"The Messages of Rainbows: the Journey from Tragedy to Triumph"
I have had many opportunities in the past years to be here with you at St. Joan of Arc and to be in your beautiful sanctuary as well as in this lovely setting. I’ve especially noticed how you weave music so beautifully into your celebrations, education and worship services. Music is a universal language that speaks to our hearts and connects us in ways that go beyond words.
One song that I have always loved ever since I was a young child is “Somewhere Over The Rainbow.” It was always fun to watch the Wizard of Oz every year on TV when I was growing up and then to sing the song with my own children as they were growing up. I even sang it on road trips with my daughter when I was visiting her at college. And seeing real rainbows in the sky was always special with their awesome beauty, radiance and magic. But now rainbows have an even greater meaning for me.
Seven years ago this month, my daughter Jami, the oldest of my four children died of suicide at the age of 21. Even now, after all these years it is still difficult to say those words and acknowledge the reality of this tragedy.
If it weren’t for the many wonderful blessings and a strong faith and a deep commitment to healing myself and supporting others, I don’t know if I would have made it through those initial days and weeks and all of the years since then.
Jami was the oldest of my four children and the only girl. She took her “leadership” role seriously and nurtured and bossed around her three younger brothers. They adored her, most of the time, as did most of the people who knew her. She was bright, energetic, and creative and always had a smile on her face. She made friends easily and in her teenage years was always on the phone, or hanging out or driving around somewhere with them. She was active and involved in our temple and had the wonderful opportunity of studying in Israelfor 6 weeks during high school. But Jami was by no means perfect and somewhere in her late adolescence when our opinions and comfort were no longer important to her, Jami had her nose pierced and got a beautiful butterfly tattoo on her back! She loved nature, hiking, camping, travel, and like me, was interested in holistic health and alternative healing. Jami lived more in her 21 years than some people live in their whole long lives.
Jami went backpacking in Europe before her freshman year in college and later discovered she had a passion for herbs and herbal healing and decided to attend the Rocky Mountain Center for Botanical Studies. She had some time before the program began so she spent three months in Nepal studying Buddhism and Meditation and trekking in the Himalayas. After she graduated from her program in herbal studies, she had six months until she would begin a program at the Naropa Institute in the Psychology of Health and Healing Program. She decided to spend some of that time working on an organic farm in Hawaii. Her letters were beautiful and poetic as she wrote about the land and the people. But somewhere along the way she started having symptoms of anxiety and depression. Perhaps it was sleeping alone in a tent, living with no electricity and having to get up and go to sleep with the sun, or maybe it was the change in diet or lack of social support, like the friends, phone, and car that she was so used to. We’ll never know, but on one of the rare times we could connect by phone, when she was in the nearby city, she mentioned that she wasn’t sleeping well because her busy mind kept her awake at night and she was feeling more and more tired and irritable everyday.
Little did I know when she called me on Mother’s Day that she was probably calling to say goodbye. I could tell she didn’t sound like her usual enthusiastic self and we were on the phone for over three hours before she finally and very reluctantly decided to come home. I met her at the airport the next morning and remember how thin she looked. She was never heavy but she had always been solid and strong and full of vitality and at this time she was not. We went to her health practitioner that day. She was still confused about how she could loveHawaii so much and yet feel so bad and she could not believe that she might be depressed. She also was feeling very ashamed and didn’t want to see any of her friends.
I took some time off work when Jami came home and we walked around Lake Harriet and through the rose gardens every night. She had dinners with her grandparents and brothers and a night with her Dad before he had to leave town. All the time she had that smile back on her face! We laughed a lot and Jami watched her brother Jonah play rugby, chatted on the phone with her brother Jeremy who was away at school and listened to her youngest brother Jesse play his guitar for her. She and I listened to our favorite songs, including “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” when we were in the car. Jami had been home for a week and seemed happy to be back and also seemed to be feeling better, so I thought it would be okay to go to work and see one client in the morning while she was sleeping. Somehow, when I was there I had that awful inner sense that something was wrong and I hurried back home as soon as I could.
