Flag girl

essay, Memoir, short story

We heard the DOT paid great so we decided we’d stand on the highway with a flag in our hand and rake it in for a summer. What a thing; we’d just stand on a road and rake it in.

Our assignment was Highway 218…mile upon flat mile upon flat mile of cornfields. We’d drive out there at daybreak. I’d stand at one point on the road. Amy would stand down the road at another point, a just visible dot. Patty was out there somewhere, beyond my line of vision. We’d stand and stand and occasionally get to flip the sign from stop to slow. Then stand and stand. It was never clear where or when or if we were supposed to pee.

After an eternity a guy would drive up and say we could eat lunch.

Three other things happened.

  1. Once Kaila came driving up in her parents’ Monte Carlo with BLTs for all of us. BLTs. BLTs are so delicious. Bacon, lettuce & tomato sandwiches. We never had BLTs at home. After that, BLTs became all I dreamed about out there, my Iowa-style mirage.
  2. Once a little piglet came running down the road, zooming right past me and into Amy’s arms. She said it was so cute. Not a BLT, but ridiculously close.
  3. Once the guy who came around at lunch made a comment about Amy, saying, “With a butt like that, who’s looking at the face?”

And that, for the two whole weeks I was a flag girl, was all that ever happened to break up the road until the sun finally released us 14 hours later and let us go home so we could go to bed and in a blink of an eye drive back to claim our spot on the road and live through it all over. Again and a-bloody-gain.

I became progressively despondent. I did not care about raking it in. Instead, I began thinking that this life is not a life worth living. How could they stand it? Nothing mattered to me. Money didn’t matter to me. Life no longer had any meaning I could reach. Something clearly wasn’t holding. I began to sense that my mind didn’t seem to have a certain critical staying power.

And then a most unlikely release came for me: The Schaffner Players, America’s last remaining Chautauqua Traveling Tent Theatre, leftover from the Great Depression’s WPA. They were looking for an ingenue. Deanna Swan, the legendary star to come out of the Mt. Pleasant High School theatre program, had backed out at the last minute. The Schaffner Players’ Toby & Suzie Show was in a bind and somehow my name came up. I didn’t even know what “ingenue” meant, but it had a movie star ring to it which I loved. And just like that, the very next day I was off to meet up with the circus at its current stopover in Danville, Illinois, narrowly making it off the highway with my mind.

I was 17 that first time I consciously came face-to-face with my mind’s suggestion that cutting out is a possible solution, apparently even for relatively short-term situations, albeit dire-feeling. But despite being wholly in death’s mesmerizing grip, I could see this was a ridiculously disproportionate suggestion for my mind to propose.

Luckily, I was onto its ways. I’d always had a sort of third-party awareness of my consciousness…how at around age 5, I saw the way my mind responded to the sound of the vacuum cleaner on a Saturday morning as if it was the ruination of life; how when the car door closed it could sometimes create an atmospheric vacuum, sucking the air out of the interior, filling me with a dread sense of existential emptiness.

The longer I lived, the more I saw the slipperiness, how my mind had a hard time gripping the road under certain weather conditions. I did not understand how other drivers zipping along were so confident they would stick to the surface when the conditions were sub par. I could feel my tires slipping even when they weren’t because I felt the potential slip, the immanent, inevitable slide embedded within the physics of tires, water, snow, ice and road. The feeling of treacherousness was always with me when weather cropped up, and so I would drive with a hyper alertness, heeding the flagger’s sign to proceed with caution. Go slow, go slow. It’s not safe around here.

Continued in part II


This story delves into the curious and also obviously disturbing territory of suicidal ideation where the notion of ending it all goes beyond a passing consideration — which most people have probably entertained on occasion while in the midst of the high pitch of anger/despair/self-pity/dejection — and takes a more enduring place on the table like salt & pepper.

In truth, disclosing the reality of my own experience with suicidal ideation, even in story form, is a gut-flopping, knee-weakening, oh-god-am-I-really-going-to-put-this-out-there sort of thing, and is also for some readers probably causing both genuine concern and/or a measure of horror/embarrassment on my behalf for admitting such a thing. It looks so much like weakness. Defect. The mark of a marginal person. But for better or worse, I am compelled to be a story truth-teller, to the degree I can see the truth and am able to hang strong and stomach the exposure. Otherwise, I’m just not sure what the point is.

And now that I’ve put suicidal ideation on the table in reference to me, and because I’m also a person who does wellbeing as a profession, I am further compelled to follow up with some discussion about the importance of everyday, matter-of-fact suicide prevention for all and episodic crisis management for some — not so as to normalize suicide in a way that would amount to giving back-handed permission for its consideration, but to normalize the simple activation of effective management protocols when taking one’s life is the salt & pepper on the table. Which is only sensible considering suicide is second only to unintended accidents as the leading cause of death for teens and is becoming way too commonplace all the way around.

