Lessons from The Handbook: Suicide and the art of paying attention


When I was in 6th grade, I told my parents I tried to kill myself. They took me to a psychiatrist who promptly diagnosed me with depression and gave me Prozac. I took the Prozac for a day or two and then stopped. I was eleven. I was not very motivated to get my life together. I had just tried to kill myself after all. My mom didn’t make sure I took the pills. Didn’t ask about it. She didn’t seem to notice she never had to get a refill. You know, because I never told her I needed a refill. Later, maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months, but eventually I took several of the anti-depressants and several sleeping pills and tried to kill myself again. I took them over the kitchen sink, then walked back to my bedroom. It hit me right away; I was already high as I walked down the hallway.

My mom awakened me for supper. I trudged back out, sat through the dinner, made small talk. My parents chastised me for staying awake too late at night. Yes, mom. Of course. That’s exactly right.

About a year later, in seventh grade, I tried to kill myself again. My mom walked in on me in the bathroom. I was lying on the floor crying, a sleeping pill bottle open on the counter. My parents debated taking me to get my stomach pumped and asked how many pills I took. I knew I had taken over twenty. I hated swallowing pills, and I counted them in my hand before choking them down. She didn’t believe me and sat at the kitchen table counting all the pills left in the bottle.

“It’s a bottle of sixty. I counted 53 and I’ve been taking them so she couldn’t have taken many,” my mother said. That was, of course, the end of that.

My mom didn’t know how obsessed with suicide I was. She didn’t know that last year I carried a bottle of sleeping pills around with me every day at school. There had been two brand new bottles in the medicine cabinet, sixty count each. After pulling out all the cotton, there was so much room left in the bottle. I put all the pills together, carried 120 pills around in my pocket all at once.

There were so many things she never noticed.

They dragged me back to the psychiatrist. Another man with an accent I couldn’t understand. I was so embarrassed to let my mom translate for me. I felt like a racist. He diagnosed me with manic depression. He gave me Depakote and Wellbutrin. I was supposed to take them twice a day. I obeyed for a day. Two. Maybe a third. But no one was around watching me. Making sure I took my medicine. Again, no refills ordered, no one noticing there should be.

I guess she had her own problems, but twelve year olds are irresponsible and easily sidetracked, and I say this having been constantly complimented for maturity beyond my years. Parents have to take responsibility for their children’s wellbeing. Parents do not just care for their children, they have to care about their children, and that means paying attention.


Winning and losing; surviving and succeeding


I reflect a lot on what happened to me, on how I was treated, how I was raised (or rather not raised) and the influence that had on me. I am the person I am today in large part because of my parents. Maybe I was a sensitive child, and the screaming, the stealing, the belittling made it worse. Maybe I was always troubled but the abuse took me over the edge. Nature vs. nurture, who can say for sure.

When I graduated high school, I took classes at the local community college. It was terrible. I couldn’t focus on anything. I behaved dangerously. I procrastinated like a criminal. I barely made it through the first semester, B’s, C’s, and even an E.

Those months transitioning away from my parents, away from the crap, was hard but I got through it. I grew strong, I gained confidence, and I did well. I aced my classes, I made Dean’s list. I graduated with my bachelor’s with highest honors.

Did I fix everything and become successful? Did I finally escape the horror and damage my parents inflicted on me to become a great person?

Mmmm, I don’t think so. I work part-time. I have a ton of debt. I watch way too much TV. And I live in a freaking mess. In short, I am a loser. This is my opinion of myself. I am currently going to graduate school to try to fix this, but it might be too late. I might just be a loser.

But I can’t blame this on my parents. I have been out of their house for almost ten years and in that time I grew and changed. I became truly free. And if I compare myself to my parents, to the terrifying cycle of drugs and violence, I definitely won. I have never been in jail, I have no kids with terrible men, and I don’t have any dangerous addictions. I’m even happy. I am. I am a very happy loser.

Being a loser is not my parents’ fault. I remember a few years ago suddenly realizing I was an adult. I knew that I was responsible for myself in every way. There was no one else to take credit or blame for I was and what I was doing with my life. I was in charge, and I had plenty of time to do something, to accomplish something, to be something.

