Category Archives: suicide

Toxic Clouds, Toxic Smoke

I had been asked to say a few words of greeting from Center for Victims of Torture headquarters to a counseling group of 12-14-year-old Eritrean refugee boys.  This was daunting, not only because I had laryngitis but because, well, what could I say that could possibly be of interest to them?  I stood up and rasped out a few words about how we in Minnesota do our best to tell their stories to the world, and thanked for allowing me to sit in on their group because it would help me raise more funding so we can work with more refugees.  I hoped that last part would actually be true.

The boys watched me with curiosity as I spoke, probably wondering why I sounded like a chain-smoking man.  My words were translated into Tigrinya, then they nodded and smiled at me and turned their attention to the young counselor who would facilitate the group.  I had expected them to maybe feel self-conscious with me there, but I think they forgot all about me.

I love kids of all ages.  Each age has its adorable and unpleasant aspects, but I couldn’t find anything unpleasant about these kids.  Like boys this age anywhere, they were awkward and gangly.  Some were tall for their age and had deep voices while others were puny and squeaky voiced.  Some had peach fuzz on their upper lips.  They slouched, hunched over, spread their legs wide, and tipped their chairs back until I wanted to lunge forward and say, “Don’t do that—you’ll fall over!”  I thought how difficult it must be go through puberty in their situation.  Many if not all of these boys were on their own, without any family members.  They lived in groups with an adult caregiver in very small houses with no privacy.

When my son was 12, if anyone asked him how he was feeling he would have rolled his eyes, made a joke, and changed the subject.  These boys showed no reluctance to talk about feelings and how to manage them.  In fact, they took the group very seriously.  As I wrote in a previous post, this was the third of three groups designed as a kind of “coping bootcamp” for young Eritreans who were at risk of suicide or of leaving the camps in a futile search for a better life.

None of what was said was translated, but it didn’t have to be.  There were visual aids (complete with misspellings) and I was pretty familiar with the concepts being taught by now.

For instance: it’s normal to feel angry or hopeless considering what they’ve been through; feelings come and go, like clouds, so usually if you wait they will change; emotions can be managed by talking, exercise, meditation, etc.  The facilitator had already taught these concepts in the first two meetings and was drilling the boys about them.  They were totally engaged, almost all raised their hands enthusiastically to answer, spoke gravely, and discussed points of clarity with each other seriously and respectfully.  I may have imagined it or may be exaggerating, but it seemed to me as if they treated the information as if it was a matter of life and death.

I was a bit relieved when the group ended and the boys spilled outside to share some ambasha, a traditional bread.  You could say that branding is literally baked into everything CVT does.

People have asked me how the food was in Ethiopia.  It was really good.  CVT has a staff canteen where two cooks serve breakfast, lunch and dinner.  I paid about $11 for an entire week of meals.  There was just enough—no seconds, no gorging—you wouldn’t gain weight if you lived there for a long time.

Here is one of the cooks, heavily pregnant, baking ambasha over an open fire on the roof because the power was out (I always asked my coworkers if it was okay for me to take and use their photos).  She had used plastic bags to get the fire started, over my protests.  Note the can of paint nearby, probably highly flammable.  Employee health and safety have a long way to go in Ethiopia.

Cool Scotland

I am sitting on a big bed in a big bedroom in a big house in Scotland.  It’s so quiet, so clean, so cold.  It’s August 6 and there’s frost on the windows.  But the view out my window in the greenest green you can imagine.  Well, you don’t have to imagine it, here’s a photo from yesterday afternoon, when the high reached 60F.

I’m at Lynn’s house; I’ve written about our travels together many times.  I have sunk into a routine of working, eating, reading, walking, more work, more eating, and watching Dickensian, a brilliant BBC TV series that jumbles together all the Dickens characters into one murder mystery.  I don’t know why it never made it to the states.

Europe, Ethiopia, and England seem like dreams.  The episode I wrote about in my last post has already morphed from panic-stricken flurry of drama into something that will make a good story some day.

After returning from Lalibela, I put in a week of work in the refugee camps in northern Ethiopia near the Eritrean border and in our offices in Shire.  I’ve written about the “sensitizations” we carry out to tell people about the effects of torture and trauma on mental health and what we can do to help them heal.

