How many times have you complained about our government? Republican or Democrat, we are all united in our complete disdain for politicians and their never-ending false promises. Like most Americans, our political actions stop right there. I have written (more appropriately signed-up on change.org) to our representatives on a few political issues. However, this time was different, it was concerning my family, specifically my son. This time I could not simply write a letter to pacify my inner frustrations with the bureaucracy that invalidates mental illness. I needed to meet my representatives face-to-face. I was headed to Springfield (Illinois’ Capital).
Greener than a 95-year-old grandma trying to master an iPhone 7, I had no idea how to approach this elephant. Through pure supernatural divinity, I was introduced to the American Federation for Suicide Prevention. The AFSP has a long-standing presence and experience with suicide prevention and advocacy in the United States. As luck would have it, the AFSP had an Advocacy Day scheduled in Springfield for the month of May. Guided by pure adrenaline, I volunteered to attend to ensure my voice would be heard.
Feeling upbeat and energized, I had dreams of picket signs and pussy cat hats overrunning the white concrete steps of the state capitol. I attempted to recruit more allies. I wanted those legislatures to feel the earth move under their feet- Take that Senator! I held onto that notion for about 15 minutes before the fear and anxiety started to overtake my drive. What did I sign up for? I am not ready to confront anyone about my child’s suicide. Uttering the words SUICIDE causes my teary floodgates to fill to capacity, drench the nearest pillow, and down the first glass of alcohol I can find. I felt torn in two pieces. If I would not lobby for change, then who? Who can I trust to make sure our voices were heard? Who will have the same passion? I got it. I scanned through the pages of the website. Just pick another date, I thought to myself. No need to stress over something as simple as a few notes in a day planner. I was sure that they must have these sorts of events every month. Coming from a sales background, I learned that it can take a minimum of ten conversations to convert an idea into an action. I can only hope to be part of the next conversation that brings this idea to action. Little did I know, it was the last event of the YEAR. Oh no, I have no choice. I must attend!
An Opportunity Discovered
In the few days prior to the rally, I found out it wasn’t a rally at all. It was an opportunity to advocate for several suicide prevention bills on the House floor. This completely changed the whole dynamic- Great! Already anxious, I now have to hold my own with experienced lobbyists and legislators. Keeping in mind that my lobbying experiences can be drilled down to a freshly created Twitter account, I had to do a lot of research. Paired with other people from my district, we coordinated roles in preparation for the day. Thankfully, she was highly experienced. My goal was to watch and learn as much as I could while generating some much-needed contacts for the future, this would be easy for me to do.
The drive to Springfield was almost surreal. Normally driving to Springfield is no big deal, I have done it several times for my job and it is a direct shot from Chicago with little traffic. I used to enjoy that drive. Passing the farms and golden fields, it gives your mind a 3-hour break from the hectic pace of the corporate world. The cellular connection is horrible, thus the cellular phone shackles are unlocked and your mind is free to roam. On most other days, a wandering mind may be a good thing but this was not one of those days.
I keep wondering how my life got here. Is this real? I am driving to Springfield to leverage my life’s crisis, to “sell” the need to pass this legislation. I rehearsed the words in my head. The introduction, the body and the close. I kept repeating to myself most importantly, “You are not allowed to cry, you are not allowed to cry, you are not allowed to cry.” That became my mantra.
I arrived. Of course, the weather in Chicago was 40 degrees cooler than Springfield. Walking into the Statehouse Inn from the parking lot, I could feel the sweat beading all over me. My perfect business look was quickly turning into Sweat Fest 2017. After quickly freshening myself, I walked into the room of delegates. I was shocked, they all looked like me, and I don’t mean all of the delegates looked like 38-year-old black women. They looked like me, as in, they looked like the neighbor next door. Old and young, students to retired, and many different spectrums of nationalities all mingled together. At that moment, the clouds parted and all the anxiety dropped 50%, and my counterpart and I hit it right off. For the first time in several months, my story wasn’t the worst in the world. Let me add a little context…
In order to improve my health, I had been admitted to a PHP (Partial Hospitalization Program). PHPs offer therapeutic mental health services for 6 hours every day, allowing the patient to spend the evenings at home. Hence, the name PARTIAL hospitalization. I have been in this program every day after my discharge from the hospital for grief (Yes, you can be admitted to a hospital for grief). During my daily group session, the group would always compare my situation to their situation, like it was a competition- who’s got it the worst? For months, I was pitied as the worst case scenario. On May 8th, in this rented hotel conference room, my story wasn’t the worst. Everyone had a story. Each story was heartbreaking. Some people lost their daughters while others lost their sons, nieces, husbands, or wives. It was a bittersweet moment. It was “nice” to know that I wasn’t the only one on the planet dealing with this sort of pain. I have been trying to explain the feelings that are associated with this loss, but nobody could really understand. At the same time, if this sort of tragedy is so widespread, why isn’t there more attention and funding for it? For that reason, we were united.
Mission Impossible: Meet with a Representative
After lunch and a quick briefing, we scampered over to the capitol building for our scheduled meetings. The capitol building reminded me of a time long past. The old architecture coupled with granite floors and dark lighting reminded me of a living history museum- not a modern system that manages billions of dollars and impacts millions of lives. Children on field trips were mixed with lobbyist in cheap suits. My counterpart and I threw ourselves into the chaos, we had meetings scheduled and bills to pass, but nothing seemed to be labelled. Nevertheless, we finally found our target. Representative Breen’s receptionist greeted us very warmly. The bad news was he wasn’t available at the time we scheduled. With 2 hours before our next meeting, we chatted about our stories. Her cousin lived abroad in Eastern Europe with no clear warning signs, but they had a funny feeling that something was amiss. As her father was flying to greet her, she committed suicide. He learned about his daughter’s death when his plane met the tarmac.
Another hour passed, and his receptionist notified us that Representative Breen would not be available that day. We left our information with her and took a shot at meeting our other contact, Senator Nybo. With luck on our side, we added another experienced delegate to our group and scooted over to the Senator’s office. He walked out to greet us as soon as we arrived. It was showtime! I handed him a picture of my son Brendan’s smiling face and began to share my story. From beginning to end, the room fell silent and the world stopped revolving. I watched myself be controlled by an external force determined to be heard. When I finished my monologue, he had only 2 things to say: “Where are the bills in the process?” and “Tell my assistant that I am co-sponsoring the bills.”
Worth the Drive
No, it isn’t always that easy. As a matter of fact, I was told it was the first time that has ever happened in the AFSP groups’ experience in Springfield. Driving home, I thought about everything that happened that day. YES, common people can make a difference in the lives of millions. I didn’t need to have the last name of Kennedy, Bush, or Clinton to make a difference. I did it and others needed to know that they can do it too. If I had to go door-to-door in the community to make them understand how important it is to arm our children for life’s inevitable obstacles, then I was going to take on the challenge. Game On!
Written By: Shawn Dingle Photo Credit: Steve Moore