Upcoming Events -- email for sign-in links

UPCOMING EVENTS

September 18 at 1 p.m. Highland Public Library, live reading in the Hudson Valley

The Odyssey -- Nov. 4th at 7 p.m. (virtual)

Forbes Library -- date TBD

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Time to Talk about Suicide, especially with out children

As a member of several, online, grieving-parent support groups, I hear every day about children dying in every possible way: by car accident, by cancer, by falls, by electrocution, by drowning, by sudden heart attack (at age 18!) or by other unexpected tragedies, such as by overdose like my own son, or by suicide.

Although we all grieve our children, the parents of suicides seem the saddest. While all parents feel (mostly irrational) responsibility for their children's deaths, none feel as wracked by guilt, shame and horror as the parents of children who take their own lives.

During the height of the covid lockdowns, a newly bereaved mother in a Compassionate Friends group shared that her 11-year-old son, whom I'll call Ryan, a beautiful boy whose smiling photo she posted, had killed himself without warning. His mother says he was a healthy, happy child who never showed any signs of depression but just became overwhelmed by not being allowed outside nor ever getting to see his friends. The tragedy of this is haunting me deep in my bones. Here is a photo of some children who killed themselves in the past few weeks: 


This is the shadow pandemic, the wave of suicides and overdoses coming in the wake of what this pandemic is doing to our world. In 2020, The Washington Post predicted there would be up to 20,000 additional suicides over the next year as a result of the mental-health pandemic that is following in the wake of the corona virus. And  youth suicides had already been skyrocketing over the previous decade, as had overdoses. I know for sure that overdoses exploded in the first months of the pandemic, rising to more than 90,000 dead for the year, a national record. Here's what youth suicide looked like before the pandemic hit: 


Following the pandemic, 56% more girls were hospitalized for suicide attempts than in the previous year, and suicide became the number one cause of death for children ages 13 to 15.

Sadly, for children Ryan's age, suicide is often done on impulse, without the child showing any prior signs of depression. Suicide was previously the third leading cause of death among children between the ages of 10 and 14 (and the second leading cause of death for young people between 10 and 24). While females think of suicide more often, males are four times more likely to kill themselves than females, putting boys, who are societally discouraged from talking about their feelings, at particular risk. And while teens often suffer diagnosed mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety and exhibit warning signs before attempting suicide, younger children often commit suicide with no forethought and little warning. 

When I was 15, I attempted suicide. Like most people who truly mean to die, I gave no indication I was depressed. I acted cheerful all day–and then before bed swallowed a bottle of my grandmother's Valium. I remember with crystal clarity the bone-deep, exhausted-with-life feeling I had as I stood in the bathroom swallowing all those little yellow pills. I'd had many stepfathers, several of them abusive, from whom my mother felt unable to protect me, and at that time it seemed to me that life was and always would be nothing but pain–or at least that the pleasurable parts couldn't possibly outweigh the pain of slogging on. Unbeknownst to me, I was also about to get my period, a regular event that caused debilitating depression to descend on me for three days every month for the next 35 years (until I mercifully went into sudden menopause upon the death of my son).

Six hours after I had taken the overdose, against all medical odds, I stood up from my bed (in an unconscious state) and walked to my uncle's bed and told him what I had done and then passed back out. So clearly there was some part of me that still wanted to live, but after the doctors made me drink cup after cup of charcoal, they told my mother I needed to be more permanently hospitalized.

I spent that summer in a mental hospital, the kind of cushy place that used to be covered for months at a time by insurance; it had a spacious, bright adolescent wing and all kinds of therapies. My doctor there was an idiot who told me PMS was a myth and I needed to stop imagining it--but the other kids there, most of them, were just normal adolescents from screwed up families struggling to figure out a way forward. And most of the aides and nurses there were wise and wonderful and talked to us about how we would be able to get away from our parents and make our own lives one day soon, that we just needed to hang in there. We all listened to Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon album repeatedly, feeling it had something profound to say about how adulthood often trapped people in empty, meaningless lives. Most of us, the ones who weren’t suffering from some organic mental illness like schizophrenia, gained strength there to try to live some other, fuller way when we got out. 

To the right is a photo of me with my mom a couple of years before my hospitalization, which  none of us could have seen coming. I'd always seemed like such a happy kid, able to roll and adapt to anything. Until I just wasn't anymore. 

I continued to struggle with pretty awful depression until I reached adulthood, and I sadly suffered serious depressive episodes as an adult, too–but once I had children, the option of committing suicide was simply off the table for me. My father had killed himself when I was an infant, something I hadn't discovered until I was 12 (and learning he had done that likely contributed to my choosing to follow in his footsteps when I was 15, as copycatting is a real, heartbreaking phenomenon with suicide. Both my father’s brothers followed his examples and died by suicide, as well). I knew that no matter how I suffered, I would never leave my own children with that legacy. So even in the worst throes of misery, I have just had to tell myself life will end soon enough for all of us and that in the meantime, I am stuck here with no choice but to grind on. I am seasoned enough by now to know that feeling that miserable is temporary and means I am particularly unwell and in need of help. 

Since I know I will never do anything to make my occasional death wish come true, I instead force myself to work hard at self-care, therapy, medications, daily yoga, exercise, spending time in nature, making time for art and pleasure, meditating, listening to my own needs, etc., because if I have to be stuck living here, I may as well feel and spread as much joy as possible. I am very grateful for the medications–and the lack of premenstrual hormones–that keep me on a more even keel now. And most days, even more mercifully, do not feel like a slog, they feel like the gift they are.    

