The Strange History of L’Inconnue de la Seine

She has been kissed more than any woman in history, yet no one knows who she is.

No one knows her name. Where her body rests now, and where she came from also remain a mystery. Her beauty has inspired artists, poets, musicians, writers, dancers, and even doctors. She has been known to inspire an international, cult-like following. She has been kissed by more people than anyone else in the history of mankind, and yet no one knows anything about her life. All these unknowns simply add to her intrigue.

She has come to be known as L’Inconnue de la Seine, or the unknown woman of the Seine. The oft repeated story about her goes something like this: A girl’s body was found floating on the river Seine in Paris, sometime around the 1880’s, and it was taken to the morgue. Because there was no evidence of foul play, it was assumed she committed suicide. The mortician was so taken with the girl’s beauty that he had a death mask made of her face, as was often the custom at the time. And her visage has been haunting and/or intriguing us ever since.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that any part of that story is true. Some say that her name was Valerie, and she was a Russian of noble stock who somehow became a prostitute in Paris, and committed suicide, either due to the shame or because someone broke her heart. Again, no evidence of this can be found. Some say she was the daughter of the owner of the factory that first produced and sold these masks, and that the cast was made while she was still alive.

I subscribe to the theory that she was indeed alive when the cast was made, because her features are too perfect. Apparently it was the custom to “improve” death masks back then, but if you look at death mask images, the majority of them are of people who were unquestionably dead. And a drowned woman would not have such fine features. In addition, some people say that you can almost make out the dents that would be caused at the corners of the mouth if someone needed breathing tubes while the plaster set.

The fact is, we don’t even know where or when she was buried, let alone her age or year of death. But one way or another, the mask became a thing. People would purchase replicas to hang on their walls. Art schools would use her face so their students could practice painting and sculpture. Apparently her face was even used at beautician training schools for a time.

And her face is, indeed, beautiful, although her features have become blurry and indistinct throughout the years, as people have taken casts of casts of casts of it, making it but a mere shadow of its former self. But she looks serene. She looks content.

During the 1920’s and 1930’s, she was the center of a cult-like following of people who romanticized female suicide, saying that to die without pain while still beautiful and full of promise was somehow something one should aspire to. I wonder how many people have themselves committed suicide because of this supposed serene expression?

When a woman is rendered anonymous, it’s easy to overlook the fact that she had emotions and aspirations and a history all her own. She had a tragic life if she really did commit suicide, and an even more tragic one if she was murdered. Yet L’Inconnue has become this mythical creature, someone to be idolized and revered.

I think the myths surrounding this girl who died too soon do her a great disservice. I suspect no one ever asked her if it was okay to turn her image into a thing that is widely profited from and used as a teaching tool. I wish we knew something, anything about her that was verifiable. Instead, she becomes whatever we want her to be.

And one of the things we want her to be, apparently, is the face of a resuscitation doll named Annie. The inventor of this CPR dummy was looking for a female face, because he believed most men would be hesitant to “kiss” a male face. He came across a bust of L’Inconnue and was intrigued by it, just as we all seem to be. He decided she would be the perfect face for his teaching tool. If you have ever gotten a CPR certification, chances are that you, too, have kissed this unknown woman. In retrospect I kind of feel guilty about it. She deserved better.

To add to the tragedy, the survival rate from CPR is not as high as Hollywood would have you believe. It’s actually about 16 percent. That’s got to be heartbreaking for all first responders. And it is said that only 3-5 percent of Americans have CPR certification, and even if they do, it’s estimated that most people forget their training within 3 months.

It is also estimated that if you have a heart attack in public, you are much more likely to be helped if you are a white male. If you’re female or a minority, you have a better chance of having people standing by and looking at their shoes. I suspect L’Inconnue would be disgusted by that prospect.

If you’re interested in learning more about L’Inconnue de la Seine, I recommend that you read The drowned muse : casting the unknown woman of the Seine across the tides of modernity, by Anne-Gaëlle Saliot. You can get an intriguing taste of this book here. And Radio Lab did a fascinating podcast about her.

