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My Battle With Post-Traumatic Stress Rages On

29 Jul

“Day after day, I’m more confused,

Yet I look for the light through the pouring rain,

You know, that’s a game that I hate to lose,

And I’m feeling the strain,

Ain’t it a shame?”

             –Dobie Gray, “Drift Away”, 1973

 _______________________________________________________

On September 8th, 2010, 8 days after Jeff took his first Celexa tablet, I was placing the key in my San Francisco hotel room door when Carey called with the news that Jeff had just told her he felt hopeless and was having “bad thoughts.” And to take those thoughts one step further, he had Googled information on the Bear Mountain Bridge. I spoke with Jeff, reminded him that he was the one who made me a father for the first time, and pleaded with him to chill out until I got home the next day.

2015-07-27_0

Since then, I’ve tried to keep my number of business trips to San Francisco to a minimum, but I haven’t been able to avoid it completely. With memories of that 2010 trip still fresh, my visits over the last four years have been anxiety-filled yet thankfully uneventful. Until April of this year.

On April 29th, I was sitting alone in San Francisco having dinner in my hotel’s restaurant, reflecting on the previous evening’s panel discussion on suicide prevention in which I participated, when I noticed it was about 11 pm back home. Drew was scheduled to work until 10 that night, and so I impulsively texted Carey just to confirm he was home. She replied that he wasn’t so I assumed he had to work late or had gone out with the other coaches. With an early start time at work the next day, I figured he wouldn’t be out much longer.

As an EMT, Carey gets texts every time there’s an ambulance call in our area, even if she’s not on call at the time. The next message I received from her at about 11:30 pm informed me that there had been an accident on the Saw Mill Parkway southbound at the Chappaqua exit, which is precisely where Drew would have been driving to get home, and there had also been a “rock slide” onto the parkway. There are rock walls in certain spots alongside that parkway, and if there was a slide, these weren’t little rocks. They would have been more like boulders.

I immediately called Drew, and the call went straight to voicemail. His phone battery was dead.The temperature in San Francisco was in the mid-60s that evening, but at that moment, my body started to shiver uncontrollably. I was freezing. I paid the check and ran outside the hotel searching for warmth, but I couldn’t stop shivering. I texted Carey to let me know immediately when she learned anything, but she was already pulling out of our driveway, clad in her bathrobe, to make the short drive to the accident scene to look for him.

When I didn’t hear from her between 11:30 and 11:45 pm, I became certain that the worst had happened. Any parent would have been concerned if their son was scheduled to work until 10:00, was 25 minutes from home, wasn’t home by almost midnight, and they knew there was a terrible accident on the road he’d be taking. The nuance in my case, though, was that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) had me convinced that I had lost another son. Carey then called from the car to tell me that the top story on CBS radio was that the Saw Mill Parkway had been shut down due to the rock slide/car accident in Chappaqua. She realized she couldn’t get on the parkway and thus would not be able to locate Drew.

saw mill rock slide 2

The common sense reaction to that update would have been to breathe a sigh of relief that Drew had most likely been just stuck on the closed road with a dead phone. My reaction, the PTSD reaction, was to assume he was the one in the accident. I waited for further word.

But there was no word. Just dead silence. By midnight, I pictured Carey on the side of the road sobbing over what she had discovered and trying to gather herself before calling me. Again. I was 2,500 miles from home, and I literally couldn’t take it anymore. I texted Carey that I was ready for the truth. And I braced myself.

Please say something text

The higher probability outcome had occurred. Drew had been stuck on the closed parkway and was only able to get home by following other drivers who backed up onto an entrance ramp to exit the Saw Mill.

I wish I could say that this incident was a random, infrequent occurrence, but unfortunately it’s not. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that Carey gets these ambulance texts all the time, and there are often instances when accidents occur in the general vicinity of where one of our kids could possibly be. Though Carey is not prone to assuming the worst when being notified of accidents, she understandably tries to account for her flock.

Carey text everyone accounted for

My bouts with PTSD symptoms can occur at any time and any place. The most recent example was both unexpected and terrifying. I was at my desk at work searching for an old document to which I needed to refer, and while reviewing the document list, my eyes locked in on one that I saved on November 9th 2010 at 3:42 pm.

Dear God.

On Jeff’s death certificate, the time of death on that day was estimated to be between 3:45 and 4:00. Not only did I begin to experience shortness of breath, but my mind went into an absolute frenzy at the mere sight of that date and time.

nov. 9th document

As I was clicking the mouse on November 9th, 2010 to save that document, where was my precious son? Was he driving over the Bear Mountain Bridge at that second? Had he already parked, and was he still in the car psyching himself up to take the plunge? Was he taking his last precious breaths? Was he in the air? Was he already dead? Was he thinking about aborting the plan? Why was I at work saving a document and not with him?

So much pain. So many questions. No definitive answers.

And of course, I continue to suffer from what I know is irrational nervousness when I can’t reach one of the boys. Drew recently had a storage issue with his phone and as a result was not receiving every text that was sent to him. That resulted in several PTSD-driven anxious moments (separate from the Saw Mill Parkway incident) when I made terrible and misguided assumptions. Both he and Brett have been quite tolerant and understanding, though earlier this year, Brett pointed out that I need to be more realistic in my expectations for their response time:

Brett just texted me

Brett cab text

__________________________________________________________________________

I’ve had a few recent conversations with people who either suffer from depression or are close to people who suffer. They’ve shared with me that many people who have suicidal thoughts truly believe that they would be lifting a huge burden from their loved ones by killing themselves.