How terrible that young Ryan didn't get to live long enough to have perspective, get help or make any of these realizations. How awful that suicide rates have risen 30 percent over the past two decades, along with overdose rates rising more than 137 percent from 2000 to 2015. This massive increase in young people dying “deaths of despair” by their own hand, whether by suicide, alcohol, or “accidental” overdose, as in the case of my son, are the canaries in the coal mine of our society telling us something is deeply wrong with how we are living. I was hoping, like many of you, that the pandemic might serve as a wake-up call and help us pay better attention to our feelings, allowing us to find new ways of living. The jury is still out on whether we've done this or still might. 

In the meantime, I hope reading this gives all of you who still have kids at home permission to have an open conversation about suicide with them, to let them know that imagining our own deaths is normal. My therapists have assured me that nearly all of us do that sometimes. As young people, especially when we feel angry and disempowered, we may enjoy imagining the grief we could spitefully cause our loved ones, how sorry we could make them if they had to attend our funerals. But fantasies like these are not the same as making plans to take our lives; planning one’s own death is not normal–and is, in fact, a clear sign that an illness has taken over our thinking and that we need help outside ourselves. If the voice in your head is advising you to take your own life, please recognize that voice is not your friend and must be reported.

I hope you let all your loved ones know that hopelessness is a lie their illness is telling them. No matter how terrible they feel today, there are many things that can help them feel better, and I hope you tell them explicitly that you will help them try all those things one by one until they figure out what works to restore their will to live. My son ruined the chemistry of his brain with drugs that made him think he could never feel better without being on drugs, but that was a lie his sickness was telling him. He might have needed a bridge to wellness with recovery medication but eventually he could have learned to find happiness in the thousand small moments we've had to enjoy without him, wistfully imagining how he might have enjoyed something if he were still here. 

I pray none of you ever endure a tragedy like the mother of 11-year-old Ryan--nor ever leave your own families to endure the self-inflicted loss of you. And I hope you'll all join me in breaking the stigma around suicide and talking to the people you love before it's too late, because truly, we never know what secret, shameful thoughts people who seem fine might be having. Show the people you love that suicide is something loving families can talk about and that suicidal feelings are something all of us can survive. 

Thursday, September 23, 2021

My Press Kit

 

BIO

Lanette Sweeney's debut collection, What I Should Have Said: A Poetry Memoir About Losing A Child to Addiction, was published by Finishing Line Press in August, 2021. Sweeney is grateful the book is allowing her to share two messages: first, medication-assisted treatment saves addicts’ lives and should not be stigmatized, and second, a life rich with joy and meaning is (eventually) possible after even the most devastating loss. 

Sweeney’s essays, articles, short stories and poems have appeared in daily newspapers, print and online literary magazines (including Rattle, Amethyst Review, Gyroscope, Tigershark, Blue Collar Review, Please See Me, Foliate Oak Review, and Misfit Magazine), as well as in anthologies (including Prima Materia, Silkworm, and the Center for New Americans annual review), and in textbooks, including several editions of the  popular college-level women’s studies textbook Women: Images and Reality published by McGraw Hill. Her essays, blog posts and book reviews can be seen on her website, https://www.lanettesweeney.com 

After working as a fundraiser, teacher, waitress, reporter, editor, and non-profit executive, Sweeney is grateful to now be a full-time writer thanks to her wife's support. She and her wife and their small-pet army (which consists of a dog, cat, kitten, and puppy) live in South Hadley, MA, in the house where their wedding was held 16 days before Sweeney's son overdosed. Sweeney has one surviving child, a daughter, 29, who is a teacher. 

ABOUT THE BOOK

What I Should Have Said: A Poetry Memoir about Losing a Child to Addiction recounts a mother's grief, guilt, sorrow, and search for meaning after her 26-year-old son's death by overdose. The book is divided into the stages of grief, with sections on denial and depression, anger, bargaining and, eventually, acceptance. Sweeney's son's poems appear throughout the collection, often in seeming conversation with his grieving mother's words. The author hopes the book demonstrates that even the most devastating grief can result in post-traumatic growth and that medication-assisted treatment saves lives and should not be stigmatized.  

Both poets and laypeople have given the book excellent reviews, calling the poems "beautifully crafted" and "poignant." Multiple reviewers noted that once they started the book, they couldn't put it down. The president of Bereaved Parents of the USA said "every grieving parent will relate" to the book and noted it helped her process her own grief about her son's death. The book can be ordered from local bookstores, Amazon, Bookshop.org or Goodreads.com. 


PRESS RELEASE

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
OCTOBER 10, 2021
CONTACT: Lanette Sweeney, (845) 527-6616,
lanettesweeney@gmail.com

VIRTUAL READING SCHEDULED FOR NOV. 4TH:
AS OVERDOSES SKYROCKET, NEW BOOK OFFERS
COMFORT TO GRIEVERS, HOPE TO ADDICTS

South Hadley, MA, USA – Following the nation’s worst year ever for overdose deaths, a timely new poetry collection, What I Should Have Said: A Poetry Memoir about Losing a Child to Addiction, aims to bring comfort and encouragement to addicts and their families. The author, along with another mother and author who lost her child to addiction, will be reading from their books in a virtual event hosted by the Odyssey Bookshop on Thursday, Nov. 4th at 7 p.m. You can register for that reading here.

