iPhone Irony

My ______________ (fill-in-the blank, husband/child/friend) seems depressed. What should I do?

This question terrifies me. Obviously, I wasn’t able to save Sam. It baffles me how many times in the last eight years people have asked me for advice on this issue, because every time there’s a part of me that thinks, Why would you ask me? Don’t you realize I failed? Ask a professional!

By putting the question out there, however, they are already a step ahead of where I was in the process. I didn’t know the depths in which Sam was struggling. I saw the clues in retrospect, of course. Loss of appetite, insomnia, job stress. All pointing toward depression. But a cursory internet search will also yield that the opposite signs of increased appetite, exhaustion and inability to focus may signify depression. Or pregnancy. If you had asked me before his death whether Sam would have been more likely to commit suicide or to become pregnant, I would have chosen the pregnant option. I wouldn’t have even hesitated.

There’s a lot of misinformation, stigma and confusion surrounding the suicide scenario. It’s not as straightforward as an “easy” way out. It’s not necessarily manipulative or vindictive. How much is attributable to mental illness and how much is a matter of individual responsibility remains a valid question. It is unspeakably ugly.

If Sam had had a diagnosed anything – cancer, heart disease, mental illness – we would have rallied to his side. We would have wanted to do something to empower him in the face of suffering. Instead, he struggled alone. Picking up the phone must not be easy when you’ve convinced yourself that the ones you love most in the world are better off without you.

Sam was not what you might call a computer wizard. He was rarely interested in keeping on the cutting edge of technology. He relied on his computer-savvy cousin for technical expertise, who during law school was, conveniently, also his roommate. Convenient for Sam, that is, when he ran into a technological glitch while preparing for a moot court competition at 3:00am, but not exactly endearing for his cousin.

But in the summer of 2007 Sam was enchanted by the new iPhone. The very first release. It’s already hard to imagine our world before smart phones, not quite 9 years since the iPhone initially came out. In fact, when Sam purchased that first iPhone, he didn’t use it as a phone; the iPhone was a cheaper, more powerful alternative to a small laptop. He kept his cell phone for making actual calls, and he used the iPhone to access the internet, research stock information and send emails.

After Sam’s death, I had three cell phones (mine, his and the iPhone), which in 2016 doesn’t seem like overkill, but was at the time. Eight-year olds didn’t have their own cell phones and tablets in 2007. We still primarily used our home phone. It seems logical now, but at the time I had to decide which cell phone to keep, and the iPhone was extravagant and expensive. In the process of consolidating the phones, I noticed that Sam did not have a single contact saved on his iPhone. He had a grand total of ten contacts saved in his cell phone: “1Charlotte”, his mother, his assistant, a friend and two cousins. Also, the Apple Store, Baja Fresh, California Pizza Kitchen and Supercuts. Of those contacts, only six were people, four family members, one friend.

His whole world seemed condensed and small in that moment. He must have felt so alone. It made me sad that so few of us comprised his entire universe.

It’s a lot of pressure to be the one he should have called but didn’t. Should he have asked for help? Definitely. Should I have paid closer attention? Probably. It has been easier to forgive him. It has been harder to forgive myself.

Did he truly not realize how many people cared? I could have readily named 30 more. The exotic, stoic girl at the dry-cleaner with the thick black eyeliner burst into tears talking about Sam, years after his death. A little kindness touches people more significantly than we realize. I do not know how he could have marginalized himself. I do not understand how he became so disconnected from his faith – in himself, in life, in others. I can only caution my children (and everybody else) to ask for help before they reach that point, if – God forbid – they ever find themselves drawn toward that dark, dark place.

Any one of us on his contact list would have helped. Even the person answering the phone at the Apple Store (live people answered the phone back then) could have looked up the telephone number for a suicide hotline (still answered live).

One of his favorite clients routinely called Sam himself – not exclusively for financial advice – but for reassurance. She struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts, and he often counseled and encouraged her.

But when he was the one suffering, he didn’t reach out. He didn’t call. He didn’t ask.

He entered that dark tunnel where he somehow genuinely believed that we would be better off without him. He took his own life and left us with a paradox: Either we would founder and fall apart and fail, because we couldn’t survive without him, thus proving him wrong; or, we would find a way to pick up the pieces of our broken hearts and build new dreams, demonstrating that we did not need him and therefore proving him right. It is crazy-making logic at its worst.

We choose to believe that we honor Sam’s life best by living our own with integrity, love, joy and hope. We live with the paradox.

So, if you want to know how to pick up the pieces after the unthinkable has happened, I do know a thing or two about that. It starts with a single day, a time devoted to healing and radical self-care. A sacred space designated for intentional breathing, contemplation and snacks. It starts with Tuesday.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And Tuesday’s peace.

Help!

If there was a way to walk the so-called hunting dog this morning without my having to get out of this chair, I’d be all about it. It’s drizzly and chilly out there, and I’m tired. The dog is curled up snugly in his crate, even though the door is wide open. He is giving absolutely no indication that he intends to move. This might be one reason we call him defective. I confess that I’m a little grateful, because I don’t want to move either. I am vehemently slumping into this chair and planning which tasks I can postpone or avoid altogether. I suspect that forward progress will require more than another cup of coffee.