Such thinking is terribly misguided and has excruciating consequences. Instead of relieving a burden, those who commit suicide are inflicting extreme and everlasting pain on the people who love them the most. Dozens have thanked me for writing about suicide’s collateral damage in my recent Journal News article, because they felt it was crucial for that side of the story to be told.

I’m certain that Jeff’s horrific decision wasn’t driven by a feeling that he had become a burden to us. He never indicated that, either verbally during his final two months, or in the notes he left behind. Jeff actually began the last paragraph of his final note to our family by apologizing. He wrote:

“Mom and Dad, Drew and Brett, from the bottom of my heart, I’m sorry. Ultimately, I succumbed. I was too weak to forge ahead, too hopeless to keep on dreaming. I saw no light at the end of the tunnel…I have prayed to God for forgiveness, and I hope that He will answer my prayers. I too have prayed for each of you, and in spite of this decision, I care about you all deeply. I hope to see you all in Heaven, reunited, one big happy family for all eternity. Until then, may peace be with you all.

All My Love,

Jeffrey”

Jeff final note closing

A young man who literally had it all was too hopeless to keep dreaming and saw no light at the end of the tunnel. It doesn’t get more baffling or tragic than that.

Jeff’s apology clearly indicates an understanding that he was about to inflict pain on his family. I don’t, however, think that in his weakest moments at the end, he had the ability to imagine the depth and lasting nature of that pain. I’ve wondered if he was able to watch me from Heaven as I gasped for breath in front of my computer screen at the sight of the November 9th, 3:42 pm saved document, or if he saw me shivering in San Francisco as I awaited news about Drew. I’m quite certain that if he did witness those things, he was devastated, because I know how much Jeff loved us. He was simply not of sound mind on the afternoon of November 9th, 2010.

________________________________________________________________________________________

My war against PTSD rages on. I’m not sure what set of circumstances needs to exist for me to one day declare victory, but consistent with my belief that it is harmful to create artificial deadlines for achieving goals, I will not do so here. But I will win.

I’ll win because I’m strong and because, like Jeff, I too have it all. I have an amazing wife and two precious sons here on earth, and they are all working with me on this. Their constant expressions of support, like Brett’s text after my Journal News article had been published and Drew’s beautiful words in his cards, mean more than they can ever know.

brett your article is great

Carey and I have been married nearly 30 years now, and we continue to lift each other up every day. How can I not feel confident of victory when I receive texts like this:

carey strength text

Millions of people fight various levels of adversity every day, and unlike Jeff, most of them don’t succumb. Along with my enormous love for Jeff, I’m sad to say that I harbor anger toward him for not trying harder to find his personal reservoir of strength deep inside him. He didn’t fight hard enough for himself or for those who are now left behind mourning him, and he deprived us of a lifetime of incredible times together.

And he left me with PTSD.

After all those November 9th calls that went straight to voicemail, all the unanswered texts, and the slow realization that it was all over, how could it be any other way?

Jeff I'm so scared

Literally begging text

Jeff may have wished for peace to be with us all, but that is not to be. By executing on his deeply flawed view as to how to achieve peace for himself, he took it away from the rest of us. Those who contemplate suicide must understand this. Suicide is irrevocable and has long lasting consequences for loved ones who still have a life to live. It obliterates their peace.

Thus, I will continue to fight a war that I never signed up for, and to answer Dobie Gray’s question—yes, it is a damn shame.

–Rich Klein

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Brought Back To Reality By A Rotten Pumpkin

22 Jan

On November 23rd, 2014, I was walking our greyhound Dobi in the park per my usual weekend routine. As we strolled, Carey called and I heard immediately that she was in distress. She had just left the cemetery after her weekly visit to Jeff’s grave and was distraught to find that the pumpkin she had placed there in October had completely rotted, and the plants she had last planted were as dead as he was.

And if that wasn’t enough, Jeff’s tennis trophy that had been standing next to the headstone for all these years had finally succumbed to the weather. The tennis player’s arm had broken off from the rest of the body, just like I imagine Jeff’s body came undone when it hit the train tracks below the Bear Mountain Bridge. To add insult to injury on that day, Jeff’s dead body was hit by a CSX freight train shortly after he landed. That is the reality of what his grave represents, irrespective of Carey’s tireless efforts to make it look as good as possible, and on this day, its appearance matched the reality of the situation.

For over four years, Carey had lovingly and relentlessly tended to the grave that should never have become home to our precious son who died such a senseless death. She had kept it looking as beautiful as a grave can look, but she had not been able to get there the weekend before, and now she was beating herself up for the resulting decay that taken hold of the pumpkin, plants and trophy. I consoled her as best I could, saying that of course she would replace everything and have it looking beautiful again in short order.   But this situation did not lend itself to consolation. Jeff was dead, his demise having been completely unnecessary, and now his grave looked like crap.

A short while after hanging up with Carey, I glanced at my phone and saw a notification that she had commented on my post on the Friends of Jeff Klein Facebook page from two days earlier, when I had shared the link to my first article on Elephant Journal. Carey “likes” many of my posts but rarely comments, so I was anxious to read what she had to say. But I was horrified to find that under a long thread of beautiful comments from others, she wrote:

carey rotten pumpkin facebook comment

I got angry, and I texted her to take it down.  I told her what she wrote was disgraceful.  Carey was hurt that I would say such a thing and ask her to do that, and the following text conversation ensued with my texts in blue:

rotten pumpkin text 1

rotten pumpkin text 2

It was not until six days later, when we were out for dinner on the next Saturday night, that we gave the topic the time it deserved. Carey explained that while it’s great that I’m trying to inspire and help people, my attempting “to save the world” can come across as almost romanticizing what Jeff did and implying that his death had occurred for some greater good.  She feels that my writing portrays us as heroically dealing with the tragedy.  But the reality is we are broken and bleeding, and always will be, albeit propped up by the joy that Drew and Brett bring us every day of our lives.

