Let’s talk about this – it may save a life

Let’s talk about this – it may save a life

This is National Suicide Prevention Week (September 10-16). We all know what suicide is. We hear about it. It’s something that happens to other people. I remember being touched by a documentary called The Bridge many years ago. I thought about it a lot when I had the incredible opportunity to run over the Golden Gate years later. I could never have imagined then how I would be touched by suicide.

WARNING SIGNS OF SUICIDE

  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated or recklessly
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. Warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what causes a suicide.

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12 Ways to survive – and thrive – after the loss of a spouse

12 Ways to survive – and thrive – after the loss of a spouse

Several of my friends have lost their spouses over the last couple of years, and I’ve lost a few Facebook friends as well. You naturally assume that when people get to a certain age, this would not be an uncommon occurrence, and therefore expected. But we are not of “a certain age.” These were people in their fifties or sixties with presumably years left to live.

How does one go on after losing a spouse they had planned to be with for years, if not decades, to come? When I was the CEO of Gilda’s Club (a cancer support organization), we referred to our members – people living with cancer – as the experts. The idea was that the experience of someone with cancer, or living with the reality of a loved one’s diagnosis, made him or her an expert in living with that experience. The medical community was certainly experts in treating the disease, but without the experience of actually “living with cancer” they were not experts in living, only in medicine.

So why am I telling you this? Well, after an eight-year period in which I lost both of my parents, a close aunt and uncle, four jobs, my dog, and my spouse too, I consider myself an expert of sorts in managing grief. So for those of you dealing with this type of loss (and this may apply to someone dealing with an unexpected separation and divorce as well), here is my “expert” advice.

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Why we should believe in miracles

Why we should believe in miracles

This weekend’s race is the Shelter Island 10k, Shelter Island, New York. You can read about it here. This will be my 14th time doing this race (15 if you count last year, when I ran the course the day before). This is by far my favorite race. But it is also emotional because for so many years my parents were there at the Finish Line cheering.

Life is short. We know this. And yet we are reminded again and again. We always think there will be one more time. Another chance. We take for granted the small moments only realizing long after they’ve passed that they were actually really big moments. Moments that we play over and over in our heads like a scene from a really good movie that has completely captivated us.

June is a difficult month. There’s the wedding anniversary that is now just a reminder of how we lost our best selves. There is this weekend when Father’s Day, my late father’s birthday and the anniversary of my mother’s death collide. There is the end of the school year; which has, in my house, become traditionally a struggle in squeaking out passing grades (or not) and trying to move on.

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Driving Talk

Driving Talk

Yesterday my daughter celebrated her 17th birthday. She took – and passed! – her drivers test and is now a licensed driver (as if parenting wasn’t a gray hair creating, anxiety producing fiasco that constantly left me in a state of self-doubt already). She took a friend out to dinner last night – under her own power. This morning she drove herself to lacrosse practice (while I got to sleep in a little longer!). Mom is no longer needed for drop offs or pick-ups. So here I am somewhere between enjoying  my own freedom, and missing her; being happy for her because I remember the new life that suddenly enveloped me as a driver; and yet being worried because I remember, too.  We hope, as parents, that we have given our children all the tools and skills they need to survive in the wild alone, understanding that there comes a time when they are responsible for themselves and we can’t possibly protect them any more from the mistakes they will make. We hope – we pray – that those mistakes are opportunities for learning and growth, not pathways to tragedy.

My daughter’s new freedom came just a few days after she told me they had announced that another graduate of her high school lost his battle with heroin addiction. This young man, who just a short year ago walked the same halls as my daughter, was now a statistic in this tragic epidemic that has engulfed New Jersey. My heart broke for the boy’s parents. Having lived through the loss of both of my parents, other close friends and relatives, and even my husband, I still can’t begin to imagine the depths of despair that one could feel by the loss of a child.

