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Suicide, Loss and Finding Happiness

Dennis

My friend Melissa DiPirro (read her story of surviving breast cancer at 27 here) introduced me to Dennis Liegghio. He is the founder of KnowResolve and the author of “Building a Foundation for Happiness.” He speaks to high school students about the experience of losing his father to suicide as a teen, his subsequent battle with a suicidal depression, and his personal path through the darkness.

Suicide Facts: In 2009 (latest available info) more than 36,000 people died by suicide. A person dies by suicide about every 15 minutes in the United States. A suicide attempt is estimated to be made every 60 seconds. Suicide is the THIRD leading cause of death among youth ages 15-24.

What was life like before your dad committed suicide?

I remember a typical white suburban childhood. My parents had been divorced for six years. There was a lot of back and forth. It wasn’t an amicable divorce, so there was a lot of fighting. I have a brother who is two years younger than I am. We considered it “normal” because we didn’t know anything else. But, I do remember being a pretty happy kid prior to the divorce. My dad liked spending time with my brother and I. We had a pretty decent relationship prior to “the fight.”

What happened?

Dennis and his dad

We had a fight. A bad fight. My dad had us for the weekend. I remember we were driving around. I was failing math again and he was not happy about it. You see he was an accountant and math was everything to him. He was screaming at me at the top of his lungs, which was so not like him. I was pretty scared and freaked out. My brother was in the car with us, but I don’t remember what he was doing during all of this. When we got back to the house, I went to my room and called my mom to come and pick me up. I didn’t want to spend any more time with him. I told him I hated him and I never wanted to see him again. Then got in the car.

For about three months he tried contacting me. He called, he left messages, but I wouldn’t listen to the messages. He wrote me letters, but I didn’t open them. I would just rip them up and throw them away. He was persistent, but wasn’t overbearing — he was giving me my space. But about once a week he tried to talk to me.

How did you find out that your dad died?

My mom got a call from our stepmom. She said our dad had taken off. She didn’t know where he was, and he was acting very strange before he left. My mom took us to our grandma’s house. That is when I started to feel bad about the fight we had had, all those terrible things I had said and did. I was just hoping that someone would find him or he would come back so we could make up. I was crying. I thought the reason he was gone was because of me. I remember dreaming that night he came back and we apologized to each other, hugged and said, “I love you” and everything was fine. But it was just a dream.

My brother and I woke up the next morning. Grandma had made breakfast and we sat around eating in absolute silence. I knew something was wrong… really wrong. After we were done eating they took us into the bedroom and told us the cops called very early in the morning and that they had found him and he was gone.

I don’t even know where they found him.

They said he took a bunch of pills, cut his wrists, and drove himself into a tree. I remember when I heard those words I fully detached from myself, from my body. I was watching this conversation from the outside and I felt like that for many years. His death didn’t seem real… not at first. At the funeral I started to believe the truth. He was gone.

Somehow it started to sink in that he was gone. I am never going to see this person again. There were times that I thought he came to me in that dream to make things right. I think that the mind is a really powerful thing and I am open to the possibility that there is a higher power.

I was very angry for a very long time, and I blamed myself for his death. These feelings led to self-destructive decisions for the next 10 years. Everything was pointless and worthless. I thought about suicide all the time. That is what I was trying to do. I was going to do it with alcohol and drugs. The goal was to be dead at 25 (He is now 35).

What helped you heal?

Dennis and his band

When I was 24 years old, I wrote a song for him. I remember just sitting there in the living room with that notepad. A legal yellow pad, which is what our allowance ledgers were always on (once an accountant always an accountant). The song was finished in 10 minutes.

That was the first time I admitted to myself how his death had affected my life. My family tried counseling, but I was so very closed off from the help. I remember that feeling… a weight being lifted off my shoulders. Totally cliché.

I spent all night recording a demo version of the song in my basement. It was the first time I felt that it was possible to get lost in the process of something. That it was actually something good to get lost in. All the time I spent being hammered was so that I could get lost. So I wouldn’t have to deal with what I was feeling. The process of writing and recording provided the feeling of getting lost, but in a very good way. It brought back visions of my dad and the times we spent together: the good times and the fight, the feelings after he died, and all that anger. It was just totally consuming. It all flooded back. Expressing that and releasing all of that was pretty powerful and incredible.

Music was always that place I could go when I felt lost or misunderstood, pissed, or sad. I would put my headphones on and disappear. This creating something of my own… something authentic and really from my core was really powerful. When I was 14 (after my dad died) I bought a $40 used guitar and taught myself how to play. I also learned how to play the piano.