And furthermore, after I had made Jeff’s and our family’s lives so public for four years, was she not entitled to make one brutally honest public comment of her own?

Of course she was.

After a healthy discussion, Carey asked if I still wanted her to take the comment down. The answer was no. Absolutely not. She was right—it was too little, too late for Jeff, and the damn pumpkin was rotten. That truly is the reality.

As I’ve said several times on this blog, I began writing four years ago for purely selfish reasons. Writing was an effective form of therapy for me and it made me feel like I was doing everything possible to keep Jeff’s memory alive. I didn’t realize for probably two years that it was helping others and perhaps saving some lives. But that was just a by-product of what I was doing, not the primary motivation for it. Once it became clear to me, though, that people were in fact being helped, I became energized by that knowledge, and I began to write more frequently and frenetically.

The desire to help others then became the driver. The more positive reinforcement I received from people about the blog’s impact, the more I was able to focus on writing alone and not dwell on the horror of what Jeff had done to initiate all this in the first place. And that is where some perspective may have been lost and why Carey injected a dose of reality back into the conversation.

Carey posted her comment that day partially as a result of timing and partially to provide perspective. She wrote it in a grief-stricken moment after driving away from the most terrible place a parent could ever have to visit. This excruciating experience was exacerbated by the deterioration of the very objects that she had placed at the grave to mask its true meaning. And so she understandably vented.

As a matter of perspective, Carey sent a reminder that, notwithstanding the fact that his final act was induced by the side effects of medication, what Jeff did was violent, devastating and a betrayal of those who adored him. He would have gotten better with time, and as Carey has come to that clear realization, it has hit her particularly hard. This makes everything all the more painful. Helping others is important, but nothing either one of us does can bring Jeff back to where he belongs.

I will keep writing, as a continuation of both my therapy and my attempts to try to help those who struggle realize that life is always worth living. For over four years, I have bared my soul in a public forum, and Carey has supported my doing so—reticently at first but then more easily after an adjustment period. Now that she has expressed her genuine grief in an honest public comment, I fully support her and admit that my initial reaction to it was impulsive and not well thought out.

My precious wife and incredible mother of our three boys lost her first-born son in sudden, violent fashion, and she has every right to tell it like it is. My heart bleeds for her, and I would do anything to take away her pain. You have no idea how much I love her.

Carey long ago replaced the rotten pumpkin and dead plants with beautiful, seasonally appropriate decorations. And the broken trophy has been replaced by another from Jeff’s ample collection that still sits on the dresser in his room.

jeff trophies

However, there is no sugarcoating the fact that I’m talking about decorations for a grave, below which lies the decomposed body of my boy, who would have most certainly recovered had he given his life the time it deserved.

The pumpkin was rotten, just like everything about this situation. That is the harsh reality that Jeff left us with, and Carey was simply giving honest voice to this awful truth.

–Rich Klein

A Change Of Season And Our Community’s Latest Suicide Bring Back The Terror of 2010

7 Oct

When a member of the Friends of Jeff Klein group contacted me on Monday morning to express her concern about how our family was taking the news of the latest suicide in our community, neither Carey nor I had heard a thing about it. We had somehow missed the local news stories over the entire previous week about the 21 year old Armonk man who went missing on Monday, September 29th after leaving his family’s home for work and not returning that evening. And then there was a vigil and the desperate attempts by his family, police and community members to find him. On Thursday afternoon, October 2nd, the police did find him in Glazier Preserve in Chappaqua, and everyone’s worst fears were realized.

Terror gripped me immediately when I searched for online news stories and found the headline, “Miles Applebaum’s Father Desperate To Find Missing Son” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/01/miles-applebaum-missing_n_5916684.html).

Oh, the desperation, the inability to catch your breath, the frantic attempts to call and text, and the utter helplessness of not knowing what to do, especially when you know that every second is precious and could make the difference between saving them or not. As I sat at my desk at work reading the articles, it was November 9th, 2010 all over again, and my breathing became labored.

According to the article, Ed Applebaum had the same set of facts about his son staring him in the face as I did. Like Jeff, Miles was severely depressed and had expressed suicidal ideation. When he went missing, I know well the desperation that must have set in.

According to the article written on Wednesday October 1st before the young man was found, “…his phone has not been turned on since Monday morning — something his dad said is ‘out of character’”.

Of course it was turned off. By all news accounts, Miles was part of a close-knit, loving family. Just as Jeff was. When suicidal young people with adoring families cross that final mental threshold and commit to going through with it, they know they must turn off all potential channels of communication. That’s because if they were to hear the voice of any loving family member or friend while on the way to ending their life, the plan to commit suicide would be derailed. While continuing to read the article, I impulsively stopped and called Jeff’s number, reliving the horror of my November 9th calls going straight to voicemail over and over again. I do not know why I chose to torture myself in that way.

The article shared the following quote: “He was suicidal and has been on and off various medications,” Edward Applebaum said.”

Oh, the meds. I have no idea if the meds had any role in what happened in this case, but that statement alone brought back all the guilt of having allowed Jeff’s psychiatrist to prescribe, prescribe and then prescribe again. It started with Celexa, and then he added Remeron, and to top it off, he advised a three drug cocktail to include Abillify as the third. Ultimately, the side effects were so brutal that we needed to check Jeff into a hospital to gradually wean him off this stuff over a week’s time.

