Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Whiskey And Milkshakes Don't Dull The Pain

I contented myself with whiskey, for medicinal purposes. It helped numb my various aches and pains. Not that the alcohol actually reduced the pain; it just gave the pain a life of its own, apart from mine.- Haruki Murakami

Dealing with the death of a child is difficult enough.  Make that death a suicide, and for many, the pain becomes unbearable, and they look for ways to cope.  When I talked about dealing with depression at a recent Community Forum, I talked about the signs of depression and how eating too much or too little, as well as the abuse of alcohol and drugs, can play a roll in the battle to dull the pain.  For me, I turned to whiskey and milkshakes.

As a staff, we were excited when they opened a Chik Fil A in front of the school.  Now we had access to decent fast food within walking distance.  Their salads sustained me on days when I forgot, or was too lazy, to make my lunch.  It was easy for me to walk over during my conference period, grad a salad and store it in the fridge in the coaches office until lunch.  Unfortunately, it also meant I was within walking distance of their milkshakes, one of my biggest vices.  After Peyton's death, their milkshakes became a crutch for me.

The days and weeks after Peyton's death were a fog for me.  I worked, coached, picked up my daughter, and went home.  Some days I don't remember, others, I don't want to remember.  After particularly bad days (and there were a lot of those), I would swing through the drive thru and buy a shake, usually a large cookies 'n cream, and became almost a habit.  it got to the point that when I picked up Emmy, she would look in the cup holder to see if I bought a shake that day. For a while, I bought one almost every day.  It helped me ease the pain as I escaped into the cold, frosty goodness.

One day, I stepped on the scale and realized that I had been eating my feelings. It wasn't just shakes, but other sweets and fatty foods that gave me momentary release from the pain.  I knew what I had been doing, but never did anything to stop it.  I knew exercise would have helped, but I chose to go the other way and ate and ate and ate.  Maybe it was comfort in a full belly or that tired feeling that helped was taking away the anxiety.  Regardless of the reason, I knew it was time to make a change.

The rational part of my brain told me to get off my ass and exercise, which I did. Once track season was over, I used my down time to run, or I took Earl the Fat Corgi for walks.  However, the emotional part of my brain told me that the exercise was helping, but not enough, and if I wasn't going to drown my pain in milkshakes, then I needed something else.  Enter whiskey.

I have never been one to down shot after shot. In my younger, dumber days, I was not above taking a slug straight from a bottle to prove just how stupid macho I was, but I never developed a taste for hard liquor until later in life.  I began with vodka chilled, and moved on to brown liquors, particularly whiskey.  I developed a taste for single malt Scotch and single barrel whiskey.  I also learned to appreciate sipping rather than shooting it.  I discovered that it took a while for me to down a couple of fingers of my favorite brown water either neat or on the rocks.  Often I would take my drink to the back yard where I could sit by myself and be alone with my thoughts.  Unfortunately, when those thoughts turned to Peyton, the drink went down a little faster in order to dull the pain.  What ever brief respite I got from the emotional pain would vanish soon enough, and the pain would be back, often with a vengeance.

I finally decided I needed to concentrate more on ways to deal with my pain that didn't make me fat or kill brain cells.  First of all, I went back into therapy. I know this is not something I can go though alone.  I tried therapy once, but felt that I had gotten as far as I could with that therapist and stopped, but as time moved on, I realized I needed more.  I threw myself into my writing, especially this blog. It gave me not only an outlet for my pain, but a platform to call out what I see as problems in our society deal with mental illness and suicide, especially in schools.  I also escaped into books.  The writings of Brad Thor, Brad Taylor, Ace Atkins, and others allowed me to not only escape into another world, but to hone my own style as a writer.  I submerged myself into Netflix, especially DareDevil,  Jessica Jones, The Flash, Arrow, and Peyton's favorite The Walking Dead.  When I spend my time hoping Pike Logan will save the world, or will Quinn Colson keep law and order in Tibbehah County, or who Negan was beating up during the season finale, I don't delve into the pain.

