They Seemed Okay

In April of 2018, I was sitting at a table on Main Street here in Columbia. I was eating a meal with my wife and listening to our favorite local band. The text tone on my phone went off. I didn’t check it. I have this pet peeve where I hate having dinner with someone and that person is constantly answering their texts or phone calls. So, the phone sat on the table, face down at I ate and Prettier Than Matt performed.

The text ring chimed again. And again. And again.

Finally, Cate said to me, “You might want to check that. It could be important.”

I flipped the phone over, typed in my password and checked the text. Cate had been right. It was important. 

I sat staring at my phone and shaking my head. I think I put one hand to my forehead and rubbed. 

“Everything okay?” Cate asked.

I shook my head. “No. (Name that shall not be mentioned) committed suicide last night.”

I wiped my mouth and responded to the multiple texts that I had received about the death of a friend. Just the night before I had talked to him—less than 24 hours earlier and he ‘seemed okay.’ 

Fast forward almost a year later. It’s now April 1st, 2019. I’m scrolling through my Facebook feed when I see an announcement that stopped my scrolling. A friend of mine’s son had posted on his mother’s page that she had died in her sleep. I thought it was a bad April Fool’s Day joke and I sent my friend a PM. 

It wasn’t a joke. She didn’t respond and by the time her mom responded a month later, her death had been confirmed by multiple people. It had been speculated she didn’t just go to sleep and not wake up. 

My friend had depression issues. She and I had talked about it on more than a handful of occasions. A few days before we had talked. Plans were being made for projects we were working on, for things she wanted to work on. She ‘seemed okay.’

In the last couple of years, four of my friends committed suicide. 

I’m going to pause here and let that sink in.

Fast forward to just a few days before Christmas of one of the toughest years ever, 2020. A friend of mine posted about his daughter’s sudden passing. I saw it, but said nothing right away. I thought my friend from my teen years probably needed his space, needed to grieve. 

The Monday after Christmas, I sent him a message. I’m going to be honest here: I was worried about him and I didn’t expect him to answer so quickly. Within two minutes, he responded and it shocked me to the point of nausea and speechlessness. His sweet, teenaged daughter had committed suicide. 

It brought tears to my eyes. His daughter was the same age as my son. My stomach knotted and I could only shake my head in shock and disbelief.

I’m still shocked.

I don’t know the situation behind my friend’s daughter’s suicide, but the two people I mentioned and the two I did not all had depression and anxiety issues. One of them suffered from PTSD and injuries he received while serving in the military overseas. My four friends all dealt with some form of mental illness, whether it was depression, anxiety or PTSD. Two of them didn’t think they measured up to the world’s standards. One of them was lonely and raising kids by herself. Her depression was debilitating, as was my military friend’s.

Listen to me for a moment. All of you who read this, all of you who follow this page, please listen to me. Mental illness is no joke. Depression is no joke. Anxiety is no joke. It’s as serious as Cancer and heart disease and any other sickness that can be deadly. 

Sadly, there is a stigma surrounding these things. You hear things like, that person is just seeking attention, or it’s not that bad, just a little sadness, or it’s all in their head, or, worse still, it’s just an excuse for whatever that person doesn’t want to do or deal with.

So often people who suffer from any form of mental or emotional illness are told to get over it, to rub some dirt on it, or any other way of saying this is a nonissue and they’re making more out of it than it is. I don’t cuss much on my website, but I’m just going to say this: that’s bullshit. People who deal with these issues can’t just get over it, can’t just move on or rub some dirt on it or man up. It’s a big issue for them. Sometimes it’s so difficult they can’t bring themselves to get out of bed or to go out around people. Sometimes the cloud of gray they are surrounded in is so thick and all encompassing that they see only one way out. They don’t see any sunshine on the other side of those clouds. For some—for many—there is only damp, cold and rainy days.

I’m not going to sit here and say I understand suicide. I don’t. I’ve never gotten why people choose to end their lives instead of seeking help. [[Let me clarify one thing before I continue: I think I do understand when someone is suffering from a terminal illness or who is losing their mental facilities thanks to illnesses like Dementia and Alzheimer’s.]] Here’s the thing: where are you going to get help from these days? It’s such a stigma that talking about it to others sometimes makes things worse in the fact that those people sometimes look at you differently once you air your depression or anxieties out. Sometimes reaching out can make things worse if you reach out to the wrong person. How wrong is that?

“They have issues.”

