Wednesday, March 26, 2014

How We Talk About Depression and Suicide

Yeah, we. As a culture. As parents. As teachers and grandparents and friends.

Believe me, I've pondered this topic many, many times. Those of you who are old-time readers of this blog know why. How do you say it right? How do you even know what to say?

The first time my younger child uttered those chilling words we all fear and prefer not to repeat in mixed company -- the dead words, as I like to think of them -- he was four years old. Yup. Totally impossible...but it happened, then and many times afterwards. You can read about it here.

You might not have known that pre-schoolers can yearn after death, just like teenagers and middle-agers and elderly folks. What they can't easily do, unless they are totally ignored by the adults in their lives, is pull it off. But they can wait for the day they are big enough, or brave enough, to move ahead with it.

There are a few reasons I've returned to the topic that prompted me to start The Striped Nickel way back in 2011. Not one of them is about my boy, who is now a teen, and who can finally think about LIVING his future rather than snuffing it out.


But I've been thinking a lot about death these days. Not because I'm depressed (although at least half the time I am), but because death is all the hell around us.

First of all -- and this is an old, old story but it always makes me cry -- Flanders Field. President Obama was there the other day for a visit. And I was thinking about The Great War and the devastating and beautiful music and poetry that came out of its great brutality and its heaving collective anguish. So that itself made me sad, and then I realized (duh) that WWI ignited one hundred years ago. And that WWII came and went not much later.

I'm not saying it's a BAD thing those days are long past. But I spent most of my life up till now in the 20th century. I was born just about 20 years after the end of the second world war. And I guess I am just getting old.

Then there are all these 21st-century deaths surrounding us.

Death by rogue airplane.
Death by mudslide.
Death by fire.
Death by water.
Oh yeah, and death by totally unnecessary evils, like FUCKING AUTOMATIC WEAPONS in the hands of anyone who feels he might need one while deer hunting. Or people pretending to "stand their ground" while apparently thinking they're just gonna "clean up the streets."

Sorry. Rant over.

This is a really scary, and really hard world. And that brings me back to children and suicide.

Tonight Saskia and I watched a local television program, Chronicle, about a recent cluster of suicides in a neighboring suburb. It's a place pretty much like the one we live in. Affluent, pressured. Nice to look at. Nice to live in if you can find people to connect with. (We have, but not all that many.)

A pretty horrible place to attend high school in.
Our town had ITS cluster of teen suicides between about 2004 and 2006. And these deaths forced a lot of people to think about what the hell is going on in our schools. But not hard enough, apparently, because not all that much has changed.

Sure, we have great suicide prevention programming in town these days, run by a great team, and we have student activists working tirelessly to promote a healthy school atmosphere.

But I hear the talk. I know that kids in our town are always saying things like, "I might as well kill myself if I don't get into Harvard or Yale."

Or, "I don't have time for dinner tonight. If I eat I will not finish my homework until 2 a.m., and it's hard enough to get through the day when I go to bed at the usual time." (Yes, it was my kid who said that, and the usual time is about 1 a.m.)

I know that these high school students have to choose between a little down time after school, a hangout with friends or in front of the TV, maybe some time in the sun, and finishing their CRAZY loads of homework with enough time left over for luxuries. Like food and sleep. I know they stress over what will become of them if they take only two ACCELERATED subjects and the rest merely at HONORS level. And whether not taking as many AP courses as possible will render them unable to attend college and homeless by the time they are thirty.

I know this. It is not news to me. And as sad as I am about three beautiful kids recently lost from the town next door, I am not remotely surprised.

What DID surprise me was how many people interviewed on Chronicle tonight kind of hefted all the responsibility for these tragedies on the kids who took their own lives.

Language like, "That was NOT okay. That was SELFISH. I loved him/her, I miss them, and they made a really bad choice."

Yeah. Damn straight they did. But I'm really not sure suicide is a choice, or that it feels like one to the person who simply cannot figure out a way to keep on living. It is so fucking hard to live in this world I almost can't breathe. And I live in greater Boston, not Syria. You know? I feel RIDICULOUS even saying so, but to me it is true. And to so many others, I assure you.