I made the mistake of letting my grief get away from me the first time.  I don't plan on allowing that to happen again.  My heart and my liver can't handle it to begin with.  If I take care of myself physically, it actually helps with the mental aspect of recovery.  Yes,  there are times I spend too much time reading or watching TV, but the alternative is worse.  I still grieve on a daily basis.  Not all days are good, and not all days are bad.  On the bad days, I try to find a constructive way to take away the pain.  I read, write, or watch.  It's not perfect, but I know by now that whiskey and milkshakes don't dull the pain.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

An Open Letter to YouTube/Google: Suicide Pranks Are Not Funny

Dear YouTube/Google:

My name is David James.  I am a teacher and coach at College Park High School in The Woodlands, Texas.  First of all, I want to thank you for both your vast reserves of videos as well as your search engine.  I have made use of both religiously in my classroom over the years.  Whether it is finding a simple video to explain the concepts of the American Naturalistic Movement or an extensive list of the writings of Edgar Allan Poe.  Needless to say, both are invaluable resources.

However, the other day, I saw the downside of YouTube.  In order to understand, I need to give you some backstory.  On October 8, 2014, my 13 year old son hanged himself from a ceiling fan at his mother's house in Georgetown, Texas.  Despite all efforts, he was pronounced brain dead on October 13, 2014.  Since that day, I have been working tirelessly to prevent any other family from having to experience what I have lived with since that day, and that brings me to the point of this letter.

On May 20th, I received a text from a friend of mine.  She wanted to share something with me, but was afraid that it would upset me.  She said it was a link her daughter said had been making the rounds at her high school.  I convinced her that it would be ok, that after everything that I have dealt with in the past year, and a half, nothing could shock me, but I was wrong.  I went to the link and discovered it was a YouTube video by a person who refers to himself as Riceman entitled "Suicide by Hanging Prank on Mom!"  Needless to say, I was appalled and disgusted by what I saw.  In the video, Riceman thinks it will be a hoot to pretend to hang himself and let his mother think he had actually hanged himself.  What could possibly go wrong with this idea?  After all, when his mother walked in, she feinted.  Hahahaha...not.

Immediately, I flagged the video and sent a complaint to YouTube asking them to take this video down.  I then posted to social media asking others to follow course hoping that this video would be taken down.  The post was shared, and complaints were made, but as of today, the video continues to stay up on Riceman's channnel along with other classics in which he tries to lure children into a van, get black people to attack him, or tell people on  a campus that he is going to shoot them.

Please understand things from the point of view of myself and many others out there.  I lost a loved one to suicide, as have numerous others out there.  Last year, close to 43,000 people lost their lives to suicide, and on average, each suicide affects roughly 6 people intimately.  That means that roughly 258,000 people in the US are deeply affected every year.  You may also take into consideration that for every successful suicide, as many as 25 people attempt suicide.  For some one such as Riceman to make fun of something such as suicide, and for YouTube to allow it is just not acceptable.

I went to the YouTube policy page and read your policies on Harmful or Dangerous content in order to see what it would take for a video to be age-restricted to removed.  Your polices are:

  • Whether the act in question could lead to serious injury or death.
  • Whether the individuals participating in the act are trained professionals taking all necessary precautions to prevent injury.
  • Whether the act could be easily imitated by minors.
  • Whether the content could be used to commit serious acts of violence.
  • Whether the upload is educational, documentary, scientific or artistic in nature.
First of all, yes, this is an act that could lead to death, especially by minors (see third bullet point).  I have been a teacher for 25 years, and it is rare to meet a teen ager that doesn't see themselves as ten feet tall and bullet proof.  It wouldn't take much for this prank to go wrong.  Second, I am guessing that Riceman is not a trained professional, and he sure as hell isn't taking precautions to avoid injuries.  He is putting himself in positions where he could do irreparable harm to himself and others, and once again, easily imitated by minors.  But the final, and perhaps most important point, his video is just plain insulting.  Hanging accounts for 235 of all suicides, and is fatal in 90% of the attempts. For Riceman to make it a joke is just adding insult to injury for those of us that have lost loved ones to suicide.  Many of us have suffered in the wake of the death of our loved ones, and have a hard enough time  getting though our day to day lives.  The fact that people not only make these videos, but that others watch them, just heaps on the suffering.  

I grew up watching shows such as Candid Camera and America's Funniest Home Videos, but there is a difference between a carefully orchestrated joke or prank, and an untrained amateur with a video camera, no common sense, and a lack of moral decency.  I understand that people such as Riceman have a right to make these videos, just as you, a private company has the right to allow on your site as long as they meet your "standards".  You can age-restrict it, or put a disclaimer or warning at the beginning of the video, but we all know those are as worthless as travel brochures in a coffin. I am imploring you to take into consideration the thousands of people that are suffering in their day to day lives living with the death of a loved one to suicide.

