What was it like to be you?

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month

What was it like to be you? Since you can’t tell me, I’ll tell you what it was like to be me. I’ll start with the Port Road house. Those three years were good, sad, tumultuous, and life-changing. I was a prepubescent busy-body, and you were a restless, afro-wearing high school sophomore. Many indelible memories, too many to fit into one paragraph. Was it you who shielded me from the turmoil going on in the house; sitting with me in the bedroom while the commotion was happening? I know those were tough times. One afternoon, you’d had enough and ran out of the house wearing only a white undershirt and pants; you didn’t bother to put on shoes or a shirt – Linda driving around to find you. What was it like to be you as a teenager?

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At 18 you left for the army. Where else were you to go? We all went our separate ways. There was a picture you sent mama while at Fort Ord basic training – you looked happy. I still see it in my mind’s eye. I’ll never forget my late-night journey on the Greyhound Bus to watch you graduate. We stopped at terminals to pick up passengers along the way. The terminals were dirty and intimidating; red-eye travelers, drunkards, and downright sketchy folks looking for something to do. Didn’t bother me much because I was thinking about you the entire time and was looking forward to seeing you. What was it like to be you as a young man?

Years later, I visited you and Cynthia in Tacoma. It was generous of you to pay for my airplane ticket. Maybe that was your way of staying in touch with me. I had a fun time with both of you, especially when you took me to the teen disco nightclub – I thought I was cool hanging out with eighteen year old party-goers. What was it like to be you as an adult?

I have fond memories of the many visits you made to my family in San Jose; your wife, kids, and mother-in-law in tow. Let’s not forget the way you skillfully packed everyone and everything in that old Ford Taurus. Who knew you could get that much stuff into one car. The sounds that thing made as you put it in reverse, slowly backing out of our driveway; we teased you, saying the Titanic probably made the same moaning and creaking sounds as she was sinking. You didn’t care … it was all good. One thing was for sure  you didn’t care what people thought of you. I admire that. What was it like to be you as a father?

Your speech to mama and papa at their 50th wedding anniversary was touching. Those words came from deep in your soul. You articulated beautifully your appreciation and gratitude for their unconditional love, support, and acceptance. They were listening. What was it like to be you as a son?

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I think about you. Sometimes my thoughts go back in time when we were young and other times it’s memories of us with our families; you with your kids, and me with mine. That day in December, 2004, was a moment in time. It doesn’t define who you are to me. Instead, I choose to embrace our times together with deep affection.

I wish you had reached out to one of us. If you were standing here, I would say, “I noticed you, you were a good person and a good brother.”

The Broken Sidewalks

The broken sidewalks took me where I wanted to be. The tires of my bicycle absorbed every bump, crack and uneven pavement as my bike carried me to my destination. I was a precocious eight year old; usually the leader of the pack, rarely, the follower.

My bike was made and given to me by my friend, Bill. Bill and Marilyn were my neighbors who lived in the house across the street. I never asked about their age, but if I had to guess, I’d say they were fifty year old empty nesters. Both were deaf – which I found intriguing. Why do they use their hands to communicate? Why do their voices sound strange?

When I had the chance, I would watch them from my window with curiosity. I decided I wanted to make friends with them, but my older sister would not let me. As the eldest girl in the family, it was her responsibility to watch over me while my mother worked. After weeks of pestering her for permission to walk across the street so I could introduce myself, she finally capitulated. I was allowed to go, but only if she accompanied me. I had no other choice but to agree, as it was the only way I could meet my new friends. The introduction went smoothly, but with a whisper of confusion on Bill and Marilyn’s part. They must have been thinking to themselves, “why would this little girl want to make friends with an old couple like us?”

Over the next few months, I would go to Bill and Marilyn’s house. Spending all the time with Marilyn; sitting and talking with her on her sofa or sitting at her kitchen table to watch her cook dinner. Because she was born deaf, talking was not easy for her. It was difficult for her to regulate the volume, pitch and sound of her voice in a way that most people can understand. Her words were not clear. To me, her voice sounded like the adults on the Charlie Brown cartoons. She was able to understand me because she could read my lips. Marilyn tried to teach me sign language, but I didn’t have the patience to learn. Somehow we managed to communicate and that was good enough for us. 