I went up to Jami’s room hoping to see her sound asleep but she wasn’t there. I raced all over the house frantically looking for her until I found her in the basement and realized that she had taken her life! It might not have made any sense to me at all, but I remembered a day about 25 years earlier when I had also been severely depressed and in such pain that I considered ending my own life. I didn’t want to die or never see the ones I love again, or ever cause them any pain or anguish, but because I was in so much pain, I didn’t think I could bear it. I didn’t think it would ever go away, and in those moments of deep depression and distorted thinking, I felt ashamed and worthless and thought my family would be better off without me. And, all the while, I had a smile on my face too. Although I will never know all the reasons “why” Jami ended her life, I do understand the deep darkness, the hopelessness, the tunneled thinking, pain, confusion and other feelings that people with brain disorders experience. I will always remember my own deep inner anguish, unrelenting self doubt, low self worth and other feelings that now help me to be more compassionate and understanding to family members, friends, clients, and others.
Jami wasn’t able to find the faith that I somehow was blessed to find, deep within myself, to go on living. Jami must have been in much greater pain than she had ever let on, and may have been feeling better and happier in those last days because she believed she had found a way to solve her problems and end her pain. We now believe that she probably had “bipolar disorder” which was triggered by the disruptions in her lifestyle and schedule when she was living in Hawaii. We think she had done some self medicating with drugs and alcohol in her teen years and probably had symptoms long before anyone recognized them. But we will never know! Those answers will always be “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
I didn’t know what to do when I found her so I said some prayers and kissed and hugged her while my heart was breaking and my tears were flowing. I called my mother and then I called 911 and waited in shock and devastation for them to come. I realized that I would have to tell this tragic and terrible news to her brothers, and to her Dad, who would be returning home later that night. Every second of the rest of the day ticked by slowly and each person who came was greeted with tears and hugs and the terrible news. I met my husband when he got off the plane and after I told him that our precious daughter had died, we just held each other and sobbed right there at the airport. At that very same time we both experienced the first of many blessings. We looked outside and saw a bright and beautiful rainbow glowing through the window. Even in that moment of darkness, anguish and sorrow, I knew that rainbow was a sign that something positive would come from this terrible tragedy. And I remembered that in the Bible rainbows followed trials and tragedy and signified hope and healing.
And today I can tell you that many blessings and positive things have occurred since that unforgettable day in our lives.
Even though I had been trained as a Licensed Psychologist, I was never educated about the warning signs of suicide and suicide prevention. I became involved with a wonderful organization called “SAVE – Suicide Awareness voices of Education” and learned more than I learned in graduate school. Being on the board and speaking to people was an important part of my healing.
Our family created a fund in Jami’s memory to support other people with brain disorders. It is called the “Jami Alanna Marks Tikkun Olam Fund.” Tikkun Olam is the Jewish concept of “healing the world.” Jami gave so much of herself to helping and healing others and this fund is dedicated to supporting her values and helping others in her memory.
The logo is a rainbow with a butterfly and the mission is to work toward ending the ignorance, shame and stigma of brain disorders and to help prevent suicide.
I even created a pin to support people with brain disorders. There were pins for people with aids and cancer and other illnesses, but due to the stigma, there was nothing to support the people who face the darkness and challenges of depression and anxiety, schizophrenia and other brain disorders. I used the image of a candle to bring the “Light of Awareness to the Darkness of Depression and Brain Disorders” and each pin is on a card with an educational message so that people can feel seen, acknowledged and supported. As time passed we created a web site with a wealth of information and links on Mental Health, Suicide Prevention and Grief. These are some of the many blessings that have come from Jami’s death. I have even been in correspondence with a young girl in Australia who lost her mom to suicide and found information and support on the web site.
I believe it is the stigma associated with depression and brain disorders that contributed to Jami’s death as much as her genetics and brain chemistry and the unusual lifestyle she had while on the organic farm in Hawaii. Even the term used for decades to describe these illnesses gives a negative message and judgment. The name “Mental Illness” implies that these illnesses are “in your mind” and if they are in your mind, you can just “snap out of them.” But we now know that these are illnesses of the brain, which is the most important organ of the body. And if the brain is not functioning well, it can affect every area of a person’s life. So I use the term “Brain Disorders” instead of mental illness to be more correct and to help decrease the stigma associated with these challenging and misunderstood disorders.
