Mental Health: Ho Ho HELP

It’s no secret that the holidays incite a wealth of emotions. While some people recall happy memories to the tune of Bing Crosby and anticipate this time of year, there are others who’ve lost someone in the last 12 months and this is their first holiday season without them. Some lost a loved one around this time of year, so the season’s warmth and glitter feels irrevocably tarnished every year after. Some have negative relationships with family that have led to stressful, heartbreaking reunions or estrangement. Some families suffer financial stress so crippling that the holidays become a huge stressor opposed to a joyful time. Some have a homeless family member and wonder where they are. Are they alone? Are they warm? Do they know what day it is? Do they care? Are they using?

Of course, I’m thinking of my brother today as my family celebrates Christmas. My brothers and I were fortunate to have magical Christmases growing up. My parents struggled to make ends meet but, somehow, Santa’s sack always mobbed deep. I remember the three of us all sleeping in one room, me on my twin, Alex on my trundle, and Duncan on the floor (poor Duncan), waking up too early, and then running out to rip into the carefully arranged spread. Our tired parents would snap photos and capture us on the camcorder.

that’s Keith in the corner (REM voice)

This was long after we’d grown out of Santa, by the way. (Alex and Duncan blew that for me in first grade.) We just liked hanging out and sleeping in the same room on Christmas Eve. Any other day of the year, no. Hell no. Christmas Eve, yes. After all, no one knows you as well or as long as your siblings do so, when we’re honest with ourselves, they’re who you want to share the special, formative childhood/adolescent moments with.

stuntin’ on these dorks

One by one, we aged out of adolescence, and year by year, things became increasingly difficult around the holidays. A couple days before Christmas in 2007 Alex announced that he and his partner were having a baby, and that they were moving to Florida. That day. That was the first Christmas after he got his leg amputated and Duncan and I had dropped out of college and spent 54 days in the hospital by Alex’s side. That year had been like taking an emotional bat to the knees. They loaded up and drove away and, as we watched them turn out of the cul-de-sac, I supposed it couldn’t get much worse than that.

a brother’s love is a brother’s love

Five years later, we all visited Alex at his rehab in December, two months after he’d shot himself in the head. With his stitched up head, Alex cranked golfballs into the abyss of a big, dry field with Duncan. At the same visit, Alex told my mom in group therapy that he’s never forgiven her for his repeating first grade. (One of his favorite pastimes has always been vilifying our mom.) On his final day, there was a ceremony performed involving a symbolic bridge-crossing as a graduation from the rehab. He left, and soon went back to using. I supposed it couldn’t get much worse than that.

crackin’ himself up w that terrible stache

But then, there’s now.

The last “normal” memory I have of Alex is Christmas 2015, a chaotic span of a few days in which a dear aunt died, my mom and I were going for the others’ jugular, and Rick proposed to me. That Christmas “break” was inflammatory in its juxtapositions. It was also during this time Alex told me and Duncan in a moment of seriousness he’d been assaulted as a child. Usually he just deflected everything. He offered that information one night while riding in the front of Duncan’s Tahoe in his nice jeans, henley, and cologne. The next time I saw him he was living under the bridge.

A tightly wound pragmatist, I’ve long since ceased believing that things couldn’t be worse. I keep getting proved wrong, like emotional whiplash. My dang neck hurts. So, instead, my whole body remains tense as I steel myself for the worst news all day, every day. That also makes my neck hurt. Plus, I get bonus knots in my shoulders and back. I can’t win! Either way, my neck hurts. Somebody pass the Tito’s.

Alex was there when Rick proposed to me on that Christmas Eve four years ago, giving hugs and congratulations, but he never made it to the wedding. There’s a beautiful photo of me and Alex hugging in celebration of the proposal but I can’t find it anywhere. I’m gonna risk bordering on cringe and say it’s poetic that, at least until I can find those photos, that formative moment lives only in my brain and is fading. My brother and my husband, two people who’ve informed and continue to inform so much of who I am, were like ships passing in the night. They’ve spent maybe a few hours together total, but that pivotal day was part of that tiny overlap.

One thing important to note is that years when sad things happen around the holidays conjure a special appreciation for years that are uneventful (in a good way). High highs, low lows. My family’s got ’em. Maybe yours does, too. Or maybe it’s all good. Or all crap. The point is, life isn’t a Lexus ad. And if it is, I think that’s very neat, and would you give me a ride in your Lexus?

You may have noticed that, like my life, this post has gone off the rails a bit! So, I’ll wrap it up. Like a Christmas gift. It is 3:34am. Help.

