Social Media is suddenly sending me notices to join Out Of The Darkness walk against suicide. I know y’all mean well but I am not sure about a walk. I recently had a conversation to find help for my friend Scooby who was in the grip of depression. The person I called (for continuity let’s just call him Shaggy) dropped EVERYTHING and rushed to Scooby’s side and stayed. God Bless you Shaggy & Scooby. For me it all brought back a flood of memories and some serious fear. I’ve been here before Shaggy & Scoob and I’m ready to share it now. It happened many years ago…
I still freshly feel the horror of that day. I realize that sometimes when I’m down the rabbit hole that I have to remember events of my own story to answer the riddle my lying brain has come up with of how to climb out.
My Grandparents lived next door and I loved hanging around my larger than life Grandpa V. I remember his booming voice, jokes, and laughter all around him. Most of all I remember his kindness to a skinny straggly little girl. My favorite time was summer when he would emerge from his house in red cowboy boots, yellow and brown plaid shorts, pale white legs, big ol’ rotund white belly and a giant straw cowboy hat (cocked a little to the side like Bonanza). Sometimes the shorts were green and purple for Variety. He had a shiny gold tooth in front that I thought was wonderful and the coolest thing I had ever seen that HE HAD A GOLD TOOTH!
Grandpa always tried his hardest to make me laugh, especially when I had just taken a drink of milk. He would peek out of the corner of his eye and wait. Just as I took a big swig, the joke would come, and so would the milk out of my nose. More often than not the joke was over my head but for some reason I laughed hysterically. It was our thing. He taught me how to spit “correctly” giving me a target each time. He taught me how to whistle different pitches using a licked blade of grass placed between my thumbs. We spent a lot of time in his backyard picking just the right blade-not too thin, not too dry.
My Dad and Grandpa shared flying small airplanes as a business and a hobby. Saturday mornings were reserved for my brother and I to go “up” with my Dad. I looked forward to those rides even though I got motion sick every single time. Grandpa was often hanging out at that tiny local airport telling jokes to the pilots and mechanics in a little tiny cafe. Laughter would roll out the door of the cafe on an air conditioned cloud of cigarette smoke with a hint of the smell of Sanka. I was always pretty sure it was he who had told another joke. Grandpa would see us heading for the hangar and come walking over with a smirk and a frosty bottle of strawberry soda for me to drink saying “It’ll taste better comin’ up” Wink- gold-tooth-flash. The whole family and most of my parent’s friends knew how to fly so pilots often held meetings at our house. I was typically underfoot but Grandpa would always get down to eye level to talk to me in a room full of standing-smoking men, like I was important. Sometimes he would stay inside his own house for weeks though. The grandchildren were very seriously warned to be very quiet playing around his house. I always wondered why and wanted to go get him to find whistle grass.
One morning I was lying in bed before the sun came up, waiting and listening for the world to awaken. I was not allowed out of bed until a certain time because I had a bad habit of forgetting to be quiet and waking everyone. Breaking the silence that morning was a loud pop, and then the phone rang. Dad and I met head on running into the front room, and to avoid collision I slid to a stop on the shiny waxed linoleum floor flipping over the arm and landing in Dad’s big leather chair. He beat me to the phone, I heard screaming through the earpiece, Dad yelled something to my mom while the flimsy brass phone stand snagged on the phone cord and crashed to the ground in one motion as he ran out the front door. I tried to catch him while the world went SiDEwaYs. I found myself standing in the doorway of a bedroom in the house next door. Grandpa had shot himself in the chest while in bed. (Blank/fuzzy memory this part). Dad hollered over his shoulder for me to “GET OUT! TELL MOM TO COME!” then ordered me to take my little brother over to my older sister’s house and “do not let him see”. My sister also lived next door but on the other side. I vividly remember how loud my heart beat was as the world slowed way down; Ambulance can’t find us… siren wailing -closer/farther/closer/farther as it went down several dead end streets with the same name as ours… my Uncle Jim is here!…the neighbors are spilling out into their yards in the pale dawn… I think I see Mom walking beside my inconsolable Grandma… tummy ache like the down side of a roller coaster… my sister pulling the shades darkening her front room… Peeking out anyway… Sheriff car! They’re talking to grandma alone…WHERE’S MY DAD?
My brother clung to me in the darkness while my sister left us to “go see what was happening” Brother wanted to go too. I try to keep my little brother there like I was told, …he’s yelling at me, punching and kicking me to let him go see… I don’t let go…I hug him tight while he trembled and sobbed and windmill hit me. I took his punches over and over, until his fit drew random patches of red blotches his face and he started wheezing and lay on my shoulder, all quiet now. The ambulance wailed to life and took Grandpa away. We were allowed home… get dressed…no breakfast please… “NO I don’t want to go to school!” “There’s nothing you can do here…” Uncontrollable shaking, stomach flipping…. all the way to school.
