About five and a half years ago, when I was still with my ex-boyfriend and he moved in with his sister and her husband for a few months to save rent, my social anxiety used to be a lot worse and interacting with people was frustrating. I would visit said boyfriend and was at the mercy of social interaction too frequently for my comfort. On top of this, the sister’s husband (we’ll call him Greg) was a really intimidating guy. A real life ex-pimp, he stood a foot above me and was the kind of person that had judgement to dole out for everyone around him. Basically, a lot of dry kindling for someone with social anxiety.
While most people react with surprise at discovering I have SA, Greg could see it plain as day. I’m sure it didn’t help that he made me even more uncomfortable than most people, but I always felt like he was evaluating me, judging me. It bugged the shit out of me. The problem is, even though he could tell I was always uncomfortable, he didn’t actually know the first thing about SA. So he did what most people do: he told me to stop being uncomfortable.
Right — cause that actually fucking works, thanks.
“You know you don’t need to be uncomfortable here, Tien. You need to relax. I don’t bite. You need to talk more, and speak up. Just stop being so worried all the time.”
He said these kinds of things to me literally every time I saw him. And you know what happened? Every time I saw him I became increasingly more and more anxious, because I knew he would point out that I was anxious, which would make me feel absolutely AWFUL every single time, without fail. I did everything I possibly could to avoid him so that I wouldn’t have to listen to him tell me to just turn off my emotions.
Now, he was one of the worst, but the truth is that a pretty big number of “normal” people have a tendency to offer similar advice. The problem is, if you don’t have SA, you could never possibly understand what it feels like. You, as a normal person, might be able to willpower your way through your feelings and just turn them off and on at your leisure, but those of us with social anxiety will never have that luxury. We are drowning in shit, inhaling it, choking on it, but we still have to try to keep breathing and interacting anyway. It takes a lot more effort for us to just do everyday things than it does you. It’s hard to imagine how much more effort it takes to maneuver a semi through a crowded city when you’ve been driving a motorcycle your whole life.
Maybe if I put it a different way, it will help you understand. It’s called social anxiety disorder because it’s a form of mental illness. You can’t think of SA as just “poor mindset” or “weakness” because it’s not. AT ALL. In fact, people with social anxiety are stronger than most — we have to be, to survive. If you watched someone fall down a flight of stairs and break their leg, would you say to them, “just get up and keep going; ignore the pain and you’ll be fine tomorrow” ? No. No you wouldn’t, because it’s obvious what stupid and utterly useless advice that is. But because SA is invisible and you don’t understand what the experience of having it is ACTUALLY like (all you have are mild fears and self-doubts that you’ve prided yourself on being able to push through) it is so easy for you to brush it off like it’s some imagined aspect that the person has exacerbated because they can’t see things as clearly as you do.
News flash: you’re wrong.
Just because you don’t understand what someone is going through doesn’t mean you can’t have compassion for the fact that the experience is real and painful for them.
“But so many people have it so much worse off than you do. You have nothing to feel bad about. Just suck it up.”
Of course there are people that have it worse off than I do. Of course. But do you walk into a Cancer support group and say things like, “but there are people who have AIDS, and they have it so much worse than you do” ? Do you tell someone who has lost both of his legs that he needs to just get over it because there are other people that lost all of their limbs? No you don’t. Because it’s insensitive, and because you would sound like a total asshole.
Well, guess what? I know you’re not trying to, but when you say things like that to those of us with social anxiety, you also sound like a total asshole. I know you probably don’t mean to, so that’s why I’m telling you. If you notice that someone is uncomfortable, don’t push and poke them about it constantly. Let them move through it awkwardly and at their own pace.
Yes, from the outside looking in, it can seem like our experience is trivial, or we are making it up, or it’s all in our heads. It’s easy to brush off that which you can’t see. But the experience of living with SA for your entire life is overwhelmingly painful and impossible to understand unless you have it. It’s kind of like being locked in a dark room with a bunch of cruel people who are all eager to constantly tell you what an awful person you are and how you fail at everything and you don’t deserve to be liked or loved and they don’t need sleep or breaks or food, they just keep shouting, talking, whispering in your ear. And at the same time you’re supposed to interact with the world through this tiny little hole the size of a watermelon, but the dark room and the voices are bigger and louder and they are all around you and they never. shut. up. If you had to live like that, you would struggle at interacting with the world, too.
This is my cat… every. single. day.
If someone took a bunch of onions and turned them into nesting dolls, that would be a map of my brain. No matter how many layers I peel back, I can never see the whole picture, never arrive at the center of it all, never ever be able to make sense out of all of the pulsing neurons and thought processes.
My brain is also made out of gorilla glue. If I dwell on any thought to long, it gets stuck there and the only thing that removes me from it is sheer brute strength and something else to get stuck on. This can be a positive thing (I find something creative I’m excited about and work on it almost obsessively until something beautiful emerges) or a negative thing (relentless, restless social anxiety.)
I’m not sure what I’m trying to write, exactly. I just have this… feeling. This need to express something. So many thoughts going through my head. And this ache, this hole that I just can’t fill with anything. Writing is like filling that hole with quicksand. Though it’s always temporary, I feel whole while I’m doing it. Maybe God’s idea of a joke was creating a cure that you have to practice every day. If I didn’t love it so much, I might be outraged.
Not too long ago I discovered something about myself that made me reevaluate my entire childhood experience. I somehow found myself reading about selective mutism (an unfamiliar term) and the further and further I read the wider and wider my eyes got. It was as if someone had watched me as a child, written it all down, and come up with a name for my behavior. The thing is, I usually don’t spend tons of time on the internet researching my problems, past or present — so I never discover these things until I’m nearing the end of the third decade of my life and wasting time in the wee hours of the morning. (I’m realizing that this whole research thing is pretty awesome and I should probably do it more often when it pertains to things like this in my life.)
If you are like I was, thinking, “what the heck is selective mutism?” I will share with you. It is when someone feels such extreme anxiety in social situations that they barely speak or don’t speak at all. They will act like a different person at home or in situations in which they are comfortable, but otherwise they are extremely hard (or impossible) to worm words out of. This goes beyond simple shyness to where the person often feels like a deer-in-the-headlights when forced to interact socially. Basically: me as a child.
Let me help you understand why this is so significant. The social aspect of childhood was UNBEARABLY painful for me.
At home I was unrestrainedly myself: hyperactive, loud, goofy. I would run around the yard singing at the top of my lungs imagining that I had magic powers and making up all kinds of fun stories. I would harass my brother, chase my dog, and dress up in outrageous outfits and jump on the trampoline. My close friends would come over and we would play and have fun. that’s why it never occurred to my mom that I was anything other than extremely shy around new people. I really don’t blame her.
Shy, I was though. So painfully shy in fact, that whenever a stranger introduced themselves to me I would not say a word, just literally run and hide. At school, I was a SILENT little mouse. If I talked to anyone, it was only to the few close friends I had, and usually only at recess or lunch — and those were only during the years when I wasn’t a loner. The other years I would sit by myself and not talk to anyone at all, or run off to some quiet corner of the field at recess where I could be in my own little world. Teachers learned not to call on me because I couldn’t speak up in class, even though I usually knew the answer; I don’t remember a time, even in elementary school, when I didn’t get really good grades. I talked really, really quietly, too. I remember constantly hearing people telling me to speak up because they couldn’t hear me. Unless I felt really comfortable with someone, I never had any confidence in my words and was terrified of saying anything at all.
All of this was exacerbated by the fact that no one seemed to recognize the pain I was going through. And I was too young to realize anything more than the simple fact that I was incredibly afraid and that made me very different from everyone else. But I didn’t want anyone to know there was something wrong with me, so I never spoke up.
Selective mutism seriously sucks. I recall feeling an intense pain whenever I was forced to speak out loud in front of anyone I wasn’t very comfortable with. I remember going over to my best friend’s house to play all the time and struggling with it. She and I were two peas in a pod but I was less familiar with the rest of her family. Anytime her brother or parents were around I reverted back to fear and silence, and as you can imagine, this made it really difficult for them as well as me. But I didn’t know HOW to speak to them. I was so young that all I knew was it felt next to impossible. It was like everyone could fly and they kept telling me to join them but I could never flap my arms fast enough to get any lift. I felt helpless.
So guess what my solution was? I discovered that if I whispered in Brooke’s ear, I could still talk. And no, this never went over very well. Because no one, including me, realized that I had a freaking disorder, it was just assumed that I was being a bad kid and trying to stir up mischief. I recall being frequently chastised: “we don’t whisper in this house, Tien. There are no secrets. You need to TALK.” So I stopped whispering, and I stopped talking, and I remember feeling absolutely AWFUL all the time because I knew they didn’t understand. They couldn’t see what I was going through. I hated being the way I was.
