Today is an anniversary of sorts.
Five years ago today while in the waiting room at shock therapy I messaged Susan Messing to thank her for just being out there in the world.
After that exchange, I would reach out to Susan many more times, (like in the thousands) She was there as the depression returned, as my marriage ended, as the depression got better, and then returned, and then got so much worse. For over two years she took almost daily messages from me that often had me writing about ending my life
Susan replied and replied and replied some more and while she led with kindness and empathy, she was honest and tough too.
She told me everything from “You’re a fighter. You’re a winner.” to “Charity starts at home, bitch.” to “Your semantics are for shit.” to “You need to check yourself into a hospital.” to “You are a rock star. Every day you continue to live, even when it’s tough, is a score in the plus category.” to “I will not engage in your self hatred anymore. I am here to remind you that it is all worth it, that you are worth it, but I will not engage in you thinking suicide is an inevitability.”
She gave me unconditional love and also reminded me of boundaries, a difficult task when someone is suicidal and compulsively writing you
Besides being a loving, beyond generous soul, I often wonder why Susan was willing to keep being such a huge part, often the most helpful part of my support system.
And then I watched the Season 14 Project Runway reunion special and it all came clear.
Anyone that has watched the fashion design completion show, Project Runway knows the awesomeness that is Tim Gunn.
For those who don’t watch, Tim Gunn is the mentor for the contestants. Tim doesn’t take the Simon Cowell approach of ripping people new ones on a regular basis. No, his goal is to get the most out of talented people by telling them what is working and by telling them to take what is not working and “Make it Work.”
As a teacher Susan Messing is improv’s Tim Gunn. She is beloved, respected, talented, and in the end wants to, in her words “Tell her students they’re right and then help make them more right.”
As I was watching the Reunion special, Tim Gunn was talking to Swapnil a talented designer who got eliminated, Swapnil’s biggest problem was that even though he was good, he just stopped trying. He got lazy.
This frustrated Tim and he said to Swapnil. “I will tell you what I told my students when I taught ‘I can’t want you to succeed more than you want to.’ ”
I loved this line. And it made me think about my relationship with Susan, and I thought maybe one of the reasons she was willing to give so much of her time and love and wisdom to me was she knew, that no matter how hard she fought to help me get healthy, I was always fighting harder.
I don’t know that I will ever be able to pay Susan back for all she did for me, but fortunately Susan is a fan of pay it forward. (Not the awful movie, but the concept itself) and I am too.
I talk on a regular basis to a lot of people struggling with this disease and offer support. To keep myself healthy while doing so, two things must happen, they must be working to get better and they must be seeking professional help. Because what I learned from Susan is my goal is never to be a therapist, but to be what they need most, a Tim Gunn.
“You know, we all get to be survivors in some way in our lifetime.” – Eunice Galsky
I keep thinking about this quote above from my friend Eunice. She wrote it to me while she was battling cancer and I was battling mental illness. The fact that she said we all get to be survivors, not “have” to be or even will be, but “get” to be, like needing to survive something awful is a gift. Eunice died from cancer but she also survived it.
I have spent the majority of the last two years surviving constant suicidal ideation. When people ask me how I am doing now I say “I got healthy just in time for the world to go crazy. And I am grateful.” I am by no means grateful for the crazy world, in fact if you told me last year to keep working on getting healthy and you will get to see a Trump presidency, I might have bowed out, this awfulness is not what I am grateful for. No, I am grateful that I am healthy enough to fight, and protest, and take action. And to be there for others.
And because I have fought these voices I will tell you this, the voice of suicidal thoughts and the voice of Donald Trump are the same and can be fought in much of the same way.
Like Trump, suicidal thoughts are loud, and mean. They are full of hate, and they try to convince you listening to them is all that matters. They present you with alternative facts. The say “Look at me, I am big and powerful and winning, and you are Sad!”
Everything this voice says is a lie yet it is so confident you start to believe there must be some truth to what it is saying, that he will make your problems go away, that if you do what he says you will feel better. But you stop and fact check and realize there is no truth in what this voice is saying, and remind yourself of that over and over and over again. You realize your job is not to get rid of this awful jerk of a voice but to take away his power by fighting for the good shit, by finding a supportive network, a network that allows you to complain about how awful and hopeless and shitty this feels while also pushing you to fight for the better you deserve. You find tools that work for you like opposite action, the idea of fighting the inertia, the desire to just crawl in the fetal position and say I’m done, by choosing actions that can make a difference for yourself, this word, for somebody else, because you know helping others can never make you feel worse. And at the end of the day you realize it’s about making it to the end of the day, and the next day and the next, knowing you are in good company with all your fellow survivors.
