Eggplant: a vegetable that in no way, shape or form resembles an egg, and that should never find its way to my plate. I’ve never been fond of it. In fact, it makes my mouth itch, most likely due to an undiagnosed allergy. Yet, last Saturday afternoon, I heard my own voice requesting Eggplant Pomodoro from the blasé waiter at Bertucci’s. I was killing time and carb loading before the onset of a very long, yet important journey: the “Out of the Darkness” Overnight Walk presented by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
I first learned about the event while running errands with my daughter. I had just finished buying dog food at the local Petco, and was en route to the post office, when the end of a Taylor Swift song seamlessly segued into the event’s local advertisement on my car radio station. In 30 seconds, the smile I had been smiling while singing with my 3-year-old was replaced with a set jaw, my eyes filling with tears in no time. My daughter’s voice, still singing, faded to a level I could no longer hear as I listened closely to the ad. I don’t remember there being any discussion in my mind. It was a done deal. I was going to do this walk! As soon as I got home, I researched the online site for more details. The next morning, I sent an invitation to my bandmates, just in case anyone else had any desire to participate. Quickly, I had two other teammates, and our journey officially began.
Acceptably carb loaded, my colleagues Will McCulloch, Marva Lewis and I met at the heart of George Washington University in Washington, D.C. We were quite the accessorized trio: cameras, water bottles, cell phones, hats of questionable taste, and for whatever reason, a pocketful of safety pins! We were excited about the challenge we were about to undertake. As a team, we’d raised over $3,000 for the cause, something that made us proud!
I don’t think any of us really knew what to expect, but we did know it would be an emotional night. We’d all lost friends or family to suicide, or who struggled with mental illnesses. Coincidentally, we registered for the event just after our annual Army suicide awareness and prevention training. Suicide is an escalating epidemic in today’s Armed Forces, and while we did not officially participate as an “Army” team, our military fellowship was undoubtedly one of the integral ingredients that fueled our motivation.
After check-in, we visited various tents manned with volunteers. At one tent, we received colored beads to wear throughout the walk, the colors symbolic of different levels of loss and support. We prepared our luminaries at another tent, writing upon them the names of those in whose memory we walked. Then we took our place on the grass amid our fellow walkers and awaited the opening ceremony.
As I listened to those addressing the participants, I couldn’t help but be moved by the sea of baby blue shirts surrounding me. The backs of the shirts had written upon them the names of those lost. While mine displayed four names, some walkers used the space to display photographs and screen-printed tributes. Many people walked in teams in support of one family. When the words coming through the giant speakers turned to sorrow, my eyes quickly found the ground. I was sobered by the mother walking with her late daughter’s sneakers around her neck, her baby girl who took her life less than a year ago at the tender age of 13. The sisters comforting one another as they were no longer able to choke back the tears they’d been swallowing for so long. The man who’s shirt indicated that he’d lost his “only son”. Smiling faces looking at me from the backs of shirts – faces that were now gone, along with those haunting smiles. I tried to look in the eyes of those pictured. Did they give anything away? Could I have seen it coming if they were my friend or loved one? I couldn’t find anything, and I immediately felt so ignorant and naive, even ashamed. I pledged to myself at that moment that I would not remain in the dark any longer about this issue.
Then we began the walk, and I had to fight my own tears of happiness as I saw the blue wave begin to move together towards the journey, some hand in hand and arm in arm. Cheering. Clapping. And many verbal thanks coming from those volunteering. It was a beautiful evening in Washington, D.C., and within the first two miles, we were enjoying one of the most gorgeous sunsets I’ve ever seen in our Capital! All felt right! We walked, and walked, and walked, past monuments, through peaceful neighborhoods, along crowded restaurant fronts – so much diversity to see. Several bystanders asked us why we were walking throughout the night. Myself and my teammates handed out wristbands to those on the street when we saw the opportunities – anything to promote awareness. We enjoyed high-fiving the folks gathered in the designated cheering areas, and some others randomly along the route. One of my colleagues even danced momentarily outside a disco with a willing partner as we walked by the nightclub to which they were waiting to gain access – a nice laugh for the other two of us! We walked and walked. We chatted about many things, some serious, and much not so serious. We tried to lighten up the atmosphere by bantering with those around us from time to time. But we were constantly reminded of the gravity of our purpose by the baby blue shirts, those names and faces still finding us in the darkness.
When our trio encountered those silent times when no one knew what to say, I walked in silence, my mind thinking about the symbolism of the darkness, of the night. I wonder how many suicides are attempted and/or completed in the cover of darkness. What is it about the night that seems to invite such solitude and despair? There’s nothing there at night that isn’t there during the day, except the light. Why does the darkness contribute to loneliness? Is the warmth of a touch that much warmer in the dark? Is proximity much more acceptable in the dark? And how many people was I walking past in this city, on this night, that were thinking about taking their lives? How many would attempt to take their life before my walk finished? Before the sun rose to shine its wonderful warmth, growth and hope across the earth? Maybe one desperate person would see us walking…just one. My eyes scoured the buildings we passed, not looking for anything in particular, but definitely searching for something. I tried to imagine the darkness delivering someone to the light as the sun rose. But I also imagined the first responders that would arrive on the scene, one hour too late. The fateful news being delivered to a family before they’ve even risen from their beds or eaten their Cheerios. And then I passed someone else walking in silence, and I wondered what thoughts were driving their legs. I tried to imagine the level of pain someone must feel in order to take their own life: to put a gun to their head and pull the trigger; to hang themselves from a tree; to throw their body in front of a speeding commuter train. Tremendous pain. And fear. Fear of disappointing someone who loves them. Fear of being stereotyped publicly by labels – depression, bipolar disorder, homosexuality, unattractiveness – unacceptable on some social level. Fear that they just can’t be the person someone expects them to be. Fear of being ridiculed by society, political and church leaders, classmates. How does a 13-year-old take her life? How does a father leave his children alone by ending his life? How does a brother abandon his baby sister forever? How does a mother bury her child, who’s life she protected from the womb? Tragic…It must stop!
And so we walked until we were finished. We pushed hard up the final hilly miles, and we felt every pain develop in our bodies. We welcomed every stitch, every twinge, every hot spot, and every tear. We did it, and I believe we made a difference! It was not an easy walk, but we knew that if we just kept going, we’d get there, and we’d do it together – one mile at a time. I publicly state that as someone who has suffered from major depression my entire life, I can honestly say that on this night, I won! My favorite life mantra when I hit a rough patch from time to time: “Even your darkest hour is only sixty minutes long”. Perhaps I’ll add some more mantras to my life: “Just one foot in front of the other”, or “I will own this hill”! Whatever it takes to keep looking for the next sunrise and stave off that lonely night.
Why eggplant? It is a symbolic meal for me, representing a loss in my life that left a void that seems far too deep to visit. But I am bravely beginning that journey, and I will make it, alone and with my lost loved one. Perhaps if she could have gotten help for her mental illness, she may still be here with me today. I feel her sadness and I carry it with me every day. She did not take her life overnight in the darkness. She took it slowly, over years, and I didn’t know how to help her, although she cried for help in everything she did and said. I can’t climb into that trench with her any longer, but I will honor her in every way I can, even if it’s as silly as eating eggplant! Because I miss her so much…and that is why we must educate everyone about mental illness, suicide and its aftermath. And it must begin with ourselves.