Monthly Archives: January 2018

Wildland fire suicides and why choice is so hard to understand

Lone firefighter

I finally asked my mom if she would talk about her suicide attempt in order to understand the perspective of someone who gets to that point. This last summer suicide rates of wildland firefighters made the headlines and with such a long and devastating fire season, it seemed to add insult to injury for those in the community.

Wildfire Today and The Atlantic both ran in-depth pieces on the epidemic. I ran the numbers and they are staggering: Between 2015 and 2016, 28 firefighters died on the job. During that same period 52 firefighters took their own lives. Numbers do not lie and these numbers reveal that more firefighters die by suicide than by fire.

I wanted to address mental health and suicide at work, I wanted to get people talking about it to help remove the stigma that only the weak or selfish take their own life; hoping that perhaps if we try to understand, maybe we won’t judge and thereby provide a safe place for people to talk about what has caused them to reach a point of no return. But in order to do that I needed to try to understand myself.

I was touched by suicide when I was 25 years old after my mother almost succeeded at taking her own life. We’ve never talked about it. I don’t know why I have been so afraid to ask her about it but I figured it was time. I needed to understand. To my surprise she had no problem talking about it – seemingly eager to tell her story. Maybe she’s been waiting for an opportunity to be understood.

After my mom graduated from law school she got a job in the Utah Attorney General’s Office as an assistant attorney general. She was also teaching law classes at the University of Utah. Her and my dad were divorced and me and my three other siblings lived with my dad, but mom was around a lot. She had latitude with her work schedule working for the State. She was flying high – she had a great and prestigious job, she had flexibility, she had a successful boyfriend who was also a lawyer that she thought she might marry, and she had aspirations of running for office – she seemingly had everything; the sky was the limit. Until she flew too close to the sun.

The Utah Medical Association offered her a job. Life was moving fast. She couldn’t believe how great it was; surely being the attorney for the Utah Medical Association would propel her to the pinnacle of her career. She was warned by an associate not to take it, certain she would hate it. Her father suggested she let him negotiate her salary and told her not to take anything below $100,000. She didn’t listen to anyone because she knew what she was doing, it was a strategic move for her and her career – it was a prestigious private sector job. If she could hack this, she could take on the world. She took the job for $11,000 more than she was making, which was roughly $80,000.

Mom in front of paintingThe glamour and allure wore off fast. The new job did not have the flexibility or independence that the government job did. She could not work early and leave early, she was required to be with her bosses all the time, to have a cell phone so that they could get a hold of her, and then she started to have to work nights and weekends.

It was then that she began to feel like she was suffocating, like a noose had been placed around her neck and was tightening. No longer was she able to see her kids when she wanted to, she didn’t have time for her boyfriend; she didn’t have time for anything but work.

One night she did the math on her salary and the hours she was working and it amounted to little more than minimum wage. The warnings and suggestions she had heard before she took the job came back to haunt her. She had not done her research and now she was trapped. Her life became fragmented; she was losing control of it and watched helplessly as pieces of it started drifting away. For a professed control freak, this was terrifying. She started having anxiety attacks. It was a gradual sequence of events that led her there, but once she got there it sped up and her life spiraled out of control.

I had recently gotten out of the military and was going to school at what was Dixie State Community College in St. George at that time. I was living in my mom’s second home that she rented out to single women. I didn’t know at the time that something was wrong but I took a trip to Mexico with my mom and an old boyfriend hers that she had gotten back together with after her and her other boyfriend broke up. She wasn’t herself. She seemed scared and nervous which was completely the opposite of her normal state of being. Me and my brother blew it off as weird and didn’t think about it beyond asking, “What’s wrong with mom?”

A year later I had moved to Salt Lake City and was going to Salt Lake Community College. I went to visit my mom at work – I’d never seen her office. While we were talking she told me she couldn’t breath and took her chair outside to sit in the parking lot. Admittedly, it was strange but then again, my mother never liked being inside so it was kind of normal. I was still a little confused by her behavior and didn’t know how to respond to her telling me that she felt like she was suffocating in the building. It never occurred to me she was in trouble.

Years later when I was talking to one of my aunts, she told me that my mom was talking about suicide to them. They took her to a behavioral health hospital because they thought she was suffering from depression. The doctors gave her anti-depressants. As someone who doesn’t like to be out of control, she didn’t want to take the pills, but I think she did take them. Later it was discovered that she was suffering from anxiety not depression.