Anyway, I wish you all a merry Christmas, a happy fourth night of Hanukkah, and happy holidays to all, whatever you may celebrate. If you’re going through something during this often chaotic season, I’m sending you warmth and a virtual hug. I wish I could give you a real hug. Take care of you.

I’ll leave you with a bonus photo of me in Christmas skants.

Marlon Brando, Jimmy Dean on the cover of a magazine

Wednesday posts cover something that’s top of mind for me that week and are written in a short period of time. This means that editing is not strong. While it’s not my best work, it is my best, unfiltered thought.

More on Bummed Out Baker:
Mental Health: Communicating Mental Unrest
Mental Health: Finding the Glow
Mental Health: Disoriented

Do you love Bummed Out Baker? Want to help keep it going? Support me on my Patreon. Your contribution means more to me than you’ll ever know!

To subscribe to Bummed Out Baker by email, scroll all the way down to the bottom of the website to find the form. Follow Instagram for behind-the-scenes panic attacks and my begrudging, meat-eating husband captured in the wild, Facebook for mental health articles and discussion, and Twitter for sassy or informative tweets.

If you or someone you know needs help right now, please call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Mental Health: Suicide Looming

TW: self harm, suicide

As I’ve said before, please know that before I get on Bummed Out Baker to write I always prioritize working with my family and psychiatrist to stabilize myself. I wouldn’t be on here if I hadn’t first confirmed my safety.

Last Wednesday I wrote an ode to a friend who recently died by suicide. While the following thoughts were further propelled by her devastating passing, I did not include these thoughts in last week’s piece because I wanted that to only be about her. She deserves that space, and so, so much more.

Something I do here on Bummed Out Baker is challenge mental health taboos. I crack open topics that are historically only talked about in hushed tones among one’s closest, if that. A lot of people don’t even like to acknowledge the same things I openly discuss, for one reason or another, but I’m trying to break a barrier to benefit us all. I want to remind readers of my purpose so my words aren’t confused with sensationalism or seeking attention.

I’m petrified suicide is going to sneak up on me and take me by surprise.

As I wrote about in Mourning the Living, in July I had the strongest ideation I’ve experienced since 2008. It led to paranoia-fueled psychosis and an emergency trip back home to New York. In August, my cousins’ cousin, who I knew in passing, died very young and unexpectedly. It completely wrecked my cousins, aunt, and uncle. The whole family was gutted. Then, in September I got news of my high school friend, K, a death by suicide.

I feel like, since this summer, suicide has been circling me, like something stalking its prey. First it was manufactured in my head. Then, death happened a few degrees away. Then, suicide happened closer to me. It’s coming closer and closer. Is a best friend next? Is a family member next? Am I next?

“I’m scared of suicide. I’m trying to understand the mentality of people who’ve passed, what exactly they were thinking that led them to their ultimate decisions. I want to know, because I want to be on guard for it,” I mused to my psychiatrist. My eyes darted across his book shelves while I tried to piece together my thoughts. “Because the only people who could identify that mentality would be, well, people who were successful in their attempt. Death is so final, you know?”

He nodded.

My psychiatrist’s brother died by suicide, the same way my friend K did. I’m empathic to a crippling degree, and was wary of triggering my own psychiatrist by working through my thoughts. He assured me that while of course sometimes it hurts, he actually thinks it helps him to muse on the subject, for us to spit out what feels like nonsensical feelings and then rearrange them into shapes of understanding.

I continued. “It’s not like we can ask the people who are gone. How do I know if I’m getting close to the edge? It’s not like there are built in alarm bells. I just can’t fathom a feeling worse than how I’ve felt, but apparently it exists. I just can’t fathom the mentality…”

“Imagine having your worst day, every day, for five years straight,” he offered.

I imagined living July 18, 2019 day after day for five years, and in that moment the great opacity of suicide began to quiver and dilute. In that moment, mercy and sadness bloomed bigger inside of me for those lost to suicide. The pain remains challenging to fathom, but the reasoning began to take shape.

I try to remain on high alert for myself and for my family, but, if we’re being honest here, sometimes that’s not enough.

In college I had an English professor who likened those who thought suicide was selfish to people who wanted someone else to walk miles every day in shoes that were tearing up their feet into a bloody, blistered mess, in order to make them feel better. The person labeling suicide as selfish is actually, perhaps, the selfish person. If someone you love is in pain that immense…

This is not provocation, but food for thought as we collectively work to understand something so horrific.

