Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Keep on keeping on.

Emotional Status:
So the past year+ has been a completely new and difficult experience. I go through these stretches of doing really well. A couple weeks of great eating, working out and mental health here, and a couple there and then I may hit a really rough weekend and check out for a couple days. Sometimes I realize what is happening and sometimes I'm blind-sided. It's like I'm surrounded by triggers; sometimes it's someone being affected by suicide, sometimes it's goriness in a show or movie, sometimes it's a smell that reminds me of childhood, sometimes it's a young man walking down the street that has the same stride as Amir, sometimes it's someone having a relapse, sometimes it's ice cream, sometimes it's coffee, and sometimes it's a song on the radio. Then there's the times that I am doing something and wish my brother was here and I just miss him. I spent years missing my brother and wishing he was a part of my life, trying not to see how bad he struggled. Not knowing what to do, so not really dealing. That sucked. At least back then I had hope that eventually we would have a shot at being a closer family again.  Most of the times when these moments come, I choose to smile and love and be happy for the times we had, and perhaps shed a few tears. Sometimes though, it's hard to choose the positive over the negative, and I end up drained, finding it difficult to do much more than survive.
It's okay though, during his last months alive I got to see him once, which was a lot compared to the previous few years, and we talked on the phone a lot before the last couple weeks of his life when he had started using again. It was like no time had passed and we were the same tight, two eldest children of our clan. We talked about childhood memories and discussed ways we could help the other kids get back on track. I'll forever be grateful for those conversations. I realize now that the ache will never go away and I am okay with that. C'est la vie. There are also the times now that I know he's with me and always will be. I know there are many that do not share these beliefs, but there have been way too many instances of synchronicity since my brother's passing for me ever to be convinced otherwise.

School and Work Status:
Despite all that though, I've made some steps forward. I enrolled in Summer classes and made A's in both of them. I had a brilliant professor in Speech & Rhetoric that normally teaches at OSU-Stillwater, but teaches at OSU-OKC during the summer. This is where I discovered for the first time that despite my social anxieties and aversion to speaking in public, I sort of love giving speeches. I am sure that my recent movement towards caring less what others think of me and caring more about just being myself has contributed, as well.This gave me the confidence to move forward in completing the Incomplete's I received in both of the Accounting classes I was enrolled in when my brother died. I also had the confidence to join the school's Ethics club and participate in a couple debates (I came in at the tail end of the 'season'). In all my life I never imagined being involved in, and actually enjoying, debate. I have two weeks left in the Fall semester, and then I get about a month of focusing just on my workouts, Yoga, and meditation (aka self growth). Work has been work. I recently have been given a lot more responsibility, so the stress has been significantly greater (especially with Oklahoma's poor budget scenario), but I have been trying to manage my stress better through Yoga and meditation, so I'm dealing. I still believe in our agency's mission for children, so that helps.

Family life:
My family is fair. In a way, some of us are more united than ever, though we struggle with missing each other and worrying from a far. My dad is a machine. Never in my life had I expected to see my dad as broken and beaten as I did when my brother passed. In the aftermath, I've never been more proud of him. There have been so many times in the past year that he has been the one to hold me up when I ran out of strength and he says I've done the same for him, though I don't feel like it. We've both decided that all we can do is show the other kids that we love and support them and enjoy our time with our family. This is what keeps the motor churning. It's because of this that I struggle with the concept of going back to school. The realization that the span of a human life is so infinitesimal has been shocking to me, and two years of nothing but school seems like a long time to dedicate to something other than my loved ones and my passions. Sure, I'm really good at Accounting when I'm focused. And sure, I find it interesting and can find ways to apply it to real life and my job. But am I sure that it gets me hot and bothered? Not really. I'm also not sure that it's more valuable than the energy and time it takes away from my loved ones and the opportunity to pursue my passions. I am sticking with it for now, as I do not really have a lead on how to pursue my passions yet; and Accounting is a fairly multi-purpose field, so it could very well be beneficial when I do get the rest sorted out.

