Lagemas Georgeis a suicide attempt survivor.
"I Survived a Suicide Attempt."
Lagemas George works for the state of Alaska. She was born in Seattle, WA, raised in Angoon, AK, and has lived in Juneau, AK for the last fifteen years. She was 33 years old when I interviewed her in Juneau, AK, on August 5, 2017.
Growing up in Angoon was difficult, being what’s commonly known as a “half-breed.” I’m a Native-Black mix, and the population of Angoon is primarily full-blooded Native.
I was the first black child in my family, and my family had not previously participated in mixed-race, besides white. They didn’t have the best opinions or the best outlook, and that affected the way my family treated me directly and the way my community treated me. It’s really hard to get good at anything, be good at anything, or be considered good at anything when you start out behind everybody else because you’re a half-breed.
My mother dropped me off with my grandmother when I was two years old. It was to keep from bringing shame on the family. The beginning of my life with my family was not the best. My grandmother was not very nice sometimes. This is fairly common in Native families, but it was particularly ugly because they didn’t like black people. As much as I was half Native, I was a black person.
So, growing up a half-breed in a Native community was very difficult. Growing up a half-breed in a family that was not-so-mildly racist to begin with was very difficult. Growing up with my grandmother—it was never documented, but I’m pretty sure she had some mental health issues. The time period that she grew up in made her a very hard person. Hard people don’t understand soft people, and I’ve always been kind of a soft person.
My earliest memory of my grandmother is getting my face shoved into the carpet because I had dropped cracker crumbs. I was sitting there eating while my mother was explaining to her that she was just dropping me off. That was kind of the beginning of my life in that house.
My sister came along, and things got progressively worse because there were other factors at play. My Native name, my Tlingit name, was that of one of my grandmother’s sisters, one of the sisters that she didn’t like. One of the sisters that used to abuse her—and that sister was dead. But in our culture, when you take someone else’s name, you assume a part of the life of that person. There was carry-over. My grandmother didn’t like her sister with my name, so she didn’t like me, and it got very difficult.
My sister came along, and she got my grandmother’s mother’s name. So, our great-grandmother’s name, who had passed away when my grandmother was very young. She attached an emotional bubble to my sister. She needed to be protected, whereas I needed to be shown. It made life very hard. Growing up without a mother or a father in the picture, being a half-breed, being the sort of bastard child in the family that nobody really wanted, but everybody kept around because it would have been more shameful for me to go some place else. It all emotionally and, sort of mentally, played a pretty heavy role in how I saw myself growing up.
It didn’t seem to matter how hard I tried. It didn’t matter how good I got at anything. In my peer group, I’m the most culturally educated because of who my grandmother was. I was raised very traditionally. I can do everything that a good Native woman is supposed to be able to do. I can make regalia, I can work on the food, I know my clan’s songs in history, I know my grandfather’s clan’s songs in history. There are very few people in my age group who have had as dedicated a training as I have. But it was never enough.
School was about the only place that I excelled, and it was good. My teachers played a huge role in my life and making me feel like I wasn’t less than everything. They helped me a lot growing up, and they’re part of the reason I survived Angoon. Sometimes, though, they couldn’t fill in those gaps.
My attempt evolved around… it had been months, and I’d been in constant trouble. I’d gotten disciplined heavily, many times. I’d gotten into trouble for things that I didn’t do. I’d been accused of things that I would never do. Things didn’t seem like they were going to get any better.
It was fish season, summer to fall, and being the good Native girl that I was, I had sharpened all of my fish knives to precision. These things—I could get through an igloo cooler of fish with one knife after a good sharpening. I had gotten very good at it. A few days, maybe a week before, I had actually found out how sharp my knives were. I was carrying the knives out to the smokehouse, where we prepare the fish. I had dropped one knife and I went to catch it with my left hand. It was so sharp that the weight of the handle was enough to have it slip through my hands. I didn’t even feel the cut happening. I opened my hand and I’ve still got the scar here from it, but I could see how deep and how clean the cut was, and that was kind of the first “ah ha” moment. Like, “It could be that easy?”
