mental illness

Bell Let’s Talk Day

In 2012 I witnessed a suicide at work. Most of you know this (and are probably sick of this story. Too bad. The perks of being friends with me is I get to annoy the living shit out of you fuckers.)(you’re welcome!). I talk about it because *I* need to talk about it, but also people need to hear it. I’ve had people, complete strangers, tell me that my talking about it made them second guess their own suicides. They had never considered what their suicide would do to other people. They never considered what their suicide would or could potentially do to a stranger or their families. In essence, my talking about it helped a few people choose life.

I witnessed a suicide at work and it sent me into my own depression and PTSD. It is absolutely terrifying feeling so empty inside, feeling nothing, feeling like you could die and not caring either way. It is terrifying not feeling love, happiness, sadness. It is equally terrifying for loved ones to witness this absolute emptiness. They feel helpless and don’t know how to help.

The worst part of witnessing the suicide, besides the obvious witnessing OF the suicide, was that I worried I was taking too much time off work. I was worried about what my coworkers were thinking and saying about me. I was worried they were thinking I was milking the system. Did they review the cameras and watch me? Did they judge me? Did they laugh? Was my pain amusing to them? Did they have sympathy? How insulting to my own mental health that I even took their opinions into consideration.

After taking 5.5 shifts off work, I went back. While I was off work, only one person contacted me to see if I was ok (besides two lawyers at the firm where she worked). I get it. What the fuck can you possibly say to someone who just watched someone plunge to their death, who watched a life extinguish, who watched one of the worst things happen. How I wished they’d tried. Nothing makes you feel more isolated than having people not reach out to check on you when they know you’re suffering.

The first shift back was the most horrible day at work. I could feel all eyes on me and I felt such an intense pressure. I felt like everyone was judging me. It’s unfair that I thought so negatively of people, my coworkers, some of whom I consider family, but when you ARE so isolated and hurting so horribly, you don’t think logically. Having my two bosses greet me back at work, however, made the day harder in a good way. Having them there to make sure I was ok and that I was ready to return, those fuckers made me cry.

Please please please know that you are not alone. That you are loved. That I need you, if you are considering killing yourself or if you are suffering alone, to take a second and think of me.

*picture included is a week after the suicide. I’d slept just over 20 hours over the course of one week (the average human should get 55-63 hours of sleep a week).

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Double Helix

All at once, I am overwhelmed. I have been so horribly distracted by cancer that I have been able to avoid the coming of this day.

I knew it was coming, it was an inevitability, as time always is. But to be distracted from this day in this way. It’s not how I wanted to be distracted. It’s not how I wanted to not feel this crushing heaviness. And yet it’s been there the whole time, getting heavier and heavier, as it always does, until it finally breaks like a migraine. The pain finally ceases to exist, I can feel more clearly and without weary.

I was doing fine, opening doors, passing windows, seeing faces, and then there it was, so abrupt. Walking up a flight of steps and I couldn’t breathe and you were there. Just there and I could no longer avoid you. I could no longer pretend that we weren’t here, in this place, with these emotions. We were here, as we seemingly always have been.

I stopped to try and catch my breath while the tears fell, my hand on the freezing cold bannister, becoming colder and colder, but I’m so lost in emotions that I barely registered the cold until it became painful. Even then I could barely lift my hand from the rail. I was frozen in place, forced to face emotions I’d not been prepared to deal withd, emotions I knew were down there, emotions I tried to put off, so they were hidden in a box labelled “Stephanie”. I’d been too busy, distracted, worried about other things and so you were stuffed into a box, meant to be dealt with another day, hopefully, possibly much later than today, hopefully, possibly, never having to deal with again. But it always surfaces today. It’s always here. You’re always here. We always are.

No matter how much time passes, no matter how many days go on, no matter where I am, whether I think I’m ok or not. Today I am not ever going to be ok. Today will always be Today. You are still no longer here, I was still your witness, and I am still building walls with my tears, your loss the foundation. Today will always be those things. Your loss, your pain, your life. Today will always be about you and how your life affected me. How your death changed me.

How intertwined our parallels will always be.

Recovering

Sitting here, on the 14th floor in the break room, the wind is pushing against the patio doors. It sounds across between someone is pulling violently on the door to be let in – which is creepy because it’s 4:44 in the morning, and I am alone – and a slam of a body hitting the pavement.

