Digital Grave

VANESSA SMEETS

Digital grave1

GRIM REAPER = Grim realization the dead friend isn’t reading these posts.

I have a terrible addiction that started four years ago after a friend’s suicide. The night he died, I looked through all of his social media for clues… There it was: subtle yet incriminating evidence of someone who felt completely alone. Images of a broken telephone, of a threaded wire (ordinary things we would never look for as deeper symbolic meanings) on his Facebook, as well as updates like: “Seeing ALL my friends tonight. Cheers!” His Twitter was flooded with monologues – “No one sees me.” “Hello, are you listening?”

We were close at varsity; but, with most friendships, ours had its moments of distance. Sadly, I am one of those that live by the rule: “Out of sight, out of mind.” Facebook has made me a lazy friend. I used to phone and message people regularly, but now that most people advertise their lives, I don’t see the point. The ones I see the most are the ones that are the least active on Facebook.

Digital grave 2

RIP: What happens to your social media post-death?

I thought I was doing an okay job: every time my friend checked in somewhere, I liked it. Every time he posted a photo of himself with a new award, I liked it. I had no idea he was lonely. He was the soul at every party. As most of us know, social media gives us a false sense of belonging and of knowing everyone’s business.

An old school pal messaged me the other day: “Wow… You really are a terrible friend…” “Huh?” was my automatic reply. “You never message me. Guess where I am? A mental institution.” I had no idea, through all her beautiful photos of her children, the thought never even crossed my mind. Like most, she had been posting blissful photos to hide her extreme pain.

Digital grave 3

REMEMBERING: Facebook is made up of memories and friendships, which can be stirred up through lack of activity…

My addiction continued two years ago with the suicide of a Tuks lecturer. I looked through all his publicised photos. The ones made public (with that world icon) were actually the most painful to read, even though they were very few. Then this year, I realised my addiction had to stop. I read through the social media of the young girl (14) who killed herself at Northgate Mall. All she had were beautiful photos with very little hints of her darkness… And then I read through her mother’s updates and started crying. I was crying over a stranger, but a stranger who reflected my friend, who reflected my weakness, who reflected my pain through her mother. “If only I had known…” her mom posted over and over again. If only I had too…

After we die, our social media carries on quite the same, except suddenly people who never spoke to you for the last five years, start reaching out. TOO LATE. Everyone messages more: on your birthday, special days you shared and the anniversary of your death. SCARY.

Digital grave 4

WHO AM I? Does Facebook give a false sense of popularity?

It’s time to realise that in a time of so much communication in the form of Whatsapp, Skype, etc, people have actually never felt more alone. Touch is what we need, not a “like”. A cup of coffee is what we crave, not “a selfie.” A genuine “How are you?” beats a “What you up to tonight?” In fact, social media is anything but social. It causes us to shut down when trying to have real conversations, it allows us to become cyberbullies on difficult topics like religion, race or politics, it causes us to be quite narcissistic with an array of selfies and holiday snaps.

“How are you feeling today?” asks my Facebook daily, not even my virtual friends.
Has Facebook replaced my life book, become my journal, a place where I actually write for and to myself mostly? Are my virtual friends still my real friends and vice versa?

Is anyone reading this…?

READ MORE on Facebook’s “death etiquette:”
http://mashable.com/2013/02/13/facebook-after-death/#hxZkTpt9ziqy

Happiness is…

VANESSA SMEETS

For years, I searched far and wide for happiness.
The greatest poets and creative people have spoken of it as an illusion or the ultimate tease, being short-lived and unfulfilling. Walt Disney claimed it’s the way one looks at things. William Shakespeare referred to it as good friends. AA Milne, who wrote Winnie the Pooh, referred to it as the secret to all beauty. For many, it comes in four states of being, which I believe could be seen as four seasons: euphoria, bliss, joy, and contentment.

Euphoria: where everything seems to be floating and unreal, your senses are overcome much like in spring.
Bliss: where everything seems almost too perfect to be true. Your body and heart are one, much like in summer.
Joy: where everything still seems beautiful, just like the colours of autumn.
Contentment: where you hold on to the other three, but will have to do with the warmth provided, much like in winter.

