When Amy Bickers couldn’t find the book she needed—one about how to move forward after witnessing suicide—she decided to write it.
Written by Lindsey Osborne
In the talk she gave at TedxBirmingham this past March, Amy Bickers began with this: “As a writer, I’ve spent my career thinking about stories and how they work. I’ve fit dramatic pieces into narrative puzzles, and I’ve thought about what feels true versus what simply feels good. But I never realized how much I bought into the idea of beginnings and endings until I started trying to make sense of the pieces of my own story.”
Bickers would be the first to tell you that she’s not sure where her story begins. It could have been the night of Aug. 3, 2009, when she witnessed her ex-husband, Charles, take his life in her garage; it could have been before, as she tried to help him grapple with his despair and, in turn, her own; and it could have been after, when Bickers sat down and worked up the courage to put her story down on paper to ultimately share with the world. “I wanted to reveal what it was like to lose someone to suicide and to witness that suicide without glossing over certain feelings or situations. I felt like that was my purpose, to be as completely honest about the experience as possible. I never wavered from that goal,” she says. “But that’s not to say it was easy. I had to feel all the feelings. I had to really explore what it was like and put that into words. That part was sometimes harrowing, to say the least. I cried while writing in Starbucks more times than I should admit.”
The memoir that came from Bickers’s experience, The Geography of You and Me, was published last year; the Kickstarter campaign she ran to self-publish was fully funded within 24 hours. Perhaps that’s because people needed the book Bickers had written. In any case, Bickers says, she needed it. “[Charles’s death] is probably the biggest challenge of my life (and I don’t want to say ‘so far.’) I was pretty determined to get through it. ‘Through it’ is a misnomer, though, and I figured that out along the way,” she says. “The best thing I did along the way was accept what had happened and who we were then and who I was now. I didn’t fight against it all; I just tried my best to be curious about it and learn from it as much as possible. And I forgave us both, probably him sooner than myself. When I think of Charles, I think of him with compassion and love, and I try my best to offer those things to myself, too.”
After Charles’s death, Bickers promised herself she wouldn’t make any major decisions for a year. Shortly after that year was up, in 2010, she left her full-time position as associate editor in travel/features at Southern Living. “Leaving a full-time job might not be the wisest decision, but I needed the break,” she explains. In some senses, it was a break; she says she got used to wearing yoga pants every day, a delight she gave up when she took her current position as a writer for development communications at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) in 2013. But in another sense, it was anything but a break. She used the time to work on Geography full-time, and she was committed to both tackling her own grief in whatever way she needed to and providing the world with something she felt it was missing. “After [Charles’s death], I looked for books about witnessing suicide and dealing with the suicide of a spouse or ex-spouse. I couldn’t really find what I was looking for,” she says. “Every book I picked up on coping with suicide loss spent very few pages on the damage that is done if you witness the act. Most of the books felt incredibly impersonal, almost clinical. It’s almost a cliché now, but I took to heart the Toni Morrison quote ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’”
After she’d finished the book, she set out to find a publisher. “Writing the book was painful in another way that most writers will relate to: rejection. I sent out query letters and proposals to probably 25 literary agents. I got the most wonderful feedback that amounted to ‘This is well-written and compelling, but no one knows who you are.’ I didn’t have a ‘platform,’ as they like to say,” she explains. “After a while, I set the book and the proposal aside again. I had more than a few fantasies about setting it all on fire in the backyard.” Ultimately, Bickers decided to self-publish the book and the Kickstarter campaign went live on April 14, 2015. She ended up raising three times her goal and then jumped head-first in the realm of self-publishing. “The self-publishing process was long and difficult, more difficult than I anticipated,” she says. “I could go into all the details, but suffice it to say that it was like taking on a second full-time job when I launched the Kickstarter and began the process of publishing a book. I learned a lot, but I sincerely and deeply missed getting a full night’s sleep for so many months.” But then, after years of hard work, Geography was put out into the world in the fall of 2015.
In 2011, Bickers started another creative venture that gave her a place to heal—and to dream: her blog, Vodka Cranberry Clooney (she published a collection of essays from the blog, called Mr. Clooney Takes a Wife, along with new material, in conjunction with Geography.) “I like vodka cranberry cocktails and George Clooney. Done,” Bickers jokes of naming her blog. Amidst witty Bachelor recaps and random thoughts lie posts that explore Bickers’s grief as her book does. But even more than that, she wrestles with the greater truths of life with humor and honesty. “I have an unofficial motto: Embarrassment is for suckers,” she says. “Own your story. If I trip on the stairs and no one sees me, I’m probably going to tell the next person I see that I just tripped on the stairs, and I laugh about it. If I feel guilt or regret, I need to shine a light on it somehow, look beneath it, and see what lies at the root of it.”
She also uses her blog—found at vodkacranberryclooney.com—as a place to live out her never-in-a-million-years fantasies, namely that she and George Clooney would hit it off. “I’ve always been a fan of George Clooney (even back to The Facts of Life days), but it probably ramped up after my divorce. It was a joke mostly. He was a way for me to admire a handsome, funny, and charming man without any worries that an actual man would expect anything of me,” Bickers explains. “I spent a lot of years after my divorce and after my ex-husband’s suicide protecting myself from potential harm. A ‘pretend boyfriend’ fits well into that dynamic. A few years ago, I wrote this on my blog about George: ‘George Clooney is simply shorthand for dreams and possibilities and delicious impossibilities and hope. Often the past few years, George Clooney has helped turn my inner musings away from sad realities and toward happy fantasies. Most of those stories involve me winning an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay based on my best-selling memoir and George presenting me the award. None of these stories involve us getting married (I don’t believe in marriage as a happy ending.) Listen, people, if you don’t have fantasies, real life will beat you down. Never let real life steal your joy. If you need to assign George Clooney to guard the gates to keep your joy out of the hands of thieves called Regret and Anger and Guilt and Grief, then do it. George will be the guardian of your hope. If you want to make him wear a tuxedo while he does it, he’s always willing to comply.’”
Via both her books and her blog, Bickers has stumbled into a community of people who share their own grief with her and continue to draw her out of hers. Interacting with them and continuing to write through and share her own challenges is her fresh air. “I’ve had such an amazing response from people who have read my memoir and my blog. In fact, I have people in my life now who are there because they read my blog and reached out to me,” she says. “It’s like I somehow managed to shine a signal into the night sky and it attracted some of the most important people in my life. I knew a long time ago that I wasn’t a special snowflake, that if I was feeling something about a situation that other people had felt that, too. And maybe if I said it out loud, we’d find each other in the darkness.”
And this in itself is brave—she continues to strip down her feelings until she reaches the realest ones; then, she holds them up for the world to see and, hopefully, learn from. She says the process continues to heal her, over and over. “People often ask me if writing the book was cathartic, and I usually say yes. But I also feel like people think that means the process of writing the book provided a relief that is permanent, and that’s not really the case,” she explains. “Sometimes I have to write about it again. I have to talk about it again. I have to seek out catharsis again and again. I think any time we experience something life-changing or deeply traumatic, no matter what it is, it lives inside us and we have to tend to it every once in a while.
“We have to pull it out of its dark corner and dust it off and allow ourselves to acknowledge how that thing, in part, made us who we are now.”
Bickers’s books are available on Amazon and through her website, amybickers.com.