I am appealing to YouTube and Google on a personal level.  Please remove not only Riceman's suicide prank videos, but all of them.  My recent Google search turned up almost 600,000 results with just "youtube suicide prank".  That is just too damn much.  Survivors of suicide have suffered enough in our lives without having to fear finding these videos, and some people need to be protected from themselves.  I also Googled "suicide prank goes wrong" and came back with almost 400,000 hits.

YouTube, the benefits of a site such as yours are immeasurable, and the benefits to society are many, but have you truly considered the risks.  You can tell people that "You don't have to watch it if it offends you," and many won't.  Unfortunately, you know as well as I that some of these videos are soul crushing, painful reminders for people.  it is for them that I am asking you to take them down. Thank you.

David James

Sunday, May 15, 2016

We Treat The Body But Not The Mind

If you don't think your anxiety, depression, sadness and stress impact your physical health, think again. All of these emotions trigger chemical reactions in your body, which can lead to inflammation and a weakened immune system. Learn how to cope, sweet friend. There will always be dark days. -Kris Carr, New York Times Best selling author

Last week, I was honored to speak at a community forum about suicide and mental health.  Our community has experienced a rash of suicides, including two students, and close to 2,000 people attended.  After the forum, I spoke with some of those that attended and told me their stories very similar to mine.  They had lost a child, or had one battling mental illness.  I wasn't able to talk with everyone, and handed out my card to others asking them to call or email me.

One of the emails I received was from John* asking me to call him to speak about his daughter. Because it was Mother's Day weekend, I had to put it off a few days when I did get a hold of him, he was most anxious to talk.  It seems young daughter Nancy* began to deal with the symptoms of depression and anxiety during the fall of her freshman year of high school.  By January, Nancy, a child that had just been moved up to the varsity swim team, was barely able to leave her room.
Her father was near tears as he told me this. It has to be hard, as a parent, to see your once vibrant child reduced to a shadow of their former self.

As we continued to talk, he made a comment that struck home.  He asked why a school will have three athletic trainers to fix an athlete's body to get them back on the field, but no one to fix their mind to get them back in the classroom.   He made a good point.  Many of the larger schools in Texas have athletic trainers on the staff.  They treat athletic, (as well as band, drill team, and cheer leading injuries), and are a blessing, especially at lower income schools where many student athletes don't have access to sports medicine.  Don't get me wrong, as a coach, I am grateful for the training staff at our school.  They do an incredible job, and treat all athletes, regardless of sport, equally, and because of them, our student athletes are able to compete at a high level.

But what about the students that are injured mentally?  What is being done for them?  I know schools have guidance counselors on campus, but how many are sufficiently trained to handle students with severe mental health issues, and just like any other profession from teaching, to chefs, to knife throwers, there are those that are good, and those, eh, not so much.

When I look at the faculty roster for a random high school, there are three people listed as Diagnostician/Psychological Assoc., but after further research, that means they hold the title Licensed Specialist in School Psychology (LSSP) An LSSP will evaluate kids for Special Education (SPED) using testing materials much like a psychologist, but they are generally not a school psychologist, as that requires a Doctorate according to Texas state law. An LSSP is trained to evaluation children and adolescents’ behavioral, emotional, and social functioning in order to help them succeed academically. An LSSP can provide direct services such as behavioral interventions; therapy; consultation with teachers, parents and other professionals; and make recommendations for whether or not a child might qualify for special education services. In addition, the LSSP may only provide services in a school and not outside.  According to the job description I found on several district websites, the majority of LSSp's are generally in special education, and do not counsel most students. Once again, I am not trying to diminish the work of an LSSP.  Theirs is a nonstop job of meetings, consultations, evaluations, and the reams of paper work that the state and districts require.

I went to several district websites and accessed the student/parent handbook.  This used to go home every year, but is now available on line for easy access provided you have internet access.  Of the ones that mentioned suicide, they all had, word for word, the same statement:
Suicide Awareness: The district is committed to partnering with parents to support the healthy
mental, emotional, and behavioral development of its students. If you are concerned about your
child, please access http://www.texassuicideprevention.org or contact the school counselor for
more information related to suicide prevention services available in your area.  
It is though they have a one size fits all approach to the issue, if they even approach the topic.
Unfortunately, there were several multi-school 6A districts that made no mention of suicide in their handbook.

