Saturday, September 10, 2016

Suicide Prevention Week


Sometime shortly after the turn of the last century, in a modest apartment in the Bronx, a family fight broke out. There was high drama, screaming, and no doubt things were thrown and broken. A young girl then watched in horror as her own mother in a desperate attempt to end her pain jumped out the window falling several stories to her death. This played out in front of the whole family. And it was rarely spoken of again. That little girl was my grandmother.

Depression is not a character flaw and suicide is not a weakness. These things are hardwired into our DNA and science has proven that they are passed on like other genetic traits. The grief of depression and trauma is violently forged into our DNA and takes a lifelong struggle to unwrite. For more information on this, read the recent studies on holocaust trauma being passed down to survivors that were born generations later.

#Depression is no joke. I've spoken about my struggles with it many times publicly and privately. I have suffered from a host of depression-related issues since I was a young child. It is one of those very dark and serious conditions that seems to get worse and worse as you get older. The stakes get higher, the internal pressures grow stronger, and the voices get much louder until they rise to the level of a football stadium filled with angry fans.

I am no good. I am worthless. I am a defective piece of shit. My life has no meaning. I am a detriment and burden to all those around me. The world would be a better place without me in it. These are not slogans or phrases I picked up off a depression website or Lifetime movie. No, these are the daily mantras that the darkness of a depressive brain insists on repeating over and over and over again. For decades. Until they are so loud, you can no longer bear them.

You cannot fight depression by lying to it (though that is one major psychological strategy and treatment approach). This is our truth. This is our reality. Is it inescapably home.

In those dark silent moments of the night, we are all alone with our thoughts, each one of us. No matter where they start, the thoughts are guided along a prebuilt track towards the inevitable: what we are not, what we have not, who we are not. That is that a familiar and comfortable place. But that comfort gives way to an addictive danger zone where a gravitational spiral drags us down into an ever-growing black hole. It is in this unenviable place that 'ending it all' seems to be the only logical, sensible, and dare I say merciful choice. Mercy upon oneself, mercy upon those around us who we feel we are a burden to, and mercy on the greater world at large.

I will never know the full effect of a life in the arts on these things as it is the only life I have known. But I watch my friends accept Grammy Awards, Tony Awards, Emmy and Oscar Awards, and I am truly proud of and happy for them. But that's not enough for the depressive mind. It has to compare. I watch other friends save people's lives and again it compares... 'What have YOU done that comes even remotely close to their impact on the world?' It loudly shouts in a mocking tone. Even recently, I found out that someone whom I know was a horrible person who did inexcusable things to me had a child. The depressed mind has to compare, even then.

However the chips fall, the depressed mind feels the same after every split. No matter what the circumstances are, there is always this sense that the other person can bounce back. That she can go on to have a normal and happy life, while you are left with defective, worthless, and broken you.

You wake up alone as you always do. You have to scream at yourself at the top of your lungs that you're worth something and that your life has meaning; that if you were suddenly gone, people would be affected; that there are people out there who count on you who you aren't even aware of. These people count on your existence and you will never know it during your living years.

You see, when you suffer from this type of depression, no amount of medication, solution from science nor religion or other magical thinking can help. Though, dogs help. And of course, that same science you rely on has shown in multiple studies that people who have a faith in a God or a higher power are far less likely to suffer from this darkness.

But when you do suffer from this flavor of depression, you walk the earth with a dark cloud hovering over every achievement and a torrential monsoon drowning your every failure. Your BEST days are a normal person's worst. As performers, we get the benefit of an occasional opiate-level high when we walk out on stage and perform. But the rest of the time, we walk the earth wearing a 500 pound lead suit we can barely maneuver in.

All the slogans in the world don't change the overwhelming sense that suicide (the relief of this darkness and an end to the pain) is the fair and just resolution. It only seems right. It is a relief that we, the depressed, have earned through a lifetime of existing in that heavy armor.

People who have known me for decades know some of the reasons for the darkness. It goes far deeper than garden variety self-hatred. I was taught those things about myself and those lessons connected with the darkness that was already pre-wired and waiting in my brain for the right code words and reinforcement to activate it like a trained self-assassin. It is simply exhausting for anyone to exist in this condition.

To put it more bluntly; being me is exhausting. Being Russell Wolff is a full time exhausting balancing act. There is no break. The life of an artist is a strange one. If I get an idea at three in the morning I don't have the option of ignoring it.

[Tangent alert, followed by bringing it full circle]

This morning, I started out writing some words reflecting on the world we knew before 9/11/2001 as the 15 year anniversary snuck right up on us. I feel that the world changed that day. I know America changed on that day. And while Patriotism sure looked good on paper for a short time, we are now watching the horrifying ripple effects of that change as it destroys our nation 15 years later.