At this point she had married a long-time boyfriend and was living in Midway, Utah. She lost a worrisome amount of weight and was not herself at all. She said she had been told she had a life threatening brain disease. With this news she started to wonder what it had all been for. Why had she left her family and her kids to go to law school and then work a job that became a prison if she was just going to die anyway?  She had given up what mattered most to her for something she thought had a higher purpose, that was bigger than her – a heroic life – only to find out that it wasn’t worth it in the end.

She started to look at what she had to leave us kids. She had $15,000 in the bank. She wrote notes to all us where she left all she had to us (I never saw the letters), took her bottle of pills and drove to Deer Creek Reservoir and swallowed them all. She thought what she was doing was a loving act not to make us go through the long process of watching her die only to leave us with nothing.

Deer Creek

Deer Creek Reservoir, Wasatch County, Utah – photo credit Wikipedia

For some reason she drove back to the house. She says she remembers it being very scary because of all the medications she had taken. Her husband rushed her to the hospital to have her stomach pumped.  When I got the call he was sobbing and told me what happened. He explained how she went into convulsions and only survived because the pills were time released. The doctors said that if the pills had all released at the same time she would have died.

I was in shock. I drove to Midway though I don’t recall why or what I did. All I remember is seeing the man who for all intents and purposes was a second father to me, sitting out behind his barn on the ground bawling – his eyes bloodshot, the life drained out of him.

The next day I had to go to school. I cried all the way there. I remember sitting in the parking lot and thinking that if I let myself feel this, my world would fall apart too. I wiped the tears away, pushed my feelings beneath the surface, went to class, and never let myself feel it again.

At the time I had just started dating my husband. We were in a long distance relationship and he would fly from Georgia to Utah to see me or vice versa. We were sitting in Barnes and Noble in Salt Lake City on one such visit and he asked me if I was okay. I said, “I’m not a glass doll, I won’t break.” In retrospect that seems like such a calloused thing to say, but in reality, it was a defense mechanism against the fear of falling into a void I was afraid I would never be able to climb back out of.

My mother was transferred to the LDS Behavioral Health Hospital. I recall only going to visit her there once. She was lying in the hospital bed and didn’t seem aware of my presence. I tried talking to her but she wouldn’t respond, staring straight through me. She looked empty as if she had succeeded at killing herself but her body hadn’t registered it yet. I wanted to hold her hand or lay down with her and hug her, hold her tight, but I couldn’t do it. The person in front of me was not the strong, fearless, larger-than-life woman I had known all my life – the person in front of me was a stranger.

I didn’t know how to reach her. I didn’t know what to say or do. I’d never been taught what to do with pain and suffering and so I sat there frozen and terrified. I felt a tremendous amount of guilt, certain I should be doing something but not knowing what, and thinking that I was a worthless daughter. So I just kept putting one foot in front of the other in order to survive myself.

What transpired after that is a blur. I got married, moved away, and started a family of my own. My sister got out of the Air Force and her and my brothers tried picking up the pieces while trying to find their own way in life. Mom never recovered. She had a mental break that left her in a perpetual loop of regret and agony. She became a ghost, an empty shell, a person without a purpose, living because – what choice did she have?

I don’t know if the suicide attempt caused my mother brain damage or if she already had some form of mental illness that was camouflaged by her success that would have eventually revealed itself in time, but mental illness is the only way to describe what happened to her. She bounced around for years living with family members who would take care of her until worn out and then pass her off to someone else. She did not take care of herself and engaged in erratic and disturbing behavior that left her and the family routinely dealing with the police. Mom was supposed to be taking medications but wouldn’t and the family couldn’t make her.

Vintage me and mom

Me and my mom circa 1980s

Roughly eight years later I moved back to southern Utah. While my mom didn’t live with us, we took her on and spent a lot of time with her. This was when I started to see a change in her; she seemed to be getting better. I don’t know if it was having me close or if it was my children, or if it was a combination of things but she found a desire to live again and started getting better – not whole, but better.