Lanette Sweeney’s debut collection describes the pain of watching her son suffer with addiction as well as her enormous grief and guilt following his overdose death in 2016. Fortunately, the book also offers hope to families suffering a similar loss or struggling with a child still in active addiction, as Sweeney lyrically recounts her journey toward post-traumatic growth and grief recovery, as well as what she’s learned can save addicts’ lives.

“I have two messages I’m eager to share with this book,” says Sweeney: “first, that most addicts need medicine to keep them alive, so taking medicines like Methadone and Suboxone should not be shameful; and second, that it is possible to restore peace and joy to your life after even the most devastating loss.”

What I Should Have Said was released last month by Kentucky-based publisher Finishing Line Press. The book is organized into sections on the stages of grief and includes 20 poems by Sweeney’s late son, Kyle Fisher-Hertz, showing his move from the innocence of childhood to the eventual despair of his addiction.

“My son wanted to get better,” Sweeney recalls. “He attended every recovery program he could get into. But then he turned 26, my insurance didn’t cover him anymore, and the Medicaid insurance he got as a replacement didn’t cover the monthly shot that had helped him stay clean.”

Sweeney’s son spent the week before his death pleading for help from the only recovery clinic in the state where he was then living, Nevada, but he was refused the drug he requested, Vivitrol, which is a monthly shot that blocks opioid receptors and reduces cravings. (A desperate addict’s quest to stay clean long enough to get the shot is depicted in the new film Four Good Days, starring Glenn Close and Mila Kunis.) At the time of Fisher-Hertz’s death nearly five years ago, Medicaid in 29 states didn’t cover that medicine, whose generic name is Naltrexone–and Fisher-Hertz, like many addicts, was reluctant to take Methadone or Suboxone, the maintenance drugs he was offered. Instead, he died of an overdose of street drugs three days later–less than three months after turning 26 and losing his mother’s private insurance.

“I foolishly didn’t think he should take maintenance drugs, either.” Sweeney says. “When he called me to say he was thinking about taking one because he didn’t know what else to do, I stayed silent, and he knew I didn’t approve. When he died three days later, I knew I had discouraged him from taking the one thing that might have saved his life, and my guilt was devastating. I wish I’d known when he was alive that he had a terminal disease that needed medicine to treat it.”

Poet LeslĂ©a Newman, author or editor of more than 70 books, calls Sweeney’s poems “poignant” and “beautifully crafted.” She says she “read this collection straight through with [her] heart in [her] throat” and adds: “Reader, prepare yourself: once you start reading What I Should Have Said, you won’t want to stop.”

Praise for the book comes from outside the poetry world, as well. The president of the board of Bereaved Parents of the USA, Kathy Corrigan, lost two sons and says “Every grieving parent will relate” to the feelings expressed by Sweeney in this “deeply moving” and “honest” work. Reading the collection, Corrigan says, helped her process the grief she felt over losing her second son, who died two years ago from alcohol addiction. Corrigan said she appreciates that the collection “sheds light on the darkness and stigma attached to the disease of addiction and [reminds] us that our children were/are so much more than their addiction[s].”

The U.S. had been starting to turn the tide on overdose deaths in 2019, but then the pandemic arrived, causing isolation, 12-step meeting cancellations, the slashing of addiction treatment programs, new economic stresses, and fresh grief.  As a result, the monthly overdose death rate shot up 50 percent in the early months of the pandemic, to more than 9,000 deaths a month; prior to 2020, U.S. monthly overdose deaths had never risen above 6,300.  

The annual overdose death rate also rose to heartbreaking new heights last year; the CDC anticipates that when the final numbers are in, more than 90,000 individuals will have died of an overdose in 2020 (80 percent from opioid overdose) – up from about 70,000 the previous year.

Sweeney’s book can be ordered directly from the author or from local bookstores or Bookshop.org or Amazon or from the publisher at https://www.finishinglinepress.com/product/what-i-should-have-said. Sweeney is available to do readings from her book and take part in panels or Q&As via Zoom or other event platforms at schools, bookstores, libraries, recovery programs, harm-reduction centers, and any other venue interested in hearing her story and words of encouragement. For more information or a review copy of the book, contact Lanette Sweeney directly at lanettesweeney@gmail.com or on her website lanettesweeney.com. 

 * * *

Sources for Statistics:
https://www.commonwealthfund.org/blog/2021/spike-drug-overdose-deaths-during-covid-19-pandemic-and-policy-options-move-forward citing CDC statistics

https://www.overdoseday.com/facts-stats/ United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.


BOOK COVER




PRESS LINKS

https://www.poughkeepsiejournal.com/story/life/2021/09/10/what-should-have-said-memoir-son-who-died-addiction/5576567001/

 



Straw Dog Writer's Guild featured Lanette Sweeney in an author interview on Sept. 13, 2021. 


Kenyon Review columnist Ruben Queseda did an interview with Sweeney for his Poetry Today column in late April, 2021. (Sweeney's is the second interview on this page.)


What I Should Have Said: A Poetry Memoir about Losing A Child to Addiction was featured in mid-September as a top choice on the weekly book-recommendation email sent by our local library, Wowbrary.




