I first met in her in mid-May, both of us in a strange place in a strange state of mind. Neither of us could adequately explain what brought us to that place, but her company there in that isolated pocket of sadness was an unexpected source of happiness, of companionship, and, eventually, guilt. But for those two weeks, she was my rock, my angel, and above all, someone who understood.
She had the most beautiful brown eyes. In fact, that’s what I called her: ‘Brown Eyes.’ Peering into them was as if I were at the edge of deep pool of still, dark waters, both calming and dangerous at the same time. There were several of us there, about twenty, but Brown Eyes was the only one close to my age; myself, 23, Brown Eyes, 22. We hung close to each other those two weeks. Practically every hour of the day.
Soon, however, we understood that it was pain, a deep hurting, that brought us to that place. Sometimes, a mind will work against its own, the cause of which could be a host of things, and will damage that soul, driving them down, causing pain, causing despair, madness, and, all too often, death.
Brown Eyes was an incredibly gorgeous young woman, both to the eyes and to the mind. She was caring, compassionate, prone to giggling, and a devoted listener. She radiated a warmth that I was instantly drawn to, a solace in a world gone mad.
Yes, we stuck together. We loved each other’s company, yet we were both afraid, both hurting. No wonder, then, that we were drawn to each other. But though our time together was brief, the days we spent together were full of closeness, friendship, and a kinship that I will never forget. Brown eyes and I used to have wonderful times together. We played poker, told hilarious stories about ourselves while we smoked cigarettes on the patio, we watched (and mocked) the nightly film, we ate together, and sometimes we were just together. We were as close as two young people could be in a place such as there. We shared a bond. We shared everything.
I remember once, one of the older residents, at one of our sessions, noticed the spark between Brown Eyes and myself. She remarked: “You two are going to get together when you get out of here, aren’t you?”
We both blushed. Brown Eyes managed a: “Well….” I smiled broadly, in the hopeful affirmative.
But Brown Eyes was hurting. Deeply. I so wanted her to get better, to see that she had value, to myself and to the world. Once, when we were journaling together, she had written ‘I am hopeless’ repeatedly across her worksheet. That crushed me. No one is hopeless. All life is precious.
I never discovered what brought her to that place, but her pain, so evident when it manifested, was so profound, so powerful, I could not help but be wounded further myself. I would find herself alone, trying to sleep, but crying. The suffering Brown Eyes would be curled up into a ball, clutching a Roald Dahl book, no doubt a book from her childhood, from a happier time. I went to her then, and felt her pain, stronger than my own. I did not understand it wholly, but I knew what it was like. I would hold her. Our little world, however, was constantly monitored. Such is the nature, the precautions the physicians must take, when two young people find themselves in the psychiatric unit of an old hospital on Seattle’s First Hill.
I remember what brought me there. I had been diagnosed with clinical depression only a year before. The treatment was still new to me, and I was battling old demons at the same time. Note to self: certain medications and alcohol are a terrible mix. My physician saw the signs as I collapsed, the ideations. Thus, this was how I met Brown Eyes.
Her eyes. Those deep worlds of both pain and compassion; never will I forget them. I remember the day Brown Eyes was discharged. She had given me her phone number. I will always remember this moment, the last time Brown Eyes spoke to me: “Please,” she said, “Do call.” I promised I would.
I don’t know why, but I waited a day. Perhaps I wanted to give her time to reacclimate with her family. Perhaps I thought it too early, for whatever reason. This is a regret that haunted me, ate at me, damaged me for several years.
I eventually did call her, the next morning after breakfast. The phone just continued to ring. I called several times that day, but no answer, no machine. The phone would just continue its incessant ringing. Finally, that evening, someone picked up. “May I talk to Brown Eyes, please,” I asked. The voice replied: “Who’s calling?” There was a sense of disbelief, and also inconvenience in his voice. “This is Andrick,” I replied, “A friend of hers from the hospital.” There was a long pause, followed by deep sigh. Finally, the voice, an uncle, spoke: “Brown Eyes is dead.”