This finally stopped me in my tracks. Maybe it hit closer to home – literally and in its timing. This is not the first tragedy like this to touch our small town. I have cried for other parents before. A local parent wrote a book in 2014 about her son’s death from a heroin overdose at his home not far from us. My friend is involved in supporting an organization, Michael’s Voice, whose mission is to educate, give hope and remove the shame and stigma from people affected by opiate addiction. She has shared their information on FaceBook; but until now, I never visited their website. Today, I can see so clearly the link between suicide – which touched my life personally – and addiction. And how we are missing the point as a community and letting our kids down.

On the Michael’s Voice website, Michael’s mother writes, “It was an accident. Lured, by a cunning drug that destroys impulse control and crushed, under the shame and stigma of being addicted…..He used alone and died.” She understands the “stigma of being an addict.” Addiction is a mental health issue, not a crime. We teach our kids in the 5th grade about drug and alcohol resistance, by telling them that drugs and alcohol are bad. By high school that “education” no longer matters and too many kids who don’t possess the skills to cope with the increased stress of acedemia or athletic performance, turn to drugs. What teenager cares about what a police officer told them in a 5th Grade DARE program at that point?

The “War on Drugs” has failed. There are countless statistics showing that treating drug addiction as a crime, isn’t working.  Google it and you’ll find a plethora of articles backing up that statement. Here’s one that provides a good summary: Why the ‘war on drugs’ isn’t working. And I could write an entire book on children as collateral damage in the “war on drugs” because of the results of having a parent in prison due to a drug offense. But those aren’t our kids, right? So let’s keep the discussion on “our kids.” The majority of heroin related deaths in New Jersey are now people under the age of 30; the number of heroin users seeking treatment in New Jersey who are white has increased 20% in recent years (Herointown, N.J.: The state’s heroin crisis in 9 startling statistics, NJ.com). While New Jersey is (thankfully?) ranked among the lowest states for suicides in the United States, suicide is a leading cause of death for individuals ages 10-14, 15-24, and 25-34. We don’t have a drug abuse problem, or a suicide problem. What we have collectively is a mental health problem. In the article about the young man’s death this week, they quoted his last Tweet, “There has to be somewhere better than here.”

Our communities continue to pour money into an ineffective program and ‘crime prevention,” while a huge stigma still exists around mental heath; while our kids lack the tools to cope with life in an increasingly stressful world. I am not going to pretend that I have done anything right, or that my child doesn’t have the potential to be a statistic. We can’t judge other parents, or say “not my kid.” I know all too well, as a cancer survivor and suicide loss survivor, that yes, the unthinkable does happen – in our towns, and in our own homes. Fostering open and honest, non-judgmental, communications with our kids, is probably the most important method, but we can’t do it alone. And lessoning the stigma around mental health issues – including addiction – is a necessary component to healing and reducing these statistics.  We must start talking about that in our communities.

Since one size doesn’t fit all, there has to be a whole bunch of programs and the schools and other community organizations need to get behind them. I mentioned a few weeks ago that I am volunteering with the Let Me Run program for elementary and middle school boys (similar to Girls on the Run). Some of the objectives of the program include “being able to identify and express a wide range of emotions; learning to be a better friend and identifying true friends; defining success and competition in healthy ways, expanding knowledge on various topics so they can make better physical, emotional and mental health choices” – essentially giving these boys the tools they need to cope with life as it becomes increasingly challenging and stressful. If I hadn’t volunteered to be one of two necessary coaches for the Wednesday/Friday session or if the local Lutheran Church hadn’t agreed to lend some indoor space (for inclement weather), this program simply wouldn’t have happened. When the lead volunteer coach who founded our program approached the schools some months back, she was told that a classroom could be rented at $75 a day! The program doesn’t have that kind of a budget. I just don’t understand why the schools wouldn’t want to fully embrace a program like this.