You come back to me when I least expect it. As often as I think of you, willingly, unabashedly, and as easily as I would scratch an itch, it’s the times when sounds and smells remind of your death that I find most shocking. When I’m reading a book and I heard a deafening thud, or walking down the street and it smells like worms, when I see someone who resembles you. Which I’ve been doing a lot of lately. Women I encounter and their faces are similar to yours. Bright smile, but sad, as well. I wonder if they, too, have a depression they’re hiding from the world. You come to me in these unexpected moments and it causes my heart to skip a beat. Like I’ve somehow forgotten the past 6 years. (Writing that down makes me pause. Has it only been six years? It feels like much longer. Like I’ve lived with you for the whole of my life)

I am grateful for your sister. I worry that my thoughts and feelings about you, that people don’t want to hear them. That my pain is a burden. That if I were to talk about you, how I feel, how I’m trying to cope, trying to recover, that I’d just be annoying them. That they would listen to me only because they feel guilty for not wanting to listen. And whether they actually feel this way or not, I don’t know. It’s my perception. But I know your sister doesn’t judge me. She’s there for me on a level I can’t even truly put into words. Its something I can’t describe at all. I know that we are forever bonded by you. It’s because of her that I was able to let go of so much pain. I was finally able to breathe when she emailed me. She brought me peace. A peace I never would have found on my own.

I am still recovering but I know that it’s ok. She makes it ok.

Letting Go…

Tattoo Day, in pictures. It was too image heavy to send in an email – I kept trying but it kept freezing up the app.

Sewing on the go train.

My view into the city.

Carbing up in Union Station. You need a good amount of carbs in your system, otherwise your blood sugar levels can crash – essentially you’re putting your body through trauma so it’ll fight what it deems to be an attack on the system. Some people report being extremely healthy after a tattoo session because the body is fighting to protect itself and thus becomes stronger immunity wise.

In the subway for a quick three stop ride. Normally I would’ve walked it but we’re pressed for time here.

Ugh. So much for pressed for time. Construction on Dundas!! That means I’m on a bus and buses make me pukey with how jerky and overheated they are. Also, construction. I hope I’m not late!!

So I didn’t get a shot of the front door. Oops. Also I made it on time!

Here’s what we’re covering up. It’s a 21 year old, poorly applied tattoo. I *could* have had it fixed but … that seems like too much work.

Here’s a panorama of the tattoo shop inside, where the tattoos actually get applied. The front of the shop is not visible in this picture but there are gorgeous plants out there that Ben (co-owner) is a master of taking care of. He’s the plant whisperer!!

Jacqueline’s area is in the corner on the far right, against the wall.

Note how it looks more like an art studio than the typical tattoo shop. It’s clean, friendly, and inviting.

Alright. This is the stencil. We’ve applied it to the leg but she’s realized the entire old Tattoo won’t be covered so she’s going to draw a leaf or petal with a toothpick and then she’ll trace the lines to cover that area.

Meet Jacqueline!! She reminds me of my friend Kate. You spend the day with either of them and they’re like the antidote to a shitty world or a shitty day. You leave there feeling lighter, refreshed, cleansed of the bullshit you don’t realize you’re bogged down with. I could spend all day with J. She’s incredible people. I know you’d love her.

Alright. It’s go time. Are you ready??

Outline of the flower is done. We chose purple because we needed to cover up the blue but we used four different kinds of purples…so it’s got depth and it’s just so pretty.

The flower is done!! You can’t even tell there was a crappy tattoo there before!! Also, her green leaves are incredible. I don’t know if this picture does it justice.

Switch positions and onto the hands, water, and petals. So this is a tender spot and where I start trying to find a way to accurately describe what a tattoo feels like after 6 hours. And I’ve got it. The burn you felt during a vaginal delivery is how a Tattoo feels after 6 hours. Raw. Hot. Sharp. You start attempting each Lamaze breathing exercise you know, and you invent your own, and then you have to remind yourself to continue to breathe.

The hand of the survivors with water flowing through their hands and fingers. Water is cleansing the soul, flowing through the fingers and it represents letting go.

Omg are we done yet ha ha she’s getting more ink for the hand of the one who has passed on. I’m sure my face was hilarious around this time.

Ok, here we go. We’re nearly done. She’s just doing the last of the hand now. The next four pictures are the completed Tattoo.

You can see how swollen my skin is. I don’t bleed much, I hold colour extreeeeeemely well, but I swell up like a balloon as soon as the machine turns on.

A lot of symbolism can’t be seen. The flower petals that have fallen are actually lighter in colour than those ON the flower, representing a loss of life over time, as time passes. The hand that is barely visible represents the hand of the lost loved one, always a reminder that she’s there, in my life, and always a part of me, of us. She unites us, in what was a hard and awful way but is now a beautiful way – there’s love, respect, friendship, and perhaps a need, too. I don’t know what I would’ve done without this friendship. It has made my burden easier to carry.

And so while the Tattoo looks sad, it’s about letting go of that sadness. Recognizing what happened, and not necessarily moving on (because I don’t know that you can), but accepting it for what it is. It will always be there but it doesn’t have to be a burden anymore. At least for me. It’s a transformation. Love, water, life, and death.