APPEARANCES

UPCOMING: 
On Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, join the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, MA, at 7 p.m. as they host a virtual  reading with poet memoirists Lanette Sweeney and Miriam Greenspan, both mothers of children lost to addiction. Lanette will read from What I Should Have Said: A Poetry Memoir About Losing a Child to Addiction. Miriam will read from The Heroin Addict’s Mother: A Memoir in Poetry.

Both mothers' books were published in 2021. Greenspan, M.Ed., LMHC, is an internationally renowned psychotherapist and author. Her pioneering book, A New Approach to Women and Therapy, helped define the field of feminist therapy, and her Boston Globe best-seller Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear and Despair, won the 2004 gold Nautilus book award in the self-help/psychology category. 


PAST: 
On Sept. 18, 2021, Lanette Sweeney was a featured speaker at the Highland Public Library, the library where she took her children as she was raising them in the Hudson Valley in NY. She did a one-hour long reading and q&a session from her book.

On Sept. 13, 2021, Lanette Sweeney read a poem by her son, "Liquor Bottle Might As Well Be a Pistol," at a CAPE (Center for Addiction Prevention and Education) event at Shadows on the Hudson Valley; she gave that evening's proceeds from the sale of her book to CAPE, which arranged to have the Mid-Hudson bridge, seen behind the speakers, lit up in purple in honor of the event. 


Also on Sept. 18, Sweeney read one of her poems at a Keep it Moving walk/run event. Keep It Moving Zane is a non-profit that provides Narcan training and healthy activities for children in honor of the founder Lauren Mandel's late son, who died of an overdose one week after starting his first social work job at age 22. Sweeney read "To My Son on His 18th Birthday," and gave a portion of that day's proceeds to Keep It Moving. 

On Sept. 7th, Sweeney was the featured reader at the monthly Writer's Night Out/In sponsored by Straw Dog Writers' Guild. 



 


Thursday, September 2, 2021

Honoring Kyle by Remembering His Worst Day


Monday, August 31st,  was International Overdose Awareness Day, and I marked the day with a short online event in honor of my son, Kyle David Fisher-Hertz, who died of an overdose when he was 26. This is an essay that captures much of what we covered in that event. 

Last year the pandemic was not kind to addicts. A record number of Americans, more than 90,000 sons and daughters, died of a drug overdose in 2020, more than in any previous year--and 20,000 more than the previous year, when it seemed we were finally turning the tide and beginning to stem the steady increase in overdose deaths that had plagued us for the previous decade. This graph shows how fatal overdoses steadily climbed, with the previous peak passing 60,000 in 2017. The numbers rose to more than 80,000 dead the next year but dropped back down to 70,000 in 2019 before surging last year, with a huge spike in the first months after we were all sent into lockdown. 

The United States represents just four percent of the world’s population, but we were 25 percent of the world’s fatal overdoses in 2020. As this graph from last year shows, North Americans are dying from taking too many drugs at a far higher rate than anyone anywhere else in the world.
 
There is a serious sickness in our society, and our overdoses are merely a symptom of that sickness, which I believe is rooted in our mindless consumerism and the resulting lack of purpose in our lives. My daughter argues "lack of purpose" is a privileged excuse for drug addiction, but we are a privileged people in North America, and more money gives us greater access to drugs, so it makes sense that feeling a lack of meaning in our lives while having the resources to ameliorate our emptiness by getting high would lead to greater use. But I digress. 

When I told my daughter I would be opening the event by saying a few words about the overdose epidemic, she wondered what new thing I could say when so much has already been said about this issue. But I believe that even though we are years into this epidemic, the two main messages I want to share in both my new book, What I Should Have Said: A Poetry Memoir about Losing a Child to Addiction, and in this essay, are still not familiar enough to most people.

The first message is that medication-assisted treatment saves lives. No one should be judged or stigmatized for taking Methadone or Suboxone or following any other medical plan to stay off street drugs. I wish I had known this myself when my son was alive. He and I wanted him to get Vivitrol, a monthly shot that blocks opioid receptors and cravings and doesn’t allow you to get high--but he had just turned 26, lost my insurance, and discovered that the state health insurance he had in Nevada didn’t cover that drug, which has the generic name Naltrexone. The clinic would only offer him Suboxone or Methadone. 


My son (shown here, sober at my wedding, 16 days before he died) called me the weekend before he died to say he thought if he couldn’t get the Vivitrol shot, maybe he would just take the Suboxone they were offering him. Tragically, I maintained a stony, judgmental silence, letting him know I would be disappointed in him if he went on maintenance drugs. I thought he was “better” than that. I thought he could just stop. I didn’t realize his disease was terminal until it killed him. 

Since then, I have had the opportunity to visit a methadone clinic, where I saw dozens of healthy young people run in, take their daily dose, and run back out to take their kids to daycare, to get to their jobs, to go on with their lives. If you love an addict, please know he or she has a deadly disease with an incredibly high relapse rate, as high as 97 percent without medically assisted treatment. I still think Naltrexone shots are a miracle; they now have shots that can block opioid receptors for up to six months at a time, and I hope more state insurance covers that medicine than when my son was trying to get that shot. But if the miracle shots are not an option, going on Suboxone or Methadone will provide the addicts we love and want to stay alive a bridge to wellness. We should be celebrating the people who go that route, choosing to live and giving themselves an opportunity to function again. I wish I had understood this in time to have not failed my son when he asked my advice. Instead, I believe my silence discouraged him from pursuing that solution, so instead of going back to the clinic, he got street drugs and took them until they killed him three days later.