But, what does it mean to me? Because that’s what Incitement is about: my story, our story. (For more on Incitement SA, see my previous article: There is HOPE!)

childhood_quote

FREEDOM: The magic of childhood should not be forgotten in adulthood… PIC: Internet

My seasonal journey with happiness has been complex, sometimes raining with splendor, other times hard to harvest.
I first discovered it as a small child from simple things: setting dragonflies and butterflies free in the kitchen, catching grasshoppers in the garden and feeling them tickle my skin, watching my parents kiss, playing with Barbies for hours on end. Yes, I’ve always been a romantic and that is where my disillusionment with happiness was born.

This is quite personal, but I believe many of us have been through it…
As someone who struggled with clinical depression for almost ten years, I am finally free of it. No, it was not through fancy medication or hours at the psychiatrist. If anything, those things worsened my state of being. The meds poisoned my body, to the verge of becoming a diabetic and the shrink poisoned my soul by opening old wounds. I had forgiven. I didn’t need to be reminded of my past regrets and hurt.

Faith_quote

FAITH: Balancing faith against your fears will push you forward. PIC: RobinSharma.com

Happiness is the ability to balance what you have with what you need, appreciating those special moments. I learnt this best as a preschool teacher. Children have the ability to be creative, even when their little heads and hearts are in disjoint. A child will continue to smile, even if things at home aren’t easy. They believe in the power of daily life – every day is a magical reason to wake up, discover your surroundings and explore your needs.

As adults, we forget the essence of imagination. We forget to discover daily power and magic. We keep diaries of our daily struggles, instead of your daily triumphs. And we forget to spend time with children, who teach us to see through new eyes. I’ve always believed children are the world’s greatest teachers.

child_southAfrica

THE KEY: Children are not only the future, but the world’s greatest teachers. PIC: Vanessa Smeets

I discovered a whole new world as a preschool teacher: one where killed spiders are given funerals, where storms are caused by an angry creator and where friendship is about listening and sharing, even if that means your favourite sandwich.

Children, not pills, healed my heartache. Originally, I studied journalism. I was determined to become a war photographer. But teaching taught me to focus on life, rather than death. And the war within myself was finally put to rest. So the trick is to BELIEVE, in yourself, in your dreams, in others, in their dreams. Clichéd but true: what a difference this makes.

For the parents out there, I urge you to write down the beautiful things you witness on a daily basis with your child. Get involved with your child’s preschool: “What did he/ she get up to today?”

Happiness is obeying your bliss, even if it comes from ridiculous sounding things like a fresh smoothie, a yoga session you’ve been avoiding or an afternoon in the botanical gardens. Unhappy people are those that don’t know what they want out of life. They have little focus on where they are going. They keep looking back on past mistakes, instead of embracing today’s beauty. Every sunset should be seen as unique. Every stranger on the street has a story to share.

These are my tips for a state of happiness every day:

euphoria_spring

Euphoria, like spring, is the overwhelming beauty of one’s life reawakening. PIC: Internet

EUPHORIA:

  • Start a random conversation with a stranger, such as a person who sells you a newspaper, hands out a flyer. If everyone listened with more patience, we’d have more interesting days.
  • Put away your phone and Facebook for a whole day. Make face-to-face conversation with a person you haven’t seen in a long time. The power of touch is one which can heal.
bliss_summer

Bliss is like summer, when mind, body, heart and soul beat as one. PIC: Internet

BLISS:

  • Listen to the way a small child speaks to their pet. If everyone spoke with such kindness, we’d have many more friends.
  • Draw. Paint. Sing. Dance. Do something you normally never have time to do, yet enjoy. It will rejuvenate your soul.
joy_autumn

Much like autumn, joy is an array of beautiful colours that envelop the soul. PIC: Internet

JOY:

  • Arrange a coffee-date with your parents and grandparents. Listen to stories of their youth and their search for happiness before it’s too late.
  • Hold your pet for a good hour, cuddle it… That is the only creature that never judges you, criticizes you; despite giving it the same food every day and the same lame excuse “I’ll play with you tomorrow”.
contentment_winter

Much like winter, contentment is loving the warmth of what we knew… PIC: Internet

CONTENTMENT:

  • Fall in love with your life again… Seek that dream job and those fun friends. Reawaken your inner being. A wise friend once told me: “Don’t walk away from negativity. RUN AS FAST AS YOU CAN!”
  • Meditate on the previous seasons.

