Echoes of Suicide

Here there be triggers…

The suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain set off klaxons across all media. People—friends, family, and experts— shared memories, formulated reasons, and dispensed advice. And in my little corner of the world, I quietly melted down as I revisited the suicide that upended my life.

I drove my friend, Jennifer, home on the night she committed suicide. She was more than my friend, she was also my supervisor, colleague, and minister at the church where I work. After her death, I went into crisis mode, helping my congregation as best I could through what was, for some, a challenging year. Because of the timing, no minister could serve our congregation for the year (a neighboring congregation lent us their minister on a once a week basis, and she checked in on us). I talked with a counselor about the events. Friends checked in to make sure I was in reasonable shape. I was.

In a moment of anger, one of my friends suggested that she must must have known it would have been him or me who would have discovered her. I knew then, as I know now, that such calculations or considerations are never present in any meaningful way in the mind of someone who suffers from a mental illness strong enough to cause death. However, that never stopped me from playing and replaying the conversation we had on the night I picked her up from dinner (her car was in the shop) and drove her home.

My rational mind has assured me, and continues to assure me, that nothing I said could have caused her to do anything—or for that matter caused her not to do what she did. I was in the company of a person whose decision—insofar as any decision was actually possible—was already made. And yet over the past few days expert after expert says, “Reach out. Talk. You could save a life.” So my imaginative mind scurries relentlessly into every corner of possibility. “What ifs” pile up like bread crumbs in a tower to rival Babel. And while my rational mind wins the day, I realize this conflict has been with me for years.

The hardest thing I grapple with is the knowledge—certain and horrible—that either there was nothing I could do for my friend, or that I missed an opportunity to do something. The second choice leads to a horror show of self-recrimination. On most days I avoid that. The first choice leads to other struggles, primarily, what difference can I ever make with anyone?

Surely, this is not true. I am reassured repeatedly by the evidence of my experience that I do make differences. Routinely, daily, in the lives of those I teach, of those with whom I work, and of those I love. And yet I daily face unilateral behaviors and actions from people surrounding my life about which I can do nothing. And every time, there is a little (or not so little) twinge. Driver heading two blocks the wrong way down a one way street? Twinge. Student refusing to do work? Twinge. Congregant refusing to meet volunteer obligations? Twinge. I am leaving out the big ones. They are there too.

This happened during the summer after my family had traveled to China to bring home our second daughter. My friend had been at her birthday party in May, and had joined us at my birthday party in June. Jennifer died in July. By November my wife and I began separating. I moved into my own place in April. It was a full year. I am aware now how tangled each and every interaction I had that year, and in the years since, have been with those feelings of guilt and powerlessness–a raw and indefatigable impotence and ineffectiveness.

One of the members of my congregation recently asked how my move was going. I am leaving the congregation I have served for eleven years, and the school where I have taught for nine, and heading to a new school, and no new church, at least not right away. We conferred briefly on the feeling of being in control of the process, and how that was appealing to me. He said that he understood. I too knew it was important, and knew I had felt out of control for some time. My church, by the way, has had six ministerial teams over the eleven years I have served them, with the immediate prospect of two more in the next three years. And we are moving to a new building—a good thing. Still, that twinge, what some might call a trigger, is so wrapped in my in church life, and my life here in Norfolk, that is is nearly impossible to continue.

I know people will tell me, in the most anodyne fashion, that control is an illusion, and that I need to let it go, practice a little Buddhist non-attachment, and set myself free. Or that I need to get tough and face my feelings with Spartan fortitude. And for god’s sake don’t talk about them. But I do not seek detachment, even when the consequence is suffering. Suffering is fine. And I can try not to feel too attached to my feelings, but really, who thinks saltpeter in the milk is a solution? I would rather deal with the struggle. Even four years later. Even forty. In the end, the struggle makes me stronger.

As for sharing? What the hell. I write. This isn’t a cry for help. And it is no “J’accuse!” unless I am accusing myself. I usually wait to write until I have teased out the germs of an idea or feeling until it has grown into words. I admit that here on the blog, I let some unpercolated thoughts trickle in. This one has been in my head for days. Or years. With any luck, the words will be a bridge between us, and not a wall. And with even more luck, perhaps these words will help someone build a bridge in themselves to something they haven’t imagined yet.