My mom vividly recalls going to a parent-teacher conference one time and the teacher sat down across from her and proceeded to tell my mom that I was a stuck up little brat and that I needed to stop acting like I was too good to talk to the other kids.
When my mom explained to her how painfully shy I was, the teacher was blown away. It wouldn’t be the last time I would be labeled a snob simply because I had no idea how to talk to people.
So just FYI: that person who actually acts like they are better than everyone else? Probably an actual snob. That person who just plain never talks to anyone? Might just have severe social anxiety and is agonizing over the prospect of interacting with other people.
Do with that information what you will.
I got over my selective mutism, thankfully, though it took many years. All of the way until I graduated from high school I was still a really quiet person and rarely talked to anyone unless they approached me first. But I got better over time. Looking back I just feel incredibly thankful that I can finally put a name to something that I thought was terribly wrong with me for most of my young life. I take so much comfort in realizing that there are other people out there who had or still have the same problem. Even if I’ve long moved past it, there is still so much relief in simply being able to acknowledge that there never was anything horribly wrong with me (like it always felt growing up.) I was just a child with a different set of problems than most, trying to cope in a world that didn’t understand me and didn’t know there was a name for my behavior either. I may have been alone then, but I am definitely not alone now… even if it feels that way sometimes.
I have this deep frustration inside of me that’s been growing for a long, long time. It’s a frustration about something that I can’t really change (hint: other people) so I’m trying to make peace with it and it’s not really working. My frustration has to do with integrity (or lack thereof) in the vast majority of people today. Since when did it become the norm to not take your own word seriously?
I suppose I should be more specific. I look around me and I hate to say it, but the majority of the people I interact with these days generally don’t follow through with what they say they are going to. They say they are going to do something by a certain date, and they don’t. They commit to a get-together or event and then cancel at the last minute (or just don’t show up.) Or even just something as simple as being more than ten minutes late on a regular basis. I’m beginning to take it personally, and I know I shouldn’t because it’s an epidemic in our society and it’s not just the people around me — it’s become the norm.
The problem is, I see it as a lack of respect. And no matter how hard I try to reframe that mindset or try to put myself in other peoples’ shoes, I just don’t get it.
Now don’t get me wrong, I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t admit that there were times in my life when I’ve done each of these things; especially when I was younger. I remember one time when I was a teenager and was supposed to babysit for the neighbors down the street and I canceled on them last minute and TO THIS DAY I still feel awful about it. But my inability to forgive myself for past mistakes is an entirely different problem. The thing is, I’ve grown up from that. And I’m nowhere near perfect, but I put a significant amount of effort these days into following through with what I say I’m going to do.
If I don’t want to do something or can’t commit to something, I tell people up front. If I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to make it, I say I’m not going to be able to make it. If a client wants me to meet a deadline but I’ve got a pile of work on my desk from other clients that needs finishing first, I tell the client I will do my best (and I do my very, very best) but I don’t make promises I can’t keep. And if I do promise to meet a deadline, I will stay up all night if I have to in order to meet it. When my grandmother was in the hospital recently, I had to cancel going to lunch to catch up with an old friend who I haven’t seen in years. Granted, it was a very valid reason to cancel, and I gave her some advance notice, but I still deeply regretted it. I always leave early for appointments and meetings, just in case traffic is bad — because it often is, here in so cal — and arriving on time is important to me.
Why? Because I care. Because I respect other people. But also, because my word is my bond. It is the gold bar behind the dollar that actually stands for something and gives it value. If I never followed through with what I said I was going to, people would stop believing me when I say things.
I see it in other people. Those friends that are always late? I hear other people rolling their eyes and scoffing at them and complaining about them because they know that 5:00 really means 5:30. Those friends that always cancel at the last minute? I never hear the end of it from those closest to them who have gotten to the point that they simply don’t believe them any more when they say they are going to be there. “We’ll see,” and an eye roll is usually the response, followed by genuine surprise when the person actually shows up. We’ve become a society that expects less from other people because we’ve been trained to do so. And it drives me fucking crazy.
I would so much rather someone be straight with me and say “maybe” every single time than “yes” and cancel again and again (and I’m incredibly thankful to a couple of friends who have realized they are this way and no longer commit to anything unless they know for certain they will be there. Seriously — it makes all the difference that they just say “maybe” up front.)
Because no matter how much people flake on me, I am not going to stop being the person I am. I am not going to stop caring, and stop trying, and stop doing my best to follow through. I don’t ever want to be that person that gets rolled eyes when my head is turned because people have come to expect the worst from me. I mean, yes, I will probably drop the ball here and there. Every once in a great while, I end up being late; sometimes you just can’t help that. And once in a while, I will probably have to cancel for one reason or another, but I make a very concerted effort not to, and at the very least give advance notice if possible. It’s important to me that those are the exceptions to the rule, and that no one ever comes to expect that from me. My word matters to me. And unfortunately, I feel like it doesn’t matter to anyone else.
I always tell people up front: if you can’t commit to this, don’t. If you don’t want to do it, don’t. If you can’t be there at 5:00, say you will be there at 5:15 or 5:30. But people do anyway. They shrug it off, say they will be there, or say they will be on time. And then they are not. And it makes me want to bang my head against a wall.
Don’t get me wrong; there are people in my life that follow through. This isn’t a blanket statement. I do feel like (generally speaking) the older generation has a better relationship with integrity than my peers. BUT there are definitely exceptions on both sides of that.
I hate to say it, but the truth is just that most people don’t really care if their word has no substance. And from someone who works hard to maintain their integrity, who cares about follow through, it’s a source of endless frustration for me. I tell myself over and over that these people are just too caught up in themselves and their lives to realize it. They were never taught that integrity matters, so how can I expect them to realize that it does? I tell myself again and again that it isn’t meant as a slight. But unfortunately, no matter what I do, my brain still interprets it as “this person has no respect for me or my time.” And what ends up happening is I get tired of hearing the lies (because let’s face it, that’s what they are — lies) and ultimately I end up weeding these people out of my life.
I’m not sure why, but lately it just seems like it has been worse than ever. I’ve been increasingly bombarded by people who don’t follow through or cancel on me and I’m just getting tired of it. When it starts hitting from every angle, it gets harder and harder to let slide. I try really hard to have low to no expectations, but somehow I still end up disappointed in other people.
I’m working on it.
This is an old story I wrote five years ago when I lived in Hawaii. I’ve edited it slightly for this post but overall it is the same as the original. I decided to share because recalling just how ridiculous I can be is entertaining.
Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ, this was back when I was still using double spaces between sentences… I fixed them for you. But if I missed any: no, I’m not apologizing. Deal with it.
A few nights ago I was sleeping soundly in bed, warm and happy, dreaming that I was hiking through the forest on a trek to some unknown land. Trees loomed overhead and a cool breeze ruffled my hair.
As I walked I became aware of the droning buzz of an insect near my ear. I looked around to swat it away, but didn’t see anything, yet the buzzing continued. Everything around me began to go dark as I felt myself slipping from the forest back to warm pillows and sheets. Why was I waking up? I was having such a lovely dream. I wanted to return and take pictures!
The buzzing had not been a part of my dream – it was in my bedroom. Some stupid fly with nothing better to do than wake me up from golden dreams about distant realms. With a groan, I swatted at the noise. I heard the little insect’s wings as he did figure eights around my ear. I swatted at him again, barely catching myself from slapping my own face. Unperturbed, the fly continued doing infinity loops around my head like he was training for the insect olympics.
“What the hell!? You have the whole room to fly around in. You could go chill out in some corner and wait for morning to come. Go have a dream about being something more interesting than a fly. Leave me alone why don’t you?”
Apparently flies don’t speak English, or at least this one didn’t. I pulled my pillow over my head and my covers up to my chin. Ahh, that’s better.
I sprung from my bed with a newfound energy born of murderous intentions, waving my hands severely at the dark in hope of them connecting with something small and evil, but my blind attempts had no effect on the buzzing. I switched on the bedside lamp and squinted, trying to discern my enemy from the bright fuzzy blobs of the room. I couldn’t see a damn thing.
Hastily, I snatched my glasses from the table and stood at the ready. Where was my attacker!? But I didn’t see or hear anything. In the presence of light, this fierce antagonist had become a skulking coward.
“Where are you, stupid fly? Come out, come out so I can kill you!”
The fly must speak English after all, because he stayed resolutely hidden. Tim, however, rolled over in bed and groaned at me, “why did you turn the light on?”
“There’s a FLY in this room and he won’t stop BUZZING around my HEAD!”
“Turn off the light.”