And then the article’s crushing line from my perspective: “”He said, ‘Goodbye, I’m going to work, I love you,'” Edward Applebaum said of his last interaction with his son.”

A little before midnight on November 8th, 2010, after we had watched Monday Night Football together, I told Jeff to sleep well and that I loved him. He was sitting at his desk in his room and had just updated the NBA standings board that hung on his wall, based on the results of that night’s games. He told me loved me too, and that was it. Though I spoke with him a few times by phone during the first half of the next day, I never saw him again. Jeff did love me, just as Miles Applebaum loved his dad and the rest of his family. It remains baffling to me that love does not conquer all.

“I’m hopeful,” Edward Applebaum said. “It’s just that as the hours tick by, my optimism is waning.”

From the second I was notified at 4:05 p.m. on November 9th that Jeff had not shown up for his 3:30 behavioral therapy appointment, I was 90% sure it was over and he was gone. When I called his cell phone, and it was off, I knew it with certainty. Jeff didn’t just not show up for an appointment and turn his phone off for no reason. Something had gone terribly wrong.

Despite that, panic doesn’t allow you to quit and accept what you know in your heart of hearts to be true, and so I called and texted frantically. I asked Carey to drive to any place he could reasonably be—Club Fit and Taco Bell topped the list—to see if she could find him. I headed home. In our case, the period of terror and uncertainty from when I was notified that Jeff missed his appointment to when News 12 broke the news that “a young man” was found dead on the train tracks under the Bear Mountain Bridge was about three hours. For the Applebaum family, that terror and desperation lasted over three days. I truly cannot imagine going through that trauma for that long. My thoughts, prayers, heart and soul go out to them.

begging jeff to call me

So now, let me talk turkey with every one of you that has ever thought about, come close to, or attempted suicide. I would wager that you have at least one person—and likely many more–in your lives who would be absolutely devastated by losing you. The terror and fright that those people would feel when you first disappear are feelings that are not easily captured by words. It is torture. It is gasping for breath while suffocating. But it doesn’t stop there. When you’re gone and supposedly “at peace”, your survivors’ pain is enduring, and as I now know, it is everlasting. It is brutal. There is pain, anger, guilt, frustration and rage every day. The lives of the survivors are altered in a terrible way forever.

I understand your likely retort. You feel those same horrible things every day right now, and that’s why you think about suicide. Ok, but the bottom line is that every day you wake up presents an opportunity to try to make things a little better. And if you do have loved ones, you can lock arms with them and battle it out every day. Dig in and establish a foothold in the sand when the waves of sorrow wash over you. Hold your ground until they pass, and then put one foot in front of the other to take a step forward. The waves will come again, and you will need to dig in again. This is a long term war that you can win. I believe we are all capable of more than we think we are. There is more strength inside you than you realize.

For the last four years, you and I have shared something in common—we deal with pain every day. Prior to November 9th, 2010, I couldn’t have related to what you go through. But I can now, and you can’t tell me anymore that I don’t understand what it’s like to feel agony and anxiety. Ask Drew and Brett what post-traumatic stress disorder looks like in their father, and they’ll have more examples than you’ll care to hear. But I have them, I have Carey, as well as my friends and broader family, and I lean on them and love them all. And they have been there for me unconditionally, as your loved ones will be for you.

So now that we’re on the same playing field, I’m asking you to follow my lead and fight. I have learned that I can’t eliminate the pain, but I can beat it back to its own end of the field and I can manage it   I want you to fight with me, through your own struggles, forever and always.

Another precious young life has been lost in a neighboring town. We pray for Ed Applebaum and his family, and I hope to meet him someday and help him in any way that I can.

There is no way for me to avoid flashback terror and desperation when reading about a depressed young person who has vanished. Some will say that I am selfish for wanting Jeff to have stayed with us through his great pain, and for imploring all those who struggle to do the same. I don’t believe I am. I simply believe that life is precious and that banding together with your family and friends to fight through adversity is always the right thing to do, because troubled lives can, and often do, improve over time. And I just can’t stand the thought of any more parents experiencing those breathless moments when they realize their child is missing and may not be coming back.

–Rich Klein

Why I’m Feeling Stronger Every Day

23 Mar

“And knowing that you would have wanted it this way,

I do believe I’m feelin’ stronger every day”

                –Chicago, “Feelin’ Stronger Every Day”, 1973

________________________________________________

The torrential rain pelted the bubbling water of the hot tub in which Brett and I were standing, outside our hotel in Grand Cayman.  Carey had fled to the fitness center, Drew to the business center to scour the internet for the latest sports news, and Jeff was certainly smiling down on us from Heaven.  He was there, of course, only because instead of heading to the fitness or business center, Jeff fled to the Bear Mountain Bridge when he perceived that the rain in his life had become torrential.  I looked across the tub at Brett, who while holding our nerf football, first broke into a broad smile and then completely burst out laughing as he contemplated the beautiful absurdity of the moment.

Just minutes earlier, the four of us were lying on our beach lounges when a cool light drizzle began to fall under a hot sun.  Carey remarked how refreshing the misty drizzle felt, and no sooner did she finish her sentence than the skies opened up and it began to absolutely pour.  Almost in unison, each of us blurted out the same thing.

“Jeffrey!”

There was no doubt in our minds that Jeff had opened up the spigot in response to Carey’s comment.  He was the king of weather, a storm tracker to the very end, and when you consider that he was a premier prankster too, the evidence clearly pointed skyward to him.

