Austin

It was a normal Easter sunday, I did my tri-annual journey to church out of respect for my Mom. I wore a flowy teal dress I had just bought and felt good. We went to lunch with my grandmother. My phone rang right after we finished eating, my friend Saras name flashed on the screen, and I decided to call her back later. No more than 30 seconds after her call rang through to voicemail, I got a text:

“Hey, can you call me?”

“Not right now, I’m at Easter lunch. What’s up?”

“This isn’t the kind of news you want to hear from a text. Please call.”

One thought instantly swirled into my head: who died?

I found a quiet area outside the restrooms and called her. She stuttered for a second, then said “Austin Mills killed himself last night.” I was dumbfounded and had no clue what to say besides “Didn’t he have a son?” She continued, “He shot himself in his car, in front of his mother. You know he’s had a lot of issues the last couple of years.”

I knew Austin in my teens, he was best friends with some guys at church so he was around often. He was quite goofy, off the wall, and usually wildly inappropriate but had a heart of absolute gold. Deep down he was hiding a lot of grief, anger, and pain – his father had gone missing on a mountain climbing trip when he was a child.. His siblings were older so it became him and his Mom on their own. When we were 17, hikers found his fathers remains after an unusually warm Colorado summer melted enough snow. Over a decade of mystery and unresolved feelings suddenly crashed over Austin. You would never know how much it affected him, though. We only knew once he put the gun to his head.

The next evening I met two old friends at a bar. One proposed going to Austin’s house to visit Austin’s Mom. I felt very uneasy, I was downright nauseous. Seeing the stain from Nathan’s death haunted me for a long time. But it was some sort of morbid closure, there is no open casket at the funeral of suicide victims so the bloodstain is the last chance at closure. You don’t know of another way to cope so you cope with what you have left.

We pulled up to his house, his car still in the driveway. We walked up, shaking and nervous. The seats were still bloodstained and dusty from the gunpowder. I immediately started crying. That’s the other thing about death, we have to face these things. The things they don’t mention in obituaries, in flowery memorials on Facebook, or at the funeral. The brain matter, and blood, and skin, and the smell of death that we have to confront that are somehow a little easier than the lasting depression the loss brings. They are the last tangible bits of those we love who chose to leave.

We spoke to his Mom for a while, she was still in shock. We asked to see his room, and when we walked in she yelled “Please don’t sit on the bed, his body imprint is still in the sheets and I don’t want it to go away”. His room was small and messy, stains on the carpet, just a couple of sheets on his bed. A computer he played games on, a bookshelf full of accolades and memories from his youth. His closet was pretty bare; the typical assortment of basketball shorts, faded t-shirts, and button ups that Austin always wore. We smelled his clothes so we could feel close to him one more time. My friend quietly whispered “Look” and pointed to an empty plastic bottle of vodka on his dresser, along with a couple of bullets. He had to be drunk when he did it.

Austin didn’t cope well after his Dad was confirmed dead. We all cope with depression and grief in different ways, some people resort to alcohol and drugs. Austin loved alcohol. Alcohol and depression killed Austin. Grief killed Austin. Austin was a victim of his experiences, his surroundings, and how he chose to cope. I cannot fathom leaving behind a child but I am not Austin, I did not have his experiences, or his pain. When someone commits suicide everyone starts to judge. I am guilty of it, too. It’s important to remember that in that moment they were not themselves. If Austin had been in his right mind he wouldn’t have left his child.

Grief causes us to confront the demons of humanity, the demons inside us, and the demons inside those we love. It pulls us back to places of pain and pushes us into a new reality. Life is never the same after you lose someone. Although Austin is no longer with us, he is no longer in pain and that’s all we can hold onto now.

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Old Feelings

Originally written April 20th, 2017.

This week one of my friends from my high school youth group commited suicide. I went to his Mom’s house on Monday and saw his car, the seats still marked with blood. His funeral is tomorrow. I made it through a round of layoffs at work unscathed. I have another memorial on Friday for my Great Uncle. This week has been pure shit.

It has brought up so many old feelings. It brings back the familiar feeling, and almost morbid comfort, of grief. It takes me back to those days after Nathan’s suicide, and every other death I encountered as a teenager. I’ve reminisced with friends I haven’t seen it years. Instead of praying in church we went to the bar and drank. It makes me yearn for those old times, those times full of pain yet somehow still easier than right now. Now that I’m an adult with my pain it’s so much harder to carry the burdens of daily life (bills, employement, the likes) and deal with anxiety and depression on top of it all.