Health and Fitness:
My health  has been fair. I say fair because a) I still struggle with smoking, b) I still struggle with fatigue, and c) I'm still 40 pounds up. I recently went for my annual checkup and my blood pressure went from being in the high range to healthy since January. I am not even smoking a third of the amount I was in January, I am somewhat conscientious of my diet compared with January, and I exercise now. My dad and I have started walking together, I have been somewhat successful at keeping a regular Yoga practice. I have stuck to two HIIT, three sessions on most weeks. In May, dad and I actually walked the 2nd Chance 5k in Fort Worth to support the cause of the organization that handled my brother's organ donations.
We averaged sub 15 minute splits which I thought was great for a walking pace!

I make the occasional Body Pump and Zumba class, this has become more difficult with school, vacation and other trips. I have been fairly consistent with the walking, HIIT and Yoga though. Recently, From Fat to Finish Line hit Netflix so I watched it a few weeks ago. It was bittersweet. In one way, I felt a bit guilty because I'm up 40 pounds, in another way it was inspiring to be reminded of how it felt to really be on top of my health and fitness. I was even inspired by one of my own comments, it went something like: all the small changes add up to something amazing. I need to remember this. Not only did watching the movie make me miss my running friends and want to run another Ragnar, but it reminded me of my beliefs and strength. I am 40 pounds up, but I'm not even close to 260 or 280 and we all hit bumps in the road. I recommend checking out the movie, they really did a great job and best of all, you get to see Bella :-P:

The past couple months have been more rough than the couple months before. My brother's death anniversary was in October and Thanksgiving was sad. Christmas and Amir's birthday are coming up - I can't believe he would have been 26. However, my dad and I were fortunate enough to be able to visit my sister for over a week and got to know this precious bundle of joy:

Such a perfect miracle to remind us of the beauty in life. 

The sweetest kisses, ever.

I've also seen beauty in the recent months. There's always something to keep on keeping on for. There was a time that I really hated myself for being resilient and for continuing on, but now I'm thankful for the endurance to not give up.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Life After Suicide - Part III - Changing

Catch up with Part 1 and Part 2.

I'm not 100% yet, I think I have a long ways to go before I become "Lealah" again - whatever that means, whoever that is. Mentally, things are still difficult. Thinking about my brother still brings a sharp pain to my very essence, but now at least I can appreciate and be thankful for all the good memories I have.

Writing this blog series has been painful, but I think it's something I needed to do. I needed to confront the terror from the past many months. Some days I get home from work and I'm just done, I have no energy left to do or think about anything. Other days I get my workouts in, try to do something creative or productive, eat a healthy meal... Some days I let the minor annoyances of life get to me and I'm so ready to give up, other days I work on looking for things that calm me and bring me positive energy. I'm about 40 pounds up now, where I was only 20-25 pounds up before October 12. Truthfully though, I've found that being skinny is not nearly as important as it used to be. I would really just like to be healthy and feel good now. I've only really started working out, eating healthier and tackling other health issues in the past couple months; already the difference in my physical and mental well-being is palpable. The main activities that have helped turn me around are Yoga and attempted meditation (surprisingly difficult activity to engage in!). Something I've discovered in the past months is that I do not really know myself, not completely and honestly. I think that true happiness is something only achieved once you know and are confident in yourself.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to say that I'm some newly enlightened, transformed individual that seems to have the answers. Some things have been impressed upon me though. I've come to realize that despite how over the years I've tried to "be a good person", I was still a judgmental hypocrite. I am trying to be different now, to really see people and to really give them the benefit of the doubt and to not pass judgement based on my perceptions. I have more desire to understand people. We never know if someone is treating us terribly because they'd been treated terribly, or because they are undergoing some hardship or trauma. That jack ass on the highway cutting everybody off and whipping in between cars may be rushing to see his dying son. Maybe the annoying lady at the office that won't shut up about herself really has something more serious going on in her personal life that she just doesn't know how to talk about. (That doesn't necessarily make her any less annoying though.) We never know when someone is struggling just to get through their day. There is a lot we don't know. I'm not sure if I was fully capable of real compassion and empathy before now. I find myself hurting for people, some I know, some I don't, in ways I was not able to before. I have begun to see things on a much larger scale, the "first-world" issues no longer bother me like they used to; it's the issues that really impact our ability to live happy and free that have drawn my attention now. These things I may blog about later. I'm still human, I'm not immune to the annoyances and gripes of everyday life; I'm just finding that I care less and less about these things.