Take some time to look over the staff roster for your child's district.  You will see teachers listed as the Intervention Specialist, the Response to Intervention Support Teacher, the Student Success Teacher, Psychological Associates, Counselors, LSSP's, and Professional Athletic Trainers.  All are there for your kids.  All have their best interests at heart, but how many are there when your child has issues beyond grades, standardized tests, or sprained ankles?  Isn't it time school districts devoted time and money to mental, as well as physical health?  As a tax payer, you have a say in how things are done in your district.  Attend board meetings, rally other parents, talk to the board members you elected.  If they are going to spend money to treat an athlete's body, then they can spend the money to treat your child's mind

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Speech at Community Forum: Taming the Beast

On May 4, 2016, I presented to a community forum in The Woodlands, Texas to address the growing suicide problem in the Woodlands and surrounding community.  This is the speech I gave.  

Good evening and thank you for coming tonight. My name is David James.    I'm a teacher and coach at College Park High School, the founder of #Products4Peyton, and an advocate for the #PeytonHeartProject, but most important, I am the father of my forever 13 year old son Peyton James.  I truly wish that none of us were here, but unfortunately, that's  not the case.

On October 8, 2014, I received the phone call every parent dreads.  I was sitting in my truck about to leave work when my phone rang.  I looked at the caller ID and saw it was Jacki, Peyton's mother and my ex-wife.  I thought about ignoring the call and letting it go to voice mail. I had already had a bad day, it was late, and I didn't want to deal with any more drama at that moment, but something made me answer.
All she said was, "David, you need to speak to this police officer,"  In the second it took for her to hand the phone over, my mind raced through several scenarios from "there has been an accident" to "Peyton's temper has finally gotten the best of him."

The officer took the phone "Sir, this is Officer So and So (I remember so many details of that day, but names still elude me) of the Georgetown Police Department.  Peyton James has hung himself."  With those five words, my world turned upside down forever.

I sat in my truck, in that empty parking lot, momentarily stunned, listening to the rain pound on the roof  before I completely lost it.  I screamed, yelled, beat on the steering wheel and the roof of the cab with all my might.  I bargained with God and offered my life for Peyton's, but to no avail.  I managed to compose myself long enough to call my wife to come and get me, but after that, I lost all control until she arrived and was able to console me.

That night, my wife Lisa, daughter Emmalee, and I traveled through the rain, traffic, and darkness to Dell Children's Medical Center in Austin to be by Peyton's bedside, but despite the heroic efforts of everyone from first responders to the incredible doctors, nurses and staff at the hospital, Peyton's injuries proved too severe.  He was declared brain dead at 12:02 AM on October 13, 2014, and was laid to rest six days later.

Like many survivors of suicide, I wanted to know why my son would take his own life.  At first I looked to bullying. Peyton had reported another student at his school for harassment the day before, and it had been a constant in Peyton's since elementary school.  His red hair, freckles, glasses and small stature made him an easy target, and more than once it took the threat of legal action to get his schools to take action. While it may have been a reason, it wasn't the cause.

Because Peyton's death was a suicide, an autopsy was required.  When we received the results from the Travis County Medical Examiner it listed suicide as the cause, but I wasn't satisfied.  I wanted to know why my son would choose to end his life.  It was then that I began to do my own research. Like many in today's society, I typed "causes of suicide" into Google.  I read, and I read,  and I read.  What I discovered is that 90% of the people that complete suicide are dealing with some kind of mental illness, many times undiagnosed and untreated. I learned that the most common mental illness, depression is the cause of over two-thirds of the reported suicides in the U.S. each year. I also learned that untreated depression is the number one risk for suicide among youth, it is the third leading cause of death in 15 to 24 year olds,  and the fourth leading cause of death in 10 to 14 year olds.  In Peyton's case, it was depression and anxiety.  Once you add in severe ADHD and the bullying, you have a perfect storm in the head of a person without the coping skills to deal with it. The crippling emotional pain he lived with, that allowed him to believe that death was the answer and that his family would be better off without him, had all became too much for him to deal with on that October afternoon.

When Peyton was 10 or 11, he began telling us that he "wished he were dead" or he "should just kill himself", and at first we thought it was just a was to deflect the trouble he was in or a way to seek attention.  He continued with the threats until one night his mother called him on it and took him to the emergency room.  He wasn't admitted that night, but through his pediatrician, and a psychiatrist, was diagnosed with depression and anxiety at the age of 12.  He started taking medication and attending counseling, and seemed to be improving until that fateful day.

