The Girl At The Funerals

“They started dying in bunches – first from old age. Then there seemed to be a chain of suicides from my dad’s friends and within my own family. The feel of the funerals began to change because people were killing themselves, and that was the first time the concept of suicide was introduced to me. So it wasn’t just about loss – it was about trying to understand why someone would take their own life.”


“What did you attribute these suicides to?”


“I spent a while blaming it on dysfunction and judging the parents. I would come up with a narrative that explained the pressure and why it was too much. But at the funeral, I would see the parents trying to put the pieces together; and I’d realize that they were very loving people, and I was only seeing one side.”


“Did anyone talk about what was going on?”


“No one ever stopped to talk to me about death or suicide.”


I’m not sure how I would amass the courage to speak to a 12-year-old about suicide either. I’m getting uneasy, even now, merely searching for the words to describe the dilemma, but I do remember how many unpleasant conversations remained dormant throughout my childhood and all the times we would tiptoe around the silence. Silence, avoidance, and apathy are about as effective with children as chemical sprays are with weeds. We may get short-term benefits as veneer, but we are poisoning that which will be the source of our nourishment in times to come.


“What was life like at home?”


“My dad and I have struggled often, but I still consider him to be my best friend. I grew up spending a lot of time at his auto repair shop, and his customers were the closest people in my life. That’s why it was so shocking when they started dying. My dad is not the kind of person who’s comfortable opening up about sensitive issues, and I really needed that when I was younger. When I would stay on the same topic too long or if I showed that I didn’t agree with him, he’d get very mad, and he would never fail to remind me how badly he wished I was a son instead of his daughter.”


“He’s always had a lot of health issues related to his weight, and he would often play the guilt game with it. He’d say, “You have to spend time with me. Otherwise, you might wake up tomorrow, and I could be dead. And you’ll have to live with that.” But his idea of spending time together was fixing cars. When I started getting older, we would argue a lot because I had aspirations for going to college to pursue a career in psychology, and he didn’t like that. He would tell me that I didn’t need college, and I could just do what he did and take over his shop. So through all this I would internalize a lot, and I didn’t have any way to release this stuff. I didn’t really talk to anyone at school, because I was bullied a lot and kept to myself.”


“What was your solution?”


“I started cutting and burning myself when I was around 12 or 13. I used self-injury to escape the pain I was feeling every day. “


Why is it so difficult for us humans to accept ourselves and not constantly try to change some fundamental aspect of who we think we are? There is an underlying angst I have felt about life since I was about 10 years old, and the idea of using an endorphin release or numbing agent in order to change the way I feel is a concept I’ve clung to for a long time. Food, drugs, exercise, money, and sex -- I’ve abused each in their own special way. I give credit to the new generations – they have moved on from traditional, biblical vices and found new methods of escape.   


“Could you please describe an example of the self-injury?”


“Oh, boy.” Tara lets out one anxiety-laden chuckle and shifts her eyes away for a moment.


“I was about 14 and had a horrible day at school. I came home and tried to open up to my dad about what had happened, but his solutions were so extreme. He would suggest ignoring the person who was causing me difficulty and then follow that up with a story about punching someone in the face when he was young for being a bully. So I’m like, ok, where do I fit? I can’t do either of those. When I expressed confusion and reluctance toward his advice, he got angry and told me to fuck off if I didn’t want to listen to him. After he said that, I went downstairs to my room and closed the door. I had a box cutter that I stole from his repair shop, and I was sitting up against the door, crying so much because the only people that I had to support me didn’t understand me at all. So I sat there and started cutting myself. I was cutting my stomach more than my wrists, because I could hide that better. I sat up against my bedroom door, crying and cutting. Eventually, my sister started knocking on the door. I told her to wait because I was changing, and I put on clothes, put my razorblade away, and wiped my tears. Then I opened the door like I was totally fine.”


Tara smiles in an unsuccessful attempt to restrain her tears. We both allow a sacred silence to take the place of words. Heavy, unspoken emotions blanket the air. I wait for her to look at me again before asking the next question.


“Have you ever tried to kill yourself?”


Tara pauses anxiously again, but finds her cadence fairly quickly.


