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Easing My Grief by Eating Like Anthony Bourdain

Maybe it’s because I’m paranoid by nature; maybe it’s because, now, the news cycle is never not stomach-churning. But when I see a celebrity’s name unexpectedly trending on social media, my first reaction is often to worry that something terrible has happened to them. (My second, lately, is to wonder if they’ve been outed as a monstrous sexual predator.) But early last Friday, when I woke up and first spotted Anthony Bourdain’s name on Twitter, the possibility — either possibility — didn’t remotely occur to me. The celebrity chef, writer, and Parts Unknown host always seemed more full of life than anyone I could imagine. Bourdain died by suicide in France, where he was shooting an episode of Parts Unknown. Even now, a week later, it’s difficult to believe. And it fucking sucks.

I lost most of that morning. In a haze of grief, I read his 1999 essay in the New Yorker (a hilarious, blistering piece that, among other things, warned of the dangers of ordering restaurant fish on Mondays), then the profile of the late chef published last year in the same magazine, then thumbed through my paperback copy of Kitchen Confidential, and then scrolled numbly through the remembrances that comprised most of my Twitter feed. It was comforting to see that I wasn’t the only one feeling like the wind had been knocked out of me, and doubly shocked that I was taking the loss of someone I’d never met as hard as I was. Bourdain’s bawdy wit, curiosity, and equal capacity for profound empathy and scathing cynicism made him a hero of mine — an all-time New Jersey great, a true pork roll, egg, and cheese of a man — as he was to so many others. He was, in my estimation, about the best possible representation of America abroad, especially in the Trump era; he was an outspoken advocate for the #MeToo movement. He was hungry in every sense of the word.

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I thought throwing myself into work would make me feel better, but work didn’t want to cooperate: I had a meeting and an interview scheduled that day, but both, for unrelated reasons, needed to be moved. So I decided to eat my feelings instead. Before I left my apartment, on an impulse, I sent off the kind of tweet that I usually delete a few endless unfaved minutes after posting, which is to say that it expressed a genuine, difficult emotion and not just a joke about a squirrel I saw eating garbage: “I am sad, so I have decided not to do my work and instead to go outside and eat something I’ve never eaten before.”

I took the 7 train from Long Island City, where I live, to Jackson Heights. Actually, I accidentally took it one stop too far, to 82nd Street, and walked west down Roosevelt Avenue back to 74th Street. Almost in spite of myself, I felt my mood lightened by the sunshine, fresh air, and being surrounded by other human beings. I started to receive responses to my tweet, from fans of Bourdain’s pledging to do the same, to leave their culinary comfort zones and try something new. That helped, too.

Lhasa Fast Food is hidden in the back of a cellphone store, past a jeweler and above a luggage shop. I felt hungry — suddenly, extremely hungry — for the first time that day when I wandered inside. Despite its unusual location, the tiny Tibetan restaurant is an increasingly less-hidden gem, having been warmly reviewed by the New York Times, Eater, and Bourdain himself. He dined there in the Queens episode of Parts Unknown. I’d come for the momos, Himalayan steamed dumplings, a dish I’ve wanted to try for years. I’d forgottten about Bourdain’s visit to Lhasa until my momo-related Googling led me directly to it — once I remembered, my lunch plans made themselves obvious.

Two oversize thermoses, one full of sweet tea and the other of salty butter tea, invite diners to pour their own cups for $1 each. A large portrait of the Dalai Lama, set before a snowy mountaintop, gazes down from above the register. From where I sat, I made direct eye contact with a photo of Bourdain with owner Sanggien Ben mounted on the wall. The pleasingly pleated beef momos (eight for $6) were delicious, and even more so when dipped in the black vinegar and fluorescent orange sepen, a truly spicy Tibetan hot sauce, available on every table.

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I replied to my original tweet with a photo of the momos, and was pleasantly surprised to discover my mentions were full of reports of first-time eats from around the country and beyond, many with images. There was mofongo and pineapple cornbread, pork and preserved egg congee, tater tots with kalua pork, and a late-night expedition to Waffle House. There was spinach gözleme from a Turkish food stall in Germany, Yukgaejang in Massachusetts, grilled venison in Spain, and (apparently lackluster, but still) takoyaki in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. The rapper Heems, who dined with Bourdain on Parts Unknown, sent me a photo of a custom-ordered Swedish biryani. Sometimes, I learned, the results of this experiment were incredible. Sometimes, not so much (sorry, again, about the takoyaki). But there was a universal sense of pleasure in the exploration: The world felt smaller, and much larger, all at once.

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I’m still sad. Maybe you are, too. But expanding your horizons and seeking out experiences different than those you’re accustomed to — and maybe patronizing a small, family-owned business while you’re at it, or having a conversation with someone you might otherwise never have encountered — is a fitting tribute to a man who encouraged us to do exactly that. So go get some momos.

 

If you or someone you love is in need of help, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. It is free, operates 24-7, and provides confidential support for people in crisis.

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Health THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Black People, We Need to Talk About Mental Health

Black people, if you’re reading this, we need to talk.

We need to discuss something that often goes unmentioned in our community. Actually, there are two things we need to talk about: mental illness and suicide. I don’t know how, why, or when we began treating these two issues as taboo, verboten. But it has to stop, for a number of reasons.

Let’s start with the Washington Post article that was published earlier this year stating that, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicides among black children in the U.S. under eighteen are up 71 percent in the past decade, from 86 in 2006 to 147 in 2016, while suicide among children thirteen and under rose 114 percent those ten years. (In the same period, the suicide rate among all children also went up 64 percent.)

