Without a doubt, my research for my doctoral dissertation about "suicide bereavement" and my clinical work with those who lost loved ones by suicide played a very large role in my writing of Chapter 37-"Life Goes On." I've met and worked with children as young as 3 or 4, to adults in their 90's, all experiencing effects of loss by suicide. My personal and professional value and focus on the uniqueness and gift of a human being has been essential for my role as helper or psychotherapist. Despite my extensive background and ongoing clinical work with these bereaved persons, and knowledge and empathy acquired therein, I remain troubled by what I perceive to be the deep, prolonged and ongoing "hurt" that others bear after Sylvia Plath's suicide. I speak of this in Chapter 1. My thoughts, prayers, hopes, and wishes go out to all. Although name will not be mentioned here, one gifted and beautiful being remains foremost in my mind. Loss by suicide is something we should, in my view, seek to eliminate. It's pain and anguish not only touches many, but also "carries on" in effect over many generations. Perhaps the greatest gift I give as a psychotherapist is faith, hope and love for life and the belief that upholding these "virtues" or good habits defeats despair and helps eradicate suicidality. I work to help others develop these habits.
Here's another "secret" from writing Trauma and the Golden Lady.
It was surprising to me when I looked back on my earliest notes for writing my book (about mid-2004). I jotted down some of what I called "temporary titles" to help me focus on issues that I felt might be interesting and reflect my experience, expertise and interest. Issues of value to me included: Posttraumatic stress, mental health, suicide, suicide bereavement, spirituality, and, of course, the story of a young woman's journey in life - trying to seek and possess well being and personal fulfillment.
Here are some of my, ugh, initial "temporary titles" for sections, chapters or title of my book. Please remember that none were intended as final titles for the book, but rather as guides for future observation and research and writing. They were a part of my very raw brainstorming that I now share with you.
Running in search of a God
Gifts from the grave
Sylvia Plath: lessons for life
In search of self
One story: mine, hers, ours
Creating a world for self-expression
Forging a soul
Me and Sylvia Plath
There were many other such brainstorming titles for initial focus and reflection. It's a taste of the mechanics, the soul-searching for my writing. I hope this is of some help to a future writer or reader.
Here's another "secret" from my book.
In writing the book, I had no intention of making a connection of military service, war or Veterans to Sylvia Plath or her life. I did not believe this would have any place in my topic, writing, or in the life of Plath. Indeed, I work five days each week in an intense fashion with Veterans, discussing trauma and distress. I very much wanted to separate this work from my book writing, "apart from my VA job", if you will. Fortunately, as the gift of serendipity would have it, as I researched and wrote, I discovered a wealth of connection of Plath's life with the military, war and Veterans. It seemed, no matter how hard I tried to avoid or ignore it, the true spirit of Plath's life was leading me towards rather than away from the military. Ultimately, I chose to accept and then embrace it and see it as an essential part of the book. I discovered a beautiful report Sylvia wrote in elementary school about WWI. What an innocent yet very intelligent view of the ugliness of war! I discovered from Sylvia not just her dislike and protest for war, but also her deep appreciation, sympathy and positive regard for the human beings who served their country. It was a Christian approach reflecting her Unitarian teaching. It was the empathy and perhaps angst of knowing boys her age, some of whom she may have dated, who went to war in Korea. Also, I was truly amazed to learn about Ted Hughes' father's military service and about the complex, trauma-filled, sad, and adventuous experiences of "Mad Jack" Sassoon. Almost without thought, as I wrote, I found myself capitalizing the word "Veteran," as my own private and personal, internal protest surfaced against disrespect, hatred, ignorance, selfishness, and hurt done by some toward or against those who have given time and space from their life to their country. Yes, I was truly led, initially against my will, to incorporate the gift of my 19 years of clinical work and experience at the VA (and my even more personal, 4 years of USN experience) into "Trauma and the Golden Lady." To this day, I wonder to what degree I was being led by Sylvia or the Spirit of all life. It was another of the many lessons that teach me to remain humble and listen and be ready to follow a "greater voice." Sometimes what we want or insist on may not be best and, if we're open to inspiration and intuition, we may find something awesome, beyond our wildest dreams or imagination. What a gift life may come to be!