We cannot “snap out” of cancer, or diabetes or heart disease and we cannot snap out of Brain Disorders. But unfortunately, people who feel the shame and stigma of brain disorders (and shame and hopelessness can be symptoms of these illnesses) tend to isolate themselves from other people. The stigma and shame keep people from reaching out for the support they need. It prevents them from getting the medical care and treatment that could help them and from learning about lifestyle changes and holistic treatments that could improve their lives. And isn’t it sad that if someone has an illness like cancer or heart disease, we visit them and bring cards, gifts, and even hot dishes, but if someone has one of these serious, “invisible” illnesses, we avoid them and don’t know what to say and unconsciously contribute to their feelings of not being “okay,” and that feeling of not being understood, valued or worthwhile?
I grew up in a family where stigma prevented people from getting the help they needed. We have family members who have struggled with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, Alzheimers and more. An Aunt and Uncle both died of suicide and many years ago, I lost a dear friend to suicide. My desire to understand and help the ones I love led me back to graduate school to get a degree in psychology and learn more about these disorders of the brain-mind-body and spirit.
Since Jami’s death, I have had an added passion for understanding the brain and have been studying cutting edge research and treatment. And even with all I know, I couldn’t prevent two of my three sons from developing symptoms and having to be hospitalized. However, I feel blessed because they are doing well in their lives right now and we hope they will continue to follow their treatment and make healthy lifestyle choices and seek support if they are ever feeling suicidal.
So the blessings continue and I still feel Jami’s presence in many ways. When one of her closest friends was married right here at St. Joan, in your sanctuary, we all noticed the beautiful rainbow painted on the wall and ceiling. However, it was the real rainbow that appeared at the reception that stunned us all! There was a beautiful full bow rainbow that stayed for almost an hour right outside the door and windows for everyone to see. We all just knew Jami was with us in her own way, sending her love to all of her friends.
And then there was the day I was going to receive the Blue Cross Blue Shield “Champion of Health Award” for my work in suicide prevention. The award was a blessing in itself but, as I went to the front hall to get my coat and go to the ceremony, there was a huge rainbow splashed all across my front door. I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. There were no prisms in the window and I even looked for cracks or chips and moved my hands all over until I realized that this rainbow was caused by a CD that was laid upside down on a shelf by the door that had caught the sun. I felt Jami’s presence then and knew that somehow she was aware that other people were being helped because of her life and her challenges. And I felt proud that she was still making a difference in the world, just as she had always hoped to do.
I’ve seen hundreds of rainbows since Jami died and each one still gives me a sense of hope and healing. And it is my hope that the day will come when no one will die of suicide and everyone living with the challenges and torment of these brain disorders will be able to receive comprehensive and effective treatment and the support and understanding that they need and deserve.
But there is much work yet to be done and each of us can make a difference by contacting our elected officials and asking them to support parity in health care; by encouraging doctors and insurance companies to authorize the use of brain scans before prescribing medication and to consider the value of alternative and holistic treatments, lifestyle choices, self care and the newer tools and techniques available; by raising awareness, educating others, decreasing stigma and by offering support and compassion and understanding to those who need it. And thankfully, here at St. Joan of Arc, you are making a difference! You have created a wonderful Mental Health Ministry which is why I am here speaking today and you are impacting, supporting and saving lives. You have a new Mental Health Library which you’ll be hearing more about soon. You have a team of energetic committed individuals who are serving your community and are reaching out to the community at large. I hope you all feel proud and encouraged by what you are doing and I am so grateful to be working with you.
And even though we all have clouds and times of darkness in our lives at one time or another, we can believe in the power of hope and faith, look for the sunny skies “over the rainbows” and work to make our dreams come true for a better, healthier, more compassionate and hopeful world for us all.
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