Sunday, February 28, 2010

Safety in Numbers

I joined a grief support group for survivors of suicide that I found through the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention web site.  In order to preserve the confidentiality of the group, I cannot write about what we discussed.  What I can tell you is that the group was intense, and that I feel a strong connection to these people, these fellow survivors.  Even as I took the elevator up to our first meeting, I remember thinking:  “This can’t really be happening.  My brother isn’t really dead, is he?”  Twelve weeks into this grief, it still doesn’t feel real much of the time.  Which means the truth can still knock the wind out of me on a regular basis.

I like talking to my parents about Mike, even if it’s often the same conversation.  We talk about what was going on in Mike’s life right before he died, and how the irrationality of his decision to end his life is evidence of his mental illness.  “It was the depression that killed him.”  I can’t imagine the grief of losing a child.  What they are going through is at a completely different level than my grief.  If anything happened to my daughter, I don’t think I could survive it.  I am in awe at their strength. 

It seems like I hear about suicide everywhere now.  I have met several people who, like me, are grieving recent suicides of loved ones.  I have heard about a couple of acquaintances that have committed suicide recently.  And I’ve heard about it on the news. (Just today:  Michael Blosil, Andrew Koenig.)  We don’t think about depression as an epidemic, as life or death, but now I see it all around me.

I don’t have the solution for all this depression, anxiety, loneliness, and grief.  If you have a mind that tells you to cure for loneliness is isolation, there is safety in numbers.  Grief is a lonely process, but you don’t need to be alone. 

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Time and the Illusion of Control

I have been experiencing a profound shift in how I think about time. Now more than ever I am aware that time is limited and will run out. I am also hyper-aware of the fragility of life, and that time could end at any moment. This awareness has manifested itself in both rational and irrational ways.

Semi-rational: Before this year, whenever I finished reading a book, I would pick up the next book that seemed interesting to me. I have a long list of books I would like to read eventually. Recently I calculated the average number of books I will read per year multiplied by my life expectancy, and realized with great sadness that I will only read a small fraction of the books on my list. So now, instead of reading books at random, I am methodically working my way through the Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels. Plan for controlling my reading list: Check.

Irrational: I have to fly to L.A. this week. When I found out about the meeting, my first thought was to try to reschedule to sometime in March. I needed to reschedule so I could get caught up on my life insurance premiums with my next paycheck. I needed to be current with my life insurance before I set foot on an airplane. Because if I fly, I might die. Fortunately I realized how crazy this sounded, so I didn’t ask to reschedule. My fear of flying has intensified since Mike died. I play out in my head what my family would have to go through, similar to what we are still going through with Mike. I pray that my parents will not lose both of their children. I pray that my daughter will not lose her mother. I pray, please, just let me get caught up on my life insurance and pay back the people who have lent me money before something bad happens, so my family and friends won’t think I’m an ass-hole after I'm gone. These are the thoughts that go through my head until the captain turns off the seat belt sign.

Are there people who are at peace with the fact that life will end? I am terrified of death. I do not understand how Mike or anyone else would willingly choose it. I want to live as long as possible. But then, if I am living in fear, how richly am I living?

I have these fears about time partly because I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, partly because I am insane with grief, and partly because I am turning 40 this year. My brain has locked on to the idea that time is running out, and asks: What books do I need to read? What do I need to do to protect my family if something happens? What movies do I need to see? What places do I need to visit? What friends do I need to bring closer into my life? Have I loved enough? Have I done enough? Have I given enough?

Fear of flying is really the fear of having no control. Statistically, rationally, I should be more afraid to drive than to fly. When I drive my car, however, I have the illusion of control. I can plan my reading list for the next ten years, draft a will, or make yet another to do list, and it would only give me the illusion of control. No one controls time, or when it ends. Even Mike did not control that. Letting go of the illusion of control is counterintuitive and antithetical to my impulses. It is frightening and difficult. But even as I scheme new ways to control my dwindling time, I know that letting go is the lesson, the way through the fear. Letting go of the illusion of control is the only way to master time.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Anxiety Interlude

I need to keep my post short this week. My anxiety has been through the roof for the past few days, so I don’t want to feed it any more than necessary. My problems with anxiety are difficult to explain.

My body must be having a delayed reaction to the stress of two months ago. I wondered why am I panicking all of a sudden. But of course I know why. It’s been arriving in bits and pieces since Mike died, and I’m scared that there is more to come.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Remembering Mike

Mike has been gone for two months as of Friday. I thought it would get easier with time, but the grief just shifts around and changes focus. It’s always there, pulsing in the background.

Shortly after Mike died, my friend Stacy, who also lost her brother, gave me some advice. She said, “In the end, you get to choose what someone's life means to you. You get to choose what you keep of them.” Mike asked us in his suicide note not to mourn him. He asked us to celebrate his life.

Right now, it’s hard to think about Mike’s life without thinking about his horrific death. Thinking about him, in the days leading up to his suicide, and thinking about him alone in a vacant lot on that rainy morning in Virginia Beach, is the dark cloud hanging over the beauty of his short life and the joy that he brought to the people around him. I hope that with time I will celebrate more and mourn less.

Here’s how I remember Mike:

Mike was incredibly smart—like crazy genius smart. At some point when we were kids, my parents got our I.Q. test results. They wouldn’t tell us our scores—just that one was higher than the other. I never had any doubt in my mind that Mike was the brilliant one. He didn’t always have the drive that I did, but he was certainly gifted. When he finally found the career that made him happy, as a radiologic technologist, he was a straight-A honor student and helped tutor his classmates.

Mike was an amazing artist and photographer. Before he became a rad tech, he worked as a photojournalist in Iowa, Ohio, and West Virginia. His specialty, however, was as a nature photographer. The waterfall photos in this post and at the top of the page are his.

Mike was a wonderful cook. He worked as a cook while putting himself through school. Some of his specialties were deep-fried turkey, beef and deer jerky, barbecue ribs, and peanut brittle. When he would cook, he would make enough to share with his neighbors and co-workers. I’ll miss his cooking over the holidays.

Mike custom built computers as a hobby. He built a beautiful computer that he left for his best friend Chas. Mike also loved to fish. He used to fish almost every day at the pier in Virginia Beach.

Mike was very sensitive and generous. He would help out a friend in need. He volunteered as a cook at a homeless shelter. He would donate time and money to causes he believed in, even though he lived very modestly himself.

Mike was also clearly very much loved and respected by the people in his life.

Celebrate more. Mourn less.