If you are ever in Paris, there is a shop that sells death masks, called Atelier LORENZI, that has been in business since 1871, and has a 19th century plaster cast of her which they have been using ever since. You must make an appointment to visit this establishment. But if you do, you could “own”  L’Inconnue de la Seine, and if you hang her on your wall, she could, for the rest of your life, gaze down at you serenely, still keeping her secrets.

Women are rarely consulted in these matters. That’s nothing new. L’Inconnue de la Seine, whether she likes it or not, has become a woman you can take home with you. For the right price, of course.

If you or anyone you know is contemplating suicide, please call 988, or visit the website for the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

Additional sources:

Are you wondering what to bring to Thanksgiving dinner? How about my book, Notes on Gratitude? Place your orders now! (Or any other time, since we’re on the subject.) And… thanks!

A Deep Dive into the Works of Vincent van Gogh

I wish this troubled man had known what an impact he would have on the world.

If you stick with me through this entire article, you’ll be presented with an opportunity to win a van Gogh poster! Keep that in mind.

In cities all around the world, the paintings of Vincent van Gogh are coming to life, and people are walking into them. Dear Husband and I recently did so ourselves, and we never wanted to leave. The exhibition is called Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience, and if it’s in a city near you (or even in a city far from you), make the effort to go. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.

If you’re unable to attend in person, at least go to the Google Play Store on your smartphone and download the exhibition’s app. From there you can click on “search” and see a lot of the information boards and some gorgeous photos of van Gogh’s work. It’s not nearly the same as the actual, delightful, 360 degree experience, but it’s definitely better than nothing.

Since all visitors to this place are allowed to take photographs and videos, I’ll give you a taste of what it was like for me.

As you enter, you are confronted with a wall that is an homage to van Gogh’s iconic sunflowers, superimposed over what is perhaps his most famous painting, “The Starry Night.” Seeing that, along with the elaborate painting outside (which seemed incredibly extravagant for a temporary exhibition), made me realize that I was in for something really special, indeed. They pulled out all the stops for this one.

The information boards in the app will give you a lot of background on his short, tragic, and extremely talented life, so I’ll let you go there to get the full picture of the man. But I will say that the first part of the experience is a virtual museum that reminds you that he loved to paint things over and over and over again, changing them slightly each time, to study the various effects. Seeing all the sunflowers side by side really demonstrates his desire to learn and grow as an artist.

Van Gogh had an unsurpassed love of nature. Not only did he paint sunflowers, but he did a lot of studies of flowers in vases. There was a three-dimensional vase on a wall, and many of his floral paintings were projected on it.

He did quite a few self-portraits. There was one large bust of him, and the many portraits are projected on the bust, morphing from one to the other. Beautiful chaos. I suspect that was often how he felt on the inside.

Be warned that the exhibition shows you no original works by the artist. That’s unfortunate, because I had the privilege of seeing my favorite van Gogh painting, the Irises, at the Getty Center. Getting up close to look at the brush strokes really made me feel like I was standing beside the painter as he created the masterpiece. For continuity’s sake, Dear Husband also took a picture of me beside the digital display we were looking at in this exhibit. (Note that this time I’m wearing my iris face mask!)

It’s shocking that van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime. Most of them he gave as gifts. He did barter some of them to pay bills, and I bet the ancestors of the people who received these works are eternally grateful for them, because one of his works fetched 82 million dollars at auction.

Something I learned from this exhibit is that van Gogh was fascinated by Japanese prints. He never got to visit Japan himself, unfortunately. But now that I am aware of his interest in Japonisme, I can see its influence in much of his work. (Japonisme is a French term that refers to the popularity and influence of Japanese art and design on Western European artists during that era. And yes, it’s spelled with an o.) One cool display shows one of his works sliced into pieces, and when you walk in front of it it resolves into the actual panting. Quite fascinating.

