“I fight my battle with monopolated light and power”. -Ralph Ellison
I think about loneliness often and most so when I am lonely. In the aftermath of a glorious trip to Puerto Rico, spent in a state of harmonious connection with light, water and people, I am mourning sudden absences. Home in Philadelphia, winter is making its last stand. Today runners of a half marathon wandered blustery streets in their metallic wraps as I hunched against the cold, head cast down. All the light and color of San Juan has melted away and the knowledge that soon cherry blossoms will erupt across this city isn’t enough to carry me. Just how important is color to our successful human navigation through life? Ralph Ellison’s prologue to “Invisible Man” includes a discussion of this very question.
Describing his underground living quarters in New York City, Ellison’s protagonist (the Invisible Man) says: “My hole is warm and full of light….I love light. Light confirms my reality; gives birth to my form. Nothing, storm nor flood, must get in the way of our need for light, and ever more and brighter light. The truth is the light and light is the truth…”.
This power is contrasted with the danger of living in the dark. Ellison calls this semi- blindness sleep walking, referring not to literal blindness but narrowness of vision. Think of the sleepwalking quality of an episode of depression and you’ll get it. In those days, weeks or months, we are blind to joy, love and all expressions of beauty. In my post-vacation haze, I rejoiced in his profundity—my sentiments expressed in perfect economy. I wonder what Mr. Ellison would suggest I do in my acute longing for said light? Nothing remotely trite like “find it within, Elsie!”. Other than that, I can’t say. I am right this moment wearing a dress covered in blossoms while looking at the abundant floral arrangements I’ve placed in our living room. No one could accuse me of giving up at the first sour note. I suppose the question is, is light is something we can generate on our own or is it something we receive from an external force? The answer is both which isn’t very satisfying.
My strategy is to look to other, less literal, sources of light. Music. Warm water. Jack (my nephew). And when the sun pokes out, I run towards my square of paved roof like someone seeking God. If the truth is light and light is the truth, “Run to the Rays” is the right answer.
I’m on vacation in Puerto Rico for two weeks. I’ve been looking forward to this respite from the East Coast and the grinding pressure of life in semi-post COVID for MONTHS. And now that I’m here, I have to put away the bad habits that prevent meaningful experience.
We got off to a bumpy start when our rental property lost its running water and a hotel stay became necessary. And it’s been far more difficult detoxing from technology than I expected: I find myself pulling out the phone on the beach, on walks, by the pool and during down time. The most relaxed I’ve been was when I gave it to a hotel staffer to charge, while I remained poolside. It was as if the surrounding air, water and patter of small children became brighter and softer. As these velvety sensations landed, I was reminded of the final scene in 2021’s Oscar nominated film, The Sound of Metal. Ruben, a young recovering addict and musician, has lost most of his hearing. He resorts to cochlear implants to reengage with the world audibly. The implants wildly distort sounds and give off constant shrill reverberations. Sitting on a Paris bench one afternoon, he unplugs the device. In perfect silence, we gaze at the startling beauty of a tree rustling in the wind. It looks like God or Transcendence or Resurrection. His eyes fill with tears and the screen fades to black.
It’s a wonderful metaphor for turning both inward and outward simultaneously. Travel presents the same opportunity. Around me life’s treasures make gracious offerings–enchantment, human connection; the sea water’s cool. By observing the external beauty, I find memories and feelings inside myself. It’s in these moments of synergy that I crash into life.
The main point: Gifts are always abundant. The difficulty lies in receiving them.
I remember the first time I argued before a judge. I was representing the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania 17 years ago in a preliminary hearing for aggravated assault on a child.
In the long and contentious hearing, I was up against a very experienced criminal defense attorney, and I was a mere law school trainee. But after making my very first objection (“calls for speculation”) and delivering an impassioned summation, I won the hearing and the felony charge was held for trial.
Over the next seven years of my career as a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, I tried more than 200 cases, including 33 jury trials to verdict. But there was one case I never got to argue, the one with the highest personal stakes for me.
I never got to argue for my father’s life. He died by suicide just three days before my 17th birthday.
My father remains something of a mysterious figure to me. I don’t know what his problems were, real or perceived. To the outside world, and to me, he appeared to lead a blessed life. He was truly a Renaissance man, a physician, polyglot, artist, and athlete. He had a loving family, professional fulfillment, and the respect of the community.
While there are common warning signs for suicide, and it’s good for everyone to be aware of them, some people are especially good at hiding what they’re going through, and it’s not always possible to spot them. I had no warning that my father was suicidal, and thus no opportunity to try and persuade him to live. Yet I often fantasize about having the opportunity to do just that.
I imagine traveling back in time to my junior year of high school and telling my father what I once heard a Chicago rabbi say, that “resilience is knowing that there is almost always a solution to a problem.” In my fantasy, I use all of my advocacy skills to persuade my father not to lose hope, and I remind him that what his beloved Stephen Sondheim taught us is true: “No one is alone.”
I know this is only a fantasy, and that it is too late to save my father from suicide. But I take solace in knowing that it is not too late to save others. I have not resigned myself to the inevitability of suicide or mental illness.
