"Say what you have to say, and not what you ought."
~ Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Long Trip Alone

On May 29, 2010 my life changed forever. At the time I thought that day was the darkest of my life. In the immediate aftermath of Julie's suicide a deeper, more intense pain didn't seem possible. But, the deep, dark sadness and grief that took hold of my soul that day continued to descend, almost unabated, for the next year until I was in the depths of a black hole with seemingly no way out. For just over a year I struggled alone, trying to deal with a loss and grief like none I'd ever experienced. Finally, I cracked, unable to take the pain any more. I realized I could no longer do it alone. 

The year following Julie's death had been filled with stress and strife. My family, always fractured and with many unresolved issues, was now a house divided. Just weeks before, some of us had come together to remember the first anniversary of Julie's passing and to inter her ashes. Bitter hostility and disagreement had kept some away, my parents unable to put aside their differences and be together for the sake of their children. 

I've always been the peacemaker in the family, trying like hell to maintain civility and bring everyone together. I guess I've never let go of the fantasy of an intact family unit. I finally let go of the fantasy that weekend. Repressed feelings of anger, regret, hurt, sadness, betrayal and loss, shoved inside me since I was 11 years old, were brought to the surface again. That was the week I cracked, no longer able to tolerate the negativity, fighting and bitter accusations. The crack that appeared in my psyche quickly grew into a giant, gaping wound. Just a few short weeks later, I was completely frazzled, unable to cope and in desperate need of help, right then. I couldn't bear the thought of jumping through the hoops required by my insurance, waiting weeks to be seen by a therapist. Finally, in desperation, I drove alone and distraught to the hospital, and checked myself into the inpatient psychiatric ward. 

My official diagnosis and reason for being there was extreme anxiety and depression with some complicated grief thrown in. Really, I was there due to my broken heart, but I don't think a CPT billing code exists for that. Like Humpty Dumpty, I was completely broken and shattered, with no idea how to pick up the pieces and put myself back together again. My world had been shaken to its very foundation, leaving me to question myself and everything around me. Guilt, regret and 'what if''s' were eating me alive. I didn't know how to go on. I wasn't sure I even wanted to. Mostly I just wanted to lie down in a quiet room, go to sleep and never wake up again. I didn't want to die. I just didn't want to feel the pain I was feeling anymore.

Despite my deep longing for rest and isolation, that's the last thing they allow in the psych ward. Thankfully though, I was immediately put on some very strong anti-anxiety and anti-depressant drugs. Finally, after more than a year I was able to get some relief from the chaos in my mind. Yes, I'd gone 13 months trying to gut it out alone without the help of any form of medication or therapy. Until then, the strongest thing I'd taken was some Benadryl a few nights in the weeks after Julie's death when I was desperate for a full night's sleep.

I didn't stay in the hospital long. I quickly realized I didn't need to be locked up, not allowed to wear shoes or any clothing with drawstrings, belts or anything else I might use to harm myself. On my second day there I met with a therapist. After explaining to her what the last year of my life had been like, she very kindly told me, "This isn't what your sister would want for you. She would want you to be happy. You need to do whatever it takes to get better so you can live your life." As strange as it may sound to a rational person, not only had I never thought about things in such profoundly simple terms, nobody had bothered to point this out to me. I was sick, but I could get the help I needed on an outpatient basis. 

Finally, after 13 months, I gave myself permission to fully grieve. I quit pretending for the world that two weeks had been plenty of time to cope with losing my sister, mourn, and attend to all the awful details that came with her death. I took time off work, telling them I didn't know when I'd be back and not to bother me. I stayed in bed, almost catatonic, sad, crying, and physically hurting inside from my grief. My daughter stayed at her dad's so I didn't feel obligated to take care of anyone but myself. I slept as much as I wanted. I quit trying to regulate the degree to which I'd allow myself to feel my loss. 

