It's National Suicide Prevention Week.
So, where have I been?
My head has been nagging me all week to post something here in a vigilant, methodical (and somewhat frenzied)
attempt to try to save lives and prove my allegiance to the cause that has now weaved its way into every aspect of my life.
Several emails from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and other suicide prevention organizations have been sitting in my inbox, waiting for me to post their practical and proven five step guides to help save lives.
The clock is ticking as Suicide Prevention Week comes to an end today, and I'm still not planning to post the how-to's and what-not-to's that the experts are pushing to the public.
Today, I want to talk about free will and choices. We all practice it, and we all make them.
We can love someone with all of our hearts, take all of the "right" steps to help them, listen to them, support and try to keep them safe, but the truth is we can't keep them in a protective bubble forever.
We have no control over their thoughts, behaviors or the choices they make.
We have no control over how long they are destined to stay with us.
Nothing and NO ONE in this physical life is certain, predictable, or permanent.
We are all here living here on borrowed time as we navigate this life together, learning valuable life lessons that will ensure our evolutionary process.
That's all life really is; one big experiential lesson.
There is no right or wrong when it comes down to love and matters of the soul.
The soul itself is pure, whole and unscathed. It's perfect, wise and knows all.
We DON'T (and CAN'T) screw it up.
It lives in the energy that surrounds us every day. It sees everything we do and guides us, whether we choose to believe it or not. It is the unfathomable beauty that lives inside of you and me.
So on this final day of Suicide Prevention Week, I say this:
If you have have offered support of ANY kind to a loved one that you have lost to suicide,
IT WAS ENOUGH.
YOU ARE ENOUGH.
IT WASN'T YOUR FAULT.
If its been years and you are still grieving the loss of your loved one (whether you lost them to suicide or not) congratulate yourself on a job well done.
You showed up and dared to love.
Previously published on SHFT.
Edited by Melissa Drake
About a month ago I figured out how to add a link so people could subscribe to this blog.
Okay, I hear some of you giggling, but I was totally jacked up to have figured it out, as this website and blogging experience is still very new to me. It continues to force me out of my cushy comfort zone and smack in the center of places that are strange and uncomfortable. It's all good, though. I think I'm growing and evolving as I go.
If I'm going to be totally honest with you, I have found it relatively easy disclosing my natural feelings surrounding my grief and loss. It is personal, yes, and the feelings I have expressed so far have been honest and from my gut. I realized recently, though, that I haven’t really told you much about myself.
After several of you read my blog, supported me with heartfelt encouragement and signed up to receive email updates, I felt an urge to summon up the courage to speak more openly about my personal struggles with mental illness. So, I went ahead and updated my About Page. Soon after, I had a new post nearly polished and ready to go, but realized it didn’t even make mention of this all too often avoided topic.
Up until now, I have told you about my sisters and a little bit about my grief journey, but somehow, I feel I owe you more than that. The message coming through lately (with a vengeance) has more to do with opening my guarded heart to reveal the whole truth of my journey, including my perfect imperfections. I’m going to admit that I’m more than a little nervous about sharing this with you, but I'm doing it with the hope that it will make someone feel less "crazy" or less alone.
I have battled Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) and Major Depressive Disorder for most of my life.
I wasn’t even aware that C-PTSD was a thing until I saw it listed on one of my diagnostic summaries. I was surprised to find out that it accurately encapsulated the collection of symptoms and behavior patterns I had established because of my severe childhood trauma.
So, what is C-PTSD?
C-PTSD is a psychological stress injury and a natural response to repeated and prolonged physical and/or emotional trauma or neglect. Often, the victim is held in a state of captivity with little or no control over their situation, with no foreseeable hope for escape.
Some examples of these situations include:
I have heard C-PTSD described as "the cancer of mental illness" because those who suffer tend to go in and out of states of remission, and few fully "recover." I’ve been informed by more than one counselor that a large majority of extreme abuse victims end up psychotic or dead as a result of their psychological injuries. It’s heartbreaking to admit that this has been the case for victims in my own family.