The Soundtrack of my Life

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Sky Full of Stars: 

Remembrance

When my daughter is in the car with me, she makes musical requests. Last year featured a month of Dee-Lite’s “Groove is in the Heart.” Sometime this past winter she settled on ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” Often the second song she requests is Coldplay’s “Sky Full of Stars.” She exclaims “Wow!” when the bass beat kicks in twice in the song. “It goes BOOM.” She laughs loudly as I sing “Boom! Boom! Boom!” to the beat. She doesn’t see me cry. I keep smiling. I keep going, “Boom! Boom! Boom!”

I started listening to this song in the days after my friend, Jennifer Slade, committed suicide. It reminded and still reminds me of her. Jennifer was someone who “light[s] up the path,” as the singer says about the person in the song. She was a brilliant minister: insightful and collaborative; just what a co-worker who had worked with four different ministerial teams in six years needed. She encouraged me to explore my gifts as a minister, and even if I did not choose the path she walked, she helped me think more deeply about the work I do, and to accept it as ministry.

Her death, coming in July of 2014 shortly after her fifty-fifth birthday, shocked me. I drove her home on the night she took her life, and can painfully and clearly recall our conversation on the way. She apologized for asking me to pick her up—her car was in the shop. She said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that one of the drawbacks of living away from home (she lived in Durham, NC), was that she did not have friends. As a minister she was careful about making friends in the congregation. Her work—ministers never have forty hour work weeks—and the circumstances of the year (she and her husband had taken the first steps toward divorce) had made her feel isolated.

I told her that I was always happy to help, that it was my “job.” I felt that as part of the team at our church that we should always have each other’s backs. This was amazingly important to me, because I had been on less than supportive teams at my church. I had been open with her about this, telling her that I had planned to step down from my position, but after working with her and feeling the change that was happening at the church, I looked forward to what we were building. “I’ll stay as long as you are here,” I told her. Besides, I think of my role as a “guy” as a “job,” and part of that job is answering the call. But I said “job.” I did not say, “Are you kidding me? We are friends. You can always call.”

The weeks following Jennifer’s suicide were difficult. I felt dislodged from the world. I argued with my wife and a friend about how I felt and how to respond. I threw myself into healing work at the church. I met with friends who knew about grief first hand, who had survived the Sandy Hook shooting nineteen months before this. I attended services in North Carolina and Norfolk. I saw a therapist. I retreated from the world, and could not retreat from the world; the school year was in the offing—my first full year as principal at my school (my other job). I had a family. And I felt like a shell of a human.

As I listened to this song at astronomical volume in my car, I began to hear Chris Martin’s “you” not as a single specific person, but as a great plural “you.” He wasn’t singing to one person, but to the wider world. Even if there was one particular “you” who tore him apart, he was going to give his heart to the world. In my mind the big bass beat was a heartbeat, a hundred heartbeats, a thousand, a crowd dancing, like the crowds I had danced with in college and grad school. What saves the torn apart heart is a crowd of people, of friends, of love.

Do I think that life is bound to tear us apart? Probably. Do I think that we somehow come back together? Of course. I know that’s true for me. I know that I still shed tears—manly, cathartic tears, but tears nonetheless. I choose to give my heart away, knowing that the risk of sudden, tragic loss or even slow painful loss will not pass. My daughter laughs and says, “Go Boom!” I go “Boom!” I go “Boom.”

 

 

Gathering

I traveled to Austin, Texas a few weeks back, and spent part of Saturday night at the Broken Spoke. People were dancing and having a good time.  One of my friends pointed out that lots of the people there would probably be enjoying themselves in other ways after they left, and I guess he was right.  I kind of just enjoyed the fact that all these people were gathered together, dancing a little Texas swing, chattin’ with each other, and some chattin’ each other up.  Some were there to dance, others to drink, others to talk;  I don’t guess that anyone was there to be alone.

“We gather together” starts the old song, and gather we do.  I gathered with friends in Austin–6 short of a minyan, but we often found oursleves in larger companies of people, either at the Broken Spoke, Louie Mueller’sThreadgill’s, or La Condesa. We gathered for food and drink and and entertainment and company.  And we weren’t the only ones.

Even though we weren’t eating with people at those restaurtants, or sharing pitchers of Lone Star with people at the tables, the experience was made better by their presence.  Even more than homo sapiens we are homo congregantur; we just want to be together. Of course, it helps to have an excuse, like dinner, or, for that matter, church.

What makes gathering for church different than gathering to dance at the Broken Spoke?  No, really. When isn’t there some element of the divine evoked when we gather well?  We may not say that, we may not even want to acknowledge it (and for my atheist friends any discussion of the divine will cause a fair amount of consternation).  And still, we gather.