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Teresa – Part Four - Authorship & Giving Back

I hear that strong person inside telling me what to do, and most of the time I listen. Sometimes I don’t and I suffer the consequences, but at least I consciously know what choice I’ve made.

Authorship means the capability of making choices, and the recognition that the ability to choose one’s destiny lies within oneself.


One of the most significant shifts that occurs during the road back is the birth of authorship – the ability to act, which is engendered by the will to live. Central to the rediscovery of one’s aliveness is the growing belief that it is possible to make choices that affect one’s destiny. Like dawn in a forest, the light may enter slowly and quietly, but it raises one’s spirit and is rarely forgotten. Authorship means the capability of making choices, and the recognition that the ability to choose one’s destiny lies within oneself. For those who recover, it is this connection with their inner oracle that becomes paramount. As Teresa describes it:

I’m finally letting myself realize that [my mother] doesn’t have the capability to relate because she’s never left that zone where she feels comfortable.

Teresa has now permitted herself limited contact with her mother. She feels it’s important for her and her children, but it is rarely satisfying. Teresa finds her mother unable to focus long enough or deeply enough to sustain meaningful conversation, and although Teresa sometimes feels the desire to spill her heart and describe in detail the journey she has made, she knows her story would fall on unreceptive ears.

She doesn’t talk about what’s real and she hides a lot, but I’ve wanted to attempt to have a functional relationship with her.

It’s disappointing, and occasionally it reminds her of the isolation that was so painful to her as an adolescent, but over time, Teresa has made a fundamental change. Through years of therapy and study, trial and error, Teresa has created a rich network of support and understanding. Her mother is no longer the center of her world or the source of her redemption. Teresa has internalized the respect and the positive regard others have shown toward her, and her mother’s failings are rendered more or less harmless.

The hate—the hate I felt for her—began to consume me. [But] it can eat at you more than at the other person. I don’t hate her anymore. I mostly feel sorrow and compassion. It was a big thing when I discovered that I really don’t have to like my mother as a person. I love her, but I don’t care to be around her all that much. I get understanding and recognition elsewhere.

Teresa had now been a practicing nurse for the past ten years. She has become certified in a number of medical specialties and has enjoyed a wealth of work experience. Happy and self-assured, her present life seems the polar opposite of her early years.

The final part of Teresa’s return to life is reflected in a private and unassuming act of giving back.  During rounds in the hospital, Teresa quietly performs a little ritual expressing appreciation and gratitude.

When I look at the [medical] charts, I read about these ladies— what [their lives are like], what’s happened to them, the difficulty they’re in — and I think, “God, you know, I could be there today if I hadn’t been so lucky.” I go down to the unit and talk to them. I want them to know that there’s strength in them: you can hear it in their voices. I want them to know that we all have that drive in us to make it.


Waking Up, Alive is now Available on Kindle!








Teresa, Part Three – The Critical Leap: Recognizing the Need for Support

I realized two important things: that I keep picking people who aren’t the least bit interested in anyone else, just themselves; and that I always thought I had to do something drastic to be noticed. I started thinking, “Maybe around different people I wouldn’t have to do that!”

The ability to recognize potential sources of support constitutes a major breakthrough. When suicidal trances last many years, they virtually prohibit interpersonal exchange. When one views life as a long, desperate, and solitary struggle, confidence withers that anyone else cares, or that anyone would even want to. Recognizing and utilizing support becomes not only a skill to be developed, but also a critical act of faith.

During the next ten years Teresa proceeded to work full-time, have two children, and consecutively marry two abusive and addicted husbands. There were many fights and she continued to consider suicide. Teresa was now an intelligent, highly capable woman who was still driven by the unrequited need to have someone notice her pain. She was locked in a desperate loop of violent marriages, and she reasoned that her only recourse for herself and her children was to leave.