“Yes. The first time was after I went to a funeral for one of my father’s friends. When I asked how he died, they told me he took a bunch of Tylenol, drank a lot of alcohol, and never woke up. So the next time I had a day that was bad enough to give me suicidal thoughts, that’s exactly what I did. I took all the Tylenol in the house, and I drank alcohol. But all I did was puke. I called my dad, but I didn’t tell him what I had done. I just said I had a really bad day and needed support, and he said he was on the line with a customer and had to let me go.”


Tara’s voice cracks, and she’s crying again. I hold still. After another appropriate silence is consecrated, I notice a finch behind her in an apple tree. The bird begins singing, so I borrow a little momentum.


“Tara, you are a ray of sunshine today and a person who I think can help humanity with substantial magnitude. What changed since those dark days?”


She smiles, and the light of a thousand suns gleams luminously.


“I 100% attribute stopping self injury to Bikram yoga. I won’t go a day without practicing somewhere, and my cognitive process isn’t balanced if I miss it. I was 13 when I started doing yoga. I remember being terrified the entire time that the teacher was going to see my cuts, and I’m pretty sure that she did. It was very uncomfortable both physically and emotionally. I was heavier then; so the postures were very uncomfortable, and I was worried about people seeing my cuts the whole time. I watched the people around me and felt like a complete fool, because they were very bendy and lean. I just felt like a fat ball trying to survive, but eventually I began to fall in love with myself by looking at myself in the mirror in the front of the room the whole time. I watched my body change. I watched my thoughts change. And because of the patience and gratitude I was learning from those classes, I was able to come home and be my dad’s friend no matter what he said. So as I began this journey of self-love through yoga, I started to become more social, and school became easier for me. I wasn’t that weird kid anymore who didn’t talk to anyone; and in my pursuit of becoming more talkative, I starting telling people I was depressed.”


“What happened when you started talking about the darkness?”


“I started to see that mental illness was running rampant in my high school. A lot of my classmates were thinking about taking their life. By seeing that others were hiding the same things as I was, I became very vested in the pursuit of helping people who struggle with mental illness. I came across an org called “To Write Love on Her Arms” which is dedicated to helping people who struggle with self injury, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, eating disorders, and addiction. I reached out and asked what I could do, but they only responded with a generic reply. But I stayed persistent, and a few months later they said I could do a mental health talk at my school. I went to my principal and said, “I’m hearing that a lot of people are struggling with mental illness, and I really want to help. Can I give a talk on the subject?” She looked at me dismissively and said, “If anyone here was struggling with depression or any mental health illness, I would know about it, because they would have told me.”


Tara’s intonation shifts to a note of anger.


“I was wearing a long sleeve jacket that day, and I remember thinking ‘What the fuck do you think are under these sleeves? Do you think everything is ok, just because we’re not telling you?’”


“It shook me so much to hear that someone could be so ignorant to think that problems weren’t happening only because they weren’t being talked about. The reality is that mental health issues are the easiest things to not talk about because of shame and stigma. I had to be persistent for months. I sent my principal a lot of emails, and I even hacked into my mom’s account and sent emails as her. My mom was kind enough to go along with it. Finally, I got a yes. I was 13, and I stood up in front of the entire school, which was 6th through 12th grade, and gave a talk about mental illness. People came up to me afterwards and wanted to talk to me privately. I learned how common my story really was. I had a sixth grader come tell me that she was cutting herself and she wanted to take her life. It broke my heart, because I wanted to tell her ‘I do, too,’ but I was too scared. So in the meantime, I just told her, ‘I love you.’ It was such a success that I gave the speech at my high school every year.”


In my mind, Tara is the counter balance to all the anger, aggression, and division in our country these days. She allows me to feel hopeful.


“I became heavily invested in the idea of helping people who were hiding pain; and, at the same time, my own focus on self-injury went away. My high school changed from being my most dreaded place to my favorite, because I got to work with other people who were suffering. Everyone thought I had my shit together, because I was talking about this stuff. But it was the other way around. I was able to help, because I had problems just like them. What I learned was that through sharing and honesty we can heal each other.”


Imagine the fear one would have 10,000 years ago if they were banished from the tribe and forced to face the darkness alone. There was a process that bonded us as human beings, that imbued us with a sense of safety, and much of it centered around inclusion. Central in this communion was the nightly fire circle and subsequent stories from the group. We have spent a long time telling stories around a fire. But we lost these rituals somewhere along the push for progress, and some of us now feel as if we are wandering alone in the dark. It is good to hear that we are getting together and sharing stories again, and new keepers of the fire are emerging. 