My world collapsed. My time in the hospital was extended. I recall very little of the first few days afterwards. And yet, even in those dark days, I strongly disagreed with Brown Eyes: There is always hope. With the skill of the mental health providers at the hospital, and the daily visits from my psychiatrist, I improved. I wanted to improve. My father, whom I recently lost, would visit me everyday. Friends would call me, offering support. This is crucial to a recovery from a mental illness: a strong social support system and a team of dedicated professionals. And recover I did, more determined than ever to live. This was the first gift that Brown Eyes left me with: the will to push on, to live, to change the lens and see the world, and myself, as a wonderful place to be. This was her second gift to me: suicide will destroy those left behind.
I was not in the hospital much longer. Though I had learned painful lessons, this is often how one learns and grows, especially in the assessment of those lessons. Pain is there to teach.
My psychiatrist was very skilled. He was both a physician of the brain, and a psychologist of human behavior. My Doctor was a rare breed then, and now, practically, an anachronism.
I have written on this before:
Now, these days, an unfortunate schism has happened: the divorce of psychiatry and psychology. But in 1997, I was very fortunate to have my physician and my confidant in the same office. Our visits were for an hour, several days a week after my discharge, as I began the healing process. We would discuss medication, but we would also discuss the illness, and the guilt.
Though I had only known Brown Eyes for two weeks, the bond we shared, in that environment, with someone my age who suffered a similar illness, was strong. My Doctor and I spoke of her extensively, and the choice she had made.
For that is what her suicide was: her choice. But the nagging guilt still gnawed at me; why didn’t I call sooner? What if I had said something different in our time together? What could I have done?
My recovery was strong. I returned to acting. The local theater community in Seattle was a strong source of support. I loved to perform for an audience, an emotional release you might not be able to tap offstage. I worked in hospitality, and rose to the position of Operations Manager. I switched to banking, where I eventually filled the same roll, with Chase Bank for fifteen years. I tried my hand at writing, and had a couple of books published (they were not very good, nor well received…. it turns out I am better at writing essays than I am at writing novels). At the tender age of 47, I made another choice, one of the best I have ever made. And so now I find myself in healthcare. Ironic, perhaps, but a profession I love nonetheless.
But those early years after the hospital were a steep climb. And yet, recover I did. Those who have recovered from a mental illness are aware that this is an affliction that may forever be a part of them. But, along the way, you learn skills, and ways to cope, so that each time the affliction attempts to return, you know what to do. Oftentimes, this involves one the hardest things there is to do: ask for help.
But there was always that little demon in the back of my mind, worming its way into my consciousness: that feeling of guilt. Eventually, as part of the healing process, you must accept that certain things are not your fault. There was nothing I could have done. Brown Eyes had made her decision. I understood her pain; I understand why she did it. Sometimes, the dark night of the soul is so powerful, one sees the only relief as oblivion. It was a decision I myself could never make. This was her choice. It was not my fault.
SUICIDE IN AMERICA
Suicide is the most destructive act one can do to those that love them. Survivors of those who have lost loved ones are often adrift emotionally and mentally, sometimes for years, or for the rest of their lives.
It is a difficult subject to broach, as it always stirs feelings of confusion, sadness, resentment, depression. Those who have lost loved ones to suicide oftentimes find themselves alone and misunderstood. Conversations can be awkward. The guilt can be overpowering.
Survivor’s guilt can lead to complicated grief, a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder than can degenerate into depression. Most of us have faced death, and we feel the hole it leaves within us. But to lose a loved one to suicide is a wound that is very difficult to heal.
Yet talk about suicide we must. Here in America, though we have faced profound problems for the last year and a half (to put it rather lightly), we have the resources and intelligence to address this problem. And a problem it is:
In 2020, over 48,000 Americans died by suicide, making it the 10th leading cause of death in the country. On average, 132 Americans died by suicide every day.
Suicide is to succumb to the darkness, but it is also a desperate cry for help: a staggering 1.4 million Americans attempted suicide.
Suicide is the 4th leading cause of death of those aged 35-54.
A statistic that is absolutely heartbreaking: suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death of those between the ages of 10 and 34.
Every day, 22 American military veterans take their own lives. That is 1 suicide every 65 minutes. This number is appalling and unacceptable. No matter what your stripes, these men and women put their lives on the line every day, for very little money and insufficient appreciation.