My thoughts have been fed, shuffled, and remolded as I continue to contemplate what taking your own life means. Trying to gird myself against self harm feels like choosing a random place to reinforce a protective fence when, actually, the threat is infiltrating from another area. The efforts can feel like a shot in the dark, and a feeling of hopelessness can manifest.

It’s shrouded in mystery, the whole thing.

I feel like most everyone has lost a loved one to suicide and, while this is a topic unfortunately many may relate to, it’s not one I can tie up in a bow on some idle internet post.

One of my favorite Bright Eyes songs is No Lies, Just Love, which recaps the beautiful arc of one person’s ideation, presumably that of Bright Eyes’ singer, Conor Oberst. If you prefer to listen, see video below. If you prefer to read the lyrics, which read like a prose poem, I’ve posted them below the video. If you prefer to do neither, that makes me laugh and I admire your candor. Just keep scrolling.

No Lies, Just Love

It was in the march of the winter I turned seventeen
That I bought those pills
I thought I would need
And I wrote a letter to my family
Said it’s not your fault
And you’ve been good to me
Just lately I’ve been feeling
Like I don’t belong
Like the ground’s not mine to walk upon
And I’ve heard that music

Echo through the house
Where my grandmother drank
By herself
And I sat watching a flower
As it was withering
I was embarrassed by its honesty
So I’d prefer to be remembered as a smiling face
Not this fucking wreck
That’s taken its place

So please forgive what I have done
No you can’t stay mad at the setting sun
‘Cause we all get tired, I mean eventually
There is nothing left to do but sleep

But spring came bearing sunlight
Those persuasive rays
So I gave myself a few more days
My salvation it came, quite suddenly
When Justin spoke very plainly
He said “Of course it’s your decision,

But just so you know,
If you decide to leave,
Soon I will follow

I wrote this for a baby
Who has yet to be born
My brother’s first child
I hope that womb’s not too warm
‘Cause it’s cold out here
And it’ll be quite a shock
To breathe this air
To discover loss
So I’d like to make some changes
Before you arrive
So when your new eyes meet mine
They won’t see no lies
Just love.
Just love.

I will be pure
No, no, I know I will be pure
Like snow, like gold
Like snow, like gold
Like snow, like snow
Like gold, like gold, like gold

I listened to this song over and over in 2008, indeed before my brother’s first child was born, to comfort myself during one of my darkest times. Maybe it’ll bring comfort to someone else now.

I wish I had more helpful words to offer, a step-by-step way to find peace with the irreconcilable. If you share my headspace or love someone who does, rest in the knowledge that you’re / they’re not alone.

Big, giant, internet bear hugs to anyone needing one today. Hugs are always on offer in person, too.

Thanks for being there for me. I’m here for you, too.

Related on Bummed Out Baker:
Mental Health: Dealing with Suicide
Living in Lyrics
Mental Health: Mourning the Living

Writing through PTSD helps me name my feelings and heal, and I encourage you to share Bummed Out Baker with anyone you think may find it helpful or relatable. I work hard to create community and conversation around what are often painful topics.

Subscribe at the bottom of Bummed Out Baker to get my mental health musings and recipes emailed to you directly – Follow on Facebook for mental health articles and discussion – Follow on Instagram for behind-the-scenes panic attacks and my begrudging, meat-eating husband captured in the wild.

If you or someone you know needs help right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Mental Health: Living in Lyrics

TW: suicide

A friend from high school, K, died by suicide last Sunday. I’ve been searching for her for years, most recently asking after her to mutual high school friends at a Christmas party in December. I explained that she was one of the best writers I’ve ever known, and they laughed at me.

“Uh, I’m sure her writing has changed since high school.”

Duh, I thought, for the better.

Back when Xanga and LiveJournal were a thing, K would post the most compelling, racy content that was always such a pleasure to read. She’d post vague pieces about things like “how hot a leather couch can really get.” Yes, I remember that line fourteen years later, which is a testament to her writing by itself. She was the kind of talented that her descriptions of weekly chores made me want to wash towels, sheets, and clean the bathroom, too. If I did, maybe I could be a part of her world, a part of her magic, understand more of her mind. She trusted readers to fill in gaps and was a master curator, even at 16. K’s writing would purposefully mystify any parents who came across her page, but it was like a secret message to her peers who acted as dot-connectors. Being able to understand her writing was like possessing a skeleton key to her head. K was hidden in plain view, if only you looked for her. I’ve tried and failed to mimic her enigmatic writing and, compared to her, I remain a tragic wannabe.