Happiness should never be searched for. That goes against its aim. It finds you when you least expect it, much like love and peace. And I do believe those three work hand-in-hand. You cannot be truly happy without love or peace. And what is love or peace without happiness? Go on then, dream some more. Live for eternity.

god's four gifts

BLESSINGS: The essence of life… PIC: Internet

Playing Russian Roulette

VANESSA SMEETS

“Anyone who cannot cope with life while he is alive needs one hand to ward off a little despair over his fate…but with his other hand he can jot down what he sees among the ruins, for he sees different and more things than the others; after all, he is dead in his own lifetime and the real survivor.” – Franz Kafka

Ever gambled with the idea of suicide? It’s like playing Russian Roulette: the one idea glares at you from the inside of a barrel, ready to be cocked at any second.
To be or not to be: that is the haunting question… It’s a fact that humans all react differently to stress: some freak out, some cry, some get angry and some get increasingly depressed. With the challenges of varsity-life forever increasing – keeping up your good marks, getting your assignments done on time, balancing one’s social life and academic life, fitting in with the crowd and dealing with the making and breaking of intimate relationships, it’s no wonder that suicide is on the increase amongst students.

suicide note

LAST WORDS: Only 15% of people who've committed suicide leave suicide notes. PIC: Online

Facts about suicide:

  • Three times as many men kill themselves as women.
  • Three times as many women as men attempt to kill themselves but do not die.
  • Suicide is especially frequent amongst psychiatrists, physicians, lawyers and psychologists.
  • No other kind of death leaves friends and family with such long-lasting feelings of distress, shame, guilt, puzzlement and disturbance.
  • Men usually choose to hang or shoot themselves. Women are more likely to use sleeping pills.
  • Suicide ranks second as cause of death amongst varsity students, after car accidents.
  • Many more students commit suicide than their peers who do not attend class.
  • Hungary and Japan have the highest rates of suicide in the world.

According to Mintz (1968), motivations for suicide may vary: aggression turned inward, efforts to force love from others, efforts to make amends for past mistakes, sexual attraction to members of one’s own sex, the desire for re-incarnation, the desire to rejoin a loved one, the desire to escape from stress, deformity, pain, or emotional vacuum.

Freud agreed with Mintz’s theory on “aggression turned inward” as the most common cause of suicide. He claims:

“When a person loses someone whom he or she ambivalently loved and hated, and introjects that person, aggression is directed inward. If these feelings are strong and murderous enough, the person will commit suicide.”

However, many other scholars have disagreed with Freud, claiming that the majority of suicide notes express affection and gratitude, not hostility. Yet, only 15% of people (statistic of the United States) leave suicide notes.

Kurt Cobain

27 Curse: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain are just a few musical artists who committed suicide around the age of 27. PIC: Online

According to Durkheim (1897), there are three types of suicide:

Egoistic suicide: when a person has too few ties to society and the community. These people feel alienated from others and cannot function adaptively as social beings.
Altruistic suicide: the opposite of above, is a response to societal demands, where self-sacrifice is seen as an honourable act amongst certain cultures. Examples include freedom fighters in the old South Africa, the hara-kiri of the Japanese and modern-day suicide bombers.
Anomic suicide: when there is a sudden change in someone’s personal relations. public humiliation.
During the 1970s, various tests were done around the world to see how suicide could be controlled. It was found that depression was not as much a cause as hopelessness for one to take his/ her own life. Many genuinely suicidal people believed that nothing would get better in their lives at that present time. Suicidal people were also found to be haunted by a sense of physical disequilibrium, in that they couldn’t control things around them. Such people also had problems in challenging their energy, were more rigid in their approach to problems and less flexible in their thinking.

“Like one who keeps afloat on a shipwreck by climbing to the top of a mast that is already crumbling… from there he has a chance to give a signal leading to his rescue.” – Walter Benjamin (1931)

brain depression

PSYCHOLOGICAL TORTURE: A lack of Serotonin (a neurotransmitter involved with 'happy feelings') may cause one to feel depressed and suicidal. PIC: Courtesy Medical Look (online)

How to get rid of suicidal thoughts:

  • Stay in contact with your friends and family. Tell them what you are feeling: a problem shared is a problem halved.
  • Avoid being alone at all costs.
  • Keep active – exercise releases endorphins which make one feel happy.
  • Keep busy – watch comedies on TV, listen to uplifting music, go out with friends.
  • Genuinely believe you are strong enough – that this too shall pass.
  • Avoid negative or pessimistic people in your turmoil – they only pull you down.
  • Appreciate and reward yourself by participating in new social groups, charity work or team sport.
  • Find a sense of belonging by participating in a religious group who practises your needs and beliefs.
  • Join the gym with a reliable friend – this will motivate you to go.
  • Contact your campus psychologist (normally free) to talk to if no one else is available.

