By Marie Demasi
I’m not sure why, but I have always been a person who looks for signs. I’m a firm believer that angels are among us, some are seen and some are not. I believe each person who crosses our paths, even for only a minute, serves a purpose.
Participating in the Out of the Darkness Walk hosted by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) was a choice very much out of my comfort zone. I thought, “I could never walk 18 miles… and definitely not when I am supposed to be sleeping, and on the streets of NYC past midnight. Surely I would get hurt.” Yet I was also determined to tackle the challenge. After all, it would bring me closer to Steven, my big brother and best friend, who had committed suicide when he was only 13 and I was 9.
This year marked 25 years since Steven took his life, and to be honest I have grown tired of the stigma. As a mom with children of my own, I want to focus less on hiding how we lost Steven and more on preventing other families from feeling the pain of losing someone to suicide in the future. I took the 25-year mark as a sign that I needed to do more in raising suicide awareness, and this walk would be my first step. I had so much anxiety leading up to the walk, but as I got closer to the event and started meeting people who had either participated before or were newbies like myself, I started to realize how many other people out there felt the same way as I did.
I hopped on the train in my bright blue shirt saying “The Overnight Walk: All Night for Suicide Prevention,” which showed the world what I was doing with zero shame. I arrived to a huge hug from my cousin, Fran, who decided to join me at the last minute. I was so happy to know that I was going to have someone by my side for the night who loved Steven and missed him as much as I did. She was there when I lost him and she would be by my side to honor him as we walked 18 miles.
We started our journey over to the Intrepid for start of the walk, with a quick stop to fuel up at Juniors. We got to the Intrepid with 2000+ fellow walkers in blue shirts. I got into the line to check in and there was my first sign… STEVEN WAS WITH ME. The man behind me said, “it looks like rain.” I replied, “No, they said no rain.” This started the conversation. “who is they? You must believe in the man in the moon.” My children think Uncle Steven lives in the moon, though of course this man didn’t know that.
At check-in, I was thanked for what I was doing and handed a pin and a special light-up arm band. I walked over to hand in my Luminary that would later be lit in honor of Steven. I headed to the honor bead tent and grabbed 3 sets of beads. (Orange for loss of a sibling, blue for support of suicide prevention, and green for someone who struggled or struggles him/herself.) I then moved over to link up with some fellow walkers I knew and reunite with my cousin.
We got a map of the route and started at 7:20 pm. And sign 2 THE RAIN! Did I mention I don’t do rain? How was I going to push myself to walk through rain? But to me this was the heavens letting it all out. All these people had loved ones just like Steven gone too soon by their own choice. It was so symbolic to rain, with big, heavy drops! We made a few stops, attempting to avoid being drenched, but it was inevitable. I was going to have to push through it, much like I was pushing through the fact that I was terrified to be walking in the first place and wondering if I was going to finish.
Rain stopped around Mile 2… and we paced ourselves, skipping the first two breaks and hitting up a Starbucks. It was closing time but they let us sneak in for a coffee. The caffeine and warmth were perfect after the chill of the damp clothing and gave us a much-needed jolt.
Along the way there were cheering sections, which led to sign #3! I exchanged a warm HUG with a lady I have never met. It was not an awkward hug that you give to a stranger; it was the kind of squeeze that is genuine, like the other person knows you really need it. It is Amazing to me how many people are inspired by and grateful to us for uniting to support the cause of suicide prevention, when being a suicide survivor in isolation can carry so much stigma.
The walk brought us to the 9/11 memorial, which triggered a lot of memories for Fran and me. Her dad was one of the firefighters who responded to the tragedy on that day; my other brother used to work in the Twin Towers. There was an eerie, calm quiet. I walked closer to the reflection pools, and I could somehow feel the presence of angels. At one moment, I got goosebumps and felt a strong pressure on my back that actually made me turn around because I thought someone was holding my backpack down. No one was there… sign number 4… Was it Steven? Was I carrying other angels on my journey? I took it as a sign from those who felt they had no choice that day but to jump from the building. We continued on before getting too emotional.