Another thing I didn’t realize is that van Gogh was color blind. Perhaps that’s why his color choices seem so otherworldly. There was a video that showed what his own paintings must have looked like to him. It was quite an eye opener.

The exhibit also turned one of his most famous paintings, the Bedroom at Arles, into an actual walk-in display. It felt kind of sacrilegious to walk into this painting, but the sign encourages you to do so, so I did. I couldn’t bring myself to sit on his bed or chair, but I did go in, and it felt like I was entering his head somehow. I did notice that once I broke that psychological boundary, other visitors were able to do so for photographs as well.

The exhibition also describes his psychotic episodes and his fraught relationship with Paul Gauguin, which led to his famous ear mutilation. This caused Gauguin to take off for Paris, and they were never housemates again. (Who could blame him? I’d have done the same thing.) But they did still maintain a correspondence after that, and from those letters it appears that there were no hard feelings on either side. Nothing along the lines of, “Why the hell did you cut off part of your ear, you nutjob?” Talk about an elephant in the room, though.

I was kind of disappointed by this exhibit’s treatment of his death. It’s been long believed that he committed suicide by shooting himself. There were no witnesses. They say he aimed for his heart but the bullet was deflected by bone, missing all vital organs and stopping somewhere near his lower spine. He was able to walk home. He actually died 30 hours later from the infection. What a horrific way to go.

He did struggle with some sort of sporadic psychosis and depression, and had been in and out of a psychiatric institution, the last visit occurring the very year of his death. But this just always seemed like a really weird way to commit suicide to me.

A new theory that makes more sense to me has recently emerged. The people of Arles, after witnessing his bizarre and erratic behavior, including the ear incident, had been trying to get rid of him for quite some time, and mostly they did their best to avoid him, even though his paintings indicate that he was out and about quite a bit. He was the subject of ridicule by one of local boys, who used to mock and tease him relentlessly. A new theory is that this boy was bothering him, and perhaps because he had had enough he waved the gun at the kid, and in the subsequent melee, the gun accidentally went off. And then van Gogh, knowing he was dying, saw no point in getting that boy into trouble, so said nothing.

Either way, we lost a tortured talent way too soon. Who knows what beauty we would have been provided with had he lived on another 50 years. It makes me sad whenever I contemplate it.

But there was much more of this exhibit to see. The true immersive experience, the one that you see in social media, is the big room where his works are projected on the walls and floor, and they have come to life. As I walked into this room, I found hundreds of people there, looking awed, sitting back in lounge chairs or stretched out on the floor as the images swirled and danced around them. The paintings interacted with one another. The trains in many of them trundled from one painting to the next. Birds flew. Boats floated past. This sensual delight was accompanied by beautiful, hypnotic music.

I never wanted to leave that room. It was magical. I imagined van Gogh lying there, observing his works in a way he never could have in life, as rudimentary motion picture shows didn’t come out until 5 years after his death. I think he’d have been rendered speechless like all of the rest of us. I would like to think he would finally feel vindicated in his profound talent.

No words can truly describe this room, so here are some videos for you.

After this profound experience, you kind of have to come back to reality slowly. To do this, you get to have a little art therapy. You enter a room where you can draw your own van Gogh masterpiece. The work covers the walls, and it was fun to look at the various interpretations. I’m including cropped photos of some of the color sheets in case you’d like to try this at home.

Since DH and I had purchased the (highly recommended) VIP experience, we had an additional treat in store for us. It was a virtual reality walk through the town of Arles as it looked in van Gogh’s day, if the entire town had been created by him. It was sort of a day in the life of the painter.

This was my first authentic VR experience, and the minute I placed the visor over my eyes I was fascinated. It started in his iconic bedroom, and then you walk down the stairs and out into the streets of the town and the surrounding countryside. You can turn your head and look down side alleys, and look behind you at the retreating view. You even feel as though you might trip on the cobblestones if you’re not careful. It really felt intimate to me, like I walked with him and he was showing me the views that had inspired his work. Again, I didn’t want to leave.