“Not until I find him and kill him!”
“Tien, turn off the light and go back to sleep.”
“I don’t hear a fly. He’s gone. Now turn off the light please. Go back to sleep.”
I felt bad for waking him, so I returned my glasses to their place, switched off the light, and crawled back into bed. He was right, it was silent. Thank goodness. Maybe the fly had decided to go to bed, too. I sank into the mattress, feeling the warmth of sleep starting to slide back over my body and pull me back into that blissful dream-state where all things become possible.
“Tien, it’s just a fly.”
“No! He has an evil plot against me. I can’t sleep with all of this buzzing!”
“Turn on the fan. It’ll make it harder for him to fly.”
Was that true? Would it really? Trust Tim to be rational and reasonable in the middle of the night. Being woken up didn’t seem to turn him into the raging lunatic it transformed me into.
I climbed out of bed and turned on the ceiling fan. I lay in bed for the next five minutes, waiting for the fly to return, but he didn’t. Success! Thank you Tim, I thought.
Unfortunately, the longer I laid there I felt a chill creep over me. The joy of living in Hawaii is that you need very little bedding to keep you warm at night. In fact, half the time I find myself kicking the sheets off in the night to keep cool. However, with the ceiling fan spinning overhead at warp speeds, protecting me from invisible enemies, I found myself absolutely freezing. I would never get back to sleep in a room this cold. The fly was long gone.
I got up, turned the fan back off, and relished the warmth of the bed. The room stayed silent around me, and I was grateful. Soon I was drifting back off to sleep, feeling silly that I’d ever gotten so upset about a tiny little fly…
No! I wouldn’t let him bother me. I would just go to sleep, and he would eventually leave me alone. I scrunched way down under the sheets, completely covering my head with them and using my pillow as a shield. It successfully muffled the buzzing and after a while I fell into a fitful, restless sleep.
The next morning, I looked for the fly and could not find him. Thank goodness. I left the bedroom door open all day, hoping he would escape to the downstairs and eventually make his way back outside. I didn’t see the fly anywhere, so I figured he must be gone.
When night came, Tim and I got ready for bed and closed the bedroom door behind us. I stood in the bathroom brushing my teeth, when I heard a low, wicked sound:
I turned to look, and there he was: the fly.
I looked around frantically for something to kill the fly with, my toothbrush dangling from my mouth forgotten, toothpaste slowly dripping down my chin. “Iii-gghhhfffaggkttt-ittt!!!!”
“What?” Tim called from the bedroom.
I spit the toothbrush and toothpaste out of my mouth and called, “I found it! The fly! We have to KILL IT before we go to bed!!!”
He joined me in the bathroom as I attempted to swat a the fly with a container of shaving cream. Entirely ineffective. Why don’t we have a fly swatter!? Ah. I scampered into the closet and returned with a shoe.
By now, the fly had buzzed back into the bedroom. I chased him around the bed and he flew circles around me, laughing in merriment, taunting me. I chased him back into the bathroom.
Tim closed the door to the closet as well as the bedroom, cleverly locking him in with us. That was smart. Why didn’t I think of that? My eyes remained glued to the tiny zipping target.
The next five minutes were spent attempting to flatten the beast, I with my shoe and Tim with a manila folder. He never stayed still long enough for us to overtake him, and the harder it became the more determined I was to annihilate this motherfuckerrrrr!
The fly paused on the edge of the tub, laughing at how silly we looked and all of the sudden an intense burst of energy surged through my body. I was a 12-year-old girl at the nickel arcade on a mission to win win win and the entire bathroom had become my own personal giant whack-a-mole. With an amazonian war-cry I began feverishly hammering at the fly over and over again with my shoe, wham, wham, wham, wham, WHAM, wham, wham, WHAM WHAM WHAM WHAM!
The fly leapt from spot to spot, caught off-guard by my new lightening speed. Tim retreated to the corner, fear in his eyes. His girlfriend had disappeared and was replaced by a psychotic killer. I think he was grateful right then that he wasn’t a fly. I was going to kill that fly, godammit, wham, if it was the last, wham, thing I, wham, DO! WHAM!
I nicked the edge of the fly’s wing and his flying became erratic and slow. Hah. I knew I had him now. There was nothing he could do.
I’m sure in that moment my eyes had turned to flaming red slits and steam was escaping via ear canal. A twisted, cheshire-grinch-grin curled my lips as I lifted the shoe a final time. The fly landed on the shower door.
Bzzz. It said, halfheartedly.
WHA-WHAM! I smashed the fly dead-on and the wobble-wobble-wobble of the shower door reverberated as I stood triumphantly over the innards of my foe. He would NEVER wake me from my slumber EVER again! Muahahahahaha!
I turned to Tim with a loud cheer and went to give him a high five. He looked at me, terrified.
“Jesus, you almost shattered the shower door.”
“That’s what he GETS!”
“Remind me never to make you mad.”
I strutted around the bathroom, and raised my hand for a high five. He returned it, too scared to do anything but humor my neurotic behavior.
I did it! I killed the fly! I am the CHAMPION FLY-KILLER, for ever and ever! Nothing can mess with me! I will take you ON! Just call me Tien the Conquerer! Heh, heh, heh.
I smiled down at fly-guts on glass, and felt a twinge of guilt. The poor thing. He was just a fly. He had a life to live, even if it was a short one, and I had just ended it suddenly because I was annoyed by him. Perhaps I was a terrible person.
Then I told myself reasonably that he knew what he was doing, he was not innocent at all he was tormenting me, and besides, being dead is pretty awesome. Nothing really ever dies, anyway, they just go to a better place. Now he was free to come back as a caterpillar or a bee or a worm. Being a fly probably sucked anyway. I instantly felt better.
I went to sleep that night feeling pretty proud of myself; I had triumphed, and that fly would never buzz around my head at night again. I snuggled deeper into the sheets, feeling intensely safe, savoring the quiet. And yes, I was feeling pretty cocky, too.
“What’s that I hear? Hmm? Is that the sound of SILENCE? How nice. No bzz-bzz-bzz tonight, just quiet. That’s because I am the conquerer!” I said out loud.
The room was still around me. With a smile on my face, I found myself drifting off. Suddenly…
No! It couldn’t be! Had my attacker returned from the dead? I had killed him! What was going on!?
I switched on the light.
It was a motherfucking mosquito.
These last couple of months, I’ve been on this wonderful, eye-opening journey of understanding and growth. I’ve been having incredible insights and learning things about myself and why I do the things I do. I’ve been able to step back from myself and observe with a little more clarity and I’m loving every minute of it.
It’s hard to say when the domino effect began; I look at the entirety of my life and it’s just one long line of dominoes stretching into infinity. Everything that came before affects this moment. But I do think that the fact that I’ve been going to therapy for well over six months now has been causing beautiful little shifts in my life. Not because of the therapy in and of itself, but because I think that a large pocket of willingness suddenly cracked open inside of me and I started making a different kind of effort than the kind I had been making before.
I resisted going to therapy for a long, long time. Not necessarily because I doubted that therapy had the ability to help, but a part of me definitely looked down my nose at the whole idea. I hate to say it, but I can be a little bit closed-minded about giving someone or something a second chance (so to speak) when I’ve been tainted by past experiences. There is definitely resistance within me to stepping back and saying, “okay, maybe that experience is totally separate and this one can be different. I will give it my best.” Nevertheless, after being prodded and poked to death by Brandon I finally relented and went through the process of finding myself a therapist to help me work on my social anxiety.
Overall, she’s been good. I think it took her several sessions before she realized that all she had to do was let me talk about things and I would naturally find my way to the conclusions I needed with just a few carefully posed questions at the right time. Or maybe it was the time I brought back a crumpled worksheet she had given me that I completed (half-assed, mind you) and told her I thought the exercises were stupid and the person who wrote the paper had no understanding of how social anxiety works. I can be a pain in the butt.
Her best suggestion that she had for me was to push me to write in a journal more often. I had already started doing it again earlier in the year (after a 9 year hiatus) but with her encouragement I started using my journal as my “go to” for processing all of the thoughts and emotions swimming through my bloodstream. I think after spending so many years trying and trying and trying to overcome my social anxiety, I was in this empty place of defeat. I stopped trying to process and work on things as much as I used to because it felt pointless. I was tired of never making what I felt like was real progress.
By going to therapy and writing in a journal more often I discovered a renewed sense of willingness; and perhaps at the most important time in my life so far. I have always been introspective, so I think I was the horse that finally let myself be led to water and once I got there I was like, “oh yeah! I know how to drink!” GULP.
