Tag: Death

18Aug

An HSP Watches the News

At the bidding of a friend, I finally took the Highly Sensitive Person test this morning and ended up selecting 25 of the 27 points. (14 are enough to classify someone as a HSP, so I assume 25 means something like Watch Out, This Person May Spontaneously Combust At Any Moment.) This explains a lot about how I operate in general and how I processed last week in particular. According to the book on which the test is based, we combustible folk absorb more of the environment around us and thus become more overwhelmed than the 80-85% of the population with normally functioning brain-filters. Therefore, if—hypothetically—I spent a week hearing about the atrocities committed by ISIS in Iraq, watching Humans of New York give faces to those suffering in the Middle East, revisiting my old depression diaries in response to Robin Williams’s suicide, and following the shocking play of events in Ferguson, I might—hypothetically—have trouble unpeeling myself from bed in the morning.

I have been heartbroken by the news, and this has been bothering some people.

Some people have not been heartbroken by the news, and this has been bothering me.

Everywhere I’ve looked this last week, humanity has confronted me: prejudice and suffering and community and callousness and hope and no-hope and initiative and frustration and rhetoric and rawness and so many conflicting interpretations of which rights we should allow to those different from us. As a species, we have yet to mutually agree to each other’s right to live; opinions just get more fragmented from there. And it’s all so much, so very much, so close to too much for my porous mind to bear.

 “A billion people died on the news tonight
But not so many cried at the terrible sight
Well Mama said, It’s just make-believe
You can’t believe everything you see
So baby, close your eyes to the lullabies
On the news tonight”

Over the weekend, I was pulled in by this passage from my favorite book, in which 12-year-old Douglas Spaulding is confronting the reality of death:

“At the cowboy matinee last Saturday a man had dropped down dead on the white-hot screen. Douglas had cried out. For years he had seen billions of cowboys shot, hung, burned, destroyed. But now, this one particular man…
He’ll never walk, run, sit, laugh, cry, won’t do anything ever, thought Douglas. Now he’s turning cold. Douglas’s teeth chattered, his heart pumped sludge in his chest. He shut his eyes and let the convulsion shake him.
He had to get away from these other boys because they weren’t thinking about death, they just laughed and yelled at the dead man as if he still lived. Douglas and the dead man were on a boat pulling away, with all the others left behind on the bright shore, running, jumping, hilarious with motion, not knowing that the boat, the dead man and Douglas were going, going, and now gone into darkness.”

This is how it is for me, how it is when I hear that a child has been beheaded by a terrorist group in Iraq or a teenager shot by police in Missouri or a comedian hung by his own fractured mind in California. I feel the loss of life like a blow to my head, and the weight of all the things that person will no longer do or see or experience or be sends concentric shock waves through my system. Do you feel it too? The immense mushroom cloud of tragedy balled up in that single word, dead?

If you don’t, that’s okay. At least, I’m doing my very best to accept that it’s okay. According to the test I took this morning, Douglas Spaulding, Jack Johnson, and I are among a small percentage of people who feel everything deeply. This doesn’t mean that others feel nothing; it just means they have a thicker layer of protection between themselves and the goings on in the world. It just means that they can watch the news, compartmentalize what they’ve seen, and go on with their days.

When I watch the news, I fall in headfirst.

My conscience has waffled back and forth for years on the topic: Should I stay up to date on events as a responsible and caring citizen of Earth? Or should I avoid the news as much as possible in order to spare my heart and mind from constant overload? Should I engage the negativity, or should I retreat from it? Is awareness worth taking nightly boat trips alone with the dead? I haven’t reached a conclusion yet that gives me peace, and maybe that’s because the world is so far from a place of peace. As long as I continue to be a Highly Sensitive Person in a highly human world, I’m going to struggle with a weight that most people don’t often feel. Every news link I click in my lifetime will carry a price.

I’ve been thinking though that if I were the one in the news this last week, if it were my death being announced in professional newscasterly tones and argued about by a parade of talking heads, I would want someone out there to cry for me. I would want the loss of my life to mean enough even to a complete stranger in another country that she would lose sleep over it. I would want her to get willingly into that boat with me, away from the motion and noise, out where I was no longer a news story but a full human carrying the sum of my years and experiences and aspirations with me off the edge of the world.

