Today is the anniversary of the day my cousin Joe killed himself.
I realized this when another family member mentioned it in a status update on Facebook. It took another hour for me to get goosebumps and tears in my eyes as I realized that my today may not have happened like it did if it weren't for him and his pain-filled decision.
When you think of suicide maybe there's a type of person you think of that would do such a thing. I don't think Joe would fit that mould. Joe was in his early 20s, was good-looking, funny, and seemed quite confident and successful.
From what I could tell he didn't have any trouble in the dating department. I'm not even going to begin to speculate on the reasons he made the decision he did. I do, however, want to share how this loss impacted me in the weeks and years to follow.
When I got the call at work letting me know about Joe's death I was a college graduate working as a waitress at PF Chang's. I had graduated a year and a half earlier with a degree in Psychology with honors and plans to start my master's program ASAP.
Part of that plan was moving home so I could afford tuition and expenses. My mom had another plan which involved her moving across the country within months of me graduating for a job and her boyfriend.
"How dare her not be at my beck and call! How dare she have a life!!"
I spent the next year working as a manager at a popular retail store where I was promoted many times very quickly. I was barely paying my bills and working 60-70 hours per week. The day I put in my 2 weeks my District Manager let me know he was about to promote me...twice. I still quit.
I'm sure I could have been very successful with that company, but it was a totally unfulfilling job for me and I knew it. I went on to do some marketing and catering for another restaurant and then to waitressing at PF Chang's.
I was busy blaming my circumstances and my mother for why I hadn't started my master's program. All that working and blaming kept me busy and from looking in the mirror long enough to face the mountain of self-doubt behind my eyes. [...]
A few weeks after the funeral I was getting ready for work. The odor of soy sauce permeated from my work shoes. I wanted to crawl out of my skin and send it to work without me.
"I would rather kill myself than go to work today," almost fell out of my mouth, but I had stopped flippantly using that phrase. There's nothing wrong with waitressing. I had enjoyed being a waitress since age 17, but something about it since Joe's death was now intolerable.
Every day I invested myself in this job with no plan of action or thought about how I was getting closer to graduate school and my eventual career was another day I spent intentionally not honoring myself and the life I felt was supposed to be mine.
Merriam-Webster's definition of suicide: the act or an instance of taking one's own life voluntarily and intentionally. I wasn't so different than Joe.
I pulled into the PF Chang's parking lot and couldn't get out of my car. I just physically couldn't do it. I sat there for 10 minutes wrestling with the idea of not showing up to work at PF Chang's. What would my managers and co-workers think about me? In that moment I decided to show up in my own life and to care what I thought of me.
I turned my car around and drove home. Eric and I had just bought our first home together and were still in the stage of ooey-gooey love. Honestly, I don't even think we'd made our first mortgage payment and I was responsible for half.
I was terrified to tell him (he whose name was on the house) that I had quit my job with nothing to fall back on and decided to uncharacteristically "trust my gut" despite all physical evidence to do the opposite.
As I pulled in front of our house Eric walked outside to meet me. I burst into tears and said, "I can't go back there, it makes me want to kill myself. I'm going to graduate school."
From what I remember he seemed pretty baffled and simultaneously supportive. He hugged me and told me I'd figure it out and did a fair job hiding the fact that he was crapping his pants.
I had a family member who cleaned houses. She had told me in the recent past how much money she made. That night I made flyers for my new cleaning business and over the next few days my college-graduate-self went door-to-door to some of the nicest houses in Saint Louis, introduced myself, told them of my plans to go to graduate school and about my service.
I may have left out the fact that I had never done it before, but it wasn't rocket science it was cleaning toilets and being nice and trustworthy and I knew I could do all of those things well. I was so determined to figure out a way to make my plans work and I was willing to do anything.
I'm sure Eric and most of my friends and family thought I had lost my mind. "So, you're cleaning toilets and going to school again? How are you going to put that on your resume?" One of my friend's dad actually said this to me. I had lost my mind...and it felt SO good. It turns out my mind was just getting in my way. It had a stack of fairly convincing evidence that I shouldn't be doing what I was doing.
Within a week I had a few houses. Within a month my schedule was full by mostly word of mouth and I was making more money in less time than I had at any restaurant or managing a retail store. I was young and fast and could finish 2 houses by 2:30pm. This left plenty of time for homework and the evening program in Counseling Education.
It was May and I didn't wait until I received my acceptance letter for the Fall to start classes. I had waited long enough. I enrolled as an undergraduate for the summer and took a statistics class required for the program.
My not-so-glamorous cleaning job turned out to be an awesome fit for my needs at the time; I made a lot of great connections I still keep in contact with today and got in fantastic shape as a bonus. My cleaning clients frequently asked, "How's school?", cheered me on, and were excited when I graduated. A few are now like family, attended our wedding, and were the first to babysit our first child. I've even received counseling referrals from and been hired for speaking gigs by old cleaning clients!
While I cleaned I listened to seminars and books on tape of topics that interested me within the mental health and spiritual fields and when it was time for my year-long internship I had no problem rearranging my schedule to fit in 25-hours per week of free work required for graduation while my fellow students griped and struggled to amend their full-time work schedules.
After graduate school I was encouraged to apply for the Ph.D. program and worked part-time for the Chair of the Department in exchange for a stipend and full tuition reimbursement. These were some of the most exciting and transformational years of my life. And to think, I almost missed them.
Fast-forward to this morning (unbeknownst to me, the morning of the anniversary of Joe's death). My first client was a woman I've been working with for several months in helping her to grieve and heal from the loss of a close family member to suicide.
Cue the goosebumps.
This morning she shared that in our work together she felt like she's made great strides and was grateful. She seemed in awe of her progress. Although she's done 90% of the work for her healing, it felt good to hear her gratitude. In dealing with the guilt and the grief of the loss of her loved one she's had an unexpected epiphany and become aware of the ways in which she unconsciously but intentionally takes her own life in a not-so-immediately-lethal, but still soulfully damaging way.
Since this awareness she's reported consciously working to change her intent towards herself and can see how these insidious beliefs she's held about who and how she is have impacted many facets of her life in negative ways.
Epiphanies had by myself and witnessing other's epiphanies is my FAVORITE thing in life.
And to think...I almost missed THAT. *tear
My cousin, my client, and myself weren't the picture of suicide. By outward appearances it probably looked like we had it "all together." And this is why I do what I do. I've observed, and come to think of, suicidality as something we've all participated in.
Maybe the way you're killing yourself won't be as quick as the means my cousin chose, but for some reason the way he did it is easier to judge.
Maybe you're slowly and secretly killing yourself or depriving yourself of your best with self-abusive talk?; or you're unconsciously killing yourself with beliefs you have about yourself that color your entire experience and you're not sure how to identify them or are too scared to do so?; maybe it's just easier to blame others for your life's circumstances instead of taking responsibility for your part?; maybe you're ignoring your feelings that "something's off" and pressing on in circumstances that don't feel right?; maybe you're eating too much or not moving enough or disrespecting yourself in other ways?
I don't judge Joe for his decision. Our society hasn't made seeking help for feeling emotionally bad very easy. In fact, the dominant message seems to be to ignore the way you feel.
The way he died was tragic and I want to be clear that I wish it had never happened. I'm also grateful his passing made the ways I was intentionally harming myself become a little more clear and a lot more unbearable. I don't believe in coincidences and I don't think this full-circle moment (please forgive me for using an Oprah-ism here...) I experienced today was one. I can't logically explain how Joe connected with me today, but it really feels like he did...so I'll just honor that.
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