I sat robot-like in class obsessively thinking about the look on my little brother’s face when we dropped him off at his school (which was about a mile from mine). He had shadowed me all morning and when he was clingy like that I usually didn’t leave him. The only consolation was that he loved his teacher dearly and thought the moon rose and set by her beauty and kindness. I can see my thoughts of that day in class as clearly as if it scrolled in front of me written in proper white chalk cursive on a faded green chalkboard. “My brother needs me, Dad said to watch him, how can I get to him, I could walk to his school, why am I here? …the clock is too slow, the clock is too loud, the ticking hurts my head, is Grandpa going to die? This isn’t where I should be, I need to go…Where is my DAD?” Over and over it went until it all became static while my teacher droned on.
Sign language was big in our 5th grade class among the cool girls and I so badly wanted to be in their group. Girls would finger-spell behind the teacher’s back across the room. It was so much more effective than passing notes that might be intercepted by the sharp eye of Mrs. T. I was slow at forming the finger words, but I could read it like lightening. I kept that a secret because only the “it” girls were the supposed to be quick and they took pride in practicing daily with each other.
Through my foggy mechanical stare I accidentally learned from a fast fingered across-the-room conversation the identity of a boy that the new girl liked. Colette had recently been added to our class and came with cute clothes and shiny black shoes. She had a perfect hair flip and was instantly popular (even her name was beautiful). She was so clean, like a shiny princess. I wanted to be like her. I always started the morning off clean but somehow it always went wrong. I always ended up the color of dirt. Usually there was a scabbed or tow, one knee sock that wouldn’t stay up, scuffed brown shoes, stringy hair, too big or too small hand-me-down dress from an 8 yr older sister. Later at recess a buzz of girls were all around Colette trying to guess the identity of the boy. (Of course the boys were huddled nearby waiting for the news). Who would be the prince? The buzzing grew louder and louder. Bumbling along kicking up dust planning my escape and forgetting all social rules I blurted out the answer. Not only did I produce the name of the boy (slow motion all eyes on me-mouths dropped), I also gave up the two girls who “told” me. I had been able to read their secret language and committed the worst 5th grade girl social sin of all time.
War on me was declared from one of the finger-spellers and within minutes a circle formed around us as we stood toe to toe. She was taller and was DEMANDING to know how I knew and that SHE didn’t tell me. I was trapped inside the now boy-girl circle and trapped inside brain full of static. I froze. I don’t remember much about the fight or remember the blows, just the smell of the children scrubbed clean that morning now sweaty from play, the choking dust as my face hit the dirt, and I oddly remember noticing a wide variety of shoes. Someone yelled “TEACHER!” but I didn’t run, just watched those shoes scramble away.
I was hauled up from the ground and pulled to the front office with Mrs. T’s crushing grip on my skinny little arm. Kids from other grades pressed up against the windows watching the walk of shame. I hid my involuntary tears that spilled down dirty cheeks letting my hair fall in my face as she scolded, drug, and shook me. The distinctive front office smell that only schools seem to have whooshed by as the heavy door swung out. It must have snapped me out of it a little. Suddenly I was braver than myself. I demanded that they let me walk over to the my brother’s school. “LET ME GO!” I yelled as I wriggled out of her brown spotted hand-vice and point sharp red fingernails. I hated her and hated her click-y shoe heels even more.
The sideways pity glances of the beehive haired ladies who looked up from their desks made me wonder how much they knew. Adult whispers, beehive lady phone calls mixed with the tap-tap-tap of typewriters, & very soon someone was talking on the phone to my brother’s Beloved Teacher… Mrs. T snapped at me “Now see, he’s FINE, behaving better than YOU young lady!” as she spun on her click- shoe heels and swayed her giant hips smashed into a strained girdle out the door. I spent an hour or three in the nurse’s office until the school nurse had to leave for the day. Perhaps to make sure I didn’t run, she escorted me all the way back to class. I was humiliated as 5th graders were usually allowed to walk back on their own. I re-entered a room of kids who wouldn’t make eye contact. They looked up as the door opened then snapped their eye’s front as fast as possible. Whether it was my newly established status as a pariah or the kids were told about Grandpa I will never know. I was glad they weren’t staring. I wanted to be invisible. One boy from my church who sat behind me asked if I was okay. I wrinkled my face and angrily shout-whispered “yesss!” He put his hand on my shoulder and left it there for a very, very long time. I realize now, in the social structure of 70’s 5th grade boy-girl rules, how very brave his kind gesture of friendship was and I will never forget it R.