So I’m here… not seeking out the news today but not hiding from it either, not exactly loving my status as Highly Sensitive Person but not exactly wanting to trade it out either. If my role in this sea of humanity is to care—even too much, even beyond my own pain threshold—then I’ll care to the best of my ability. And if your role is different, I’ll do my best to remember that you’re the normal one here… and that whenever I spontaneously combust over the ten o’clock news, you’re the one who can put out the flames.

12Aug

Depression, Robin, and You

So much is going on in the world right now, so much heaviness, so many strings wrenching our hearts in all directions. Syria, Iraq, Ukraine, Gaza… It’s all so much to take in, and I have absolutely nothing constructive to add to the discussions on international policy taking place. I do know depression though, and waking up this morning to news of Robin Williams’s death reminded me what an important topic this is… especially from a practical point of view… and especially especially for members of the Christian community. I’m sharing my experience at A Deeper Story and would love if you’d read along:

[Ed: Now that Deeper Story has closed its doors, the post is here in its entirety:] 

~~~

“Waking up feels like getting socked in the gut. I feel instantly strained, smothered, vaguely panicked. I have trouble breathing through the tightness of trying to hold myself together, trying not to cry or yell or fly into a million little pieces. The simplicity of my life seems unbearably complicated, and even the tiniest decisions—which sweater should I wear?—are draining. I blink back tears from an urgent but indefinable sadness. The day feels like a sheer precipice, and I can’t see the footholds. I can’t see the top. I can’t even tell what type of stone is blocking my way. I recognize that I have no reason to feel unhappy, no reason at all, but I stumble through various shades of sadness all the same. I wake up with the wind already knocked out of me, and I choke on the idea that there is no solution.”
– From my journal, January 30, 2008

“It’s like this,” I explained to my husband in halting whispers, engulfed in the dark of another sleepless night. “It’s like we’re at a party with everyone we know, and there’s dancing and food and laughter. Everything would be perfect, except that I suddenly find myself locked in a steel cage in the middle of the room. I didn’t see who locked me there. I have no idea where the key might be. All I know is that I’m ashamed to find myself captured, so I try for a while to laugh along with the partygoers, hoping they won’t notice the bars.

“Food is pushed under a slat on the floor, but eating alone is not the same as lingering with friends by the buffet. You and the girls come by to talk to me, but it’s not the same as hugging each other with unrestrained arms. The music still plays, but my cage is too short for me to dance. I may be in the middle of the room, but I feel as though I’m watching the party from outside.

“My resolve to put on a good face finally breaks down, and I tentatively call to a few loved ones for help. I know they aren’t the ones who locked me in the cage, but my hope is that they can search the room for the key since I’m unable. I also wish a few of them would come sit with me, hold my hand through the bars, reassure me that the cage is real and that I didn’t put myself there. I call again, hesitatingly, torn between wanting them to see my desperation and not wanting them to think me crazy. ‘Hello? I’m a little stuck here…’ This time, a couple hear. They stop for a moment, call, ‘Yeah, come on out and join us!’ and go back to dancing.”

“I see strange shadows inside my eyelids these days, as if everything familiar has become frightening. Writing requires me to rip words out of dental cavities, one at a time, and I don’t have the pain tolerance to finish what I manage to start. Smiling takes even more effort. I feel horribly alone, but I still crave loneliness. The freedom to hide. Not having to fake sanity for my family’s sake or to force insanity so someone will help me. I want a respite from the world’s problems, starting with my own brain.”
– From my journal, March 3, 2009 

I can’t read my journal entries from the fall of 2007 to the spring of 2009 without shaking. The pain of that time was so sharp that it cuts me even through the protective layers of all the years since. When it first started, I thought I was just struggling to adjust to our recent move to Italy. Then, my second daughter was born, and I latched onto postpartum depression as a likely culprit. The months continued though, and the world inside my mind continued growing darker.

I had only the tiniest shred of strength with which to help myself, and I used it primarily on holding my shit together in front of my two little girls. I couldn’t think what else to do, how else to fix myself. More than that, I didn’t feel worthy of being fixed. I felt like a black hole sucking those I loved down into my emptiness, and more than anything else in the world, I wished for backspace button big enough to delete myself.