Getting back to the language of blame: Benjy has never been intentionally selfish. Maybe a little, when he's seriously dysregulated. But he has always loved, and known he was loved. And he has wanted, many, many times, to take his own life. He has even, on the darkest of days for both of us, asked me to help him do it.

I will never, ever say that Benjy made bad choices, that what he felt was "not OK." What he felt was unbearable pain and anguish, and it was not a choice.

Ben did not fail anyone, but a lot of people, a lot of adults and kids alike, failed him.

I hope beyond hope that Lars and I were not among them. Or at least not very often.

What I really wanted to hear from these folks on TV tonight was an acknowledgment that some person or people, and some institution or institutions, failed these terribly sad kids.

They were not bad kids. LOOK at them, for fuck's sake. And I'm sure their parents are not bad either, and are heartbroken in ways I hope most of us will never experience.

Let's just talk honestly about this stuff. You know?

In the Chronicle segment, if you watch it, there's a bit on Needham High School's Own Your Peace/Piece project. It's a cool thing. There's an assembly where kids get to stand up and own their struggles.

Saskia said that last year there was some really raw stuff. Kids talked true. Substance abuse. Cutting. That particular species of despair caused by school-suckage. Whatever.

So you know what? This year the struggles got pwned. They got censored. Or else every student in that school got a lot happier and a lot less tormented. No one talked about the tough stuff. No one talked true.

At least, that is how it appeared to someone who was there. And that person is hugely disappointed in the institutional and adult failings behind this year's Own Your Peace rally.

There's way too much fake talk in this world. Let's fix that, Readers! Let's DO IT!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Making a Comeback, One Inch at a Time

So, it's been more than three months since you've heard from The Nickel.

Yes, I am still alive. Most days, at least. And still trying to write, in my slow and small ways. I DID have a short story come out a month or so ago on the fantastic online young adult lit journal YARN. Click the journal name to read it. This is the Story Formerly Known as "Hello, Kitty." It's got an even better title now, thanks to the brilliance of fabulous writer/editor Diana Renn: "Small Change." You'll see why Small Change works better when/if you read the story.

Because my attention  span and energy are limited these days, I'm going to give you the updates you deserve in a bullet list. Here goes:

  • Benjy, Benjy, Benjy. He looks like the almost-14-year-old boy he is. He is crazy-handsome (but as I am his doting mother you may discount this statement at your discretion). Tall, a bit zitty (but who isn't at 13.10?), athletic. He is the person we always dreamed he could be and more so. Happy, mostly. Engaged. Taking on leadership roles at school. Making very good choices. Mentoring other kids. He's doing chores that I would have (im)politely declined at his age -- and might still. He is doing so well in school. He's recovered his quirky interests, and his focused brilliance. Tonight we will see him moving sets and props at the school's production of The Wizard of Oz. Yeah, he's the chief sets and props guy. Who would ever have guessed? Oh, and he is becoming a star archer. Man, can that kid pierce a  target right on the bulls eye. Nerves of steel and steely focus.
  • Saskia! What can I say? Her goodness is the best part of her. Her conscientiousness, her extraordinary work ethic. Her beautiful and generous willingness to work after school, in spite of outrageous loads of homework as well as community service, to help pay for her voice studies. Never a complaint. But here is the best news of all: through her own hard work -- and yes, talent -- and with a lot of gladly proffered effort on my part around admission and financial aid applications, she was accepted into one of the premier arts high schools in the country starting next year. It's not far from home so she will be a day student, thank goodness -- and she is over-the-moon excited. So are we. And grateful that she can have this chance.
  • Not much new at this point with Lars and me, except that we have bucked the trend of disability parents splitting up due to the pressures of living the kinds of lives we tend to live. We are stronger and better than ever, even though my own life has been altered -- but not necessarily for the worse -- by my new constant companion Fibromyalgia, and all its co-morbid minions.
Readers, we're OK. And I promise to try to bring The Nickel back to life. So stay tuned. And happy Friday to you all!