I volunteered this weekend at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) in San Francisco.
You know me, I strive to find something funny in everything. But even after years of thinking about this subject, I can find no way to make a joke to lighten the air that doesn’t diminish or disrespect this issue or the people involved. I don’t even have any jokes I tell myself privately. I heard Joan Rivers once do a funny joke about suicide but she was in a position to speak it, having dealt with her husband’s suicide.
I have never known anyone who has gone on to complete a suicide, at least as far as I know, although I know quite a few who have thought about it to some degree and have admitted it to me. I can only guess that many more at least have thought about it. How can you not? It’s just a hard subject to broach.
Maybe suicide is the new masturbation. We used to not be able to talk about masturbation. But now masturbation can be spoken of a little more easily. So there’s hope for discussing suicide more appropriately. And that, my friends, is about as close to making a joke about this topic as I can think of.
None of my friends have spoken of suicide in such a way to make me think it might be imminent for them. Honestly, though, I can’t say I feel real confident that I would be sure to see the signs. I’ve had my own low times and I got good at hiding it because, well, for me, the pain of hearing someone give me one more tired self-help platitude was just too much. I wanted people in my life who could see the deep dark stuff, who could listen, who could feel and relate, who would not try to directly “fix” me, and who would want that in return. Turns out, that is just plain rare.
For those of you new to considering this topic and wondering where to start, I would suggest this: just listen to someone, really just listen and don’t try to fix them. That is what can be exactly what “fixes” them. The operative words are “can be.” Your intentions are no guarantee of outcome, as we all probably know from elsewhere in life. Don’t set yourself up for a fall. Just do this if you are moved to. If you do decide to do this, do not do it insincerely or you will make it much worse. Many can smell insincerity from as far away as the moon and they will not appreciate it.
Everyone attended this event voluntarily so it’s a good guess that each person was there for some reason related to suicide if only to help it become more visible. It happens, therefore it should be more ok to acknowledge it publicly. Do you know how rare that is for any taboo subject? How special? How … dare I say … healthy? To be in this group’s midst definitely made me feel better. I felt things shift toward becoming ever so slightly more “right” in this world.
Some attendees donned shirts printed with pictures of someone they loved who had committed suicide along with the name of the person and the date of their suicide. My first view of one of those grabbed me hard in the throat. I felt a strong desire to reach out to the wearer, but that somehow felt wrong at this venue. So I just backed off and watched. At the end of the walk, I had seen so many memorial t-shirts and placards that I got the intent – to quietly and publicly remember their loved ones. That is all. Unless the wearer asked for more.
* * *
This walk looked like any other walk, mostly. Registration desks, food station, related organizations at tables nearby, emotional/medical support, memorial tent, a stage with chairs for after-walk speeches, TV station van, even a raffle. The mood was in the middle – not sad, not cheery. It was calm, respectful, easy-going, no jostling in lines. Kids of all ages were around doing their kid things which definitely added to the feeling that life goes on.
I went into the memorial tent. It held about twenty people, sitting and standing. They quietly watched a video stream of stills of those who had committed suicide. Maybe there was music. I don’t remember. I was captivated by the framed pictures hanging on the temporary walls. Just like the memorial t-shirts, each frame held the picture of a person, a name and a date.
These people look like all of us. They did not look like any one group – not just the young, or the old, or this color skin or that, or rich-looking or down-and-out. I was overcome by their stories, which I seemed to feel all at once as if they all started talking to me at the same time.
It was too much. I had to walk out. I cried. I thought about them at a distance. I didn’t know any of them and had no similar instance of this to be a trigger for me. And yet, it felt like we’d missed the boat somehow. For whatever reason, this world couldn’t provide whatever these people needed to stay in the game. At some level, I felt a great respect for their choices although I admit I didn’t know any of their circumstances. And I also felt deeply sad that we (we humans as a team) couldn’t figure this out. Which, I suppose was partly why everyone was here.
A thousand walkers and a hundred or so volunteers came together in a public park next to a gorgeous lake close to the Pacific Ocean while ordinary traffic passed by. A Thousand people. A Thousand! Even though this walk pulled from a population of a couple million, it was still a thousand people coming together around this issue.
I’ve met thousands and thousands of people in my life. After careful consideration, I’ve attempted to talk about hard subjects with a small handful of them. Only a few could meet me there, and it was almost never on the topic of suicide. In my experience, suicide seems to be the most difficult topic for people to discuss. And here were a thousand people who could acknowledge this one hard subject in a public way. Was this possible? I blinked again. It seemed so.
* * *
I have finally learned that others’ unwillingness to meet me at these dark subjects has everything to do with their discomfort with the topics and nothing to do with me. What a relief. Still, I gain nothing by coercing people to talk. I’m only looking for the willing. And since someone has to speak first in order to start the conversation, I offer my museum.
