rule, and arguably allergic to the very thought of actually sitting on a public toilet, my sphincter closed itself off to business for the remainder of the week, lest any other bathroom paparazzi (pooparazzi?) turn up.

Now, the human body can do some amazing things, especially when prompted by fear. I have no recollection of feeling any ill effects over my defecation-avoidance scheme. It’s possible I may have made my way to the toilets once or twice during low-traffic times. Being a teacher’s-pet-type generally meant an absence of suspicion when requesting to use the bathroom.

Still, I was way off of any regular routine I may have had, so much so that by the time I made it back home, despite my tremendous joy and excitement at receiving the Mos Eisley Cantina playset, what may have been the best gift that year–well, for at least a few hours–was immediate access to a full bathroom, complete with a locked door, as my sphincter re-opened for business with an hours-long, albeit sporadic, inventory liquidation.

Ahh…memories.

Bed of Snakes

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

Sleep fell away and I knew something was wrong.

Grogginess held me down.

Pain. Tingling pain in my feet.  I moved my legs, and the tingling turned to stabbing.

Awake enough now to see it was definitely nighttime, the nightlight somehow making things scarier—casting just enough light to intensify the shadows.

I was frozen, a panic starting to take hold. If I moved, the pain intensified. Or did it?

Try again.

Yow! Bad idea. But what? Oh good grief! Snakes! It had to be snakes! If I moved, they would bite!

I had to get away, but how to avoid more bites? If I stayed, things would certainly get worse. But I already knew I couldn’t move without provoking more bites.

I could call out, but who knew what that might provoke? Might I only draw some other family member into danger? And what if they were all similarly under siege–nobody to help?

Stay absolutely still.

With one burst of energy I could be free of the bed and flee the snakes!

This would have to happen just right.

I prepped myself, trying to control my breathing, trying to work up the courage.

I had to go.

Go now!

Pitching off the blanket, I swung my feet off the bed and rolled out, narrowly maintaining my balance as I landed and staggered forward.

The snakes, wholly imagined, the memory real?

The snakes, wholly imagined, the memory real?

Stabbing, tingling pains in my feet, uncooperative legs and rubbery knees conspired to create a lurching journey across my bedroom and out into the hallway. I had no idea if the snakes were at my heels, or if more were in wait along the path.

Afraid to look down at my feet, certain of the terrible mess they must be. I staggered on until—dad!

I huffed and sputtered an incoherent explanation, grabbing at my feet.

Startled awake, he rose slowly and turned on his bedroom light. He crouched to examine my feet briefly. Each touch was tingling torture. But, he pointed out, there were no bite marks.

Scooping me up, he carried me back to my bedroom, despite my panicked insistence that it was a death trap, teeming with snakes. He flicked on the lights, prompting only mild stirring from the siblings who shared the room with me, and who were in their own, possibly snake-infested, beds.

The light revealed no additional snakes.  Perhaps they were all confined to my bed, although there were plenty of other hiding places.

I could not believe the sense of calm dad had as he approached my bed. I wanted to be released, to escape out of there. He had no idea–just marching right into it.  With me in one arm, gravely limiting his ability to respond appropriately to threats, dad reached for the blankets, peeling them back in one grand gesture that caused them to puff out like a parachute…revealing…nothing but my sheets, my stuffed toy dog, and my Teddy bear—or, rather, my Cindy bear. Oh, the pangs of guilt at the realization I’d left them behind to be devoured by snakes.

But where were the snakes? I looked wildly about. They must have moved to other hiding places!  Were they under the bed, coiled and ready to strike away at dad’s feet?

Dad set me down on the bed, again pointing out that I hadn’t been bitten. He surmised that my legs and feet had fallen asleep. The fading of the tingling sensations bore out that conclusion.

Dad pulled my blankets back into place, tucking me in, despite my insistence that I had truly been in danger. He flicked out the lights, and before long I was out again.

I that instance, my father was like a magician, disappearing the snakes with the sweeping flip of the sheets; or perhaps like Saint Patrick, driving the snakes from the island of my bed.  How had he swept away such evil with so little effort?

***

And that, dear reader, is a rather embellished version of what is not only my first (narrative) memory of any sort, but also the only memory whatsoever that I have of my father. As with almost any memory, especially early, unclear ones, I have no idea what percentage of it, if any, is real. Assuming even some portion of it is real, I was not even three years old at the time it took place. This I know because my father died a week before my third birthday, when a young man ran a stop sign in the tiny, Nebraska town where we lived, crushing my father’s rather poorly-engineered car.

As I write this, it’s the anniversary of that day. Had my dad not been taken from us on that day, or any time in the interim, he would be in his 80s now. Earlier this year, I had intended to (finally) commemorate his birthday, rather than to remember him on this more somber occasion. But, after checking the date, I neglected to write it on the kitchen calendar, and it slipped my mind in the great wash of trivial things that are forever plaguing all of us.

Of course, when the bulk of your remembered experience of a person is the loss and absence of that person, forgetfulness isn’t all that unusual a tribute.

At any rate, the memory of the foot-biting bed-snakes–real or imagined or somewhere in between–is the one thing I’ve clung to about my father throughout the years—that I went to him in a moment of confused terror, and that he set things to right.

That’s not a bad thing to hang onto.

Happy death-day, pops.