While it's true that survivors of traumatic abuse can be more difficult to diagnose and treat because of our complexities, the fact is, most professionals aren't specifically trained to diagnose or treat patients who suffer from these types of complex traumas.
As a result, victims can end up slipping through the cracks of the mental health system misdiagnosed, over medicated. and tragically, misunderstood.
I have been there, but my innate stubbornness, curiosity and connection to the universal Healer brought me to the right people at the right times.
Throughout my 30-year quest for happiness and healing, I have been shrink-wrapped with a delightful myriad of diagnoses. (Seriously, I’ve heard everything from Generalized Anxiety Disorder to “possible Borderline Personality Disorder.”) Few of them were accurate, so I wasn’t always getting the support I really needed.
No disrespect to my mental health professionals. They were only leaning into the broken diagnostic system established and provided by members of the American Psychiatric Association (who attempt to organize shamed and abused people into tidy little diagnostic boxes).
C-PTSD is not tidy. In fact, it wreaks havoc on personal relationships because it is established within a personal relationship, and many times, the abuser is the victim’s primary caretaker and/or family member who they look up to and rely on for their survival and support.
My trauma began early, and continued into my young adulthood. When abuse is severe and ongoing, children learn easily how to disconnect from their bodies, so the overwhelming and traumatic experiences can be physically and mentally tolerated. This disconnection process is called dissociation.
During dissociation, parts of the brain go “off line,” and the memory of the traumatic event becomes splintered. When this occurs, the memory can’t be recalled as a narrative. Instead, it is remembered in fragments. As a result, the victim may recall only certain smells, sounds, visions and/or body sensations experienced during the actual event, but not the event in its entirety.
When the body-mind recalls the trauma later, the splintered memories seem to appear "out of nowhere" with no linear story attached to them. The recalled smell, body sensation, auditory and/or visual "hallucination" (if you experience them, not everyone does) can be terrifying and can cause extreme anxiety. Even more disturbing, these stored memories can be dislodged anywhere, at any time, and without warning.
This is the nature of PTSD.
Dissociation is especially common in children who have been sexually abused. In this case, there is often no memory recall until years, or even decades, after the event took place.
This is only a brief explanation. You can learn more about dissociation here.
The residual effects of child abuse can be confusing and traumatic for decades after the devastation of abuse.
I was taught from an early age to discredit my experiences (“That never happened!”) ignore my body (“You’re so sensitive”) and second guess my intuition (“But he seems like a nice guy”).
I became a stranger to my own body and eventually ended up blocking and numbing out everything; including joy, happiness and many other positive emotions and sensations, like pleasure.
I tried to run away at five years old, but never left the backyard after realizing there was no place to go. By age eight, I was already displaying the flat affect that accompanies depression.
I can clearly recall my father standing in my room and asking what was “wrong with me.” After calmly stating I was depressed, he matter-of-factly replied I had no right to be depressed. He then turned and walked out of the room.
His blatant disregard for my well-being, along with my mother’s duplicity and deep denial, was the perfect recipe for a brain full of doubt, fear, and sadness. With no way out, I did what victims do; I absorbed the lies, beliefs and behaviors of my “all powerful” abusers. I believed I was defective, and my life-long search for a rescuer began.
It was easy to see how this put me on a well-worn path to self-destruction. I felt hopeless and utterly helpless, living in a programmed state of struggle, lack and victimization. I battled eating disorders for more than two decades. My complacency and self-hatred finally came to a boiling point in my late 20’s, when I made two attempts to take my life.
In 1996, a proverbial brick in the form of my second (and final) suicide attempt, woke me up to the realization that my work here wasn’t done, and the Universe had no interest in celebrating my homecoming.
Things were about to change, and they certainly needed to for my sake, and for the sake of my children.
(If you think you are struggling with C-PTSD or know someone who might be, it will serve you well to research professionals who have been specifically trained to deal with complex trauma and dissociative disorders.)