She never pushed me. And maybe some people need to be pushed, but I am stubborn as hell and when I get pushed I jump into fighting stance, so she was exactly what I needed. I went to countless sessions before I had an absolutely huge breakthrough that has brought my anxiety down further than I can ever remember it being for an extended period of time (usually I resemble more of a pulse monitor.)
But let me back up a little and give a little backstory so you can understand why this was such a huge “ah-ha” for me. I have always been a people-pleaser and an approval addict. Thus, my extreme social anxiety. Somewhere along the line (so far back I can’t even remember a time before it) some deep part of me took on the belief that I was “less than” everyone else and that other people’s displeasure or anger meant extreme danger. My reaction to things was completely out of proportion to the situation. So I’ve spent my entire life running around doing my best to make other people happy. Between that and my empathic nature, I have always been a dedicated chameleon, able to fit in with a wide variety of people — even though it has always caused me extreme discomfort. That discomfort has made me miserable due to the strength and force with which it often hits me. The only thing that makes it any better is when other people approve of me and tell me positive things about myself, giving me a life raft of hope to hold on to in a sea of self-condemnation. So I’ve always chased after making others happy or making them like me with a fervor. So long as I think I am liked and approved of, I feel okay.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not one to be pushed around. I have never ever been one to follow the crowd (just ask my mom) and I’ve always been pretty good about putting my foot down on the important things. But the not-so-important things and everything in between, when I can contort myself a little and make you praise me? Let me be a pretzel. I make a great pretzel.
Therefore when people close to me would tell me I needed to live my life a certain way, or do certain things, I’ve always felt a certain obligation to do them — regardless of whether I actually think they are a good idea or even want to. It was sitting in my therapist’s office one sunny day when one of her pointed questions hit me deep like an arrow, and I realized that I was spreading myself too thin. I felt like I had to do certain things and I couldn’t do certain other things because the people in my life had their ideas about how I should be living it and I felt so incredibly guilty for simply EXISTING that the only way I could find any validation was to continually attempt to do things I didn’t want to do so that other people could tell me I was doing good. (Now yes, I am glad that I listened to Brandon and decided to go to a therapist because he was totally right; it ended up helping me tremendously. But there are a number of other things that I was trying to do that were making me completely miserable and yet I felt like I HAD TO do them. Not necessarily even from him or the people closest to me now, either; I have critical, cruel voices from my past that ring in my head constantly and as pathetic as I often feel it is, they still have kept their hold on me for a long time.)
My anxiety was at an all-time high because I kept pushing myself and pushing myself and pushing myself to be and do all of these things that I DIDN’T EVEN WANT TO FUCKING DO. I felt this intense pressure to perform, and perform well. What if I stopped trying to do all of those things? What if I actually made space to ask myself what I want? What if, instead of spending all of my energy trying desperately to be someone I am not, I simply let myself be who I am?
After all, I know fear. She and I have a deep, close bond. But I also know that I am an incredibly brave person. I have pushed myself through that fear again and again. And the most amazing part is, for so many years I have pushed through my fears with very little reward other than the praises of other people. That sounds counter-intuitive, right? Everyone always tells us that the more you push yourself outside of your comfort zone and do things that scare you, the easier it gets and the better you feel. But it wasn’t working for me — and I finally know why.
There’s an element missing: inner purpose. If the desire to do it doesn’t come from within you, it doesn’t matter how much you do it. It won’t get easier because you are silently (or maybe not so silently) miserable. The reward isn’t there.
I was spending so much time trying to make other people happy that when I would sit down and try to do the things that would make me happy, I was already worn out, exhausted, and had nothing left inside of me to push forward with. I felt drained, resentful, guilty, miserable, frustrated. My anxiety was at such a high because I kept doing things over and over that perpetuated it, but for all the wrong reasons, and wondering why I was left feeling empty.
One step at a time, I started saying no to many of the things I really wanted to say no to, and yes to some of the things I’ve been wanting for a long time but held back on because I knew other people would judge me for it. No, I’m not perfect at it. But even just shifting the things I have has been life changing for me. I can’t believe it’s taken this long for me to really realize that even doing something with good intentions doesn’t mean you’re necessarily doing it for the right reasons. This isn’t me judging myself for taking this long, even though it sounds like it, I’m just surprised it’s taken me this long because I started doing inner work when I was 13 years old.
It is so liberating to learn to have healthy boundaries. I’ve noticed that sometimes people tend to get matter-of-fact when it comes to boundaries — “Well of course you need boundaries, duh!” But when you’ve lived your entire life trying to cope with social anxiety and always coming from a place of “others first” it takes a long time to really learn how to have those boundaries.
But I can’t tell you how much more peace I have felt in my life every time I make the choice “me, not you”. It’s so liberating and empowering. And also it becomes a much more conscious decision when I do think about it and say, “okay, you this time.”
Simply removing some of the things I was doing purely because I thought I was “supposed to” has cut my anxiety down to 1/3 of what it was. I have no idea if this will last, but I sure as hell hope it does. At the very least, I’m taking advantage of it for the time being. The best part is that now I have the ENERGY to tunnel through the anxiety that is left. Instead of being exhausted and bogged down from dealing with anxiety ALL the time, I’m not living from only my reserves. I can look at the things I want to do and make the conscious choice to be uncomfortable and do it anyway — because I have a real reason to. Because I have purpose. Because I’m making the decision to face my anxiety FOR ME, not because I’m “supposed to”, or because I’m tired of other people judging me (or even just thinking people are judging me.) Before, making the conscious decision to do something felt a lot more like trying to climb Mt. Everest with a bag full of bricks. Now I’m still climbing Mt. Everest but at least I’ve put those stupid bricks down. I have more energy for the task at hand.
Overall, it’s been a great lesson for me, just recognizing how powerful baby steps are. Everyone wants to be Evel Knievel and conquer things in one great leap, but in reality that almost never happens. When discomfort is extreme, it’s so much easier to turn our backs and find covers to quiver underneath. But if we can reduce the discomfort so it’s not quite so extreme, it becomes manageable. And when it’s manageable, a little discomfort can even be fun — because you know that you’re facing it for the right reasons. That’s when one little step at a time turns into finally getting to be the person you’ve always wanted to be (at least some of the time, anyway.)
And let me tell you — it feels fucking great.
When I first started writing this post, I had originally titled it:
The Night My Grandma Tried to Kill Herself and Didn’t Even Google It Properly First
(…and thank God for that, because I tried my damndest to get her to use it for everything)
That was before I realized that she had thought her plan through more thoroughly than the evidence suggested. But don’t let me get too far ahead of myself.
This is the day-by-day account of the week that my grandma tried to commit suicide, the same week leading up to Mother’s Day. I sat down and wrote each day, in an attempt to process my emotions, but it eventually led to a blog post. My hope is to shed a little light on what someone goes through when a loved one tries to take their own life. I’m sure everyone’s experiences are different, but this is mine.
It only seems fit to mention at the beginning of all this that my day began by stumbling around in the dark and stepping on something soft and squishy that turned out to be poop. But that’s a long and altogether unrelated story, except that it also involved the hospitalization of an elderly man and a 5150 (which, by the way, is a medical term for a certain type of psychiatric evaluation that I had never heard of before this morning.)
Life is fucking weird.
I know it might seem strange that I have a sense of humor about all of this, but the truth is, I just don’t know what else to do. Irony feels infinitely better than anger and sadness, and the only way I know how to process my shit is to write. I’ve already exhausted crying and screaming and biting the heads off of people around me. I’m sitting here typing because I don’t know what else to fucking do. My heart is broken.
How long has she been planning this for? That’s what I want to know.
My grandma is one of my very favorite people in the whole world. I’m pretty sure I have about a million stories I could share with you that might help you understand why she is the most special person in the world to me, but I don’t even know where to start.
She loves pelicans and the color orange. She misses walking on the beach. Gluten is her nemesis. She plays a mean card game. She has spent her life painting beautiful works of art the way another person might make three meals a day in the kitchen. The love of her life died when I was only a few years old, and she swears that she only got through it because I would wrap my little arms around her and tell her it would be okay. She has traveled the world and keeps hundreds of trinkets around her that remind her of all of the places she has been and things she has done.
It’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve been able to spend so much extra time with her. Things have gotten more difficult for her; life has slowed to “walker only” and making the trek across the living room is regularly accompanied by sharp inhalations and “ohh oh ow, ow.” She hates getting behind the wheel of a car anymore. Unless she is forced to go to the pharmacy to pick up a prescription, she won’t make it out of the house to go the grocery store until she runs out of food (which, by the way, would take well over a year because she stockpiles whatever she can like it’s still the great depression.)