Important telephone numbers (in South Africa):

The Depression and Anxiety Support Group: (011) 783 1474
FAMSA (for trauma debriefing): (011) 788 4784/5 or (012) 460 0733

Sources:

Davidson, G.C. & Neale, J.M. 1982. Abnormal Psychology: an experimental clinical approach. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Broken wings and puppet strings

VANESSA SMEETS

women abuse

QUIET PAIN: Domestic violence comes in three forms, emotional, physical and sexual. PIC: online

MEETING THE MONSTER

Jane* doesn’t really remember the first time she was struck by a man. She must have just been three years old when her dad hit her for the first time, for having her elbows on the table while eating.

As she grew up, she was attracted to men with short tempers. They fascinated her. At first, watching them shout at car-guards or beggars was entertaining. But then, it became frightening.
When she and her first love, Dylan, went clubbing one night, she realized she was in love with a monster. She told Dylan about the cleaner who had taken cash out of her bag while they were dancing. His piercing blue eyes turned red with anger. He almost beat the cleaner to a pulp, when he was pulled off by a bouncer.

Jane can’t talk at first when I ask her how it ended. She fidgets with the rims of her skirt.

“I told him I was pregnant. That’s when I saw hatred in his eyes. He stuffed the morning-after pill into my mouth. No water. Just his dry fingers reaching as far as possible into my throat. I bit him then and he slapped me across the face.”

That night, Dylan took her out for dinner. He was completely different. He treated her perfectly, paid her compliments and placed a beautiful necklace around her neck.

DECEPTION

It wasn’t the first time he had struck her for “inappropriate behaviour.” Four months into their dating, she went through his computer and found a list of girls he had slept with. There was a name after hers.

“I tried to hide it for two weeks, but the pain ate me up. I confronted him. At first, he pretended not to know what I was talking about. But then, I asked about each one, one by one. His voice changed. He became like a little boy filled with guilt. He hit me for invading his privacy. Then he apologised and even shed a few tears. I fell deeper for him then.”

The pattern of falling deeper for him the more he failed her continued for two and a half years. She stopped seeing her friends and stopped going to church.

PUPPET MASTER

She became his puppet. He told her how to dress, speak and act and she listened diligently.
“In a sick way, by losing my identity, I thought I was growing closer to him. He was untouchable. He was the most popular guy in our group and I, suddenly, was good enough to be his queen.”

alone

SOLE SOUL: Many abused women feel completely alone and embarrassed to talk about what they are going through. PIC: online

Her hands tremble now as I ask her about the night that changed her life.
“His mother was visiting from overseas. She prepared him and his brother supper, but they never thanked her or showed any affection. I caught her crying quietly and told her: ‘Don’t worry. They love you.’
He was furious: ‘Those are forbidden words in my family! Don’t you ever intervene! You have no business telling her that!’

It was so absurd. He had never spoken to me in that way. He locked me outside on his balcony for two hours. I cried. I screamed. To no avail. After two hours in the cold, he opened the door and yelled: ‘Are you sorry yet?’

‘Sorry for what?’ I whimpered back. His hands tightened around my wrists, which he now placed behind my back. ‘Why don’t you jump?’ he said, while laughing. His hands caressed my neck and back, slowly pushing me to the edge. Believe me, I was tempted to do it. I looked at my life and realized I had nothing left to give.

Rihanna abuse

RIRI: Domestic violence was brought to light again in 2009, when Pop singer Rihanna was assaulted by her boyfriend Chris Brown. PIC: online

A few months later, Jane was in a mental institution, diagnosed with Psychosis. Her brain couldn’t take any more abuse. Dylan came to visit her regularly with chocolates or flowers.
“You’re not very strong are you?” he hissed one night, as she lay sobbing on his chest. “I can’t be with someone who can’t get up again. Get up! I dare you!”

Jane was on so much medication that she couldn’t tell what was real or not anymore. She saw worms coming out of her veins. She saw animal faces upon everyone that visited her. She called Dylan to share her fears, but he stopped picking up. At times, he would just breathe into the phone.

suicide pills

TEMPTATION: Jane swallowed a cocktail mix of 22 pills on her 22nd birthday, for every year of what her boyfriend called her of "being a burden." PIC: Online

THE FINAL BLOW

Jane became more and more lost in her despair. She finally decided to commit suicide. She swallowed 22 pills on her 22nd birthday, for every year that she thought she was a burden.
Just in time, the doctors pumped her stomach. The white froth dried up around her lips was the only evidence she had gone to such desperate measures.
She never heard from Dylan again, until Valentine’s Day four months later.

