From Me To You

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None of you know me. I doubt Kenzie ever mentioned me in conversation. We didn’t see each other often- the occasional holiday that, for me, was the highlight of my year, was probably a bit awkward for her. I’m her mom’s little sister, the aunt who she heard gave her mom a lot of grief while growing up. But you, her friends and acquaintances, and your parents and families have been on my mind since the day McKenzie left us. Suddenly, we were no longer strangers. We are in this together.

A summary of what McKenzie knew about me would be that I was opinionated, strong willed, sarcastic, liberal and sometimes reckless with my future. I loved music like nothing else and viewed travel as the ultimate education. In my youth I was charismatic and deeply involved with my friends, often noting that I would do anything for them. I was also moody and too often ungrateful with my family, showing them my worst side, though I loved them and worried constantly that I was a disappointment to them. Close relationships were hard for me. A lot of my best friends lived hundreds of miles away. I was a writer and it has always been the only clear way I expressed myself.


Here is what I knew about McKenzie.

She was opinionated, strong willed, sarcastic and liberal and sometimes reckless with herself. She loved music like nothing else and viewed travel as the ultimate education. She was charismatic, with a smile that lit up anyone’s day. She was deeply involved with her friends, often noting that she would do anything for them. She was also moody and sometimes ungrateful with her parents and brothers, only showing them her worst side, though she loved them. She worried constantly that she was a disappointment to those she cared for, no matter how they told her otherwise. Close relationships were hard for her. Some of her best friends lived hundreds of miles away. She was a writer and it was in this medium that she was most honest. 


While even I can put together a good argument for ways in which McKenzie and I are different, in the aftermath of her death, the similarities were shocking to me. The more I learned about her struggles and her strengths, the more I felt I had failed us both. 


Here is what McKenzie likely didn’t know about me. 

I was a shy little kid. I hated school even though I made good grades and was even labeled as gifted at one point. My teenage years were extremely difficult. No amount of encouragement or number of friends could reach me when my generally low self esteem took a dive because of even a minor slight form a guy I liked or a girl I swore I didn’t care about. When I was 16 years old I wrote in my journal: 


“I finished reading a book I started on Friday. It’s about a girl and a guy committing suicide and how it affected their families and why they did it. It was so sad. I know I have come so close to doing it myself. Much too close. I hate myself so much. There seems like nothing left.” Six pages before that I wrote, “I’m exhausted and I feel all alone. I spend all my time trying to please other people and live up to their standards. … Lots of times I don’t want to wake up in the morning. The worst part is, no matter how hard I try, I still feel like a failure.” 

This was from my high school journal. In college I was worse. I could not reconcile the way I felt about myself and my future with facts. I was loved, I was fortunate - but I couldn't see it clearly.



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On the outside, I appeared confident and mature, often being the person my friends turned to for advice. I was a leader in my church youth group and had plenty of friends. But I kept my dark thoughts to myself. For a long time, I didn’t want Kenzie or any of my nieces and nephews to know this about me. When she started struggling with similar issues, I kept thinking there would come a right time to tell her. I always thought there would be time.


Alice and I fought through our entire teenage years and a bit into our 20’s. A lot of yelling, crying and resentment. We were enemies. I would be hard pressed to think of a time during all our years that we lived in the same house, that we appreciated each other. I hear this is common, but I still marvel at how awful we were to each other. By the time McKenzie was born, however, we had made amends. So when McKenzie's strong willed personality began to show, it was a natural slip of the tongue that Alice called her by my name on a regular basis. Later, when my daughter showed herself to be tenderhearted and compliant, it was clear the universe or God had planned this quite carefully. Alice had me to raise and I had her. And when things got tough, we called each other for advice.


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We have been talking about McKenzie for 16 years. A year ago Alice called me and told me about the more serious parts of McKenzie’s depression. That conversation, a conversation when I just started to see the real darkness that Mckenzie had been experiencing, terrified me. I couldn’t protect my niece or my sister and I knew it. I couldn't, didn't predict what was ahead.