One afternoon while playing in their backyard, I spied an old, rusty, broken down bicycle leaning against the fence in the far corner. I asked Bill to whom this bike belonged. Bill must have detected my desire to take this jalopy of a two-wheeler as my own because he gave the bike a spit-shine, slapped on new tires and graciously gave it to me a few weeks later. I was delighted and grateful to call this new mode of transportation, my new, old bike.

From that day forward, I rode my bike up and down Berryman Avenue, my street. When I felt brave, I would cross the street and ride the sidewalks of that block. Although broken, the sidewalk cut through the neighborhood’s overgrown weeds and tall grass. On occasion, I could hear the unsettling sounds of something rustling and scurrying alongside me. I was certain the tall grass was home to rats, snakes and lizards.

I loved the sense of freedom my bike and the sidewalks provided. The time and thoughts belonged only to me. No adults to say, “don’t do that” or “don’t go there”.  One day, for no particular reason, I biked all the way to the end of my street, near the railroad tracks. It was the outer most section I was bold enough to go. All the kids knew, once you’ve passed Washington Boulevard, you had gone too far. I reached the corner, looked both ways at the traffic light, turned around and rode back to the safety of my block. It really was not a big deal, but I felt courageous for the effort.

One of the places the sidewalk took me was to my friend, Melanie’s house. Melanie lived on a tree-lined street with impeccable lawns and brightly colored flower beds. Although she lived around the corner from me, the houses on her street were far nicer than mine. The driveways on her street were steep and inviting to all neighborhood kids zooming around on bicycles, big wheels or skateboards. We would walk our bikes to the top of these driveways and ride down at top speed. We wanted to separate from the pack, so Melanie and I had the idea to “trick out” our bikes. With clothes pins, we affixed playing cards to the frame near the tires. The sound of the cards flapping against the spokes was gratifying. The other kids noticed and soon after, our idea was a common thing and all the rage in the neighborhood.

I became confident in my cycling abilities and my knowledge of the neighborhood sidewalks grew. With ease, I could describe the people living in a certain house and what types of cars they drove. Some neighbors were nice and waved, others would simply walk by without any gesture at all.

A sizable section of the sidewalk near my next door neighbor’s house was uplifted because of the massive eucalyptus tree roots. I knew to pedal faster there because catching “air” was guaranteed, as was the smile on my face.

My bicycle and the sidewalks fit me perfectly and it was a reflection of my personality. When I first saw the bike, it was alone but not forgotten. After minor repairs and new tires, it looked like a bike on display in a major department store. Despite the scratches and rust spots, it was functional, beautiful and served its purpose. The sidewalk represents my childhood; with the cracks, bumps, and obstacles, I maneuvered around and over them, becoming wiser and unbroken.

When the sun set and the daylight grew dim, I knew my adventures were coming to an end. I relied on the broken sidewalks to show me the way home, to the step of my front porch.

 

Hearing the phone ring at 1:00 am is like an explosion to your ears, especially when your brother is lying in a hospice facility waiting to die. No matter how much I prepared for that moment, it was not easy when it finally arrived like a sledgehammer hitting a rose. The last words I planned to say and the last thought I wanted to share evaporated like droplets of water on a hot sidewalk.

The last few months I dreaded, yet relished Saturday afternoons. Saturday afternoons were the only days I could visit my older brother, Raymond, at the hospice house. Conditions changed quickly at the house and visitors had to be sensitive of that. It was different from visiting a sick friend in the hospital. These residents were indeed sick, but they were also dying. Raymond did not have the luxury of going home.

During the drive to Long Beach, I ruminated on the same questions; should I walk in the house smiling and happy, or should I be somber and depressed? Do I greet the other men with a hug and words of encouragement, or is that crossing a boundary? The freeway exit was approaching quickly and I would soon be in the company of fifteen men in the last stages of the AIDS disease.  Most of the residents were frail and sickly as the disease had already consumed their bodies and spirits. As if the disease was taunting them, some looked like they were merely fighting the common cold; barely any outwardly indications of the sickness coursing through their veins.

We made the last left turn before parking in front of the stately house known as The Serra Project Home. My heart heavy and stomach in knots as we parked. I exhaled.

Before I step out of the car, I look to my right at my son, Michael, now eight months old. “I’m coming to get you, don’t worry,” I whisper to assure him I was not abandoning him. Unbuckling his seatbelt and scooping up all the tools necessary to keep a toddler fed and busy for the next hour. Carrying a healthy baby boy into a place where death waits patiently for each occupant seems cruel; one has a future with possibilities and dreams and the others have days or weeks with a definite outcome. Yet, both need the same love, tender care and devotion from those around them.