The article also mentions how researchers are unsure what has fueled this rise, citing either racism toward high-risk black children or the black community itself for continuing to ignore suicide as a major issue. It can be both those things. When it comes to bullying, children of color often get hit — physically and verbally — the hardest. It isn’t even always white kids who are the ones slamming black kids with damaging taunts and epithets. The worst abuse can often come from your own kind, as in the flashback episode from the recent season of Atlanta, where a young kid gets ripped to shreds by other black kids for allegedly wearing a fake FUBU shirt — and that young kid ends up taking his own life.

I certainly remember how, as a kid going through middle school hell in the late Eighties, I was often picked on by my fellow black classmates for the usual stuff: looking broke, being too dark-skinned (back in my day, being called “Shaka Zulu” was a major insult), giving off a “homo” vibe. Sadly, even when we become full-grown adults, those are still things that continue to plague black people. As Huberta Jackson-Lowman, Ph.D., president of the Association of Black Psychologists, told the Atlanta Black Star last year, “The issues that black youth and children bully each other about are those issues about which we as black adults have unresolved and [conflicted] feelings and which are also viewed negatively or with great ambivalence by the larger society.”

African Americans have to embody strength even when it feels like our legs are about to give out from how much we have to carry as a culture. If you’re seen exhibiting vulnerability or emotion, you’re considered weak or — dare I say it! — gay! We don’t talk about our feelings or none of that bullshit! We’re the descendants of men and women who were taken from their land and forced into slavery. Whatever problems you got ain’t got shit on what they had to deal with! You can’t off yourself just because you’re going through some stuff — suck it up, goddammit! And, besides, suicide is a white-people thing!

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And there it is. In African American culture, suicide and mental illness are regularly perceived as issues that mainly affect the Anglo-American populace. Once again, I don’t know where this came from, but it’s something that has made black people distance themselves from psychiatrists, therapists, or any other mental-health professionals. (To quote a Chris Rock line, the only way black people are going to see a therapist is if the court orders them to do it.) There are black folk who also prefer to confer with religious folk and “pray away” their mental troubles instead of getting proper treatment. Not to knock anyone’s religious beliefs, but pastors aren’t medical experts. Then again, since African Americans are often mistreated and neglected by our healthcare system, it’s easy to see why going to a person of faith would be seen as an acceptable substitute.  

It doesn’t help that famous African Americans with mental health issues rarely discuss their problems, especially after they’ve had a very public meltdown. Seventeen years ago, Mariah Carey appeared on Total Request Live, schlepping around an ice cream cart and freaking out the audience and host Carson Daly with her erratic behavior. This led to her getting checked into a mental facility a few days later, amid rumors that she had attempted suicide. It wasn’t until this year that she divulged in a People cover story that she struggles with bipolar disorder.

A few years before that, Martin Lawrence had a notorious breakdown on Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks, cursing and screaming at cars (with a gun in his pocket!) until he was taken away by police and hospitalized. Several years later, in his concert movie Martin Lawrence Live: Runteldat, he chalked up the experience to smoking bad weed. The whole incident is reminiscent of when Richard Pryor set himself on fire in 1980 and later used the trauma as comic fodder in his concert movie Richard Pryor: Live on the Sunset Strip, saying he exploded due to a potent mixture of milk and cookies. (He later fessed up in his semi-autobiographical movie Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, when the titular character, played by Pryor, pours alcohol all over himself and flicks a lighter.)

In recent years, people of color in the public eye have finally been coming clean about having mental health issues and/or contemplating suicide. Unfortunately, their pleas for sympathy can fall on a few deaf ears. When rising r&b singer Kehlani attempted suicide in 2016, after she was accused online of cheating on ex Kyrie Irving with Canadian musician PartyNextDoor, Chris Brown reminded everyone why he’s an A-1 douchebag when he went on Twitter to call her out. “There is no attempting suicide,” he tweeted. “Stop flexing for the gram.” Stay classy, you asswipe.

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But more recognizable people of color, whether it’s Wentworth Miller or Jada Pinkett Smith, have admitted to having suicidal thoughts, and that is a good thing. It lets African American people know that their feelings of hopelessness aren’t so exclusive.

Ironically, with our history — and what we continue to go through as people — African Americans deserve mental-health treatment and medication the most. Whether it’s black families constantly struggling to live above the poverty line or black men just trying to live every day without getting shot and killed by the police, black people need all the help we can get.

We need to stop acting like feeling depressed or sad or helpless is something you should be embarrassed about or ashamed of — and we definitely need to make sure children know that, so they’ll never have to consider killing themselves. No child should end their life before they’ve even started it.

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Health Healthcare THE FRONT ARCHIVES The Harpy

Limned With Terror: One Life With Notes of Panic

I had my first-ever panic attack late at night on a couch in Tatarstan. I had gone to Russia that summer of 2010, after my sophomore year of college, for a State Department Russian-language program in Kazan. My hosts were a young couple who appeared to hate their concrete-walled, un-air-conditioned apartment nearly as much as they hated each other. All night I could hear their whispered fights, hissing like a choking gas through their bedroom door to the couch where I slept a few feet away. At first I thought they might have been whispering sweet nothings. Then my Russian improved.