I’m not joking – I once perused the contents of a large cardboard box in her pantry that she stored jell-o boxes in, to discover that she had simply layered more jell-o boxes on top of jell-o boxes over the years. The closer I got to the bottom of the box, I found jell-o from the 1970’s, and later the 1950’s. For an 81-year old woman who has moved more than a dozen times in her life, I’d say that’s pretty impressive. To this day I have never once seen her actually make jell-o.
Nevertheless, I like to shop for her, and cook for her. I started coming to Hemet for weeks at a time helping her out with things and keeping her company. I work from home most of the time during the day and in the evenings she and I get excited about watching Outlander and Orange is the New Black and The Walking Dead. And yes, I’ll even admit that she got me to sit and watch Dancing with the Stars with her and the occasional Ellen episode.
I’ve always known that one day she would pass on and leave me here, but that day has ever been a thing of the far future. She needs help fairly often now, yes, but she’s far from the age of venturing anywhere near that black abyss. In my mind, we had a lot more time we would get to spend together.
I was looking forward to showing back up in Hemet with arms full of gluten free goodies from Trader Joe’s and bags of groceries for Mother’s Day dinner. This time I had been gone much longer than usual; I usually try to leave Hemet for only a weekend or maybe a week at a time. But I went on vacation to Florida to visit my best friend and between that and the time I spent in Orange County, I was gone for a whole month. I’ve been really excited to see her and sit down and crack jokes together and let her interrupt all of my newest stories with the same old ones she’s told me a hundred times but that I still love hearing anyway.
Earlier today, my mom had an emotionally exhausting experience and called my Grandma to talk – but the phone kept going straight to voicemail. This in and of itself is really not unusual. Grandma regularly gets both scam and spam calls on her home phone and when they grow too tiresome for her, she takes her phone off the hook.
After several hours went by of phone silence, my mom asked me to call Shine (my grandma’s best friend who lives in the same neighborhood.) I did, and Shine agreed to go check on her right away. I didn’t know it at the time, but Shine had been to visit her the night before to check on her, and the two of them sat together drinking caramel vodka (my grandma’s favorite) and had a nice long chat. Shine said that my grandma seemed down, but not excessively so.
About ten minutes after I called her, my phone rang again in response. Shine was in tears and her voice was shaking. “It’s not good, Tien. She’s unconscious. I don’t know what’s going on. She’s lying in the guest bathtub and there was a note outside the door that said “do not resuscitate.” I called 911 and an ambulance is on their way.”
An icy wave of shock ripped through every limb in my body with the force of a sucker punch to the gut. I called my mom back which sent her into a similar but much more vocal wave of panic (my brother said she was basically running around the house in circles screaming incoherently.) Brandon and I proceeded to grab our stuff, race out the door, and make the hour and fifteen minute drive from Orange County to Hemet. Thank goodness he was there to drive me because there’s no way I would have been able to do so safely. I was dizzy, emotional, confused. After just recovering from three days of violent (and I mean violent) stomach flu and finally barely being able to eat real food again, my stomach turned sour and decided that food was not what it wanted after all. My appetite vanished altogether.
It wasn’t long before the next call came from Shine. “She’s breathing but she’s unconscious. She came out of it for a moment and told me, “I didn’t want you to be the one to find me.” There’s a puddle of water outside of the tub but she’s dry.”
It wasn’t until the third phone call after the ambulance arrived that they were able to revive her enough to discover she had taken 17 Ambien the night before and had been lying in the tub for almost 24 hours. They rushed her to the nearest hospital.
It was about this time that the truth settled hazily like dust motes in between the crevices of my brain, then took hold. She had done this to herself. She had actually tried to kill herself.
For the next hour, I had a cacophony of thoughts clamoring around my mind. Why (exactly) had she done this? When I was around her, she never seemed unhappy. I left her for a whole month. Had she been planning this before I even left? Or was this a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing, brought on by loneliness?
Guilt. Floods of guilt. I thought back to when I said goodbye to her before leaving a month before. I forgot my phone and was glad that I had to run back in, because I got to hug her a second time before I left.
And for every single person that said to me in the hours that followed, “it’s not your fault, you can’t blame yourself” — oh, great; sure. I’ll just flip that guilt switch to off, now, thanks. You saying that has really made me change my mind. Yes, I know it’s true, and I know that’s what you’re supposed to say, but telling someone to stop blaming themselves doesn’t really work, just FYI.
It may not be my fault, but the truth of the matter is that if I had been here, she wouldn’t have done this. There’s no erasing that fact, or dressing it up pretty, or twisting it into some goddamn pretzel so that it looks like something else. Yes, it was her decision; I know that. But nothing you say is going to keep me from wishing that I hadn’t left her for so long.
I hate to say this, but I’m glad I didn’t find her in that bathtub, only because that image would be burned into my brain forever. Although sadly, I have a very vivid imagination and it already pretty much is anyway. At least I know my imagination’s version can’t be nearly as bad as the real thing. I feel awful for Shine but at the same time I am eternally grateful to her.
By the time Brandon and I were almost to Hemet, Shine had called again and reassured me that the hospital was pretty certain she would be okay. Relief was only a soft blanket placed precariously on top of the churning black waters carving holes into my stomach.
How could she do this? How could she try to leave me like this, without even saying goodbye? Hurt and anger both jockeyed for the prime position in my throat, where they were hanging out with the spontaneous onset of acid reflux gnawing holes in my barely recovering flu-damaged esophagus.
When Brandon and I arrived at the ER, we found Shine in the waiting room and I hugged her fiercely and thanked her more times than was necessary, but I couldn’t seem to stop. I couldn’t find the words to express the absolute overwhelm of gratitude for her presence in my grandma’s life.
The sweet woman at the desk named Elizabeth told us we had to wait for a bed to open up before we could see her because the paramedics were working on her in the hall. The longer we waited, the more I realized how in shock I was. I found myself looking around, thinking, “this has to be a dream.” I hate saying that because it’s such a cliché, but clichés don’t just get pulled out of peoples’ asses. Everything felt surreal. For a moment, I was certain I would wake up and cry tears of joy and call my grandmother up and say, “Grandma! I had the most horrible, awful dream that you tried to leave me.” And she would assure me that she hadn’t tried such a thing and she was so excited to see me soon and everything would be okay. I refrained from pinching my arm and instead made a spectacle of myself by sobbing loudly into Brandon’s shoulder.
It wasn’t long before my mom and brother showed up. We all waited tensely until Elizabeth came over and insisted on telling only ONE family member what was going on who would then have to relay it to everyone else. Okay, just for the record: you fucking asshole who came up with this stupid cock-sucking procedure, I don’t give a flying fuck what your stupid reasons were for this, I hate you and you are a horrible person. I hope someone does this to you in the ER waiting room one day.
In between trying (and failing) to read Elizabeth’s lips (and mentally making a note that this was a skill I needed to hone) I fought the urge to scream at the top of my lungs. Mom finally came back over and informed us that this particular hospital was a private hospital so they had this rule that when someone tries to commit suicide, no one can see the patient until they have had a psych evaluation, which can take anywhere from 8 to 36 hours. My aunt and uncle fought this fiercely when they got to the hospital, but gave in when she told them that she was asleep and would be for a while anyway, so we might as well all go home and sleep. There was nothing else we could do.
Seeing as all of us had just driven well over an hour from each of our respective cities, the only logical thing to do was to sleep at my grandma’s house down the street.
When we got to the house, I treaded on tip toe through the front door and down the hall past a wicker shelf that had been left haphazardly upturned in the wake of paramedics. I walked falteringly into the guest bathroom and felt bile bubbling up. Everything was tainted. The shower I had used every day, singing songs from Wicked in at the top of my lungs, suddenly felt like the scene of spine-chilling horror film. She had laid in that cramped white tub for almost 24 hours, head askew uncomfortably against cold porcelain. Bottles of shampoo and soap were all asunder.
I thought to myself, “I’m pretty sure I will never be able to shower in here again.”
As we walked around the house, we began finding notes. It wasn’t long before it became alarmingly apparent that she took more than just a little time planning this. A note in the fridge that said, “Just think. No one needs to think about gluten and gluten free anymore.” Notes scribbled on knick knacks that she wanted to go to certain people. A very long and touching note for Shine.
No note for me.
Nothing that is, except a single line scrawled on the back of a notepad my grandma and I had used to keep score during our last game of rummy: “Will miss our card games. – Granny Mo”
Anger, sharp and hot, born of the deepest kind of hurt. That was it? She decided it was time for her to move on and that was all she had to say to me? Maybe she felt like there was nothing left to say since we always said what we wanted to say in the moment. But it was hard not to think, “goodbye would have been nice.”