I also sat in on a two-day training in which all of our counsellors were trained in on a new group manual for adolescents.  That probably sounds like a lot of gobbledegook.  There are a lot of adolescents who have fled from Eritrea.  They’re there without their families.  They don’t know when they’ll ever see their families again.  They attend school in the camps and there are recreational facilities where they can play football and so on but in general they feel hopeless and like most teenagers, they’re restless.  So they leave the camps and try to get to Europe.  These are those people you see in the news who are being fleeced by human traffickers, only to drown in rubber rafts in the Mediterranean Sea.  The lucky ones make it to Europe or Israel, where they again live in camps.

So there have been spates of suicides and suicide attempts and the groups for adolescents aim to prevent that and teach kids how to cope with the uncertain situations they live in.

I’ve written about the content already.  This staff training was really good, despite the fact that it all had to be translated, which made it twice as long as if our Kenyan psychotherapist could have just said it once, in English.  It was also despairingly hot and stuffy in the room, and why oh why did they keep one of the Landcruisers running right outside the window, so the exhaust fumes wafted into our room?

We had a break mid morning during which we were served the strongest coffee known to mankind and popcorn.  Yes, popcorn, which happens to be my favourite snack.  (“Counsellors,” “favourite,”—I am working on two grant proposals to British funders right now so my documents are set to UK English.)

This was also my chance to catch the cleaning lady and stop her from spraying poison and air freshener all over my room.  She smiled and gestured as if to say how this was her job, how important the poison was to control the rats, how wonderful the Country Peach air freshener would smell.  I smiled back, trying to convey that under no circumstances did I want this shit in my room.  The toxic-smelling floor cleaner she mopped around was bad enough, thank you.  I would take my chances with the rat sans poison.  She smiled in return and I’m pretty sure she went ahead and did what she’d been trained to do once I was back in the training room.

There were 25 counsellors in the training, and almost all of them were millennials.  They dressed like American millennials, in skinny jeans and Converse and T-shirts.  But unlike their American counterparts would have done, there were no cell phones in sight.  They all had cell phones.  Was it out of respect for Sandra, the trainer?  Or was it because they couldn’t get a signal or wifi anyway?

Elder, Kickin’ It

This is a series of posts about Belize that starts here.

In the real world, there is more bad news in addition to all the shenanigans in Washington.  Every day there are reports about all the people overdosing on Carfentanil, a synthetic opioid 10,000 times more potent than morphine.  The anniversary of Prince’s death just passed; he overdosed on a similar drug, Fentanyl.  Carfentanil was developed as a large animal anesthetic.  Really?  Who takes drugs like that?

Sadly, my dad did.  It was his birthday recently; he would have been 81 if he hadn’t overdosed in a Wisconsin motel room nearly 50 years ago, aged 32.  He died of a lethal combination of alcohol and Paraldehyde, which used to be prescribed to treat alcoholism.  Paraldehyde is classified as a “hypnotic” and has mostly been replaced by safer drugs. Was it an accident or intentional?  I’ll never know.  What I do notice is how little emotion I feel about it anymore.  That’s taken a long time and a lot of work.  He loved to travel, so I like to think he would be happy about my adventures.

After our snorkeling day, we were herded onto the van by Mark to attend a Garifuna drumming performance at the Hopkins Cultural Center.  It took an hour for us to drive the mile distance as the crow flies.  It was a very dark night. Thank goodness there were potholes the size of bathtubs full of water, which reflected the light from the three streetlights in town.

Eventually we were ushered into a large thatched-roof hut where we waited for our supper.  A woman about my age was the cook, and she was obviously working her ass off. She had been summoned on five minutes notice to produce food for 20 people, and after an hour her young adult children served up bowls of hudutu and fry bread.  Again, it was full of bones, but we were so hungry we had no complaints.

A 30-something man in a dashiki jumped up on the stage and started shouting into the mic.  “Let’s give a hand to Elder Elspeth for the wonderful meal!”

Elder?  If she was an elder, that made me one too.

The guy, whose name was Myron, launched into a long, disconnected rant about Garifuna culture.  I had read about it in the guide books, and he seemed to be making stuff up.  Garifuna is a language and a culture brought by mixed-race slaves from the Caribbean to Honduras, Nicaragua, and British Honduras—as Belize was then called—in the early 19th Century.  I asked a question; I don’t recall what it was because he angrily yelled, “No!” at me and resumed his animated monologue.  He seemed to have a chip on his shoulder.  He was very muscular—maybe he had ‘roid rage.