You can read about my victory from victimhood in Part II here.
As emotions began to flow and words became redundant, I felt a strange urge to express and create in less familiar ways.
It was my couselor who suggested art therapy. She surprised me one day with a new assignment: To sit quietly and spend ten minutes drawing... anything. We were both curious about the outcome and I was tired of talking.
It was time for a different approach.
I made a visit to the local craft store and picked up some oil pastels and drawing paper. I had happy memories drawing with Cray-Pas. They were softer and seemed somehow more forgiving than pencils or crayons.
Never considering myself much of an artist, I've joked repeatedly about my inability to draw stick people. This project, though, felt oddly liberating and I couldn't wait to see what would come of it.
I decided to use my non-dominant hand because I knew this practice would access my subconscious mind, making the outcome all the more intriguing.
The picture above was the end result. It definitely illustrated my pain and struggle but, more importantly, it also revealed the transformation happening within me. (Note the upward/outward movement.)
Suddenly, my suffering seemed to have a purpose and direction. In any event, there was movement, and this gave me hope.
The second piece was created about a week after finishing the first. I was experiencing bouts of terrible chest pain and pressure which finally led to a trip to the hospital for an EKG. The results were normal, of course, and I felt like a total hypochondriac (but relieved) learning that the pain was just related to stress. I returned home, yet again, to rest.
My heart, tender and aching, just wanted my attention. "Okay," I said, exhausted from resisting. "I hear you."
During therapy the same week, my counselor asked me to describe how I saw my heart. I closed my eyes and gently placed my hand on it. "What do you see?" She asked. "It's sort of lopsided," I continued, "and one side is smaller than the other... and... blue. It's closed down and very tired."
When I returned home that day, I had to draw it.
This time I used my right hand to create the right half and my left hand to create the left. (I'm a natural lefty, but this is what felt the most natural at the time.)
The pic below was the result.
Sometimes, I surprise myself.
In the months following Elizabeth's death, I became more and more reluctant to be around other people. I couldn't help it. I simply lost my innate ability for small talk. I showed up on the outside exactly where I was on the inside, without pretense or apology. I was incapable of exhibiting anything other than my current state of being, which presented mostly as shock and devastation. I had to protect myself from anyone that might attempt to alter or otherwise inhibit my need to genuinely express my feelings.
I was never in the habit of telling the world my life story, so very few people really know the truth behind the tragedy (which is no small feat in a small mid-western town where people tend to throw their personal lives to the wolves.) I'm the type of person who confides in a few close friends, and believe me when I tell you, these are people with whom I would trust with my children and my life.
For better or for worse, I found out quickly who could and couldn't handle my new fragile state of being. Let's face it, though, this is heavy subject matter and few people are emotionally equipped to help another navigate through this sort of wreckage. I had been on a break from therapy, but knew it was time to return. I thought it would be unfair to unload the bulk of this responsibility on my family and friends and also knew, all too well, that I could easily be the next to go if I wasn't vigilant about pursuing as much outside support as possible.
My therapist's name was Mary (her name has been changed) and she is an amazing success story. Her journey was not an easy one. A single mother, she recovered from her own childhood trauma while raising her kids, working and going to school. (We had a lot in common.) She was, what I would refer to as, an unconventional therapist.
She approaches healing trauma in a holistic way, addressing and including all dimensions of the human experience: the physical, the spiritual and the psychological. She is a licensed addictions counselor, and very unlike the myriad of other counselors I've seen that have formal psychology degrees. She is healthy, well balanced and intimately connected to her intuition.
Coincidentally (or not, more like) Mary's grandson completed suicide three months prior to Elizabeth's death. She sent me a beautiful card, after learning about my loss through a mutual friend, which included a note expressing a desire to connect. Not to have a formal therapy session, just to connect. And so, we did.
God works in mysterious ways, because I couldn't imagine a bigger gift than having nearly unlimited access to another human who had suffered the same type of traumatic loss. I was so grateful for this connection, and it may have saved my life...or at the very least... my sanity.
