Running to Pole 69
By Eduardo Vega, M.A., is Executive Director of the Mental Health Association of San Francisco. An internationally known mental health consumer advocate he sits on the Executive Committee of the National Action Alliance on Suicide Prevention and the Steering committee of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
San Francisco’s beauty is legendary for many reasons. I’m one of the fortunate who lives also in one of its most unusual and beautiful places, called the Presidio, the historic military base which was decommissioned in the 1990s and converted to a national park.
The roads and paths through the Presidio, guarded by the striking quiet of majestic California cypress and often veiled in mist, present striking views the Pacific Ocean, the San Francisco Bay, the hills of Marin county and the Golden Gate Bridge.
Exercise is crucial medicine for me, as it is for many. In fact I believe that intensive training in martial arts, yoga and now running has saved me from the worst effects of recurrent depression over many years now. Enjoying light running led me some years back to start to train for marathons and other races which in turn forces even a basically lazy person to get up early and get miles on.
Preparing for a full 26-mile marathon race is not easy and staying on the road for five to six months is the most important part. So I need to run not less than four times a week.
It is much easier when you get to run in such a beautiful place. And there many other benefits.
My morning runs through the park bring focus to the beauty of life, the challenges and ideas I’m working through and the core reasons I’m so invested in my work in mental health.
I have one very special run though. Whenever possible I run on Tuesday mornings before work to the center of the Golden Gate bridge, to the landmark of light-pole 69.
It seems likely that more people have jumped to their death from that spot than any other single place in the world.
The route to the Bridge isn’t easy and the run up the arc to the center not always fun. But being there brings inspiration too. On the bridge, I think about the people who come here in despair, people who feel that death is the only way to wrest power, dignity or at least relief from a life that seems unendurable, people in a place similar to where I once was.
It’s easy to see why people choose this place, some of them the same reasons that tourists come from all over the world. The dramatic rise of the red towers through shawls of fog, the infinite vista of ocean, the impressive detachment from land and city.
Although I was never one for jumping myself I see why one would want to leave the world from this beautiful place, disappear into the huge peace the ocean below. The promise of a simple final quiet solution so readily at hand is made so much more compelling by cool detachment, the soft wheeling of gulls below you, the calm solitude of wide sky, solid steel and dark expansive sea.
More people jump on Tuesday than any other day. That makes sense to me--everyone knows that Tuesdays are the worst. They’re also the day for getting things done.
When I get to Pole 69 I spend a moment in quiet meditation for the hundreds who have died here. Sometimes I think about the four friends I lost to suicide, or the parents, brother and sisters I've met along the way whose lives were devastated by it. I look at the water and touch the rails and try to connect with the many people who have come here seeking a resolution, however tragic, to their sense of utter desolation.
Sometimes I reflect on my own suicidal moments and attempts. The months where I felt so far from hope, the years in which I yearned daily for an accident, for a bus to come and take life from me. I remember the elation too, the joy of feeling that I was no longer powerless, that in planning and expecting to kill myself I was empowered finally to assert some choice over my pain.
When you look out on most days from the center of the bridge you see Alcatraz island very clearly. I can’t help but think how that might affect me too, if I was planning to jump.
It’s hard to understand the experience of having your freedom taken from you if it hasn’t happened to you. Like it or not we live in a society that prizes individual freedom above all. And one in which being a mental patient is seen by many as worth than death.
People who are advocates for such things as mental health services, supports and treatment, myself included, sometimes lose perspective I fear on how powerfully such things affect those on the receiving end. For many the first time one walks, or is taken, as a patient through the doors of a locked psychiatric facility, one’s sense of oneself is forever altered. For those who struggle and get hospitalized repeatedly in life, the insults to personal dignity, personal worth and hope can be magnified.
It may seem ludicrous to some but I know also that some see life in a hospital or institution as far worse than death. And death as the more dignified option.
Stopping some people from killing themselves will not change the reasons people choose to kill themselves. What we must change is society’s view of people themselves and how living mental healthy is a challenge to most all. To save lives from suicide we must change our minds about what it means to be human and to live with dignity.
I run back from the bridge—a large part of this is up-hill and not too pleasant. It can be hard to put one foot in front of another—another metaphor for struggle.
I still have days when getting up, when going to work, when smiling or even walking feels nearly impossible. I have moments when anguish pounds against me, when a spear of despair is driving through my heart, pinning me to ground and I feel I can barely breathe or move and even keeping my eyes open seems impossible. I have days when everything and everyone around me pulls away, fading into a bleak and meaningless grey.
On some of those days the desire to die comes again, a specter of deliverance emerging like a boat out of the fog.
I know today that I won’t get into that boat again. There’s just too much work to be done.
On this tiny journey of mine I reflect on this work as well, the change that needs to happen to create a better future, the role of mental health advocacy in the big picture. If we were successful I know people would not be jumping from the Bridge every two weeks, or at least far fewer. Because all people would get the support they need, the resources to make an enduring difference in our mental lives, the compassion that would counter our culture’s legacy of shame and silence. People would get support from their communities and families, from professionals who saw them not as diagnoses, from systems that knew that dignity is more important than medication, that hope is more powerful than pain.
When we succeed in these efforts people will know they have something to contribute to the world regardless of their symptoms or disabilities and people would be free of the shame and stigma that prevents them from accessing what can help.
Running at 6am is not easy for a lazy guy like me but finally this little journey reminds me what a gift it is to run at all. I am grateful today to be able to be able to maintain a healthy life where others cannot, to contribute in my way to these efforts, and especially to be able to possibly reduce the worst impacts of mental illness.
As an attempt survivor, a survivor and a mental health advocate I am convinced that preventing death by suicide is only an ultimate, important result of many efforts in many fields, many hearts and many hands. It takes hard and important work from committed people to transform our communities into a caring and healthy places and I’m honored to be a part. As we move forward I’ll continue to add my legs to the mix, to take your good thoughts and energy with me to Pole 69 where we can all make a difference together.