Fish season was not the best season at home. It’s a lot of tired, cranky people. It’s a lot of work. Any slowness or perceived slowness is not appreciated. I decided that I couldn’t see it getting better. I didn’t know if I was ever going to get out of Angoon. I didn’t know, after some of the discipline I had received, if I was going to make it out of my teen years alive, period. It was sort of a moment of, “Well, why let them do it to me? Why not just do it myself?”
We always talk about the signs you start displaying when you’re thinking about it or that you’re going to make an attempt. I honestly don’t remember caring enough at that point. I didn’t write any letters. I didn’t give away any of my stuff. I guess the biggest sign was I cleaned my room. I packaged everything up. That way, when I was gone, it could just be all grabbed and thrown out. That’s as much consideration I gave it.
I grabbed my bucket and my knives, I waited until everyone was asleep, and I went to my room. I stayed up late. Very late. I sat there, playing with the knife, not really thinking about anything. Not that I can remember. Other than, there was one person that I wanted to talk to. One person where I felt like I owed it to them to say something before I did anything, because they had always tried to care for me. So, as I was sitting there, waiting for everyone to be asleep, I called them. I didn’t say anything about what I was planning on doing. I don’t even remember using particular language. I just wanted to talk to them, see how they were doing, see what was going on.
I didn’t used to be able to open up and tell a story back then. There are very strict guidelines about what you can tell people that aren’t your family, and even what you can tell your family. Conversation can be kind of difficult. I don’t know if they knew what I was thinking. I don’t know if I displayed anything or said anything. But I know that person stayed on the phone with me for three hours.
Before we got off the phone, they made me say a prayer with them. I hadn’t been religious in a long time. I lost my religion when I was very young, after a sexual assault incident. Religion’s never been a comfort for me. Not since then. But that time, I figured, “What the hell? What’s the worst that can happen? You say a prayer before you do it and maybe you won’t get sent to Hell,” because that’s the story; if you [die by] suicide, you’re going to Hell. So, I spent that extra couple of minutes saying the prayer with them.
They asked if I was going to see them tomorrow. That was kind of the sticking point. If I said no, they were gonna ask what was going on, and I could probably get in trouble, because if I attempted suicide and I failed, I was going to be in even bigger trouble. It was kind of an odd realization: I could potentially do this and not succeed at it, and be in an even worse situation than what drove me to this. That’s when I told them I would see them tomorrow. That was how my first instance kind of went.
Des: You were how old at that point?
Lagemas: I can’t quite remember. I was, I think, a freshman in high school, so I would have been fourteen.
Des: What happened after that?
Lagemas: I went to school and I talked to the high school counselor. What’s funny is that person is still a valuable part of my life. I didn’t explain everything, but I told them what I was thinking and they became a pretty valuable person in my life. I never went to counseling for it. Nobody besides that person knew for a long time. I didn’t even talk to my friends about it. Mostly because there’s no such thing as a secret in the village. It was years later before I told anyone about it. Even longer still before I got counseling for any of the things that were bothering me.
Depression is pretty rampant in the Native community, especially in the villages. The socioeconomic situation out in the communities makes it very hard to see a day where you’re not gonna be working just to survive. There were no vacations, you didn’t get to go to Disneyland. If you came to Juneau, it was because you needed supplies. It’s hard to see a long life like that.
I talked to the counselor. They said, “It’s not always going to be like this, it’ll get better. You’ll get out of here. You just have to make it through right now.”
I didn’t really believe them, but they helped me see a way out of Angoon: academics. You didn’t have to be great to get scholarships, you just had to be good enough, and the scholarship was a ticket out of Angoon. Even if I didn’t complete a degree, I would at least get out of the village. It would be that start.
That was what I threw myself into. I graduated early and I had a scholarship. It was a PITAAS: Preparing Indigenous Teachers and Administrators for Alaska Schools (http://www.uas.alaska.edu/education/start.html). I wanted to become a teacher because, after that incident, my teachers were my example that there is life outside of Angoon, and there are opportunities outside of what I knew. I used them, sort of, as the goal. I could become a teacher and move clear across the country if I wanted to, which is what most of them had done.
I made it through high school without another attempt and started classes at the university here. I graduated a little bit early, got out in December of 2001, and came over and started classes.