“I’m sorry. I need you. I want you back.”

Instead of falling for the voice she had become so accustomed to, she heard him as the conniving man her soul had once feared, but was now ready to fight. She was finally free. Detectives tried to find him, but he had already left the country. After doing various investigations, they found out that a few of Dylan’s ex-girlfriends were in mental institutions and one had already committed suicide.

Jane stutters as she continues:

“I was lucky enough to make it out in time. Somehow, I got my life back on track. He haunted my dreams for a while, but I refuse to give him any more power. I hope he reads this some day. But, people like that don’t have a heart or conscience. I refuse to ever sacrifice mine again.”

*name has been changed

Signs you’re dealing with a Player Signs you’ve got a Keeper
– he checks your friends out all the time- he calls to say he misses the action- he makes you feel small and inadequate

– he buys you expensive gifts

– his phone is on voicemail when you call

– he talks about himself 24/7

– he speaks about his exes in derogatory terms

– he spends time getting to know your body, saying you’re his favourite

– he checks you out all the time- he calls to say he misses your voice- he makes you feel magical and special

– he makes you sentimental gifts

– he picks up even when he’s busy

– he talks about you 24/7

– he speaks about his exes briefly, with respect

– he spends time getting to know your favourite things


Obsession behind the lens

VANESSA SMEETS
famine africa

MAMA AFRIKA: Finbarr O’Reilly’s depiction of famine-stricken Africa won him World Press Photo in 2006. COURTESY: Finbarr O’Reilly/ World Press Photos

There’s something exhilirating in holding your first camera. You feel invincible. People in front of the lens may be smiling, crying, shaking or playing, but you are absolutely still and focused. You wait and watch. There you see it – that split second that makes the photo stand out above the rest. Click.

Content, you take it home and watch it over and over again on your PC screen. It has a unique story; maybe it was the last tear drop escaping a child’s face as she fell. Or, maybe it was the smile she had as she realised her ice-cream escaped the fall unscathed.

Johann van Tonder, photojournalism lecturer at Stellenbosch University’s Journalism Department, lists the three characteristics that set photojournalism apart: a subject, a subject which stands out and a story told by the picture.

Often, people mistake photojournalism with art. You may take a pretty picture of a child, an insect or a flower, but if it doesn’t tell a story, it is NOT photojournalism.

The best photojournalism picture often has a heart beat. It is able to speak to the viewer. It even has the power to move, intrigue or disgust him/her.

The Bang Bang Club by South Africans Joao Silva and Greg Marinovich captures the thrill, pain and glory (or lack of it) photojournalists go through. Their friend, Kevin Carter, won a Pulitzer prize for his photo of a child stalked by a vulture in famine-ridden Sudan. He was criticized for being insensitive. People in his own profession called him a coward for taking the picture, rather than helping the child. He became increasingly depressed and eventually committed suicide. As Marinovich points out in the book: “That image is engraved and burnt into your mind forever.”

GENIUS: James Nachtwey covered the Bosnian war, amongst others. His black & white technique proved that composition can be more powerful than colour. COURTESY: James Nachtwey

James Nachtwey has similar views in a National Geographic documentary made about him and his work. Nachtwey has been to some of the most war-ridden places in the world. His experiences in Bosnia turned him into an insomniac and recluse. He couldn’t confide in his wife or children. He found solace in taking even more horrific pictures. When his skin began to melt while taking a picture of an explosion, he realised his obsession with the right shot and addiction in getting it was taking over his life.

“Nothing prepares you for the pain afterwards,” says a former Zimbabwean photojournalist. His PC is filled with images of bruised bodies and raw flesh; after ZANU-PF officials threatened him and his colleagues as they tried to get rid of journalists in Zimbabwe.

They were harrassed and beaten; their camera straps used to strangle them.

There’s a price to pay for being a serious photojournalist. It demands determination and courage. It includes long hours, days or years of being in threatening places for a few published pictures. But the best photojournalists know that there is power in their profession. It is the power to paint a more realistic world, one defined by the eyes which were brave enough to look first.

stalked child

PULITZER PRICE: South African Kevin Carter was criticised for taking a photo of a starving child being stalked by a vulture. Many believe the criticism led to his eventual suicide. COURTESY: Kevin Carter/ archives