I’ve felt like I’m drowning the past 10 months. This week really brought me back even further. I’ve found myself saying things like “I can’t let this tradgedy become my tradgedy” and other thoughts in an attemp to keep me from being pulled into the black hole of pain and grief. It’s a familiar friend, it’s something I know well. I feel like I thrive in times of intense pain because I spent so much time there during my youth. The feelings of having to fight for it makes me feel less anxious than just sitting around as life floats by. It’s unhealthy, unsettling, and something I am trying to work on.

I will never understand why such a bright, kind, and funny soul would decide to take his own life. I understand depression, I understand feeling like you don’t want to live anymore. I will never understand leaving it all behind. I am not judging, I understand the depths of mental illness – I just can’t accept that people I love have done this. Have left us. Have chosen to leave. The only thing that allows me to rest is knowing they are now at complete peace.

Twenty Seven

I turned twenty seven on May 27th. The last couple of months have brought intense pain, growth, and change. I lost one of my childhood friends to suicide in April. I saw his car – where he ended his life – afterwards and it was devastating. I finished my second semester back in school with straight As and a 4.0 for the year. I also moved in April and had a complete meltdown that I am ever so thankful for because it led to me finally getting the help I needed.

It was a muggy Saturday, the clouds looked like they were ready to release a downpour at any second. Exhausted, physically and mentally, My Mom and I watched as the movers carefully lugged all of our belongings, separated by yellow and purple duct tape on boxes, down the stairs and into the truck. I felt good, there was a mix of nervous excitement in my stomach. I drove over to meet the cable guy by myself. I picked up the keys, twisted the knob and opened the door into my new, empty apartment. Everything was clean and ready for me to fill with my own belongings. The cable guy came, my grandmother showed up, and then finally the movers made their way from my Mom’s new apartment to mine. Their eyes widened as they pulled up and realized all my belongings needed to come up three flights of stairs. After a couple of hours my apartment was now full with boxes ready to be emptied. My Mom had gone back to her apartment to meet the cable guy and I was starving. I drove to pick up fast food for my grandmother and I while she began unpacking.

While in line I started feeling strange, then my eyes began to well. I realized that I was really on my own now and this new, exciting chapter in my life was about to begin. On my way home those bittersweet tears turned into full on sobbing. I didn’t stop crying all day, even as we unpacked box after box of my belongings. I cried for six hours straight. I realized that my tears were more than the acknowledgement of change and were actually the start of a breakdown. I was not afraid to be on my own, I was so happy for that, so why the tears? I was so confused. I chalked it up to exhaustion and went to sleep for the first time in my new place. The next day came and the tears immediately followed. Another full day of crying and feeling like a complete failure. My Mom came over again and was becoming increasing concerned. I was worried, too. I had never been this bad – I have always been a crier but never like this. Something was wrong.

On the third full day of crippling depression I went to my Mom’s apartment and told her I needed help, that I couldn’t continue like this. That the weight of the past year, really the past decade, had finally fully broken me. The devastating way I had to change jobs, starting school full-time, preparing to move, the suicide of a friend the week before I moved. Moving was just the straw that broke the camels back. We quickly arranged for me to see my primary care physician that evening and I did. I started Zoloft on May 2nd and the last four weeks have been a whirlwind but a very necessary one.

The intense nausea came first, along with the worst headaches I’ve ever had, but I was able to wake up in the morning without crying. After two weeks the side effects settled and I felt better than I had in a long time. I found myself smiling again, able to enjoy things and breathe. At the four-week mark I am able to better rationalize my feelings, if I am having a self-deprecating thought or a moment of panic I can squash it pretty quickly. I still have anxiety and bouts of depression but they are less severe, and I know they will only get better as the weeks go by. I am feeling hopeful for the first time in a long time.

This experience has taught me a huge lesson in self-care. We are advertised this image of self care being candles, hot baths, Netflix, and pints of ice cream. While all of those are enjoyable, I’ve come to realize true self care is taking care of the difficult shit in your life. Admitting you need help, taking medication, taking care of adult things like bills, doctors appointments, and difficult conversations. I feel so much better doing all of those things while still enjoying the benefits of a nice (dairy free) pint of ice cream.

As I reflect back on the last couple of years, I see a woman who was in denial about her issues. I see the blinding pride of thinking I could bear this burden on my own, the naive belief that if I exercised and ate right I could heal my problems. The shameful thoughts that my family and friends didn’t need to be burdened with my issues. The truth is I can’t outrun my depression and anxiety, that I need my family and they are one-hundred percent there to support me. I am an intensely private person and opening up about my struggles to my own parents was difficult, but they have been nothing short of amazing. This has brought us all closer and opened the door to very important and long overdue conversations.