Des: How many attempts did you have?
Lagemas: Two. There was a sort of an accidental attempt. There was a situation with my son’s father where abuse was discovered. Having been abused as a child, one of my primary goals as a parent was to keep that from happening to my child. I thought I had taken all of the steps. I thought I had set up all of the best practices, and it turns out I hadn’t. I got blistering drunk, like the kind of drunk where I was genuinely surprised I woke up the next morning.
My second direct attempt, people I had considered adoptive parents had taken my son, which was supposed to be for a break for me and an opportunity for him to spend time with them for a month during the summer. Well, one of the people that he was staying with was evidently telling him stories about when he was first born, when he was a baby.
I suffered some pretty heavy postpartum depression. It was very difficult, because I’m already depressive. It’s really easy for me to hit a down, and it’s very hard for me to climb up. My marriage was falling apart and I had a kid that I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to take care of. I just wasn’t in a good frame of mind when he was born. Sometimes it seemed like I wasn’t taking care of him, or that’s the way it seemed to this person. They were telling him stories about how I would just sleep through his crying, and just let him cry forever, and how they had to rescue him.
My marriage was pretty dysfunctional. When I found out I was pregnant, that became my goal. In high school, the thing that got me out was my teachers. After I found out I was pregnant, that became my focus. My kid, this was going to be the reason I lived, even if I didn’t want to. I wasn’t going to abandon my child the same way I was. So, having them tell him this stuff and making it appear to him that I didn’t want him or that I wasn’t taking care of him, that wrecked me. They jokingly told him this. They were off doing something and he snuck one of their phones and called me. He was upset. He was mad at me. I cried for hours by myself. I went to the kitchen, and I’m like, “He’s not here. There’s nobody else here. If I did it, they wouldn’t know about it for weeks. Somebody would just take care of him.”
I reached out to that same counselor from high school, still a friend of mine. I called her, and I asked her to come and sit with me because I was afraid to be left by myself. I didn’t know, without my son being there, if I was personally strong enough to not do anything. She, her sister, and her husband came over, and they sat with me for four hours, basically just talking me down. That time was more scary for me, and is still more emotional for me, than what happened when I was a kid.
I think that time I was more genuinely at risk than when I was a teen. Now that I’m an adult, I have all kinds of dangerous implements and access to a lot of things that could potentially be very harmful. I didn’t feel like I had a very strong will at that point. When I was younger, I was angry, and sometimes the anger would carry me through situations. I couldn’t be angry at him for feeling bad after someone told him that. I was angry at them, but that wasn’t what the problem was. The problem was my relationship with my child, who I already felt like I had failed to protect, and then risking him feeling like I didn’t care for him… I had never felt that kind of pain. I thought I’d suffered before, but that was something else.
Des: How are things with him now?
Lagemas: He’s fourteen now, and things are difficult. I mean, he’s a good kid, he’s a smart kid, he’s a sweet kid, but he’s a teenager now. Mom is Mom—she’s too bossy, too demanding, she’s kinda crazy sometimes—but I think our relationship has survived its hiccups. I mean, he still tells me when something is bothering him, he still asks me for help, even if he doesn’t really want to. I feel like our relationship is good, because he’ll even ask me about the embarrassing stuff. He asked me just this last school year how to ask a girl to go to the eighth grade dance with him, and it’s little things like that that let me know that we’re okay, because not everybody’s kids do that with them. I think we’re doing good.
Des: Do you feel like you achieved what you set out to do with him?
Lagemas: I think I’ve let him down in some ways, not in the ways that I would think of. Academically, I don’t think I’ve done as much to support him as I could, and I’m not sure how I could have done more, or where I could have gotten more support for him. But I think insofar as raising him to be intelligent, considerate, and compassionate, and to think about other people when we think about ourselves, I think that I’ve done that.
He and I have a lot of conversations. We’re talking about what we want to be when we grow up. He’s like, “I don’t know what I want to do, or how I’m going to do it, I just know that I want to do something good for other people.” This was something he volunteered on his own.
It was just, “What do you wanna do when you grow up? You gotta think about this.”
He’s like, “I don’t know yet, I just want to do good things for people.”