After I completed the demo and listened, I thought, This is awesome. I shared it with my friends first. Most of them had no idea that my real dad was dead. My mom had gotten remarried and he adopted us. I dealt for a long time with feelings of being a fake. I felt like every time I would interact with people that I would put on a game face. I felt that I was supposed to have it all together. No one really wants to know about this stuff. I didn’t want people to think I was weak. I remember being really scared and nervous to put it out there for everyone. It was a big risk.

Everyone told me that they liked the song and they encouraged me to keep writing. That is when my outlook began to change. My behavior still had to catch up, but I thought to myself, I am going to do whatever I have to do to get through this… to get through the pain. I am going to survive it and I am going to feel better one day.

The music group, the Ghettobillies helped me start writing again. They were the ones that went into the studio as my backing band and recorded the song. They would also let me open up for them at their shows.

Their music and support, plus the experience of traveling with them, helped me cope with the feelings of being trapped in this life… in these circumstances… that things will never be different or change. People let us into their homes, gave us food, and we saw sunrises on the lake… it was like this realization that I can do ANYTHING I want with this life. Even if I chose to make music for the rest of my life… people were digging it. I had something to give and people liked it.

I realized that you have this life… while shitty things may have happened to you; you have the choice to do anything you want with it. You can be anyone you want, you can go anywhere you want, and you can do anything you want. Anything was possible. Nobody could tell you differently.

When did you start KnowResolve?

At some point in 2007, my mom sent our CD to Jean Large at the Macomb County Crisis Center. She ran a support group for people who had lost someone to suicide. Jean thought this was really powerful for those who have experienced the loss of someone they loved. She asked to reprint the lyrics for a book that she was writing for families. She then asked if I would come in and perform the song live for those that had lost someone they love the same way I lost my dad.

That day… that moment, I realized I wasn’t alone. It was really powerful. That experience made me want to confront suicide and do something to make a difference. To raise awareness about what was only whispered about. Suicide is something that people don’t talk about.

Did you know… 3,000 people died in the World Trade Center, but in 2009 over 36,000 people in this country killed themselves? But it is still something that is only whispered about. Twenty or 30 years ago, no one talked about breast cancer. Why can’t we do that with suicide?

I started helping with a benefit showcasing four bands to raise awareness for suicide prevention and was just going to do it once. Whatever was raised would be given to various non-profits. Then I got a call from a middle school counselor. She asked me to come in and talk about my dad and sing the song I had written. She said, “Just share your story and speak from the heart.” I got a standing ovation. I was hooked. Afterwards, many of the students approached and told me their story. I realized since I was doing the work and that I wanted to the funds to go to my organization. I want to make suicide something that is ok to talk about, teach people about the warning signs, and teach them how to help themselves, and that they have options.

I tell kids that the pain, the struggles, and loss are all part of life. You are not going to avoid them. And it doesn’t get easier. Your decisions are going to be increasingly difficult. All that stuff is ok. Its just part of life and you can get through it.

What advice would you give to young people?

1. Create a tool kit for yourself. That process is an entirely personal thing. I wrote, talked to friends, worked with counselors, and surrounded myself with information (books). I immersed myself into my passion for writing music. That was my outlet for my burdens, or anything negative in my life. I wasn’t going to hold on to it. You have to find a way to let it out… it is poison.

2. Be active. In some way, every day.

3. Connect with nature.

4. Learn how to improve your relationships.

5. Be open authentic and honest.

6. Learn how to recognize that there are people that are not good for you and that it is ok to walk away from them. You have to protect yourself.

What advice would you give the 14-year-old Dennis knowing what you know now?

I wouldn’t change one single experience — positive or negative because it has made me who I am today. Whatever exists today, I am where I am at for a reason. Things are going to be rough for a while, but you are going to make it through.

I want people to say and be well aware of the fact that I had fun. And that for better or for worse I did what I wanted to do. I want my younger self to be proud of where I am today. Although, I’m sure my 14-year old self would never believe it. That is in my head with every decision that I make… that is always in the back of my mind. To remember what it was like to be 14 and the feeling of wanting to set the world on fire. So, now I always ask myself, “Is the decision you are making right now… would your younger self support it?

Would your dad be proud of you?

Oh yeah! He would say, “Way to go big D.” If you took away… stripped away everything… I would say, “Thanks dad.” I would say that in a very positive and heartfelt way. I miss you!

It’s people’s responsibility to teach other people what they have learned as a result of what they have been through. At the end of your life you are not going to remember the times that were easy, that were free of any kind of pain and turmoil. You will remember the powerful lessons you learned through those darkest times. What you become because of that… the person you become because of that is the story you have to share.

Have you tried to complete suicide or know someone who did? Share your story by posting a comment!

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