Rest and relief

Dedicated  to Michael Goncalves and the loved ones we have lost to suicide

Early in June, I had a day at work that left me drained, overwhelmed, and maybe even frightened at how low I felt.  I really felt the need to go back into therapy. That difficult moment did eventually pass. I spent decades working on strategies to self-regulate, to care for myself, and to deal with some of the challenges that I face.  I call upon that learning, training, and experience whenever I feel weak. I am grateful to be able to do so for myself.

This past June we lost fashion icon Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain to suicide. This week I lost a former student to suicide. Those deaths made me reflect on my own journey with depression and mental illness.  I have been open about my own struggles with anxiety and depression. I don’t talk about them as much in recent years because they’re not as central to my current experience. There may be times in the future when I face grief, loss, and other challenges of middle age.  My mental health has been foremost in my mind for the greater part of my adult life. It took me years to achieve that level of self-awareness.

The mental transformation that I have undergone took years.  There are times like that summer afternoon when I will feel as if all my progress has evaporated in moments. Suddenly my negative self-talk and  negative self-image will resurface. I may be healthy now but that doesn’t mean my negative self-image still isn’t there. I spent years loathing myself. That part of me still shows up now and then, those thoughts, those ways of seeing and perceiving the world. They don’t go away because of therapy or, for so many people, because of medication. Those negative thoughts and beliefs are some of the ways my mind responds to challenges.

I am thankful for all the work I put in for my mental health. I have known my therapist for half my life. There were times when I saw her once a week. I also took part in support group for three years.  I completed intensive work in various behavioral therapies.. That work was necessary and continues to be instrumental in my life today. I would not have made it through in my profession and in my personal life. I couldn’t be a parent today.

As we grapple with suicide, we are more open to discussing mental health.  It’s important that we recognize we are not professionals. We can’t take the place of professional help.  Some may think having good friends and a loving partner may be all the support needed. That could be. However, I know I needed my entire circle of family and friends supporting my journey, a great therapist, and my entire medical team involved. I am religious so my spiritual life and practices also changed and deepened. Working on my mental health included work in all areas of my life. It was a process.  I learned that I needed routine, discipline, and physical movement. Becoming mentally well took a monumental effort. I needed patience and faith that what I was learning would work. I had to have faith life was going to get better.

It hurt my heart when I learned of Anthony Bourdain’s death. I never met the man but I have read his books and he was fun to watch on TV. We used to joke we would have our own show, Latino couple traveling with toddler. It was easy for us to look at Bourdain and say that he was living the dream.  I was devastated when I learned my former student had died. I think about how he was always smiling, how sweet and happy he seemed. I won’t ever truly know anyone’s story or pain. We each have a journey and unfortunately some end in tragedy. Even though I don’t know what these men experienced, I remember my own struggles. I remember how sad, angry, frustrated, low, and miserable I felt. I remember wanting relief. I won’t ever forget. Those memories keep life in perspective.

I wish those we’ve lost to suicide rest.  I wish everyone grappling with mental illness relief. If you have been blessed with a truly healthy self-image and mind, be grateful. For some of us, it’s a daily effort to be well.  I hope to keep my eyes, ears, and heart open to others.


*National Depression Screening Day is October 11.  Learn more at Stop a Suicide Today

A letter to a stranger

All My Love, V
Dearest Vanessa,
We don’t know each other. I’m ashamed to admit I never saw your films nor did I read your writing though as a Latina writer I try to support my hermanas in art.  I only know about your passing because I follow Alisa Valdes on Facebook.  Still, news of your death has touched me.  Once it could have been me blogging a farewell.
I wish our paths had crossed somehow.  I could have told you about my own struggles with self-doubt, depression, and the allure of a quick death.  I wish I could say I was the secret to my own survival.  This is only partially true.  I have to credit therapy, prayer, the love of family and friends. Mostly, it was simply fear that kept me alive, fear of the unknown.  Then I received unexpected news.  Suddenly, it wasn’t only my life hanging in the balance but that of my daughter.  So I really had to rediscover my will to live.   But I was no stronger than you.  I suppose I stayed a few days more.  Now we won’t know what might have been if you had done so, too.
I am sorry you have left the world. I am sad the world did not sense the depths of your pain.  I am hurt that we will never know the extent of your potential and that only your art will endure.  But I hope you have found the freedom you sought for most of your life, la libertad of peace.
I pray for the repose of the soul of Vanessa Libertad Garcia.  Con safos, chica.

The Carrying of the Cross

In the penultimate Sorrowful mystery, Jesus walks to his death, forced to carry the means of his punishment. As with the other indignities he has suffered, he moves forward with strength and integrity.
For me, my cross has always been my depression. The other day in group, we were asked to sit with our most negative thoughts about ourselves, with the most harmful of our automatic thoughts. I resisted, wanting instead to focus on my breathing but our facilitator kept pushing us. When I finally gave in, the sadness spread like so much venom in my blood. I slumped in my seat, felt my head get heavy, felt a lump in my throat. Tears welled up. Then I became angry and my breathing became shallow. Why did we have to sit with these thoughts? Didn’t she know this was terrible for us? Then I became resigned. These are my thoughts. I live with them. They have shaped me. But I recognized that I could shape them. I could shoulder this burden and make my way up the hill.
I have done it before. I will do it again. I know I am not alone. He is always with me. He is carrying most of the weight.