The night it happened I had been drinking — a little — and had indulged in a habit I was just then developing, smoking strawberry-flavored, ultra-thin cigarettes that sold for fifty cents a pack. It was around midnight, and I lay on the couch in my sweaty nest of sheets, feeling my heart beat rapidly against my breast. I breathed in and breathed out and stared at the cracks in the ceiling, but my heartbeat didn’t slow; it rabbited as if I were climbing an invisible staircase, though I was lying flat on my back, my palms pressed to my sternum. I began to feel a star-shaped pain radiating through my hands, and it was accompanied by a wave of such pure fear that I bolted to my feet, gasping so profoundly I must have looked like a silent-movie star enacting surprise, and dashed to the balcony. I stared at the onion-domed cathedral opposite, whose bells woke me at 6 a.m. every Sunday, felt the wind curve off the metal and dry up the sweat that drenched my face. I dialed my mother, a doctor, and confessed: I had been smoking. I had been drinking. Now I was convinced some retribution — divine or simply physical — had fallen on me. My heart hammered like a handyman gone mad, leaping in my chest, and I knew I would die there, on that balcony in Kazan, punishment for how far I had strayed. I was so dizzy I grasped at my host parents’ clothesline for a hold, dislodging several pairs of socks; I felt my gorge rise and choke me.

My mother’s sleepy reassurances — you’re fine, it’s probably nothing — did little to dispel my certitude that the end had arrived for me. I was twenty and not quite ready to give up on the idea of having a future. So I balled my hands into fists and knocked urgently on the bedroom door of my hosts, explaining in my elementary Russian that I was dying, that I needed help immediately. “My heart has gone out of its mind,” I said. “My heart, something’s wrong. I can’t breathe.”

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“That happens to me really often,” my host “mother,” Asya, told me. She must have been in her late twenties, prone to wearing tiny miniskirts and velour; earlier that week, I had watched her husband, Seryozha, smash her laptop because he had seen a photo of her with another man on it. I couldn’t believe that she had looked death repeatedly in the face and survived: She was so thin her hip bones jutted out. I panted like a dog, caught in the grips of my whirring heart and ragged breath, and asked her to call emergency services. After she dialed the number she put on a full face of makeup before the paramedics arrived.

I wound up getting an impromptu electrocardiogram on that saggy couch in the center of a living room that had seen more than its share of despair. The electrodes were cold against my overheated chest; the line they spat out on graph paper made a series of perfectly regular peaks. I don’t remember the medics’ faces, only their hands, and their murmured reassurance. They gave me a drink they said was “herbs.” I hadn’t died, somehow. As dawn broke over the cathedral I finally fell asleep.

The happy part of this story is that I learned what panic was, eventually, and that it isn’t a fatal condition. The unhappy part — the untidy part — is that it’s never left me.

In the eight years since that night, the rhythm of a panic attack has become far more familiar to me, if no more pleasant. I don’t know what caused that first attack, although my family history is rife with anxiety — from the inherited trauma of Holocaust survival to more garden-variety Ashkenazi nerves. Panic has become a looming presence in my life, filling my throat with bile at the most inopportune moments: a job interview or a simple meeting; in the dark crowd of a rush-hour subway; on planes, at my desk, in the middle of the night, when my pulse blares in my ears and I know my body is about to burst all over my sheets like a punctured water balloon.

More than simply the blaze of fear and pain of a panic attack, panic disorder, which I have since come to know with terrible intimacy, is about how panic and escaping panic warp life. In the hopes of staying clear of panic’s terrible sequence of sensations, I bend my life away from its triggers, walking circuitous routes through my days. The ways my phobias control my behaviors are profound, and I keep them secret from most people, evading questions about my own evasions. Panic has its own logic separate from earth-logic; it’s not fear, but another plane, an Upside Down of the mind, in which everyday things (a two-block walk to the bodega in the dark; a ride on the J train; a plate of fish that might have bones) become limned with electric terror. To nerves primed to sing with fear, everything is a monster. Sometimes, after panic recedes, there’s a grim humor to it all: like a shape, menacing in the dark, that turns out to be a blender, or a shirt on a hanger. My life is full of this black and secret comedy.

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Once, just after I graduated college, I could not leave my parents’ house for a week; the thought of stepping out even onto the suburban sidewalk convulsed me with fear. In the end I broke that seal by climbing into the very back of my mother’s SUV, behind the seats, and staying there in the fetal position as she drove across the George Washington Bridge, to her profound bemusement.

There are other times when I wear my terrors lightly. I cling to routine — what’s familiar feels safe. When I push myself, sometimes I am pleasantly surprised; other times, I regret such excursions profoundly. 

I have no tidy end to this story — no “it gets better” tale, except that I’m on medication now, and the full, flushed eruption of panic is a comparatively rare occurrence. Flashes of panic singe me enough; my relationship to sleep is not a happy one. I am not the person I was when I got on that plane to Kazan at twenty: fearless, thrilled to taste new phonemes on my tongue. These days my phone is full of notes to myself, written in moments of psychic agony: You aren’t dying. You haven’t died any of the times this has happened before. You are going to be OK. You are going to be OK. You are going to be OK. Please, please let me be OK. Oh god let me be OK. In the sweat and pain of my brain’s misfired fear, I can smell and hear and feel everything — the hyperarousal of terror, they call it. Perhaps it helps me write, feeling so keenly. I admit that in the grips of this condition my life is smaller than I could have imagined. But still, I live. I am going to be OK.