“How did your family respond after you started to do all this?”


“My dad talked about me like he was proud, but he still described mental illness as a distant excuse for my pain instead of seeing how much everything in my family contributed to it. Anytime he’d be in a situation where someone was talking about mental illness he’d say, ‘well, my daughter was a cutter, so I know what that’s like.’ The way he said it hurt. He told people about all the good things I was doing, but then he always had to throw in those condescending labels. He attributed everything to me being bullied in school. And that certainly did happen, but he just didn’t have the capacity to see his role in all of this.”


“How do you feel about Bikram and the rape accusations?”


“It’s a tough one for me, because the yoga sequence changed my life. This yoga practice taught me how to love myself at all times, and no other yoga has been able to touch me in quite the same way. But I have issues with the business around it, because most studios still require teachers to go through Bikram’s, and only Bikram’s, training even though he has been accused of rape several times. I don’t know any of the women who have accused him, but I believe them.”


“Why do so many teachers refrain from publicly condemning him?”


“I think a lot of the teachers are too afraid to speak up against him because of what the studio owners will think about those teachers. My understanding of teaching yoga is that you have to teach a lot of classes to barely make a living. So saying anything remotely bad about the series, or about Bikram himself, might put you at risk of getting your classes cut.”


“Do you talk about it with your studio owner?”


“No. Even though I’m heavily invested in her studio and the owner is one of my dearest friends, we don’t talk about it. I love her dearly, and our relationship is very special. She’s been there for me more times than I can count, but that’s a topic that we just don’t touch. If anyone asks me questions about Bikram and how I feel about him, my answer is that he is a rapist. I don’t want to be in his photos. I don’t want to be in the same room as him. I don’t want him within 10 feet of me. But as far as opening up that can with her, I just don’t.”


“Do you think this form of silence, or avoidance, is similar to the kind your father used with you?”


“Yes, absolutely. I know it doesn’t make sense; but when it comes to differing views, with someone like her, I don’t bite the hand that feeds me. I call her studio my home – I like it better than my own home. I love her whole-heartedly and everything she’s done for me. And I think she’s such a special lady, but I don’t know why she’s still associated with Bikram so closely.”


I grapple with a similar difficulty. Bikram yoga does incredible things for my body. I cannot deny the massive healing effects I feel when applying a steady practice, but I am baffled when I hear teachers still quoting the man as if he were a valid source of wisdom or by not hearing more studio owners publicly disavow him and distancing themselves from his name brand. He has abused his position of trust, especially with those who are most in need of support, and it is time we banish him to face the darkness alone.


“What are you doing outside of yoga these days?”


“I am the manager of a rehab center, and I’m applying to PhD programs right now.”


“How old are you?”


“I’m 19.”


“Tell me more about your job, please.”


“I work with people who are struggling with addiction, specifically recent parolees. It’s an opportunity to give back and to help people who are going through situations darker than anything I will ever understand. People are capable of incredible things if they put their mind to it – if they reach out for help and if they’re willing.”


“What are your thoughts on mental illness today?”


“There’s a huge lack of education – I would consider that the foundation of the problem. Basic education can change our cognitive process if we’re able to seek help early on. As a society we are taught that seeking help is bad, and talking about our issues is bad. I didn’t tell anyone about my self-injury, because I felt so goddamned alone. My hope is that people will feel that they deserve treatment and that they will go seek it.”


“Do you have hope for the world?”


“Without a doubt, I do. Every time I cut myself or thought about suicide, those were moments characterized by emotions that propelled me to where I am now. That’s all moments are – intense training to teach us what we need to help others. People often have really dark moments, but if they stick around long enough to allow that day to pass, and then use those dark memories to help somebody else, it makes it so worth it. There have been some sick moments in my life, but I don’t regret anything I’ve done or any of the emotions I’ve had, because I get to use them to help people today. I’m so in love with what I’m doing now and how my story has manifested to help others around me.”


There it is again – the big secret – we are here to help each other. Lean into the pain and extend your hand to lift another back on their feet.

Anto Ljoljic