There are times when a silent sit is exactly what I need, and in general, I need to slow down more than I need to speed up. Unless, of course, we are talking about my actual running speed, which starts off slow and seems to decrease over time. On the other hand, I have a preternatural fear of inertia, which sometimes clouds my ability to see clearly.

I pause. I sit. I think. I definitely need to move. It has become evident to me, however, that I’m not going to get there on my own. I need help. I need a companion to jump-start today’s journey. It’s time to send up a smoke signal.

Asking for help does not necessarily come naturally to me. I like to think of myself as capable and independent. I can be as maddening as an adamant two-year-old who insists on putting her own shoes on her two feet, climbing up into her carseat without an assist and buckling herself, even though the process will take at least twice as long. My inner toddler does hold a bachelor’s degree in literature, as well as a graduate degree. Surely, I am not without personal resources. I also have children, who in and of themselves provide an education in psychology and emergency medicine, along with a healthy dose of humility. I have learned, over the years, that sometimes a girl just needs a little support on those first few steps before she can go the rest of her way.

I wish I were better at keeping a journal. It is hard for me to remember those early days immediately following Sam’s suicide. I know that I didn’t sleep much. I ate even less. I have a beautiful collection of journals with inspiring covers. Unfortunately, most of the pages are blank, other than random chicken scratchings on a few pages. I also saved several miscellaneous emails. Four days after Sam’s death, at 2:54am, I sent this email to a select group of girlfriends:

So among the many weird things that have been happening, today a cousin says to me “Charlotte, I want you to consider moving closer to us — we would love to see you every day — but I know you have that amazing community.  And I would like to think we could offer you that… but those women put on a good game.”

Keep your game faces on, girls. I need you.

I so get the urge to scoop up my loved ones and keep them out of harm’s way. I do not fault my cousin for wanting to whisk us off, but as soon as the thought was verbalized, I knew I wanted to stay put. If I were going to move, it would be a deliberate shift toward a better opportunity in our lives. For now, I would stay in my amazing community. I would not run away. Or throw up the white flag. I would stand on my own two feet.

But first, I would need to dress in black. And I would need to be propped up by a few faithful friends. There are times when asking for help can demonstrate more wisdom than attempting to go solo. Keep your game faces on, girls. I need you.

They began to rally to my side. One contacted the local papers and drafted the obituary. Another created a website to disseminate updated funeral logistics and to provide a virtual touchstone for our concerned friends and family, too many to speak to personally in those initial days. One contacted the County Coroner’s Office to arrange for the release of the body. Another drove me to the rabbi’s office. And to my therapist’s. My dear friend and family photographer cropped a picture, taken just two weeks prior to his death, to frame Sam alone. One designed the program for the funeral; another made a collage of family photographs for display. Somebody arranged for a limousine. A team coordinated the reception following the funeral.

One friend brought my favorite of Sam’s suits and ties to the funeral home to dress him. Several furnished suitable black dresses to my doorstep for the occasion. I have a vivid memory of the surreal moment when “Tracey” sat on the side of my bed as I tried on a dozen suits and dresses. It was oddly like going to a bridal salon with my maid of honor, searching for just the right wedding gown. Only the dress was black. And the groom was dead. When I tried on a simple sheath dress with a matching knee-length jacket I turned to look at my attendant for her approval. She smiled, and sighed, and she said, with tears in her eyes, “It’s beautiful. He would have loved it.”

On the day of the funeral, she fastened the pearls at the back of my neck, and accompanied me in the limousine. Together we sat and inhaled silently as Rabbi Daniel began the service. When it was time for me to speak, Tracey squeezed my hand and let me go. I took a few steps forward, and I gasped. From the alcove where I had been sitting, a privacy curtain blocked my view of those in attendance. From the podium, I could see that the largest chapel at the cemetery was full beyond capacity, with people standing along the walls and spilling out into the courtyard. If there was one definitive moment when I knew viscerally just how many people I could turn to and depend on, it was now. My game face girls sat front and center.

I wished desperately that Sam could have felt the presence of all these people who would have helped him. If only he had asked.

I wrote the eulogy myself. I delivered the eulogy with the aid of just half a Xanax beforehand. And the promise of the other half afterwards.

I know how to mobilize a team when I’m facing a challenge I cannot handle alone, even when this means getting up and out the door instead of crawling back into bed and pulling the covers over my head. Because some days this is no small achievement. We all have times when we need encouragement to face the day. Some days more than others, of course, but every day counts.

It is my experience that help is generally available when I ask. I call my neighbor. As it turns out, she and her dog need momentum, too.

I love when Life works this way.

Three miles later, all four of us are in a better place. We have conquered a steep hill together, we have shed a few communal tears, shared some laughs, uttered a couple prayers for our collective children, and we are equipped to face the day with renewed optimism and energy. The sun is breaking through the cloud cover, and we are on our way.

Now I’m ready for that second cup of coffee.

***

Wishing you light and strength on your healing path. And help when you ask.