I pulled out the blue spiral notebook where I journaled from 1991 to 1994, my Ball State University years. Tomorrow I will drive the 239 or so miles to Muncie, IN, where I did my undergraduate work in journalism. I haven’t been there in almost ten years, shortly after 9-11, when I lectured as part of the journalism department’s Professional-in-Residence series.
I’m not sure what I was looking for when I opened up the journal but it was much more painful to read than I anticipated. I think that I have what I call “past-pain denial.” I don’t remember how painful past events were. I don’t remember how arduous the competitive races I ran were. The 5:29 in the 1600-meter run, my personal best time, wasn’t painful as I remember it. All I can recall is flying across the track. This morning I ran six miles and got a horrible cramp under the left side of my rib cage. It hurt. Still, I’d go out and run those six miles again tomorrow.
And it’s the same with those three years at Ball State. I read about the pain of a broken relationship that occurred right before I transferred to BSU from North Park College in Chicago. I didn’t remember agonizing over this particular guy for as long as I did (although it was much better we broke up, it still was difficult). Many of my entries discuss fumbling my way through the various men I had contact with, crushes on them, crushes on me. There are names I don’t remember (which means I don’t recall the situations around those people either). And then there’s my sister’s death and my constant processing why Denise ended her life and my sadness that she was no longer part of this world.
Before reading the journal, I had skimmed through an old manuscript about a sister’s suicide. It was my independent study for fiction writing, my fictionalized version of those first years of surviving Denise’s death. I didn’t feel attached to it and tossed it in the recycling bin when I was done. It made me realize how much the need to tell the story has changed, probably because I have told the story so often. I want to tell other stories now.
By the time I was finished reading both the manuscript and the journal, I was very depressed. I was waiting on a friend to call about going to dinner (which never happened) and was thinking, “What can I do to make myself feel better?” I ended up going for a three-mile walk listening to the same song over and over and over (“Building the Barn” from the movie Witness). By the time I returned to the house, I felt better, my motivation was back, and I wrote five pages.
This morning I took off on a six-mile run, one of my longer routes that I created in high school. I still felt I was lingering around that black hole though, so I checked the church Mass schedule and saw that it was starting in fifteen minutes. I stood there debating for about thirty seconds whether I should go or not. There was no time to shower or change and I’d have to go as I was dressed. I grabbed the car keys and left. By the time I drove away from the church, forty-five minutes later, I felt much better. I found what I needed.
Interestingly, both methods of coping are ones I’ve used for much of my life. Sometimes when we feel bleakest, like we are standing in that hole and don’t think we can get out, we have to reach back and think about what in our lives helped us in previous difficult situations. What gives us hope? What helps us cope with the challenges of life each day? Often the answers are there if we spend enough time to let them come through to us.
Michelle Linn-Gust, Ph.D., is an international author and speaker about finding hope after loss and change. She is the author of several books including Rocky Roads: The Journeys of Families through Suicide Grief and Ginger's Gift: Hope and Healing Through Dog Companionship. Her first book, based on the suicide of her younger sister Denise, Do They Have Bad Days in Heaven? Surviving the Suicide Loss of a Si..., inspired siblings around the world in their survival after a loved one’s suicide. She is the President of the American Association of Suicidology and lives in Albuquerque, N.M. Read more about Michelle at www.michellelinngust.com.