When we talked on the phone she told me she was so glad she didn’t succeed at killing herself and that even though she is homeless, she loves life. She wondered aloud if idealistic people were at a higher risk for suicide than others. She queried further if people who work “heroic” jobs, who witness destruction, loss, and ugliness in life – as well as heroic, bigger-than-life events that they are a part of – or those who have to choose between that life and people they value – or those who lose their “heroic” status – are at a higher risk. She told me that she definitely saw her work as heroic, as noteworthy – but that when that heroic world started to crumble, her idealism crashed with it.

She explained that it wasn’t one thing, it was a sequence of events that all collided at once and left her feeling fragmented, her life seemingly in shards that she couldn’t seem to put back together. While my mother’s story is her own and I am certain people have many reasons and different triggers that get them to that point, I’m also certain there is a common strand between all of them.

I am now the same age my mother was when she tried to end her life. I have never contemplated suicide but I lived long enough to question what it is all for, to wonder what the point is. I have taken the hard knocks of life and as Stephen King said, I’ve seen time begin its stealthy and rotten subtractions. I know what it is like to lose interest in things that used to bring value and joy to my life, and force myself to keep doing them, hoping the joy and fulfillment will return. I know what it is like for kids to become the only reason to keep going and do what must be done and I know what it is like to long for close friendships and community and not have the energy to reach out and maintain, establish, or build them while enviously watching others who have. This is all without a collision of destabilizing events.

I thought of my season on the engine, the high stress, high camaraderie, fulfilling, and fun work and then the denouement that followed at the end of fire season that left me lost and off balance when I returned to normal life. It took me a good two months to recover and find meaning in life outside of my job. I still struggle with it and that was one season. I can only imagine a career of it year after year with all that life throws at you – potential problems or stresses at home, perhaps unhappy spouses, or no support and loneliness waiting at the end, illnesses or injuries that end the job, medical expenses that lead to bills and debt, time away from children – or just trying to find value outside of a high-value job.

Firefighter

As my mother talked I thought of a conversation I had with my boss who talked to me about the stresses of of being a wildland firefighter and warned me of the strain it puts on a marriage, telling me to take care of the home life. He said, “There are a lot of divorced firefighters.” He then went on to say, “You never know what a coworker is going through, you may never know that one of them is living out of a car – let me know if you are struggling so that I can help okay?”

What he didn’t tell me was that fire is an escape from the worries of life, that for brief, adrenaline-filled periods you have a single purpose where the cares of the world fall away and, as Steinbeck said, “…a kind of glory lights up the mind like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then -the glory- so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished,” – until it ends and everything turns back to gray. What my boss didn’t tell me was how hard it would be to get by in the day-to-day stretches of time after the glory had faded.

I asked my mom if there was anything anyone could have said or done to help her, any intervention that would have kept her from veering toward suicide. She wasn’t sure and said she would have to think about it. *

My mother was strong, fierce, and full of life – I still see her that way but perhaps more realistically now, more human; definitely fragile, breakable. Perhaps that is where we go wrong with people, we don’t allow them to be completely human – we don’t pay attention when they are living in the gray.

Perhaps the stigma of being weak if you are struggling with circumstances that appear to be a result of poor choices  is what causes people to go it alone. Or maybe there is something insidious to the culture of rugged individualism where you are told to pull up your bootstraps and push through it despite needing help, and as a result, there’s a fear of sharing just how bad a shape you are in. And then there’s sharing your mental fitness with others – the trust required and vulnerability that would follow such an admission, combined with the very real possibility of repercussions for letting people know the truth – that could be a strong deterrent to that kind of honesty.

I am just taking stabs in the dark but I have to believe there are answers. Why is suicide so astronomical, especially among veterans, police, and firefighters? Why do “heroes” kill themselves? Why does anyone?

Furthermore, what makes a life worth living? What can we do for those who think theirs isn’t? What can we do if we think our own life isn’t worth living? It’s possible there are answers if we are willing to look, if we are willing to enter uncharted territory where answers are uncomfortable, don’t come easy, and where when they do, they’re hard to grapple with. I’m willing to go there and listen to find out. Are you?

After observing those who survived Nazi concentration camps and those who did not Jewish psychiatrist Victor Frankl said that survival wasn’t based on youth or physical strength but rather on the strength derived from purpose, and the discovery of meaning in one’s life and experience. He said, “Man is ready and willing to shoulder any suffering as soon and as long as he can see a meaning in it.”

Perhaps finding meaning outside of work is a starting place. If you want to talk or share you can contact me here.