107-0719_IMG

It was January 6th, and our JetBlue flight home had been cancelled earlier that morning, allowing us to spend an extra day and night in Grand Cayman.  After Jeff had pulled his prank and we had all scattered to our respective destinations, Brett and I sat in the hot tub, on opposite sides, and tossed the football back and forth for a solid half hour waiting for the rain to stop.  But it only got heavier, and so we tossed and laughed and talked, and it hit me right then that it had been well over three years since I had felt this happy and strong.  I told Brett that this half hour was a unique “moment” that we would each remember forever, and in response, he walked across the tub, hugged me for a second and told me that he knew that was true.  The rain continued to pelt us, but we stayed there, undeterred, because for me at least, it didn’t get much better than this.

I had a similar moment with Drew the day we arrived.  At around 3:30 that afternoon, he and I plunged into the sea, swam out a bit, and started to tread water.  And we just started to talk while treading.  We covered everything from the philosophical differences between Republicans and Democrats to the Knicks’ prospects for making the playoffs to the Yankees’ chances of signing Masahiro Tanaka (two weeks later, they did!).  When we emerged from the water, I checked my phone, and it was 4:45.  We had been out there over an hour, and I wasn’t the least bit tired.

Treading water out in the Caribbean while talking with Drew, who was away at school on November 9th, 2010 when our lives changed forever, I could have stayed out there well into the night.  I derive so much strength from the time I spend with Drew and Brett, and from the very fact that they want to spend that time with me, that there is no ambiguity as to why I’m feeling stronger every day.

In the early days after Jeff died, well-intentioned friends and acquaintances would see us in town from time to time, and in their struggle to find the right thing to say, would come out with something like “I don’t know how you get out of bed in the morning.” While not the most consoling words, there was a great deal of validity to the sentiment.  After all, how could we possibly withstand this devastation?  The primary answer is that the family bonds that we worked so hard to cement all these years since the boys were small have not only prevented our family from disintegrating in the wake of this tragedy, but they have also helped us keep each other strong while continuing to move forward productively.

We do this by continuing all of the family traditions that began when Jeff was here with us, and our vacations to the Caribbean for so many years were where many of them were spawned.  In places like St. Thomas, St. Maarten, Barbados and Aruba, we rode jet skis and kayaks, swam, snorkeled, hiked, and tossed every type of ball and Frisbee in existence.

The more things change, the more we make sure they stay the same, and that is why now, in the sea at Grand Cayman, Brett drops back to pass in the shallow part of the water, with the nerf football in hand.  He simulates a fake handoff to an unsuspecting passerby, and then I begin to blitz while shouting, “Here comes Reggie White!”  While Brett is too young to remember Reggie, a Hall of Fame pass rusher who played in the 1980s and ‘90s, he acts frightened enough to thrash frantically through the water to evade my rush.  As I dive toward him and scream, he heaves the ball 20 yards out into the sea over my outstretched arms.

The ball is wide of its intended receiver, but Drew dives left, snags the pass with his long reach, and falls beneath the water.  When he emerges, he and Brett raise their arms in a touchdown signal.  They have beaten me again.  We continue to play this game, the same one we have played for well over a decade, until the skin on our fingers is completely shriveled.  And we howl with laughter all the way.

drew and brett with football

Of course, it is painful to reminisce about the days when Drew was not the lone receiver out in the water.  In days gone by, Brett would have thrown the ball up for grabs, while Jeff and Drew battled for position to make the catch.  We remember Jeff’s unique lefty throwing motion and also how he loved to catch a pass and time it such that he would then dive head first into an oncoming big wave.

But I can’t cry about what once was, because I have these two amazing boys who still want to play beach football with me.  And as we scream and howl while we play, we laugh about all the things Jeff used to say and do, and it is cathartic.  On this most recent trip, I saw how much fun my boys were having as we played, and I swear, they could have been 12 and 9 again, instead of 22 and 19.  And they make me feel like a 30-something young Dad again.  Stronger every day.

Me and boys at Grand Cayman

Boys before jet skiing

But when Drew is working and Brett is away at school, I’ve needed to find my own motivational tools and ways to stay strong.  I have always been committed to working out every day, both for the obvious health benefits, and also because I believe in Thomas Jefferson’s quote, “A strong body makes the mind strong.”

Since college, the cornerstone of my workouts has been to do 300 sit-ups each day.  I have to be honest, it sucks.  It’s hard and it’s time consuming, and since Jeff died, I’ve been tempted on many nights after work to just bag it.  But I know that taking days off can be a slippery slope, and so I figured out a slight trick to help me stay focused and motivated.

I simply changed my goal for the nightly number of sit-ups.  Instead of 300, I now do 302 in honor of Jeff’s birthday of March 2nd (3/02).  This way, when sit-ups are the last thing I feel like doing, I think of Jeff and tell myself that he’d be disappointed in me if I didn’t honor his birthday by doing them.  I immediately hit the floor.  Though I don’t really believe he’d feel that way, I need to play these mind games with myself to make it work.  And it does.  I surround that regimen with weights, cardio and my weekend tennis league match, and I feel both my physical and emotional strength increasing consistently.

DOBI KEEPS ME COMPANY WHILE I DO SIT-UPS

DOBI KEEPS ME COMPANY WHILE I DO SIT-UPS

And I have Carey.  I know that weaker marriages have often, in the aftermath of losing a child, completely fallen apart.  Ours has gotten stronger if that is even possible, because I knew 28 ½ years ago that I married my forever girl.  Carey’s devotion to our boys, to me, to her job and to her charitable work and community service is inspiring.  And as I’ve articulated in other posts, she has been the leader in our recovery process.   I could not have gotten through this without her.  She too has derived great strength from Drew and Brett, and she has given it right back to all of us.  She has tapped into her faith and has allowed her love for us to overcome everything else.  And when we’re not out with friends on weekends, we never miss a date night.  Carey has been the driving force behind every good thing that has happened to me, and so it is no surprise that she has been critical to my recovery process.

