Positively Inspiring

There is a reason I haven’t given up all hope for the future. It’s that I keep coming across so many amazing young people who identify a problem and then come up with brilliant ideas to try to solve it. One such person is Paige Hunter, of Sunderland, England.

Paige has gone through some hard times herself, so she started to think about those people in despair who choose to jump off bridges. As a bridgetender, I spend a lot of time thinking and writing about them, too. But Paige turned her concerns into positive action.

Some of the messages she attached to the Wearmouth Bridge, along with the phone number to a support hotline for people in emotional distress, include:

  • If you end it now, you will be so deeply missed.
  • Even though things are difficult, your life matters. You’re a shining light in a dark world. Just hold on.
  • When things go wrong, don’t go with them.
  • You matter, you are loved, and people would be worse off if you died.
  • Fight with all you have. Tomorrow is always a better day.
  • Hope is enough (even if hope is all you have.)
  • If you’re reading this, I want to tell you how amazing you are.
  • You have the power to say, “This is not how my story will end.”
  • Look how far you have come… and then keep going.
  • Don’t you dare give up on this life. Not tonight. Not tomorrow. Not ever.
  • Step back. You’re worth it.
  • Pause. Stop. Breathe. There are better options, and so many people love you.
  • This isn’t how it ENDS.
  • Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start now and make a brand new ending.
  • It will be better. Please hold on.
  • It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you DO NOT STOP

What an amazing young lady. Due to her efforts, she got a commendation from the Northumbria Police Department. And this has created a great deal of media attention.

Due to that attention, she decided to do yet another positive thing, and raise funds for mental health. I’ll say it again: what an amazing young lady! Won’t you join me in contributing to her GoFundMe campaign? It’s in British Pounds, but your credit card will figure it out. Lets keep this positivity going!

Paige Hunter, I predict great things from you! Thank you!

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The Ingredients of Happiness

It always comes as quite a shock when someone famous commits suicide. Hearing on the radio that Anthony Bourdain chose to take his own life nearly caused me to swerve off the road. This is someone I’ve envied. He got to travel. He had crazy experiences and met fascinating people. He won countless awards. No doubt he also made a boatload of money.

This was someone who was successful, rich, and had an exciting life. Three things many of us strive for, and yet, now he’s gone. On the surface, you’d think that his was a life worth living. But to make this permanent choice, he must have been in a great deal of emotional pain. He must have been suffering. Surrounded by all of us, who admired him, he must have been all alone. Of course, this is pure speculation on my part. I doubt any of us will ever know the full story.

The only thing I can know for sure is that I am happier than Anthony Bourdain was. I would never have guessed this a week ago. But there’s incontrovertible evidence of this now. I’m still here.

So, what constitutes happiness? One thing is for sure: it isn’t money. I know that’s a cliché, but clichés become clichés for a reason.

I know someone who is a millionaire, but he’s also a divorced, estranged father and a raging alcoholic. He’s one of the most miserable people I have ever met. Money does nothing to solve your problems when all is said and done. Most of us know this, and yet so many of us still seem obsessed with filthy lucre. It’s such a waste of time.

As far as I can tell, the two things you need to be happy are connections and purpose. Humans are social animals. They need community. The more you surround yourself with people you love who love you back, the happier you will be. And having a purpose, such as a job you love, or a goal to strive for, or even a hobby, makes life worthwhile. If you have none of those things, I encourage you to become a volunteer. Helping others is the noblest of purposes.

Don’t get me wrong. None of us can be happy all the time. People who are happy all the time are mentally ill. It’s how we cope with the rough patches that truly defines us. But there’s a lot that you can do to make your life satisfying overall.

If you are contemplating suicide or know someone who is, I strongly encourage you to seek help. Here in the US, a great resource is the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Their number is 1-800-273-8255. Please, just do that one last thing before taking any steps that, once done, can never be undone. Surely you owe yourself that much.

Anthony Bourdain, I hope you have found the peace you apparently could not find in this life. I wish you had made a different choice.

Anthony Bourdain

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Helpless Stress

Sooner or later, every train engineer will have someone step in front of his or her train as a way to permanently solve a temporary problem. That must be a heartbreaking experience. You want to stop, but you know you can’t. I suspect that all you can really do is close your eyes, swallow really hard, and get ready to fill out a boatload of paperwork.

No doubt this sometimes happens to bus drivers as well. And I’m sure ferry captains have their fair share of jumpers, just as we bridgetenders do. I can’t even imagine what first responders deal with on a daily basis. It’s a part of these jobs that no one wants to talk about. Helpless Stress.

It’s that feeling of being completely out of control. It’s that desire to save someone, and not being able to do so. It messes with your head. It’s the kind of vicarious trauma that people don’t quite understand until they’ve experienced it themselves.