We told our stories and spoke of our experiences. We expressed our remorse and the inner knowing there was no way to have altered the outcomes. We spoke of soul contracts and agreed that, even in the midst of this despair, there was a divine plan that would be eventually be realized. It was our mutual belief that energetically, our loved ones were still alive and well, and maybe closer than ever before. This gave me great comfort, and soon after this visit, I resumed regular weekly sessions.
The months that followed were rough, so I decided to open up to more forms of self-expression. I had started writing again several days after arriving at Elizabeth's house (her eulogy, specifically.) It had been quite a long dry spell, so it was a comfort reconnecting with my creativity. It was like reuniting with a special friend with whom I'd lost contact (for a very long while.) It was so quiet in that house, and I could feel my sister's presence everywhere. This is where much initial healing took place, and I will be forever grateful that my brother-in-law and niece allowed me to stay with them during this time. It was exactly where I needed to be.
After the memorial, I returned home to write more poetry. The words seemed to flow through me effortlessly, probably because I had been broken wide open and allowed no judgement to form around what was revealed. Writing became the only medicine that soothed and hushed the wounded kids inside. The ones who lost their most precious ally. They needed me more than ever before and I wasn't about to let them down.
The phone rang in the middle of the night. It was Elizabeth, and she was frantic. "Sue had a heart attack!"
WHAT?! I panicked. I had seen her only a month before! I tried to get details, but my sister was too upset. I immediately called my parent's house and my father told me it wasn't a heart attack. Sue had been found unresponsive in her bed but was now in the hospital being monitored. He seemed hopeful, so I went back to sleep, relieved that it wasn't a heart attack and that she was definitely in the right place. I knew, though, when the phone rang at five am that she was gone.
My husband answered and I closed my eyes. I walked into the living room. He said the words. "Your sister passed away." I broke down and hugged him. Then, I instantly thought of my mother. She had to be devastated. I needed to go to her. She would need me to be strong. I was.
The next several days were a blur, as we traveled west to be with my sister's husband and three kids. We were all in shock. The kids were young, aged seven to fifteen. I felt helpless in my attempts to console them, but I was grateful for the time we had spent together over that past year. It was unusual for me to have the opportunity to visit with them more than once every year or two, and that year I made three trips.
I was there to witness a notable decline in Sue's health. She was in a lot of pain and obviously depressed. She insisted on forging through her housework past midnight, and would sleep during the day, often until noon. One day I found her laying face down and sideways across her bed. This was not normal.
The sparkle in her eyes had disappeared and she engaged in conversation less and less. I begged her to rest and helped her any way I could, but she was driven and stubborn (ingrained family traits) and her house had to be perfect. Elizabeth would remark about how Sue's cleaning obsession reached unhealthy levels when she resorted to wall washing. You could eat every one of her four course meals from the floors. Her home was her castle and she took pride in keeping it beautiful. It was her greatest desire to make her guests feel comfortable and welcomed.
In all of her efforts to care for everyone else, though, she never took care of herself. It was heartbreaking to watch her suffer in silence. During my last visit, I caught her crying in her bedroom while listening to Celine Dion's "Because You Loved Me." I asked what was wrong but she wouldn't talk. Looking back, I'm not sure I ever actually saw her really break down. It was usually a single tear or two accompanied by a far away stare.
There is no more helpless a feeling than not being able to reach someone when you sense they are in trouble. I saw that same vacant look in Elizabeth's eyes before she died. The look of utter exhaustion and emptiness. It was as if the body was present but the will had checked out. That's what hopelessness looks like, and it is utterly terrifying.
Ultimately, Sue's death was determined accidental. At the time, reading that word in the report was a comfort. Now, after recent events, that determination has become more of a question. One day it will be clarified, and until then, I will rest in the knowing that her energetic presence is still alive and well and very, very near.
R Jade McAuliffe-
Mother, author, coach and poet; believer in things unseen.
"Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o'er wrought heart and bids it break."