I went broke trying to be unbroken, did it work?
Can you un-break something?
I know I am grateful and angry.
Is there some type of hangry mash-up for that?
She had been talking to me for a year about getting angry, maybe this was her plan.
As I sat there, feeling like I was screaming,
I asked her if she did all this to see me get angry.
She looked at me, and said calmly, as always.
“What anger? You seem desperate and sad, not angry.”
Desperate and sad? Like Ross as Rachel is breaking up with him?
I can’t be Ross. I am not Ross. Maybe first season Ross but not cheating Ross.
Though she did seem betrayed, by the health she helped me find, by me needing less.
But I am Phoebe. Not Ross.
I am not Phoebe, but I want to be.
So strong in who she is, brave, funny, confident AF.
I, on the other hand, question my ability to get away with using AF.
I saw AF for the first time and thought Abercrombie & Fitch.
Oh shit, maybe I am desperate and sad Ross.
I talked to her once about Friends, as an excuse I use to end my life
How the show went on five seasons too long
and how going on too long tainted it.
And how if I kept delaying killing myself,
I would run the risk of being a ruined, derivative version of me.
She shut it down saying “You are talking like some writers are writing your life, like you have no control over it. That’s not the case.”
So simple, confident, and true.
I can’t take her as Phoebe and me as Ross.
So I guess I will be me and she will be her
and this pain will last for a while and so will I.
As I watch while it feels like parts of the world are crumbling, As I see people struggle, people ending their lives, people trying to make it through, I think “I’m experiencing and witnessing a lot of awful stuff, I could fall apart and nobody would blame me, it’s happened many many times before.” And then I realize that it’s different now. I’m healthier.
I’m grateful for that health and I’m grateful for the doctor who has helped get me there. For over a year she has worked with me. She told me “I will sit with you in the uncomfortable. You won’t scare me away.”
She didn’t have the pop culture references I appreciate but I let it slide because she seemed to have other skills that were helpful. We got to the root of a lot of the suicidal thinking I have been struggling with for the majority of the past four years, and more accurately, most of my life. I went off meds for the first time in a long time and have stayed off them. She helped me deconstruct everything that was going on, taking apart all the Lego bricks of my brain that were built on a faulty structure. There might even be more bricks to be taken apart before the rebuilding happens. But a lot of good has happened.
And then this doctor who’s helped me so much, we broke up with each other. And it was awful. I couldn’t afford to come and I couldn’t get the closure I wanted from her. It left me hurt and angry. But I didn’t tailspin, and that’s because of the work I have done with her. So I am grateful.
Things are still not put back together but sometimes the tearing apart is what’s more important. I know I wish it all could have ended differently, but as we celebrate Thanksgiving it seems like a time to remember we can be grateful for things even if they don’t always work out how we hope, even if we get hurt. And also to acknowledge even though she helped me immensely, I was the one who chose to take apart the bricks, to heal, to do the heavy lifting, and I am still that strong being.
I was sorry to hear about your health.
I have read your intelligent, brave, and generous blog. It helped me understand and therefore accept.
Keep fighting – your many gifts may have come at a high price but the world is a better place because people like you are in it. Many of us have self-destructive tendencies – chasing spirals of meaning. The lucky ones get fixated on why they want to live.
Your blog says that you are a good hugger. Me too – and although I shy away from work hugs I would make an exception in your case. If you ever needed it.
The above note is from a woman at my old job, my boss’ boss. As I continue to struggle to find full-time employment and people suggest to me that I should remove my website or not be so open about my health, I always go back to this note.
During my experience at this job, I was hospitalized twice, did an all-day out patient program, and had ECT. I did excellent work there, but like anyone with an illness I was not at full capacity (though I also brought talents that were unique and irreplaceable.)
My employers never gave me a hard time about any of it, something very rare when dealing with mental health in the workplace. In fact I assume it was my boss who had found my website and shared it with his boss and because of him and because of my openness, and my writing, she understood and supported me. And more importantly, if she encountered someone in her next job, or a friend or family member struggling with mental illness, she now could better understand them because of what I shared (and her willingness to read and understand it all.)
On Labor Day and everyday I feel grateful for those bosses, and committed to my decision to be so open about my illness. All change comes with a cost and it is up to us to decide whether it is worth it or not.