The most frustrating thing about it is you know you’ve been through something big, but you’re not physically hurt. Nothing shows. Your wounds are on the inside, where no one can see them. So your friends and loved ones often expect you to “snap out of it.”

If you have experienced helpless stress, I urge you to take it seriously. Talk to a professional; someone with experience in crisis or grief counseling. Don’t try to simply power through. What happened is not your fault, but if you choose to not cope with it, that can compound the problem.

You’re not alone. Help is out there. Please seek it out.

Helpless Stress

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The Anatomy of a Traumatic Experience

It was an unremarkable day. In retrospect, that was one of the strangest things about it. I was walking across the bridge to get to work, as I’ve done thousands of times. The sun was out. I had no plans, really. Think “status quo.”

And then I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned, just in time to see the guy hit the water. He had jumped off the next bridge over. There was this big splash, and that’s when time stopped for me. I think I will always carry with me a static image of him hitting the water, the splash and the waves it caused frozen in place. Because at that instant I knew he was dead. I knew it just as sure as I’m alive.

Needless to say, I stopped dead in my tracks. I stared at the body with my mouth hanging open. My mind started to bargain. “You didn’t really just see that.” “It’s not a body. Someone must have dropped something big and heavy off the bridge.” “This is not happening.” “No. This can’t be happening.”

Then I saw two boats race out from the rowing club. They tried to drag the body out of the water, but they couldn’t. Then the Harbor Patrol came screaming around the bend in the lake, and they were able to pull him out.

Somewhere along in there I had walked woodenly to the drawbridge tower where I work. (The sequence of events is forever hazy in my mind.) I climbed the stairs. “Did you see that?” I said to my coworker.

“See what?” She had been looking the other way. Time had been moving at a normal pace for her. And then I changed that, probably. She went down and talked to the officers on the scene, and then she left, after urging me to call our supervisor.

I talked to the supervisor for a long time. This is not the first time a bridgetender has witnessed a suicide, and it won’t be the last. She offered to let me have the day off, but I didn’t feel up to the commute. I was already there, and I could be traumatized at work just as easily at I could at home. She also strongly encouraged me to contact our Employee Assistance Program and get some counseling, because this was a big deal.

How right she was. I had never seen anyone die before. I’ve seen dozens of people consider jumping, but then get talked out of it. That’s upsetting enough. I’ve seen a few dead bodies, after the fact. But I’ve never seen anyone die before. It changes you.

I spent the rest of the shift feeling stunned and sad and sick to my stomach. I didn’t accomplish much. I kind of stared off into the middle distance a lot of the time. I thought about the jumper, and was heartbroken that he had felt so much pain and despair that he made that irreversible choice. I was heartbroken for the people who love him. I was upset for all the other witnesses, including the ones at the waterfront restaurant who were expecting to have a lovely salmon lunch, as I have on more than one occasion, and instead got an awful memory.

The weird thing was that I could see that life was going on all around me. Boats were happily floating over the spot, unaware that someone had just died there. People were jogging. Cars hummed their way across the bridge.

The waterway had always been kind of a sacred place for me. Now it had been violated. By the jumper? By the boaters? I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure that one out.

I talked to several people during the course of the shift. My crew chief stopped by. He offered, again, to let me have the day off. He reminded me about the Employee Assistance Program. He told me a few stories about things he’s experienced, and how it made him feel. It was really nice of him to stop by. I kind of felt detached, though.

I also called my sister, who was predictably horrified and sympathetic, and a few friends, who were sorry and tried to be comforting. I even spoke to my therapist. But I felt… it’s hard to explain. I felt like I was in a different reality. A different place, where I couldn’t quite reach them, and they couldn’t quite reach me. I could hear what they were saying, but it was like I was at a high altitude, and my ears had yet to pop. At a remove. Alone.

At the end of the shift I expected to go home and have a really good cry, but the tears never came. As of this writing, they still haven’t come. But I can feel them on the inside.

When I got home, I hugged my dog, and then fell into a deep sleep. I was really afraid I’d have a nightmare and wake up screaming with only my dog to comfort me, but that didn’t happen. I don’t even think I tossed or turned. I barely even wrinkled the sheets. It was like I had been in a coma.

When I woke up, “it” was my first thought. But oddly enough, I felt calm. I felt rested. I was in a good mood. Could I have gotten past this so easily? It felt like I had been given a “get out of jail free” card. What a relief. Tra la la.

Okay, yeah, maybe I’ve gotten past this. Woo! What an adult I am! This is awesome! Just in case, though, I did look into sending a condolence note to the next of kin. I spoke to the Harbor Patrol Chaplain. Naturally, he couldn’t give me a name, but he might be able to forward the note on for me. I thought that would be a nice little bit of closure.