Carey is a happy, upbeat person who laughs easily and smiles regularly.  But she worries about how people perceive her when they see her in public simply being herself, and this breaks my heart.  Carey is an amazing mother, wife and person and deserves to be happy.  I pray that she ultimately allows herself to enjoy life fully and without guilt.  Jeff certainly would have wanted it that way.

Sonoma

SONOMA VALLEY, CALIFORNIA, JULY 2013

The holiday seasons have been tough, going back to and including 2009.  Jeff started his paralegal job in November 2009 and immediately began working brutally long hours.  It was hard for us to relax, never knowing when in the early morning hours Jeff would get home, how early he’d need to go back to the office the next day, and we were deeply worried about how little sleep he was getting.  And in the years since then, of course, adjusting to going through the holidays without Jeff has been extremely painful.

But this holiday season was a turning point.  On Thanksgiving Day, we went to the gym prior to heading to Long island to be with our family.  Drew played basketball, while Brett proceeded to take me through his grueling weight workout.  In the middle of it, I was overcome with emotion at how amazing it was that I was lifting with my son on Thanksgiving Day, that he wanted me to lift with him and that Drew was simultaneously down the hall in the gym playing the sport he is passionate about.  I texted Carey to let her know how thankful I felt, and her response will stay in my phone and in my heart forever.

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It has always been critical for me to live in the moment, but never more so than since Jeff died.  For example, if I’m watching a Knicks game on a weeknight with Drew, and we’re screaming at the TV, having a great time, or if we’re actually at the game, I will not allow myself to think about the fact that each of us has to get up early the next morning for work.  That game and our time together isn’t over till it’s over, and I milk every last moment with him, because it is precious.  Tomorrow comes when it comes, and not a minute sooner.

Likewise, when we got home from our trip in January, and I began to fret that Brett would be returning to school five days later, I cut those thoughts short.  Five days is five days, and I’ll be damned if I wasn’t going to enjoy every last day that he was home.  And I did.  To cap it off, on the day before we drove Brett back to Villanova, he and I went to see ‘Nova play St. Johns at Madison Square Garden, and we screamed ourselves hoarse as they came back to beat St. Johns in a great game.

WITH BRETT AT VILLANOVA-ST. JOHNS GAME, MADISON SQUARE GARDEN, JAN. 11, 2014

WITH BRETT AT VILLANOVA-ST. JOHNS GAME, MADISON SQUARE GARDEN, JAN. 11, 2014

I have learned that I can’t allow myself to think too much about a good time being almost over.  I have to stay in the moment for as long as it lasts, because that’s how to gain maximum enjoyment from it and create the best lasting memory.  As a result of taking this approach, when I hugged Brett goodbye the next day after dropping him off at school, I was able to look back and say that I enjoyed every last second of his three week Christmas break.  Living in the moment makes me stronger.

And then there is this blog.  I don’t think Elon Rubin can ever truly know just how critical the blog that he created out of his love for Jeff has been to my emotional well-being and to my ongoing ability to get stronger.  Writing about Jeff and about all the issues related to what happened has become a core part of my life that, at least for the foreseeable future, I now know I cannot live without.  But while writing is fulfilling, it is the extremely large number of supportive responses that I receive to each post from so many of you that literally fills me with both physical and emotional strength.  When I read your heartfelt feedback, it makes me feel as if I can overcome any obstacle.  I thank you all so very much.

To be clear, though, the agonizing pain of losing Jeff has not subsided, not even a little.  I understand now that it never will.  The key for me is to manage the pain, in the same way that you’d manage a serious chronic illness or severe injury.  The same holds true with the post-traumatic stress disorder that has plagued me since he died.  It’s still there.  As an EMT, Carey gets a text every time there is an ambulance call in our area.  On December 30th, when she received a text that there was a car accident right near our gym to which Drew could have been heading at that time, I feared the worst rather than acknowledging that the odds were that it wasn’t him.

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But this is part of the lasting damage that Jeff left behind, and that’s why, for over three years, I have not been able to reconcile what I perceive to be two conflicting facts:

Jeff loved us, genuinely and completely.

Jeff took his own life and devastated ours.

To me, those two statements are not separable.  How could he have loved us and then do what he did?  He was a brilliant young man and analytical to a fault, so how could he not have thought about the devastation and pain that he would leave behind?  Yes, I know he was not of right mind when he made his final impulsive decision, but if you read my post about Jeff’s last two months, you know that he was completely self-aware until the very end.

To Jeff, though, the above two statements were completely separable and they coexisted harmoniously in his mind.  Yes, he loved his family immensely.  But to Jeff, the fact remained that he was in great pain, which weakened and debilitated him to the point of no return, and so he left us.  Neither statement had anything to do with the other.

Jeff began his final note to our family by writing:

“Dear Mom, Dad, Drew and Brett,

I love you all so much, forever and always.  Each of you will always be a part of me.”

Jeff note

That’s one heck of a way to start a suicide note.  But it was Jeff’s way of helping us understand that his decision was completely separate from his love for us.  Though I still fault him greatly for not thinking it all through to the aftermath of his action and the extreme pain he would inflict on those he loved the most, gradually letting go of my anger has been a key to getting stronger.