I was confused. If Shine wasn’t supposed to find her, then who was? Me? I was the next person who she knew was coming to visit her. But that was six days away, that didn’t make sense… and I couldn’t imagine she’d want to leave me with that image for the rest of my life. Who then? It took a while before I remembered that Christina (the cleaning lady) was scheduled to come by tomorrow.
Just one week before Mother’s Day.
Grandma had done the dishes, which I thought was silly. She dislikes doing the dishes. If you’re going to kill yourself, why wouldn’t you leave all of the dishes? And she left the ketchup sitting out on the counter, as usual.
As we went around the house we found more little notes scrawled here and there. In the trash, my mom dug up a list that my grandma had hastily ripped into small pieces. When we taped it back together we discovered the to-do list of things she did to prepare for her final day. Underneath “pay bills” and above “set out turpentine” she had scrawled: “Eat éclair, fried chicken, burger, cake.” I wondered to myself if she ever did actually make the drive into town to get these things so she could eat them and savor every bite, believing that she wouldn’t have to suffer the unfortunate consequences afterward.
We all found ourselves compulsively nosing around the house, looking for more notes, more clues, more tiny pockets of understanding.
When digging through her bathroom drawers, my mom asked me, “why does she have all these bottles of vitamins that she never actually takes? They’re still sealed.”
To which I responded, “Mom, you’re the one that buys clothes and never takes the tags off. You tell me.”
Then later, “She even keeps a bottle of booze in her bathroom!”
“I know. Bourbon. She has a swig or two when she can’t sleep.”
A part of me hates her so much for doing this. Every detail of her beautiful, wonderful house that is so full of treasures and art and memories now stings and stabs at every inch around my heart: containers of turpenoid and tubes of paint all set out as though she might sit down at any time and keep painting. Two new watercolor pieces that she had intended to be her final paintings, but they felt rushed to me and not full of her usual presence. All of the trinkets and treasures that she collected from every corner of the globe. Rows of clothes in her closet that she hadn’t worn in over a decade. The lamp in the corner that she always asked me to turn on as soon as dusk began settling around the mountains outside of her back door. The wide stretch of weeds in her yard that she had tried and failed to tame a hundred times and turn into a garden (which is sad, if you are lucky enough to know my grandma, because she has always excelled at growing things. For her not to have a thriving greenscape at her fingertips was a source of ongoing frustration for her.)
I’m looking around at this house of gleaming memories and I know that it will never be the same again. The magic is gone, sliced open by cold, callous reality. I know – she’s still here – but things are going to change now.
And the more that I think about it, the more sad I get. Because when I’ve been here we’ve always found this little haven of happiness where I cook her gluten free foods that she will never be able to order in a restaurant again while she cracks wickedly funny jokes in between pausing something funny on TV that I have to watch or going off on some political rant I’ve heard over and over again. I never realized that she was ready to go… tired and wanting to move on. And that keeps bringing me back to the same question: was it because I was gone so long?
I know Gene (the love of her life) is at her side right now in that hospital, holding her hand. She wants to join him so badly. He left her too early in life, before they got to go hang gliding or visit Key West. (Although I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that even though their time together was relatively short, they still managed to travel all over the world together before he died.)
I never get tired of listening to her stories about her travels. In fact, it was only about a year ago that I plopped her down in front of my camera and insisted on recording video of her recounting these stories to me, telling me about her life and all of her wonderful adventures. She protested a lot at first. I promised her she could have some caramel vodka nearby to help her relax.
“But I won’t know what to say. Will you ask me questions?”
“Of course! I have a whole list of things I want you to share.”
“Oh, fine.” Accompanied by lots of sighing and sour faces and eye-rolling.
Needless to say, I don’t think I ever managed to get through my list of questions. I’d ask her one thing and she would go off for a half an hour, rambling about every little thing that crossed her mind. I know she’d never admit it, but I think she loved every minute.
My grandmother is this radiant angel of a woman and I love her with all of my heart. If she truly was ready to go, why didn’t she leave me a note? Why had she left the back door unlocked so that Shine was able to get in? And why on earth had she not actually pulled out her tablet (which she LOVES and uses every day) and actually Googled how much Ambien you need to take to effectively kill yourself?
My other aunt, who is a nurse, informed us that 17 Ambien would make you ill and really fucking sleepy, but it wouldn’t kill you.
And now I’m torn terribly in half. Was this a cry for help? Or did she really truly believe this would be the end for her? She certainly thought it through really well… well, sort of. Okay. A lot of thought went into it, let’s put it that way instead.
Because if she really did want to go, and believe that she was going, this must be horrible for her. If she really is as tired and miserable as she claimed to be in her goodbye note to Shine, then this failed attempt would only make her quality of life that much more restrictive. This makes my heart hurt terribly. My grandma is a woman with wings, and she has been unhappy with her body for a while now. If she were young, it would be one thing. But she’s 81 and has lived a very full life; even after Gene died, she kept traveling by herself, painting all of the places she visited, scattering a little bit of his ashes all over the world. If she’s ready to move on, are we just making it more painful by forcing her to stay here?
But at the same time I am just angry. I selfishly want to keep her here. I knew our time would be up one day, but I never, never anticipated that it could be up so soon. I’m overwhelmingly thankful that it isn’t… and simultaneously hate myself for it.
That first night was by far the worst; I laid in bed having a full blown panic attack (which I haven’t had in years) and couldn’t fall asleep until 5 AM and even when I did it was restless and full of complicated and confusing nightmares that didn’t make the slightest bit of sense.
Tuesday: A few answers
Exhausted but unable to fully immerse in sleep due to my heart constantly banging on my rib cage like a bass drum, I gave up at 7AM and climbed out of bed.
Brandon spent an hour on the phone with the people at the hospital and they gave him the run-around a dozen or so times. Then he was accidentally put through to her bedside phone, and Grandma asked him to bring her Nook, her tablet, her address book, her purse, and a deck or two of cards. I felt relief. It seemed like a good sign to me that she was asking for these things.
It took another call before we were finally told we could visit her. Interestingly enough, they never did the psych evaluation so their “hold policy” was really bullshit. One glance at the hospital’s reviews on Google was all it took to realize there was a lot of miscommunication and misinformation among their staff, which we were already experiencing firsthand and we hadn’t even seen her in the hospital yet. I was angry but reminded myself that a huge chunk of people who work in the medical industry are pretty much screwed over by their employers and the structure of the system makes it virtually impossible for them to actually do their job effectively.
Plus: this is Hemet we are talking about. There is no place for high or even reasonable expectations in Hemet.
If you have never been to Hemet and don’t know what I am talking about, picture a desert town composed almost entirely of elderly folk and those “people of wal mart” photos come to life. The movie theater is a mouse-bitten cardboard box that no one (including me, and I am a movie theater junkie) actually wants to go to. Somehow, this town even managed to ruin In N Out – it’s the only location I’ve ever been to where the burgers and fries are actually gag-inducing. The people, though, are entertaining as hell; one afternoon, Brandon and I actually watched a woman jogging down the street and smoking a cigarette at the same time. Another time, I was driving past the post office watching a man in a large cowboy hat cross the street against traffic with a giant wooden cross the size of a grizzly bear on wheels, rolling it behind him with one hand and waving a fat bible in the other, preaching with a fervor to the intersection. Once, I pulled into the WinCo parking lot to discover a woman had flung open her truck doors, blasted the music on the stereo, and was twerking away at the world. Minutes ticked by, and she never threw in a single dance move, just twerk, twerk, twerk. People stared, but even more people didn’t bat an eye, and simply walked on by. Just another day in Hemet, folks.
I put my expectations in check and we drove twenty minutes to the hospital. On the phone earlier, grandma had also told Brandon that she didn’t want to see me. She knew that she had broken my heart. That made me even more sad. She didn’t need to be scared of having hurt me; I am a tough cookie. I feel things very deeply, but I have honed my coping skills over the years. I know that even the darkest nights have a dawn and with it often comes illumination. I am no stranger to deep pain. Still, the fact that she didn’t want to see me only hurt me more.
I steeled myself and wrapped tight cords around my emotions and told myself, “do not cry, do not get angry, do not show her your pain right now. Go in there and simply love her.” When my grandfather was in the hospital a year ago, he looked like absolute shit, so I mentally prepared myself to see death at her door. But when we walked into the room, she looked like her usual self. A little sleepy, maybe, but not altogether different. My whole body flooded with relief.
In time, a lot of questions were answered.
Not only had she been planning this for a long, long while, she had also tried this once the year before and no one knew. That time when she said she had the flu? She actually took 8 Ambien and all it did was make her pass out for 24 hours straight. When she woke up, she was sick. It was easy for her to pass off.
It turns out Grandma had left me a note but it had been taken by the paramedics along with a stack of other notes for their so-called psychiatric evaluation.
