May is Mental Health Awareness month. As a therapist/writer, it’s a topic I write about often. I have tons of poems that I could have chosen for this post, but there was one that just kept coming back to me over and over. I’ve talked on here about the pressures being a therapist can bring several times. The things you see, hear, feel can add up. The poem about to share is really personal. It’s taken years to write. I don’t feel like it’s done. It sort of lives in a constant state of change. I will say it’s about losing a patient. I was working as mental health therapist on an inpatient unit, which also had another unit, where individuals could check themselves in voluntarily. This, in essence, traps a psychiatrist/therapist. If the individual knows exactly what to say, there is nothing that can be done to hold someone or move them to the locked unit. It’s all voluntary. To be fair, putting someone on an inpatient unit and putting them on a commitment, etc. does not guarantee that they will not leave and do harm to themself. The decision to live or die is within the individual and if there is a desire or hurt so bad to leave this world, it’s going to happen. This in no way eradicates the fact that so many people are helped because someone noticed. I want to say a few things, in general, about mental health. One being, spring is when the most suicides are completed. People often feel it’s winter. It’s spring. Many individuals could postulate that this is due to people telling themselves all winter that things will be ‘better’ when ‘spring comes,’ or that ‘it’s just seasonal.’ Spring comes and often problems do not just disappear. This causes someone a greater sense of hopelessness. We are also living in a time period where suicides have seen record highs. It is spring and we are living in extremely uncertain times. Be vigilant. Pay attention. If you have any feeling in your gut, that someone is hurting or lonely, reach out. Your gut is rarely wrong, and you could save a life. As I said before, this poem was my way of processing a lot. It was spring. I was way over-worked. My mom was in the hospital with cancer. Then, in one day, walks this individual I knew ‘not well,’ but I knew him outside the hospital. I also had treated him. on the inpatient unit before. I remember sitting through the psychiatric evaluation with the psychiatrist I was working with, listening to him say all the right things. Waiting for one comment, one misstep, so we could act to save this individual. When the evaluation was done, he had done it flawlessly. There was no legal way to keep him there. He had fooled his family and everyone around him. Legally, he had the right to discharge himself. I addressed concern with the family, with legal teams, etc., there was nothing. I knew when he walked out the door, I would not see him again. I have had client’s die, but I never had that feeling. The psychiatrist and I both knew it. It was heartbreaking. He left and we found out he shot himself later that day. I was haunted by it for months. Already, overworked, dealing with my own grief over my mom and her cancer, and then this. Writing this today, years later, I get a shiver. I really never thought I’d share this poem, but with suicides peaking and it being mental health awareness week, I couldn’t think of a poem that sheds light on mental health. There’s his story of mental health in the poem and then there’s mine. I think it speaks to how the roots from a suicide affect so many. Again, I just want to say please never be afraid to over-reach. I can’t think of someone, in time, who will ‘hate’ someone for reaching out too much. Right now, be patient with people, realize people are struggling, acknowledge that where someone is at is ok, accept that, and be there for them. When we move ‘forward,’ (and I use that because we’ve all experienced change during this time, so there is not ‘going back), it’s important to note that there is going to be a lot of people who need support. In mental health, we will be dealing with the effects left on individuals from this pandemic for years. It’s important to know that. We are all one people, and now more than ever, we need to understand and recognize how we impact each other. I was watching an episode of the show “Call the Midwife,” and there’s great line one of the nun’s tells a young father, who lost his father at an early age. The line reminds me of this poem. “What makes night within us, often brings stars.”
The Weight of Ghosts
I was hurried. You slipped into my car.
in the CVS parking lot while I was scribbling vows to myself
on napkin from Taco Bell. No time to find paper.
Car seats in summer burn bare skin,
but seeing your dead eyes was a dry ice burn.
I have been seeing your ghost a lot. Bitter black coffee
tastes like memories of being in booths with you,
where you endured my eyes glancing upward and jumpy,
nerved up, as a minnow’s body when taken from the tank.
When we met, my trout eyes lifted. Ready to strike,
but the things we know and the things we comprehend
don’t always match. Grief
was so close to me, I could smell it’s stale breath.
Now you return to me
in the shape of the lanky, firm shouldered man,
Handsome, so much in you others found irresistible.
I put my finger in the wound,
where the gunshot penetrated your skull. I could almost
hear the gun go off that morning when you walked out the door.
It was so expected. Death had me pinned.
“You will feel me,” it whispered each time I looked at you.
My hand continues to remain in your wound.