After a few weeks, very slowly, in a way that was nearly unnoticeable to me, the darkness that had enveloped me for so long started to lift. I went to therapy appointments like it was my job. I took my medications religiously. I reminded myself daily to be kind to ME, and to not feel compelled to pretend to the world that everything was okay. Eventually, about six months later, I felt different. The sadness and pain was still there, but it was different, no longer all-encompassing and much more manageable. I was beginning to accept my new normal. 

It was like a re-birth. I'd been dismantled down to my very core and put back together. Parts of me died, forever ceasing to exist when Julie died. My psychic reconstruction meant I was different inside. My very soul is different now. I see and feel things differently, and perceive the world in ways I never did before. I look the same on the outside, but I'm a completely different Keicha now.

For the last twenty-eight months I've been on a journey that I didn't choose, and if I had a choice, would never choose. At first I tried to do it alone. My breakdown forced me to realize the foolishness of my stubborn, solitary journey. It allowed me to open my mind and heart to letting others help me, and made me realize I needed to heal so that I can help others. Thankfully, mercifully, I'm no longer traveling this hard road alone. 

Yesterday marked another milestone in my journey of healing. Together with thousands of others survivors and people whose lives have been affected by suicide, I walked. We walked - strong, proud, tearful, and brave - in the light of day, confronting the darkness of suicide. We walked for hope and healing, for my beautiful, beloved sister Julie, and for so many others.  

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Bee Stings and Bears

It's hard to believe it's already been a year since I headed off on my first motorcycle adventure to Yellowstone National Park. Two weeks ago, eight of us set out for the 2nd Annual Foley's Jackson to Yellowstone Motorcycle Adventure.  Like last year, I was the only female in the group of seven men and seven motorcycles.  I wrote about that trip here.   Hopefully, next year a few more ladies will be brave enough to join us, so I'm not the odd man (or rather, woman) out again. 
The Cast of Characters
This year several of the riders from last year rejoined us, some from last year couldn't make it, and a few new people joined in.  Even though some of us were strangers at the start, we were soon fast friends, laughing, teasing and talking together like we'd known each other for years. We all have the same common connection, our friend Dave, owner of Foley's MMA Training Center.  
Our VRBO rental in Victor, Idaho
We did a few things different this trip.  For one, we decided not to camp and instead rented a luxury home in Victor, Idaho.  What a great decision that was!  It made packing the bikes so much easier and it felt much more like a vacation.  Being able to sleep in a comfortable, warm bed, take hot showers and baths, and wake up to fresh coffee brewing and a hearty breakfast eaten with a beautiful view from the back deck was heaven. It also didn't hurt that I did none of the shopping or cooking on the trip.  A crew of tough, manly men, several of them professional MMA fighters, doesn't at first glance seem like a group to spend a weekend with, but that's why it's dangerous to make judgements based on stereotypes. I have to admit I was spoiled and well taken care of the entire time. We also didn't ride nearly as many miles as last year, when we went all the way through Jackson Hole, Yellowstone, Cody, Wyoming and over both Chief Joseph and Beartooth Pass, and to Red Lodge, Wyoming and back.
The view from the back deck.
Mike, the head chef, flashing gang signs in the kitchen.

The crew ready to hit the road.
The highlight of the trip was early on our second day when we saw a Grizzly Bear in Grand Teton National Park.  It was my first time seeing a bear in the wild and it was beyond cool!  I'm giving credit for the sighting to our collective positive energy, as that morning I'd asked everyone to think positive thoughts and focus their energy on seeing a bear.  If I'd known it was that easy, I would have tried that method years ago! 

We also saw a large group of elk, and I spotted a moose drinking from the river when we were still in Utah heading up a mountain canyon.  Dave saw a bee up close and personal, as one flew inside his helmet and stung his ear on our first day as we were driving over Monte Cristo Highway in Utah.  More on that later.

The weather was beautiful the entire weekend, which made riding that much more enjoyable.  Our itinerary was very flexible, so we spent as much time as we felt like at different stops along the way.  In Jackson Hole, we did the usual tourist things, watching an old West shootout on the street, posing in front of the elk antler arches, and shooting whiskey at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar.  Okay, I guess not everybody does that last one, but since it was Shawn's first time there, I felt like the occasion should be properly celebrated.  