Grandpa didn’t die. He came way too close. My Dad managed to do just the right thing to stop the bleeding. Another 1/8th of an inch they said, bullet in the heart sac they said. He was reading the Bible all night before it happened they said. Died once on the table they said. Shock treatments they said. Long road ahead they said.
We visited him as a family once in a very white, eye stinging ammonia smelling room. The booming voice and laughter was gone. He stared right through me. (I’m here Grandpa!). I remember longing to see that shiny gold tooth and noticed that his hair was combed wrong. I wished I had a glass of milk to drink to remind him that he was funny. He was sitting directly in front of me and yet I was still looking for him. We children never visited there again but much later when he was in a different very plastic/orange place. I remember the world around him being hushed. Hussssshhhhhhed. It felt like he forgot me, but somehow even at my young age I realized he forgotten himself because something scary took him. IT WAS The Jabberwocky.
I was never ashamed of any of it really. I was proud of him. Proud he fought to live, proud our family stayed united and whole. I was even prouder of my Dad who more than usual seemed to hold up the entire world. Our world and his father’s world too.
Grandpa came home as if none of it had happened. He looked the same but now something behind his eyes that I had never seen. I don’t remember the red cowboy boots after that, although I want to believe he wore them under his long pants. Sometimes I thought that looked lost and wished I could lead him back, but I didn’t know how. I felt scared to trust myself to love him ever again. Sometimes he just looked at me sadly. It was okay I reasoned, at least he saw me. Gently he worked his way back to my life. I liked his new self, but I have to say missed all that noise that used to be all around him. I was afraid of the quiet. Hussshhhhhh Whosssshhhh. I’m grateful that 48 years later they know so much more how to help us.
Everyone that was there that day has their own version of what happened. Like all events of terror we lived through it together but under our own circumstance. Each of us remembers where we were, what we did, and what we took from the experience. We rarely speak of it. It wasn’t until his funeral many years later that I learned that after the accident ( I still call it an accident) he started supplying food and clothing to several families. He had also talked at great lengths to the pastor of his church about what he saw when he “died” and asked it never be shared. All Grandpa would tell us was that he was told had more to do & “There wasn’t much time”.
I don’t know what make Grandpa shoot himself that day but when I feel my own despair and the static turns into darkness, I think that I understand. I get help.
Possibly hereditary I find my own brain malfunctions and no matter how I resist, the depression takes over. I get a feeling that I am fading away, static gets so LOUD but only I can hear it!
‘I am here you cannot see, my shadow dances when I cannot be…me’.
I always thought what I felt was a lot like Alice on the other side of the looking glass and can’t get back. The static gets louder, darker, the deeper part of the depression. It’s then I know I am falling backwards down the rabbit hole. Again.
It helps me to re-read Lewis Carol’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ or I watch the Tim Burton version. Somehow that book allows me to make sense of my brain when my own life goes wonky and sideways. I stay away from Grandpa’s Bible on those days.
While free-falling down the rabbit hole I try to remember that what I am feeling is not real. I will never catch the white rabbit, (there is always so much to do and no time to do it). At night my thoughts race. Thoughts that become the most important things to accomplish of anyone in existence! Ever! My inability to solve even the simplest of problems right then and there means to me that I am a failure… and then it starts all over again. I have chased that rabbit way too many nights.
I meander through the days and obey all the rules; “drink me” and “eat me”. I blindly follow along just like Alice did even though those rules may make me too big or too small and not at all fitting in. I attend tea parties I don’t understand and observe a door mouse wanting to sleep all the time. I fully get why. As a kid that door mouse annoyed me sleeping through a party, interrupting, and no respect. NOWdays am so jealous of his ability to nap through it all. Ha!
I have made friends with The Mad Hatter who constantly chatters inside my head with all his nonsense and riddles. They are my nonsense and riddles, forgetfulness, ego and fear. He is my madness and I accept him/me for who we are. After all “all the best people are” at least a little crazy. He is my best friend, I am afraid of him, and I am sorry for him and he is me all at once.
The hookah smoking caterpillar and I hang out with complete abandon and we are both full of apathy as I plan my escape. He was a character that frightened me as a child. How could someone be so uncaring when Alice obviously needed help to get through the forest! Now we party together and I understand the apathy about the third glass of wine. Although it feels so good, I try not to hide out with Absalom very long. I very much miss caring about things.
