Marketable Coping Skills

I’m 10 days into my incredible vacation, relaxing in a Florida hotel room with Kay, watching TV over the too-loud air conditioner. Tomorrow, we’re headed to DisneyWorld to be big kids for a few days. Very exciting :)

Like I said last week, one of the things I’m escaping from on this trip is the pile of job applications I have to complete. Tenure-track professor positions require a lot of materials – a resume, cover letter, teaching statement, research statement, and letters of recommendation. I am fortunate enough to have plenty of wonderful advisors who agreed to write letters for me. However, my grad school mentor is very busy, so she asked me to write an outline of a recommendation for her to work from. What would I like her to say about me?

What can my grad school advisor say about me? What impressive things did I do in grad school? Personally, I think that writing and defending a dissertation within 2 months of my brother’s suicide is pretty good. I think holding it together, completing the culmination of 4.5 years of work and presenting it to a committee, half of whom didn’t know what I was going through, makes me a focused, dedicated researcher.

That’s not how it works, of course. Compartmentalizing your brother’s suicide isn’t a marketable skill, even if it’s a useful one. I can’t ask my advisor to write about what happened to me last year, and I can’t really bring it up in interviews. It’s been almost 2 years. I suppose it’s well past time I stop searching for positive things to come from 3’s death, for how his suicide can benefit me. It’s selfish.

Still, I do wish. I’m proud of how I worked through 3’s death, and I’m proud of the work I did that semester. I know everyone deals with their own shit all the time, and we shouldn’t get extra credit for doing our jobs, but since 3’s death is still the biggest thing that’s happened to me, I  kind of want it to apply to everything else, even my job search.


My Brother Shot Himself, So I Get A Vacation

As I post this, I am sitting in a large, tiled room in resort in the Dominican Republic. I can see gorgeous greenery out the window, and I got a massage earlier this afternoon.This is my “My brother shot himself, so I get a vacation” vacation.

I have no qualms about telling people this reasoning. Over Labor Day, when my aunt found out I was headed to the Caribbean, I repeated that exact phrase. Aunt looked stunned and said “I don’t know what to say to that.” Stepdad helpfully told me I was being overly blunt. I suppose it’s not really fair to make other people so uncomfortable by blatantly justifying my vacation with my brother’s suicide, but I desperately want this vacation to feel reasonable. Also, I’ve never been particularly tactful, anyway.

It’s been nearly 2 years since 2 killed himself. While I don’t think I ever neglected to take care of myself over the past 20 months, I also never really chose to slow down. I finished my dissertation, graduated, moved to a new state, started a new job, moved to a new country and, for all intents and purposes, started a completely different job. Now, I’m applying for tenure-track positions, which effectively has me planning my entire professional life for the forseeable future. It’s been exhilarating, exhausting, and occasionally frustrating. The one thing life has not been is relaxing. So now, I am spending six days in the Dominican Republic with M, followed by 10 days in Florida with Kay.

It’s not just about feeling like I should deserve a break, though. By aggressively using 3’s death to justify this trip, part of me thinks that I am doing some of the coping that I’ve neglected over the past year and a half. Maybe, if other people agree with the idea that 3’s death was hard enough on me to warrant a tropical getaway, then I’ll be persuaded to use some of my time on the beach to contemplate the loss of my brother, to really face it in a way that I often feel like I haven’t.

Or maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll lay out on the deck chairs, gazing at the turquoise of the Caribbean, reveling in the surreality of the fact that I’m actually laying on a tropical beach, staring at palm trees overhead. Maybe this can be a regular, late-20-something vacation, a celebration of finally having enough money to travel in a marginally decadent fashion, a celebration of my amazing friendships with M and Kay. I took many international trips before 3 died, and I’ll take many more in the years to come.

I really don’t know. I still think about 3 every day, and his death still feels like a huge part of my life. Yet, 20 months seems like a long time – too long to be claiming his suicide as a reason for taking a vacation. Too long to still be bringing it up in conversation, reminding people to think about it.

Ugh. Too much thinking. This might be my dead brother vacation, but, damnit, it’s still a vacation. I’m going back to the beach.