But as with all things artistic, one eventually has to exit through the gift shop. I wondered what van Gogh would think of all the coffee mugs, key chains, umbrellas and magnets. Would he have laughed, or been flattered, or enraged by the trivialization? Impossible to know, now. I strongly suspect that if he has any ancestors, they are not seeing the profits.

Because we had VIP passes, we were also given a complimentary  poster, shown here.

Since we received two of the same poster, I’m giving you an opportunity to win one of them! Simply answer this question in the comments section of this post on my wordpress site, or in the comments below the link that I’ve placed on my blog’s Facebook page:

What is the oddly spelled French term that refers to the popularity and influence of Japanese art and design on Western European artists during the era that van Gogh was a painter?

Deadline for participation in this contest is February 15th, 2022. I will randomly draw one of the names of the people who answer the question correctly. I will then contact you to get shipping information (I promise that I’ll make sure that your address doesn’t appear publicly on WordPress or Facebook.)

If I don’t hear back from the first person chosen within 24 hours of contact, I’ll move on to a second, and so on. If you reside in America, I’ll ship it to you for free. If mailing it to you includes international shipping, however, you’ll have to pay for that shipping in advance.

If you have been enjoying this journey into the world of Vincent van Gogh, here are a few other links you may want to check out:

Of course, the song Vincent (Starry Starry Night) by Don McLean has been running through my head the whole time I have been writing this post. Here’s a beautiful Youtube video that shows many of his works as the song plays. It gives me goose bumps.

Another great Youtube video is a clip from a Dr. Who episode in which the doctor takes van Gogh to a museum to see his own art on display, and to listen to an art curator sing his praises. Van Gogh is moved to tears, and so am I every time I see it.

Many movies have been made about the troubled life of Vincent van Gogh. The best live action one, in my opinion, is At Eternity’s Gate with Willem Dafoe. The performance Dafoe gives us makes you forget he is Dafoe. He inhabits Vincent in such a way that you feel like you’ve been transported to his very soul.

But if you can’t go to the exhibition I’ve described above but wish you could, then I highly recommend that you see the movie Loving Vincent. This award-winning film is animated by 65,000 paintings in the van Gogh style by hundreds of artists, and it took years to complete. It is a masterpiece. I think van Gogh would be very proud.

I wish this troubled man had known what an impact he would have on the world. I’m sure the complex emotions van Gogh would feel as a result of that would have inspired him to create even more amazing paintings. I will forever wonder what might have been, and because of that, whenever I view his work, I am left with a profound feeling of having tasted the pure bittersweetness of this world.

The ultimate form of recycling: Buy my book, read it, and then donate it to your local public library or your neighborhood little free library! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

Some Things Can’t Be Taught

I long for the days when I was operating under the illusion that most human beings were basically civilized and kind, and relatively intelligent. It is extremely disappointing to discover, over and over again, that that’s far from the truth. The evidence, it seems, is all around us.

Case in point: this article from the Kansas City Star entitled, “Gay teacher says Missouri district threatened firing if he brought ‘personal agenda’ to class”.

My niece, who is an amazing, compassionate, and very competent teacher in Missouri, brought this article to my attention. It describes how John Wallis (who also sounds like he’s an excellent and compassionate teacher to me), was all but drummed out of Neosho Junior High School by some ignorant parents backed up by some even more ignorant school administrators.

For what, you ask? For putting up a pride flag, accompanied by another flag that said “everyone is welcome”. All he wanted to do was let students know they could always come to him for help. Many students approached him and thanked him, because they hadn’t known where to go if they needed to talk.

But a parent complained about the flag and sign. Their fear was that he was going to teach their child to be gay. The Superintendent wanted Wallis to sign a letter that said that he would keep his personal agenda about sexuality out of the classroom, as if he were giving detailed descriptions of what he does between the sheets, for crying out loud.

As if that stupid Superintendent wasn’t acting upon an agenda all his own. There is never any complaint when straight teachers display photographs of their children or talk about their spouses. Why should it be any different for Wallis? As a matter of fact, they are holding him to a even higher standard because he wasn’t attempting to show pictures of his family or talk about his spouse. He was just displaying a flag and a sign. This is discrimination at its finest.