Why haven’t I done anything?

I’m a criminal procrastinator. I haven’t done anything because of my own flaws and weaknesses, like millions of other ordinary, regular people. These are my mistakes, and my life. If I want more, I have to make more. I wonder how much a loser can do.

<a href=”http://www.public-domain-image.com/full-image/miscellaneous-public-domain-images-pictures/sun-public-domain-images-pictures/sun-eclipses.jpg-royalty-free-stock-image.html&#8221; title=”Sun eclipses”>Sun eclipses</a> by Jon Sullivan


I used to be worried that I wasn’t colorblind. I didn’t judge people based on the color of their skin, but I saw it. Not only was I aware, I was hypersensitive to race. I wanted to talk to black people about their experiences, their lives, their families. I tried not to. I tried to see people just as people, but I couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I’d seen too much, knew too much.

My dad was a terrible person. He’s also a racist. I grew up listening to him say terrible things about blacks, blame them for things, accuse them of things. Meanwhile his actions were as bad or worse than the crap he was projecting onto African-Americans. Besides that, as a drug addict, he was buying drugs usually from black people. The very people he lambasted he gave everything he had to. Instead of taking care of his kids, instead of putting food in the house, he gave it over to people who were supposedly terrible, but who, as far as I could tell, weren’t anywhere near as bad as he was.

My best friend growing up was an African-American girl. Her father was kind of well off, so I was invited to do cool things with them. I went swimming in the underground pool, I went with them into the country, I went to Beauty and the Beast On Ice. I got to do so many things I wouldn’t have been able to if it weren’t for my rich black friend.

So I knew, I really, really knew, how stupid racism was. How real it was. How fucking ridiculous, meaningless, monstrous. That’s what my dad showed me. Racism was the stupidest ideology that ever existed. It disgusted me and enraged me and called me to do something. All this colorblindness makes it worse. People ask like racism isn’t real. People act like its over, and that whatever problems there are don’t exist because of consequences from oppression and poverty. My dad didn’t even go to jail for a year. He never went to prison. Even while I listened to him say his crap, I knew most black men wouldn’t be treated the same way be police. I think about the officer’s who took his word over mine, over my mother’s.

Being a white man still means so much.

So when I see black people, I see people I want to talk to. I want to help. I want to work with. I want to help. I want to stand up for. I don’t of course, because I don’t know them and don’t know their lives. But I think about them. I’m definitely not colorblind.

What can we learn from how animals cope?

I talk a lot about the effect of abuse and addiction on children and families. Many times, the result manifests as a mental illness. This is an interesting look at animal mental illness and what humans can learn from them.


Author of the book Animal Madness, TED Fellow Laurel Braitman shares 5 ways in which animals and humans suffer from similar mental illnesses. Anthropomorphism run amok? You decide.

A golden retriever chases his tail every morning for hours on end. In the evening he compulsively licks his paws till they’re bare and oozy. When he’s given Prozac, he calms down and stops injuring himself … After the death of her mate, a scarlet macaw plucks out every last one of her feathers and doesn’t stop until she’s befriended by a cockatoo … A tabby cat who grew listless and stopped eating after his favorite human went off to college is cheered by the arrival of the family’s new pet rabbit, whom he likes to follow around the house.

Is the dog obsessive-compulsive? The parrot struggling with trichotillomania? The cat, once depressed, now recovered?

Making sense of animal emotional states…

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A Letter to a former friend’s mother

To the mother who rejected,

I was friends with your daughter when we were in fifth grade. Breann was nice to me when I was having a hard time at home with my parents and at school with bullies. I invited her to come over to a Halloween party. Before that, I came to your house for a party she hosted. I made a Halloween toast and I used the H-word. I must have left a bad impression because suddenly she wasn’t allowed over.

I want you to know I understand. You felt the need to protect your daughter. When you saw me, maybe you saw a bad influence. Maybe you saw something you didn’t want your daughter to know more about. You had to do what you had to do to take care of your kids.

And I wasn’t one of your kids, so I know you couldn’t take on helping me, talking to me, looking out for me. I’m sure you didn’t have the time and energy to find out why I acted out in the little ways I did.