It may interest many to know that, despite my clinical perspective and intentional discussion of Posttraumatic Stress, there are no clinical diagnoses provided about Sylvia Plath in my book. This is intentional. Too many, I believe, have diagnosed Sylvia, put her in one or a combination of many diagnostic categories, labeling her, stigmatizing her, objectifying her, reducing her to a "condition" and detracting from the real human, more complex challenges she faced. And yet, I don't believe any of those who have diagnosed her have ever met or worked with Ms. Plath in therapy. I do believe diagnoses are over-rated in their significance, used and relied upon too much. Yes, they do help us with defining the problem, but we must be cautious not to see the diagnosis as the person, or as a sole, one-and-only, absolute truth-teller about a person.. Plath has been given many diagnoses and identified as psychotic, schizophrenic, bipolar, schizoaffective, majorly depressed, panic disordered, borderline in personality, chronically suicidal, and more. Yet, as you hear these labels, do they really tell us about Sylvia's uniqueness of self, about her unique journey in life? My intent in "Trauma and the Golden Lady" was to understand, "stand-under" and see this unique, gifted lady. Yes, I chose to look with an eye to the impact of trauma, but never to define her as PTSD. Indeed, although I do believe she suffered the effects of trauma and experienced features or symptoms of PTSD, not being her therapist and not being-with her in therapy, leads me away from diagnosing. Only a real therapeutic relationship with her would lead me to a diagnosis of PTSD and, even then, I would view this as giving me one of many "factors or issues" to consider as impacting Sylvia's life and her distress. As the book shows, I hope, Sylvia's life, as with all human life, is much too complex, rich and multi-faceted to put in one or two or so diagnostic category boxes. Sylvia Plath was a gifted lady, a golden lady, a person who, like all of us, sought to be happy, healthy and fulfilled, while dealing with the challenges of life that came her way. In therapy, I try (sometimes fail. How easy it is for the ego to get in the way.) to always look to the unique gift of the human being I meet and seek to put aside my issues and view and appreciate and understand the world of the other. As one of my gifted mentors would say, "be an unassuming presence." Staying human and humble helps me to help others.
As I wrote "Trauma and the Golden Lady" ( and after I did so), I discovered many interesting things about myself, others, about Sylvia Plath, and about life in general. I will share these with you as "secrets" or previously unstated observations that underlie or spring forth from my writing. It's amazing how one experience, one book writing, may gift a person with so much. I hope you will take a moment to reflect on these secrets, with thought about your own unique and gifted life. After all, this is the main purpose for my writing this book; that is, to help the reader see their self through some of what faced Sylvia Plath, positively and negatively. After all, a psychotherapist's work is to be always oriented towards the well being of the other, helping the other reflect on their unique self, understand, and take action to change for the better. I guess this main purpose for the book, if you will, may be considered my first "secret" to be told. Look for others to follow. I think you will find them interesting, especially if you've read the book.
"Bottling things up" is as much a part of what I face in therapy as the chairs and desk in my office. It comes in many forms: avoiding, forgetting, suppressing, ignoring, hiding, deceiving, pretending, denial. The defenses of our mind against facing hurt, problems, imperfections, damage done, outing perpetrators or loved ones who hurt us, are powerful and often very resistant to change. Indeed, it is the road less traveled to see, understand and live with our real self, with both our joyous gifts and ugly warts and hurt, errors, harm done, mistakes, and/or, as some may say it, our "sins." The road to this truth is, without a doubt, laborious and inclusive of anguish. What isn't seen initially by the one who has yet to commit to this road less travelled, though, are the amazing gifts and rewards. To be real is to be free , to experience love, even in a world of conflict or hate. To be free is to really see Truth and live humbly, openly and without fear in its presence.