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Health Healthcare THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Too Sad to Move: On the Paralysis of Depression

On my honeymoon we hiked a glacier at the border of Argentina and Chile, about as far south as you could go before hitting Antarctica. No organic life moved. Neon blue water faded to the shore into a milky hue due to particles of ice. The shore was rock, the redbrown of a lion. The glacier sliced in white sections shot with the same chemical blue as the waters. The guide said the blue came from the sun. When ice gets super cold and dense, light refracts off it differently; the color shows more intense. We slipped and climbed in our rented spiked shoes and caught panoramas of water and rock and air. It was like no sensory experience I’ve had, save staring into a canvas — pure color, something by Gerhard Richter, maybe. Occasionally we’d meet a blue sliver in the ice plunging more than a mile. The guide told us to beware; if we tumbled to the bottom we might not die, but we’d break every bone, lie in pain until they somehow got us out.

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A bedrock of pain linked us, so this caught our attention. By then we’d developed a game, my husband and I, that we called: “Should we just kill ourselves?” It involved saying the phrase, then pondering the question. (The rules were unstated but understood.) We played when faced with a task that felt insurmountable, some paralysis, due to career, or other people, or family. Paralysis was something I felt I would live with always. My first therapist couldn’t figure it out, met with silence my description of sitting on the couch unable to move, circles of thought moving me instead, arguments against living. I’d found her after calling my dad, after considering walking into traffic with a seriousness that was new. No one we knew from India or with roots there had a therapist, at least not openly; but my dad was a pragmatist, and we didn’t need more death. The smell of my mom’s cremation was still in my nose, every word still in my head from the letter I slipped under her bathroom door a few days before she fell from a stroke that came like a surprise wave — blaming her for the hands that touched me when only hers should have, for denying me when I asked for therapy years later.

Now she was dead and I worried she didn’t know that I also didn’t blame her, that I loved her. I went to an old escape fantasy, first shared at the office of my pediatrician in Texas, who laughed when I asked for a pill that could turn me back to a baby. Some darkness always lay in wait to get me and I felt I couldn’t stand it — kids laughing in the shadows, or grown-ups who hated me, or, always, hands. I imagined the whole world sharpened to a point against me, a vision helped along by the many times people would stare: when I walked into a classroom, the only brown kid; when we entered a gas station on a road trip. Some years later a girl around my age, seven or eight, shot herself with a gun in the bathroom of her fancy prep school nearby. I was transfixed by the story, couldn’t stop thinking of a girl my age being so decisive while I stayed wishy-washy. I contemplated the knives in our kitchen, asked my mom what she’d think of a girl my age going that way, covered my tracks by saying I’d heard of such a happening. She said she’d think the girl was sick. I didn’t want her to think badly of me, so that was that.

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I don’t know where the urge to kill oneself comes from, if some of us have it and some of us don’t. My mom didn’t seem to have it. She had no hair or ability to walk or talk, and still she raised her arms every day to exercise them, on the hope she would get strong enough to live through surgery to remove the tumors that caused the stroke, a cancer growing in hiding until it made itself known by wrecking her in a second. Watching her I felt awed, and confused. If it’s not a kitchen knife that gets you it’s a rotting hole in your belly from the feeding tube, physical pain if not emotional. At amusement parks, I’d get to the end of the line and turn around, bow out, push through all the people to exit the experiment. I knew I’d never fight as my mom had, given the chance to die. Why waste time along the way?

Biology tells me I’m programmed to want to live. So many sperm could have made their way to the egg. Clearly the one that did had will, a survival instinct, expressed years later in my dad insisting I live by securing outside help. That day on the ice, my husband and I considered dying, but only because the glacier was more beautiful than anywhere else we could go. Better to die there, we reasoned, than return to a place of paralysis. I’ve found it helps to physically move, the way stretching can stave off the stiffening of joints that comes with another sort of disease. But healthcare is expensive in this country, people too busy to talk on phones, therapy treated as a luxury good. I do not know what one does without a biological proxy for the survival instinct, engaging your will to live when it is lost to you, who calls the numbers, writes the checks, lifts your arms in exercises when you can’t move.

If you or someone you love is in need of help, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. It is free, operates 24-7, and provides confidential support for people in crisis.

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Health Healthcare THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Who Are We Telling Depressed People to ‘Reach Out’ to, Anyway?

“Reach out,” they say. “Get help,” they say. “Go to therapy,” they say. They, of course, are seemingly every friend, celebrity, and politician offering well-meaning platitudes after the suicides of culinary force of nature Anthony Bourdain and iconic designer Kate Spade last week.

It is comforting to believe that all that stands between a beloved friend or family member and suicide is an active cry for help. Unfortunately, that banal chestnut too often doesn’t match the available treatment options for a vast number of Americans, especially when the Narcissist in Chief’s budget slashes funding for the National Institute of Mental Health by more than 30 percent in 2019.

In New York City, where major depressive disorder is the single greatest source of disability, according to a 2015 report by the mayor’s office, who exactly are we telling our friends and neighbors to reach out to? The report found that poverty, race and ethnicity, sexuality and gender identity, age, where a person lives, and whether or not they’ve been bullied all increase the likelihood that a New Yorker may experience mental health challenges or suicidal ideation — and yet those same factors make it harder to access treatment.

“At any given time over half a million adult New Yorkers are estimated to have depression, yet less than 40 percent report receiving care for it,” the 2015 report states. Eight percent of New York City public high school students report attempting suicide, a percentage that “doubles if a student has been bullied on school grounds, which 18 percent of students experience.” LGBTQ youth are twice as likely to attempt suicide, while elder citizens and Latina adolescents are both at elevated risk as well.

As a media critic, my journalism has almost never included personal memoir. But in light of the implicit shaming underneath all that stock advice to “reach out,” I want to share a story about how few resources are available for mental healthcare in our city, and why judging someone for “not getting help” is not just rude but dangerous.

