May is Mental Health Month. As someone who has lived with anxiety and depression since my teens, this topic is very near and dear to my heart. I know that I am fortunate to get the care I need in the times that I struggle. Unfortunately, there are many who aren’t always as lucky. Please understand that you are not alone in your journey. You can visit the website nami.org for resources and to learn how you can advocate for yourself and your loved ones with mental illness. I would like to share an essay about an experience I went through in March of this year below. It’s taken me more than two months to be able to reflect upon this, but I knew it was finally time.
It was raining the day 18-year-old Isaac was laid to rest. We joined the mourners that afternoon, carefully walking around the murky mud puddles that pooled on the concrete of the church parking lot. I could see my reflection in those pools, and the tears threatening to spill over onto my cheeks, on that day as I struggled to keep my umbrella from blowing inside out and out of my hands.
In a matter of a few days, the world had become a confusing, broken and upside-down place, one that I hadn’t lived in for a very long time. It started with an e-mail from our church pastor, letting us know one of the longtime members of our youth program and church had passed away. There were no other details, except the request for prayers for the family. I read the e-mail as I waited to pick up my 14-year-old son from school. When he got in the car, I told him what I had just read.
“What do you mean?” he asked me, frowning. “Was he in an accident?”
“I don’t know,” I told him, with a familiar, sinking feeling weighing on my heart.
My son pressed on. “Suicide?” he asked, looking out the window. “That doesn’t make sense,” he continued, talking more to himself than me. He mentioned how this boy had just gotten into his dream college. We drove home in silence, contemplating.
Our worst fears were confirmed. It was indeed the thief of suicide that took this young person from the family and friends that loved him. Worst of all? No one knew why. They had no idea. This young man had suffered for so long but didn’t want to burden those around him. It’s a story we hear time and time again, but it never gets any easier.
As we learned of the funeral arrangements and read the beautifully-written obituary celebrating this young man’s life, my heart felt like it was broken in a million pieces. I was immediately transported back to the mental health facility I had walked into at the age of 20 years old, when I confessed to my roommate that I no longer wanted to live.
I knew the pain he must have been feeling. I knew how hard it can be to tell someone what the pain feels like—a pain that seems to come out of nowhere and has no rhyme or reason. It leaves you with an ache, a pillow full of tears night after night, a loss of appetite and the inability to understand who the person is staring back at you from the mirror.
We walked through the lobby of our church the night of his visitation, looking at the enlarged pictures of a smiling young man wearing a Tommy Bahama shirt, holding a selfie stick as his brilliant smile joined those of his friends, and even a shot of him decked out in scuba gear, giving a thumbs up to the photographer in an underwater shot.
“My, how he lived,” I thought to myself, then stopped. He had lived, but he hadn’t lived long enough. I wondered if I were able to talk to him at that moment, would he have regrets? Would he be grateful the pain was over, or would he have wished he could have held on just a little longer?
I think about the holding on part often. It’s what I did for most of my early 20s—white knuckling through the depression, anxiety, insomnia and sleepless nights. There were times it was excruciatingly hard, and I didn’t think I would make it through, but I pushed myself to hold on.
Hold on, I would say to myself, in between therapy sessions, in between new trials of antidepressant medication. Things will get better. There are people who love you, even if they don’t always know the best way to show it. You have so much to live for, even though it doesn’t seem like it now.
We drove home from the visitation in silence. I could hear my 16-year-old daughter’s ragged breaths from holding back tears. My son had only one question, “Was that his body in the coffin?” It was almost as if he couldn’t grasp that Isaac was truly gone until he saw that.
The rain poured outside the following day as the hundreds of people gathered inside the red brick church to celebrate Isaac’s life. We heard stories of his most epic pranks, his love of politics and sports, the way he lit up every room he walked into, and his endless generosity. I thought to myself how the young men in their neatly-pressed suits did not deserve to have their friend taken away by mental illness. How unfair it was that they were carrying their friend to his final resting place, far too soon. I thought of the quote I had come across the day before.
Love conquers all things except the fact that depression is not a thing, it’s a living force that consumes everything in its path, it takes no prisoners.
Isaac was a prisoner to his pain, and it took him from the world. I wished he were sitting beside me so I could’ve taken his hand to tell him things can get better; they will get better.
I wished I could have told him he wasn’t alone, because I’m sure that’s how he felt.
As the service ended, I looked up at the beautiful stained-glass window at the front of the church sanctuary. I could see the sunlight begin to stream through it. As we walked out of the church, the sun shone down upon us, and we gripped the handles of our umbrellas we no longer needed tightly as we made the long walk to our car. I watched as the humidity formed steam off the stagnant puddles of rain. A bright blue sky unfolded above us. I couldn’t help but feel like Isaac was giving his loved ones a final message as they said their goodbyes.
I’ll be okay now.
Today I’m hosting author Sebastian Slovin in support of his touching memoir, Ashes in the Ocean: A Son’s Story of Living Through and Learning From His Father’s Suicide, during his blog tour with WOW! Women on Writing.