*My mother has since told me that being given the statistics of suicide among children of parents who have committed suicide might have kept her from trying.*

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Utah legislators see savior in Trump in battle for public lands

Bears Ears buttes

Photo by Witold Skrypczak/Getty Images

When Donald Trump was running for office in 2016, a recording of comments he made about his fame and power being so all-encompassing that he could just grab a woman’s pussy surfaced. Unlike his more prevalent modus operandi of denial and counter accusations, he did not deny having said it. He summed it up as locker room talk that was inappropriate. This may be the closest thing to contrition he has ever done.

Here in Utah, the predominant Mormon culture denounced him and his bid for the presidency. I recall Mayor John Pike posting about it on Facebook saying he could not be president and implying his support for Evan McMullin.

It appeared — on the surface at least — that in spite of being one of the reddest and most fundamentalist conservative states in the union, the Mormons by and large had a moral code which would not abide supporting such a man regardless of the desire to have a republican in the Oval Office.

Comedian and political commentator Bill Maher even lauded Utah on his show, saying, “How about the Mormons?” As outspoken as he is about the absurdity of the claims of all religions, he seemed to be momentarily impressed that perhaps there was a line that could not be crossed with them.

I remember saying to myself in response to Maher, “Don’t count on it.”

This is because, in my own experience living in Utah, I have come to understand the duplicitous nature of this culture intimately and first hand. I doubted (and would eventually be affirmed in that doubt) that the election results would demonstrate that said line even existed. Roughly half (45.5 percent) voted for Trump.

This is anything but an anti-Mormon rant. It is an uttering of bewilderment at the sheer hypocrisy of the conservative religious right. It is a belaboring of the painfully obvious fact that religion and its claims to having the final word on moral authority have been hijacked for the purposes of greedy men and women.

And one would need look no further than the example of the moral ground laid in the 2016 election versus the election results to see this.

After all, Trump was the Will of God incarnate for the legislators of this pristine state to at last have a shot at what they have been fighting for since they arrived in the original territory just a little more than 100 years ago: the right to claim for themselves what was never theirs and do as they please with what does not belong to them — public lands.

Prior to the last year, any attempts at gaining control of land that belonged to every American was stopped in its tracks by long-standing court precedents and legislation such as the Antiquities Act, the Federal Land Management and Policy Act, and even the Taylor Grazing Act. What were tantamount to nothing more than rally cries fortified by frivolous lawsuits and acts of childish behavior with deadly consequences were seemingly validated by Trump’s illegal decision to rescind the newly appointed Bears Ears and Escalante National Monuments.

In no less than a week’s time from Trump’s announcement, Utah legislators began to introduce bills to paper over the illegal act, making it veritable law of the land. This has been their hope all along: to take hold of land that does not belong to them under the guise of being better stewards of it only to sell it to the extractive industries, though they deny it.

Adding to the hypocrisy is the constant bemoaning by Utah legislators of federal government overreach and the need for independence contrasted with the copious amount of federal money the state takes. In fact, in a bill proposed to allow a self-governing national park, they will still require federal money to run it in the form of taxes paid by every American who rightfully owns that land.

At present, multiple lawsuits have been brought forth to challenge Trump’s sweeping illegal move and interestingly enough just this week a motion was made to have the venue for these cases to be heard moved from Washington D.C. to a federal court in Utah.

How convenient.

Duplicitous as they may be, I will say that they are cunning. This was a masterfully played hand that could set into motion a chain of events leading to the abolition of federal land management agencies altogether as well as public lands.

Careful what you ask for, Utah. Because the master you serve is not a benevolency at all but rather serves the corporate machinations of greedy and merciless people who have feigned sympathy for your plight in order to steal the birthright of every American. The day will come when you realize the Pandora you have been played for and the box you will not be able to close.

See you out there.

Originally published in the Southern Utah Independent.

U.S. Government shuts down over Dreamers

Immigration

“The rich stand on the same footing as the poor. Wealth and possession of real estate confer not the least political right on its owner above what the poorest citizen has.”
A German immigrant to America

The government has shutdown over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, or so it seems. Many democrats are asking, why this of all the issues they could bargain with? Many republicans, including the President, are suggesting that democrats care more about illegal immigrants than our military. Perhaps, however, the better question is, why are republicans holding strong against 800,000 children who were brought here by parents escaping horrible living conditions in their own countries? It seems a small compromise for republicans to make and a cruel and unnecessary demonstration of inhumanity to insist on holding our budget and government hostage unless we deport them.