Sign #5… MANDY! We were looking at this beautiful area of NYC neither of us had seen before, with trees that almost looked fake and strips of light on the ground. Was it a memorial, we wondered? Some form of Art? We got closer but saw no plaques. This girl walking in front of us asked: “Do you know what this is?” I said, “we were just wondering the same thing.” (I learned later it was Zucotti Park.) The girl turned around and I recognized the picture on her back! I shouted “Mandy! It’s Marie! I think I am supposed to meet you!” She said, “YES!” and again… THAT HUG. The kind of hug that keeps you going when something is hard. Mandy had met a friend of mine a few days earlier and we had connected via Facebook. It was not by chance that this moment all played out… we continued to bump into one another again and again throughout the walk.
Around the financial district, we passed the bull and the seaport over to the Brooklyn Bridge. MILE 7 – JUST ABOUT HALFWAY THERE! We made a quick stop to talk to loved ones, post a picture that we were okay and half way there (11 pm at this point), and change our socks. At this point I started really questioning what I was doing. My hip began to hurt, and I didn’t feel as safe as I had felt earlier. Walkers were sparse. We had lost the tall boys who cheered us on in the beginning (they were on their 6th walk!). Despite the doubts, we kept going until we found a coach on the walk, who directed us to food and told us how much more we had to go.
BREAK CAME JUST IN TIME! We sat down at midnight for our forced dinner. We quickly ate our sandwich, salad, apple, and chips… and moved on with the walk. I knew in the back of my mind I wouldn’t quit, but I was worried about the continued hip pain. The conversation started to slow down, and you could tell fatigue was setting in. At the next rest stop we paused, stretched, and refilled our water bottles. I popped some Advil. The pain would not make me quit nor would my fatigue! I had come too far to quit now, just like I had in life. 25 years is a long time to be without my best friend, but I will continue to carry on.
Around 2:30 am, we had another forced stop for snacks. We passed Macy’s; the area had fewer and fewer walkers so the fear set in again, but we kept going. Times Square lights in the distance! And not until now did I think of sign #6! A quick stop for a picture in front of the NYE Ball in Times Square – Steven’s Birthday was New Year’s Eve! At this point I knew how close the Intrepid was – I had made this walk a week prior to the Intrepid to link up with my friend who led me to Mandy. Suddenly we had a pep in our step. Just before we hit the Intrepid we reached the MILE 16 sign. We knew we were close! We entered the Intrepid that was lit with signs welcoming us, and we saw the FINISH LINE! We grabbed each other’s hands and crossed arm and arm to the saddest music I have ever heard and a path of Luminaries with name after name of those who took their own lives. I heard the cheers and the congratulations, but I was in a fog of emotions – I had to find Steven’s Tribute! Torn between sobbing and holding it together my eyes welled up. We found our Luminaries and then made our way to the closing ceremonies. We were greeted with coffee and breakfast as well as a new shirt, which reads “I Walked All Night to Fight Suicide.”
I completed the walk just before 4 am!!! I sat in disbelief and found an outpouring of love of texts and messages of support. We again found Mandy. And then again the rain started as the closing ceremonies began, which led me to my final sign. The woman sharing her story spoke about how she no longer puts shades on the windows. SHE LETS THE LIGHT IN! In my last blog, I spoke of how I CHOOSE TO LIVE and LET THE LIGHT IN! Her words spoke to me.
I took a taxi back to my big brother’s apartment for my soft place to land for a few hours. I felt so many emotions, but most of all I felt a huge sense of accomplishment. I knew Steven was so proud of me and that one day my kids would fully understand my mission and perhaps join me on a walk. I even signed up next year to walk again at the finish line!
It’s hard to adequately describe the powerful experience in words, but I hope this post has given you a sense of what the Walk has meant to me. Participating in the AFSP Out of Darkness Walk was truly one of the most incredible experiences in my life. I’m so glad that I stepped out of my comfort zone and took this huge leap in honoring the memory of Steven.