Now I Get It…Kind Of

In the video that 3 made before his suicide, he talked about how he was tired of fucking up, tired of making the same mistakes over and over again. The bulk of my initial reaction to that statement was something like “Well, just don’t fuck up so much!” Not that I don’t make more than my fair share of life errors, but I thought that 3’s particular brand of fuck-ups were exceedingly obvious and tiresomely repetitive. Dude, you know better.

It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago, when I, yet again, pissed off my sister S by (somewhat inadvertently, though no less at-fault) sharing my honest and highly uncomplimentary opinions with her. Talk about knowing better! I’ve been saying stupid shit to S my entire life. She and I are polar opposites – Myers-Briggs even told us so! – and she prefers a communication style vastly different than the one I enjoy using. While I am tactlessly honest and enduringly cynical, S inherited Mom’s boundless optimism, truly believing that everyone will share her exact opinion on everything from wedding invitations to Disney restaurant options to her husband.

Point being, I know all this. I know that I can’t be honest all the time with S. I know that I have to use my words carefully, always choosing unfettered support over honest disagreement. I know that she gets really upset when she finds out I don’t share her opinion on something she cares about, complaining about either my choice of words in expressing my dissent, my dissent itself, or both. When she asked for my opinion on her wedding invitations, I, in the course of the conversation, referred to them as “folksy,” which set off an indignant rant, much to RJ’s delight. (I stand by that assessment – the invitations had a gingham pattern!) I know all this, and yet I still keep sharing my opinion with S, and she keeps getting mad about it.

I had a lovely conversation about this topic last night with my senior year roommate from college. SYR is a magnificent woman, fiercely devoted to making herself a better person. Over the course of living together and remaining friends for the past 9+ years, she and I have seen some pretty unpleasant sides of each other. What I love about SYR is that she accepts not only my flaws, but her own as well, seeing them as obstacles that can definitely be surmounted. Together, we try to hold each other accountable, and every time I talk to her, SYR makes me believe that I still have a chance to stop making these mistakes, to improve my extensive list of abrasive personality traits.

So, I get it, at least a little bit. I see what it feels like to do the same stupid thing AGAIN. After mentally apologizing to 3 for not acknowledging just how damn hard it is to stop making the same mistakes over and over again, I retroactively amended my reaction to his video. Yes, it sucks finding yourself in the same shitty situation for what feels like the thousandth time, be it facing down an irate sister or holding yet another traffic citation. It still doesn’t warrant suicide. Obviously, I don’t have a solution for such consistent mistakes, but my current coping mechanism is to laugh, roll my eyes, talk to a friend who believes in me, and try to do better next time.

Transparency

I recently finished reading Dave Eggers’ novel “The Circle,” a creepily compelling story about a large technology company that slowly seeks to own and monetize all information, everywhere. The motto of the company becomes “Secrets are lies; sharing is caring; privacy is theft.” It was a deeply uncomfortable read, because I genuinely don’t like the idea of being forced to share my every thought and move with the entire world.

That being said, I am, personally, a big fan of honesty and the sharing of information. That’s a glossed-over way of saying that I’m terrible at keeping secrets and love talking about myself. In the past few months, I’ve become a little more liberal about sharing with others the fact that my brother is dead. First, it was Boss, when I asked for vacation. Then, during a small, farewell evening of drinking with 2 of my fabulous Irish coworkers, I explained 3’s death as my justification for taking said vacation. Coworkers reacted beautifully, as I was sure they would, offering sympathy and affirmation that, yes, I do need a holiday. Last week, at a conference with my entire Irish lab, I mentioned 3’s death twice, in passing. Once, after learning that a coworker takes a vial of her husband’s ashes to scatter in all the countries she visits, I shared that I lit a candle in Vienna for 3. While explaining the size of my hometown to another coworker, I described how many people attended 3’s calling hours. No more than that – just simple tidbits shared in conversation, then moving on.

I find that I liked sharing this kind of information with my coworkers. In the first instance, it made me feel like my 2 colleagues understood me a bit better than they did before. In the latter two instances, I felt like casually dropping my brother’s death somehow signaled acceptance that 3’s suicide is a part of me, but it doesn’t have to be an overwhelmingly destructive part. It’s just another personal characteristic, like my hair color or favorite food preferences.