When my daughter was in the 6th grade, having enjoyed the DARE program the year before, she wanted to participate in the “DARE Club.” She was told they couldn’t accept her unless I was willing to volunteer with the program. I couldn’t. I was working full-time in New York City. So she missed out. I don’t know that it ultimately made a difference, since that program has been deemed so ineffective, but we should not be denying our children opportunities to participate in programs that can potentially provide them the tools and skills they need. And most of all, we need to start letting our kids know that it’s okay to talk about what’s going on in their heads, what to do when something doesn’t feel right – to us, to their teachers, to their friends. We need to create a culture where their voice will not be met with judgement. We need to demand from our government that financial issues aren’t an impediment to getting the help anyone needs.

The high school provides a driver’s education class as part of the health curriculum sophomore year. In order to get a learner’s permit at 16, the State of New Jersey requires six hours of behind the wheel education with an accredited driving school. There are countless hours of practice driving with an adult, and then the requirement of passing the road test before being issued a probationary license. They are very well prepared – equipped with the tools and skills they need – to be competent drivers when they pull out of the driveway for that first time alone. And just in case, we put them in the safest cars the auto industry has ever produced, with all-wheel drive, anti-lock breaks, and airbags, and we require them by law to wear a seatbelt. Yet, mental health issues – addiction and suicide – continue to be a leading cause of death for our children that we don’t even want to talk about. Let’s start talking!

IMG_6211My car. Without me. On the road beyond my driveway. Ramsey, New Jersey. April, 2017.

Nollaig shona dhuit!

Nollaig shona dhuit!

Merry Christmas to you! From Ireland. For the first time since my second Christmas…1966…50 years ago…I am spending Christmas in Ireland! This trip was hatched back in July, although it’s probably been in the making all my life. Since finding my biological family over 20 years ago, I had considered the idea as “some year we should…” but other things – and people – kept me in North America and at home in New Jersey most years.

The first year without her father, my daughter and I fled to Cancun for Christmas week with  his mom. There were some redeeming attributes to that trip, for me at least, but my girl said she’d never travel with Grandma again. I honestly should have learned from the 11-day Caribbean Cruise we had taken together for Christmas 10 years earlier. The Mexico trip two years ago, while providing some escape from a holiday table with an empty chair, reminded me too much of the cruise which at times made me sadder. If anything Chris and I were always united against his mother. So a few times when she said something odd, I found myself turning to roll my eyes at someone who was no longer there.

So we were in agreement, no more trips with Grandma. And my daughter said she liked Christmas at home better anyway. Last year we made dinner reservations at The Rock Center Cafe. Essentially home. A quintessential New York City Christmas! Except that it was 70 degrees. And a city packed with people still felt a little empty.

The pros and cons of escaping for Christmas came up in a conversation in July. She admitted that “Christmas at home” didn’t necessarily mean our home, but someone’s home. Christmas was a family holiday. And that’s when she said it, “why can’t we spend Christmas in Ireland.” I couldn’t think of a good reason not to, and a great deal on airfare solidified the plans.

So here we are.

I have had some guilt about not including Grandma in our holidays. Then someone posted this article on FaceBook Surviving the Holidays: 12 Tips for the Grieving. Author Michelle Steinke-Baumgard advises, “be honest with those in your life. Tell them if family time hurts, if you feel lonely in a room full of people who love you. You are allowed those emotions. They are powerful, and they are real.”

So I have accepted the idea that I need to deal with the holidays in a way that is most appropriate for me and my daughter. That’s my biggest responsibility. My former mother-in-law probably feels the same about spending the holidays with me. She declined my dinner invitation Thanksgiving weekend. Change is hard. Especially when it’s about people that are gone. So, so many people that have been part of my Christmases are no longer here. Even the nun that cared for me in Ireland in 1966 has been gone for years now.

It’s better though to live in the present. To feel the bagpipes outside the Church of the Sacred Heart last night when we arrived for Christmas Eve mass. To open presents with my sister’s family. I don’t feel lonely in a room full of people who love me (or a barn full of 43 cows and 5 little calves). This is 2016. We have a big family here in Ireland. And it’s nice to be home.

Shehill Holstein, Couraguneen, County Tipperary, Ireland. Christmas Day, 2016.