As a mom, that’s what you want to hear your kid say. You want them to be thinking about stuff like that. We have lots of those kinds of conversations, so, as much as he drives me crazy some days, I know his head’s on right, and his heart’s pointed in the right direction.
Des: And you were able to raise him in a different setting?
Lagemas: Yeah. He didn’t grow up with a lot of my Native family. I limited his exposure to them because he’s part Jewish. His father is of Jewish descent. I’m not very popular in my family. Because I was raised by my grandmother and taught so extensively by her, people think that was favoritism, even though it came with a lot of discipline. But they think she played favorites by raising me, so a lot of her kids—my aunts and uncles—don’t like me.
One of my aunts in particular really doesn’t like me. One of the things she had to say about me and my son was talking about my mother, how “she went off and slept with some nigger fucker and came back with a little nigger baby who had a Jew baby. Our father would have never liked that.” This is an actual conversation that’s been had by my aunt about me and my son.
One of my uncles, who also is not very fond of me, when my son was born, was talking about, “She should have aborted it, just like she should have been aborted.”
I kept him away from a lot of people in my family because I think that contributed greatly to some of the mental health issues that I deal with, and I didn’t want that to be something he had to work through, too. I mean, his father has already put in his life something he is going to have to learn to deal with and not take it out on other people or himself. It was a hard process. He was in counseling for several years, just because he was so angry. In elementary school, he would get into fights. He’s a small kid, but he’s very powerful. He’s very muscular, very compact. If he decides to throw somebody around, they’re getting thrown around. It could have been potentially very harmful to other children.
He agreed—because I asked him to do it—he agreed to go to counseling. He went for four or five years to get him back to a place where he was okay again. That’s the kind of relationship and the kind of atmosphere I’ve tried to give him. He gets to choose. He has to understand or think about the consequences of not doing that.
He got into a bit of trouble at school. I was like, “You know, you’re going to keep getting in trouble like this, and that means trouble at home. Or you can go to counseling and see if they can help you figure out how to deal with this, so that you don’t get hurt or you don’t hurt somebody, and you stop getting in trouble at home.” He was really young at the time, and I don’t know if he grasped the fullness of the question, but he understood enough to want to do something different. That’s what I wanted him to understand. That’s what I wanted to be able to offer him.
Des: Do you feel like, even though you kept him away from people you should have kept him away from, you were still able to pass on your culture? Did you want to?
Lagemas: Yes. Culture, for me, is actually really important in spite of some of the negatives of it. There are some very noble attributes in our culture. I have tried to instill in him, while not traditional training, the main tenets of our culture. In 2014, he participated in his first Celebration. Celebration is in honor of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, where the Natives of Alaska got to reclaim traditional and ancestral lands. It’s a marked difference from what happened with the Natives down south. The Natives of Alaska have what is called the Native Land Allotments and this was a huge, huge success for our people. So, Celebration happens every even-numbered year. Native dance groups from across Alaska get together and they perform dance and storytelling, and they sell and share Native arts and crafts.
I helped train a dance group of people my age and their children to perform at Celebration, and he loved it. He had such a good time. He enjoyed learning the songs, performing with the dance group, and learning the history.
I’ve been very fortunate. One of my uncles, he’s sort of our family historian. He’s collected a lot of Native history from elders and other storytellers, and I’ve got CDs of those stories. When my son was younger, we lived downtown, but his daycare was in the valley, so I’d have to drive him out to the valley before I went to work. We would listen to these Native storytellers on CD. He knows superficially all the basics of these stories and he can share them when he wants to. He knows the songs, and a little bit of the history, and I think he enjoys it. Which is nice because, for me, it was a directive. You must. Right now. For him, it’s a choice. He enjoys that. Not all the time, but it’s been fun. I have a good time with it.
Des: What happened after that second attempt? What happened to lead you to where you are now?
Lagemas: That was the beginning of cutting a lot of people out of my life who ended up being more toxic than helpful. I don’t usually believe in giving up on something or someone, but at some point in time, you have to grasp and understand that not everything that comes into your life needs to stay there. Not everyone who comes into your life has to be there forever.