So it just makes sense for all of us to watch our mind’s responses to the world and maintain practices that keep it nice & clean, no different than hand-washing. Then, when/if trouble comes along, it’s a normal thing to just move on over to the deeper sink for a little more serious scrubbing. It just makes sense that good mental health hygiene would be as normal as hand washing. For that to happen, though, would take allowing the shame of hosting troubled feelings — as if troubled feelings are a reflection of character and indicator of general competence or the ability to handle things — to wash down the drain. Along with letting shame drain away is also trusting the world not to regard every blip or tear or tough time as an indication that a person who has hosted suicidal feelings over a certain thing will lose it over every thing.

So these days, I’m a flag girl on the highway to mental health, waving a sign that says take care of your mind! Just follow a basic protocol to prevent high speed accidents and activate a crisis protocol when the road conditions are rough!

In my flag girl way, I’ll just go ahead and say prevention and crisis protocols have some standard features along with individual ones. While all minds and bodies need certain things to be in good balance (sleep, exercise, good nutrition, etc.), not everyone needs to make their bed or immerse themselves daily in water, a few of my favorites. Figuring out what keeps you feeling good and solid is a trial & error project of discernment.

As an example, here’s what my prevention protocol looks like — things I need to do on a daily basis to keep the road clear and smooth and full of grip:

  • exercise
  • walk outside; be in touch with nature
  • meditate
  • eat good food
  • sleep (decidedly harder for me engineer, not that I don’t dedicate a full 8 hours to my bed every night)
  • employ systems and structures for how to see and  order life
  • immerse myself in water; weird, I know, but it’s a tip I got from a book and it is HUGE — who doesn’t feel like a million bucks after a shower? It can change your view of life
  • make my bed and put my house to order
  • recess from all outside world stimulation at points throughout the day so I can process
  • spend some time on the couch with Gary at the end of the day, in addition to getting doses of physical contact with him throughout the day. Sometimes if things start going haywire in my head during the middle of the night, all I have to do is put my hand on his back
  • take up with a therapist if something crops up and needs to be worked through

I am fiercely protective of my prevention protocol. Almost all of this will happen above and before all else. Sometimes I’m forced to be flexible and let a thing or two go and manage to survive even if I don’t get to hang out with Gary on the couch at the end of the day before it’s all said and done, but in general, this stuff better be taken care of consistently.

Here’s what my crisis protocol looks like:

  • put in a call to the crisis line. I can’t endorse this enough, and it’s not nearly as hard or unthinkable as it sounds. Crazily enough, a good 10- or 15-minute crisis line chat has been enough to get my butt out the door to work — and even have a good day! It blows me away how you can go from being in mortal despair to walking along with a spring in your step within the span of an hour. Not that everything always solves up so nicely, but it does illustrate how incredibly powerful it is to move the crisis out of you and be heard and understood by another human being who can listen effectively and respond appropriately. Friends and family aren’t always the right person for that job, but they can help you find the crisis line, and it’s important that the people you are closest to understand if/when you are susceptible.
  • possibly head over for an urgent therapy session
  • connect with the world in some way and resist the overwhelming desire to isolate. This one is a harder one for me; I’m happy to talk with a therapist or some nice person on the other end of the phone over there at the crisis headquarters, but I really, really don’t want to admit any of this to friends and family when I’m in the soup and don’t have it all in hand. I’d rather deal with it on my own, which is fine as long as I’m on it and as long as I get my ass out of the house and into the world where the sky is big and there are other people.

Bottom line, can you imagine how freeing it would be if the person on the road to despair knows it is no big deal to pick up the phone and say to the nice crisis line person  that things are kind of iffy at the moment? The fact of the matter is that we generally have no idea what people are carrying around. If they look fine we assume they are fine. And these are people we know — people with whom we work, eat, live, hang out, talk to in the hall; we just don’t know when they are giving serious thought to an exit strategy.

As for me, just to clarify how suicidal ideation crops up in my life, I don’t want to give the impression that any old day may require me to activate the crisis-level protocol. Far from it. It’s not random. While I’m definitely of the strong-feeling persuasion, the handful of sustained periods of time I have found my mind not to be a safe place to hang out has been related to full-blown life situations that happen to combine a particular cluster of feelings/issues, not the having of a bad day or a big failure — even a really big failure — or a mortifying embarrassment or an identity crisis or a fight or a heartbreaking disappointment or even a very serious event, or any of the other million-and-a-half difficult experiences that go along with this beautiful life.



7 thoughts on “Flag girl”

  1. jmcdonald2 says:

    Love you, my friend. The 10 am bag of carrots makes a lot more sense now…(yup, remember?) I’m always so impressed with how deliberately you approach this life. ❤


    • OMG, you certainly had a front row seat on my self-management (crazy management) tactics, that’s for sure. I, on the other hand, am so full of admiration for how you had the capacity for spontaneity — while managing a demanding life/workload! Love you back, my friend…


  2. Pingback: A silly lunch | Be cool.

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