My second message is for the millions of parents, siblings, friends, cousins and other loved ones who lost someone to an overdose in the past five years. Though early grief will shake you to your core and make you question whether you can go on, I am here to tell you you can survive and learn to carry your grief with grace if you just hang in there and practice self care like it’s your motherfucking job. You can have a life of peace and even joy after even the most profound and devastating loss. Post-traumatic growth is real. No one wants to be driven to their knees by loss and trauma, but all of us can, in time, with a lot of hard work on ourselves, allow our worst experiences to open our hearts and bring us closer to our true spiritual selves. 

And now I want to say a few words about what killed my amazing, brilliant son Kyle: He died not only because he was an addict but because he cared so much about what other people thought of him that he spent the last 10 years of his life always trying to one up himself and act crazier and more death defying than he had the day before. He started rehab “only” addicted to crack, but he probably thought he wasn’t as hardcore as the other addicts were until he was as addicted as everyone else to the most deadly drug of all, so he let the other guys in rehab teach him how to shoot heroin. I have an essay on my website about toxic masculinity--which is what Kyle was demonstrating when he kept risking his life to appear cool--and how it contributed to Kyle's death

But beyond that I want to say please, if you’re a young person who hasn’t done drugs yet, please don’t let yourself be swayed by your desire to impress anyone. If you’ve done some drugs, maybe dabbled in alcohol or marijuana, but haven’t yet done the deadly trifecta (crack, meth, and heroin), please don’t try to play it cool if someone offers you one of those. Please know you are loveable without laying your life on the line to look like what someone else wants you to be. No high is worth what you will be doing to your life if you take any of those drugs. And I am a person who has enjoyed drugs myself, so I am not saying this to discourage you from pleasure. I am saying this to save your life and protect your mother from tragedy.

At the end of our event, anyone who wanted to name and let us recognize someone they loved who

died of an overdose, was invited to do so, and we wound up talking about a dozen or so other people who had died by overdose. I especially wanted to remember two of Kyle's friends, one who died four months before Kyle did, Peter Parise (left), someone Kyle admired and felt a kinship with-- and whose death probably made Kyle feel more hopeless than he already did. Our sons' connection led to a friendship between me and Pete's mom after their deaths that has meant a great deal to me as I navigated these years of grief. And Samantha Owens, a beautiful young woman with whom Kyle lived in Las Vegas for a while, both of them and their third roommate all shooting heroin together. I had hoped in the intervening years maybe Sam (below) had gotten clean, but instead she died this year of an overdose. 

My son, just like Pete and Sam and all the other people we remembered that night, was more than his addiction, and even though we remembered Kyle on overdose awareness day, I want him to be remembered for more than his overdose. He was an incredible friend, a wonderful brother, grandson and son, a great skier, a lover of books, a comedian, a rock climber, a doting daddy for the few months he spent in his daughter's life, a poet and humor writer, a curious conversationalist and a fearless dancer. He lit up all of our lives, and since his light went out, we have all had to struggle our way out of the darkness.

I feel blessed I was able to include more than 20 original works by Kyle in my new poetry collection about him (which is available for purchase from me, local bookstores, Bookshop or Amazon). The poems of his that his friends read showcase his talent but also show how desperate he was to get well. The fact that Kyle will never write another word and isn’t here to read his own poems aloud to us is tragic, but I am so grateful that five of his good friends agreed to gather online with 50 more of us to read and listen to his poetry. We read five poems because on September 20th of this year, Kyle will have been gone five years.


The readers were (from top left) Evan, an old friend of his from Americorps in Seattle, who missed her time slot and was replaced by Ashley, an old friend who knew him when he was in recovery in California; Steph, Kyle's first love; Tommy, a songwriter who was in Kyle's last rehab with him and has stayed clean since shortly after Kyle died. Plus, right, George, his grandsponsor (sponsor of Kyle's sponsor); 
and, below, Dwight, a house manager here in Western Mass who had to call the cops on Kyle when he discovered him using heroin in the house. He drove them all crazy, but they all still loved him. They each said a little about Kyle, in words I found moving and inspiring. and then each read one of his poems. You can watch a  recording of the event here: https://youtu.be/AbXbzdwd3h0  

At the end of the event, Kyle's little sister, Jamie, read aloud from a text exchange she'd had with Kyle the year before he died. The words she shared (in the text displayed below) most vividly brought my son back to life and showed how smart and funny and wise he was, and why we all kept hoping he was going to be OK. I hope the event and this essay helps someone else say "Yes! That's a great idea," when their loved one talks about using medicine to help them stay clean -- because that's What I Should Have Said. 



Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Toxic Maculinity (Including Homophobia) Is Killing Our Sons

Kyle and Adriana, his camp girlfriend, both dressed in drag for their camp talent show.

Last week I attended a monthly meeting for the Hudson Valley chapter of the Bereaved Parents of the USA and was startled to find that all 15 of us grieving parents who had gathered by Zoom that night were mourning dead sons. Apparently, this gender disparity is typical. The group’s leader, Bereaved Parents USA board president Kathy Corrigan, recalled a getting-to-know-you exercise at a national gathering some years ago in which those who had lost sons were sent to stand on one side of the room, while those who lost daughters stood on the other.

“The difference was stark,” recalls Corrigan, who has lost two of her three sons. “Nearly all of us in attendance had lost boys.”

