Last night I joined 1000+ people in walking nearly 18 miles from dusk till dawn for suicide prevention. The Out of the Darkness Overnight walk takes place in two US cities each year. Collectively we raised $1.9 million in donations which support the 24/7 Lifeline hotline, research on suicide prevention, and support services for people who have attempted suicide and friends and families.
It looks like any charity marathon until you look closer at the shirts and backpacks and understand why people walk.
Participants are invited to create luminarias commemorating loved ones who have died. One man walked the entire course in his late sister's high heels.
The route map was helpful, except it didn't have any street names. Our team was all local to the Bay Area, but many people travel from across the country to participate.
We started and ended at the Great Meadow at Fort Mason. In between, we walked by the Palace of Fine Arts, up Steiner Street into Pacific Heights, past Japantown, up Nob Hill, through SOMA including Mission Creek, past UCSF Mission Bay and AT&T Park, and then along the Embarcadero to the Marina Green.
Walkers wore beads honoring family and friends who have died or attempted suicide. Or a personal struggle, or general advocacy.
The best part of this event is the people you meet, and we had a wonderful, funny, caring team. Joanie and I have been friends for years, but I met Julia, Ashley, and Horacio for the first time last night.
One of the speakers at the opening ceremonies was Kevin Berthia. Kevin's story of standing on the Golden Gate Bridge, ready to jump, is extraordinary. After an hour talking with a local CHP officer, whose face he never saw, Kevin came back from the ledge. 10 years later, he finally met Kevin Briggs, the office who talked him down, and saw his face. Kevin Briggs saved over 200 lives. He also spoke.
But the highlight was definitely Kevin Berthia inviting his partner on stage and then asking her to marry him!
As we walked through the city, a full moon guided our way.
We were escorted through the city streets by a band of Safety angels, many in superhero capes or wearing wings. There was a sag wagon mini-van if you wanted to take a break and warm up or get a ride to the next rest stop.
One angel on her bicycle zoomed up and checked on us periodically: did we need a ride? Were we okay?
We had stopped early on for a break at Joanie's office, which put us behind most the pack.
So we quizzed our angel: Is anyone behind us? Are we last?
Why does everyone keep asking me that? It's not a race, she answered kindly.
Toward the end, we trailed a team in illuminated tutus. As long as we could see them, we knew they'd wait for us at the finish line.
There were rest stops with portapotties, sports drinks, and food every few miles. My favorite snackers were the orange slices and a banana a volunteer offered me on California Street at mile 14.
Nancy came out to support us.
Throughout the city, we were entertained by urban art.
A few mile markers (but who's counting?):
We made it through the second half singing and dancing. If you were awakened around 1:30am by people singing "Everybody Wang Chung tonight," that was us. Ashley was a great DJ.
Every now and then we looked behind us to see if we were last. We were not the only stragglers, and we grew more determined to finish on our own feet. First David's group and then the tutus ahead of us accepted a ride. Julia was saddened to watch them ride away. But we kept going, dreaming of foot massages and hot chocolate.
The home stretch
The best mile marker of all:
Mile marker 16 was at the corner of Columbus and Bay where North Beach meets the Wharf. We climbed our last hill past my first San Francisco apartment on Bay Street, closing in on Fort Mason.
During the last two blocks, we walked with a couple of women and a boy of 12 or so.
Were you with us the whole time, Horacio asked? No, it turned out Michael had just arrived at 4 am to support his mom.
We need more music, we decided. I have just the thing, Michael told us, and proceeded to play "Eye of the Tiger." It's on my motivational playlist, he said.
We strode back toward the Finish line, strong. Then we reentered the gathering area where volunteers had laid out the luminarias, fill with sand and electric candles to light our way. Reminding us why we'd walked, and those we had honored.
Some of the luminarias were laid out in a heart. Horacio found the one he'd made as a tribute to his mother here.
They were really lovely and terribly moving.
There were far too many.
And then it was in front of us; the finish line.
I have walked a couple of half marathons and done Walk SF's Peak to Peak twice. I also hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and back in one day on my 23rd birthday because the man I was traveling with had just come back from trekking in the Himalayas.
But this may have been the hardest walk I've done, in a month filled with numerous challenges. It was also the most important.
I raised nearly $1600 including $5 from a man on the street near Union Square who asked why we were walking. Donations came disproportionately from queer friends; so many of us know people who have killed themselves or considered suicide because of sexual orientation and discrimination. We have to do better.
What you can do:
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has set a goal to reduce the number of suicides by 20% in the next 10 years. Most people who attempt suicide go on to live happy, productive lives.
- Donate to AFSP.
- Know that suicide is not heroic, nor is it a sin. We can remove the stigmas associated with mental illness and depression by talking about it honestly and supporting treatment.
- More facts on the suicide epidemic in the US. Over 42,000 Americans killed themselves last year, the majority of handgun deaths. A small percentage of people who need therapy and psychiatric help get it.
- Support research and funding for mental illness.
- Support gun control laws such as waiting periods and keep weapons locked up. Depression and anxiety pass.
- Recognize the prevalence of depression and crisis. Reach out to people you know to make sure they're okay.
- Get help for yourself or people you love.