Regrets

Since I’ve touched on regrets, I know you, her friends and other family have some. Here’s mine:


I should have written her. 

I should have let her read my other journals. 

I should have insisted on time alone with her at Christmas. 

I should have sent her a link to my all writing.

I should have flown to Montgomery when I first heard she was truly depressed. 

I should have bought a better Christmas gift.

I should have asked her if I could read her writing. We could have collaborated.

I should have told her I was excited about her coming to live with us after graduation.

I should have texted her weekly.

I should have told her I love her one more time.

I should have said more.

I should have been more.

I SHOULD HAVE KNOWN.


These regrets are like cracks in who I am now. They make me feel fragile. I’ve been researching and reading about depression and suicide. I’ve examined every photo, email, status update, comment and bits of writing that McKenzie left behind. There isn’t much writing left, by the way. Her journals are gone- to where, we don’t know. She also deleted almost any online trail that we might have followed to her writing. It’s as if she was trying to delete herself from our lives.


The Fear of Feeling


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When McKenzie was born in 2000, I was 29 years old. I’d like to say that I was beyond those awful feelings of worthlessness by then but I wasn’t. That year, I was already divorced for the 2nd time. I had given up on a writing career, college and relationships. It was rough. I flew out to Utah to meet my sisters baby girl and remember thinking that Alice and Dan were probably worried about me, wondering if I would ever be content, ever settle down.


Around that time, I wrote the following:


Sometimes I wish to die. 

Sometimes I am so weary  

And full of sadness and regret 

That I pray God will have enough mercy 

To let me die 

Right then. 


I think about Jesus and AIDS and children and success and the pain of it

That I know will never end for every one of us. 

And I don’t want to try anymore. 

I realize there is no such thing as fair. 

No justice. 

And death, because I don’t really

Know what it will bring, 

Seems full of possibility. It feels better.  


But God has not yet taken me in the middle of a sleepless night. In fact,he has never uttered one reply to my only request. 

He is so silent that I wonder why I ask HIM..

Anything.  

But I guess it is because I am not yet so crazy to deny obvious facts.


The sun still rises. 

Water is wet.

I cannot fly. 

He is God.

However strange, however silent, 

He is still the one to ask the questions 

To which I

Believe I deserve the answers.

I still had those times when life was complete crap, for sure. But they were fewer and I was learning. I had begun to notice a pattern. I was learning to cope because I had lived long enough to experience great moments as well.

By that year I had already been to five different countries. I had witnessed the uniting of OKC, my home, after the 1995 bomb. I had begun learning to speak Romanian. I had snuggled under a full moon in Transylvania. I had walked barefoot down the aisle of a 600 year old church in Germany. I had bonded with and helped orphans and street kids in Eastern Europe. I had been backstage, side stage and front row of some of my favorite bands. I had watched a child who had nearly been aborted be born 12 inches from me while I held his mothers hand. I had made love outside on a golden hill in Switzerland. I had experienced the shockingly beautiful silence of a busy village after a snowstorm. I had lived. 


You may have recognized yourself in my words. People tell you that you are emotional, sensitive and difficult. You might be. For several years I described myself as someone who knew too much, felt too much. But let me tell you what else you are.


You are intuitive, aware of the emotions of others, champions of the underdog, able to see beauty where others fail to look, generous, capable of great acts of bravery, stronger than even anyone may realize. Being this way does make you vulnerable to dives into a black holes of hopelessness. I can’t deny that. But you still possess within you, within a future you cannot see, the ability to experience real wonder and even joy. You are not broken.


Our culture asks us to focus on the good in life and those who recognize and talk about the low points are considered bad party guests, “bummers”. But not saying, not sharing the pain and doubt as a normal part of life skews reality. It creates the expectation that sadness and tears play a minor role in the shaping of an exceptional person or the experience of a full life. 

But the truth is you cannot behave your way into being smart or interesting or kind or compassionate. Despair is part of the deal. It simply is.


The Truth

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I am a parent now. My daughter is 10 and my son is 7. McKenzie’s cousins. There is a lot about life that I find difficult to teach them: how to play fair, how to lose, healthy body image in the age of Instagram, to name a few. But the hardest thing I will ever attempt to teach them is what I say to you now.