I would be remiss to leave out the things for which I am grateful despite the tragedy we've endured. I am grateful for my family that recognized that I was struggling and taking things rather hard and checked on me almost on a daily basis. I am grateful for my best friend that dropped everything to be there for me. I am grateful for my friends who have reached out, without pushing, just to let me know they care. I am grateful for my work family and the support they showed during the most difficult time of my life. During the following months people who had suffered the loss of someone close due to suicide reached out and that helped too - being able to connect with people that really do understand. One person lost her little brother to suicide as well and I cannot put into words how much her support and her actions of kindness mean to me. I am grateful for those that recognized that I lost not only my little brother, but a child that I raised and loved as my own and never tried to minimize my suffering. I am grateful for the last words written to me by my brother, which cut me to my core, but are words that will comfort me for the remainder of my life. I'm grateful for the lives saved by my brother's death. I'm grateful I was able to see my brother alive and smiling in July 2015.

I believe that this gratefulness is a sign of growth and strength. Do I still wish that his death was a terrible nightmare? Absolutely. Would I still trade places with him if I could? In a heartbeat. My brother and I had a rough childhood, we both had to grow up fast and since his death I've often wondered and been smothered by guilt with the question of "Why him? Why not me instead?" Ultimately I know I won't be able to grow to my full potential until I've come to terms with my guilt and am able to stop punishing myself. I don't know if and when this may happen, or if I will ever be able to have peace on the subject of Amir's death, but I know now that I have things to do and a life to live.   I have a long road ahead of me. I cannot believe that my brother would want me to punish myself so harshly for the rest of my days, and I don't believe that he would have done what he did if he knew how much pain it brought us. When I feel weak, angry, depressed and guilty, I try to remember two messages my brother left me, sayings he had tattooed on his body and had always clung to: "Smile now, cry later." and "Hope".

I need to re-evaluate my life, my goals, my views, my values, my perceptions... I've learned that I can make a difference in the world. If I can touch even a handful of people's lives and make them better, in the slightest way, then those people will be able to help their own handful of people, and so on. The tree will grow, the branches will reach, and the world will be a better place. And less people will end up like Amir.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Life After Suicide - Part II - The Aftermath

Catch up with Part 1 here.

The first task we took care of was getting my littlest brother out of jail so he could be with the family during this time. It stabbed at me later when I found out that Amir was trying to save/borrow money to get him out before he died. It took one week to finalize funeral arrangements, for the ME's office to finish their exam, and for LifeGift to find recipients for my brother's organs. Five people's lives were saved due to my brother. We didn't eat, we didn't sleep, we did not do a whole lot except obsess and make arrangements. We talked to my brother's girlfriend, to some of his friends, to family... we sought answers to questions. Those questions remain unanswered. The only thing we were sure of is that my brother had a drug relapse before he died. Would he have done what he did if he hadn't relapsed? I like to think not, but we'll never know for sure. My own mind turned on me. I was given no relief, no rest, no freedom from my innermost thoughts and I felt like I deserved none, so I never resisted the attack. One night my dad fell from lack of sustenance, sleep deprivation, and grief. After screaming at him that he had to eat and drink something because I didn't know what to do, later that night I almost passed out for the same reasons. I realized that I couldn't keep going this way and I had to try to eat and sleep if I was going to hold the family together through the next few days. I managed to get by after that.