I knew this visit was not going to be the same because Raymond was not sitting in the huge living room waiting for us. Usually, we would find him sitting on the overstuffed brown leather sofa, wearing sweatpants, a sweatshirt and house slippers. It was out of necessity for him to dress this way because he weighed under 100 pounds and not enough body fat to keep him warm. The sofa was a strategic place for him to sit because he would often need to vomit or empty his bowels and extra steps made this painful and embarrassing.

After seeing the empty sofa, we walked down the wood-paneled hallway and made a right turn – his room was second on the left. He had decorated his space with a few comforts from home; family pictures, bedding and decorative trinkets.

Raymond did not look good. He was lying in his bed, napping comfortably underneath his blankets, even though it was a warm day. Our arrival caused him to awaken. Looking over at us, he gave a loving smile and extended his arm to touch Michael. “Hi, Michael,” Raymond said happily. I bent over to give him a kiss on his forehead then carefully placed Michael on his stomach. Raymond was able to harness enough strength to prop up his pillows and lean back. His expression as he looked and stroked Michael’s chubby arms was beautiful and gentle. Although he was in pain and discomfort, his interest was on us and our well-being. “How are you guys? Is Michael being a good boy? Everything ok?” We spent the next thirty minutes with him. It was obvious Raymond was getting tired so we decided to cut our visit short. I picked up Michael and said to Raymond, “Get your rest and we will see you next week.” Giving him another kiss on his forehead, I walked away not knowing the visit would be the last time I would speak with him.

I sat in the car, sadness and emptiness enveloped me. My heart ached and I cried silently. I can’t take away his disease nor relieve him of the torment the sickness is causing. I know his soul felt heavy. Raymond was heartbroken to put his family, especially our mother, through this anguish. The only thing I paid attention to was Sade’s, By Your Side playing on the car radio.

Raymond passed away early Monday morning.

The phone on the nightstand rang loudly and I knew. Tony answered the phone, “hello, what? when? who’s going? ok. ok. we’ll meet you there.” “What happened?” I asked without breathing. “He’s gone,” Tony said heavily. What do I do, I thought to myself. How am I supposed to act?

My brother is dead. It’s so final. Should I cry? I want to call a friend, someone to share this moment of despair with me. I don’t want to be alone, yet I don’t want to be touched. Panic and calm at the same time.

It was 2:00 am by the time we arrived at the hospice house. Everyone was asleep except the night nurse. I walked toward the dimly lit room. Raymond lie peacefully in his bed, the comforter neatly tucked under his arms and one hand placed on top of the other. He was handsome even though the disease had robbed him of his health. I sat in the chair next to his bed and touched him. “It’s over. You are free now. Your body is healed. No more pain. No more shame. Thank you for being my brother. I love you.”

Dear Eddie,

We placed flowers on your gravesite yesterday. Cleared the grass and weeds from around the edges. First it was sad and we cried, then we started talking about the old days…you know, the “remember when’s” and the tears turned to laughter. Every one of us had a memory to share.

You will always be my strong; yet pensive big brother. I can still hear your hearty laugh – deep as a well. I know you loved me because you were nice to me and protected me in your not-so-obvious way.

I see you sitting in front of our stereo wearing those old clunky headphones (kids nowadays don’t know how good they have it), listening to Tower of Power, or was it Earth, Wind & Fire. Remember that?

Maybe some day I will understand your pain and know why things turned out the way they did. The scenes of the past play time and time again in my mind, yet no clear answer. But does it really matter? Only you know the real reason. To me, it doesn’t matter because I love you and I know you tried your best with what you had.

Friday was a blessed day. Erika’s wedding. Both your girls were poised and beautiful. The groom? You’d approve. He is solid, caring, steady and he loves her.

beach

Rest in peace, brother – your daughters are educated, good people, choosing careers helping others. You did good.

My turn. (May is National Mental Health Awareness Month)

I’m not sure if it was the windowless dark room, the large neon-colored flowers adorning the walls, or a subconscious thought. What ever it was, that it triggered my first panic attack. I was nine.

