Health: Out of the Darkness, Suicide Prevention Walk

On Saturday I walked 17 miles in tandem with an event held in Worcester MA.  The main event in Worcester is a 5k from which the proceeds go to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. My close friends (and their families and friends) walk an additional 14 miles (17 total including the 5k) in honor of Spencer, my Friend’s nephew who took his life at the age of 17.  I was unable to be in Worcester for the day so I decided to put in my 17 miles remotely in Huntington, WV.  There were multiple teams which participated in the days’ events.  Our team was called Seventeen Miles For Spencer. We had a charitable goal of $10k. We crushed our goal by a couple thousand! That is an amazing feat that our team leader, and Spencer’s Aunt, Judy should be proud of!

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There are a few reasons why I decided to participate (other than I love Judy to pieces).  I will try to put those into words through this blog.  I will also add a couple of the random photos I took through my walk and tell you about my thoughts as my feet made their way through various sections of Huntington, WV.  This blog will be long (surprise, surprise).

When I was in high school there was a girl I was friendly with who, on two different occasions, called to tell me she was in the process of committing suicide. During one occasion, she took pills but not enough to warrant her stomach being pumped.  During the second occasion, she just called but took no physical action.  I could not understand my Mother’s furious tone and her telling me that this girl “only wants attention”. My reaction to her was probably not what she expected.  I simply said “so what”.  I seriously felt like: so what if she wanted attention. Obviously something pains her and it was not out of my way to go check on her. And I did listen to her. I listened to my friend and let her talk and we railed against the world in our conversations and all of her angst poured out through her words.  I can remember her living room, how it faced the kitchen.  I can remember how the light came through the window and how I concentrated on the dust specks within those rays of light as she talked and cried and became loud and then quiet again.  I was frustrated with my Mother in a way I could not put into words and, even if I had the words, suicide attempts were not the sort of thing that one discussed, out loud, to others. Especially not a discussion with one’s Mother.  If that type of restrictive mindset within my own household was a thing, I can not imagine how it was for the people who actually suffered in silence because it was not a subject to be brought up. That was (approximately) 1984.

There was no irony lost to me when a few years later, during an amplified conversation regarding my biological father, that my Mother admitted to trying to commit suicide when I was an infant/toddler (old enough to crawl).  Baby aspirins.  You know the ones that Bayer made (or maybe still makes) that taste like orange and kind of tingled your tongue as they dissolve?  She told me she took a bottle of those and laid on the bed, waiting to die because she had a miscarriage and (her words) my father was worthless. I asked my Aunt, in recent years, if she remembered such an occasion and she did not. But, we don’t discuss these sorts of things.  Her marriage to my father (I would confirm later in life) was fraught with turmoil and infidelity.  She could not imagine how she would go on in life without him, even as I crawled on the floor next to the bed where she laid, hoping for her own demise. She had no one to rail against the world with her, no one she felt could listen to her words or hold her hand. She would go on to find and marry the man who raised me.  But, I wonder if there were other times in her life that she had thoughts but took no actions and stayed silent, because these are things we do not speak of.  That would have been (approximately) 1969-1970.

While living in New York, I had to call my Daughter down to the kitchen to give her some heartbreaking news. A young man who she was fond of when they attended K-4 in WV had taken his own life. He would have been around 15 at that time. From secondhand information, I heard that his parents were leaving for church on a Sunday morning, he said he had to go back into the house and he never came back out. It was unexpected, there were no “signs”. I do not know the circumstances or underlying factors.  I just know that having to tell my young Daughter this news was a difficult task that broke my heart. There were a number of times, during her high school years, that we would revisit the discussion of suicide as her school felt the effects of young people ending their lives. I made sure to talk to her at length about each event, to not give the impression that it was a subject we could not discuss. There were conversations regarding self harm that was not related to suicide when she was further along in school.  I tried to be there for her and her friends, to make sure I was a resource if ever someone needed me.  I would break the cycle of silence, even if it was only in my own household.  That would have been 2005-2008.

I suffer (present tense) from depression and anxiety. I am fortunate because I do not have the overwhelming feelings of having no other option to remove the pain. But, having depression allows me the perspective of understanding the feelings that many have in these situations.  I have suffered from “the blues” for as long as I can remember. As a young person, I was never able to talk to my Mother about how “down” I felt.  The word “depression” was not in our family vocabulary.  I always felt that to admit my depression was a sign of weakness.  I cannot tell you why or how I felt that way, there is no singular event that led me to that train of thought.  It culminated over time. It was just there.  As an adult, I grow frustrated with the measurement of “weakness” being attributed to what I consider one of the hardest things a person can do – admit they need help. This year I struggled with depression in early spring. I had utilized coping mechanisms in the past that I was unable to deploy. I had no willingness to run or walk, which always helped.  My love of blogging was not enough to make me want to write.  My vision was problematic and the actual reading of books was not an option. In July I had an over-the-top panic attack while at work. It was horrific to me in how it presented itself. But it happened. At the end of that panic attack I walked into my office and called our EAP (Employee Assistance Plan) and told the person on the other end that I was unable to find a professional in my area to seek assistance from.  An EAP is a confidential route to take when you need help and you worry that you will be stigmatized by what you are going through.  They guided me to a wonderful therapist who I now drive almost an hour away from my home to see.  I live in what I call a health desert.  Rural West Virginia is not known for its advancements in mental health, or just plain health for that matter. In recent years, after my second surgery, I asked two of my doctors at two different appointments if either of them had recommendations for a professional who could help me with anxiety and depression.  Neither were able to do so.  That, in my opinion, is tragic.  This is 2019.