Services for my brother began at 10:00 am Monday, October 19th. We buried him in the town that last all five of us kids were together, the last place we were together before things fell apart when I went to college and left the kids. It was a beautiful sunny day and the services were suiting for him; he would have appreciated them. My family came together in a way that I hadn't seen in many years. I even saw my mother and father hug for the first time in 17 years. My dad and I stayed in town for another day before we headed back to Oklahoma.
The last Christmas we had together before I left for college.
The next several months were the worst of my life. I moved in with my dad when we returned, he didn't need to be alone and I had no purpose or desire or drive to do anything but grieve and punish myself. Like my dad had hit his limit in the parking lot of JPS, I had hit mine. I held my shit together long enough to do what needed to be done. I contacted my department head and professor and was given an incomplete for the classes I was enrolled in. I didn't return to work for a couple weeks and when I did go back, I'm not sure that I was actually ready. I was a wreck. I had to leave work early some days because I just could not handle functioning, other days I did not make it in at all. I am so thankful for the support net I have at work, I know I would not have made it without them. I was barely sleeping or eating for weeks after my brother's death. I was a chain smoking zombie that when not working did nothing but lay on the couch under the pretense of watching TV. In reality, I was trapped in my mind where the walls were cracking and crumbling and memories and emotions were flooding and pulsating at the seams. I cried, I fought myself, I hated myself, I asked why, why, why? I pitied myself. Grief is selfish. Most of all, the guilt and pain I felt for my brother are what crippled and suffocated me. How badly he must have been hurting to choose the path he did, and oh, how much more I could have done for him. Quite frankly, the only thing that kept me from choosing the same path many times throughout that time span was the fact that I just couldn't put my family through what we were already going through. I could never inflict on someone else the horror we endured. And my dad needed me. In my eyes, I did not deserve to live or enjoy anything if my brother did not make it, I had lost all hope. I tried to workout a couple times - that's what everyone said I needed to do; then when the endorphins were flowing and the post workout high hit, I would feel so guilty that I would hate myself for feeling good and have another break down, so I quit trying.

I turned 30 exactly one month from the day my brother died. This was hard, too. I was supposed to go to Vegas to celebrate with a half marathon and my FFTFL friends. Before I realized my brother was using again, I actually was wanting to bring him with me. He had talked about Vegas many times and I wanted to celebrate his freedom and make up for lost time by taking a trip with him. My poor brother had been through so much and never got to enjoy his youth, I wanted to do something fun with him. This was a double whammy, not only did I reach a milestone birthday, the big 3-0, when my brother didn't make past 24, but what could have been a great memory with him was cruelly stolen from me. The guilt continued.

After my birthday, I continued about the same, looking back, I must have known how rough the holidays were going to be and was subconsciously holding my breath until we made it through. I also knew that Amir's 25th birthday was coming up, the last time I got to spend my brother's birthday with him was on his 21st birthday.

I got to buy my brother's first (legal) beer.
We went to Texas a couple times, the presence of family and most especially my baby niece was comforting. In fact, seeing my cousins and their kids helped, too. Children have an incredible healing element in them. Every time I held her sweetness, I was reminded that there was beauty left in the world and that it was not time to give up.

My other brother came and stayed with us for a couple weeks, which truly helped because he helped get me out of my head. Maybe also because he reminds me of my other brother, and reminded me that I still have loved ones left. His presence gave me strength. My brother went back to Texas before the holidays and I resumed doing nothing but sitting/laying around chain smoking, eating or sleeping (albeit restlessly). At some point before, I had to start medicating to start eating and sleeping; functioning had become increasingly difficult. In fact, some would say I was not functioning at all.  The trend of losing weight switched to gaining weight though I did not notice. My dad would bring me food and pressure me to eat and I knew that seeing me like this couldn't have helped him, yet I couldn't change, so I would at least eat in a half-assed attempt to pretend that I was okay. My dad gave me strength. He had just lost his son and yet he still refused to give up on me.Once the holidays hit, the despair I felt was so heavy that I really gave up, I took leave from work and did not leave my dad's house for near two weeks and literally did nothing but lay on the couch. I became afflicted with crippling back pain and a respiratory infection.I drank heavily during this time, as well, although it only made things worse. On January 6, 2016, my dad and I drove to Texas to visit my brother's grave for his first birthday after death. At the end of the month, we visited my sister and her new little family in Indiana.
My beautiful sister and my precious nephew, yet another reminder of life's blessings.
This is probably around the time I really started accepting the reality of what was and where I started turning things around. I realized I couldn't continue down the path I was going. I had a niece and nephew that were going to be growing up fast and I did not want to miss out on that. I did not want them to see their aunt as a shell of herself. My brother would be ashamed of me. I decided I had to start getting better.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Life After Suicide - Part I - The Nightmare