Life, if you are lucky, is both brilliant and tragic in equal measure. You will likely have as many opportunities to cry as you will to laugh. Puberty is unfair. It is not your golden time. Hormones, while being the fuel for our survival and tons of fun in a safe context, are also like a bad drug. One moment you will feel higher than high. The next week you might wonder why anyone ever cared for you. You may think you have a shot at winning an award and then you will look in the mirror and hate what you see. It’s possible to have so much adrenaline, you feel nauseous! You may, at times, wish to die. I did. 


Expect these feelings. Recognize all of them for what they are: moments in your life, both good and bad. Sometimes the moment lasts a while and you might feel stuck. That happens. It happened to me. Your life may feel very dark and you may not know how to get out. That is when you will have to remember, not necessarily a happy time in your life, but, perhaps,  this moment now, or maybe even a moment you experienced on April 8, 2016. I hope then, that you will have no choice but to remember that you are not alone. Here is your sign that you can cling to. Remember how you felt that day and remember all the things you wish Kenzie had remembered. Remember the faces of her friends and family. Remember that Mckenzie felt alone - that no one could possibly understand, that we would be better off without her.  And remember how wrong she was. 



Alone Is A Lie

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Doctors tell us that nearly 10 percent of American adults in a given year have a depressive disorder. Prior to that, these adults were teenagers. 20 percent of teenagers will experience depression before they reach adulthood. In 2014 17% of students seriously considered attempting suicide and 8 % did try to take their lives. I’m telling you this, not to further your hopelessness, but to drive home this fact. YOU ARE NOT ALONE. You can look around the ball field or your high school hallway and know that there are other friends and acquaintances who have felt this pain. Beyond that, there are adults in your life who also understand. 


I didn’t realize, when I was in middle school and high school that my teachers actually cared about me. I didn’t realize that the number one reason anyone becomes a teacher has nothing to do with the pay or prestige or the summer holiday. Now that I have friends who are teachers and coaches and counselors and even school admins, I see it is clear they do what they do because they have a compassion for teenagers and feel honored to be in the trenches with them, fighting their fears and discovering who they are. 


You think your secrets are too scary or weird or wrong but that’s not possible. I know this too now, because I am the mother of two kids, the aunt of seven nieces and nephews. There truly isn’t anything too wicked or mean or perverse that they could say or have said to me that can make me think less of them. That’s just not how love works.


The same is true for you. These adults are awake at night as well, worrying about you, not hoping that you do everything “right”, but merely hoping that you let them in, that you let them show you they can be trusted, that together, you can face your fears and live to see the next part of your life that will certainly be different from now.


Questions

The questions that this tragedy has raised in me are endless. When someone says they don’t understand how Kenzie got so lost in her emotions that she could do this, I am, mostly, unable to agree. Yet, I can’t pinpoint the reason I have survived and she didn’t. I can make guesses about serotonin, mental health and treatment and social media. But they are only guesses. What I can tell you is that she hid this part of herself from nearly everyone just like I did. And when it counted most, a month ago, she smiled as if all was well. She lied. 


Sometime in early 2016 McKenzie wrote this in her journal:


“Sometimes a wave comes crashing over me like a tsunami of fear and panic. I could be in the calmest, most relaxed situation, and yet, suddenly this panic flows through me. My thoughts get twisted. Positive turns negative and all of me shakes. It takes a couple of minutes, sometimes up to an hour to shake this horrible feeling. I don’t know what it is, but no one should have to feel this way. It ruins even the best moods, the best times, the best people. It has got to stop.” 


I believe McKenzie thought she was sparing us from something. Her thinking was not logical. It’s very hard for me to accept that. At the same time, it is the only real answer, the only one I believe. She wasn’t herself, or at least she was only focusing on a very small part of who she was. If you knew Mckenzie, you know she would never intentionally hurt us. That alone, speaks volumes.