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Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve considered myself lucky that I have never experienced suicidal ideation, beyond fleeting dark thoughts as a child and adolescent while living in an emotionally abusive home. But because of that upbringing, I’ve dealt with a kind of low-grade depression my whole life, an undercurrent that is always right under the surface, always, and which I work really hard to push through every day. (A coping strategy reflected in the Ani DiFranco lyric “Maybe you can keep me from ever being happy, but you’re not going to stop me from having fun,” which has resonated with me since 1997.) Most of the time I’ve been able to remain functional, but at times the depression has become much more acute.

In my mid twenties in the early 2000s, in the midst of a deep depression during which I stopped having the desire to see friends, take showers, or even write (the most alarming “tell”), I finally overcame my resistance and tried to find a therapist I could afford on a low-income activist writer’s budget. At the time, I was working completely unfunded as the founder and director of a small nonprofit feminist media justice group I was working to build, and I could not afford health insurance; I could barely afford rent and food. As I researched my options, nothing was affordable except for students in training, or group therapy, which — though often extremely useful — I determined wouldn’t be helpful for my specific challenges.

Activating my local network, I finally found one supposedly feminist therapist who I was told offered sliding-scale payment options. I called and asked the therapist if she was taking clients. She said she was. I told her I was living one bare step above poverty and did not have any savings or health insurance, but that I was suffering from a deep depression and I had finally accepted that I needed help. I asked what her rates were at the lowest end of the scale. I can’t remember if she said $75 or $100 per hour; I do remember the burning feeling of internalized shame rising up in my throat as I regretfully explained that I couldn’t afford that rate. Did she have any other options, or could she suggest other therapists with a lower scale? She replied, in a derisive tone I will never forget: “If you are unwilling to pay that little for therapy, you are not dedicated to improving your mental health.”

I hung up the phone and sobbed. I felt even more defeated, demoralized, and depressed than I had been before I reached out, and I quit the search for therapy right at that moment. It wasn’t just that I felt shamed; it was that my research had led me to a brick wall. It seemed as if there was no point in trying to seek additional resources.

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Now, many of us are familiar with the phrase “depression is a liar,” so perhaps if I had been in a better state of mental health I would have left her a scathing Yelp review and initiated another search, or returned to my network for additional recommendations. But the whole reason I was reaching out was that I wasn’t in that healthier state of mind, and so I fully believed there were no therapeutic options available for me.

It took a lot longer for me to get out of that period of depression than it should have, in part because of that therapist insisting that I was “choosing to not prioritize my mental health” just because I was unable to afford her fees. I’m in a much better place now (my low-grade depression is less of an urgent battle and more of an endurance race these days), and thankfully I now have the option for mental healthcare under my partner’s employment benefits if I find myself in need of help in the future. But I know that if I — a cis-gender white journalist adept at research who, while having no money, has significant social capital and a strong network of connected writers and advocates — was unable to secure adequate mental healthcare, it’s decidedly more of a struggle for New Yorkers with fewer racial and professional privileges.

The outpouring of grief, disbelief, and concern in the wake of beloved public figures’ suicides is certainly normal, as is the instinct to want to encourage those struggling with depression and suicidal ideation to seek lifesaving support. But blanketing social media with hollow statements about “reaching out” (exhibit A: senior White House adviser and first daughter Ivanka Trump) obscures the fact that, too often, the infrastructure for that aid is wholly inadequate. That is especially true under the despair-provoking darkness and myopic cruelty of the Trump administration, whose budget is making an already rickety ladder of support even more unstable, while triggering increased anxiety and depression.

If we truly want to help keep people alive and thriving, we need more than platitudes about calling friends or suicide hotlines in a moment of extreme crisis — we need ongoing, substantive, broad-based investment in mental healthcare. So instead of demanding that depressed people reach out to some random concept of help, how about every single person who isn’t struggling reach out to politicians who can fight for more effective mental healthcare policies and resources, and to philanthropic foundations and individuals who can help fund nonprofits that provide direct support to people who need it most. That’s the kind of outreach we should advocate for if we truly want to save lives.

If you or someone you love is in need of help, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. It is free, operates 24-7, and provides confidential support for people in crisis.

To learn more about the battles for funding of mental health services in the U.S., visit the Mental Health America website.

To contact your congressional representatives about mental health funding, visit Call My Congress.

 

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Health THE FRONT ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Fighting the Darkness That’s Always There

Each depressive episode is a battle in a war that will never end. Sometimes, you can see the enemy coming, its march toward you set up in straight lines like a British military exercise, and you have time to fortify yourself, to build up your habits and your friends and your resources to protect you. But sometimes, when everything seems fine, and the horizon looks clear, you face a guerrilla attack. Every episode, you must fight not for victory, or power, or glory, but simply to continue, to stay alive.

Here is a list of habits I have constructed to keep me here: I walk every day for more than an hour. I exercise three times a week. I do not have more than three drinks at a time. I try to eat vegetables every day. I see a therapist weekly for an hour. I get eight hours of sleep. I take two pills every morning. I go to museums and walk in nature and do things I like even when I cannot feel anything from them at all. I am fighting like hell, and I am so tired.

“What merely a few weeks ago had seemed beautiful to her, was no longer beautiful, it was nothing,” Karl Ove Knausgaard writes about his wife’s depression in his new book, Spring. “She hated it. There was nothing she wanted more than to free herself of it. It ruined her life, she often said. There was something other inside her that took her over.”