One night, I drank an entire gallon of wine and I was having seizures on the floor. I didn’t really want to die; I just wanted my husband to know the pain I was in. I wanted him to know I was alive. I thought, well, if I did die, then maybe it would be significant and then my kids would never go through what I had. Well, when I woke up, I decided, “That’s enough.” I took the kids and left.

In deciding where to go, Teresa took the first step toward recognizing the need for support. Just as when she boarded the bus for Prescott many years before, Teresa had little idea of what lay ahead of her.

It was very scary. One evening, I went to the Women’s Shelter. Nobody would know where I was, and I needed rest from the abuse and the fighting. It was just as scary as leaving my mom. I was calm outwardly, but underneath I was petrified. That’s when the biggest portion of my recovery came.

Teresa was genuinely starting over. Her decisions would be short-term ones for a while. She would take one step, assess the results, and then take another.

The people there were very supportive and caring. It took about three weeks, and then one morning, I found myself thinking, “My God, I really like myself.” I realized that it was okay with just me noticing me. That was enough.

I realized two important things: that I keep picking people who aren’t the least bit interested in anyone else, just themselves; and that I always thought I had to do something drastic to be noticed. I started thinking, “Maybe around different people I wouldn’t have to do that!”

At the women’s shelter, Teresa enjoyed both formal and informal contact with the staff. She was assigned a therapist, but there were many others who would stop and talk during the day just to see how she was faring. With time, Teresa began to feel the effects of the respect and positive regard she was receiving.

My first initial feeling was, ‘I’m not weird. If I was weird, they wouldn’t be talking to me and acting like they cared. I must be okay!’ I began to feel important. I don’t think I had had that feeling since kindergarten.

I remember feeling affirmed.  I remember talking to the social worker there, Lois. I said some horrible things to her about my abuse, and I expected her to do what everybody did—close down, get a chalk-white face, and just get me out of there as soon as possible. But she cried!  As time went on, I’d hear them say to me, over and over, until it began to sink in, “ You’re perfectly fine, and a wonderful person, and your thinking is clear about such and such. We have a lot of confidence in you.” It felt real, and over time, I would call on it whenever I was feeling hopeless or like giving up.


Look for:  Teresa, Last Part - Giving Back, Loving Wisely

Waking Up, Alive is now Available on Kindle





Teresa, Part Two - A Fresh Start

Teresa was still a young teenager when she bought a one-way ticket to Prescott.  Somewhere beneath the abuse and neglect, there was a kernel of recognition, even at her young age. She knew she had to leave. Despite the absence of a plan, she knew a change was essential to her survival.

It was a thirteen-hour bus ride. We had a layover from Idaho at Reno and I stayed in the station, waiting. I was still very calm and strong, and so far everything was okay. I had my money and my clothes—everything I needed. I was proud of myself.

Breaking free from the suicidal context reflects a desire to disconnect from the oppressiveness of the past and hope for a fresh beginning. It is a leap of faith motivated by the necessity for change. Although a person’s plan may not be clear at the beginning, many describe having an inner certainty—a “knowing”—that they are on the right course. Often, they pare down their possessions, simplify their lives, and try to discover just what happened to them and why. In making a fresh start, people report having a glimpse of a new world and a new possibility…where people are able to care, and have the courage to show it

At some point, this big and sleazy guy came over. He was trying to get me to go somewhere with him. I didn’t know what was going on then. I do now. There was this elderly couple. The man must’ve been in his seventies. He and his wife just came over next to me. He pulled out a knife and began cleaning his nails with it, kinda nonchalantly, suggesting to this guy that he might want to leave!

Then they took me to dinner. It was very comforting and nice. I felt even happy for a little bit there. We played cards and ate. I was happy ‘cause they noticed me, and I wasn’t being polite or “good.’’ I started thinking, “Maybe I should go with them!” I think that was the first time since kindergarten that I felt that about someone.