I began researching this issue a couple of weeks ago when I was asked to prepare a lay sermon for my former Unitarian Universalist fellowship in Poughkeepsie on the theme of “Playing with Fire.” Those words immediately made me think of my son, Kyle, who died at age 26 of a drug overdose after years of metaphorically playing with fire by engaging in death-defying behaviors. Although he died addicted to drugs, I used to say his real addiction was to taking chances with his life.

Kyle was not born a wild risk taker; in fact, he seemed somewhat shy and timid as a toddler. Yet  as he grew up, he began repeatedly risking his safety and health to prove how tough he was. The more I read on this subject, the more I see that the death of my own son fits a much larger pattern of toxic ideas about masculinity pushing ever-increasing numbers of our sons into early graves. Though this is tragic, it is also somewhat of a comfort to me, as I find that the wider the lens through which I examine my son’s tragic death, the more able I am to stop blaming myself. My son and I, no matter how special I like to imagine we are or were, are still just products of huge societal forces that shape all our lives.

As Kyle stepped into his role as a young man, he engaged in ever-more-envelope-pushing, dangerous behaviors, culminating in him “experimenting” with and then becoming addicted to the deadly drugs that ultimately killed him. Kyle told me he did LSD 45 different times in high school. After he turned 21, he pushed the envelope even farther and did the drugs we all know are life-destroying. He also engaged, even before he did any drugs, in death-defying feats of physical daring. He left behind videos of himself skateboarding off a roof, riding a bicycle off a slide, riding a bike down a staircase, doing trick jumps over the bodies of his little sister and other small children in a playground, and playing a “hit-the-other-guy’s nutsack” game in which two high school boys face one another with their legs wide apart and then roll a bowling ball as hard as possible at the other man’s genitals. Kyle’s little sister Jamie, now 28, told me the other day of a time his friend Scott thought Kyle was dead after he leaped from a great height off a local diving spot called Doobie Drop. Far below him, he saw Kyle lying facedown in the body of water, blood pooling around his head—and was stunned when Kyle sat up. Another time, when my ex-husband and I left Kyle home alone for the night at age 17, he performed some kind of stunt (maybe on a swing, but perhaps on a roof, we never did get the whole story) that broke his wrist; his friends have told me they all thought it was a miracle he’d survived.

I always think of Kyle as having been an especially brilliant, sensitive young man, but his reckless antics show he was a more typical male adolescent than I liked to believe he was.  Young men are known by actuarial tables everywhere to drive more recklessly and die more violently and suddenly by injury and accident --and by homicide, suicide, and drug overdose--than women. It turns out that my son was not as exceptional as I dreamed he was—and seemed, actually, to have been more concerned with impressing people with his macho courage (aka stupidity) than many of his peers.

When he was 16, Kyle drove his car at 100 miles an hour up and off a hilly road in Highland in order to “catch air.” D.J., his best friend since second grade, was in Kyle’s passenger seat as the car flew through the foggy night sky and slammed into a tree. Both boys miraculously walked away without a scratch,

D.J. and Kyle before Kyle
nearly killed him by "catching
air."
but this only seemed to make them both more addicted to behaviors that left us mothers in a constant state of terror. Maybe surviving such stunts–without killing anyone else--added to their feelings of invincibility. I know that in D.J.’s case, he went on to become an explosives expert in our Middle East wars, completing three tours and becoming the most trusted resource for dealing with roadside bombs. DJ, unlike our son, is still alive, but he witnessed many of his male peers die young enacting toxic masculinity in wartime and still struggles with how to live a life free of near-death experiences.

Kyle, meanwhile, in the years after that car “accident,” worked his way through consuming every drug he could get his hands on, including drugs he could not even identify. During one harrowing week, Kyle showed up in Southern California to join me on a business trip and was half out of his mind on what he thought was Xanax. A kid who worked at a local pharmaceutical factory had given him a bag of powder, of which Kyle had consumed unmeasured spoonfuls throughout the previous week. By the time he stepped off the plane for that visit with me, he was suicidal and seeing things. A few days of good sleep brought him back to himself, but I probably never slept well again after that trip, having seen up close the complete disregard with which my son treated his life.

Kyle strung out on a mystery drug.

Eventually, his recklessness led him to the most deadly, addictive drugs, the ones I had always made him swear he would never do–crack, meth and heroin. He could never adequately explain why he did them: “I thought I could just try it once… I was curious… Once the other guys in rehab described the high to me I knew I’d have to try it.”   

Kali Holloway, in an Alternet article, “Toxic Masculinity is Killing Men” written a year before my son died in 2016, notes that we begin socially reinforcing stereotypical masculine behavior, including the suppression of emotions, on our boy children when they are still babies. She writes:

“Parents often unconsciously project a kind of ‘manliness,’ and thus
a diminished need for comfort, protection and affection, onto their boy
children as early as infancy.”

As a result, baby boys are picked up, held and comforted less often than baby girls. This despite the fact that boy babies are at least as in need of affection and comfort as girl babies, if not more so. (Boy babies actually cry more, though whether this is because they are held less makes this a chicken-and-egg equation.) One mom in the grief-support group I just attended recalled her mother telling her to

We didn't think we cuddled our
boy baby less than our 
daughter,
but research says 
most parents do
to help "toughen 
them up." 
stop spoiling her son by picking him up so much. She took her mother’s advice to toughen him up and stopped cuddling him as much, something she is still berating herself about today, 12 years after his death.