I thought I would be ashamed of myself if I ever started medication, that it would signal I was weak. Instead, I feel stronger than ever. I feel proud of the fact I reached out and was able to seek help. It’s perfectly okay to not be able to do this on my own. My challenge to myself this year was to be more vulnerable and I am fully living up to that now. I know I still have a long way to go but I am now more prepared than ever.

Anxiety

I have been struggling the past few months. I have been beating myself about it because I have been through so much that pales in comparison to my current situation. I keep wondering “why now”? Why, after everything I’ve been through, am I unable to cope? I throw my hands up and say “I must be weak”. The truth is that chronic stress has taken its toll and I’ve never addressed it.

I never addressed the profound grief I am journeying through after losing six loved ones. Even tonight, at complete random, I got upset when I remembered Nathan texted me the night before he killed himself and I didn’t respond. We were at a Super Bowl party, he asked me to come outside and I didn’t. I have no clue why – I was caught up with everyone else. I wonder if he wanted to say bye. It has haunted me but I shove it down deep inside. These are the types of things I need to address.

I never addressed my shame from past relationships. I never addressed my parents divorce, although it was not as painful as it could have been it still takes a toll. I never addressed my half-brother and the painful situation surrounding him.

All of these things together, coupled with the massive life changes I am going through in quick succession – moving out on my own, going back to college, switching jobs – has been a recipe for disaster.

I have a lot to unpack, a mountain of past feelings that are affecting my ability to live a happy life. I feel guilty because I have everything I could ever need – a supportive family, a roof over my head, a job that pays my bills, a loving boyfriend. Yet I am still anxious and depressed, still living with this crushing fear. I don’t want to ruin all the good things I have.

This has taken a toll on my physical health as well. My stomach is a mess, it’s interfering with my work and personal life. I can’t tolerate a lot of food right now. I don’t get enough sleep. I miss feeling a sense of longing, wonder, and excitement. I miss being outside of my head. As much as I have tried no amount of healthy eating, exercise, sleep, or mediation will help me. I need real professional help.

The first step is acknowledgment. I am taking that step.

Help

Reaching out for help is not weakness,
It’s strength.
Crying is not a sign you cannot handle,
it means you have the capacity for empathy –
a beautiful thing.
Baggage is not a burden;
Like returning from a long vacation,
eventually you need to unpack.
Alcohol, while falsely empowering,
is temporary. It will not heal.
The extra weight will weigh you down
physically and mentally.
Every day you put on your armor
of business casual, or whatever you can muster.
Make up, drawn perfect or not.
Many times rising out of bed is an act of bravery.
Celebrate it.
It’s so easy for outsiders to say
“Eat healthy, exercise, get adequate sleep”
as if mental illness is a formula so easily solved.
Eat the damn pizza, deal with the stomach pain for the night,
then rise again and face the day.
Your imperfections are beautiful.
If you want to get better, even if you aren’t actively able to right now,
you’re already miles ahead.
You are stronger than you think.

2016

2016 has been a wild ride. It’s become an overplayed joke at how “terrible” this year has been. Sure, we lost a lot of greats and our political climate is unsettling but I think what it boils down to is us millennials finally getting old enough to really see life for what it is – a never ending ride of ups and downs. When I was younger, I thought happiness was this destination I would suddenly arrive at. With each new year I felt an overwhelming sense of opportunity to start fresh, I thought things would truly change. Now, in my more jaded years, I see the life for what it is – an endless string of good, bad, and the ugly all mixed together to make an amazing experience. I am so idealistic at heart, I want to believe in clean slates and fresh starts but I’ve learned that anything can happen, we are not guaranteed tomorrow. Life can be painful, messy, and there will be great hurt beyond our control. When I start to objectively look at these sources of pain from the outside I take them for what they are – experiences – and don’t let them define me, I simply learn from them.