Myron went on for half an hour, then two other men joined him and they began drumming and singing manically in the Garifuna language.  It reminded me of a pow wow, where the first song is really cool, the second one is good, and then they all sound alike.

Despite it being ear-splittingly loud, I was trying hard not to nod off, as were the other snorkelers. Mercifully the trio only played five songs.  Then they jumped off the stage and started selling CDs and passing a hat for tips.  It was clear they couldn’t wait for us to get out of there.

Midnight.  One hundred Fahrenheit with 99% humidity.  I lay in my bed in the middle of the room, between Trudy and Emily.  Our table and chairs had disappeared while we were gone but we were beyond curious about why things came and went.

My Restless Legs Syndrome is always worse when it’s humid.  It sounds like a silly condition, but it’s ruined more nights of sleep than any worry or noise or excess of caffeine or alcohol.  Just as I’m falling asleep, I get a creeping feeling around my knees and have an overpowering urge to Move My Legs.

Then music started up in the distance, a low throbbing beat.  This would last for hours, I thought, as I kick, kick, kicked to the beat.

Long Ago in a Land of Spandex

Greetings from St. Louis.  One more day of the road trip, and one more guest post from Vince.

Long Ago, In a Land of Spandex

It’s Friday again, my favorite day of the week. I like my job, but I like weekends more, and at this very moment it’s the longest possible time before more work.  This will be the seventh post now on the topic of my career.  Or careers.  Or lack thereof, uh, yeah.  I have no career; I have held many jobs over the years.

At this moment, I’m taking a break from packing my few belongings for the big move. I finally threw away all of my stuff from prison and boot camp. I was never going to use any of it, so I’m happy to toss it out.  Alright then, on with it.

After leaving Rochester and finding temporary shelter with a friend of a friend in Fountain, Minnesota, I was given a job as a line cook at Pedal Pusher’s Café in nearby Lanesboro.  The owners were a couple with three kids and they all lived upstairs of the restaurant. Looking back, it really sucks to see how things went down.  They were kind, generous people who went out of their way to help me when I was down.  They even let me sleep in their camper for a while after things went sour in Fountain, and while I waited to find an apartment of my own which they also loaned me the money for.

pedal-pushers-cafe-corner

Lanesboro is a bustling little city full of B&B’s, bike trails, trout fishing, tourists, and spandex,  It has a few restaurants too, and they were very busy in the summer. I hadn’t been on a line in some years when I started there, but I picked things back up pretty quickly. Time flew by, I worked hard, and started drinking hard.  I also met a new friend that would play a major role in my life for many years to come: gambling.

In the form of pull tabs, I whittled away my pay checks one dollar at a time for months. Eventually, I started taking advances on my pay checks, and very shortly after I started doing that, I started taking advances without their knowledge. This may come as a shock to some people with whom I have not been entirely honest over the years, but I’m letting it all out now.  I felt like a lowlife piece of shit, but unfortunately, I just did not care.  It didn’t take them long to catch on to me and I was eventually fired for stealing.

Unable to get unemployment benefits, I became withdrawn and moved in with an unenthusiastic friend and his soon to be wife.  I sat in that room for a month, maybe two.  I wore the same clothes, I ate ramen out of the package, and I cried every day.  I was too proud to ask for help.  I couldn’t take care of myself, I couldn’t find a job (because I absolutely was not looking), and I was about as close to having a suicidal urge as I’ve ever come.  Auspiciously, a very good friend of mine got me out of that trance and back into Fountain where I held a few more jobs.

About two weeks ago, I sent a letter to the owners of Pedal Pusher’s. I told them a lot of what has been going on with me, but more importantly, what was going on with me back then. I asked them to give me a chance to repair the damage I have created, and I included a small token of my sincerity in the form of money. I haven’t heard back from them and I don’t know that I ever will.  But I have done my part.  At the very least, I have tried to open an avenue of communication with them so that I may fix what has been broken for so long.  It was the first of many letters to many people, and with each one, I hope to feel a little more human again.

In Pig’s Eye

I’ve been writing about a road trip to South Dakota that I took for work last week. I can’t say a lot more about it. There were some eyebrow-raising moments which have to remain confidential.

But one of my intentions in blogging is to demonstrate how you can experience adventure close to home—and even in your head. You don’t have to spend thousands on a trip abroad. Your own neighborhood can hold surprises.

I’ve lived in St. Paul almost all my life. It’s not that big of a city—about 300,000 people. I went for a long walk on a Sunday afternoon and found the following things that were new to me.