Counterbalanced 

They say that everything takes time. Trauma takes time. You just need time. It wasn’t something that I could’ve believed then, though. Hell, I still don’t. Some things there just isn’t enough time for.

In the Aftermath, friends who’d suffered trauma said I just needed time and I didn’t believe them. And I want to ask them, when is enough time enough? How does the soul repair itself when it’s been through hell? And not just a one off moment of trauma but a lifetime of heavy, soul weary, trauma? When does the breath of ones being finally free itself from the binds of hell?

No one has an answer. Those well meaning friends don’t have an answer. The psychiatrist I was sent to could only tell me to read books but the answer I wanted, the answer I still seek, cannot be found in any text – it never heals.

We enter into this world with a soul, one we believe is all shiny and new, freshly polished. Depending on what religion you follow, however, that soul is as old as time or new as the days sunrise.
What baggage has each soul carried with it from previous lives? What do we do to ourselves? What do we continue to put ourselves through? No soul is untarnished and with each passing day, with every little bruise, our souls become stained. With love? Trauma? Pain? Is it weary? Is it hopeful for a new life? A new day?

I have been thinking of you a lot lately. I don’t know if it’s because this is 5 years, if this is date and day, or if I just feel your strong presence because our world is in turmoil and I seek something comfortable that I know. But I feel you and think of you daily. Repeatedly. And then, when I’m alone in a room and doing something, I see something moving out of the corner of my eye and I look and there’s nothing there. Is it you? Someone else I’ve picked up? I spent a childhood with dead people. I had dreams of people before they died. Am I a conduit? If only that were the case. I’d speak with my grandparents again.

I don’t understand your pain but I understand my own. The anger. The absolute rage that I have because I was molested and people would deny that truth. For their own protection? Self preservation? I don’t know. I only know that I see you, your face. I see your pain, your death. I see your rage turned inward and onto yourself.

You beautiful girl. How I wish I could ease your pain.

You are with me every day. We are bound together. The girl who lived and the girl who died.

I sometimes wonder if I don’t purposely hold on to you, your death, the gore. Like a security blanket, it’s something I can cling to for safety. A bit of an oxy moron to those who’ve never suffered but it’s a safe pain. Something you know and understand.

I worry that I’m keeping you with me on purpose. And then for five minutes I’ll forget about you. And for five minutes I’m free. I can breathe. I don’t feel a weight tugging at me, a niggling reminder of my own impending death, my own expiry date. I am a helium balloon and you are a weight. We are counterbalanced.

I used to worry that talking about you and what happened, that people would see it as attention seeking. I would go out of my way to not talk about what happened, to not even mention it. Again, how terrible that I worried more about the comfort and opinions of others instead of myself.

First Nations believe that as long as someone tells the story, nothing is ever dead. And so I will tell my story. Maybe I won’t shout it from the rooftops (an unlikely pun) but a quiet whisper from my heart instead.

Let’s Talk

Edited to include a picture taken of me, a week after the suicide. I’d not slept more than 28 hours the whole week.
I don’t support the Bell Let’s Talk day because Bell doesn’t give two stuffs about the mental health of their employees. So they can shove this day up their asses. They’re hypocritical jerk muffins who are only in this for the PR.

Having said that, I do think everyone should take the opportunity to discuss mental health, be it a personal story of their own, or a story about someone they know/love.

I have had my own struggle with mental health. The causes have been varied but the one everyone knows because I’ve been somewhat vocal about it is – I witnessed a suicide.
The woman who took her life was 30, beautiful, a successful lawyer at one of the best law firms in the country (basing this on how often their lawyers are nominated as top lawyer of something or other). She grew up in an affluent family, travelled, went to the best schools. On the surface she had everything going for her. Beneath the surface, however, she was living a personal hell that she probably kept secret from everyone she knew.

Like many women, myself included, she was molested as a child. For many, there is a disconnect and you brush it under the carpet and hope you get over it. You know what’s happened and just hope to slough it off like dead skin, but you have not acknowledged it. The pain exists in a sort of limbo. It slowly poisons you and you make subconscious decisions based on that poison, without even realizing it.

When you do wake up, when you do fully and consciously face the abuse you suffered, it makes or breaks you mentally. You either become stronger or the pain wears you down.

Sadly, the young, intelligent, beautiful woman could no longer cope. And so she attempted to take her life. Unsuccessful, she checked herself out of the hospital, came to her workplace on the 27th floor, got to the roof through an access window, and jumped.

Her pain ended with her life, yes, but that only started the pain for other people. Her family. Her friends. Her coworkers, one of whom ended up taking three years off work because of her own breakdown. And then me. The unfortunate witness to her death.

In the movies it is portrayed as a slow moving and beautiful fall. The wind whipping her hair. Her fingers floating on the wind as you would out the window of a moving car. Perhaps a tear falling down her cheek. Some flighty dramatization of what we wish suicide by jumping looked like.
The movies are bullshit. Death is ugly and suicide is painful, for everyone.