I’m going to say this loud and clear so even the people in the cheap seats will hear it.

Sexual orientation and gender identification can’t be taught. You are born with these traits as surely as you are born with your eye color or skin tone. It is a part of who you are and nothing to be ashamed of. Ever.

After all, why would anyone voluntarily proffer themselves up to be a source of your hate, misunderstanding, and cruelty? Why would anyone actively attempt to be part of a minority group to suffer from your discrimination? The very fact that you perpetuate the myth that orientation and identification are choices is why these children struggle so hard to feel like they fit in in the already cruel world of school. According to this article, “LGBTQ teenagers overall are three times as likely to attempt suicide as their heterosexual peers.”

These children need a safe place to go to help them with their confusion and their struggle to be who they are already. Any decent parent wants their child to be happy, healthy, and comfortable in their own skin. You don’t have to like it, you don’t have to agree with it, but as a parent you need to accept and preferably embrace the child that you have an obligation to love and care for. Anything less than that should bring shame down upon your head.

The fact is, we need more teachers who have the compassion to help children through those difficult growing up years, when we all struggle to understand who we are. We need all children who are in pain and/or are contemplating suicide to feel that they have a safe place to go to talk. We need professionals who can make these children feel seen and understood, because every human being has a right to feel seen and understood.

My niece had a good point. She would be a safe place to go. Could she hang a pride flag? As a straight woman, no one need fear that she would “teach their children to be gay.”

Probably not. Because, after all, she’s still teaching in freakin’ Missouri, where the ignorance is as high as an elephant’s eye. It’s tragic.

The bottom line is that schools are there to teach our children. Unfortunately, the lesson that Neosho Junior High School has chosen to teach their students by way of this whole debacle is that if you are different, it’s best to keep your mouth shut and feel ashamed rather than take pride in yourself, and that there’s no safe place for you to go. That’s a disgusting lesson to teach.

@MrJWallis, I want you to know that if I had any children of my own, I would want you to be their teacher. You are desperately needed. Don’t give up.

If you are part of the LGBTQ+ community (or anyone else, for that matter) and are contemplating suicide, please know that people care (including me). Contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org, or call them at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

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People Really Do Care

You matter. Your life has value. Here’s proof.

On an undisclosed drawbridge in an undisclosed city at an undisclosed time (for privacy’s sake), the phone rang. It was the harbor patrol, asking me if I would be on the look out for any jumpers on the railing. They were en route to see for themselves. But no one was in sight at that time. The person in question was described as a teenage boy.

I saw the harbor patrol speeding toward my bridge, and wondered what the whole story was. Usually there was only this type of rush if the actual jumper was in sight (which happens more frequently than the general public knows), and in that case, it’s the bridgetender who calls the police, not the other way around.

I waited and worried and continually scanned the sidewalks, as the patrol boat searched the bay in a grid pattern and a half dozen police cars crossed the bridge. They gathered at the south end.

I could think of nothing else, and an hour later, an officer knocked on my door. I let him in, knowing he wanted to look at the camera footage before it disappeared. And that’s when more of the story came out.

The young man had left the house the night before, and a family member went looking for him. He was not answering his phone. That family member came upon his car. It was abandoned just south of the bridge.

But the worst part is that a 50 pound weight was missing from the house, and it was not in the car. When I heard that, my heart sank.

The officer and I scanned the camera footage from the time the young man left his house to the time the car was found, but they saw nothing. After the officer left, I thought, “You know, a jumper with a 50 pound weight would make one helluva splash.”

It was a horrible thought to have, but I wanted to help. I proceeded to scan the cameras that are directed toward the channel that flows under the bridge. I sat there, all alone in the tower, staring at the light playing on the dark water, praying that I would not see anything. That was a very long few hours, in which I was afraid to even blink for fear of missing something. Again, I saw nothing. I knew I’d probably never hear how that story ended.