Teresa created a new life. Just off the bus, she saw a Help Wanted sign in a restaurant window, applied, and was offered the job that afternoon. The next day, she enrolled in school.  Teresa wanted a new start, and within a week, she was back in school, had joined the track team, and was taking courses at the local community college.


Dissolving the Suicidal Context

It is essential to dissolve the suicidal context in order to rebuild one’s life. This may take a variety of forms, but essentially, one must radically alter one’s relationship to the environment of despair in which the suicide attempt occurred. On the road back to life, people learn to choose alternatives to old routines and to the people associated with them.

Teresa’s trials weren’t over.  The long shadow of neglect and abuse in her family of origin would hover over her primary relationships, but these challenges would set the scene for her final victory over suicidal pain and despair.  (To be continued).

Look For - Teresa, Part Three – Claiming Her Life


Waking Up, Alive is now Available on Kindle



Chris - The First Steps

"We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”

                                                                            Mother Teresa.


"The doctor was right. I still felt I wanted to die. I knew I still wanted to die, but I was also angry. I realized there was no way in hell that I wanted my husband to raise my daughter. I didn’t want her to feel as powerless and abandoned as I felt. It felt like he was giving me a task I could accomplish even though I felt so bad."

Chris, now a therapist herself, met me in her office. It was summer in Santa Rosa, California, dry and hot. The indoors provided a welcomed relief from the sun. We sat down, registering our initial impressions, and I was immediately intrigued. Chris is a large woman, big-boned and a little heavy. Her arms were muscular, her hands veined and rough-hewn. Her story took place some years before, in a small town in rural southern Oregon. Chris is a woman who has worked the land, canned her own food, found a way to make things work in difficult times. She is not afraid to be physical. She isn’t averse to hard work. She has a ready smile and a hearty laugh.  When she speaks about her life, and her first days in the hospital after her suicide attempt, she is straightforward and candid.  
I just felt really hopeless, like just not wanting to live. I had no idea what was happening to me. I was very angry. I was simmering underneath. The doctor came in. He was clearly very tired from being on all night.
Chris had been braced for condescension and reproach, and stiffened when the attending physician walked in.  She was surprised what happened next.
He sat down and took my hand in his: he just picked up my hand and held it! He seemed very loving. I was dumbfounded! He held my hand and brushed the hair from my face and said, “I’m not even gonna ask you how you feel. I know you feel miserable.

In times of crisis, simple acts of caring are often pushed aside in favor of intricate technical interventions, both medical and psychological. For those who spoke about early moments in the hospital after their attempt, however, it was the simple acts of kindness and the desire to understand that were most treasured. Sometimes they proved powerful enough to ignite the first spark of life, the first steps, after years of courting death. The night before, Chris had to endure the disdain of her new hospital roommates.
I was in a room with two other women. I could overhear them: it wasn’t hard; they were talking pretty loud. They were very angry that I was put in “their” room.
Chris suffered not only a profound loss of privacy, but also reproach for what she had done. This time, it didn’t come from the hospital staff, but from the patients, as if there was a hierarchy of illnesses, an unspoken caste, with suicide at the bottom. Somehow, her story quickly became public knowledge and she was exposed to derisive and malicious commentary. Hours after the attempt, Chris lay awake in her hospital bed, separated from her fellow patients by only a curtain. Both hyped from the drugs and exhausted by her ordeal, she could see their silhouettes as they spoke.
They seemed to know why I was there, and thought I was horrible for wanting to kill myself. I remember them saying, ‘She should be ashamed of herself, when she has everything to live for,’ and ‘Why did the doctor put her in here?’
Understandably, the following morning, Chris expected the worst when the attending physician walked in, haggard from a long shift.  What happened next was unexpected and startling.

(End of Part One. Read Part Two, tomorrow.)


Waking Up, Alive is now Available on Kindle




Don’t Talk About It!


Here is one of the big myths.  I’d say one of the top two. It goes like this:

If you think someone may be suicidal, do not talk to him or her about it!  It will propel them into attempting suicide.