As I continue to type, though, It is becoming clearer to me now.  When he cranked up the rain to a torrential level after his mother he called Pote commented on the delightful drizzle, and he watched us scamper away, I like to think that Jeff was sending us a message.  He was letting us know that we are still and will always be a family of five, and that he was there with us participating in our fun and in our healing journey.

And even if this fantasy that I’ve concocted about Jeff and the rain is not actually true, the fact that funny things like this immediately make us think and laugh about him is precisely why we are, in fact, still a family of five.  He is in our minds and hearts every second, and we carry him and his hilarious personality with us everywhere we go.  His presence is always palpable.

WE WILL ALWAYS BE A FAMILY OF FIVE

WE WILL ALWAYS BE A FAMILY OF FIVE

And as he watched us thrash about the sea playing football without him, and as he watched Brett and me in the hot tub under the pouring rain, and as he listened to Drew and me talking about life as we treaded water, Jeff was no doubt smiling to himself.

That’s because he sees that it is playing out exactly as he intended.  Just in the last few minutes, I have come to the realization that I was wrong to believe he hadn’t thought it all through to the aftermath.  Of course he had.  Jeff knew there would be excruciating pain, but he also knew from being a part of our family how strong our bonds were to each other and that we would get each other through it.

At the end of my September 26th, 2012 post (“Jeff’s Passionate Support Of Obama In The Days Of ‘Yes We Can’”), I wrote,

And while I may no longer be Superman, I am still pretty damn strong…”

Brett took exception to that statement, and in a highly emotional email to me three days later, he wrote:

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When I read that, I felt like Popeye does after he eats his can of spinach.  Even after the mistakes I made in my failed attempts to save Jeff (those mistakes have been well-chronicled here on Kleinsaucer), my boys’ faith in me has not wavered.  Nor has Carey’s. That is both humbling and beautiful, and it is why I feel like the most blessed man on earth, even now.  It is also why I am starting to feel like a rock again.

JEFF'S FINAL NOTE TO OUR FAMILY, NOVEMBER 9, 2010

FROM JEFF’S FINAL NOTE TO OUR FAMILY, NOVEMBER 9, 2010

And so the bottom line is that I will continue to focus on doing all the things that make me feel stronger. I will spend every minute I possibly can with Drew and Brett, I will cherish my dates with Carey, I will hit the floor every day and do my 302 sit-ups, and I will stay in the moment every time I experience a time worth savoring.

I will also do my best to get the four of us together later this year for another family trip to a warm climate where I can be Reggie White again and continue my quest to sack Brett in the water before he throws yet another touchdown pass to Drew.

And as much as anything, I will allow myself to continue to get stronger, because there is no doubt that Jeff would have wanted it this way.  In fact, writing this post has helped me come to the realization that it was part of his grand plan all along.  He too had great faith in me, and Jeff knew that regardless of how severe the pain was, I would figure out how to manage it over time, and no matter what, I would never let our family down.

–Rich Klein

In Fear Of The Spartan Race–A Battle Lost In My War Against Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

7 Jul

“These races introduce a lot of risks,” says Jean Knack, executive director of the Road Runners Club of America, which hosts hundreds of traditional marathons each year. “We don’t encourage members to participate in events with man-made obstacles where there’s a decent chance of getting hurt.”

-“American Gladiators” by Nick Hell, Outside Magazine, January 2012

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When Drew was home for spring break this past March, he casually mentioned to me that his friend John Pfisterer had signed him up, along with two of their other buddies, for some sort of obstacle race on June 8th.  I told him that sounded like fun, but since it was three months away, I didn’t ask about the details, and I put it out of my mind.  About a week before the race, I remembered that it was coming up, and I asked him more about it.  He said it was called a Spartan Race, and I thought that was ironic because Carey’s grandparents were from Sparta.  How appropriate that Drew would be running in a Spartan Race.

During a quiet moment at work the week of June 3rd, I decided to visit the website, www.spartanrace.com.  It took less than two minutes for me to break into a cold sweat.  The first click I made was on the waiver that each participant had to sign.  Here is how it began:

“In consideration of being allowed to participate in any way in the above referenced Spartan Race competition(s), race(s), related events (the “Event”) and/or activities, I, _____________________________________, the undersigned, acknowledge, appreciate, and agree that:

The risk of injury and/or death from the activities involved in the Spartan Race and its related events is significant including, but not limited to the following: (i) drowning; (ii) near-drowning; (iii) sprains; (iv) strains; (v) fractures; (vi) heat and cold injuries; (vii) over-use syndrome; (viii) injuries involving vehicles; (ix) animal bites and/or stings; (x) contact with poisonous plants;  (xi) accidents involving, but not limited to paddling, climbing, biking, hiking, skiing, snow shoeing, travel by boat, truck, car, or other convenience; and (xii) the potential for permanent paralysis and/or death. While particular rules, equipment, and personal discipline may reduce this risk, the risk of death or serious injury does exist.”

Was this some sort of cruel joke? I’ve lost one son in the worst way imaginable, and now I’m going to let another one participate in an event that requires this type of waiver that speaks of the risk of injury and/or death being “significant”?  To make matters worse, when I scoured the website searching for some mitigating statements that it really wasn’t that bad after all, such comfort was nowhere to be found.  How do you think I felt about the answer to the question under FAQs, “What kind of obstacles are at a Spartan Race?”:

“There are some staples in our repertoire…We will not, however, spell it out for you.  As well, you will get no course map to inspect.  There is fire, mud, water, barbed wire, and occasionally Hell on Earth.  There WILL be obstacles to catch you off guard.  Curve balls, so to speak.  Get over it.  We’re here to rip you from your comfort zone.  If you need a road map for each step of the way, then maybe this race isn’t for you.”