Of course, there are limits to everything, including the benefits of transparency. Last week, after over a year of searching and my foolish decision not to discourage  to actively encourage her, my sister S found this blog. Understandably, she latched onto these two posts and sent me an irate e-mail detailing her fury at my former opinion of VT and my description of her wedding as a hassle. Oops :/

Lesson! Sharing can be good, of course. However, it is deeply important to know your audience. This blog was meant to be my personal Pensieve, where I could share, uncensored, every thought and event remotely related to my brother’s death, a place to write out my struggles and feelings. It still is; I’m far too selfish to let the anger of my sister stop me from writing whatever my little heart desires (so, you know, S, if you’re masochistic enough to still be reading – stop!). S isn’t the kind of person that can hear wildly dissenting opinion without taking it personally, and I know that. It was incredibly stupid of me not to beg her to stop looking as soon as I wrote the first post about VT.

Privacy is not theft. Privacy, especially privacy of thoughts, is an essential component of a functioning society. Willfully breaking such privacy can, as so saliently demonstrated by my sister, be very detrimental to both the share-er and the share-ee.

Tragedy Poker, Part II: I Fold

I’m not really one for talking on planes. I understand why people do it, and I know there’s a bit of a romantic notion behind bonding with a complete stranger while trapped in a confined space, but if I’m on a plane, chances are, I want to be sleeping, watching a new movie, or daydreaming. Yet, on the last of my disorganized series of flights home last week, I found myself, yet again, next to someone who wanted (or maybe needed) to chat.

I forget exactly what started the conversation – maybe it was when the girl in front of us apologized for putting her bag under her own seat, thus potentially impeding the foot room of my seatmate, Laura, and I. Maybe this interaction led to Laura commenting about how little she packed, or something. Whatever it was, without warning, Laura was tearing up, explaining, unbidden, that she was flying in from Turkey to arrange her father’s funeral, which happened to be in a town very close to my hometown.

Laura quickly apologized for her uncontrolled show of emotion to a stranger, but I assured her that I didn’t mind. After all, I’ve been there. As I told her, I know what it feels like to be flying into that same state after a loved one’s death. Seemingly grateful to have someone to talk to, Laura began to explain her circumstances – she’s been living in Turkey, her father had cancer and Alzheimer’s, she’d been flying over every 3 months to spend time with him, etc. Pretty grim situation all around, I think.

After a bit, Laura asked about my own experience, and I told her that it was my brother, not my father, who had died (it was clear that Laura is a generation or so older than I am). Unsurprisingly, given the already somewhat morbid nature of our conversation, Laura asked how he died, and I gave her the truth: suicide, 18 months ago. Even through her own new grief, Laura expressed shock at my answer. Yep, if we were to try to quantitatively compare, I think both Laura and I would agree that a 21-year-old shooting himself is a bit worse than an 80-something year old man dying of cancer, though, of course, cancer and Alzheimer’s are their own beasts.

The thing is, though, that I didn’t care about “winning.” I didn’t tell Laura about 3’s suicide to one-up her or try to belittle her grief. She asked, I answered, and then we kept talking. She talked through her confusion about what to do and how to arrange services for her father, she talked about her family, and, eventually, she moved on to talking about her interests, her travels, and the political upheaval in Turkey. And I didn’t mind one bit.

At one point, Laura asked if I had talked to anyone like this on my first flight back the day 3 died. I hadn’t; I spent the entire flight trying to sleep and mentally chanting “Nope, nope, nope” to keep myself from crying. I don’t think I wanted to talk to anyone, either, because I so desperately didn’t want to break down in public. Laura’s situation, obviously, was different, and I think, I hope, that talking to me was helpful to her.

It’s not about comparison, now. It’s just two strangers on a short flight, able to offer some measure of understanding to one another. I hope the services for Laura’s father went well, and that she found comfort. And though I still don’t relish the idea of talking to people next to me on flights, this time, I don’t mind that much.

18 Months

I spent the past week packing, moving, flying, driving, and unpacking, and am now safely ensconced back at my US university to start the 2nd 6-month stint here. It’s comforting to be back in my home country, and empowering to be working at an institution that actually seems to like me.