Because she was more than this. She was more than that day in April. We all know it. She was stunningly beautiful, intelligent, creative and funny. There were times when she loved life, when she truly was living, being herself and being happy. If your question is, “Was she really ever happy?”, the answer is Yes. Beyond a doubt. 


In June of 2015 McKenzie wrote:


“long story short: i want to live.

i want to live my life and make my mistakes if i want to. i want to let loose and have actual fun. i want to feel normal for once. i want to play spin the bottle. i want to lie in bed with a cute boy and just make out for an hour, then cuddle and watch netflix. i want to go on a date where he cooks us fancy dinner and we giggle during dinner in his dining room and then dance around his bedroom, a little tipsy from the cheap champagne he bought to try to be classy. i want to road trip across the country with my best friends for a week, no parents allowed. i want to have thousands of memories that i will look back on as i grow up and smile for days. i want to read hundreds of books and be well-educated and cultured. i want to perform karaoke with a stranger in some bar, having my three minutes of fame and loving every second of it. i want to be wanted. i want to move to new york city and wear my little pencil skirt and high heels and messy bun and walk into my office like i own the place (maybe i do own the place.)  i want to not care what people think of me, and do whatever makes me happy.


i want to actually HAVE adventures in the middle of the night. i want my heart to race more and i want adrenaline rushing through my veins more and laughter filling the air and holding hands and jumping fences and nighttime and camping and laying in fields at 2am talking about life and playing with sparklers and polaroids upon polaroids of moments captured perfectly and getting so far out of my comfort zone that i cant even see it anymore…..”



What Now

In his book Reasons To Stay Alive Matt Haig says, 


“When you are depressed you feel alone, and that no one is going through quite what you are going through. You are so scared of appearing in any way mad you internalize everything, and you are so scared that people will alienate you further you clam up and don’t speak about it, which is a shame, as speaking about it helps.” 


kenzbay.pngIt’s a relatively new science, the mind. We know certain mechanics, sure, but understanding the whys is like trying to understand a neighboring galaxy. In fact, we may know more about Mars than we do about this. So we talk. We write. Step by step, we face this terrible Unknown. I hope we have all come to the agreement that silence or secret discussions or embarrassment about therapy isn’t really helpful to anyone. It doesn’t help the person struggling. It doesn’t help the people left behind either. 


Every day I wake up and one of my first thoughts is that my niece is no longer with us. My second thought is what my sister, brother in law and nephews are doing. I expect this daily routine of trying to accept what has happened will not disappear, but change into something manageable. For now, as they say, it is what it is. 


Like me, you want to honor her by living a full life. I see it in your social media posts. I read your firm demands in a hopeful future. Rightly, so, I think. She wanted that for all of you. But I humbly request that you to take that thought one step further and make it your intention to live an honest life, free from suffering in silence, free from harboring your struggles as anything less than a natural part of growing, adventuring, becoming your own person. Growing up is not easy. Neither is being an adult. Sometimes depression and anxiety factor in. Sometimes the mind gets muddled. Speak up. There are so many ways that you can be helped and live to help others.


I spend a lot of time thinking about Kenzie. She was part of me and we were more connected than I realized. Because of this, I’ve given a lot of thought to what I imagine she would say to us now. I think McKenzie would want us to continue to be honest about, not only how we feel about her, but about our own struggles with depression and hopelessness. Because, of all the stories you have told me about her, the recurring theme is that she reached out to those she thought were suffering. She knew that part of the solution, at least.

 

I also think she would want our forgiveness. As I said earlier, I know she did not mean to hurt us. No. Not the girl I knew. She was an intelligent, tender hearted girl who fought any injustice. She would forgive me for whatever mistakes I made, real or imagined. And though I miss her terribly every day, I forgive her. Of course I do. That’s love.


I hope we can mark Kenzie’s birthday each year by visiting the memories we have as well as making this an annual opportunity to review how we have been more gentle with ourselves, more forgiving of our own missteps. I hope we see the low times as well as the highs as part of a life that is worth living. McKenzie would remind you today and every day to be kind to yourself as well as others. You are terribly important, as we are in this together.



Thank you for reading.


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