THE LACK OF MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES
Though suicide is obviously a profound problem in the United States, there is an unfortunate lack of resources for the mentally ill. At every clinic I’ve worked at, nearly every provider has decried the lack of options and availability for those who are on the edge. But, these physicians do their best. If one is depressed, and contemplating suicide, it is better to seek help from any Doctor than none at all. Every Doctor you will meet, every Nurse, every Medical Assistant; all of them will do their absolute best they can for you. I have worked among some of the best. They are dedicated to their craft, and to helping you heal as best as they possibly can.
Though we have come a very long way in understanding and accepting the existence of mental illness, we still have quite a ways to go. The social stigma still exists. The lack of awareness, though decreasing, is still present. There are often limited options and long waits to see a mental health professional. And, though I realize this is a subject of debate, healthcare in America can be egregiously expensive, and oftentimes, recovering from a mental illness takes in-depth and lengthy care.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
First and foremost, if you are having thoughts of suicide, and have made plans: CALL 911.
If you are depressed, or feel that life is not worth living: reach out for help. See a Doctor. See your religious counselor. Talk to a friend or family member you can trust.
If you are a survivor of losing someone to suicide, take care of yourself. It will take time to heal. As so above: reach out for help, wherever you can find it. Someone out there knows what you are going through. You are not alone.
In fact: Anyone suffering from depression or thinking of hurting themselves; please realize, you have value, you have a future, and you are not alone.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255
Veterans Help Line, for those currently serving: 800-342-9647
As the saying goes: I would rather listen to your story than attend your funeral.
Project Semicolon, stylized as ‘Project;’ is an American nonprofit organization known for its advocacy of mental health wellness and its focus as an anti-suicide initiative. It was founded in 2013 by Amy Bleuel of Wisconsin, who lost her father to suicide in 2003. Tragically, Bleuel herself committed suicide in 2017.
Project Semicolon defines itself as “dedicated to presenting hope and love for those who are struggling with mental illness, suicide, addiction and self-injury”, and “exists to encourage, love, and inspire.” A semicolon ( ; ) is used as a metaphor: the author could have ended the sentence, but chose not to. “The author is you and the sentence is your life.”
Today, one might see or notice people with the semicolon tattoo. Many celebrities have been seen with such a tattoo. I dislike it when entertainers use their positions of prominence to talk about politics, but if they are bringing awareness to mental illness, more power to them.
IGY6, or: I’ve got your six (I’ve got your back) was inspired by project semicolon, created by military combat veterans to advocate for suicide prevention and awareness. One may occasionally see a veteran or first responder emblazoned with “IGY6;22.” The number 22 represents the number of combat veterans who commit suicide every day.
It was not until earlier this year that I accomplished something that I had neglected to do, perhaps unconsciously. I have lead an exciting and successful life; setbacks, here and there, to be sure, but with my new education and my new love of healthcare, I have a great future to look forward to, full of potential. But it occurred to me, 24 years later, that I never officially said goodbye.
It took a little digging on the internet, but I found it. I drove across town, and visited Brown Eyes’ grave.
There was an outpouring of emotion, to be sure, as memories came back. But there was also a sense of relief, of closure that I was not aware I needed. Her grave is on a beautiful, gentle hill, overlooking Seattle. It sits underneath a Japanese Holly tree, surrounded by trinkets and memories of those who had come by.
I said goodbye to Brown Eyes. I said I loved her, that I was not angry with her, and that it was her choice, but I wish she had made a different one. I imagined the conversation we might have had then, had she survived her illness, so long ago, as if we were two old friends, catching up on old times. I have absolutely no idea what happens in the world to come, but if we persist, in whatever form, after death, she will be the first person I hug.
Good bye, Brown Eyes! I remember your spirit, and our memories, both of which I will carry; your story is not over.
Dedicated to Hannah Elaine Harvey, 1974 – 1997
This will be my last blog post for the foreseeable future. Though I have loved writing my observations and thoughts on healthcare, it is time-consuming, and there are things I must move on to. All of you who enjoyed reading my posts, I can’t thank you enough. My website will still be there, and, somewhere down the road, I may post again. Thank you all, and do feel free to contact me.
Thank you all! Wash your hands! Get vaccinated! Take care of yourselves! Take care of each other! Bye for now….