For the briefest of seconds there is silence, then the most deafening noise, and then the quietest silence again as your brain, soul, eyes, and ears try to put together all that you have just witnessed and heard:
A body hitting the earth.
That someone chose to place themselves there is beyond comprehension and yet, you saw it happen. You know what you’ve just seen is true yet your mind is lagging, unable to compute.

Death by suicide is ugly. It is gut wrenching but not vomit inducing. There is an immediate pain inside you, location unknown, that exists, still to this day. That pain would be PTSD.
In total I took five and a half days off work, what amounted to two weeks. I forced myself back to work because I was afraid of what people would say about me. I was afraid that people would think I was scamming or milking the time off.
I was dying inside, trying to piece together the broken pieces of my soul. But I worried about them and what they would say about me. How insulting. That I spent even an iota of time on their opinions instead of my own health is insulting. But indicative of where we are as a people when it comes to illness, time off, mental health, and trauma.

We take for granted how fragile our minds are. In one split second I went from a confident, take no shit person to someone who was afraid of the dark and tall buildings.

The anniversary of her death is this Saturday. We have come full circle and on the 5th anniversary, the date of her death coincides with the day of the week on which she died. This is not lost on me. At the minute of her death I will be where I was then. I will try not to think of the pain I suffered, an impossibility, clearly, but I will try to think of her family instead. Because while I witnessed it as a bystander, some poor shmuck in the wrong place and time, they must live with the guilt they place on themselves – of not seeking treatment, not helping her, not calling her enough. They live with self induced torment.

We tell ourselves and our friends, I’m here for you. I love you. Whenever you need me, just call. The fact is, though, we get busy and those who suffer with mental health issues, they suffer alone because they don’t want to burden anyone.

We need to be a better society and take better care of our people. An illness of the heart is just as worthy of medical attention as an illness of the mind. People still look at mental health as either a joke or something to be feared. A man or woman living with schizophrenia cannot divulge their mental illness to a potential employer, are in fact terrified of them finding out, for fear of not being hired. Meanwhile, a heart patient thinks little of it.

We need to talk. We need to normalize. Accept. Understand. We need to open our damn hearts and love.

Don’t isolate someone who is suffering because you don’t know what to say, think it’s an awkward conversation, or it would make you uncomfortable. The best thing that you can do is shake their hand or hug them and offer them support with a mere few words. Because for their entire lives they have felt alone and isolation will only make that worse.

The battle is ever constant.

Observe
verb
2. celebrate or acknowledge an anniversary.

Origin: late, middle English. From old French observer. From Latin observare‘to watch’.
Trauma
noun
1. a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.

Origin: late 18th cent. From Greek, literally ‘wound’.

Suicide
Noun
1. the act of killing oneself intentionally.

Origin: mid 17th cent.: from modern Latin suicida‘act of suicide,’suicidium‘person who commits suicide,’ from Latin sui ‘of oneself’ + caedere‘kill’.

Enlighten
Verb
*give (someone) greater knowledge and understanding about a subject or situation;
*give (someone) spiritual knowledge or insight
*archaic shed light on (an object)

Origin: Middle English (in the sense ‘make luminous’; formerly also as inlighten): in early use from Old English inlihtan‘to shine’

Language
noun
1. the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way

Origin: Middle English: from Old French langage, based on the Latin lingua‘tongue’.

Words can never explain or define our lives, our pain, our traumas, or our historical stories and the meanings behind them. We use words because we cannot yet convey to another person what it is we feel, how deep our love is, how deep our well of pain goes, or how, in the face of fear or danger, we found real bravery. We are as yet unable to pass on feeling from one person to another in the same way that we can easily pass on a word, a phrase, or a book. In this way, we can only use small symbols, letters, words, to pass on what it is we’re going through, what it is we live through, what it is we want to tell someone, how it is we want them to feel.

Some choose not to pass those words on at all.

We can never find the meaning or the origin of our feelings in the smattering of a few letters pressed together. We can never find the cause or the reason in those defined terms. It is, at best, a lame attempt to convey or understand. We will never find in them understanding or true knowledge – those we must find within ourselves. We will never know the why behind the words and their causes, what impact they’ve had on the writer and the reader.
We can and often do seek solace in those words, however. As writers and as readers.

I think of you, the words you chose not to share, suffering instead in an absence of words, in your silence; the words pressing forth from my own soul, in a chemical reaction to your silence and action, written words – an attempt at understanding my own pain and the torment I go through; the words shared with me from loved ones, mine and yours. In turn, I choose to share my words in hopes of enlightening others. I cannot ever understand but hope I can offer understanding. For others, yes, but mostly myself.

I have forgiven you. Now I must forgive myself.