While these are people who, when I was growing up, I never though I would lose, I don’t have the emotional fortitude to combat that sort of interaction between them and my son. They weren’t understanding where I was coming from. I had a conversation with them about it, and it was, “Just joking!” I don’t care who you are, you don’t joke around with people’s kids like that. Not ever.
I started becoming more selective with the people I spent time with. I started counseling, like, really started counseling. I had been in and out of counseling before, I’ve done the ACES, got told, “I’m surprised you’re a functioning member of society, considering.”
I’m like, “Well, yeah, it’s either be a functioning member of society or not, and I’ve seen how those people live. I don’t want to live like that.”
But I got into counseling. I went on medication for a while to help level me out. It’s not something that I can stay with for a long time, mostly because it’s a mental thing for me, this stigma of being on medication and not being able to figure it out yourself. I am unnecessarily prideful about being able to handle things myself. I mean, if there was one thing my family at large can typically compliment me on, it’s that I get shit done. Even if I don’t want to. Even if it’s hard, even if they don’t expect me to be able to. That’s just what I do. “If you have a problem, ask Nessa (ed. note: Nessa is the name Lagemas goes by in her daily life). She can take care of it.” Most of the people in my life can say that about me. Being on medication is like saying I couldn’t handle it. I couldn’t figure it out. I couldn’t make it happen.
I know that is not the case, but that doesn’t change how I feel when I put that pill in my mouth. It doesn’t change after I’ve taken the pills for awhile and I actually feel what I imagine normal is supposed to be. It’s a struggle. Unfortunately, I go on and off. I would probably benefit from being on regularly. Maybe I’ll get there someday, but today is not that day, and tomorrow’s not looking good, either.
Des: How do you feel now?
Lagemas: Life has gotten difficult again. It’s better now than it was in the past because I feel like I’ve got a better circle of support. I’ve got people around me who see me in a way that I don’t think I’ve been seen, growing up in previous relationships. I feel like I’ve got more people aware of me and my ups and downs.
I’ve learned how to reach out to people better. I’ve learned not to try and do it by myself. Even as prideful as I am, the relationship with that particular counselor friend of mine has become such that they forcibly taught me how to rely on other people. Not in a negative way, but for a long while, they wouldn’t leave me alone: “Come over to dinner. There’s no arguing. Just come over to dinner. No, you need to come and hang out with us. We’re just going to play cards.” Forced, positive interaction with people who didn’t want anything other than my company, and to know that I was doing well.
That went a long way into teaching me how to let other people in. Actually in. Not the “at arms length” in. Not the “vicinity” in, but actually knowing that somebody cared about me for no other reason than they wanted to. There was no give and take. There was just a whole lot of give. That helped a lot.
Another thing that I got involved in was the suicide prevention talks with the school district here. That, I think, has helped me a bit, too, being able to talk with these kids about knowing what it’s like to be on that side of the fence. On that side of the table, knowing how it feels. Maybe not knowing exactly what they’re thinking, but having an idea of what’s going through their head or why they’re thinking that way about things, or what could be influencing those thoughts.
Other people on the panel are usually the friends and family of the survivors, and their perspective is valuable and it is needed. I think, sometimes, it’s a bit more jarring when you hear from an attempt survivor. When you’re sitting across from them and they tell their story, you see how hard it is for them. But you see how hard they’re working at it, and that it’s possible even when you’ve attempted. Even when you’ve sat there and actually contemplated what it would mean to go through with it. To know that if you do and you survive, you can survive. Not just exist, but you can go on. You can do other stuff. Then to hear about how sometimes, it doesn’t go right. I was talking to someone about it just today. They were surprised to hear that I was an attempt survivor.
They said, “You seem so happy!”
I’m like, “Well, even happy people get low. Sometimes, you have to pretend to be happy even when you’re miserable.”
Not everybody wants to hear about, “You tried to [take your life]? What’s wrong with you?” And they’re like, “Well, it’s better now. Right?”
Not really. I mean, not in the way that everybody expects it to be. They think once you’ve gotten past that knee-jerk, “I’m gonna do it!” that it goes away. Unfortunately, at least in my instance, it hasn’t. If things get bad enough, if I get low enough, if I don’t reach out, if I don’t use any of the mechanisms for dealing with what’s going on in my head and how I feel, it’s always there. I mean, I considered it once. I thought it was a valid option not once, but twice.