While it seemed like the rest of us were enraptured by popularity, manufacturing a punky persona, or petty relationship drama, in high school K was lost in Henry James and Edith Wharton and Sylvia Plath. She found solace hiding in literature far more sophisticated than what was in the rest of our backpacks or nightstands. The most captivating thing about her, though, was how she’d balance her interiority, kept under lock and key, with a socially robust life. She was blonde, she was tan, she was gorgeous, she was reading Dead Souls.

After high school, K rarely got on her Facebook and I couldn’t find her anywhere else online. I didn’t have her number anymore, and those who did were rare and always seemed to be one degree out of my orbit. A couple times a year, though, I would search the internet for her in hopes of finding her writing somewhere. I was always hopeful to contact her and reconnect.

I found her, finally, but it was too late. My cousin featured K on her Instagram story because she attended the college where K was working when she died. The whole student body was grieving the loss of such an illustrious teacher.

I have only discovered this information in her death, but it’s no surprise to me that after high school K went all the way, and I mean all the way, through school, finally getting her PhD in writing last May.

Bright Eyes is my all time favorite band, and the first time I saw them live was with K. The lead man, Conor Oberst, is one of the most underrated writers of my generation, so, of course, K was the first person I connected with about the friend inside my headphones.

She and I begged our parents to let us go to Fort Worth’s Ridglea Theater by ourselves, an intimate smoke den one town over run by a woman with frizzy, purple hair. We were just sixteen. The show was an October night, one month after I’d gotten my driver’s license. I’d been listening to Bright Eyes since I was 13, so my parents knew how much it meant to me and I suppose decided to take a chance and let me go. Or, maybe they were too consumed in some Alex drama and too tired to push back on me. Somehow, K swung it with her parents, too.

When I pulled up to her house and honked the horn, she swung open her front door with a giant grin and posed in the frame for me, thrilled with her black mini skirt and fishnet tights with enormous holes. I dragged a Camel as we drove off into the night. K and I had come a long way since our junior high bible study group.

Long before smartphones and Tom Tom to guide us, we got lost on the way to Ridglea. We were both scared and laughing hysterically, but after a couple of panicked calls with K talking to my dad who instructed us where to drive, we finally arrived at the venue. K treated herself to a Starbucks frap and struck another pose with it in line outside of Ridglea, this time waiting for me to capture it on my shitty point and shoot camera. The picture was her souvenir from the show, proudly posted on Xanga the next day.

Inside I bought a t shirt, black of course, and swore that, as an indicator of our good time that night, I would wear it every day the following week. I made good on my promise, and K cracked up as she saw me come into our high school, day after day, in some iteration of another outfit, same shirt. It baffled our friends but made us laugh.

We got perfect seats perched on a ledge behind happy people who’d soon be drunkenly dancing around in the standing area. When Bright Eyes began performing Going for the Gold, K leaned over to me, clapping hard with tears in her eyes.

“This is my favorite,” she mouthed.

There’s a voice on the phone
Telling what had happened,
Some kind of confusion
More like a disaster.

And it wondered how you were left unaffected,
But you had no knowledge.
No, the chemicals covered you.
So a jury was formed

As more liquor was poured.
No need for conviction,
They’re not thirsting for justice.
But I slept with the lies I keep inside my head.

I found out I was guilty.
I found out I was guilty.
But I won’t be around for the sentencing,
Cause I’m leaving

On the next airplane.
And though I know that my actions are impossible to justify
They seem adequate to fill up my time.
But if I could talk to myself

Like I was someone else,
Well then maybe I could take your advice,
And I wouldn’t act like such an asshole all the time.

There’s a film on the wall,
Makes the people look small
Who are sitting beside it,
All consumed in the drama.

They must return to their lives once the hero has died.
They will drive to the office
Stopping somewhere for coffee,
Where the folk singers, poets and playwrights convene,

Dispensing their wisdom,
Oh dear amateur orators.

They will detail their pain
In some standard refrain.
They will recite their sadness
Like it’s some kind of contest.

Well, if it is, I think I am winning it,
All beaming with confidence
As I make my final lap.
The gold medal gleams

So hang it around my neck
Cause I am deserving it:
The champion of idiots.

But a kid carries his walkman on that long bus ride to Omaha.
I know a girl who cries when she practices violin.
Cause each note sounds so pure, it just cuts into her,
And then the melody comes pouring out her eyes.

Now to me, everything else, it just sounds like a lie.