I talked with one person who found this group by choosing the subject of suicide for his high school senior project. He was amazingly thoughtful, smart, open, non-judgmental. Groups of frat and sorority members volunteered together offering community service. Another had come to this walk for years when her son did community service through his school. She happened to see an acquaintance whose son had recently committed suicide. She described an event the day before that created regrets for the mother. Oh, I don’t ever want to be in that position. Please, friends, if I can be of any help, please call me. If I’m not catching on, please be blunt if you need something from me. Please ask me for what you need. I may be over-the-top sensitive and empathic and intuitive most of the time but at the same time I can also be off in left field or read your signals wrong or not be sure if I should mention what I’m sensing.
Talking with people and hearing the stories they were willing to share is exactly what I am about. I eagerly took this event in. I am not about creating pain for people or forcing them to feel it although I see it and feel it everywhere. Every Where. Seeing people process their own pain allows me to feel my own pain and maybe release just a little bit more. It also simply feels more real.
I want to live in a world where we can just feel what’s going on with us. I am careful about where I do this in this world since most places at least in American society are not very friendly towards it. I think it’s because it sends so many people to places they don’t want to be or aren’t prepared to be. So many are not ready to address their own pain yet. And yet I believe it should be as commonplace as taking a shower or washing our hands or eating. It only feels overwhelming because we hardly do it and we don’t know how to handle ours or someone else’s pain (pardon my use of the global we). Doing it little by little can keep it from getting overwhelming.
And I saw it happen here. At one point a man stood in the middle of the parking lot crying hard. A female companion stood with him, crying too, but it seemed she was there for him. She just stood there with him. I made eye contact with him. I just held it for a second, then in deference, looked away. His contorted expression was one a person doesn’t construct voluntarily. A minute later I found his gaze again. He was looking the same way. I looked away. He was too far away for me to know if he was looking at me or past me. It didn’t matter. If he was looking at me, I would practice just holding a space for him. If he was looking past me, it didn’t matter much what I did. I practiced anyway.
That is an example of what happens in my dream world. Not that we have to have these difficult events happen there, per se, but that we can straight up talk about them when they do, that each person is capable of that, simply that, no more, no less. And that each is also capable of listening and just holding a safe space for people to go through whatever it is they are going through. That is Hard. That was happening here.
As I write this, I am at a coffee shop crying quietly, I’m not looking at anyone and no conversations seem to be changing because of me. Maybe this is a tiny little way this can change.
* * *
And then, tear-down time came, as if on queue to bring me back to the real world.
I’d been there for five hours already, leaving home around 5am. I had stayed two hours past my scheduled volunteer slot. The person I started working with had consistently and graciously acknowledged in his pre-event email messages that I was a volunteer and that he fully appreciated whatever I could offer. I told him earlier that I had sensed his gentle tone from his emails before the event and that I appreciated it. For me personally, that made me all the more willing to do whatever I could.
Now I was working with another group helping fold a couple hundred chairs. I folded and piled them up on dollies. Then the dollies got too high so I started to pile on the ground.
Some supposedly important guy (SSIG) came over and harshly told me, “Don’t pile them on the ground. They go on a dolly.”
I looked around and I didn’t see anymore dollies. He said he’d go get one. I thought that could take five minutes so I kept moving.
SSIG, more firmly said, “Stop. They’ll just have to be moved again.”
I said, “I’ll move them.”
I’m a marathon workhorse. Once I get started, it’s easier for me to just keep going rather than stop and start again. It seemed worth it to at least bring chairs to one spot while he got the dolly. So I kept moving, walking to the chairs over there, folding them and bringing them back to the pile I’d started on the ground.
SSIG yelled, “Stop! Stop!” which got the attention of the whole parking lot.
I didn’t stop. I considered leaving. Then I felt for all the other people I’d met there, some were helping with the chairs. I stayed for them, not for SSIG. I wondered how many people this guy had driven to consider suicide. I caught myself and thought maybe that was a bit harsh. Then I thought, no, that’s exactly what happens sometimes. He reminded me of other men in my life, sadly too many to count, some very early in my life. Control freaks. Entitled control freaks. Through lots of practice (unfortunately, dammit) I’ve become quite a bit calmer around them while still doing what feels right to me.
I’ve been in his shoes responsible for events. With volunteers, you take what you get, period. If you want them to do something a certain way, you had better get your ass out in front of them and ready as much of the situation as you can so that they just fall into doing what you want. And even then, if they don’t, you gently encourage them but you never order them. If they’re really messing things up, you can always ask them to leave.
In this case, I said I was willing to do the extra effort to get the chairs where he needed them. So there was no impact to him. And it turns out the extra dollies were only twenty feet away and he knew that. I would have only had time to add at most two more chairs to the ground pile before he would have provided more doilies. What was the harm?
He could have thanked me for continuing to move and get the job done. He could have acknowledged that he didn’t have enough dollies available as we worked. He could have even apologized for that. But he did none of this. He didn’t thank me at all for helping.
The chairs got piled. He and I didn’t speak again. I moved onto another task. I remember what he looked like but I didn’t learn his name. If I ever find myself working for him at, say, next year’s event, I will not do it. I will move to work with others who appreciate my efforts. Everyone else associated with the event was not of his ilk. I’m sure I’ll be able to find someone. I have no more living moments to spend helping narrow minded entitled control freaks.
Welcome back to the real world. In any group of people, even one gathered for this reason, I’ll still find all slices. Ok, got it. Again.