No, no. Not THAT walk of shame….
I’ve spoken many times about my support for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I’ve asked for your donations to their vital cause. I’ve shared the many reasons I participate in the Out of the Darkness walk with you. I’ve droned on and on about how important their services are. How they have programs for those left hollow in the wake of a loved one’s suicide. How they have outreach programs for people who have attempted suicide, or are feeling suicidal. How they fund research into mental illness and treatments for those ailments. How they try to shine a light on the darkness of this phenomenon which seems to affect every soul in some way, yet is never constructively discussed. What I don’t think I’ve ever discussed is how this walk makes me feel.
This sounds horrible, but I don’t really like going to the Out of the Darkness walks. They are stark reminders of how suicide, for better and worse, has shaped my life.
I’m often left a bit befuddled at these events. The folks attending always seem to be in such great moods, even if the weather may be literally raining on our parade. People are joking. They are laughing. They are celebrating how much money has been raised for the cause. They are reuniting with friends they haven’t seen in far too long. They wear smiles. They proudly brandish memorabilia of loved ones lost to suicide.
I take it all in and wonder. Why are they so happy? How can they laugh and smile at such a somber event? How can they joke when we’re here to raise awareness for such a serious topic? How can the mood of over 2000 people be so bright under a cloud so dark?
The events start by the numbers. How many people are there. How much money was raised. The top five teams and top five individuals in terms of donations received. Statistics: suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the US; 90% of people who commit suicide have a treatable mental illness; for every actual suicide there are 25 more attempts.
If those numbers don’t suck you down the rabbit hole what comes next surely will. They share stories. The chapter director starts by sharing how her father committed suicide and how later, she attempted as well. Survivors of suicide come out and share their stories. Spouses who lost their soulmates. Parents who lost their children. Children who lost their parents. A lost sibling. A lost veteran. A lost friend. And finally, someone who has attempted suicide.
While all this tragedy is laid bare for us all to soak in, I’m having flashbacks…
Physically restraining her when she vowed to jump off a bridge. The empty pill bottle in the waste basket. The tear running down her cheek. The promise that I’d never have to worry about her again.
Remembering, again, my son has an uncle he’ll never know. How his death decimated that family. All the tears shed. Drugs taken to numb the pain. The unanswered questions haunting them at night.
I then confront my own struggles. I have never once considered taking my own life. Any such thoughts are halted the moment I think about my children. I’m not vain enough to think I’m the best parent, or even a good parent, but I know how I’d feel if one of my parents died, let alone by suicide, despite our sometimes strained relationships. I couldn’t bare the thought of scarring my children in such a way, so that train of thought never even gets boarded. I still fight, though, and here lately I feel like I’ve come out on the other side. But I can honestly say that, if not for my children I don’t know where I’d be right now, or if I’d even be at all. I’ve fought off every rash reaction and instinct I’ve had over the last 6 years because of them. They may never know how many times they’ve saved me. Yes, I self-medicated. Yes, I was desperate to numb the pain. Yes, there was a leviathan hole within me that no amount of love, alcohol, or antidepressants could fill. But I still had my boys, and that kept me going.
The opening ceremony concludes and the walk begins, but it doesn’t end the hurricane raging in my head. The entire walk all of the thoughts above bounce around my head like lotto balls. I try to shake away the demons as I answer C’s barrage of innocent questions and comments. Are those train tracks? Where is the train? I think these train tracks are broken. How do the wheels go in these tracks? Look, a water sign! Why is there a log in the river? Is that a playground? Look, another water sign! Another water sign! Why are we going this way?
This year I pulled C away from it all to explain to him why we come to these walks. First I asked him if he knew why we came. “Because Uncle C is dead,” he says.
Well, pretty close…
I explained to him what suicide is and that that is how his uncle died. I told him that his uncle had an illness in his head that made him commit suicide. A sad look overtook his face for a moment before he told me he didn’t want to die, and that he didn’t want me to die. After explaining that no one lives forever he seemed to consider my words momentarily before asking if he could go play at the park.
I let him go play. He may not understand now, but at least when he does this won’t all be a shock to him.
The drive home was morose. All of the flashbacks and thoughts and demons had left me in an ill mood. I felt like a zombie; a shell of a human being buried beneath a blanket of paralyzing thoughts.
Between the cracks of all these thoughts, flashbacks, and demons there is shame. Shame that I’ve struggled. Shame I had no clue what to do when someone attempted suicide in front of me. Shame for thinking I could fix people when I’m broken myself. Shame for not recognizing I’m broken before finding pieces of myself scattered everywhere.
I don’t understand my shame. There are so many people fighting similar battles. I’m not alone. I’m literally surrounded by them at these events. Many people have it far worse than I. Still, admitting weakness makes one intensely vulnerable, and I, for one, loathe feeling that way. So I say nothing and save those words for this space, my mental junkyard.
I do know one thing, though; I’ll participate again next year. And the year after. And the year after that. Despite how horrible this walk makes me feel I know this is worth the effort. And the heartache.