I also spoke to the Employee Assistance Program, and set up some counseling sessions, even though I was feeling great. Way to go for practicing self-care, Barb! I felt really mature and well balanced.

In fact, I spoke to a couple of professionals who thought I was probably over the worst of it. But my therapist told me, cautiously, that I’d probably experience ups and downs for quite some time. There’s a reason she makes the big bucks.

Again, that night, I slept well. I was rested the next day, but a little subdued. Nothing major. Just kind of bleh.

And then that afternoon I started to shake uncontrollably. I wasn’t cold. I was just suddenly overwhelmed. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I had several semi-urgent things on my to-do list, but it was painfully obvious that I was in no shape to deal. I just… I shut down.

I kind of checked in with myself, and what I got was: I’m afraid. I feel out of control. Everything feels so fragile, like a soap bubble. I’m so exhausted that the air feels like the consistency of chocolate pudding. Everything takes more effort than normal. I just want to be left alone.

Which is kind of good because after that first day, most people stopped following up with me. They were over it. It was an awkward conversation. Life goes on. But I still felt, and still feel to this day, that I need someone to hold me while I cry, and that someone can’t seem to be found.

Yes, there’s therapy in my future, and yes, I’ll learn to cope with my new reality. I know this because it’s not the first traumatic thing that’s ever happened to me. I hope it’s the last, but I kind of doubt it. I am also well aware that things are cyclical. I’ll have good days and bad days.

Perhaps it’s the awareness of the cycles of life that have always prevented me from making the horrible choice that the jumper did. No matter how bad things get, even when the loneliness is so bad it’s physically painful, I know that eventually the pendulum shifts in the other direction.

That, and I could never put someone through what that jumper has put the witnesses, the first responders, and his loved ones through. Never. Not ever.

Having said that, though, I hope he has found the peace that seems to have eluded him in life.

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Reach Out

I used to love to sit on my porch swing when I owned a house in Jacksonville, Florida. I could look out on the park across the street and take in a game of softball or lacrosse, or watch people come and go from the public library. I especially enjoyed seeing the various neighborhood dogs as they walked their humans. For such a big city, my neighborhood had a rather bucolic vibe.

One day I was drinking lemonade and lazily swinging back and forth, trying to kick up enough of a breeze to beat the stifling humidity, when this woman came down the sidewalk looking so shell-shocked that I had to ask her if she was okay. She looked at me for a second, and then pointed over her shoulder and said, “A guy… he just hung himself from a tree.” And then she walked away.

Wait. What??? I immediately jumped up. I remember hearing the porch swing chains clank. (It’s funny what you remember at times like those.)

And sure enough, when I looked down the street, about a dozen police cars were descending on a house about a block away. They had to cut his body down. I was never able to pass that tree again without thinking about it.

I didn’t know the guy. That house was a rental, and no one ever seemed to stay very long. But I kind of felt as though we had let each other down.

Clearly, someone within hollering distance of me had been in deep despair. Obviously, he wanted help or he wouldn’t have chosen to hang himself in his front yard across the street from a public library. I wish I had known.

If you need help, you have to ask for it. That was his responsibility. Mine was to keep my eyes open and my heart open to being a force for good. You speak. I listen. It takes two.

I wish he had spoken up. I don’t know what I could have done. I don’t pretend to be anyone’s savior. But maybe he could have sat with me on my porch swing. We could have talked about inconsequential things. Maybe that tiny bit of routine could have made just enough of a difference. Maybe I could have told him about the sliding-scale mental health clinic within walking distance. We’ll never know, now.

I’m not saying what happened was my fault. But it still makes me sad to think I was relaxing on my swing and sipping lemonade while he was throwing a noose over a tree branch less than a hundred yards from me. What a tragedy. What a waste.

Porch Swing

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Time Passes

Here’s why I could never commit suicide: I know, for better or for worse, that I am not stuck in this present moment. Things will get better. Yeah, they might also get worse. But the point is, it’s all unbelievably temporary. Change is inevitable.

The reason I’ve been able to endure all this home buying and relocation stress is that I was able to keep telling myself that this time next month, then next week, then tomorrow…I’d be done with all of that. And sure enough, I am. Now it’s time to focus on unpacking stress. And while that sucks, too, at least I know everything is here. Somewhere. In some box or another. I forget where. But it’s here. Really. It is. It has to be.

The more life you live, the more you realize that the pendulum swings back and forth. If you don’t like the point in the arc that you are currently experiencing, just wait. You’ll be gone from there in no time.

That knowledge also makes me value the now. It feels all the more precious because it’s going to be gone in a flash. Sometimes I feel the need to stop dead in my tracks and just take everything in. Breathe the air. Feel the sun on my face. Watch and listen to everything that’s happening around me.