The remainder of the journey is through the scary forest. I am angry I have to continue. When I am angry or sad, the Red Queen is even angrier at me. The Red Queen is a touchy subject for me. The Red Queen reflect back at me from the people who don’t want to accept when I am in Wonderland. The Red Queen snaps at me “Oh not again!”, “what’s wrong with you?”, and “You’re insane” She makes demands of me. “Why don’t you just snap out of it”? She is especially angry at me when I am at my worst. How could I do this to her? and so forth. She is the Red Queen after all. I have made her so because she adores me.
Along comes the Cheshire cat who lives in my unconscious mind and keeps popping in and fading out with tidbits of wisdom leaving only a ghost of a smile. I really need what the Cheshire cat has to say but it isn’t ever clear. He tells me that I have to be more “in the world” but won’t give me any tools to accomplish the task; just that faded smile of happier times. I see the Cheshire Cat’s smile in my pictures of the past. I can’t connect to myself anymore. My favorite line in the Tim Burton film version is when Johnny Dep as the Mad Hatter says “You’re not the same as before used to be much more… much-ier, you’ve lost your muchness”. It feels like a difficult and heavy task, me looking for my muchness. I keep chasing that ghost smile.
Help comes from where you least expect it. Friends meet me in the darkness sometimes when I am at my worst. They meet me at the Red Queen’s court. They try to show me the way. I will resist them & fight them because I think they don’t know what it is like. I am innocent, I believe that they are attacking me like the Red Queen’s minions. They don’t deserve my resistance.
Suddenly out of nowhere, the sparkly White Queen, pops in with the answer to it all. I didn’t ask her for help and don’t even think I want it, but she offers up the secret. Sometimes the White Queen is just a song on the radio, sometimes it’s a scripture, or a prayer, or a friend. Beautiful but I don’t trust it. The White Queen tells me the secret, that to get out of Wonderland the Jabberwocky must be slain by me alone. The Jabberwocky wants only to destroy everything in my World. The trick is to find the courage and the way. I don’t want to do it. I pray, listen. sleep, avoid, and wait for a different solution, medication?. The answers come when I quiet the creatures in my mind.
Those days when I am lost and meandering through the scary forest I force myself to re-live my own story to find my way back. I remember, even if I don’t want to believe it, that I have been here before. (They whisper this to Alice and she doesn’t believe it either.) This time must be worse. It isn’t. That knowledge gives me courage through the fear to walk, no march, right into the scary forest, put on my armor, pick up the sword and fight. I know I can’t get out unless I do.
That visit in that sterile hospital the day I was sitting with my unrecognizable Grandpa helps me recover. I find myself looking in the mirror seeing the same thing in my eyes, (I see the same thing in your eyes Scooby. It’s okay we can win this war). Some days I seem to be so far away, it’s like I am out of my body looking in from the other side. It’s those times I can’t seem get a grasp on what is real. I tell myself my brain is lying to me. It’s then I know I must force myself to solve the Mad Hatter’s riddle.
I finally pull myself out by remembering. Remembering that “pop” that day. Remembering what was lost and how the world kept on going. Remembering that there are 5th grade girls to whom the most important secret in life is about what boy they like, that there are 3rd grade boys who tremble and cry but deal with it better than an older sister, and that there are families needing food and clothing that I can provide if I stay. I remember that I must look for them because there may not be much more time.
I solve the riddle by knowing there are people just waiting for me to wear my red boots with yellow and brown plaid shorts and make them snort milk out of their nose.
I KNOW how unfair it is that someone else has to hold up my world while I am away at Wonderland. I have to focus that I am the only one who can slay the Jabberwocky. I alone must kill the dragon creating the darkness in my mind. I alone must befriend and forgive the Red Queen. I will protect her from the Jabberwocky and keep her from being so hurt. All so that she doesn’t think she has to fight the off world for no reason (and then just ends up face down in the dirt noticing shoes). I solve the riddle by striving to climb out one step at a time.
So it’s my own story that reminds me of what it can look like after-all if I don’t fight back. The Story of Grandpa V. and what ever happened to his red boots. Because of him I know that those who love me trust me to stay who I am and not get lost in Wonderland. It’s because of him I know that not everyone sees the other side of the mirror. It’s for the people who trust me that I venture forward, head on into the scary forest. For them I search for the ghost smile. For them I don’t hang around the caterpillar very long. For them I fight the darkness. For them I put on my armor, pick up the sword, and slay the Jabberwocky.
It is for all of this that in the end I put on my red boots and dance the Futterwacken with the Mad Hatter …. …..as a celebration of LIFE.
Alice asks the Hatter for the answer the riddle he gave her at the tea party:
Alice: “Hatter, how IS a raven like a writing desk?”
Mad Hatter: “I have absolutely no idea”