A group of more than 200 adults shown identical videos of a crying baby but divided into groups told the baby was a boy or a girl judged the baby as “angry” if they thought it was a boy, while the girl baby was perceived as “scared.” Their responses to the angry baby vs. the scared baby were divided along gender stereotypical lines, as well.

Little boys internalize adult expectations that they “man up” early: they first show signs they are hiding and suppressing their emotions between the ages of 3 and 5. A University of Michigan study found men are more likely to engage in death-defying activities to attract women than women are to attract men (Ha! For this they needed a study?);.

In a 2010 NIH funded study published in the American Journal of Science, “Gender Disparities in Injury Mortality: Consistent, Persistent, and Larger Than You'd Think,” Dr. Susan Sorenson explains,

“[M]ales are born with a numerical advantage, which decreases over time. At birth there are 105 boys for every 100 girls.1 There would be even more, but fetal death is 7% higher for boys than girls.2 The mortality gap widens immediately; by their first birthday, 21% more boy babies than girl babies die.3 Excess male demise continues throughout life, such that by age 65 years or older, there are 75 men for every 100 women.4
From https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3222499/

Men are more likely than women to die of almost every disease and illness and to die earlier. Injury, a leading cause of premature death, also strikes men down at a much higher rate. Men are more likely to  have accidents, to unintentionally injure themselves, to commit suicide, and to die by homicide in all age groups in low-, middle-, and high-income countries.

In his book Why Men Can’t Feel Marvin Allen asserts that boys are trained to suppress their vulnerability not only by their parents but also by other children, who may shame, tease, or ridicule boys for showing human emotions. As a result, boys hide their feelings and often find the only way to access them is by using drugs, alcohol, or death-defying feats in order to feel anything at all. According to the Centers for Disease Control, men are more likely to drink to excess than women, leading to higher rates of alcohol-related deaths and hospitalizations. Boys are more likely to have used drugs by the age of 12 than girls, which leads to a higher likelihood of drug abuse in men than in women later in life. American men are more likely to kill (committing 90 percent of all murders) and to be killed (comprising 77 percent of murder victims). This extends to themselves: “[M]ales take their own lives at nearly four times the rate of females and comprise approximately 80 percent of all completed suicides, despite girls and women attempting suicide at three to four times the rate of boys. And according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, men make up more than 93 percent of prisoners.

The damaging effects of the aforementioned emotional disconnection even plays a role in the lifespan gender gap. As masculinity expert Terry Real explains: “Men’s willingness to downplay weakness and pain is so great that it has been named as a factor in their shorter lifespan. The 10 years of difference in longevity between men and women turns out to have little to do with genes. Men die early because they do not take care of themselves. Men wait longer to acknowledge that they are sick, take longer to get help, and once they get treatment do not comply with it as well as women do.”

Thirty years ago when my feminist husband and I began raising our son did we ever think that society’s notions about masculinity could contribute to our own son’s early demise? No way. I believed my husband and I were committed to raising our children equally and letting both of them know we accepted and supported them no matter what they wanted to do with their lives.

And yet. despite all of his outrageous, attention-seeking behavior, there’s a secret my son guarded more than any other, which I’m going to share publicly here for the first time: Kyle was bisexual and had multiple sexual encounters with men. As a teenager he met men for anonymous encounters in public parks after they found one another on the gay men’s “dating” app Grindr. He did this when he was 16, using the family computer we kept in the middle of our living room. Neither his father nor I had any

 
This was the image my son used to attract
men on Grindr when he was in high school.
idea this was happening. His older foster sister, living with us at the time, found his dating page left open on the family computer and shamed him for it but agreed to keep his secret to the grave, which she sadly had opportunity to do. Looking back, it’s hard not to wonder how things might have gone differently if his secret had been brought out into the open right then, 10 years before he died.

My mother asked me recently if any of the poems in my forthcoming collection, What I Should Have Said: A Poetry Memoir about Losing a Child to Addiction, mention that Kyle had sex with men, and when I told her yes, she said, “Oh God, that makes me feel a little sick.” How can we explain why it still bothers us for people to know this secret?

Kyle presented himself to the world as straight; he told almost no one that he ever had sex with men. He took pride in doing gender-defying things, such as being the only boy cheerleader in middle school, or

Kyle, the only boy cheerleader (up til then)
in his middle-school's history.
dressing as a woman (while his then-girlfriend dressed up as a man) for a camp dance, precisely because he presented as straight. He liked to shatter stereotypes about straight men, which he wouldn’t have been able to do if people didn’t perceive him as straight. Sharing now, after his death, what he kept as his deepest, lifelong secret feels like a betrayal of how he wanted to be perceived. But the more I examine the pressure put on boys to be strong, unemotional and driven wild by women, the more I feel Kyle’s sexuality (and the shame he felt around it) at least deserves mention as a factor in his early death. He felt ashamed of himself and who he was.

Kyle’s secrecy about his sexuality is even more puzzling because I am queer, his sister is queer and our whole family is fairly accepting of a range of sexualities. This made it all the more shocking when Kyle “came out” to me when he was 22. He was living on the West Coast, had recently broken up with his longtime girlfriend, gotten his own apartment, and was signed up to go to the University of Washington, Seattle, to major in neurobiology that spring. He phoned me in the middle of his night/my early morning and said, “Mom, I think I’m gay.”

