Looking back, moving forward

The lasting effect of suicide in my life

By SAM FERNANDO
On March 2, 2014

  • Cory Russo (center), a senior business major, does a flip at the end of ISA’s performance at International Fiesta. Yusong Shi, The Spectrum

Just before Christmas, one of my mother's best friends completed suicide. She was 64 years old and her birthday was the following week. But I didn't find out until a few days after Christmas because my mother didn't want to "ruin" the holiday.

In my life, I have dealt with a number of deaths - more than any 23-year-old should have to face. But even worse, suicide was the cause of four of those deaths - which is four too many.

She was someone I had known my entire life, but still didn't have a close relationship with.

She drove my mom to her doctor's appointments when I was a toddler. She would babysit me when I was little.

She was the spitting image of my sister - well, maybe not physically, but in almost every other way. Like my sister, she was loud and obnoxious, but in a good way. She was Sri Lankan like my family, and in that culture there is a certain way women are to act. But she knew how ridiculous that expectation was, so she was never afraid to be herself, something I always knew but didn't fully comprehend until after her death.

When you think of suicide, visions of lost children seeking a temporary solution come to mind. But for a 64-year-old - especially one I knew my entire life - suicide didn't even register as a possibility.

Two Saturdays ago, I attended the funeral/memorial service. Yes, it's strange to have such a service two months late, but I wasn't surprised by the delay.

Suicide may be stigmatized in American society, but in my family's Sri Lankan culture it's absolutely taboo and often unspoken.My mother's friend was cremated shortly after her death without any discernable celebration of her life.

I was angry. But I managed to have a handle on my feelings. I thought this was a sign of my changed self.

I've written a column before about how my experiences with suicide four years ago sent me down a depressive spiral, but I never really described what that meant.

I would isolate myself from everyone - my parents, my sisters, my friends. I would constantly be thinking about death and I wouldn't try to forget about it. In a strange way, I embraced these thoughts and let them linger in me.

Emotionally, I was a wreck, but I never cried. I was stoic. I didn't feel anything except anxiety. I was numb to happiness, sadness, even anger. My mind was going 100 miles a minute. No matter what I tried to think about, death and that unexplainable fear would shortly return.

I would lock myself in my room with my guitar. I would find temporary solace in my strumming and singing. But the second I played that last note, my feelings would return.

At the end of my first column on suicide, I alluded to the fact that I was past that depression.

I wasn't. I'm not. And truthfully, I'm not sure I ever will be.

I suggested I had grown out of it; my feelings of incompleteness were something of the past.

I spoke too soon. I was wrong.

Two Sundays ago, two months after the death, my sister texted me, asking me what song I was going to play for the memorial service.

Instantaneously, those feelings returned, throwing me into a brick wall of emotions I had thought I was past. My mind was going 100 miles a minute again. I found it hard to concentrate. I was working and I had to excuse myself at least 10 times to "go for a walk." And by that I mean going to the Union to sit on a couch and bury my face in my hands and remind myself to breathe. This past week, I went on a lot of these walks.

That night, when I went home, I pretended everything was fine in front of my mother. I believed she was the one who was allowed to feel like that, not me. It was her best friend and I was the best friend's son.

I went to my room and just sat on my bed. My TV was off. My laptop was off. I didn't play music. I just sat there.

An hour into this solitude, I started crying uncontrollably, being mindful to keep it down because my mother was just a few rooms away. I didn't sleep at all that night.

That was the only time I cried. I still don't know why it was that day of all days. Maybe it was when it became real for me. Maybe it was built up from the two months without that closure I was seeking.

I don't know.

That is the thing about anxiety and this kind of fear: It's hard to pinpoint the cause, which makes dealing with it all the more difficult.

It was a visceral fear I felt in the pit of my stomach I just couldn't shake.

But what was there to be afraid of? To be honest, I am still not entirely sure. I wasn't suicidal, so that wasn't it.

I feel a part of me has always had that "who's next?" mentality. As irrational as that thinking is, I have averaged a suicide each year over the past four years. So in the back of my head, there were fears of what was to come.

Each of those suicides, no one saw it coming. I mean, in hindsight we could piece it together, somewhat, but generally, they were unexpected.

I've always been a fearful person. I lock my bedroom door when I am sleeping. My friends sometimes make fun of me for how hesitant I am when I am making a left turn. I always have to triple check to make sure my front door is locked. It's just who I am.

So when something like suicide is so far out of my control, it scares me.

This woman had children. She had a certain zest for life that you'd be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.

But she could have been anyone.

She was a big part of my life, but I never really had a strong relationship with her - at least not as strong as the one my mother and sister had with her.

I think that is a big reason for this emotional whirlwind. With all four of the suicides I have dealt with, I had enough of a relationship to feel the hurt, but not enough of one to have any lasting memory to latch onto to help me grieve. In many ways, I find it hard to remember each of them.

But I tried to latch onto something.

Whenever she saw me, she would always find me from across the room and give me one of her world-famous bear hugs. This was always immediately followed by a kiss on both cheeks that left the biggest dark red (borderline purple) lipstick marks on my face. As a kid, I hated that; I always tried to avoid it but failed miserably.

She knew how embarrassed it always made me. So every time she saw me, she would always make sure to paint my cheeks red (purple) just to spite me. But as I got older, I retaliated. She was probably about 5-feet tall, so every time she would hug me, I'd pick her up off the ground and tell her, "I dare you to do it. I dare you."

Still, she would always manage to find a way to win this battle.

As much as I hated it, I miss that.

Simply put, she was the life of the party.

But that day when my sister texted me, that fear took me by surprise. I couldn't understand where the feelings came from. I didn't want to be around anyone, but I didn't want to be alone.

Was it the death? Was it the thought of playing "Tears in Heaven" at yet another funeral? Or was it something more?

I didn't know.

I got short with a few of my coworkers. I found myself joking around more than normal just to mask how I was feeling. But still a few people noticed.

The week leading up to the service was tough. I tried to pretend everything was all right. It was important to me that my friends and family didn't see me in such a vulnerable state.

Spoken-word poet Sarah Kay summed up my experience perfectly in her poem For My Daughter:

"There'll be days like this, my mama said. When you open your hands to catch and wind up with only blisters and bruises ... When your boots will fill with rain, and you'll be up to your knees in disappointment. And those are the very days you have all the more reason to say, 'Thank you.' Because there is nothing more beautiful than the way the ocean refuses to stop kissing the shoreline, no matter how many times it's sent away."

I am still trying to find a message in so much tragedy. Maybe there isn't one. But I know one thing now. It's OK to feel helpless. It's also OK to be afraid. And it's OK to ask for help.

I will never get over the suicides. Each one will always be in me. So will my depression and my fear. But I am learning to make them a part of who I am without letting them overwhelm me.

I've realized you can never fully get over something. And I wouldn't want it to be any other way. My fear, depression and anxiety were a big part of my life and dealing with them four years ago - and now - have propelled me into the place I am currently in.

Suppressing a problem is not the same as addressing it. I continue to deal with this emotional side of my fears, but it is definitely easier now that I understand it.

In that column last September, I said my experiences with suicide have come to define who I am. I should have written that differently. My experiences continue to shape who I am becoming.

I am not fully there. But I will get there.

"This world is made out of sugar," Kay said in the same poem. "It can crumble so easily but don't be afraid to stick your tongue out and taste it."

Four years ago this week, my history with suicide began. Each time, a part of my world crumbled. I feel like part of my world will always be crumbling. But I am no longer afraid to stick my tongue out, taste the wonderful things I am blessed with and tell the people around me how much they matter.


email: sam.fernando@ubspectrum.com


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