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That other, that creeping terror, that darkness is always there. It creeps around the edges of your vision even on the best days. If you get to the darkest part, and you are all alone, danger is there waiting for you. I’m a solid six out of ten.… I’m drawn to negatives in life, and I dwell on them, and they consume me.… If I get a couple of days a week at a seven, fuck, it’s great,” Scott Hutchison, the former frontman of Scottish indie rock band Frightened Rabbit, recently told Noisey.

I say “former” because last month, Scott Hutchison lost the war. Designer Kate Spade lost last Tuesday; celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain on Friday.

In the past year, four beloved musicians got stuck in the dark space and couldn’t find their way out. Chester Bennington of Linkin Park lost his war last July. Chris Cornell lost last June. Tim Bergling, the Swedish DJ-producer who performed as Aviciilost in April. I know how all these men died. I shouldn’t, but I do. I know how Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain died. I know if they left notes. I know what method they used. There are guidelines to reporting on suicides that are perfectly clear: Don’t describe it. Sharing these details, we know, is statistically dangerous.

Among the depressed — those on the front lines — war stories are allowed, encouraged. The more people who know you’re scared and tired, in theory, the more people you have on your team. Rarely do those stories leave the safety of like-minded people with the same fears. And so we all — those of us with the brains that lie to us, who can see the vignette of depression always just there — know plenty of people struggling with our same fears. But depression manifests itself differently in different people. Its symptoms are both weight gain and weight loss, sleeping all the time and not at all. It is a loss of pleasure, a slowing of the brain and the body, an absolute conviction that those around you would be better off without you. And it is hard as hell to talk about. In the wake of these deaths, more people have been writing about this struggle, talking about it, opening up. Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes admitted Saturday in an Instagram post to once having been “dangerously and actively suicidal,” and that “suicide has been an at-many-times daily part of my psychic reality.”

I’m a high-functioning depressed person, and I am not brave. For years, I hid those thoughts from everyone, kept them tucked away from even those closest to me. They were too damning to share, I felt, too terrifying. I could hide the darkness — not from myself, but from everyone else — behind good grades and hard work and productivity. It feels easier, safer, to be more like Kate Spade, to tell no one how extreme your feelings are. But it isn’t actually. In a statement, Spade’s husband said that she struggled with both anxiety and depression, took pills, saw doctors, fought. But still he was blindsided; her death was a “complete shock.” 

Mental health remains stigmatized: To take an antidepressant is still, in some perceptions, an undeniable weakness; to see a therapist means that you must be broken. We are getting better at admitting that people have depression; we are even trying as a society to talk more about it. But suicide? Suicide seems, in the court of public opinion, like another level of mental illness, something beyond depression. But it’s not. The darkness can arrive at any moment. Ready or not.

These deaths are devastating. They are not romantic. They are brutal and terrible and so, so sad. Suicide is no one’s first choice. Suicide is an act a person commits because they feel they have no other option, because they feel — as David Foster Wallace so eloquently put it — like a person who jumps from the window of a burning building: “It’s not desiring the fall; it’s the terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk looking up yelling, ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’ can understand the jump. Not really.” Suicidal thoughts only make sense if you’ve at one point opened the front door of your consciousness to find them on the doorstep already pushing their way in.

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As Chris Gethard says in his HBO comedy special Career Suicideabout his lifelong battle with clinical mental illness, “Sometimes people just break.” It seems like more and more people are breaking, and not only artists or famous people or the rich. Depression does not discriminate. The National Alliance on Mental Illness says that one of the action steps in preventing suicide is simply to talk openly and honestly about it. Not to debate its ethics, but to check in on people you love, even if they seem fine, explicitly about suicidal thoughts.

The hardest part for me about Scott Hutchinson’s loss, about Kate Spade’s loss, and Anthony Bourdain’s loss, is that we know they were fighting. Hutchison was even brave enough to talk about it publicly. He knew he was depressed, and he told us. He was vulnerable, and open, and he still failed. He found art that could mend him, and friends who could support him. He made mistakes, of course, but he was relatable. He lost a battle so many people are fighting. What happens if you fight like hell and still lose? You can know everything, be doing everything, and it might not be enough.

Perhaps the most important, most constructive thing we can do is continue to speak openly and honestly about the battles we are fighting; to listen, as Scott did, to each others’ stories and fears. Depression did not deserve to take any of these people. And it does not deserve to take you.

 

If you or someone you love is in need of help, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. It is free, operates 24-7, and provides confidential support for people in crisis.

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Lives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

“Thanks Man!” Remembering Scott Hutchison of Frightened Rabbit

My most prized possession is a small tan poster that hangs on my wall just feet from my bed. It’s a drawing of a long-bearded man with a hat emblazoned with the word “JOHN” in all-caps. But beside him reads “THANKS MAN! Scott” in scribbled handwriting.

It was given to me by Scott Hutchison, frontman of Scottish indie rock outfit Frightened Rabbit, after his solo show on October 14, 2014, at the Bell House in Gowanus, Brooklyn. He was performing under his Owl John moniker, and had just come off the stage, sweaty and multiple whiskeys deep, making a point to talk to every fan that came up to him. I held back at first, too nervous to approach my favorite lyricist of all time. Never mind the fact that I had interviewed him a few weeks prior. I couldn’t move a muscle.

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Finally swallowing the lumps in my throat, I mentioned that it had, in fact, been my voice on the phone. Before I could finish my sentence, his face lit up and he gave me a giant hug, thanking me profusely, mentioning that he could tell that I “gave a shit.” After a minute or two, I encouraged him to talk to the others in the growing line behind me. He told me to meet him backstage for some wine.

