One of my oldest friends called me yesterday. She lived 10 minutes away from Robin Williams and wanted to talk about him. She'd recently seen him at a bookstore and one of her kids had gone to school with his stepdaughter. My friend and I are alike in many ways, but perhaps in one that is most important: suicide hits too close to home.
My friend's brother had killed himself and my father had tried twice. We both knew about suicides and suicide attempts. We had worked hard to find ways not to go off the rails ourselves. Years ago, we had seen each other every day when we worked together as reporters at Business Week. But now we're on different coasts. We don't talk much. Maybe we see each other once a year. When I saw it was her calling, I immediately picked up the phone. "I put off my run so I could talk to you," she said. "Can we talk about Robin Williams?"
We could. I have a circle of friends that checks in with each other when someone we know or know of commits suicide. We've all had suicides or suicide attempts in our family; we're all prone to depression ourselves. We have similar coping mechanisms when some horrendous piece of news happens: We talk to each other, we exercise and we head into our kitchens to cook. But the morning Angie called about Robin Williams, I was preoccupied. My younger son had two friends sleeping over, my older son was working on his college applications. We had just spent four days with a house full of guests and I was glad to be finally sitting down. Angie and I chatted briefly about Robin Williams, Israel, in-laws and colleges, then said our goodbyes.
The next day, my friend Terri sent a link to a story about suicide. Terri's father had killed himself years ago. She told me a man we both knew had killed himself the same day as Robin Williams. I had known this man slightly. Our sons had played roller hockey together. For a time, he had owned an ice cream parlor in town. I remembered his blonde hair, the way he pressed his hands in his pockets as we stood around the rink. But then he and his wife had separated, my son stopped playing roller hockey and I hadn't thought about him in a long time.
Suddenly, I started to reel. I remembered my father's depression and how little I was able to do to help. The only thing I ever seemed to be able to do to make him happy was to invite him over and make him something to eat. When he tried to kill himself, I struggled to find ways to stay sane myself. I wondered how the kids of this man were feeling. Were they devastated or relieved? Did they, like me, begin to worry that they too would one day feel suicidal?
I had to get out of the house. It was 11 in the morning, too hot and late to run. I ran anyway and took our dog. The temperature was rising. We stopped a couple of times. I gave her water from the cooler at a public tennis court. We kept running. After four miles, we stopped. I tied her up and went inside the grocery store. I picked up the heaviest things I could -- tomatoes, cheese, bags of grapes, cornmeal -- so that I'd be able to take my mind off my mind. Under the hot sun, we began the walk home.
My friends and I have come up with ways to cope with the unpredictable mood swings of the people we love as well as our own. These mechanisms aren't foolproof and they won't cure clinical depression but they work to keep minor demons at bay:
• Exercise, always. I used to run every day, now I go to spin class five days a week. Get your heart rate up and your sweat out for an hour a day. Do not skip this.
• Find a way to sit alone, without a book or a screen, for a discrete period of time. Consider this time holy. I meditate 20 minutes a day. All it requires is a pillow to sit on, a mantra (choose a two-syllable word that doesn't mean much to you but is easy to repeat), a quiet space and a clock or timer so you can mark the beginning and end of 20 minutes. The woman who edited my book chants every morning. Another friend kneels and prays. My kids occasionally interrupt my meditation. I scream, "Close the door! I'm meditating!" It's okay to be interrupted; just go back to it.
• Go outside. A half an hour under the sky is refreshing. There's a reason people are said to have "sunny dispositions." The sun helps. Rain does too.
• Find a moving meditation, a way to move and think at the same time. My moving meditation is cooking. The repetition of chopping and measuring, peeling and pouring, turning the burner on and firing up the grill, all soothe the mind and at the end, you have something delicious to show for it. Most of us have kitchens. Go into yours and make something. Start with a hot cup of tea.