Eventually, helped by a kind friend and my husband, I talked to three different doctors, all of whom brushed aside my condition after verifying that my blood results were normal. “You’re just having trouble adjusting to life in a new country,” my endocrinologist insisted, and I didn’t have the heart to argue, just like I didn’t have the heart to argue with Christian self-help sites that said I could pray the blackness away. They had no idea how hard I had already tried, how desperately I had prayed, how much it had taken for me to seek their help in the first place.

“I can no longer differentiate between physical and mental symptoms. This is not a development I was expecting, but I understand the progression from panic tickling the back of my neck to instinctive breath-holding to riotous stomach-and-back-and-head-aches. And not just that, but insomnia and desperate confusion. I have spent the entirety of the last two days in bed, somewhere between sleeping and pinching my breath shut, and I can’t account for it. ‘I don’t know,’ I respond when Dan asks me what’s wrong. How I feel. What that twitchy expression on my lips forebodes. Why I’m suddenly crying over a grapefruit, my only concession to lunch. What he can do for me.”
– From my journal, March 22, 2009

Here is what I learned about depression during my year-and-a-half-long battle: It is not a place for self-help.

I could not shoo away the darkness by starting a new workout routine. I could not slip into peace by praying. I could not diagnose myself within the maze of WebMD. I could not summon the energy to pick myself off the bathroom floor some days, much less pick up the phone and ask for help. The few friends I reached out to over the months all answered the same way: “What can I do to help?” And my answer was always, unfailingly, “I don’t know.”

In the end, I found depression’s exit door by accident. One day in early spring, I stumbled across an online forum of women claiming that my brand of birth control pill had caused their depression. I stopped taking it that day, and I was feeling more whole within a week than I had been for the past eighteen months.

I’m not going to pretend the answer is that simple for everyone though. Whatever the individual causes, depression is a real illness, as debilitating and painful as physical ones can be. It’s also a highly stigmatized one, particularly within Christian circles. I was reminded of that the moment I turned on my computer this morning and saw the tragic news of Robin Williams’s death—a rumored suicide—after his years’ long battle with depression.

Social media was full of beautiful tributes to the actor, but I also saw plenty of remarks to the effect that his depression would have been healed if only he had known the Lord. I recognized that the people making these remarks were grieving in their own way, but they were also making two very weighty assumptions:

1. That Robin Williams did not know God. (This, I strongly believe, is not something we have the authority to determine.)

2. That prayer is always enough to cure depression.

Can prayer cure depression? Yes, I believe so. But it doesn’t always. This is an important distinction, because until we stop viewing depression as a spiritual deficiency, we can’t help those in our communities take those first steps out.

And make no mistake—we are needed. You are needed. If someone you know is drowning inside his or her own head, you are needed to function as lifeguard. You are needed to call her up and tell her you’re taking her kids to the park for the day and cooking dinner besides. You are needed to tell him you found a doctor who can help and will be picking him up at 10. You are needed to do the Googling, to pick up the prescription, to find the health food store with the particular supplement, to refuse to give up until a solution is found. You are needed for your perspective and energy and insistence on your loved one’s worthiness. Your presence can be vital, sometimes in the most literal sense of the word.

I might have found the cure to my brand of depression on my own, but friends and family are the reason I made it that far. A year and a half is a long time to be treading water in the dark, and I don’t think I could have done it alone. Even when loved ones didn’t know how to help me, their encouragement and nearness propped me up a little more, gave me just enough of a respite that I could keep on going.

“Carry each other’s burdens,” wrote Paul in his letter to the Galatians, “and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Having been for so many months in the position of the one who was carried, I couldn’t agree more.

Dead Poet's Society

Rest in peace.

image credit

 

 

 

 

21Dec

Feeling…

Busy. Quiet. Mournful. Excited. Pulled into the glitter and joy and inevitable bustle of Christmas. Drawn back into the shadow and heartsickness of death. Dizzy from to-dos and not-dones (mostly the latter). Apprehensive about all the possible wrong turns a holiday can take. Tip-toeingly thrilled regardless. Heavy. Springy. Awhirl.

You?

19Dec

Above the Cloud-Line

The sun rose this morning. It rose, and I blinked and then ran for the camera because I hadn’t seen that kind of light in days. Certainly not since Friday.