We were having dinner at a Mexican restaurant and suddenly, out of nowhere, I needed to run. I walked quickly to the exit because running would have drawn attention to the situation. Thank goodness my older sister came after me to find out what the heck was wrong. We were on the verge of shoveling copious amounts of tacos, burritos and enchiladas into our mouths, interruptions were not welcome. Not exaggerating – I come from a large family; therefore, securing your fair share of food or any other staple necessary to live, was a blood sport.

I sat on a chair with my sister looking at me, waiting for an explanation why I left the table in such a hurry. She’d have to wait because I didn’t know why I panicked.  Safe to say, we avoided restaurants for some time after that. Especially, dark, windowless Mexican restaurants.

I self-diagnosed. Claustrophobia. My new best friend.

Fast forward to adulthood. Sure, I could avoid dark, small places. How difficult can that be? Over time, I devised a strategy that works for me. Plan ahead. Research places and activities before visiting. Simple, with some minor speed bumps along the way…

Spa day? No problem – what can go wrong at a place where the sole purpose is to lose yourself in a peaceful, aromatic, candle-lit environment. Pure Serenity. Wrong! My husband and I were staying at the Ritz Carlton for the weekend and part of this getaway was a luxurious spa afternoon. We were ready and wrapped in our fluffy Egyptian-cotton bath robes. The attendant kindly asks us to follow her to the elevator. WHAT?! (I say to myself, sensing doom) “Oh, our spa is located 2 floors below so it’s very private and exclusive”, she explains to us. Okay, I can do this – for goodness sake, it’s a spa. There I was, peeled like a banana, lying face down on the table. But then I start to think (which is usually when most of my problems begin), “I’m 2 floors below, there are no windows, the room is dark, chime sounds are coming from somewhere”. “What if…?” I suddenly sit upright like a Jack in the Box toy. My eyes become big as bagels. Quickly grabbing the towel.  The masseuse softly asks, “is something wrong, are you okay?”, but in her mind, she’s probably thinking this chick is “cuckoo for cocoa puffs”. I settled down and endured the massage. I survived.

Subways? Oh, hell no.

The London Underground aka The Tube. Both of these names are BIG RED FLAGS to a claustrophobic. I was on a trip with my mother-in-law. She’s an avid traveler and I certainly couldn’t share my anxiety thoughts with her – she’d think, “this cream puff is married to my only son, ugh”. I had no choice. I gathered my strength, bought the tickets, boarded the train, and off we went. Exiting at Parliament square to begin our sightseeing extravaganza. I survived.

Next test. New York City subway. This time, I was traveling with my husband and kids. “Let’s ride the subway!”. Oh Lord, not again. I couldn’t show my kids how terrified I was at the thought of getting on the subway. Not because it’s dirty or because we could get robbed. Rather, because I’d be shoved into a sardine can with hundreds of New Yorkers. I stood on the platform, convincing myself to board. After all, I was able to ride the London Underground. Okay, let’s go, easy peasy. Luckily, it wasn’t crowded and we were able to sit down. The train pulls away from the station. No big deal. We stop a couple of times to pick up a few people. I start to relax. Wow, I’m riding the New York subway, good job! I spoke too soon. Evidently, the storm from the night before had flooded the station we were approaching. The train stops, and does so between station platforms. Not only am I on this closed subway train, the train is surrounded by walls on both sides! I start to think. “What if…?” I begin to look around and realize, I’m going to die, right here in this sardine can. I start to breathe deeply and calm myself with positive thoughts. The train begins to move after a 15 minute delay. We exit near Wall Street and become full-fledged tourists. I survived.

Once in a while, small bits of anxiety crop up during claustrophobic situations. But not nearly as frequent or intense as before. Think positive thoughts and breathe deeply. Last, but not least, I’ve put the kibosh on the “what if’s…”.

The feeling of fight or flight, fear, worry, nervousness, or unease are real to the person experiencing them; however, the danger or pending doom, may not be real. Was I able to leave the Mexican restaurant easily? Yes. Was I trapped or unable to breathe while riding the London Underground? No. Did the New York subway train eventually move and was I able to exit? Yes. I survived and lived to tell the tale (drama intended).

(May is National Mental Health Awareness Month) A personal story from someone…

willing to share in order to bring awareness to Mental Illness – and I am grateful.

I grew up getting to know the term ‘mental illness’ and what it entails. When I was younger, I learned that it isn’t just sadness, anger, or an extreme of any one feeling. To me, mental illness is like any other illness, a selfish thief who robs people of life’s opportunities, often more than once, and can even decide to stay indefinitely.