There’s a levity to the music that resists the sadness of the lyrics, and since that night I’ve never listened to it without thinking of K. From that night on I knew there was a darkness inside of her, I just thought it further informed her spectrum of intelligence, gave her a greater awareness of the human condition. I didn’t know the levity would leave. I didn’t know things would end like this.

K can’t be found in person, anymore. But she can be found in Bright Eyes lyrics, in the comfortable company of renegade women in literature, in the Jo Marches of the world. She’s there, snuggled between the lines, buried in pages, my sister of the pen.

Mental Health: Communicating Mental Unrest

Whenever I’m not okay, I almost always look and sound like I am.

The confusion is likely furthered by the fact that when I’m at my best, I’m still wearing all black and moping around listening to The Cure, blaring Disintegration and praying for rain at a first promising clap of thunder. I suppose it’s all very misleading!

One of the worst things about mental illness is that it often falls into the “invisible illness” category. Since you don’t have on a cast, your inner torment is nonexistent, even farcical, to some.

Laughing about my afflictions is how I mask, cope, and survive. Even when I’m sparkling around others, my thoughts could very well be, and often are, in a sinister place. I’m not trying to venture into reportage, don’t worry, but in December 2018 CNN posted an article about “the sad clown” concept and comedians suffering clinical depression. A lot of the ideas presented resonate.

In lieu of a suicidal ideation blindside, my psychiatrist has instructed me to inform my loved ones by saying something to the effect of “My face and tone of voice seem okay, but I’m not okay.” That way, we can then work together to find an appropriate immediate action, a treatment plan to move forward, and a way to normalize communication via my mental health in future.

For me, and perhaps others, the humility involved in admitting mental weakness and the need for help is tremendous. My pride has, quite literally, almost killed me.

To actively normalize and destigmatize mental illness and conversations surrounding it, we must open ourselves to reinvented ways to communicate our mental states. The more we talk about it, the more people with mental illness will feel comfortable getting help when they need it, and people who don’t understand mental illness will begin to be better informed. Hopefully.

This whole process requires mercy and patience on everyone’s behalf, but these conversations are vital. In terms of helpful conversation, another way to support your loved one on with mental illness is to not assume well-being.

Related on Bummed Out Baker:
Mental Health: When It Comes to Someone’s Well-Being, Ask, Don’t Assume
Mental Health: Guilt and Golden Retrievers and Headaches
Mental Health: Dealing With Suicide

To subscribe to Bummed Out Baker and get my mental health musings and recipes emailed to you directly, scroll all the way down to the bottom of the website – Follow on Instagram for behind-the-scenes panic attacks and my begrudging, meat-eating husband captured in the wild – Follow on Facebook for mental health articles and discussion – Follow on Twitter for sassy tweets and a sprinkle of nonsense.

If you or someone you know needs help right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Mental Health: Mourning the Living

This post has been removed in order to submit to publications, but can be accessed behind a small paywall on my Patreon. Your contribution means more than you’ll ever know.

Writing this post felt like flipping over a hard shell and exposing a big, soft belly to figurative daggers. For me, this is the essence of vulnerability. No matter how hard I work on this piece, how many times I revise and rework it, it’s still coming out emotionally discombobulated and, at times, confusing, which I suppose is a poetic parallel to the complexity of my and Alex’s relationship.

Something has happened to me, and I’m still feeling tidal waves of emotion like a meteorite landing in the ocean. My psychiatrist and I have made the provocative decision that, aside from edited events with my family, I need to distance myself from unnecessary engagements until this book about Alex fully emerges from my head. Unfortunately, it’s not a project I can turn on and off between birthday parties and happy hours with friends, but this is a story that needs to be told. It’s hard-earned content that needs to be exorcised for both the sake of my mental health and that of my relationships. It’s not fair to anyone, especially Rick, to drag this out any further. Also, Alex deserves it. What’s that saying? Something like you can’t go around it or over it, you just have to go through it? Well, I’m going through it.

The last time I saw Alex in person he said, “I hope you write my story.”

I’m on it, Ally.

Writing through PTSD helps me name my feelings and heal, and I encourage you to share Bummed Out Baker with anyone you think may find it helpful or relatable. I put days and days of work into it for that very reason, to create community and conversation around what are often painful topics.

Subscribe at the bottom of Bummed Out Baker to get my mental health musings and recipes emailed to you directly – Follow on Facebook for mental health articles and discussion – Follow on Instagram for behind-the-scenes panic attacks and my begrudging, meat-eating husband captured in the wild.

If you or someone you know needs help right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.