The puddle on the floor outside of the bathtub while she was mysteriously dry? She told me that was because she decided it would be nice to get to take a bath again (something she hasn’t enjoyed in a long, long time) so she filled the tub and climbed in (correction: fell in) to relax while the Ambien set in and water splashed all over the floor. By the time Shine found her, the tub had drained and her clothes had dried.
When we asked her why she did this, her response was “I’m tired.” She listed all of her health problems and talked about the fact that she struggles with doing almost every single thing she loves any more. I can’t really blame her for feeling that way; I would be tired too.
My grandma asked me if I found the list of names and phone numbers of people I was supposed to inform after she had passed away. I said yes, and she told me to call every one of them and let them know she was in the hospital. I made a mental note.
I asked her if she ever had the chance to eat her fried chicken and éclairs, but she said no. It didn’t surprise me that she hadn’t gone to the grocery store once the entire time I had been gone.
When the doctor came in to ask her some questions, he inquired, “who is your primary care physician?”
Her response was, “Dr. Kevorkian.”
Even the doctor couldn’t keep a straight face. I fucking love her twisted sense of humor; irreverent to the last drop.
The day wore on and almost everyone had to return to their respective cities for work. By the time 6 PM rolled around I was so exhausted I couldn’t see straight and my equilibrium was questionable. All of my emotions were big, buoyant beach balls that I had been juggling to keep under the water all day but I was losing control and they were now slipping out of grasp and floating back up to the surface.
My aunt Mary and uncle Jeff and I hung out with her until visiting hours were over. The mythical psych evaluation still never arrived; thank goodness they have zero respect for their own policies. The three of us resigned to grandma’s house and even though I was terrified to sleep alone, I passed out the moment my head hit the pillow and slept for ten hours straight. The only dream I remember was one where these tiny little alien-fish-parasites were swimming around in my gut and through all of the liquids in my body and I vomited them up and they were multiplying, procreating, swimming all over each other until they suffocated me from the inside out.
Wednesday: The aftermath of amnesia
Wednesday was a little bit better. I recalled all of the things I managed to force into my stomach the day before: coffee, a smoothie, a handful of almonds, and an orange. I couldn’t do that again today or I was going to make myself sick. My immune system was worn down to the quick after barely recovering from the flu and going straight into high-stress mode. I had to take care of myself. Luckily Mary kept me level-headed and we made a real breakfast and I drank ginger tea and I stuffed more oranges down my throat on top of it to try to cover up the exhaustion.
Grandma was much more lucid today. Mary and Shine and I spoke with her about everything that happened. One of the things I appreciate about my family is we don’t sugar coat shit or try to cover it up, but we don’t tear each other down either; we just talk about things. I love it.
I asked Grandma if she wanted to pass the time by playing cards. She seemed confused, so I reminded her that she was the one that asked me to bring them. She didn’t recall asking Brandon for any of the things she had requested on the phone yesterday and she didn’t really have much use for any of them.
When Grandma dozed off, I stepped out of the room and found a secluded waiting area by the vending machines and pulled out my phone and called every single number on her list to let them know she was in the hospital. When she woke up later I let her know I had called them, as she had requested the day before.
“Oh, you didn’t need to call them. That was only if I died.”
“But Grandma, you told me yesterday to call them and tell them you were here.”
“Oh.” A short silence. “I don’t remember that.”
Facepalm. “There were a few numbers on this list that were disconnected. Maxine was one of them.”
“Oh, Maxine is dead. She’s been dead for a long time.”
Facepalm, facepalm. I was confused at first, but then I realized she made this list before Maxine died. It was simply a convenience that she still had it and she didn’t think to cross the name off. More proof that she had been thinking about this for a long time. One of her goodbye notes was dated 2013. 2013, for chrissake! She’s been thinking about this for that long. But then, she also procrastinated it for that long, too. That has to count for something. There is a strong part of her that wants to live, I know it.
Her memory was fine today, it was just yesterday that had been wiped away by the excess of Ambien that lingered in her system.
When Grandma fell asleep again, Mary and I decided we needed lunch. It wasn’t until after we finished eating that I realized it was 6 PM.
We went back to the hospital and spent another couple of hours with her until the psychiatrist finally showed up and did her psych evaluation (gee, I’m glad they didn’t stick to their policy of making us wait to see her until after it was over.) At the end of it all he determined that we as a family need to come up with a plan to keep her under constant supervision, and then he will release her. He is also going to put her on an antidepressant.
Thursday: An idiotic plan
The more time Mary and I spent at the hospital with Grandma, I lost sense of time. Other people came to visit and Shine was there almost every morning, but Mary and I were there most of the day. We talked about what she was going through and asked her lots of questions about her headspace. She was honest with us when she said that her feelings went up and down. She compared the hospital room to hell and wondered if this was her punishment for what she had tried to do. I can’t really blame her; the doctors barely visited her and when they did they would ask a maximum of three questions before deciding a personal call was more important and stepping out to never return. Miscommunication was at a record high and it was clear that no matter how wonderful and caring the nurses were, no one was talking to one another. This hospital is supposed to be a teaching hospital, but I fear for what students are actually learning from this nightmare of a facility. Note to self: never, ever have health problems in Hemet.
Nevertheless, we used our time in hell to talk. I told Grandma that I wished she had reached out to me and talked to me about what she was feeling. She had expressed frustration at difficulty with her body, but never told me just how much it was getting to her. Every single person who knew her had been utterly shocked by this turn of events… including my grandma herself. It was clear she didn’t expect to have failed in her task, and she was confused about what to do next.
Eventually my mom returned from Orange County and joined us at the hospital and we all continued to talk with Grandma at length about everything. When we asked her where she wanted to be, her eyes filled with tears and she said, “I want to stay in my home.” My heart went out to her. Here she was, stuck in the hospital inside of this body that constantly betrayed her when she thought she’d be reunited with Gene, now thinking that she probably wouldn’t be able to go home but would instead be completely uprooted from her life to live out the rest of her existence with even more discomfort than before. I asked Grandma if she was going to do something like this again, and she said no. I looked into her eyes, and believed her.
There was only one choice we could make: Grandma would stay in Hemet. But this could not be allowed to happen again. This means that from now on, she will never be alone. We will take away all of her meds and monitor them. I will be the primary caregiver, but when I need to leave town, Mary or someone else will come stay with her. Family will be visiting her more often and so will Shine. Our plan is to surround her with love and care for the time being and help try to improve little things in her life: get all of her medications sorted out, see if this antidepressant helps her, get her a new hearing aid, take her to the chiropractor to see if getting her neck in alignment helps with the shaking (along with balancing out her vitamins and electrolytes) as well as a dozen or so other action steps. My aunt and uncle will also work on remodeling their bathroom so that she will ultimately be able to stay with them. But for now, let her be at home and let her try to find some happiness again while she is surrounded by friends and family. All of us agreed that this was the best plan.
I did get one call from another family member in the middle of the day who hadn’t been to the hospital all week and asked for an update, and when I told her this plan she screamed at me and told me we were all fucking idiots and my grandma would definitely try to kill herself again because that’s what depressed people do and that we needed to put her in a home. She berated and belittled me and tried to convince me that I didn’t have Grandma’s best interests at heart but I did my best to calmly explain to her that everyone else in our family believes in quality of life, not quantity. I also don’t believe that all depressed people are the same, and the solution is different for each individual. Then she criticized me for the fact that earlier in the day I had posted the truth about what happened on Facebook, and told me I should take it down.
“First of all, I didn’t post anything all week. I only put that up because Grandma asked me to post something today. I felt that she was being brave by letting it all out in the open and wasn’t going to argue with her. Second, the rest of the family and I believe that when you hide something and sweep it under the rug, it becomes taboo; everyone is afraid to talk about the elephant in the room. It doesn’t do anyone any good. There is power in vulnerability and it opens you up to heal much faster.”
But seriously though: what the fuck is the point of keeping Grandma alive to put her in a cage where she is completely miserable and then lie to everyone about it? She has family that adores her and wants to take care of her and help her get back as much enjoyment out of life as we can help her get. And if that makes us all “fucking idiots” then bring on the idiot hats. I love her too much to do that to her.
After getting screamed at for a while longer and realizing that I couldn’t fight anger with logic, I gave up. Nothing I could say would make her realize she was the only one who thought my grandma needed to be put away somewhere, and she hadn’t even had the chance to talk with her face to face since the incident. (This is not said with any malice, by the way; it’s simply a fact.) She had no grasp of the situation or Grandma’s headspace. I’m sure she will be pissed off at me for posting this too, but I don’t care, and neither does Grandma.