I crossed the Smith Avenue Bridge, which everyone calls the High Bridge, because it’s, well, high. The High Bridge was new to me. What a view.  I know, my photos are not the best, but they’ll give you the general idea.

Bridgeview 2

Sadly, because it’s high, the High Bridge is one of the preferred bridges in the Twin Cities for people to jump from. There was this tender note from a stranger to a stranger.

Bridge Memorial

There was this makeshift shrine to someone named Teagan. I don’t know if she was the same person to whom the note in the previous photo was written, or a second jumper.

Suicide Shrine

Someone has been thinking about how to prevent suicides from the High Bridge. I don’t know. Would you have the presence of mind to call the number, or would you even see it if you were intent on jumping off a bridge?

Suicide Hotline

Ah, the sun came out, very welcome after being reminded of suicide at every footstep. This is a view from the Wabasha Bridge toward the train bridge.  I don’t know the name of the train bridge; everyone just calls it The Train Bridge.

Bridge View

Now I was in Kellogg Mall, a long strip of greenery between downtown and the river.  I don’t normally read plaques. Because I travel so much, if I read every plaque (and spent time on every portrait of the Madonna and Child, for that matter), I would never do anything else.  But this one said something about Fr. Lucian Galtier, who gave St. Paul its name.

SP Walk Rock

At the base of the rock there was a bag containing a hat, scarf, and mittens with a note that said, “I’m not lost! Please use to keep warm!” Presumably this is for some homeless person who has a preference for pink.

Scarf in a Bag

If it hadn’t been for Fr. Galtier, St. Paul might still be called Pig’s Eye. Pig’s Eye Parrant was a blind-in-one-eye French Canadian fur trader who squatted outside Fort Snelling, near present-day St. Paul.  He made hootch and sold it to the soldiers, then eventually built a shack on the river landing below what would become St. Paul, becoming our first civilian resident. The details are sketchy, but it makes a good myth and we have a pretty good beer named Pig’s Eye as a result.

Pigs Eye Close UP

So go for a walk!  Think how you would tell the story of what you see to a good friend, or to a stranger.  Get out of your rut. Take a different route than the one you’re used to. Take a left turn instead of a right. Follow that path into the woods you’ve always wondered about. Notice things. Snap some pics, or not.  Adventure is all around you if you hold the right attitude of inquisitiveness.

Happy New Life, Again

Happy New Year!  I am re-posting this from January 1 of last year.  I hesitated to share such a personal story then, but it has been the most-read post of the 232 Vince and I have written.  Maybe it’s the story, or the encouraging advice.  Or maybe it’s the guns.

If you received this twice, that’s because I accidentally posted it for January 1, 2015.  Off to a good start, I say!

Three years ago, I hit bottom. I had lived with depression for as long as I could remember, but then….  I had to have a tooth pulled—boy, will that make you feel old! Then during a Christmas Day blizzard my car was towed and I spent four hours waiting in line outside at the impound lot to pay $300 to get it back. I then drove to Fountain to visit Vince. The trailer he shared with Seth was full of guns, beer cans, and smoke. I figured what the heck, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, so after he assured me that none of the guns was loaded, we posed for photos that became my holiday cards to my friends in the UK, where they had a good laugh over us gun-crazy Americans.

Vince (11)Vince (7)

Due to the blizzard I spent the night in Seth’s 5-year-old daughter’s bedroom; she was at her mom’s. Here’s a tip for parents who smoke: Keeping your kid’s door closed doesn’t keep smoke out. I couldn’t open the window and after tossing and turning until 5am I slipped out and drove home. On the way I started itching. Great—now I had bedbugs!

I contemplated suicide. I leaned my forehead against the screen of my 20th floor window. I had turned 50 the year before. Thinking about being depressed every day for another 30-40 years wasn’t real appealing.

Here are the things I had tried to manage depression and anxiety:

Meditation

Medication

Prayer (including begging, pleading, and bargaining)

Acting normal

Abstaining from drinking

Cutting down on coffee

Self-help books

Alanon

Exercise

Getting outside every day

Appreciating beauty, be it fine art, nature, music, babies, or kittens

Gratitude lists

Avoiding negative people / avoiding unnaturally happy people

Running away to other countries

Denial

Journaling

Telling myself, “At least I’m not a refugee / amputee / blind / fill-in-the-blank.”