Damn straight, it isn’t.  He’s not doing it, I resolved to myself.  NFW.  I don’t care if he’s 22 and can make his own decisions, and I don’t care if pulling out is going to embarrass him in front of his friends.  Our family, after what has happened to us, gets a pass on these things, and Drew and his friends will have to understand and accept it.  It’s not happening.  Drew hadn’t trained for anything like this, either.  My post-traumatic stress disorder clicked into overdrive.

The first order of business was to email Carey at work to inform her of my dictatorial decision and to solicit her support, and I did so in the most mature way.  I emailed her the verbiage from the FAQ answer and closed with the following calm and rational words:

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However, support for my decision was not forthcoming.  Let’s just say that Carey felt I was being completely irrational and that I was not living up to the resolution I made in my May 28th blog post to get a grip on my emotions when it came to things like this.  She pointed out that Drew was in near-perfect physical condition and routinely ran his pick-up basketball opponents into exhaustion on a daily basis.  Additionally, even though he hadn’t specifically trained for this, he finished 3rd out of 150 runners when he ran in a 5k for the very first time this spring at Widener.  He hadn’t trained for that either.

At that point, though, Carey didn’t yet know just how torturous a conundrum I was in as a result of words I had just written for my Father’s Day blog post, which had not yet been posted.  It has since been posted, and as you may have read by now, I wrote,

“The only way that I can live with this horrific truth [that my taking Jeff to Florida when he was struggling would have saved him] is by making sure that I never again allow anyone I love to become a victim of my inaction.”

So how could I not act?  If anything serious was to happen to Drew in this race, I knew I could never live with myself.  Not after I failed to act when Jeff was struggling. Not after writing those words above.  At least in Jeff’s case, I literally never even thought to take him to Florida. That was pure cluelessness on my part. In this case, it would be benign neglect–I’d be consciously choosing not to act, even though I knew about the significant risks. That would be even worse.  As race day approached, I felt so trapped.

Fortunately though, I found a solution in the way I ultimately chose to define “taking action”.  After it became clear that neither Carey nor Drew shared my fears and that he was determined to test his strength and stamina whether I liked it or not, I knew there was only one thing I could do.  On the night before the race, I went to Drew’s room and talked it out with him.  I explained to him that after what happened to Jeff, it was hard for me to see either him or Brett take any risks at all with their safety.  While I understood this was unfair to them and that his excitement about the Spartan Race revolved around the challenge to overcome all the obstacles, I appealed to him that if doing so seemed to involve excessive risks, he needed to be willing to back down and move on to the next obstacle.

Drew listened and then assured me he would do the right thing.  So calm.  So rational.  So Drew.  I hugged him, wished him good luck and tried to get some sleep (though I didn’t get much). I walked away and consoled myself in the thought that I had indeed taken some type of action. And of course I told Drew to text as soon as they had finished.

The next morning while I was walking our greyhound Dobi in the park, my mind was all over the place.  I went back to October 2010 and remembered how helpless I felt as Jeff’s drive and determination to fight back against the situational depression he was feeling suddenly deserted him.  Now, 2 1/2 years later, Drew was bursting with the drive and determination that Jeff lacked, but instead of beaming with pride over that, I was fearing what would happent to him in this Spartan race.  As these thoughts cascaded through my mind, I noticed it was 11:15am, over two hours after the race had started.  Where was that damn text from him?  There was no way that 4 miles, even when littered with obstacles, could take over two hours.  I was sure something had gone terribly wrong.  Again.

But the text finally arrived at 11:28am and I have to admit, I said a prayer of thanks.

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The exclamation marks in his text indicated that it had gone well and he felt good about it.  It turns out that his team finished in the top 15% of teams in the competition, a terrific result.  I have to tell you, though, I was an absolute wreck all that morning and in a virtual panic mode.  Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) still has its hooks deep into me.

DREW GOING UNDER THE BARBED WIRE

DREW GOING UNDER THE BARBED WIRE

DREW CROSSING THE SMOKY FINISH LINE

DREW CROSSING THE SMOKY FINISH LINE

Now that I was assured that the death part of the waiver form was no longer applicable, I then wanted to find out what other damage had been done.  I asked Drew how it went and how difficult the course was:

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To be fair to myself, these texts confirmed that I wasn’t totally out of my mind.  Drew did get somewhat hurt, and there clearly was risk associated with competing in this event.   As I confirmed when I later checked him out, the gashes and scrapes on his arms and back were not insignificant.

So what does it all mean?  Well, for one thing, I thought I was making progress and getting better, but obviously I’m not.  Many thousands of men and women run Spartan Races every year, and if there was anything other than a statistically insignificant number of people who get seriously hurt in these events, it would be widely publicized and known by now.  Yet I was convinced that my well-conditioned and athletic son had put himself in grave danger by competing.

Such are the after-effects of what Jeff did over 2 ½ years ago.  I wonder if he has any remorse for the havoc he has wrought.  But it doesn’t matter, because just like my father was, I am a fighter by nature and will never quit.  Inspired by Drew, who overcame all the “insane” obstacles during his 4 mile race, I will do the same and overcome the obstacles that lie before me.  And unlike my eldest son, I will fight this war with all my might until I emerge victorious.  It is simply a question of when I will win, not if.

I concede that I lost the “Battle of the Spartan Race”, but no matter how long it takes, I am way too strong to not win the broader war against PTSD.

-Rich Klein