After the run, I went into the kitchen to chop. I took down ingredients for a chopped salad I learned how to make a week before in a class called Farm Fresh Suppers that I had taken with Kathleen Sanderson at Kings Cooking Studio. We had made a pasta salad with roasted tomatoes, a fruit cobbler with vanilla ice cream, pulled pork-with-coleslaw sandwiches and a lemon orzo vegetable salad, but the thing I knew I'd make, again and again, was the simple chopped salad.
You probably have most of the ingredients on hand.
I started by chopping up a red onion, the best therapy of all, since it immediately makes you cry, and put the diced onion in a bowl of ice as Kathleen had directed, so that the taste of it wouldn't repeat on people as they ate the salad.
I chopped up romaine lettuce, parsley, a red pepper and a long English cucumber. (I skipped the tomatoes because they weren't ripe and can make a salad soggy the second day.) I cut up feta cheese. While I was chopping, I thought about a few things that Kathleen had said:
• Go to the bigger bowl. Kathleen meant that when making a salad, you should use a bowl that is bigger than the one you think you need. Ideally, you will toss an undressed salad with your clean hands and you will need more room than you think to do that. The advice resonates in real life too. Go to the bigger bowl. Seek out a group. Go a movie or a bar. Go to services at temple or church. Go to an AA meeting. Go to a room where people are.
• The farther you take something from its source, the sooner it will rot on you. Of course, Kathleen was talking about fruits and vegetables, but this applies to family and friends too. Stay close with people you've known since childhood.
• Whatever grows together, goes together. Same idea. Stay in close touch with people who are the same age and in the same stage that you are. Maybe you just met a year ago, but if you are both new parents or have newly aging parents or are going through a divorce, you can provide solace to each other as you grow into these new phases together. This is a different type of love than the one you might have with people you have known forever, but no less powerful.
This advice won't cure clinical depression, but it will help you cope with what the protagonist in Stephen King's novel Lisey's Story called the "bad gunky."
I made Kathleen's lemon juice dressing to go with the salad and as well as a lime sauce she had taught us to make. If you make this lime sauce (and I urge you to), use fresh ginger. I have no scientific evidence to support this but I'm pretty sure a mouthful of fresh ginger is an anti-depressant.
I've been eating this chopped salad for days now. It doesn't get old. In this time of uncertainty and sudden, shocking events, this simple salad and its lovely dressings will lift your spirits.
Chopped Salad with Lemon Dressing and Lime Sauce
(Yield: 4 servings)
3-4 cups chopped romaine (1 medium head)
1 cup fresh flat-leaved parsley leaves
1 English cucumber, diced
4 medium plum tomatoes, diced (I skipped these)
1 yellow bell pepper, diced (I used red)
1 small red onion, finely chopped and soaked in ice water
4 ounces Feta cheese, crumbled (serve this separately if you plan to eat salad over several days)
½ cup calamata olives, pitted and quartered (I skipped these)
Toss ingredients with hands in a big bowl. If you plan to eat this salad over the course of many days, serve Feta cheese and dressings on side.
Lemon Juice Dressing
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (I used lemon juice out of the bottle)
2 teaspoons sugar
1 small garlic clove, minced
½ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1/3 cup olive oil
Whisk together lemon juice, sugar, salt, and pepper in large bowl, then add oil in a stream, whisking together until combined.
*Lime Sauce (optional, but delicious, and arguably crucial)
3 tablespoons finely minced shallot (I used red onion)
1 lime, both juice and zest
2 tablespoons Nam Pla (Asian fish sauce---essentially anchovy sauce)
1/3 cup rice wine vinegar
1-2 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons hot pepper jelly (I used Stonewall)
2-3 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon minced ginger
Toasted sesame seeds (I inadvertently burned these so I skipped them)
In a small bowl, combine the shallot, lime-juice, lime zest, Nam Pla, and rice wine vinegar. Whisk in the hot pepper jelly, ginger and the water and cilantro. Taste for seasoning.