Our government is a republican form of government, not a straight democracy. A republic places limits on the government by the law to protect minority rights. This means that certain inalienable rights cannot be taken away by the government even if a majority elects them into office. A pure democracy is “rule by the omnipotent majority.” In a democracy, an individual, and any group of individuals composing any minority, have no protection against the unlimited power of the majority. It is a case of Majority-over-Man. For those who do not like the federal government to have too much power or control over their lives, this is the check against it. It alone is what stops mob rule. This is important because any of us could at some point in time be in the minority, whether race, religion, or political affiliation.

I don’t know why democrats are insisting on making DACA the lynch pin of passing the budget but it may very well be because it’s the right thing to do. Those children did not ask to be brought to this country illegally; they more than likely had no choice in the matter. In this country we generally believe that parents know best what is good for their children and would support the parents’ decision in almost any other situation.

Congress recognized that these children should not be penalized for the actions of their parents and therefore set about coming up with a solution for them. It’s the humane and ethical thing to do. The Dream Act Bill was first proposed in Congress in 2007, then again in 2011, and then after a lot of work, passed in 2013.

What the Dream Act Bill created was immigration policy, DACA, that that allowed some individuals who entered the country as minors, and had either entered or remained in the country illegally, to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and to be eligible for a work permit. As of 2017, approximately 800,000 individuals – referred to as Dreamers after the Dream Act Bill – were enrolled in the program created by DACA. These people willingly enrolled in this program.

According to the Journal of Public Economics, research has shown that DACA increased the wages and labor force participation of DACA-eligible immigrants, and reduced the number of unauthorized immigrant households living in poverty. Studies have shown that DACA increased the mental health outcomes for DACA-eligible immigrants and their children.

To address the issue of American job loss, there are no known major adverse impacts from DACA on native-born workers’ employment and most economists say that DACA benefits the U.S. economy. The loss of immigrants, however, could negatively impact our economy. And last, to be eligible for the program, recipients may not have felonies or serious misdemeanors on their records. In other words, these are good kids who will become good citizens. There is no evidence that DACA-eligible individuals are more likely to commit crimes than any other person within the United States.

This looks like the fair and morally superior solution to deportation. The only question that remains is: Why are republicans making the future of these children the lynch pin of the budget? What do they lose by allowing these children to stay and become citizens? What do any of us lose? The answer, sadly, is nothing. We lose nothing except the image we portray to the world of our humanity by what we are willing to do to the least of our brothers and sisters. They, on the other hand, stand to lose a lot.

Our country was founded and established by mothers and fathers seeking escape from their home countries, who risked it all to start a new life in a new land. We would be wise to exercise humility and care when affecting the fate of other human beings, especially when it costs us nothing to do so. This land is big enough for all of us; it is great because of all who came here, worked here, lived here, and died here. Immigrants built this country. Who are we to claim they no longer have a place here? What right under our republic do we feel morally entitled enough to do that?

As a federal civil servant I am not glad that the government has shut down, I have something to lose in this, but I am glad that there are individuals in Congress who will fight for the rights of others, who will put it all on the line for children who deserve a fighting chance, from a country that has lured generations of people to its shores with the promise of freedom and opportunity to dream big.

Citations:

Pope, Nolan G. (2016). “The effects of DACAmentation: The impact of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals on illegal immigrants”Journal of Public Economics143: 98–114. doi:10.1016/j.jpubeco.2016.08.014.

Patler, Caitlin; Cabrera, Jorge (June 2015). From Undocumented to DACAmented: Impacts of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program Three Years Following its Announcement (PDF) (Report). Institute for Research and Labor Employment, University of California, Los Angeles.

Gonzales, Roberto; Terriquez, Veronica; Ruszczyk, Stephen (October 1, 2014). “Becoming DACAmented: Assessing the Short-Term Benefits of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)”American Behavioral Scientist.

“Trump’s Harsh Message to Immigrants Could Drag on Economy”. Associated Press. 2017-09-06. ISSN 0362-4331

“Fact Check: Are DACA Recipients Stealing Jobs Away From Other Americans?”NPR.org

Bushatz, Amy. (January 2018). How a Government Shutdown would impact military pay, benefits, Military.com.

 

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