I almost did it by accident one time. That doesn’t—at least, for me—just go away. But I try to take into consideration what it would do to my son. My counselor friend, their stepson [died by] suicide. There weren’t really any warning signs. They did have mental health issues, but there was no preparing for it. There was no trying to stop it. There was just dealing with it afterward. [I had] to have a conversation with my young child about that, because he was really close to the young person who [died by] suicide. [I had] to explain to him that this person was sick and that they were in a very bad place, and they didn’t know how to deal with it.
Remembering having that conversation is something that’s always there for me now, as well. As bad as I get, as low as I feel, as many times as I think of [attempting], I have to think about somebody else having to have that conversation with my son. Except for, this time, it’s about his mother. I don’t think it would be right to put that on him at this point, or really any point in his life. Particularly at this point. He’s fourteen now. Life’s gonna be hard enough as it is. It would be just a different type of walking out on him, which is something that I lived through. I told myself I wouldn’t do that to him. When all else fails, these are things I fall back on.
Des: Talk to me about Alaska and the high suicide rate.
Lagemas: Well, Alaska is a very beautiful, very unique, very isolated place. The community I grew up in, at it’s largest during the summer, is about five hundred people. There were more kids in the high school senior class over here right now than there are people in my hometown. That makes for a very close, but also very catty environment. Add to that things like politics, family politics, historical trauma, your ACES count, and socioeconomic ability. It gets very hairy.
A lot of the Natives in the outlying communities are still coping with the trauma. I mean, I don’t know how else to express that. My mother’s generation was the generation of people who were taken from their homes and put into boarding school. They weren’t allowed to speak their language. They weren’t allowed to really learn their culture, because they had to learn how to live in the Western community. They are what I refer to as the “lost generation.” There are a lot of them trying to regain their culture, their history, and their sense of community. There are others who never found their way home. They just never found their way back.
I think that situation is similar for a lot of the outlying communities. I mean, they all experienced that same trauma. These are families that were getting broken up. These are families that are getting abused in ways that, historically, they never had to deal with before. The tribes had their skirmishes. They had their wars. They had their enemies. They had their territories. But there was also an understanding between the tribes. At least, that’s the way I perceive it, from my place in history. There was a lot of trading. There were a lot of attempts at peace and negotiation.
The marriage structure within the tribes is evidence of that. In the Tlingit culture, the Raven marries the Eagle, and sometimes it’s a Raven from one community that marries an Eagle from another community, so there is that bond there. A family from one community marries into a family from another community, so there is that bond there. That goes a long way into tamping down on some of that non-essential bickering and fighting that can sometimes happen where there is no tie between peoples. So, you’ve got a lot of mixed Natives—Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian—you’ve got up north Natives mixed with southeast Natives. There was a lot of that going on, and that social structure that was getting built got completely upturned with the introduction of Western culture.
In my household, the way that it was always explained to me was that a man was not greater than a woman. They both had their places in life. They both had things that they were essential for. My culture is matriarchal, where you are what your mother was. Women were highly valued. They were well protected. They were well cared for. They were essential. You can’t treat someone who is essential to your survival as less than you are.
In my grandmother and my grandfather’s relationship, it wasn’t perfect, but that was the basis for how they survived what they went through. Or, at least, that’s what I’m given to understand by the conversations I’ve had with my grandmother.
I think losing that disrupted a lot of things. In Western culture, the male is the primary, and is often considered of greater value than the female. That puts a lot of things out of whack when your cultural identity is contrary to that. Men went from being trained to value women, to then seeing women as property, to then seeing women as less than they were. And then, having to deal with the fact that “a woman is less than [a man], but you are less than a white woman, which is less than a white man.” Having to re-orient themselves in social space and time damaged a lot.
There are a lot of people who still have not figured out how to walk the path between our culture—the Native culture—and the Western culture. That led to a lot of drinking, a lot of drug abuse, and a lot of physical abuse and sexual abuse. If I remember correctly, Alaska leads the nation in suicide rates, sexual assault, child molestation, and a lot of other very unpleasant things.