I was dumbfounded. One of my favorite musicians wanted to hang out with me? I couldn’t believe it.

We ended up over at Mission Dolores for a few more drinks and I remember almost feeling let down by how normal he was. The guy who had written The Midnight Organ Fight — still my favorite album of all time — just wanted to talk about burritos and his girlfriend. But more importantly, at some point in our mutual drunken haze, he told me to keep pursuing writing, saying that my piece on him was one of his favorites.

At that point in my life, I was very recently unemployed, and had yet to be paid a single cent for my words. Scott Hutchison gave me the confidence to keep pushing to make it as a writer, no matter how difficult and scary it seemed then. Without him, I doubt I’d be writing these words today.

I interviewed Scott twice more over the next few years, most recently about the tenth anniversary tour of The Midnight Organ Fight, which hit the Bowery Ballroom and Music Hall of Williamsburg in late February of this year. In that conversation, I asked him the same question I had asked him twice before, one that I designed especially with him in mind almost a decade earlier: “How do you manage to sing these ultra-personal songs night after night in front of hundreds, if not thousands, of people?”

This time Scott gave me a variation of the answer he’d given me before: “Who is the protagonist? It’s not me. It’s going to be them. It’s their life. They projected their lives to these songs and that makes me very proud that a song can be specific, yet universal enough that it can allow people to walk into their own experience. Yes, they’re singing these lyrics that are personal to me, but they are not considering my life too much.”

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That is why every tribute written about Scott’s passing feels so deeply intimate; his brutally honest and strikingly heartfelt lyrics soundtracked our lives, got us through our worst breakups, and pulled us out of our lowest lows when we needed something, anything, to grasp on to. It’s why it’s nearly impossible to write about Frightened Rabbit without first mentioning some random memory we associate with their music.

And Scott’s been there for me for years. He was there when my freshman year roommate first played me “My Backwards Walk” in the dorms. He was there when my friend Jenna died, and our mutual friend Travis and I listened to “Poke” in silence while driving back from a concert a couple of weeks after the funeral. He was there when my friend Elli left Berkeley to study abroad in Scotland for a year, and I’d play “Scottish Winds” each time I knew she was tuning in to my college radio show. He was there when I was terrified and left my native Bay Area and moved to the East Coast, listening to “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” on the flight to calm me down. He was there when I was broken up with for the first time in New York, using his “All is not lost” refrain on “State Hospital” to get me through it.

He was there for me then, and I know he’ll be there for me in the future. He’ll be there for all of us in the future.

I’ll never hear his voice again on the other end of a phone call, never again get a sweaty hug from one of the few musicians I felt like I could call a friend. But some kid experiencing his or her first heartbreak will find The Midnight Organ Fight and it’ll show them that they’re not alone. Because, for as personal and specific as Hutchison’s lyrics were, they are universal and applicable to all of us, no matter what we’re going through.

In his song, “Head Rolls Off,” Scott sang, “While I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to Earth.” He made colossal changes to my personal world, influencing my career and life in ways I didn’t think possible for a musician from halfway across the world. And for that, all I can say is “THANKS MAN!”

If you or someone you love is in need of help, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255. It is free, operated 24/7, and provides confidential support for people in crisis.

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NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Violence

How I Learned Not to Call 911

During the time my mother, Marguerite, had most of her manic episodes, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment in the West Farms section of the Bronx that was protected mostly by a police lock. It was an old-school twentieth-century New York situation, with a floor-mounted steel bar affixed to a dead bolt so no one could bust down the door.

This lock made me feel safer than the thought of calling the actual police ever did, even when I worried my mother might kill me or herself. The lock kept all our troubles inside instead of letting the world rush in.

In Black and brown neighborhoods, we hesitate to call 911 because we know it can end in death. The death last Wednesday in Crown Heights of Saheed Vassell, who was fatally shot multiple times by police officers for brandishing what turned out to be a metal pipe, is the latest reminder.

Reading that Vassell was bipolar and Black, I was transported back to that apartment with my mother, where even as a frightened teenager I understood how important it was to protect my mother’s life as well as mine.

Like Vassell, Marguerite had a mental illness that made her hoard things. Like Vassell, she liked to regularly attend morning mass — a devout Catholic, she was a regular at the 7:30 a.m. mass at St. Nicholas of Tolentine Church and, when she had at least one token, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

We learned in that little five-story subsidized housing building in the Bronx with the thin walls that it wasn’t so easy to keep your business to yourself. Mom’s manic episodes could be set off by anything, and could last for minutes or hours as she screamed and paced. Her yelling was unhinged, and so were her punches.

I was the only kid in our family still living with Mom in the Bronx; my siblings had gone to live with other relatives back when she lost what was left of her mind, after my brother Jose was hit and killed by a Philadelphia bus when he was twelve years old. My grandmother has said that no one in our family took me from my mother because I was just a baby at the time, and all she had left.

As long as it was just the two of us, I reasoned as a girl, I could take the abuse. It seemed better than whatever the police would do to her or to us. When I was five years old, the neighbors called the authorities after Mom burned me with a straightening comb. I was put in foster care and didn’t see her for a year. I feared the next time would be for longer, if not forever.

It was never a question in my mind that I would be loyal to my mother instead of seeking help for myself from the authorities or police. This was true even when she found objects to beat me with, when she wrapped her hands around my throat and threatened to kill me and it felt like she might actually mean it.

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One night when I was thirteen, it got so bad that the neighbors, who generally resisted calling the police for all the reasons I’ve said above, did call them. Sometimes it’s difficult to do nothing.