“This is death: dead, sinewy and strange,” my mind whispered.
You showed up in the strangest places. We did not talk.
You brought changes in me, in the weather,
in the sky. The watch on my wrist ticks loudly.
The watch is heavy. It feels like it is always just waiting
for a particular moment to occur.
The summer you died, I’d come home and
not even bother to undress. I’d lay down
on my bed still wearing my hiking shoes,
assuming there could be a possibility of slush or shit in my dreams.
I needed shoes you’d wear when you need flexibility, reliability,
to take you somewhere you don’t want to go, somewhere unexpected.
I longed for the extinction of consciousness
for a second. For years, I endured with this longing
through lectures, exams, work, youth.
You, “a ghost,” you were
the actual thing people said I was turning into for years.
‘You’re going to burn out. Really, original,” I thought,
coming from a dude that blew his fucking brains out with a gun.
Your beautifully created eyes walked the dungeons of my soul,
caused my heartbeat to go very slow, retreating… I remember thinking,
“I’m haunted. Full of ghosts Let me sleep forever. “
Insomnia is where you go with certain indissoluble truths.
Intimacy with someone I cannot feel.
Passion needs future orientation to stay ablaze.
When you walk with the dead for so long,
you begin to understand why a mountain might want to become a star.
I felt like the empty turnabouts and overpasses,
glimpses of stars and universes too distant to imagine.
I was too sad to notice.
I had become a serial user of exit doors.
My hand in your wound. I could hear
the noises and words in your head.
You were sorry. I happened to be the last random stranger you
needed to pretend to want to get help from, to escape the hell in your head.
On the day you walked into the woods and blew your brains out.
I was not picked.
I was random as the last wildflower you picked,
your hands running down the stem trying to feel life for one last second.
In bed, I opened my eyes.
You stroke your hands over me like a lost dog.
You haunt me and watch over me.
It’s like the smell of piss and lilacs together.
Outside birds sing loudly. I want them to sing over fates:
Father’s : A prayer book too heavy for his hand right now.
Friends: Overdoses and broken hearts.
Mine: Lonely poetry, mud thrown in a clear stream.
Your ghost: Reminding me, “I can’t save anything.”
A soft rain cleansed streets and gutters.
You’re gone. Moved on to ‘wherever.’
Your job was never to knock the gun raised to the pulse of my lucid shadow.
I took my hand out of the bullet wound in your head.
I am beginning to know it’s easier for me to live in small rooms, like poems,
they are neater and tidier. The questions in my head echo.
How much of life is fated?
I was uncertain if I should drown or sing?
I go home, pour yesterday’s murky flower water down the sink.
I watch it and think of my grandmother telling me years ago, as a drowsy child,
if I could just fall asleep, my soul would drift.
Then I was afraid that I would drift too far from this earthly world and not return.
Now I pray my eyes close and her words come true.
Drifting is one thing I have perfected in this life.
I have to be cautious of highways and railroad tracks,
of large expansive fields and forests.
My father asks me, “Show me where you were hurt.”
I am unmarked remembering how.
How do you show someone how hollowness hurts you?
The truth is I cannot tell you the whole story
because the whole story will not fit in my mouth.
I cannot swallow how much I love you when you are sleeping and perfectly warm.
I fear a breath out of the whole story of me would leave him chilled,
would wake him, and provide a horrid state of insomnia.
I am glad you are able to sleep eternally. I like to think of myself holding you.
Even though, in my head, it is anything but calm. I’m always seducing
heavy waters, allowing nothing to change.
Still around me the sands, the tides, the daylight
are all changing, but I struggle to hear, to see, to feel that endlessness.
When, I do sleep, I dream manic beauty.
It feels wonderful. I wake terrorized, fearful,
I might miscalculate serious items pertinent to lives.
I know now that it’s not about dealing with
cancer, or the lingering taste of abuse in my mouth,
or the fact I can lie about the levels of intimacy I feel
for a moment of pleasure, a moment that feels genuine.
It’s that I would and could lie about anything.
If it means, nobody sees or feels what I hold.
In some distorted way, this disarms my belief
that the ability to love has vacated me. It validates,
I have no problem, at my most haunted, inserting
my fingers into a wound. I can clot the blood,
hold the ghost, do what I must, if
it gives me the opportunity to stop you from feeling the weight of ghosts.
In some way, it proves love has not left me.
We each only have two hands, which is not a lot,
when you’re trying desperately to hold heavy stuff
and balance the idea that no one can see you slowly losing grasp.