Food Matters: Message of Tragedy — We Need to Nurture Each Other
July 12, 2018
It’s hard to write about food when you feel sick to your stomach.
The queasiness began before I returned home to Aspen on Saturday night, having heard about the Lake Christine Fire the day after the Fourth of July while visiting pals on a lake in New Hampshire. We got the news late: El Jebel and Basalt had turned into hell on Earth. It's tough to wrap your head around such reality from so far away, but we took comfort on Facebook, in the way our community selflessly responded. Aspen, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs showed up to support neighbors in navigating an incomprehensible crisis.
Aspen friend Justin Gaines could have used a similar deluge of help during his own personal catastrophe. Instead, the public outpouring happened only after he killed himself last weekend. His suffering might not have been as obvious as it was for those hundreds of families evacuated from their homes adjacent to 6,000 acres ablaze, and for the heroic emergency responders who toil tirelessly to contain the flames still. Unfortunately, as seems to be suicide's final word, it's only clear in retrospect how deeply Justin suffered.
Scrolling through memorial pleas of love, admiration and respect for Justin as expressed by dozens of pals who adored this quirky, witty, proud one-legged fireball who served us from behind many an Aspen bar is heart-wrenching. Help now? Too little, too late. Would it have made a difference today if we tried to steer him away from his decision? I bet that anyone who ever hugged him would be willing to find out now.
We need to nurture each other better. Aspen is in the throes of a mental health crisis, and it's not subsiding. Suicide is familiar—how messed up is that? Self-harm happens more than it should. And it shouldn't happen at all. If you're feeling desperate or scaring yourself with twisted thoughts or just uneasy, PLEASE talk to someone. Tell someone. Right now. Too nervous to approach a friend or family member? Call the Aspen Hope Center 24-7 Hopeline: 970-925-5858.
A few months ago I interviewed a handful of locals who were brave enough to speak out about their own struggles—and share how the 8-year-old Aspen Hope Center, the only freestanding crisis agency in Colorado and, amazingly, one of three in the country—ended up saving their lives. It was a tough assignment. As I listened to them relive deep despair, describe suicidal daydreams and recall the moment they found the Hope Center, how sweet it was to feel buoyed out of the murky water in which they were sure they'd drown, I kept turning inward. Tears welled up, partly in sympathy. Also I cried because I could relate—and I was too chicken to admit it.
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I wanted to describe what it's like to wander toward an edge, but my experience didn't seem to fit. Before researching this magazine article, I hadn't discovered the Hope Center. Maybe I'd heard about it in passing. But I hadn't met any of the organization's crisis counselors or therapists.
Besides, I didn't want readers to think I was trying to make the story about me. Here were people who battled addiction, lost a child, spent time in hospitals, planned their deaths in detail. Me, I've felt general malaise simmering inside for more than two decades. I've fallen into some rough circumstances that one could argue are somewhat my fault …then wallow in shame for having participated. I've avoided friends on occasion because faking interest seems more exhausting than hiding out. All of these were reasons why I felt worthless as a subject in the story I was writing about the Aspen Hope Center.
The blessing, of course, is that writing the story served its purpose. It helped. It connected me to this crucial agency that we're so fortunate to have here. The Hope Center message must be heard: No matter how "trivial" your struggle as you see it compared to others, you matter. It matters that we talk about our perceived shortcomings and inadequacies, about our sour feelings and bleak thoughts. It matters that we observe those around us and start asking more questions. It matters that we listen, too.
Hearing on Sunday morning that a bright spirit with a mischievous streak—Justin Gaines—is no longer alive in Aspen sucked me back to that dark place of frustration, helplessness, melancholy.
What the hell? I want to bark at him as I march into Ryno's. I want to shake him by the shoulders, kick his fake leg until he topples, and hug him back to stability. Please don't do this. Open your eyes to all the people who can't bear the thought of not seeing you again. Give us one more chance, and we'll tell you so to your face.
Nobody can understand another person's threshold for survival, which is why mental disease is so cunning and dangerous. It's just that: dis-ease with oneself. We know that this creeping sense of ill plays well with alcohol and substance abuse, issues also common in Aspen. Even if someone is smiling, take as a sign: A friend hitting it too hard, hurting oneself or others, taking risks that seem insane even for this place. Or just ask the next person you run into: How are you, really? Be there and listen.
One common remark that kept surfacing during my discussions with crisis survivors is that Aspen is a small town. One source backtracked by asking me to omit certain details. The complete picture was just too risky from a social standpoint. What will people think once I admit all of this?
Fear of being "the crazy one" — the guy who can't seem to pull his life together, the sad sack, the freak, the loser with issues — pairs too well with the shame of seeking help. After all, we live in Aspen! We're supposed to be the luckiest, smartest, coolest, funnest group of people, ever! Problems? What's the problem?
This is ridiculous.
We are all fragile. Let's nurture each other, please.
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