The expression “you could have knocked me over with a feather” fits here. When my son announced into my half-asleep ear that he was gay, I could not have been more stunned–or so I thought. It turned out he was really calling to tell me he was on crack, which turned out to be the more stunning news from that conversation—and the news on which we focused as a family afterward.

During this coming-out call he reminded me that I had stated as fact throughout his childhood that men could not be bisexual, that if a man had attractions to men, he was just gay and would figure that out eventually. I apparently repeated this misguided belief to both my children repeatedly, which left Kyle feeling he couldn’t ever tell me about his experiences with men, as then I would be sure he was gay, which he didn’t think he was – or at least not until the night he made that call.

A broad study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year suggests that my disbelief in male bisexuality is common – and wrong.  https://www.pnas.org/content/117/31/18369

The article begins, “There has long been skepticism among both scientists and laypersons that male bisexual orientation exists. Skeptics have claimed that men who self-identify as bisexual are actually homosexual or heterosexual. (The existence of female bisexuality has been less controversial.)” This was true in our family, too. Kyle said he was afraid of ever acting gay or effeminate, indicating he believed that to be a real man he had to not only be straight but act straight. Another study, this one by the Human Rights Campaign, published the year after my son’s death, found that bisexuals are more likely to have mental-health issues, attempt and commit suicide, suffer from major depression, and have problems with binge-drinking than either gay or straight people. It turns out Kyle needed mental-health help when he “came out” as both bisexual and as a hard-drug addict. Instead, I only focused on getting him into rehab, where he got no therapy most of the time. 

And while we (Jamie, my wife and I, at least), tried to get Kyle to talk further about his sexuality in the remaining years of his life, he resisted, insisting he was fine, “mostly straight,” and didn’t want to talk about it.  No matter how many terrible drug stories he was willing to share with us, that part of himself, the part that was attracted to men, remained a part he felt unable or unwilling to explore with us.

Kyle went through the UU’s OWL, Our Whole Lives, sexual education training. So in theory he was taught that there was no wrong way to be human, that he should celebrate himself and his sexuality whether he loved men or women. But one class can’t counter the pressure of an entire culture.

I have no neat conclusion for this essay, no easy lesson to tie up with a bow for everyone, except to say that we all must work harder to let our children know that we can and would love and accept them no matter who they love, and to fight the cultural messages that teach our boys to suppress their emotions unless the outlets of drugs, alcohol or risk-taking are allowing them to let some feelings out.  I do want to conclude by sharing one of  Kyle’s poems with you—and one of my own, both of which are in our book, which features Kyle’s poems and my own and is being published in late July by Finishing Line Press.

First, here is a poem by Kyle in which he demonstrates his need to be a tough guy even in the throes of his despair around being an addict: 

LIQUOR BOTTLE MIGHT AS WELL BE A PISTOL

by Kyle Fisher-Hertz, age 25

Liquor bottle might as well be a pistol;
I take shots like a cop with his clip full.
Fuck popping a pill–I need a fistful,
cuz the beast in my belly never gets full.

I try to stand my ground but I get pulled
like a midget with a leashed-up pit bull.
Cuz my addiction grips and then it yanks my chain.
Makes my thoughts so naughty I should spank my brain

Coming up with grand plans so damn insane
I'll break my arm like a retard, then go to the ER,
and tell the nurse “10”  when I rank the pain.
Cuz I'll do anything it takes just to get my fix.
But when I start to sober up. I regret the shit.
Gotta figure out a plan to forget the shit.

So while I think, I pour a drink, just to wet my lips.
Next thing I know, I'm shooting dope, and I'm stressed as shit
cuz I'm digging in a vein I can't get to hit;
I'm fucked–and not just the tip,
fucked like an old lady with a busted hip.
I'm alone and I've fallen and I can't get up,
laid out on the couch feeling jammed as fuck,
exhausted by the thought of just standing up–

let alone trying to hustle up my next score.
Getting high's the only thing I get dressed for
or take breaths for.
I just press forward
with the piece of life
I traded all the rest for.
 

And then here’s one of mine, in which I mourn Kyle’s inability to accept himself for who he was:

FORENSIC EXAMINATION

I lay out the photos chronologically,
birth to death, looking for the one
that will leap up shouting, “Here! This
is the day you might have saved him!”

Instead they just tell their happy story:
loved baby, loved boy, ever joyful.
When his face shut down at 12, only
hindsight lets me see my disruptive
need to leave his father shatter him,
corrupting his fierce faith in love.
In uprooting him, I showed him
he could be switched with a flip
from popular golden child
to nervous nerd who couldn’t
tell a joke nor make a single friend.

I rushed him back, replanted him
in familiar soil where he seemed
to thrive again, but by then he had seen
how powerless he was, knew his good life
could collapse anytime. The worm biding its time
squirmed out of its hole as my son learned
his good life was towers waiting to fall.

Pictures after adolescence barely
show a glitch; he still hams it up, skates
past his drug arrests. He rock climbs,
goes to college, falls in love, teaches, hikes.

He leaves no photos of himself on crack,
nothing in his journals about the men he met
through Grindr, no evidence of how he gradually
ground himself down every time he felt good.
In his last pictures, he holds his daughter,
wraps his arms around me, dances with his sister,
gazes into his girlfriend’s eyes, pushes his grandmother’s
wheelchair, worm rolling under his tongue.

My compulsive need to find an explanation
keeps me poring over pictures, videos, poems
for years. Now I’ve excavated all my mistakes--
and found only this: nothing brings him back.