Of course, the whole moving internationally thing wasn’t without its stressful moments. I had to pack up my Irish apartment, finding storage for all the things I’d bought (dishes, linens, towels, etc.), I had to try to finish up my work there, I had to work through a cancelled, then re-booked, then partially cancelled again, flight and ended up spending the night at a hotel in Toronto after dragging my 150 lbs worth of luggage back and forth across the airport, trying to figure out how to get home. It was an adventurous week.

Throughout last week, as I sighed my way through each new obstacle, I thought back to this time last year. A year ago, I was packing my grad school apartment, selling and donating some things, storing others, packing the rest to take with me to me new job in a new state. I was frantically working my last week at grad school, which happened to be the busiest week of the year, while trying to mentally prepare for my new, grown-up job. All this just six months after 3 died.

Really, guys, what was I thinking? Six months? That’s it? Looking back, six months seems like an awfully small amount of time to distance myself enough from my brother’s suicide that I have the mental and emotional capacity to move to another state and start a new job. Thinking about all the craziness that comes with moving internationally, I was so grateful to be 18 months removed from 3’s death.

All this makes me wonder, yet again, if I handled everything wrong, if my way of grieving and living through grief was somehow unhealthy or maladaptive. Did I just push all my misery aside, refusing to confront the reality of what happened? Did I selfishly focus too much on my life and my career, ignoring any warning signs that suggested I still had issues to work through? And ultimately, does it even matter?

I’m here now – 18(ish) months from the day my brother killed himself. I’ve moved to a new state, to a new country, and back again. 3’s death is still very much a part of my life, but it’s not every part of my life. Sometimes, his death and the damage it caused are almost unbearable. Other times, they’re simply another unpleasant factor in my existence, like slow metabolism or old-lady-like back problems. They’re no fun, but what am I gonna do about it? Not much, really. Just live with it, for this 18 months, and the next, and all the ones after that.

In Pieces

I recently finished reading a series of novels (meant for teenagers, because once you spend time as a 13-year-old girl, you never really stop being one) that I really enjoyed. In addition to the blatant escapism, the last book contained this relevant little exchange:

“Doing okay? How would you be doing?” he demanded.

…”I – I would be in pieces.”

“This,” Alec said, gesturing to himself. “This is me in pieces.”

A couple of weeks ago, one of my old college roommates came to Dublin and stayed with me for a few days. You know how, with some old friends, you always end up talking about the same things? With she and I, that topic is men and our enduring single-dom. This is the first time we’ve really had to hang out alone together since 3 died, so I shared with her my belief that I am an unmitigated disaster of a person, most likely too damaged to ever sustain a healthy romantic relationship. She responded with a mildly shocked rebuttal, saying that I’m not broken, it’s no big deal, etc. etc.

While I appreciate her attempt at compassion, part of me really isn’t surprised that Roommate so quickly and casually dismissed my concerns. After all, on paper, I look like I’m doing a great job at this whole humanity thing – stable job, financial independence, great credit score, graduate degree, no criminal record – lots of factors that society values. I can’t be broken if I’m this functional, right? Yet, like Alec in the book, this is me in pieces. Not stopped or shut down; I’m still doing what needs to be done in everyday life.

Being in pieces looks different for everyone. For me, it means thinking about my brother every single day, thinking about what his suicide did to me, to my family. It means questioning myself and my self-awareness, the gnawing concern that I still haven’t properly dealt with 3’s death, that I am an explosion waiting to happen. It means an exponentially heightened desire for control coupled with a painful, passive-aggressive frustration when things are out of my control. It means that I love interacting with my friends, discussing things that have nothing to do with 3, but simultaneously wishing that someone would bring him up and ask how I’m doing, followed immediately by a profound sense of disgust with my own selfishness in that wish. This. This is me in pieces.

I know there are worse things to be, and I really am grateful for my consistent capability to function at a reasonable level. I have so many wonderful things in my life, not least of which is the fact that I’ll be flying back to the US this week, and I’ll get to see my family, my nieces and nephew for the first time in 6 months. I just think it’s worth pointing out that you don’t always have to be visibly shattered to be in pieces.