Chapter Two of "Trauma and the Golden Lady" is titled "1932" and sets the stage for the incorporation of world and social history, the environment, world or "atmosphere" in which Sylvia Plath lived. The world of her time, 1932-1963, was a powerful one. There was trauma, war, peace, Cold War, nuclear weapons, severe depression, prosperity, cold winters, hot summers, almost anything one might think possible. As with all of us, Sylvia was a part of this world. It influenced her-her thoughts, feelings, values, beliefs, biases. As a writer and mental health professional, my past study of anthropology, culture and the work of Erik Erickson and many existentialists provided impetus for my interest and passion to add this historical "atmosphere" in my book. Many readers have commented about this addition, reinforcing its use and value for "seeing" Sylvia Plath's life story. Underlying this sociocultural perspective, as with underlying all in Trauma and the Golden Lady is my personal and professional belief, a core belief, that well-being is dependent on the healthy development of the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual dimensions of who we are.
During the final few weeks before Sylvia Plath's death, by all accounts, she was struggling to live and progressing towards despair. Her challenges were physical, psychological, social, and, as I would argue, "spiritual." It was a battle, a deep inner anguish about all that confronted her. Whether conscious or subconscious, the conflict of "to be or not to be" is a powerful one. Our body, mind and spirit fight to survive and, I believe, fight against death, especially death by our own hand. I've worked (and continue to do so) for 40+ years now with persons at risk for suicide and, although even I cannot fully know their anguish, I have become humbled and greatly challenged to understand, to help renew a life commitment and stop, perhaps eliminate a "suicidal movement."
Virtue. Do we really know what it is today? Do we really seek it, value it, live it? Do we see it as only related to some, only belonging to some? Do we think that some of us are incapable of experiencing it? Do we think that "we" are automatically more virtuous than others because of what "we" believe or think, or where we live or work or play, or who we are?
Virtue, I do believe, by its very nature, always invites us to be better and not accept now or us as enough, best or above and already better than others. While we may easily see vice or bad habits, defining being good may be more difficult today- more confusing, frustrating, complicated, argumentative, divisive, harder to agree-upon and generalize without conflict, anger, debate, or even vitriol. It seems like, in times past, virtue was more of a universal standard of goodness. We knew right from wrong. Today, while it seems some virtuous actions from our past have freed us to be more individual, more the unique gift we each are, paradoxically, we seem to be losing or perhaps misplacing the universal standard for virtue. Have we created a "moral relativism" today that says, "anything goes," whatever you or I believe is ok, good, virtuous? Or, might we be retaliating against this individual morality in a radical way, trying to change and correct it, aggressively or violently? Or, do we think all is well and virtue or vice is there for the choosing? I wonder if, not unlike an identified "saint" of old, to live a good habit, virtuous way of life today, one walks somewhat alone and even lonely, perhaps feeling somewhat apart from others, unaccepted, not always understood, even rejected, criticized, hated. Maybe to live virtuously means to never be too comfortable with ourself. To take this virtuous road less traveled may require a leap of faith beyond which many may value or choose to seek. My work in psychotherapy with my clients gifts me to be a guide to virtue for those who seek it.
It is easy to think of the end of year holidays as having the greatest risk for suicide, but they are not. Or, if not then, it must be winter, right? Well, no doubt those times and experiences are difficult and I've worked with many (hundreds and hundreds) during those times who were suicidal, at risk for suicide, or who lost loved ones by suicide. Be careful though as this year progresses. Statistically, April, early spring, has been the month with the highest risk for suicide in the U.S. And, Mondays are the most frequented day of the week for a suicide. For all, especially professional mental health workers, it may be best to add these two factors to your concern for others. Let us not be fooled to believe that if someone survives a holiday or winter, or if we survive a weekend, and start a new year or week, all is or will be well. It may be more our wishful thinking or projected hope than reality, and a tragic consequence may follow. One thing I've learned as a suicidology and psychotherapist (and continue to work to perfect), is that understanding is a dynamic process. We never stop learning and never know it all. We learn from each other, if we open our self to it. I've learned, often the hard way, that what we think we know as fact or truth may not be. I've learned, silly as it sounds, that I am not God. I never will know it all and, when I think I do, I often get slapped in the face with the real truth and feel my imperfection and inadequacy. I'm brought to that undesirable, yet well deserved level of humility. My wife is someone who is a great gift for tempering my ego and helping me see the Light. May we all move ahead, never thinking or feeling we are THE final word of truth, yet may move towards it, if we remain open to learning and working together.