That is why, at the start of the pandemic, I left my position with an international campus organization headquartered here in Washington, D.C. and joined the staff of Treatment Advocacy Center, a leading mental health non-profit dedicated to eliminating the barriers to treatment for severe mental illness.
Seeing so much death, despair and doubt in this country jolted me out of my complacency. No longer could I sit on the sidelines while so many other families were touched by suicide. According to the World Health Organization, every year more than 700,000 people take their own life and there are many more people who attempt suicide. Every suicide is a tragedy that affects families, communities and entire countries and has long-lasting effects on those left behind.
But there is reason to hope. As I am learning as part of my new career in mental health policy, there are common sense solutions that many of this country’s mental health organizations agree on, including stamping out stigmatizing language, decriminalizing mental illness, ensuring equity in the insurance coverage of mental health and substance use disorder care, repealing discriminatory laws that hinder access to treatment and restoring desperately needed psychiatric treatment beds.
In my job as director of communications for the Treatment Advocacy Center, I have the privilege of telling stories about courageous people who are fighting to improve access to mental health treatment for themselves and their loved ones. Every day, I am encouraged by the progress that my organization, AFSP and others are making to change the system.
But the biggest reason I have hope is that I now can see how many others are with me in the fight against suicide. Whenever I speak with my Treatment Advocacy Center colleagues or the many dedicated volunteers I have met through my local AFSP chapter, it’s clear to me that our shared tragedies have brought us together for a great purpose – that we may use our words and our work to save lives.
Geoffrey Melada is an attorney and the director of communications at Treatment Advocacy Center.
In mid-December, when my “seasonal stress” looked a lot like clinical anxiety, I found a task force. Christmas was nearing and I’d been trying–not very successfully–to soothe myself with spiritual reflection. The biblical story would soon tell of the Magi, opening their treasure chests to give gold, frankincense, and myrrh to an infant in a barn. And in the meantime, my wise wo(men) opened their webcams to send spiritual treasure to a woman in Philadelphia.
With a splitting headache, I clicked the link to a presentation called “Self-Compassion: Navigating Life’s Challenges Series”. The Saving Lives Taskforce, a non-profit organization addressing substance abuse issues in North Carolina’s Outer Banks hosted the panel. My cousin Louisa is a member.
Louisa is a seasoned healer, deeply committed to the slow, sacred work of regeneration. She’s both an Occupational Therapist for older adults, Coach for recovering addicts and kitesurfing Instructor. I’d put myself in her capable hands any day.
I probably would have skipped it if not for Louisa. I’m wary of compassion talks after seeing so many wellness professionals and self help influencers beat the topic to death with less than insightful articles, TED Talks, and books. Whenever any concept is stripped of its full complexity for easy digestion, the meaning gets rinsed clean. Compassion content had lost its spark.
As the panel jumped into discussion of gratitude and challenges, I felt immediate solace just being in the company of people who have accepted the constancy of pain and its opposing force, love. Effective healers like these know that we rebuild after loss with the raw material of compassion. Full stop.
The presentation was excellent. While discussing boundaries, someone said “make sure when you say yes to someone else, you’re not saying no to yourself”. I loved that–a self care one liner I haven’t seen on Pinterest, Etsy, Instagram or the New York Time’s Best Seller List.
And then the most meaningful experience arrived during Louisa’s guided meditation. I went to the back of my apartment where it’s quiet and sunny in the afternoon. My cousin’s steady, judicious voice moved me as soon as I heard it. How much comfort there is to be found in the sure footed voice of another! How weary I get, always listening to mine!
We were gently directed to close our eyes and find our breath.
Louisa asked us to call up one physical or emotional pain and hold it without fighting back. My head hurt so much that it took enormous strength to not writhe, rub my temples and tense my muscles. My jaw locked with the effort. The pain obliterated all other sensation.
With each breath, Louisa invited us to join her in silent acknowledgement of what we felt.
“This is Suffering”. Deep exhale.
“This is Suffering”. Lungs open to take in breath.
“This is Suffering”.
My eyes filled with tears. There we were, strangers holding our own and each other’s pain in exquisite solidarity. THIS was the feeling I worked so hard to summon in my work as a writer and mental health advocate. I return to it all the time because in the presence of unbearable pain, we find ourselves in dark echo chambers. In those arid spaces, we die. And in the light of community, we survive.
Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck described this paradox well, writing: “How strange that we should ordinarily feel compelled to hide our wounds when we are all wounded!
Community requires the ability to expose our wounds and weaknesses to our fellow creatures. It also requires the ability to be affected by the wounds of others. But even more important is the love that arises among us when we share, both ways, our woundedness.”
In the immediate aftermath of the webinar and now a month later, I hold the “love that arises” close. This love born from a mere 60 seconds of sitting with my suffering in the presence of others fighting the same fight. Think of how everyday when we encounter each other in public, the very same thing is happening but we don’t acknowledge it.
And when I ponder the inherent connection between vulnerability, compassion and strength, I know this is the stuff worthy of all the lectures, articles, books and videos we can produce.