A Lost Jacket and a Free Coffee

A few weekends ago, I flew to Boston to hang out with Dirk and Kricci, who ended up in the same graduate program. It was a short trip, but very enjoyable, but a few weeks later, as I packing my car for a visit back to my parents’ house, I realized that I was missing my gray jacket, which I had last worn in Boston. Only it’s not my jacket – it’s 3’s, one of the few things I have of his.

I consider myself a pretty logical person, and it didn’t take me long to figure out that a) I had to have left the jacket in Boston, either at Kricci’s apartment or at the airport, and b) I didn’t have time to do anything about it; I had to get on the road for the 4 and a half hour drive home. The potential, unexpected loss of another piece of 3 (and, let’s face it, a really comfy, versatile jacket!) was jarring. I was freaking out, which, for me, amounts to twitching my fingers and thinking “I’m freaking out.” I texted Kricci to ask if I’d left the hoodie at her apartment, then jumped in my car.

I wasn’t looking forward to having to adapt to the lost jacket, but 3 got right to making me feel better. Just before I reached the highway, I stopped at a Dunkin Donuts to get some caffeine. I asked for a medium iced latte, but the nice kid behind the counter reluctantly told me that their espresso machine was broken. Before I had the chance to alter my order, the manager asked “Would you like a free iced coffee instead?” After confirming that they could add my requested flavor and milk to the iced coffee, I happily agreed. It’s functionally the same drink, anyway. I order 2 doughnuts and pulled out my credit card. With the flavor and milk add-ins, I fully expected to pay for my coffee, but Nice Kid Behind the Counter brushed me off. “It’s our problem that the machine is down, so we’re making up for it!” OK, then. Obviously, I’d rather have the jacket back, but free coffee is a reasonable consolation prize. Thanks, buddy :)

Luckily, this story has a happy ending. Just a couple of days ago (a full week after I’d originally texted her), Kricci e-mailed me with a picture of the jacket, asking “Is this it?” HUGE sigh of relief. I sent her an exclamation-point-filled response, explaining that it was 3’s jacket, and I don’t care how long it takes to get back to me, I’m just happy to know it’s not in some trash can at the Boston airport. One day, I’ll have to really deal with the loss of my mementos of 3, but for now, I get the jacket back, and I got a free coffee, to boot!

The Woman in Control

Since 3 died, I’ve experienced quite a few changes, spent quite a bit of time trying to classify new parts of my identity. First, I tried to adapt to the very fact that I have a dead brother. Then, I started a new chapter of life in which no one knew about 3. Now that I’ve moved back to the US to start Part C of my current fellowship, I’m adding yet another facet to my post-3 self.

For the past month, I’ve been incredibly productive at work and at home. I’ve completed and submitted articles, written hundreds of lines of syntax and run the subsequent analyses, cooked homemade meals, snacks, and desserts, and worked out every single week day. I even flew to Boston for 36 hours to visit two friends last weekend and have started preparing job applications for when this fellowship is over. It’s the first time in my adult life (and probably my whole life, to be honest) that I’ve had such a consist run of productivity.

Each time I complete a new workout or check another item off my to-do list, I feel more competent. I’m good at my job, I’m trying to be more healthy, and I’m making an effort to maintain friendships. It leaves me feeling very “women can have it all,” very Lean In. Sheryl Sandberg would be proud. Over the past four weeks, I haven’t been the girl with the dead brother. I’ve been an independent, competent woman, and I’m in complete control of my life.

I’ve written a lot about my heightened desire for control since 3’s suicide, and I finally feel like I have it. I’m back at a university that respects me as a colleague and researcher, I’m living by myself in an apartment of my choosing, and I have all of my belongings with me. I have control over every possible aspect of my life, and I’m better off for it. I’m making the decisions, and I’m reaping the benefits.

I’m much better off when things are in my control. I feel like one of those women in magazines, the ones with good careers, healthy lifestyles, and meticulously organized day planners. It’s a nice feeling, but I know how precarious it is. The only reason I can get so much done is because I’m keeping my own world very small, very constricted. At any moment, another tragedy could strike, another thing beyond my influence could go horribly wrong. So for now, I’ll try to hold on to as much as I can, keeping control wherever possible.