After the initial gut-pounding shock and the waves of salty-wet grief and the anger carved onto journal pages and the carefully chosen conversations, I find myself in the next stage of my own post-Newtown journey: the doldrums. My soul wants nothing so much as a long nap, an utterly unconscious respite from the knowledge of evil, and my heart is trying to offset this weariness by emotionally disconnecting from it all.

I’ve stayed away from the news and social media these last two days out of fierce necessity, and now the facts of the shooting keep melting down the sides of my mind like timepieces in a Dalí painting. I can’t grasp anything. I can no longer feel the twenty-seven concurrent stabs of horror, the chest-wracking sadness, or the wild urge to do something, anything to change the way our world works. Feeling has been replaced with fog.

I know that the internal process of grief is not a matter of right way versus wrong way, yet I’m convinced I’m making a mess of it. I’m sure either that I feel too intensely, presuming a deeper connection to the victims than I have a right to, or that I feel too little, dishonoring the tragedy through numbness. I’m afraid that my timetable won’t fit into appropriate standards, that I’ll start forgetting about Sandy Hook before a mere slip of a week has passed or that I’ll be hanging onto it long after the rest of the world has laid it to rest. I don’t know when it will be okay to write about other things again, to absorb myself in this life that’s moving onward even as the lives of twenty-seven Connecticut families have shattered to a stop. At the same time, I don’t know if I should already have left them in peace.

In this swirl of unknowing, with sorrow simultaneously fresh and faraway and time playing tricks on my eyes, the sunrise is pure gift. It’s the most visual display of hope I could imagine—a light bigger than this world and beyond our ability to destroy, its effects constant even below the cloud-line, its rise after days of gray a reminder that darkness doesn’t have the final say. Ever.

17Dec

Our Right to Thumbs

As soon as I opened Facebook this morning, the site recommended two pages for me based on my friends’ likes:

Guns and Shooting.

Guns and Shooting, and my friends’ names alongside pixelated thumbs of approval. Guns and Shooting, and a Facebook feed bristling in defense of assault rifles. Guns and Shooting, and quotes from religious figures implying that God allowed the tragedy as an act of revenge on a school system that no longer sponsors him. Guns and Shooting, and the caps-locked screams of loved ones fighting for their unhindered right to weapons of destruction.

As a culture (and I speak in sweeping generalities here), we Americans have accepted that violence can only be counteracted with more violence. We see war as 100% necessary and place our hope in the Jack Bauers of the nation. We think that the only way to defend ourselves from guns is to put more guns into circulation. We claim that if only the Sandy Hook teachers had been packing heat, Friday’s tragedy would have been averted. We believe in our hearts that we will have to use deadly force against another human being at some point in our lives, so it’s best to be prepared. We state that guns don’t kill people, people kill people, but we forget to count ourselves among the potential killers because we’re on the good guy team.

We respond to the massacre of twenty young children by defending the weapons that killed them.

As a child, I had fun shooting targets and small animals, and the cold cruelty of a machine made to destroy never entered my mind. Guns were just something every family kept in the coat closet. Even at university, when a classmate was expelled for stockpiling weapons and ammunition in his dorm room, I absorbed friends’ indignation on his behalf. “He would never use them to hurt anyone!” we all said. And on this point, we were probably right. My classmate enjoyed hunting, and where could he store his gear if not in his dorm room?

However, our university had rules in place to reduce the risk of mass murders, so they expelled the student who, regardless of motives, had stocked up on devices specifically designed to kill. And this is what the gun debate comes down to for me—risk reduction. No, there is no amount of legislation that will prevent psychopaths or terrorists from enacting violence. Yes, there will always be a healthy black market for weapons of destruction. Yes, people should have the right to defend themselves, especially on their own property. No, peace is never guaranteed.

But can we just step back for a moment from the mentality that violence is our birthright? Can we stop letting fear dictate our morals? Can we have the courage to take a fraction of the risk off the shoulders of innocent schoolchildren and hold it ourselves, in their stead? Rather than amending our lifestyles and outlooks and job descriptions to include more violence, can we consider amending the availability of its instruments?

I am not arguing to abolish gun ownership altogether, though my husband and I believe that as followers of Jesus, we need to take his teachings on nonviolence to heart. However, we need to talk and talk hard about why civilians are allowed to own assault machinery, why it’s easier to get bullets than to get Sudafed, and why the fiercest fight in the aftermath of Newtown is waged on behalf of the murder weapons.

We need to consider what we are saying about human life with our thumbs-up.