Vulnerability. This is a word that has been weighing heavy on my heart and soul lately. I struggle with this concept. I play my cards close to my chest, keep my thoughts to myself, and do not share my light with the world. I have a hard time trusting people. It’s easy to say “I don’t know why” but I would be lying. Grieving through my teenage years left me depressed, anxious, and paranoid I would lose loved ones. It’ s much easier to push people away instead of getting attached and risk losing them. I was deeply betrayed by an ex-boyfriend and his friends in my early 20’s and now its hard to trust the opposite sex. I’m extremely self conscious and want people to like me so I deny myself happiness based on the possibility I may not be accepted or liked. I am too hard on myself and obsess over past mistakes which makes it difficult to give up the unnecessary shame in my head. I would love to share my photography and writing with the world in a more accessible format but I’m worried about what those I know will think, if they will think it’s weird or if they will think I’m egotistical for taking self portraits. I want to allow myself to be vulnerable in 2017, to let others in, to let my own family in. I keep so much to myself that I stifle growth and connection. This is the most important thing to work on in the coming months.

I enjoy looking back on the past year to celebrate success and reflect on lessons from the difficult times. This year marked the absolute most difficult situation in my professional life. It was a very personal attack on my mother, myself, and the physician I worked for. Once we were bought out it became clear the stark difference in a family run business and a corporation. I gave my entire early adulthood to this place, nine years, from the ages of 17 to 26. I worked my way up from a file clerk to the office manager. The last two years were brutal, 50-60 hour work weeks with little appreciation, compensation, or light at the end of the tunnel. I have always prided myself on hard work and dedication but it got completely out of control. I felt like I had something to prove because my Mom worked for the same company, I didn’t want to just be seen as her daughter. It caused me to care too much what people thought, work an unhealthy amount, and ultimately put so much stress on myself I could barely function at work, much less outside of work. I allowed work to define me and when it was taken from me I had no idea who I was anymore. My life was work, work was my life. When I was told they had hired my replacement even though I had not quit I had no idea what to do. I felt so betrayed. I had put so much blood, sweat, tears, and time into that place and they just tossed me like a piece of trash. I learned that businesses cannot be loyal and I cannot be loyal to a business but only to myself. Instead of letting this situation define me, I decided to let it teach me important lessons about loyalty, vulnerability, trust, and business.

The biggest, most exciting accomplishment has been returning to college. I still don’t think it has sunk in that I’m a college student again. I’m attending UNT and will hopefully have my bachelors completed by 2018. This has been a life long dream of mine. I have spent nights crying on the floor while studying because I’m so frustrated and exhausted after a full day of work. It was easy to get mad at myself for not doing this sooner but I am choosing to trust the timing of my life. This is for a reason. I can appreciate it more now, I care more, I see the benefits. I enjoy the challenge and I am so excited for the new opportunities this will bring.

I started a new job that builds on my technical knowledge while satisfying the project management side of me. It’s also forcing me out of my comfort zone as a large part of it is presenting applications to large groups of people. I have a lot of anxiety, so this is allowing me to overcome that slowly but surely.

I will not go into 2017 thinking it will be “amazing” or “my year” because nothing is guaranteed. I will go into it with the hope of continued growth, the excitement of new possibilities, and a heart full of love.

Here’s to a prosperous 2017.

First Semester Thoughts

“Only the educated are free.” – Epictetus

This semester I have made mistakes, impressed myself, disappointed myself, and spent several nights crying on the floor. My first semester back in college after a seven year hiatus has taught me a lot about myself, about habits, and about balance. The five things I need to improve on for next semester:

  1. Sleep is integral, especially while working and going to school full time, I cannot be productive on five to six hours of sleep. After working all day I do not have the energy to continue studying productively. I must make sleep a priority.
  2. Exercise and Nutrition keep me healthy physically and mentally. Both have gone by wayside this semester and it has negatively affected my mood, weight, skin, and energy levels. When I exercise and eat right I feel better.
  3. Balance is key. I’ve made sacrifices in the wrong areas. I need to prioritize the above mentioned areas and schedule social time instead of doing things at the last minute. Free time is a very important part of the process but it must be planned well.
  4. Plan my week – break down readings and assignments into chunks and stop waiting to complete everything at the same time. Breaking things into smaller parts helps with retention. Make a commitment to complete my daily tasks, even if it’s just a small chunk of reading.
  5. Forgive myself when I stumble and don’t obsess over mistakes. I need to give myself the same compassion that I give others. Negative, degrading thoughts will only prevent me from learning and growing.

Every part of the above list will help me excel in school, work, and my personal life. I definitely strayed very far off course but I have forgiven myself. I had a rough summer, with many personal and professional challenges that heavily impacted my life. I look forward to continuing my education and am so thankful for the opportunity to complete my degree.

“Embracing stress is an act of bravery, one that requires choosing meaning over avoiding discomfort.” – Kelly McGonigal