I want to make myself perfectly clear here – not all people who are depressed want to commit suicide.  I believe that is where I fell in the “I cannot talk about my depression” spectrum. I believe that there is a misconception that when a person is suffering from depression, some people immediately jump to conclude that they must also be suicidal.  We have to be careful in our approach to Mental Health, to make sure stigmas are not placed upon patients or advocates of wellness.  But, make no mistake, there needs to be more people willing to discuss depression, their personal feelings of depression and Mental Health so we can remove the taboo that it is a weakness to seek help.  My relationship with my therapist is new and I tend to be bluntly honest. I typed notes for her before our first visit because I am “extra”.  She feels that my lifelong coping mechanisms loosing their abilities coinciding with two surgeries and the death of my Dad means something.  She thinks we can get to the bottom of it.  I trust she’s right.  One of my coping mechanisms – walking – well, that came back to me Saturday. Seventeen miles worth of coping mechanism.  On the other side of my walk I realized that I missed it, that I need more of it.  Remembering Spencer, reminded me.

So, now about the actual walk…

Section One / Spring Hill Cemetery:  I chose this as the first section because I knew I would put in my first seven plus miles with my Friend, Renau.  She is my genealogy/camping/skydiving buddy.  We have had many conversations regarding mental health as we made our way across backwoods and along highways on our way to state parks.  She comes from a military family and is familiar with the complexities of a VA system that is not the best at meeting the Mental Health needs of their people.  She also has people who are close to her who have suffered the ravages of addiction, even though they were losing everything and everyone they have.  In the face of all that she has seen, all of the obstacles presented, she is still one of the strongest women I will ever know.  Spring Hill Cemetery is a place she would come to walk when life threw curve balls at her, at her family.  She knows every twist and turn of the paths.  I am so unbelievably thankful she was with me for the entire time through this section. Her knowledge of the paths allowed us to walk by the light of the full moon, our conversation keeping time with our footsteps.  She is a joy to have as a friend.

According to The Addiction Center: “Suicide, addiction, and depression have a very close and interconnected relationship. More than 90% of people who fall victim to suicide suffer from depression, have a substance abuse disorder, or both. Depression and substance abuse combine to form a vicious cycle that all too often leads to suicide. Many who experience such severe depression (as a result of Major Depression, Bipolar Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and other conditions) frequently turn to drugs, alcohol, gambling, and other risky behaviors to numb their pain and/or alleviate their negative feelings.”  They offer anonymous telephone support at (877) 276-3957 twenty four hours a day, three hundred and sixty five days a year.

According to The Center For Deployment Psychology: “Elevated suicide risk has been shown to endure well beyond military service, with Veterans carrying a much greater risk for suicide than their civilian counterparts. According to the Office of Suicide Prevention (2016), Veterans account for approximately 18% of all adult suicide deaths in the U.S. Interestingly, Veterans represent only 8.5% of the U.S. population, highlighting the disproportionate number of suicide deaths in this population. This means that approximately 20 Veterans die each day by suicide.”

Pictures from the Spring Hill Cemetery section of my walk:

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Section Two / Woodmere Cemetery: I chose this as my second section of walking because my Son, Alex, walks the paths here on his days off.  It is a short walk from his (and Amanda’s) apartment.  Renau and I drove the half mile to their apartment and parted ways after a good hug of thanks.  Alex and I made our way to Woodmere to begin the second section.  Here, we would walk over two miles along both graveled and paved paths. Like Nau, Alex knew exactly where to walk and which directions we should take.  While we walked, we talked about his current gaming project, his Sisters, and everyday things. He has the kindest heart of any human I know. He is nice to a fault. I am so proud of him, especially now as he is trying to forge a path in life and finding it to be difficult in the industry of his choice. While we walked, I thought of how fortunate I am that we (as a family) have him in our lives. He is a constant source of comfort and makes himself readily available to those who need him.  He is a teacher by trade and he has seen, first hand, the difficulties for children in rural West Virginia and Ohio.