The presence of officers inside our building was enough to alert her that she needed to breathe deeply. That she needed to lower her voice. That other people were listening and watching. Thankfully, things did not escalate. We closed the door, clicked the police lock back into place, and went to bed.

All over the city, New Yorkers express discomfort about calling the police, particularly when people of color might be in danger. Shakthi Jothianandan, a journalist who lives near a mental health rehab clinic and halfway house in Manhattan’s Kips Bay, says that even when she hears yelling at all hours of the day and night and her fight-or-flight response is engaged, she’s apprehensive about calling 911.

“It seems that most people know not to call the police about someone being ‘a danger’ or ‘suspicious’ because we understand the many populations who live here,” Jothianandan says.

Native Brooklynite Jennifer Pozner, a journalist, book author, and frequent Voice contributor, says that she first wrestled with this dilemma more than a decade ago, when in pre-gentrification Kensington she saw a huge fight involving students of color but hesitated to call the police. “I wanted to help the kid who was being hurt, but I also knew that the best-case scenario of calling 911 would be that each of those kids would probably get a record — likely including the kid who was being beaten up,” she says. “And that’s the best case; at the worst, I worried that cops could beat up or shoot the kids.”

Vassell’s death shows how quickly things can go wrong after a 911 call, and not just because of the NYPD’s long history of problems dealing with the mentally ill, which have persisted even after the introduction of new crisis intervention training. The officers who shot Vassell appear not to have been his local police, but rather other strategic response and “anti-crime” units typically assigned to shootings. They would not have known him, and would not have known that he sometimes took medication.

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I have been reminded these last few days of Charleena Lyles, the mentally ill Black woman fatally shot multiple times by police officers last year in Seattle. Yes, she was brandishing a knife. But the police had been to her apartment before. And Lyles was pregnant. They killed her in front of her babies.

Every day, New Yorkers encounter so many mentally ill people, whether on the street or in their own buildings. The most recent data for New York shows that some 95,000 New Yorkers with serious mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, have not received mental health treatment in the past year. There are fewer mental health beds than ever. Very few of the people who need mental health treatment the most can either afford medication or manage to adhere to it.

It was ultimately stage IV cervical cancer that killed my mother six years ago, but the deaths of Saheed Vassell and Charleena Lyles suggest that she could easily have shared their fate.

One time, distraught, confused, hot tears streaming down my face, I ran out of our apartment building down cracked marble steps into the Bronx summer air just to feel the breeze on my face, to remember how big the world was, how small my problems were, how small I was.

My bipolar mother came running after me in the dark, shouting, because it was late and she was worried. Reading about Vassell’s life and death, I wonder what a different life I would have had — and my mother would have had — if someone had called the police, mistaking our need for air, our way of trying to maneuver around despair, for something more sinister, less human.

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NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Jeffrey Bernstein Sentenced to 3-10 Years in Prison for Screwing Mental Health Nonprofit Out of Millions

Jeffrey Bernstein learned yesterday that paying your bills with stolen money from your nonprofit organization is not only a crummy thing to do, but it will also earn you at least three years in prison.

A Manhattan court judge sentenced Bernstein, 62, to 3 1/3 to 10 years in years in prison yesterday for stealing $2.5 million from the Albert Ellis Institute, a nonprofit psychotherapy organization founded nearly 50 years ago, according the Manhattan District Attorney’s office.

“We followed the money through numerous accounts, all of which led back to the defendant,” Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said in a release. “The financial well-being of nonprofits depends on earning the trust of donors to support the goals and missions of the organization. Those who violate that trust not only harm themselves, they harm the entire organization.”

Bernstein pleaded guilty to first-degree grand larceny on September 24. He served as the director of administration at AEI and handled the organization’s finances. Through nearly 80 unauthorized wire transfers, Bernstein funneled funds from AEI into three other businesses he ran.

The stolen money went toward personal expenses including loan repayments, payments to family members, legal and accounting fees, credit card bills, car expenses, insurance, and condo fees, according to prosecutors.

Bernstein has been ordered to repay his $2.5 million to the organization in restitution.

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Healthcare Living NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES NYC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Gawker, Daily Mail Re-Tell 10-Year-Old Blowjob Story. Yes, Ladies: Blowjobs Will Still Make You Happy

Gentlemen: we all owe State University of New York researcher Gordon Gallup a big-time “thank you” — albeit a decade late.

Websites like Gawker and the Daily Mail are “reporting” today that Gallup has successfully proven what many of us have been telling women since the beginning of time: giving blowjobs will make you happy. Subsequently, they also make men pretty happy, so it’s really a win-win.

Only problem is, Gallup proved this 10 years ago, and it’s been written about — at length — ever since.

Regardless, there’s no sense in not reiterating such a beneficial study — even if our fellow members of the Fourth Estate seem to think this is something new.

So here’s what Gallup found — again, 10 years ago:

According to science, the “mood-altering” qualities of semen can help fight depression in women because semen, it turns out, contains at least three anti-depressants.

Semen, you see, is made up of cortisol, estrone and melatonin, all of which have qualities that will put you in a good mood.

Gallup conducted the study at the University of Albany, where he’s a professor of psychology.

He compared the mental health to the sex lives of 293 women via-an anonymous survey, so the subjects could answer honestly without fear of coming across as slutty.

We sent Gallup an email asking if there’s anything he’d like to say to the millions of men who owe him a debt of gratitude. We haven’t heard back.

So there you have it, ladies — feelin’ down? Depressed? Maybe you just can’t get out of a funk? Well, forget the ice cream and shopping and just get yourself some dude juice.