The Anguish, 2007 remix

My best friend, the DJ, had a best friend, another DJ, Angel(not his real name). Angel was good-looking, talented, sweet–and dying of AIDS. A few weeks before his death, Angel made one last mix tape which he called, “The Anguish.” He gave out 5 copies: one to my best friend, three to DJ friends, and one to another friend. My best friend played it in my car many years ago. It spoke to our mutual blues. He told me the story so I listened closely to the melodies and lyrics, how sad and poignant they were, in light of Angel’s imminent death. Then my best friend left the tape in my car.
Despite what I knew, or actually because of it, I made a copy of the tape before returning it to the DJ. There was something precious about Angel’s last mix. Here was pain, tangible, semi-permanent. Here was Angel, who was beneath ground long before I met the DJ, but still a powerful presence. In fact, after I got my own copy of “The Anguish,” I can swear Angel came to me a few times, if only as a sudden chill in the car or a feeling of someone behind me. It’s been years since I’ve listened to the mix but I always think of it.
Now, I’m not dying. But I am depressed. Still. I have returned to the Catholic Planet and I am hoping as I acclimate to its atmosphere, I will shake the cloud over me. I was better for a few days and then yesterday, I sank back into the depths, into my own anguish. I feel guilty because I have it all, or almost all. I have youth and beauty(yes, despite my bouts of self-hatred, I look in the mirror these days and see a pretty girl, not a classic beauty, but an indigenous woman, beautiful and earthy like my grandmother and my foremothers.) I have success and accomplishments. I have a loving family and loyal friends. And, unfortunately, like a mystic, I have the ability to make my own heart want to stop beating.
My new doctor pointed out that I have two problems to resolve in my new program of therapy: my romantic issues and my depression. I used to see them as one and the same or at least intertwined. Upon reflection, I see that I have carried my sadness ever since I was small. I remember sitting in the backyard when we lived in the ghetto part of the Stack and looking at the green grass with tear-filled eyes. I remember sitting on the curb near the elementary school, crying without sobbing, staring into the distance, hoping to see Mami running down the street, as I waited for her to pick me up from kindergarten, as the kindly crossing guard assured me that I would be okay. Mami took ELD classes at the Language Center a few bus stops away and she would have to get my toddler brother from the preschool before rushing to get me. She remembers it, too, and I can tell she feels guilt, after all these decades. One vivid detail I remember is one day we had made construction paper candles with waxy yellow crayon flames. The candle began to droop in my moist palm as I clutched it in my right hand, my favorite red scarf in my left as I rubbed my fists on my face. In my mind, I thought that maybe I wasn’t important enough for Mami to be on time. I was five years old and already my mind was convincing me that the love anyone could be feeling for me wasn’t all that strong.
I cry now as I remember that feeling because it’s the feeling that always returns. It is the feeling that I allow to take over my entire being whenever I am scared or anxious. My doctor says it is my extreme stress reaction and she is right. It’s like a reverse game of possum. I start to die even before the threat arrives. I tell myself to stop living because I am afraid of abandonment. I am afraid I am not lovable.
This is programming. It can be changed. While life experience has taught me that love is fraught with confusion, fear, and the threat of finality, I know that I can be loved. Sometimes I am full of the love around me. Other days, like yesterday, I am clutching that candle and waiting.

*Angel, watch over me. Love me the way you loved my best friend. Give me your strength.

Bitter truths

I’ve been thinking about killing myself lately. Selfish, I know, but the depression that has haunted me since I was a teenager has taken me over with a vengeance. Like snake venom, it has paralyzed limbs, deadened nerves, and made its poisonous way through me. Not once but four times in the last two weeks have I sobbed, wept and screamed for several minutes, thoughts of bridges, pills, and those sharp Cutco knives flashing in my mind. I’ve talked myself out of any drastic actions by praying, pleading with God, and visualizing the reactions of my Mami, Dad, Bro, Sis, Best Friends, my boy, and even the latest romantic possibility. Last night was the worst yet. I woke up at 2am, cleaned my room, and cried myself to sleep. I woke up again at 5am, told myself time was up, snapped on the lights, intent on getting dressed and taking the matter of messy me into my own shaky hands. But I stopped myself.

I spent the afternoon with Play Brother. He is still thin, pale, yellow, pained. He hates his liver because it is useless and it makes eating difficult. But he walks on, even if he has to place his hand on our shoulders to steady himself. He still reclines in the sunlight, reads aloud the Valentines his fellow teachers sent him with a slighly sardonic tone. When he hugs me, I feel his devotion but most of all, his life. How strong it is, despite the weakness of the body. I hug back just as tightly, despite the weakness of my heart. Deep down, below the foundation of gloom, I have the strength of an entire nation.

They say antivenin hurts. It is made with the same poison found in the viper’s fangs so it probably sears nerves. My love for Play Brother, and my love for life, is still very much here. It is time to take measures, however painful, to heal.