From the Suicide Prevention Resource Center: “Suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers in the United States.  About 2,877 young people ages 13 to 19 die by suicide annually.  Approximately 1 in 6 high school students seriously consider attempting suicide.  1 in 13 high school students attempt suicide one or more times.  However, suicide is preventable.  When individuals, schools, and communities join forces to address suicide, they can save lives.”  On their website, they offer a number to call if you are struggling: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Pictures from the Woodmere Cemetery section of my walk:

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Section Three / Pullman to Marshall Stadium:  I chose this as my third section because my Daughter, Amanda, is an adjunct professor at Marshall University.  She and I ran a 5k once (the only one I earned a trophy for, actually) that fell along (almost) the same route. We were able to add some extra ups and downs to achieve around four miles for this section. In addition to teaching at Marshall, Amanda is also a contract educator through Huntington Museum of Art.  Her work serves children in the most rural of settings throughout the WV-KY-OH area.  Similar to Alex, she is able to see first hand the struggles of kids in rural and under-served areas.  I have such an amazing sense of pride, watching the strong and amazing woman Amanda has grown to be.  Once Alex and I finished our section of walk, we went back to the apartment where this amazing Daughter of mine had food and coffee made for me.  She drove me the roughly two miles to my next section of the walk.  We parked in Pullman Square and proceeded to make a large sweeping loop in which we passed the Marshall University stadium and then ended up back at the parking lot where we started.  It was game day so the town was buzzing, the band was practicing and we had conversations about what was going on in her life. I am struck by what a good, solid friend she is. She worries about friends but makes sure to positively encourage them in a productive direction.

From the Marshall University Counseling Center site I see that this month the university is hosting a number of “We are….Here For You” suicide prevention and awareness events.  That is great!  They also note: “According to the National Mental Health Association, an estimated 1,088 suicides occur on college and university campuses each year, and suicide is the second leading cause of death among college-age students. The Counseling Center provides prevention information, outreach activities, and training for the Marshall University campus community to help reduce the stigma, and  provide education and awareness to help support students struggling emotionally and with thoughts of suicide.”  If you need help, they provide this number for you to call: 1-304-696-HELP (4357).

Pictures from the Pullman-Marshall University section of my walk:

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Section Four / Ritter Park: I chose this area because I am familiar with it and, while scouting out potential paths, I realized that the tree-lined pathway offers great shade. Because it is the temperature of the sun here lately, I thought that would be most beneficial during the time of my walk that I would be under midday sun.  Amanda surprised me with wanting to do the remaining miles with me, so I would not be alone.  I am unbelievably thankful to her because those last three miles were the hardest. We drove the roughly two miles to the Ritter Park playground area and parked.  From there we walked to the Veterans Memorial Arch and back.  It was three miles exactly.  This is an amazing stretch of path that I have run for multiple events, including the Marshall Half Marathon. A large portion of the sections I walked are included on PATH, the Paul Ambrose Trail for Health.  Dr. Ambrose was an advocate for fighting childhood obesity, a cause which is tremendously important in this area.  He lost his life in the attacks on 9/11 and to honor him, the city of Huntington has created (and are still trying to piece together) this walk/run/bike trail to carry on his fight against obesity.

According to Salud America!: “With the rise in adolescent obesity and the increased use of social media influence on body image, its important to understand the associations between obesity and depression.”

For more reading from the CDC on bullying and how it can lead to suicide, click the link HERE.

Pictures from the Ritter Park section of my walk:

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By the end of the day my fingers looked like link sausage and my eyes and face felt slightly swollen. I went from couch-to-seventeen with my first step on Saturday! But, I did it. I was able to do the full seventeen and in the process raised $300 (I am JUST seeing an anonymous donation made last week for Auntie Chelle! lol I need to give a Boy a squeeze!).  I am proud of both those so very very much.

As I posted on Facebook after that last section of walking: “Today I walked 17 miles to honor Spencer who took his life when he was 17 years old. I walk for those who have struggled with depression, the ones who feel they have no other choice. If you struggle, I have an ear to listen. If you struggle, I have a shoulder. If you struggle, come see me and we can take a walk.

I want to also thank Pam, who called and FaceTimed me throughout the day to make sure I was ok and who cheerled (is that a word, the past tense of cheerlead??) me along and to have Erin taunt me with food I could not reach.  I love you SO SO SO much!

And for those of you who struggle, I want to say this: There is HOPE.  I promise. And if you ever feel the struggle is too much, please please please reach out to me. I am here for you. Message me, text me and I can call you. Take my hand and let’s walk.

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Final note – somewhere along my day I added wrong. On my drive home I looked at my Garmin to realize I had accumulated 16.9 miles. So, when I arrived in my driveway, somewhat stiff from sitting through an hour’s drive, I got out of my car and walked down the street and back to make sure I got it right… smh

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