Psychotherapy

Retail therapy

Sleeping, drinking, and movie binges

Reaching out to friends, even when that was the last thing I wanted to do

I thought that jumping out of my window would be exhilarating, until I hit the ground. I had some leftover pain killers from the dentist, and my prescription for Restless Legs. I googled an overdose of the two and learned that they wouldn’t kill me, but that I would likely need a liver transplant. I decided to keep living.

That spring, I visited Vince again and this time, made a reservation at a B&B.  On the free-book-shelf there, I picked up a tattered copy of, “Feeling Good: the New Mood Therapy”, by David Burns, MD. I read it and did what it told me to do, and I stopped being depressed. For good.

The book was about Cognitive Therapy. I had been instructed to use it at least twice in the past, but I’d been too stressed out to do it. Basically, you write down your negative thoughts and then argue with them rationally until you’ve de-fanged them. Writing it down is important; if you try to do it in your head you’ll end up down a rabbit hole.

So was a lifetime of depression cured overnight by one book? No. I think it was all the other things I had tried over the years—the good things, anyway—and then I added this on top of them and together they all added up to a breakthrough.

I still feel sad sometimes–there’s plenty to feel sad about–but I’m not depressed and I’m committed to living.

Sorry for the long post but, if you’re struggling, I want to encourage you to keep an open mind, keep plugging away, and keep trying new things.

PS: I didn’t have bedbugs after all.  I think I was just itchy from the smoke and dry air.  Living with addiction can turn you into a drama addict.

Free But Not Free

After avoiding each other for a couple days—not easy to do in an 800-square-foot space—I offered to make dinner so Vince and I could talk and clear the air.  “Unless u want me to write a letter to u instead,” I texted.  No, he texted back, we can talk.

We started with a hug and “I love you.”  It reminded me of our moments on the hug rug in prison.

He wolfed down his stir fry while I talked, then talked while I ate.  We went through our lists of grievances.  To my surprise I didn’t get defensive and he didn’t roll his eyes and walk out of the room.

The one thing I was nervous about was saying, “It is my house.”  That’s a fact, right?  But saying it would feel like I was lecturing a teenager.  This was about my request that Vince ask me—or at least give me a heads up—when he was inviting people over—even family members.  He responded that I had brought my friend Sarah home a few nights earlier without warning him.

“I didn’t even know who she was,” he said.

“Sarah?  You don’t remember Sarah?” I asked.  “We came down to visit you and we spent the day together picking agates.  We had dinner at that nice restaurant where you ended up working….”  Had he been high on something, all day and evening, and I hadn’t been able to tell?  It didn’t matter now.

“It’s my house,” I said, and the world didn’t end.  We agreed to have dinner together a couple times a week so we can talk things over on a regular basis instead of saving them up.

A few days later I texted Vince to ask if he’d like to eat lasagna with me that evening, and he replied that he just wanted to go home and go to be after work.

This is it.  This is what they were talking about the day Vince was released, when they said that adjustment to life on the outside would be harder than anything they experienced in prison.

And now the weather has turned, to the cold, dark days of Minnesota winter.  It’s hard for anyone to get up and leave the house when it’s dark as night and freezing drizzle, but Vince has to walk six blocks, take a bus and a train, then walk six more blocks to his job in the laminating factory.  He still can’t cash his own paycheck because Wells Fargo requires two forms of ID, even for checks drawn on its own accounts.

There was an editorial and an article in the St. Paul paper about criminal justice system reform.  At the end of a local forum, two mothers got up and spoke about the effects of incarceration on the family.

“There’s no help,” said one mother whose son had committed suicide at age 28 because he just couldn’t make it on the outside.

“There really isn’t,” said the second mother.  One of her sons is schizophrenic, and thanks to her persistence he’s in a state hospital, not a prison.  She faces eviction because her landlord won’t let her other son, newly-released on 10 years of probation, live with her.  He was convicted of criminal possession of a firearm.  If I was renting in her building and found out he had moved in, I’m sure I’d be unhappy.

These forums and op-eds are good news—there are reform efforts like this going on at the national, state, and local level, and that they have bipartisan support.  But the words of these mothers weighs on me.  Vince actually said the other day something like, “It would almost be easier to go back to prison that to be trapped on house arrest like this.”  Ugh.

MUST be positive!  Must make gratitude lists!  Must not indulge in self pity!  This too shall pass!

Only eight more months to go.