As parents, his mother and I did everything we could, but it wasn't enough.  That's the thing with mental illness, you never know what the breaking point will be.  It's like an empty glass.  When the glass is empty, things are fine, but when you add in other stressors: grades but I studied so hard, bullying you're a little pussy, pressure to succeed how will you get into a good college with grades like this, divorce Daddy is going to go live some where else, death Papa went to be with God this morning, siblings I'm telling Mommy, parents I said turn off the damn TV and do your homework, the glass gets fuller and fuller to the point that all it takes is one or two drops to over flow.

Unfortunately, I know quite a bit about depression.  I have battled the Beast since I was a teenager.  I had always known that there was something wrong with me emotionally, but I never knew what.  It wasn't until my late 30's that I finally addressed the issue.  There were many reasons I waited that long.  I grew up in an age where it was "just a phase", and there was so little known about mental illness that information was not readily available.  I thought it was something that I could deal with on my own,or that it would go away eventually, but most of all was that I feared coming forward and admitting there was a problem.  The stigma of mental illness was, and still is, a hard one to over come. Once I sought treatment, I learned how to tame the Beast and keep it under control.  That was until Peyton's suicide, and now we do battle daily.

So what is it like to battle the Beast?  The biggest challenge I face every day is getting out of bed. When the alarm goes off in the morning (although I am usually awake and full of dread long before that), I have to decide if I am going to face my demons, or give in and call in sick.  I take my medication that is supposed to help, and I have no doubt that it does help, because the Beast hasn't taken over yet.  I go through my morning routine, pour my coffee, and get in my truck for the drive to work.  Some days I hope that some one will rear end me or t-bone me and put me in the hospital for a few days. Others I wish my daughter was sick. Any legitimate  excuse to stay home because  I refuse to let the Beast win and make me stay home.  I will not give in to it, and I will let it dictate my life.

At work, the same student behavior that I used to find humorous or just ignore, now pisses me off. "This is stupid" or "I don't want to do this," hit me like hot needles under my nails.  I want to scream "You have opportunities my son never will!  Shut up and take advantage of those chances instead of bitching about it," but instead, I just a take a deep breath, look at the clock, bite my tongue, and count the minutes left.

I hear snippets of conversations in the halls about parties, drugs, and alcohol, and wonder, "Are they trying to tame the Beast?"  If they are, they're going about it the wrong way, as so many of their generation does, but because the Beast has become "He who shall not be named," in the "not my child" era they use what is available instead of what is proper.

When I'm at home, there are times I'll binge watch Netflix, play XBox, or lose myself in a book rather than face life because all around me are reminders of Peyton, who he was, and who he never will be.  I want to hold my daughter close and never let go, but she is too much like her brother, and can't sit still.  At bed time, I rely on Ambien to sleep, otherwise the anxiety of what has or might happen keeps poking at my brain until the wee hours of the morning.

Depression has many symptoms:
  • Feeling lethargic -- having no energy
  • The inability to concentrate
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Feeling worthless, hopeless,  helpless, negative or pessimistic
  • Losing interest in activities that you previously enjoyed
  • Crying frequently
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Neglecting personal appearance
  • Feeling angry or guilty
  • Unable to think clearly or make decisions

If any of these symptoms apply to you or some one you know, and last more than two weeks, I beg of you, please seek help.  If you were had the flu, or a constant, nagging headache, or trouble breathing, you would seek medical help. The same goes for your emotions.  Begin with your family doctor and go from there. They can refer you to the appropriate mental health professionals if necessary. Depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder are all illnesses just like cancer and diabetes, and should be treated as such.

You also need to follow the course of treatment that is recommended.  Up to 80% of those treated for depression show an improvement in their symptoms generally within four to six weeks of beginning medication, psychotherapy, attending support groups or a combination of these treatments. If that means medication, then take the medication.  If it means counseling, then go to counseling.  There is no shame in either.  If the first medication doesn't work, try another.  If you don't click with your first therapist, find another. Just like any other illness, there is no "one size fits all" approach. What ever you do, don't give up or give in to the Beast.

If you needed chemotherapy or dialysis, would you refuse to go because you are worried about what the neighbors or your family might say?  Hell no, you would attack the illness head one, get a hold of it, fight it, and do what ever is necessary to defeat it.  Just like any other illness, it will take time, there will be missteps,  back slides, good days, bad days, and worse days.  You will want to give up. You will want to give in, but don't. As the Scottish poet Dylan Thomas powerfully states, and I have tattooed on my arm to remember:
     Do not go gentle into that good night.
     Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Fight it like your life depends on it, because in the end, it very well might.

Good night Boo.  Daddy loves you very much.

Thank you.