Don’t we all? Don’t we all have something that touches us in a way that hurts us on a whole different level? Don’t we all have our own demons we have to deal with? Just because someone can get over something doesn’t mean the next person can. Each person is different. 

We can medicate, but that’s not treating the issue, it’s treating the symptom. If you want to get to the cure or even to the ability to maintain this, you have to treat the root. You can snip the leaves all you want, but until the root is treated, the plant will keep growing. That’s not to say some people don’t need medication—they most certainly do, but that’s not always the cure. 

We can seek counsel from a therapist. That’s a start. Even that isn’t always going to help. 

What I think—and please understand these are my thoughts and how I feel about this and nothing more—is until we start taking the different forms of mental illness serious, it’s going to get worse. Until we start educating ourselves, our children and our leaders, about mental illnesses, it’s going to continue to get worse. We need to look at mental illnesses, not as a stigma or as something to be ashamed of, but as something that can be talked about, that can be openly discussed without being ridiculed or treated differently. Until we accept that many people can’t just ‘deal with things’ we’re never going to get hold of this.

And, again, listen. This is important. I mentioned ‘get over it’ earlier. Don’t say that. Ever. Just don’t do it.

She’s probably going to kill me for this, but my daughter has anxiety problems. Every feeling she has is amplified. She feels things on a much deeper level than I do. When she has a panic attack it’s a big deal. For the longest time, I didn’t understand it. I didn’t understand she couldn’t control them or when they happened or how long they lasted. For me it was as simple as ‘you need to learn how to deal with this.’ Essentially, that is just a lousy way to say an even lousier ‘get over it.’

I want to say this and I want to be clear about this: I. Was. Wrong. It should have never been ‘you need to learn how to deal with this.’ It should have been, ‘talk to me, tell me what’s going on, help me understand so I can help you.’ Don’t get me wrong, my default setting wasn’t get over it. It was to try and help, but when I couldn’t help, get over it became that default setting. That was shitty of me. I hate that I couldn’t help, but I hate even more my eventual reaction. It was wrong and it could have led to far worse things. I know this now and I’m thankful my daughter has learned the warning signs for when a panic attack is coming and that she can put herself in a place, mentally, to handle it—not to deal with it, but handle it. 

A panic attack can be as debilitating as any longterm pain. It’s a heightened form of anxiety that grabs hold of you like an angry dog to a bone, and it doesn’t let go so easily. Depression is the same way.

I wasn’t raised to understand depression, anxiety, panic attacks or any other form of mental illness. If I was sad then that’s all it was. If I feared something, then it was me being irrational. If I was unhappy, I had to ‘get over it.’ It took me a long time to understand that this is something that can crush a person and lead them to make decisions that I still don’t understand. 

Life is precious and the minutes are so few. I always thought from the time you take your first breath you begin dying, so why speed the process up? I don’t understand suicide. I don’t understand the mindset you have to be in to make that decisions. I’ve written about suicide in some of my fiction and I’ve tried to understand the pain and sadness of someone on the verge of ending his or her life. It’s a dark space to go as a writer. I imagine it is so much darker as someone struggling with depression and any other mental illness.

So, where does all this rambling leave us? It leaves us with me saying—no, begging—please, world, stop frowning on those who struggle with the various forms of depression and mental illnesses. Please, take their hand and help them. Please, don’t just listen to them talk, but actually hear them. You don’t always have to have the solution, but have the empathy to be a friend, and for Heaven’s sake, love them. Love them in a way that leaves them feeling loved, in a way they believe they are loved. Don’t be critical and rude and don’t tell them to ‘get over it.’ 

We all need to know someone cares—All. Of. Us.—so be that person who cares. Reach out, even if your friend or family member ‘seems okay.’ My two friends at the beginning of this ‘seemed okay’ when I talked to them last. They weren’t.

Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.

Who Do You See?

On some mornings I go to the post office for my job. It is less than two blocks away and I walk; rain, shine, hot, cold. It’s what you do when your family has one car and you don’t drive to work. I usually get there a couple of minutes before the post office opens.

There are ten people who I would consider regulars at eight in the morning at the post office. They are: Six men. Four women. We all get our mail and go about our business. On the average day, these ten people spend less than five minutes around each other; most of the time, maybe two minutes, tops. 

DiversityI could leave it at six men and four women and it wouldn’t matter to you or really anyone else. But I’m not going to do that. Here is a breakdown of those regulars: three white men, three black men, one white woman, one Asian woman, two black women. No, race doesn’t matter, nor does their gender, but I’m going to try and make a point here. Now you know a little bit about the ten people who show up at the post office at the same time every morning. 