If after all of this, I am wrong, I am happy to eat my words; here they are for the world to see. But if I didn’t believe Grandma when she said there is still desire in her to live (and didn’t see that evidence also reflected by the fact that it took her three years to follow through with an abysmally executed suicide) we would all be making a very different decision.
If one person who has been thinking about suicide reads this and reconsiders, then it has been worth it. If one person who has experienced a family member attempting suicide and feels comfort when reading this, then it has been worth it. If it helps me and my grandma and my family to cope and to process what is happening, then it has been worth it. Let the truth come out, and let people talk about it. I only held back in the beginning because I was being sensitive of grandma’s feelings and didn’t want to make things worse for her. But when she told me to go ahead and tell people, I did. I think she is brave. And I know that because of it, all of her friends and loved ones are going to reach out to her and remind her how much she is loved, and these people will help bring meaning to her days.
The rest of the day was long, and we submitted our final plan to the case manager. We would know tomorrow what was going to happen next, and whether or not they would be releasing her.
We all went back to Grandma’s house and got ready for bed. I had intended to go straight to sleep but somehow mom and I ended up sitting cross legged in the lamp-lit living room, smoking a joint together and talked about the storm of feelings we were both wading through. Somehow we found ourselves on the topic of the bathtub.
Do you remember how I told you that my grandma said she tried to kill herself in the tub because she really just wanted to take one last nice bath? Um, I guess she just made that up while she was still under the delirium of Ambien. It turns out that grandma told my mom a slightly different story than the version she told me.
“She said she saw on TV that someone had taken sleeping pills and then laid down in the tub and as they went to sleep they slid down into the water and drowned, so she decided that was what she was going to do because it looked like a peaceful way to go. She took more than enough sleeping pills to make her pass out, but she had a hard time getting down into the water, and somehow the stopper got nudged but she’s not very mobile so she couldn’t get it back in, so she tried to block the water with her knee, but all the water drained out. Then she got tired and passed out and thought there was someone standing there with her and was talking to them, but then realized she was just talking to her legs telling them to move, but they weren’t listening. She wanted to get out of the tub but she couldn’t get up.”
“Huh.” I blinked. “She told me that she just wanted a nice bath.”
“Well, that was probably true, too. I told her that she was really bad at killing herself.”
“I don’t think she ever really wanted to go. She’s been thinking about this for a long time, but that’s a long time that she’s held off from doing this, too.”
“I think you’re right.”
I silently thanked myself for never replacing the broken bathtub stopper. I don’t think I have ever been so grateful for procrastinating something in all of my life.
It took all day but just after 5 PM they released Grandma from the hospital. All of the nurses had become fast friends with her, but she bonded especially with Juliette. Juliette helped her into a wheelchair and rolled her down the long, sterile hallway to the elevators. Everyone was in good spirits, and we were joking and laughing. Life felt better already. When she helped her into the car, Juliette gave her a long hug and told her she would miss her.
I don’t know why I felt so depressed by the time we got home, but all of the weight of the past week seemed to press down upon me all at once and the happiness of leaving hospital hell was replaced with thick emptiness. I fought with it for a while. When it came time to finally go to bed, I made sure that Grandma had everything she needed. She climbed into her pajamas and crawled into bed, and I lay on the pillow next to her and talked for what felt like the longest time, stroking her hair and her cheek. I held the hand of my best friend and told her that there was a reason she is still here; her time will come, but not yet.
Sunday: Mother’s Day
Saturday was recuperation day and was altogether uneventful, which was a blessing. Spirits lifted and a second night of good rest seemed to solidify that we were laying down a new foundation. This would be a new chapter, and things were going to get a lot better from here on out.
Sunday morning, the woman from home health came by and sat and talked with Grandma and the rest of us and we got most of her meds and other things sorted out. Finally, someone who could give us some straight answers! The long night had passed.
After she left, I looked at everything that happened and realized that this experience had brought our whole family together. All of the men have been the rocks that us women leaned on throughout this ordeal. Shine was not just friend, but sister to my grandma and I am thankful for her every single day. There were a lot of beautiful things that came out of this. Not only had it brought to light all of the dark thoughts and feelings that my grandma had been keeping locked up in her heart, it also made each and every one of us realize just how precious rest of our time with Granny Mo is. Nothing would go unsaid from now on, and when her time finally does arrive it will be that much more meaningful.
I also learned a lot about myself. I learned just how strong I am, and that even when I am in the middle of something that seems insurmountable and impossible to understand, I will make it through to the end of the tunnel. There is always an end to the tunnel.
Do I wish that she had chosen to reach out and talk to me instead of having to go through all of this? Of course. And I would urge anyone considering doing something like this to reach out and talk to a friend or loved one (or hell, even a stranger) before trying to take their own life. You have no idea the consequences of your actions. It doesn’t need to come down to all of this for change to occur.
But for me, it’s already done and I can’t change the past… and thank God she didn’t succeed. If she had, this entire experience would have been very different. All I can do is look at everything that happened and do my best moving forward.
Sitting there in my grandma’s living room, I was overcome with a flood of gratitude. It was just Mary, Mom, Grandma and I and all I felt was love. On Mother’s Day, I sat with my three mothers and realized that we had all come together as a team. Each of us have very different strengths and we all complement each other so well. I often internally berate myself for not being better at certain things, but this experience had opened my eyes to the very real understanding that each person has their own strengths. We are not all meant to be perfect at everything — we have weaknesses so that we need each other. Where I struggle, they step up. Where they struggle, I feel joy at being needed. That is the gift of family. That is the gift I found in my grandma’s attempted suicide.
We never had the giant feast I had originally planned for Mother’s Day, but we didn’t need it. No need for fancy desserts or a lot of ruckus, no need for cards or flowers, no need for the usual fanfare. We have each other, and that is all that matters in this life.
I FINALLY PUBLISHED A BOOK. My first and lifelong dream is a reality. No words, just happiness.
Festerfarkle the Frogdragon
by T. N. Maree
Because Festerfarkle is the only Frogdragon in all of Fayrule, he is very lonely. Neither the frogs nor the dragons like him because he is different. He goes to sleep at night and dreams that he lives in a faraway land with other strange creatures that are just like him. One day, Festerfarkle awakens from a dream and smells something funny on the wind. Perhaps things are about to change in Fayrule once and for all…
This morning I found myself perusing my old writing folders. While taking a stroll through yesteryear, I found this little gem. Yes, I know… I went through this phase when I was a teenager of writing in all lowercase. It was a short phase, but the damage is done when you save everything you write.
I could have changed everything so that you would never know, but I figure, “what’s the point of sharing the past if you paint it up to the point where it looks nothing like it actually was?” So I present this little snippet, unedited, for your entertainment.
eating on trains doesn’t work. this story has nothing to do with eating on trains. but it does have to do with riding on them. (and buses.)
okay so i’m riding back on the bus, and thinking, thinking, thinking. (i know, it’s a first for me. but don’t worry, i didn’t strain myself so much that it hurt.) anyway, all this stuff just kept popping into my head and wouldn’t leave me alone, so i started writing:
this bus that im on is late.. we left 45 minutes after we were supposed to. and it’s taking me to LA where i’m supposed to wait another hour before getting on another train to take me to santa ana. late, like buses are. so, i think, fuck, if i can create my life, i’m going to get home EARLY. …. i really don’t know how, but i am. then i forget.
so i get to the station and i’m like… hum, dum. an hour with nothing to do. yayness. i think i’ll wander around and at least find my platform that it’s coming in on. but i have no idea where i’m going. so i just sort of wander around and end up in some hallway leading to all the metrolink trains (i was going to take amtrak) and i see this guy that looks like he works there. im like, hm, maybe he can tell me where to go. so i hand him my ticket, and tell him where i’m going, and he’s all, you know, this is an amtrak ticket, and i work for metrolink. but you can actually use this ticket on metrolink, and the next train going to santa ana is right up this platform and they’re leaving right now.
what!? how freaking cool is that!? i had no idea you could do that. (this was the first time i’d ever ridden a train.) I got home (after riding trains all day, which are supposed to be late..) AN HOUR and a HALF early!!! i was getting into the car to go home five minutes before the train i was SUPPOSED to be on was leaving from LA! and the funny thing is they never even checked my ticket. amtrak was freaking anal about it and were checking constantly but i rode all the way from LA to santa ana on metrolink and nobody even checked once.
isn’t it crazy cool? i just decided, with no idea how, that i was going to get home early, and just happened to wander down the hall that lead me STRAIGHT TO the platform (keep in mind there was a LOT of platforms… why would i pick that one in particular?) that at that EXACT moment in time sent me home REALLY EARLY. some would say i’m lucky.
….but i know better.