Since that day, we have become a lost and violent people. Armed to the teeth and full of hatred and mistrust for one another. A country that doesn't even deserve the unity that party leaders promise. Have we helped each other? Or have we instead sought to destroy our neighbors and every ideal we claimed to stand for? That is indeed a question for another post…

But, back to the main point... There is a simple equation that applies here: the deeper the depression, coupled with the absence of relationships and children, correlates to a higher likelihood of this dark sense of low worth. This might seem a bit obvious to some of course, but worth repeating for reference. The sense of irrelevancy felt by a depressed person on a regular basis is palpable. The folly of life is seemingly unbearable.

The best thing I've done in my life in this realm started recently. As some of you know, I have been working with underserved, at-risk teens at the Nashville downtown public library. As it turns out, I ended up with the opportunity to work with many kids who in their early teens fantasize about suicide, and with some who attempted it, as I did.

I keep these kids in my mind always. When the image of me helping these kids wants to run away, I chase after it, grab it, drag it back and throw it the fuck back in its seat so it stays in the room where I can always see it. In this role, I have been given a chance to help kids who grew up like me, kids that suffer and who were told their whole lives that they were worth nothing. And so they believe they are worth nothing. Why wouldn't they. The people who told them those terrible things are the people we are all taught to trust: Our parents, our teachers, our friends. I have a chance to do for them what I have never been able to do for myself, and that brings me a certain kind of satisfaction, meaning, and purpose.

To be suicidal is to suffer from a very dark and dangerous sub-section of depression. Suicidal ideation is to depression what hard-core shock pornography is to making love. It is dark, it is violent, it is ever present. Instead of the reality it presents itself as, it is a complete distortion of our soul, our spirit, and our potential as humans. And as far as I can tell, the only way to fight it is with evidence, truth, purpose and acts of generosity and kindness that positively impact other human beings.

There is a reason I am still alive. I don't know if that reason is the work I do at the library, or to help young artists at my recording studio, or writing my book, or telling my story, or speaking to groups of young people that are dealing with these issues. But I can recognize it's worth even when I can't sense my own.

It was recently suggested to me that I consider coming full circle with my book. To go from finishing telling my story into working with someone to make it a musical. It made good sense to me. After all, at age 7, musical theater was the first place I ever felt safe, and found hope, purpose, and meaning. Being on the stage entertaining people, made others smile and feel joy even when my soul didn't understand what those things were. But it brought me a certain kind of deep satisfaction to be able to bring that to others.

I don't want to end my life today. I want to live. I want to create meaningful art that is helpful to other human beings until the day I can no longer breathe or stand up. Every day, I set out to make a positive impact in someone's life. I have a full understanding after nearly dying myself, then after losing so many friends over the years: THIS is all we have. THIS moment, THIS day, THIS very second.

The greatest moment I ever had on stage was recorded, December 4, 1999 near Albany, New York. One year after that, my album 'Roadkill Americana', was held ransom by a 'friend' in New Jersey, who eventually erased the entire album out of spite and greed. As you may know, I recovered the album from some old rough mixes made close to the end of the recording. I managed to record some missing parts, 'mix' what I could, and release it. It was nowhere near what it was supposed to be, but it was released. One year after that, the towers fell and I left New York for Boston. One year after that, I was laying on my presumed deathbed, six weeks in the hospital, with tubes in me to breathe, facing the very real prospect that my life was over, my singing career was done, and I that even if I did manage to live, I might never talk again let alone sing. It took two years and two additional surgeries to feel like a human being again, which I couldn't have gotten through without the love and support of my friends in Boston and New York who know exactly who they are. But on the other side of that, I found a new life helping others.

I know that any of us can die any second for any reason. It is so easy to die for any of us, and it is so logical to commit suicide for any of us who suffer from this darkness. Living is the hardest thing of all. Thriving in the face of 1 million voices telling you you're not good enough. Somehow shutting them all down and walking forward through that angry mob in your mind heckling you at every turn. THAT is the true challenge and struggle. And for those of us struggling with depression, it is all the more challenging.

The title and theme of my book have shifted a bit since I started. As soon as I get close to the end, I can share more information about it. But everything I've spoken about here is related. For those of you who had the patience to read through all this, I thank you.

Keep in mind that right now, you know someone besides me who is suffering under all of this darkness, while they do their best to hide it from you and the rest of the world. You can't save them, but you can encourage them to find something to fight for. Please do.


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