Let’s take it a step further. One of the white men is an older gentleman at almost seventy. He is former military and his voice is monotone. He always wears a VFW hat and he always says ‘good morning,’ and ‘have a great day.’ Another white man is probably around sixty, maybe a tad older and always parks his car in the wrong direction. His hair is jet black (probably dyed) and slicked back with hair gel. He is thin and tall and his shoes always clop hard against the tiled floor of the post office. He rarely speaks. The third white guy, well, that would be me. I guess I am middle-aged now at just under fifty.

The Asian woman is thin and short and wears long skirts and black boots. Occasionally, she wears a pair of black pleated slacks. Her hair is long and black and she is probably a little younger than I am. She is pretty when she smiles, plain when she doesn’t. 

One of the black women drives a white van and is nearing sixty. She has had shoulder surgery and heel surgery within the last year. She always says ‘God bless,’ and she always brings a little hand cart when she comes in. The other black woman is young and pretty and seems to be put together (as in her attitude and how she carries herself). She always wears red lipstick and her eyes are big and brown—one of her best features. She is polite. She also knows she is attractive, but she doesn’t flaunt it. 

The lone white woman is probably my age, maybe a tad younger. She is tall, has brown hair and frowns as if she probably wishes she were a little trimmer. She doesn’t smile often, but just in the last few weeks she has started saying ‘good morning’ to everyone.

One of the black men is slightly built and soft spoken. He is a Christian who always shakes my hand when we cross paths. The second black man works for the Supreme Court and drives a black SUV. He wears a gun on one hip and looks like he could have played defensive end for the Chicago Bears at one time. He always checks out the pretty black lady when she comes in. The last of the group is a black man in his late sixties who works part time in the building attached to the post office. He wears a blue uniform shirt and dark pants every day. He is missing most of his teeth and some folks might say his elevator doesn’t quite go all the way to the top. He always says ‘hey,’ and he laughs a lot. 

Does any of that really matter? Probably not to most people, because, let’s be honest, most people don’t care. Here’s a few questions for you: when you look at someone you don’t know, what do you see? Do you see the color of the person’s skin? The gender? Is your first impression based on the person’s appearance? Here’s an even bigger question: do you take the time to actually see the person? Not their skin color or their gender or the clothes they wear. Do you actually see their faces? Do you actually take the time to see the up or down turn of the lips? Do you see the eyes, if they dazzle or have been dulled by life’s burdens?

Do you see people. 

ALONE.jpgOne of the issues I feel we, as human beings, have, is we don’t see people outside of our own little world. Sure, we see someone, but we don’t take a second or two to consider that the person you see is someone’s child, maybe a brother or sister, mom or dad. That person has feelings and hopes and dreams. That person may be going through something terrible right then. That person may be thinking of someone he or she loves. That person might be just trying to get through a crappy day and all they want is to be home so they can rest. 

One thing I know is this: you can make or break someone’s day. How? Well, saying ‘hello,’ and giving someone a smile. That’s not obligating you to carry on a conversation, but showing someone that you see that person, that that person is not invisible, and so many of us feel invisible, like no one cares. 

You can break a person’s day by ignoring them if they say ‘hey,’ and smile at you, or by saying something bad about them (whether you know them or not). A mean word goes further than a good word. Negativity always overrides positivity. And yeah, it is easier to break someone down than to build someone up. 

[[Side Note: I know the world is a bad place these days and strangers can be dangerous. I’m not saying engage in conversations with strangers. I’m saying, don’t be mean. Don’t be rude. Don’t give a stranger a ride, either, but you can be a good person, a good samaritan, so to speak, by just being nice. End Side Note]]

If you think I am wrong about making and breaking someone’s day, then let me ask you two questions. You can feel free to answer them or not. Have you ever been in a great mood and someone did or said something negative that ruined your entire day? On the flip side, have you been sad or down or in a bad mood and someone did something or said something that cheered you up and brightened your day? 

YOU have the power to make a difference in people’s lives. All you have to do is actually see them. It doesn’t matter what race, religion, gender, sexual preference your they are—what matters is do you see them? I think—thinking here!—that if we, as human beings, would take the time to actually see others for what they are (other human beings), then maybe we’ll be slower to react negatively or say something derogatory or just be rude. Maybe, just maybe, the world can be a kinder place … if we would all just see each other.

Until we meet again my friends, be kind to one another.

A.J.