The Funny Ones

Understandably, I heard, read, and saw more about suicide and mental illness this week than I ever have. Fortunately, most of what I read was very positive and understanding; some of it wasn’t. I, of course, am now going to add my two cents. This might take awhile…

Obviously, I’d never met Robin Williams; like most other people, I had just grown up watching him in movies and on TV. One of my first memories of Sesame Street is of Mr. Williams showing a muppet robin that he has a red breast, too! That kind of joy and humor proved confusing for some people, as they wondered how such a bright and hysterically funny man could take his own life.

I really can’t answer that question any better than the brilliant writers over at Cracked. While I don’t know that this kind of characterization is true of every funny person, the article does a good job of explaining not only the innate fear behind the humor, but the unhelpful reactions of others. Funny people don’t share their pain, because others are only used to seeing them smile and joke. “Lighten up,” indeed.

Like I’ve said before, 3 is the funniest person I’ve ever met in real life. He didn’t have the manic energy or wealth of impressions of Mr. Williams; 3 was more like Jimmy Fallon, giggling at his own jokes. As mentioned in the Cracked article, 3 didn’t have the greatest childhood. He even said to me once that he figured out pretty early that if he made jokes and said silly things, grown-ups would stop asking him how he felt about Mom and Dad’s divorce. I don’t think 3’s humor was entirely a defense mechanism, though. He genuinely loved laughing and making other people laugh. Still, it’s desperately important to note that people who are depressed or suicidal don’t necessarily traipse around, somberly staring at the ground, telling anyone who cares to ask that they’re going to kill themselves. Don’t expect people to be happy all the time, and don’t overlook the funny ones.

Sadly, not all internet reactions to Mr. Williams’ death were compassionate. Shocking, I know. I won’t get into the ignorant news anchors or bitter old pseudo-celebrities who are either truly cruel or just saying things for the sake of being shocking. I do, however, want to address a moderately popular blog post that went into great detail about how suicide is a choice. I mean…really?

Someone has just died. Forget the fact that this said person was an internationally beloved comedian who consistently went out of his way to be kind and generous to others; he’s a human being. Can we not make our first response to someone’s death “They were wrong”? Or at least wait more than 24 hours before bloviating about the nature of death under the mind-numbingly self-centered proclamation of “truth”? Goodness.

Let me be very clear: if you want the barest, meanest, most compassion-less technical classification, then yes, suicide is a choice. The thoughts behind suicide are not. Do you understand the distinction? Yes, suicide is, by definition self-inflicted, but what leads a person to that point? Depression, mental illness, abuse, constant bullying – these things ravage a person until they are INCAPABLE of seeing any other way out. They don’t choose to hate themselves or their lives or their circumstances. The haywire chemicals and hormones in the brain of someone with mental illness prevent healthy thoughts, just like pancreatic cells in the body of a person with diabetes prevent the health production of insulin.

Two Christmases ago, after a fight with my mom over S’s upcoming marriage and the nature of love and relationships, I thought about suicide as I made the 9-hour drive back to my apartment. Somewhere around Cincinnati, I sobbed as I thought about what it would be like to just drive through the guard rail and into the river. It was never a serious consideration – more of a thought exercise. Too messy, too much trouble for my family, my mom would blame herself, etc. It’s the closest I’ve ever come, which is to say, not close at all. Point being, I did not have the disordered thinking, the misfiring synapses, the improper chemical levels that cause people to overlook the consequences, to forget how much their lives mean, to believe that suicide is the only option.

I wish people would stop acting like the single greatest reason people commit suicide is because no one ever told them not to, no one ever told them to be happy or to enjoy the beauty of life. It’s so much more complication than that. This isn’t to say that I’m advising against telling people such things. On the contrary, I’m all for doing and saying whatever you can to keep people from taking their own lives. I just don’t think “Don’t do it” is a solution that’s going to work for everyone. Schizophrenia can make you see things and hear things that aren’t there, and depression can prevent you from hearing “I love you, please don’t kill yourself” even when it’s being said directly to your face. Mental illness is not a choice.