While there is the historical trauma aspect of it, there is the socioeconomic aspect to it too. I mean, in the community that I grew up in, which is five hundred people at it’s busiest, two hundred and fifty of those work at the sports fisherman lodge. Once that place shuts down for the summer, then you have the gas station, the school district, the store, the post office, and that’s it. Those are the four places where you can get jobs. There are other, smaller ones, like the senior center, but places that are going to hire more than just two or three people at a time are in short supply.
So, you’ve got a lot of people out there living on social security and on welfare, basically. It’s hard to see your life as positive. It’s hard to feel like you’re being productive and contributing, when you can’t provide for yourself. A lot of the people out in the community hunt, fish, and gather. They work very hard to survive. Sometimes, that’s not enough, especially when you compare your life to what you’re seeing on TV. You look at kids going on spring break, and you wonder, “Well, why can’t I do that?” Well, you can’t do that because your average annual income is $12,000 per year.
I have genuinely no idea how my grandmother afforded to raise my sister and I in the village on her and my grandfather’s social security. I know that we worked like dogs, with preparing fish, deer, and seal. I mean, there wasn’t a time of year that we weren’t working on something. I know that was a part of it, but my grandmother didn’t apply for welfare when she had my sister and I. She didn’t rely on social service programs to take care of us because she was afraid that they were going to go after my mother. They would have, because she was technically the custodial person. My mother was not particularly stable, didn’t really have regular income, and it would have been very detrimental to her. My grandmother didn’t want to make her already-difficult life even harder.
There are those considerations being made out in the communities, too: “If I apply for a help program, how is it going to affect these other people?” Sometimes you can’t apply, because there’s not enough to go around. The socioeconomic aspect of it contributes greatly. If you can’t sustain yourself, your family, and the people that you care about, then how do you feel productive? How do you feel whole? How do you feel successful? How do you see a future when all you can think about is: “If I don’t get a deer today, we don’t eat tomorrow. If I don’t catch enough fish this summer, we’re going to starve this winter?” It’s really hard to see beyond the here and now when that’s all you have time for.
That leads to a lot of drinking. Drinking and drugs have been a great contributor to the situation, too. A lot of people turn to drinking for things that they have no idea how to deal with. Sexual abuse is a considerable issue in Alaska. I can’t remember what the statistic is. It’s like, three in five women have experienced sexual abuse. It’s a ridiculously high rate. In my family, I think there’s maybe three women who haven’t experienced some form of sexual abuse. I don’t even know what the statistic is in my family for what happened to the men, because that doesn’t get talked about. So, you find ways to cope, and that’s led to a lot of problems.
Once you start drinking and taking drugs and realizing that you don’t know how you’re going to find tomorrow when you can’t get out of today, you don’t know your place in life because it’s been altered so many times. There’s so many different versions of where you’re supposed to be. You have no historical guidance for it anymore. There’s no historical directive on how to be anymore. You start becoming detached. Once you lose that connection to community, to culture, to family, to self, it gets really easy to see suicide as a simple answer. You don’t have to ask any questions. You don’t have to answer any questions.
I don’t know if that’s applicable for everyone, but from what I’ve seen from my perspective and the various conversations that I’ve had with people about the subject, that’s what I take away from it.
Des: There’s very little visibility of stories like yours. What would you want to say to somebody who might be reading or watching your story who identifies culturally with you, and that silence that they’ve had to carry around?
Lagemas: I remember the code of silence very well. It was hard to agree to do this because of the unspoken understanding of the code of silence. A Native person talking to a non-Native person about problems in my family, problems with me, admitting that I have problems, that I can’t take care of myself, admitting that I’ve made bad choices, that I’ve hurt people that I’m supposed to be taking care of. It’s all very hard to grasp, to get over, and to accept. But the thing that I think about when I think about that code is how, when I was disciplined as a child, or when I was sexually assaulted as a child, or even my suicide attempts as a teen, I couldn’t tell anybody about it. I couldn’t do anything about it because nobody knew anything about it.