What’s this myth all about?

There is no getting around it. The possibility of suicide is frightening - even to experts; even to experienced psychotherapists.   Someone attempting to take his or her own life is a harrowing thing to contemplate, and because of that, most people feel intimidated by the topic and believe they are ill equipped to offer even simple help to someone who may be stuck and suffering. Because of this, the entire subject has spawned myths that leave everyone unnecessarily hesitant and fearful.  From time to time, I’ll blog about the most prevalent ones, and this is the perfect fallacy with which to begin.

Where do we start? First, is with your expertise.  Truth is, you don’t have to have any.  You don’t need a Ph.D or a Master’s in Social Work to help someone who is suicidal.    You don’t need to do dream analysis or fashion some fancy interpretation that has to do with someone’s childhood. You don’t have to be a therapist to be a friend.

So, what kind of tools are needed?  Simple, your own humanity.  Just yourself, unadorned.  Maybe another way of saying it, is that you need heart and a pair of feet.

The Heart Part:

This has to do with vulnerability…ours!  One of the most popular TED lectures this past year, and recent New York Times Bestselling book, is Brené Brown’s, The Power of Vulnerability. In it, Brené acknowledges that so much of our world is ambiguous and unpredictable, just by its nature, that the most authentic, and useful response, is to allow ourselves to be vulnerable.  She writes:

Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. It is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy; the source of hope, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose … vulnerability is the path.

What does that mean?

It means, keeping the conversation open, despite the fear. Much of the conditioning one receives in western culture teaches us to keep a tight lid on our emotions and not show much; to gather a cloak of protection around us in the face of what we don’t know or what we can’t control. Helping someone who may be suicidal, or in any kind of emotional pain involves the opposite.  People who are caught in suicide’s horrible sway still share their most salient qualities with everyone else – they are people who have emotions, who, most often, have very good minds that have become caught in a deep trough.  Their thoughts, which tend towards worry, loop over and over, predicting defeat or loneliness.  And, most often, they have great hearts, often very big and empathic hearts, that have constricted in fear.  Sound familiar?  Is there anyone for whom this hasn’t been true at some time or another?  True, their loop is tighter and the gravitational pull towards the negative can be much, much greater. But it’s all still very much human.

So, what can I do?  It’s simpler than one thinks.  You don’t have to take on the whole of someone’s problems.  And, you don’t have to fix anything.  You just have to help them, get help.  If you sense that someone you know or love may be suicidal, tell them. Let them know your sense of them, your guess that maybe they have been thinking of suicide and you are concerned and want to help.  That’s pretty much it for the ‘heart part’.

Again, our fear is that someone will run away screaming, tearing their hair and clothes.  Usually, there is quiet acknowledgement, maybe even relief, some conversation…and then the next part…the feet.

The most skillful thing we can do is tell people we will help them find help…usually in the form of:

  •         a suicide hotline (800-273-8255, National Suicide Hotline)
  •         the name & number of a therapist,
  •         and a simple plan to be safe until then.

It may go something like this:  I know you’ve been thinking about this, and I’m concerned for you.  Can I help connect you with someone?  I’ll stay with you as you make the call.  I’ll drive you to your new therapist.  I'd like to check in with you on the hour for awhile, until you feel safe. Who else can we include in this to make sure you are safe for now?

Is it foolproof?  No, nothing is, even for therapists.  Does is have the capacity to break through layers of protection and cloaking (see, my last blog, The Mask)? Yes. Surprisingly and powerfully so.  All that’s needed is for friends and loved ones to lean in a bit, push past the fear that arises in everyone about suicide, and try to connect with the person in pain. You don’t even have to be good at it.  The heart part - the authentic intention to connect and engage - will outweigh any skill that you do or don’t have.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be blogging about people who began their turnaround, their road back to life with the simple, humble overture from others. It’s extraordinary sometimes, how little, has accomplished so much.