Here’s what you need to know about the book:
Vernon Slovin was a legend. He was one of the best swimmers in his home country of South Africa, and for a time in the world. He prided himself on being the best. The best in sports, business, and life. He had it all, a big home, athletic prestige, fancy clothes and cars, and a beautiful wife and family. Everything was going his way until it all came tumbling down. He lost everything, including his own life. In the wake of his suicide he left his wife and two young children.
In this riveting memoir, Vernon’s son, Sebastian Slovin chronicles his experience of living in the shadow of a suicide, and his journey out of the darkness and into the light. Slovin shares his quest to uncover why his father took his own life. A pilgrimage that led him around the world and eventually back to himself.
Ashes in the Ocean is a powerful story about facing one’s fears and choosing a different path.
Paperback: 222 pages
Publisher: Nature Unplugged (March 2018)
About the Author:
Since he can remember, nature has been a central part of Sebastian’s life. He was fortunate to grow up in the beach community of La Jolla, California, and spent his childhood mixing it up in the ocean. As a young boy, he lost his father to suicide, which would later deeply inspire his path in life. As a young adult, he had the opportunity to travel extensively and experience many of the world’s great surf spots as a professional bodyboarder. Through his travel, Sebastian developed a deep love and appreciation for our natural world, and at the same time was drawn to the practice of yoga.
His love for yoga led him to study at Prana Yoga Center in La Jolla, California, and his passion for nature eventually led him to pursue a BA in Environment and Natural Resource Conservation at San Diego State University. He also holds an MA in Leadership Studies from the University of San Diego.
He lives with his wife Sonya in Encinitas, California. He and Sonya have a business called Nature Unplugged, which focuses on cultivating wellness through healthier relationships with technology and a deeper connection to nature. When he is not writing or working on Nature Unplugged, Sebastian enjoys swimming, bodysurfing, surfing, and stand-up paddling (pretty much all things) in the wild Pacific Ocean. Find Sebastian Online:
Amazon Author Profile: https://www.amazon.com/Sebastian-Slovin/e/B078XN8XZL
From the opening pages of Ashes in the Ocean, I was pulled into Sebastian Slovin’s personal and heartfelt memoir. My heart raced as I read through the description of a popular annual swimming race in California and how Vernon Slovin would deliberately enter the heat of the race with the younger competitors just to challenge himself. I could easily picture his beautiful young family cheering him on from the cliffs above. The scene is the perfect way to introduce the determined, physically fit man constantly seeking perfection and the acknowledgement that he was the best at anything he set his mind to.
There are some people who are born to be one with the water, and Vernon Slovin was one of them. He passed this legacy down to his son, Sebastian. The description of the ocean waves and pristine beaches in picturesque La Jolla, California throughout the book made me want to transport myself there—as did the later chapters featuring beaches in Australia and South Africa.
Because his father’s suicide occurred when he was only six years old, it was many years before Sebastian had the context in which to explore the dynamics in his father’s personality that would lead to such a catastrophic end. For years he and his mother and younger sister struggled to pick up the pieces, to survive without the sheltered and prosperous world Vernon Slovin had tried to insulate them in.
Although he was young when his father took his own life while staying with family in Australia, Sebastian grew up hesitant to discuss “the elephant in the room” with his mother for fear of opening up old wounds. He also feared, deep down, that because of his genetics and history of his father’s mental illness he too would have no choice but to succumb to a suicidal end.
Once in high school, though, Sebastian continued to cycle through the emotions many deal with after losing a loved one to suicide—confusion, guilt, and anger. To help process his lingering questions, Sebastian embarked on personal research project in the hopes of filling in the unanswered questions he had about his father’s life and death. With much of the dogged determination his own father had possessed, he met with his father’s former swim teammates, friends, and business partners. With each e-mail, conversation, and long-distance correspondence, he learned more and more about the competitive swimmer who was recruited from South Africa to compete at the college level in the United States.
Vernon took the same skills and drive that made him successful in swimming and translated that to his business life. During one of Sebastian’s interviews with one of his father’s friends, he started to understand that his father had an almost unhealthy obsession with “winning” and achieving his goals. He would shut out everything else while he worked to achieve them. Because of this obsession, he didn’t know what to do when he failed, which he ended up doing in his career as a stockbroker.
It’s clear both the legacy of his father and the shadow of his death affected Sebastian in more ways than one. He shared the same passion for water, and competed for many years in professional bodyboarding at beaches all over the world. When he discovered yoga, he became convinced he had to be the very best teacher and took all the certifications necessary to become a master instructor. It was only while sidelined after a serious hip surgery (where he re-injured himself after trying to get back in shape too quickly) that he realized he was following directly in his father’s footsteps once again.
Sebastian’s memoir is a thoughtful exploration of the deep ties we have to family and how we must shape our own destinies, regardless of what we think are the legacies left behind for us.