 This is a post that I've debated writing for some weeks now. The debate as follows: To begin, who wants to hear about death and sadness, right? And really, making myself vulnerable on such a heart-rending topic is completely out of my comfort zone. On the other hand, some of you may have gone through similar circumstances and you should know you aren't alone, and others of you still might benefit from knowing more about what those you care about have been through. If my experience can in any way, shape, or form help someone else, then I need to share. Finally, since I am a writer at heart, perhaps putting everything out there will be a therapy of sorts. So here we go.

On October 12, 2015, at approximately 2:35 pm, I received a phone call that marked the beginning of the end of my universe as I knew it. It was Monday morning and I'd had a rough weekend, I was feeling down and Monday morning I felt especially depressed and anxious. I had no idea that this was a foreshadowing of what was to come. I was sitting in the break room having a late lunch with a friend, talking about my little brother whom I'd been worried about and trying to figure out how to help, when my sister tried to call me. We were almost finished with lunch so I figured I could call her back in a few minutes when I returned to my office. Then my aunt called and I stared at my phone for long seconds - something was wrong - the sense of foreboding was dense. When I answered the phone I tried to sound casual, I didn't get far before she said words I never even thought to imagine. She told me that my brother, Amir, had shot himself in the head. I didn't hear a whole lot after that, I could only stare at my friend sitting across the table, tears streaming down my face, as my aunt explained that it was serious and I needed to get down there (to Texas) and she already spoke to my dad. All I could think was no, no, no, not my baby brother, no, she couldn't be right, this wasn't real.

When I got off the phone I started crying harder and I started losing control. I was shaking and convulsing and I couldn't comprehend the call I just received and had no clue what to do next. My friend ushered me to his office and retrieved my supervisor. I cannot explain the thoughts that were rushing through my head. Guilt, horror, incredulity, the deepest sort of grief imaginable. I sat there shaking and crying and probably babbling for what seemed like hours, but was really only about 15 minutes. At some point I remember something along the lines of confirming the severity of the situation, something like: "This is really serious right? People don't typically recover from gunshot wounds to the head.. my brother is going to die, isn't he?" What a question to have to answer. The sadness in his eyes confirmed more than anything he could have said. I knew deep in my heart, that I would never, ever get to see my brother alive again in this lifetime. I thought of my father and I knew I must get moving, we were going to Texas and I was wasting time. I started rambling about what I needed to do and bless his heart, my supervisor really tried to help. I'm sure it was obvious that I was in no condition to drive, but I did not want to involve anyone in the horror that awaited and so I insisted on handling things on my own. Somehow I made it to my dad's house and somehow we got on the road. After talking to him on the phone, I was sure I'd need to drive, but my dad was adamant about driving and proceeded to do so better than any professional driver I'd ever seen, with more intensity and focus than I'd ever witnessed in my father. We flew across the state. Without a thought, I picked up one of my dad's cigarettes and started smoking again. And I continued to smoke the entire drive - whilst sobbing and staring out the window, praying to any and all sources of Higher Powers that be and chanting to myself that he was going to be okay. I couldn't remember the last time I'd prayed before that, funny how crisis suddenly instills hope and faith. The closer we got to JPS Hospital in Fort Worth, the more my chants changed from he's going to be okay, to: please wait, please wait baby brother, wait for me, for us, hang on, you're going to be okay, please wait, baby brother...

When we got to the hospital, my family was there. My uncles, my mother, my sisters, my niece, my cousin and his family. My aunt had to leave, but she was there with my sister until others could join her. My other little brother was incarcerated and unable to be there. The moment my dad stepped out of the car he fell apart and I knew he held onto strength as long as he could to get to his son, but that now it was my turn. We held each others arms, greeted the family, and went up to see my brother. I think I expected/hoped to get there and it come out that a mistake had been made; that either it was a terrible joke, or that the wound wasn't as serious as it sounded, or that somehow they had the wrong kid... anything other than what we encountered. Even though, deep down I know I knew. Why else did I start grieving from the moment I received the call? There, lying in a hospital bed, was my beautiful, strong, hopeful, selfless, stubborn, misunderstood, tortured baby brother. The first of four younger siblings that I held in my arms as a baby, that I loved with all my might at five years old.