Just like last year, we spent way too much time at Old Faithful, or as we like to call it Old Disappointment.  Not because it doesn't erupt regularly, but because it's more than a little underwhelming seeing it in person for the first time after hearing about it for years.  Or, maybe we're just jaded. Honestly, we all like the ice cream cones from the visitor center better than the geyser.

Ice cream and Old Faithful
At this point in the trip, a new member joined our group.  Dave's bee sting had made his ear swell and redden to a point that we couldn't ignore it. His ear had taken on its own identity!  We named him Monte, after Monte Cristo where he was stung. We teased and laughed at Monte unmercifully for the rest of the trip. For a while we were worried Monte was going to require his own helmet and bike! 
Monte, a good listener with an ear for everyone.
Like all vacations, this one didn't seem long enough.  There never seems to be enough time to cover the vast space in Yellowstone Park and see all the beautiful sights there.  We left the park on our second day already making plans for next year.  Yes, we will be back, and chances are I'll be on my own bike.  That's right.  I've been bitten by the bug, and getting my motorcycle license and eventually having my own bike has officially been added to my bucket list.   
Boys and their toys.
Justin had some odd choices for riding attire this year.
An overcast day in Grand Teton National Park, but still beautiful.
Rest stop



Friday, September 7, 2012

The Sister Club

I used to belong to a very exclusive club. There were only three members, plus one honorary member. It was called The Sister Club, founded many years ago without fanfare and with much giggling and laughter by me and my two sisters. My stepdad, Jim, was invited to join several years ago, the first, and only male member allowed. There weren't any rules, bylaws or even regular meeting times for our club.  Really it only existed for the sole purpose of enjoying each other and laughing together as much as possible.  

On May 29, 2010, without any notice, and definitely without agreement from all three members, the club abruptly ceased to exist. I really miss my sister club, more than words can ever express. Sometimes I go through old pictures, looking especially long and hard at those showing the three of us, The Sister Club, in action. This is the first picture taken of us, the day newborn Julie came home from the hospital to join our family. It's faded and blurry and I'm only partially visible in the left edge of the picture. Still, it's hard for me not to be struck by the image of Amy and I looking down on our baby sister, completely enthralled, ready to love and protect her always. 
There's another, very similar image of the three of us that exists only in my mind. In it, Amy and I are again gazing down at our younger sister, loving her, taking in her every feature -her beautiful curls, her slender, graceful hands and her face - trying to imprint them in our minds forever. Except, instead of being cradled in our mom's arms, Julie is in her casket, and we have only a few minutes left with her. The memory of those last few moments with just the three of us is the most excruciatingly tender, yet painful memory of my life. Neither one of us could bear to say goodbye. We were both dumbfounded and numb as we stood there, playing out a scene that can only be described as a nightmare. When our time was up and we couldn't keep people waiting any longer, we left the room together quickly without looking back, not wanting to witness the finality of her casket being closed. Even now, I'm not sure how we both didn't die right then and there from our broken hearts.

Not long ago, someone said to me that they admired the work I'm doing for suicide awareness and prevention education. My answer was that I don't see my advocacy work as a choice. I feel compelled to do it. How can I not? My sister Julie is gone forever. Our sister club is just one of the thousands of things that was destroyed in the wake of her suicide. If I can save just one life, prevent even one death, allow even a single family to keep their sister or other family member, that's enough for me. Every time I get tired, or sad, or resentful about my loss, I conjure up that last image of us in my mind. That's why I do what I do. That's why I'll never be quiet about preventing suicide, why I'm a broken record, why I'm willing to make others uncomfortable by talking about a subject that is still taboo to so many. I couldn't save my sister's life, but I am determined, focused with a purpose and intensity I don't have for anything else, to make sure her death wasn't in vain. I will tell her story, and my story, as often as I have to in order to bring the spotlight on suicide prevention.

This week, September 4 -11 is National Suicide Prevention Week. Please join me this week in supporting suicide prevention efforts across the country.  For details on how to support suicide prevention efforts, click here https://afsp.org/