My uncle suffered from an impulse control disorder and chronic depression. My dad suffered through bipolar disorder and heavily self-medicated through alcohol abuse. When I was in high school, I quickly learned that my best friend, my own sister, too, had been silently suffering from bipolar disorder.

Mental illness is not easy to write about, especially when it involves the people you care most about. It isn’t easy to write about because mental illness can be violent, even when it is silent. Because of this, it has the ability to destroy relationships between those who cannot convey and those who cannot understand.

I struggled for years trying to understand and forgive the verbal, physical, and emotional hurt my loved ones with mental illness, namely bipolar disorder, inflicted around me. I came to truly hate them before I realized it was not them who I hated, but their mental illness. I’ve watched my sister struggle through cyclical months of severe depression and mania, constantly battling anxiety. I tried, but I could never truly resonate the everyday fight it takes (on top of hurdling over life’s random obstacles) to conquer life.

Personally, it wasn’t until my sophomore year of college when I developed acute and then chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, severe depression, and anxiety as a result of a sexual assault. There were days where I felt brave to get out of bed, to eat, shower, go outside – whatever it took to be or feel human. I felt like an ashamed, lazy, misunderstood, frustrated, and unable ghost. This is what mental illness does to people and it’s very real. Suddenly, I intimately understood my sister’s anxiety, my dad’s anger, my uncle’s depression.

Although I feel that mental illness has joined the social conversation more than not in my generation, it still carries a stigma. This stigma is in part due to the difficulty of obtaining tangible evidence and in part due to the silence of mental illness. Mental illness marginalizes its victims and medical health is not effective for the reasons prior stated. This is particularly true for college students who face the pressures of competitive academics and ‘10-year plan’ trajectories. My generation was built for the fast-track; but, many of us are silently suffering from mental illness, like depression and anxiety, out of fear of failing to keep up.

For those who have experienced, are struggling with, or unfortunately may encounter mental illness, I take my advice from my older sister who always reminds me “to be patient with yourself”. Mental illness can be unforgiving; but, there is control in knowing you can forgive yourself every time and start again.

-Anonymous

Up Close and Personal (May is National Mental Health Awareness Month)

Yes, my family has been affected by mental illness and I am writing about it today. My brother suffered from paranoid schizophrenia before passing away in 1995. This is a difficult topic to write about because it is emotional, complex and complicated. I will try to describe Raymond’s story with the detail and respect he deserves.

Raymond and I shared an apartment about the same time the disease began to take hold. In other words, his paranoid episodes were becoming frequent and more intense. I would hear him talking to himself in his room, and at times I’d hear him become agitated and angry. On a few occasions, I became annoyed and impatient with him which usually resulted in us yelling at each other and me leaving the apartment. Although these times were frightening to me, I never feared him because I knew in my heart he wouldn’t hurt me.  These episodes caused me to be anxious as they didn’t make sense nor was I able to control them. Can you imagine the fear he felt?

Months later, my parents urged him to move in with them. My mother had a special bond with Raymond. Perhaps she felt his pain as only a mother could. The next paragraph, written by my sister, describes the turning point that ultimately brought him the help he needed.

The most difficult time I remember was when Raymond was left home alone while the rest of the family went to my sister’s house for Easter. When we returned home later that evening, my father told us the neighbors had called the police because they felt Raymond’s behavior that afternoon was troubling to the children who lived in the apartment complex. The neighbors knew him and told the police he was not a danger but was mentally unstable. The police initially brought him to the station, then transferred him to a facility in Downey, California, for a 5150 psychiatric hold.  I wanted to be with my brother. When I tried to gather all his necessary belongings, I came across a notebook he kept in his dresser. I was not able to contain the emotions I was feeling when reading through his notes. The notes had many obscure writings and scribbles – I could see, feel and live through some of the pain he must have felt during his torturous mental anguish. He drew stick figures of him calling out for help wanting to escape. That was the first time I fully understood the suffering he endured.

As painful as the series of events described above may have been, it was a blessing and an answer to our prayers because he was finally able to get professional help and medication for his schizophrenia.

Raymond continued to experience small episodes of paranoia, and in 1989, after stabilizing somewhat, I asked him to be in my wedding – I was happy and proud to have him be a part of that special day.

Mental illness is a disease that comes in many forms and crosses all boundaries. My brother was a beautiful, generous and kind person. He did not choose this disease and I will not allow his memory to be defined by it.