Then, when it happened to my sister, there was this unbelievable guilt in my life because maybe, if I had said something, somebody would know that that was an issue in my community. Maybe if I had said something to her about what had happened to me, even if I wasn’t saying it to the community, even if I wasn’t out there rallying against all of the wrongs and ills in the world—if I had had a conversation with her about it, I could have taught her how to be more careful. I could have shown her the signs. If I had not been so adherent to that code of silence, I could have helped prevent suffering to my sister. She was my first baby. She came home when I was four, and I remember making her bottles and changing her diapers. Not being able to prevent her suffering because maybe I didn’t say something, because in my community, people wouldn’t say something… I’d never expected to feel that level of guilt.
For my son, if I don’t say something, if I don’t share now, if I don’t tell him about it, if I don’t teach him not to be like that, he could be back in this cycle. They talk about “end the cycle” and it feels like some fluffy, sissy, ya-ya thing that non-issue people say to people with issues. I understand the reluctance to accept it, because how could this person who knows nothing about you tell you something of value to you?
But, as one person who suffered to another, as one person who knows how these sorts of sufferings can contribute to your life and the lives around you, the best thing you can do, the most productive thing you can do, the bravest thing you can do is say something. Even if it’s scary. Even if it hurts. Even if people are going to be mad at you about it. The bravest thing you can do is say something. And if this is the only kind of brave I can be, I feel good about that.
Des: Has anything positive come out of your attempt?
Lagemas: The ability to speak about it. Recognizing that the code of silence is not helping us anymore. I understand why we, as a community and as a culture, would adopt that protocol. That [was a] safety protocol for us because they accused us of being savages, because they didn’t understand what our culture was and why it was. They assumed we were worshiping the totem poles we put up, which wasn’t the case, but they didn’t understand that. By us telling them about these things, they assumed things about us without understanding us. So, I understand why we would adopt it and not want to share with people outside of the community, but I think we took it too far.
[I am] finally able to recognize that, just because I’m talking about an issue, it doesn’t make me a bad person. It doesn’t mean I’m betraying my community. I might be giving up the ghost on a couple of relatives, but…
I read something somewhere, “Tell your story as you know it and as you feel it, regardless of what other people say about it or how they feel about what you say, because if they wanted to be a nice part of your story, they would have acted accordingly.” When I found that, I was like, “Holy Shit. Really. Yeah. If they wanted me to speak well of them, they would have treated me well. They can’t be mad at me for being honest about what they did, or how they talked about me or to me.”
I will have to come to terms that there are some people who won’t speak well about me because of things I have said or have done. But I won’t feel bad about this because it has the potential to help someone. Just from my first attempt to now, I feel like I’ve grown a lot in my ability to understand what’s going on in my head, how I react to different types of stress and being able to address it before I get too low. I don’t always catch myself before I hit bottom, but I do often enough that it’s not the low lows, it’s not the “I can’t get up in the morning” lows. I don’t know if that’s a huge positive, but it’s what I need. It’s been good for me.
Des: I think that’s a pretty huge positive. Is there anything you feel like I forgot to ask you? Anything you want to add?
Lagemas: I guess it would be, for me, I am traditionally a pessimist, but I believe there’s a small place in my head and my heart where hope resides. I don’t feed it very often. I don’t take very good care of it, but it’s always there. Even on my worst days, even in my most difficult situations, that little bit of hope to grasp onto, even if you can only hold it for a second, is essential. I believe that most people have that. If you look hard enough and if you focus on it, there’s always one thing, one moment, one thought, one feeling, a smell, a taste, that triggers that hope.
For me, I’ve got lots of different things that trigger hope now. My son’s laugh—from the time he was very little, his laugh has saved me so many times. The smell of sea air, like when you’re out on a boat. The taste of fresh fry bread, right out of the fryer, when it’s still hot and you practically burn your mouth off.
All of those little things that you find pleasure in, those are your connections to hope. Don’t ignore them. Don’t sweep them away. Don’t dismiss them, even when you’re at your lowest, because that’s you. That’s some part of you wanting to survive. That’s some part of you wanting to be there. If you can find pleasure in these things, then there is something that you like about your life. There is something to be here for. There’s something to hold on to, and it might not be much, but sometimes all you need is a small something.