Every moment is as unique and fragile as a snowflake. Personally, I want to stick around for as long as I can, because the snowflakes of life are infinitely fascinating to me. It would be a shame to miss even one of them.

snowflake

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Drawbridge FAQs

So, there’s actually a person making the bridge open and close?

Yep. I get that a lot. Nice to meet you. While there are some automated drawbridges out there (mostly railroad bridges in remote locations with little or no pedestrian traffic), the vast majority of drawbridges have a human operator. Safety is our primary concern, and they have yet to invent a computer with an algorithm to adapt to the unpredictable behaviors of pedestrians, motorists, bicyclists, and boaters. Every few years some fool decides to spend a taxpayer’s fortune to do a study about automating bridges, and it always turns out to be a really, really bad idea.

Don’t you get bored? What do you do between bridge openings? Don’t you go stir crazy? Do you sleep a lot?

I can’t speak for every bridgetender, but it’s a point of pride with me that I never sleep, and it frustrates me when people assume that I do. It’s insulting. I take my job very seriously. There’s a lot more to the job than simply sitting there and waiting for a boat to come along. There’s more paperwork than you’d expect. Opening statistics. Accident reports. Long opening reports. Maintenance requests. Log books. Safety lock outs. Supply requests. Many of us are also required to do maintenance, such as the greasing and/or cleaning of various pieces of equipment, the constant battle with pigeon poop and rat abatement, general cleaning, and inspections.

But yes, there’s plenty of down time, too. If you are the type to go stir crazy, you won’t last long on this particular career path. Everyone has their own way of keeping entertained, and every bridge has different policies as to what’s allowed. Some provide TVs and DVDs and/or allow you to bring your laptop to work. Some bridgetenders read books or newspapers or do crossword puzzles. Some of us are writers. I once knew someone who knitted a king sized blanket while listening to the radio. I sometimes sit here and pay my bills.

I also used to know of a bridge that didn’t allow its employees to do anything at all. That, to me, constitutes cruel and unusual punishment, and those bridge operators slept all the time. I think it’s much better to keep busy and alert, and continually scan the waterway for approaching vessels.

How do you know when someone needs an opening?

Generally they will call us on the marine radio or give us a horn signal. Others will just come up to the bridge and sit there, but since we’re not mind readers, they will most likely sit there for quite some time. If you have a boat, it’s very important to familiarize yourself with the Coastguard Federal Regulations, particularly as they pertain to communicating with drawbridges.

Is the bridge manned 24 hours a day? How many hours a day do you work?

That varies from bridge to bridge. The Coastguard regulates when each bridge is not required to open for vessels. Some bridges do not have a graveyard shift. Some bridges share one employee who drives from bridge to bridge to do openings as each vessel transits the waterway. Some bridges over water that ices up are only opened seasonally, or by appointment only. Most of us work 8 hour shifts, but I do know of a few who work 12 hour shifts. Some bridges only allow part time employees to avoid providing benefits.

How much money do you make?

It’s unbelievable how much variation there is from region to region. Some bridgetenders only make minimum wage and get no benefits whatsoever. I’ve known some railroad bridge operators who make 45 dollars an hour and have retirement and every benefit under the sun. The primary difference seems to be whether you have a union or not. I strongly urge unionization to every bridgetender. Power to the people!

How do you get a job as a bridgetender? Do you need special training?

Let’s face it. This isn’t rocket science. If you can read and write, and have functional arms and legs, and good hearing and eyesight, you can be trained on the job. Some important skills to emphasize in an interview are taking safety seriously, customer service, and reliability. Since some bridges are operated by states, some by counties, others by cities, and still others by subcontractors or railroads, it’s best to just approach a bridgetender on the job and ask them who to contact. (Just don’t sneak up on us. We hate that.)

How often do you open the bridge?

That varies greatly from bridge to bridge, and from season to season. Some bridges only open a few times a year. Here in Seattle, I can go several days without an opening in the dead of winter, and then get 15 openings in a shift on a summer holiday weekend. My alltime record was opening for 225 vessels in an 8 hour shift in Florida. Granted, I let several boats through each time, but still, I didn’t get to eat lunch, and  had to get kind of rude just to take a bathroom break.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

Witnessing suicide attempts. And it happens more often than you might think.

Why is there such a long delay between the time the bridge closes and the time the traffic gates go up to let cars through again?

Patience, grasshopper. Once the bridge is seated, a lock has to be driven along the underside of the structure so that the bridge doesn’t bounce open while you drive over it. From the point of view of a car, it may seem like nothing is happening at that time, but we cannot raise the gates to let you through until those locks are driven.

If you have any other questions, feel free to ask them in the comments section below!

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