The first to have been able to instill rage and laughter in me simultaneously as he would vandalize my "things" while looking at me with this impish, "aren't I cute" glint in his eyes.
See what I mean? 
The first to have my back when things were tough as a kid, the first to help me take care of the others when I really needed help (otherwise he really enjoyed causing me more stress), the first to protect, the first to pounce if someone threatened his family. He was the first being that I ever loved more than I loved my parents or myself. And he lay in a hospital bed looking fragile and nothing like himself. His handsome face was swollen and his head was bandaged and there were tubes and wires all over him. I went to his side and again "no" was all I could think. this couldn't be real. I held his hand, his left hand with the word "Hope" tattooed on it, and I tried to make sense of what was going on. I tried talking to him, telling him that it was okay, and he was going to be okay, and it was time to come back to us and we'd take care of him. I missed the part where the doctor said he had been pronounced brain dead approximately 15 minutes earlier.

We spent hours at the hospital the first night. A gentleman from LifeGift, the organ donor organization in Texas, met with us and went over numerous questions regarding my brother's health and lifestyle. If there were such a thing as comfort during this time, this man would have been a comfort. He seemed like a genuinely good person and was one of the few people I dealt with during that time that I could handle being around. The questionnaire was one of the hardest things to endure because the truth of the matter was that my brother had spent years incarcerated with short bouts of freedom and he had just been released in July. There was much we did not know about my brother over the past several years and coming to terms with how little time we had with him was difficult. It felt like a failure on our part. Though the prospect of lives that could be saved due to my brother choosing to be an organ donor kept us answering questions. Finally we finished, and though we didn't want to leave the hospital, staying there was unbearable. We said good night to my brother, got in the car to drive to my sister's and this song came on the radio:
Instantly I was flooded with memories, scents, images... How many times did my brother and I talk about being kids and wishing we could turn back time? How many times when we were kids did we talk about our dreams and plans? How often had we stressed over money throughout the years? I kept driving, tears never stopping, cracking under the surface, listening to the song, heart breaking. The song was only playing in the background, but I heard it loud and clear.

That night I did not sleep, I'm not sure if anyone did. I lay on my sister's couch in the dark staring at the ceiling with a terrible cacophony in my head: different flashes and memories of my brother throughout his life; endlessly screaming gibberish inside my head; all the conversations and letters that I should done differently; horrific images I won't describe ... I silently raged, cried, berated, shattered through the night until it was morning and time to make arrangements. (I repeated this process countless nights over the next several months.) I knew no one in my family was able to handle the business at hand and I honestly think that taking charge and having something to focus on is the only thing that kept me going the next week because otherwise I have no explanation on how I survived. I was desperately driven to make sure my brother was buried with honor. I used smoking as a crutch. I went from not smoking at all to smoking two packs a day. We had to drive back to Oklahoma the day following our arrival to get pictures of my brother. I needed one for his obituary and others for the slideshow the funeral home would prepare. So my dad and I sped back to Oklahoma, conducted our business and went straight back to John Peter Smith hospital.  My brother's body was still on life support until they could find recipients for his organs. I held his hand for the last time and whispered things I'd wished I'd said to him over the years, I told him how sorry I was for failing him and how I wish he'd given us and himself a chance and how that miracles happened and if he chose to come back to his body and awaken that we were there waiting and that there was still an opportunity to come back. I said a lot to him. I said a lot, but not enough. Too late I realized that I had never said enough.We sat there quietly for awhile. Then, when my pleas went unanswered and no miracles came, I told him it was okay, that I loved him so much and that somehow, we would be okay, and that it was okay to move on - it was okay to seek that peace he couldn't find in life. And then I told him that I would see him later.