~~~

Further reading:

On Violence by D.L. Mayfield, who shares her thoughts on how to do radical pacifism

Breaking News, Bearing Arms by Rebecca Woolf, whose husband is with her today because of his stance on nonviolence

Do We Have the Courage to Stop This? by Nicholas Kristof, who shows that we’re more worried about regulating ladders than about regulating firearms

Speed Kills by William Saletan, who holds Friday’s tragedy up against school attacks outside the U.S.

God Angrily Clarifies ‘Don’t Kill’ Rule by The Onion, who brilliantly, profanely, and heartbreakingly speaks the obvious

Love Your Enemies by Jesus, who lived it

Feel free to add your own suggested links in the comments!

15Dec

Grateful to Care

Today’s my day off from writing—a day allocated for errands and ironing and all manner of riffraff that didn’t get seen to during the week. Yet I can’t not write today. I have a desperate desire to make sense of yesterday’s massacre, though I realize there is no sense to be made, nothing that could possibly make the murder of twenty young children into something as succinct and graspable as sense. Still, writing down the whirlwind in my head makes it easier to keep my footing. A little.

I have a kindergartener, and I don’t say this to claim dibs on grief or to cheapen a single facet of people’s heartache or even to play the I’m-so-glad-it-wasn’t-my-child card that has to twist dagger sharp in the ears of bereaved parents. I say it because my kindergartener trotted off to class yesterday morning hand-in-hand with a friend, their little heads bobbing in enthusiasm, and that that could have been a death march… that we live in a world where a room of bright and busy and trusting five-year-olds can be sprayed with .223-caliber slugs… it’s unendurable.

This heartbreak feels so literal, the actual sinews in my chest threatening to rip loose, and I know you’re feeling it too. We’re all breaking apart and trying to hold ourselves together in different ways, whether by anger or action or silence or advice or prayer or time with loved ones or time alone. My social media feeds are full of opposing viewpoints, but they all come from a similar ferocity of grief, and I’m comforted, like Mr. Rogers, by seeing “so many caring people in this world.”

Every one of us is shouldering a tiny portion of the pain that the Newtown parents are going through right now. Every one of us is united in grief, though we might process it very differently (and that’s ok). Evil was done yesterday, and we care. It doesn’t make sense of the violence and pain we experience to different degrees in this broken world, but it does lighten the load.

I’m grateful to care alongside you.

9Jun

A Reality Without Undo

A family friend died of a heart attack this morning, and I stared in shock at the message on my husband’s phone, wondering why he didn’t just push the back button and undo what could only be a grave cosmic blunder.

When my grandmothers died in relatively quick succession a few years ago, I felt a certain insulation from their deaths. The wide buffer of ocean and age between us provided a tender finality, and while I mourned them, I didn’t begrudge their passing. But this… an artist who chose a lifestyle of backbreaking sacrifice to protect someone without the mental capabilities to understand, a husband and father who helped create one of the most loving family units we’ve ever seen, a generous soul who opened his home wide to us many times… this? We were laughing in his kitchen just a few months ago. I know how cliché this question will sound, but it’s the only one I can articulate right now—How can he possibly be gone?

Dan took the first train out once we heard the news, and in the mad dash to get him to the station on time, my shock crystalized into the clarity of action. I couldn’t stop thinking about our friends’ wife, a dear-hearted woman suddenly left with more than any one person could be expected to handle, and I was grateful that at the very least, I could send my husband to help ease her burden. I would have gotten on the train myself if not for Natalie’s last-day-of-school program tomorrow. Even so, I spent the entire afternoon baking, for her, mixing a helpless sense of compassion into the dough and hoping that on some metaphysical level, this weight on my heart is weight off of hers.

It’s late now, and my perspective has gone fuzzy again. I don’t know if I will be able to hand over the bread in person tomorrow, and if I do, what I could possibly say to steady a world flipped so unexpectedly on end. I don’t know how to break the news to my girls who loved our friend like an uncle. I don’t know how to pack for a funeral that I just want someone somewhere to undo. There is so much I don’t know about processing death, and I keep wishing to wake up safely back in our old reality where I didn’t have to come to grips with this. More than anything, I wish that our friend could wake up.

For a solid two minutes before I shot this video, he had the girls convinced a bird was loose in his living room. The girls have their own bird whistles now, and I know they’re remembering our friend (blue shirt, kind eyes) every time our house fills with warbles.

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