It hurt to be rejected like that. It hurt to realize I wasn’t good enough for my sweet, kind friend. It hurt to find out I didn’t know how to act appropriately. Obviously I thought my toast was a fun little thing, but apparently it scared you enough to keep your child away from me. It was a little frightening. My sense of normal is just so skewed.

I was having so much trouble at home. My parents were abusive. Most of the time they ignored me.

I know this wasn’t your problem. I know that. And your daughter turned out so well. When I look at the two of us and where we are in our lives, I guess you made the right choice.

So sayeth the government “help the alcoholics and kick the drug addicts to the curb”

Many conservative people I talk to think that the drug war serves some godly purpose, protecting our children, keeping drugs off the street, and putting those terrible drug criminals behind bars. This is just such an inaccurate perspective.

Addiction is a problem that can tear apart families, is expensive for communities, and can lead to crime. But we need to step back, start over, and really ask “what is the best way to deal with the problems of addiction?”

I have had the unique opportunity to watch police forces deal with alcoholics and drug addicts. The difference is astounding. My father was a mean drunk. I think the fact that this phrase, mean drunk, exists, tells us all we need to know about how dangerous alcohol is. My father turned violent after a few drinks, and everyone fell to his wrath. Even the dog was abused. The police came to the rescue and dragged him away.

But my mother never pressed charges. She was too dependent on him for that. But the police got sick of coming out to our house, so they eventually pressed charges against him and made his stop drinking. He had to detox, go to Alcoholics Anonymous, and take that pill that makes you sick if you drink.

The government treated my dad like an addict with a problem, and they dealt with the problem.

Years later, my parents had serious drug problems. Pills, cocaine, crack, I don’t know what else. He wasn’t a mean drunk anymore. He didn’t stop being violent, but without the alcohol driving him into a rage, he was able to be cunning and cruel instead of just dangerous. The police were still over to our house frequently. Child abuse, stealing, embezzlement, a new string of crime. My father was still arrested, my father was sent to detention centers, to jails.

Where was he never sent? Detox. Rehab. Narcotics anonymous.

There was never a plan to deal with his drug addiction even though that fueled his property crimes and contributed to dangerous situation we had at home.

And when he was in jail my mom fell apart. She hallucinated, she slept all day, she delved into deep depression and all but abandoned her children at home. Things were harder for us at home while he was away because my family had no way to deal with the repurcussions of his addictions.

Isn’t the point of the drug war to protect children and serve the community?

The drug war did nothing to help us, the children of drug addicts, while the police were very helpful when alcohol was the problem.

Past meets present: My parents screwed up love story and contemporary women’s issues

I was talking with my sister, Mimi, and we inevitably get to our parents, or rather my parents, us sharing only a mother. It’s always sad. She has a harder time with it because she has all these memories of times before my dad showed up with his rage and his addictions. She remembers our mother acting like a mother, making dinner and helping with schoolwork. She rails against the mother that let a man pull her away from her children and into his dark world. The other day she told me the story about how they met. I knew some of the details, but she knew the whole sordid tale.

They were both serving jury duty, some medical case. At lunch one day, she was chatting with a friend she made. They were complaining about men.

I can hear my mother’s voice as she says “Men are such assholes.”

My dad overhears this, interrupts them at their table, and so elegantly says, “Not all men.”

Not all men. Oh my god. I nearly keeled over when my sister said that to me. I had followed the commentary closely back in March/April of this year, when the news and social media were such a flutter with that exact phrase. “Not all men” was the interruption men made to stop the nation from considering what might be happening in women’s everyday lives, violence, oppression. “Not all men,” was their contribution, making a statement loud and clear that it was more important to talk about innocent men then the real problems women face.

It is fitting that this is how my parents met. While promising to be the man of kindness, of compassion, of sensitivity, he brought with him like a Trojan horse more violence and despair than we can understand. Or imagine. There must be men in the world who respect women, but my father was never one of them. He broke her nose and cracked her ribs. He contributed to her drug addiction. He framed her for violent crimes. He pushed her away from her children. He ruined her life, her mind, her body.

When he said not all men are assholes, he wasn’t talking about himself.