For the rest of the shift, I could not get out of my mind the horrific idea that that young man was possibly very near me, but just out of reach, while people worried about him. Worst case scenario, he was beyond worry, but his family was distraught, I was heartbroken, and dozens of police officers were frantically trying to find him so they could bring him home.

Then I received an e-mail from a friend of the family, asking me to check my camera footage. Since I write this blog, I’m pretty easy to find. I cried a little as I told her I had already done so, and that I was so very sorry this was happening, and that I was keeping watch on the waterway, and that I hoped he’d be found safe and sound. I also requested that she let me know.

Days later, I saw divers in the channel. That’s never good. And then, one evening while cuddling with my husband in front of the television, I received an e-mail from the boy’s mother. She said his body was found beneath my bridge. She thanked me for keeping him safe. I burst into tears.

I wish I had kept him safe. I wish I could have done something, anything, to prevent this from happening. All I did was sit helpless in my tower, suspecting that my worst fears had been realized, and indeed they were. This young man will be forever in my memory.

Whenever I work the swing shift, I blow the horn at 8pm for the frontline workers who are having to deal with this pandemic. Now I will also be blowing it for this young man and others like him who are struggling to see their value in this precious world of ours. What a horrific loss.

I just wanted to say to anyone who may be reading this who is in despair, that people really do care. You’d be surprised at how many people care. First responders take the jobs that they’ve taken because they care. Total strangers like me who are drawn into the situation care. Family cares.

There are people who can help you. You are not alone. If you are feeling hopeless or helpless, visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or call them at 1-800-273-8255.

You matter. Your life has value. You won’t always feel this way. I promise. Please don’t discard your potential. Stay with us.

Because no picture seemed appropriate for this post…

The Holidays Are Even Harder This Year

You aren’t alone.

Depression can be debilitating, especially in the wintertime when you can go weeks without seeing the sun. And it’s even worse this year, because this pandemic is isolating all of us. It almost seems like the final insult when there’s all this extra financial and emotional pressure during the holiday season. Everyone is expected to be constantly merry, and if you tend toward depression, that gives you this sense of failure on top of everything else. It can be draining.

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m a bridgetender and I love my job. Opening drawbridges is such a delight. I feel lucky that I’m someone who actually enjoys going to work.

But this job does have a dark side, and it is ramped up at this time of year. I get to see a lot of attempted suicides on my bridge and on other bridges nearby. Most of the ones I see have, thank God, been thwarted. First responders, in my experience, are very good at talking people off of railings. And some people make the jump and survive.

But there is a certain percentage who make good on their attempts, and it’s heartbreaking to bear witness to that. It happens a lot more often than the public realizes. These things often go unreported because the community doesn’t want to have copycats.

Jumpers are people in a great deal of pain, attempting to take control at a time when the rest of their lives seem so out of control. It’s sad to say that choosing whether or not to remain alive is the one power we all can exercise. These people, for whatever reason, cannot see beyond their despair, so they don’t realize the heartbreak and trauma they cause with their actions. Suicide doesn’t only impact the families and friends. It also impacts the first responders and everyone who gets to witness the suicide.

I know I’ve shed more than a few tears for people who have leapt off my bridge over the past 19 years. Tears flow for the jumper, for their family, and for me, because I couldn’t do anything to prevent the act. And also, selfishly, I shed tears because I know the image of those final moments will be forever etched in my mind. I carry many such images with me, and they feel like Marley’s chains in a Christmas Carol.

But I didn’t really intend to make this about me. What I wanted to say was that if you’re reading this and you’re in despair, there are people who can help you. You aren’t alone. If you are feeling hopeless or helpless, visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, or call them at 1-800-273-8255.

You matter. Your life has value. I promise.

I put some lights in my bridge tower window in the hopes that someone walking by on some cold, lonely winter night will look up and see that he or she is not alone.

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Positively Inspiring

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

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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An attitude of gratitude is what you need to get along. Read my book! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

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.

I5_ShipCanal_Web

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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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