As iron sharpens iron: Stories of mental health from rural Colorado
Writer’s note: This is part of a series of information paired with the stories of mental health and loss in rural communities.
As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another. The ring of hammer to iron is Scott Clawson’s favorite song, although he now splits his time between the anvil and the office. Clawson is a mental health professional at North Range Behavioral Health in Greeley, Colo., and a professional farrier and blacksmith.
As mental health challenges and suicide wrack rural communities, Clawson said sharpening one another is as necessary as perfectly placed hammer strikes on iron. He said in a world that is marked by isolation and a fierce sense of independence, he and others who are more comfortable on county roads than city streets, have to make an effort to connect and commune when their mental health is at stake.
Each time he opens the door and sees his tools he remembers a particular story, some 20 years ago.
IRON SHARPENS IRON
The farrier took the hand-forged hammer in his hand. It was perfectly balanced and warmed in his palm. It struck hot metal, bending it perfectly and efficiently. Once he finished, he flipped the hammer in his hand and gave it a look before returning it to the rack.
The hammer was made to fit the hand of a young man some years ago and the farrier couldn’t help but think of him each time he held the hammer in his hand and used it to shape iron. That young man had broad shoulders but found himself beneath burdens he couldn’t carry. He set them down. After the funeral, the young man’s tools were sold, including the hammer. To this day, he wonders what could have possibly been so heavy, so shameful, and so lonely that suicide was the solution, but that hammer has been his for decades and he supposes he’ll never know.
Logan Shaw, who works alongside Clawson, said shame and hiding real concerns without seeking help or valuable connection perpetuates the problem.
“What we have come to know and understand about the stigma and the shame behind suicide is that’s where the cover up comes from,” Shaw said. “We would rather say he died unexpectedly of a heart attack than say what the cause of death really was. We’re trying to keep the honor of the man we love and respect, and we want to keep family business where it belongs.”
Shaw said it is often those who are closest to the men shouldering heavy loads who can recognize changes and signs and step in to take action.
READ THE BUNK
The cattle feeder began as a pen rider and learned young the importance of reading the bunk. He could calculate the pounds of feed needed for the ideal gain based on the number of head. He could glance and know how crowded the cattle would be each morning as they bellied up to the steamy silage. He knew which hay ground the best and still grabbed the occasional handful of steam flaked corn to toss in his mouth. He could tell with a look or smell if the corn was too high or the silage wasn’t just right, or the beet pulp was being fed too heavy. It was a balance.
The balance that he wasn’t as attuned to is the line that divides being in the black and being in deep trouble. That balance could be tipped by commodity prices, cattle processing gluts, and what news anchors with clean shoes kept calling Black Swan events. It might be tipped by a call from the banker, a call from the buyer, or a call from his wife when the checking account was running low. It was easy to blame the Big Four or the suits in Denver or the price gouging feed companies. There were no answers at the bottom of the bottle in his bottom drawer or the one in his glovebox, and even though he felt bad when he barked at his wife, she knew the feeding business wasn’t easy.
He could assess all of these things driving slowly past bunks and pens of cattle on feed and get the ration right each time. He was a natural at reading the bunk.
The bunk he couldn’t read was the one that required a balance of stress and pressure and problems he couldn’t solve and ration elements he didn’t have and the ones he couldn’t set down. Had anyone else tried to read his bunk, if you will, they would have recognized the lack of balance, the lack of connection, the isolation, and the empty bottles beneath his pickup seat. They could have headed off this loss but remained quiet, assuming he could handle the balance and now the bunks are lined with another man’s cattle and his pickup sits parked and unused since he’s not no longer here to drive it to go read the bunks.
Clawson and Shaw agree on the value of connection between men, and the value of their wives encouraging that connection.
“When your wives encourage you or your friends want to do something, challenge yourself to say yes one more time,” she said. “Taking care of your mental health can be spending time with others rather than the old adage of ‘you’re not alone.'”
Clawson said men in particular, especially those in agriculture, are hesitant to ask for help and are more likely to sidle up beside someone they trust. A cry for help may look more like working on a project shoulder to shoulder and the connection may be a quiet one where the conversation is, to the outside, just about cattle or crops.
Our rural communities are hurting, she said, and there is isolation even in the most closely knit communities.
“Maybe it’s time to sidle up next to someone and take time to be present for them,” she said.
He is farming the ground Grandpa had the foresight to purchase and running cows on the grass that once held the 1950s-era Herefords that he has spent generations improving upon.
She is one of the ladies at church who cooks for events and one of the ranch wives who takes a dish to people who need grace extended to them in a foil covered pan that will freeze beautifully. He is on the school board, the co-op board and the church board and helps the local FFA chapter. They can be counted on.
They have a group of friends they have known for years. Together they had played football and shown cattle at the fair and drank a little beer on the backroads as younger men. Now their children were the ones with letter jackets and back numbers.
They were grieving though they would never call it that. They had just buried a son. The group of old friends all went to the funeral, hats in hand, and looked uncomfortable in hard pews and when their wives and children wept.
They all kept farming and kept ranching because it had to be done. There are no days off, so it seems, and fall is busy. Eventually, they were all together to help ship their calves. Their wives sent food and lots of it.
“Do you have another box of pour on?” one shouted to him above the humming, banging chute.
“Ask Chance where he put…” the man answered out of habit and stopped himself.
They looked at each other and kept working because there was work to be done and Chance was not there and never again would be. When the last of the trucks lumbered out of the yard toward the highway, the three men stood in the shop over a beer before dinner.
One man began to tell a story about their boys that started with, “do you remember when those boys thought it would be a good idea to…” The men laughed and told stories punctuated with well-timed cursing and the crinkling of a beer can or two.
When the dinner was gone and the men were headed out the door, he told them he appreciated their help. He didn’t tell them it was the first time he hadn’t felt lonely or that he valued the connection and cooperation. And he certainly didn’t tell them that they had saved his wife from finding his body in that very shop now that the shipping was done, but he knew these things to be true.
The Colorado Agricultural Addiction and Mental Health Program is a resource for you whether you’re reading your own bunk and recognizing the lack of balance, or the bunk is someone else’s. Copy and share this post to let people know about http://www.CAAMHPforHealth.org where Colorado farmers and ranchers can get help and six free, anonymous counseling vouchers with mental health professional who care about agriculture. Read the bunk, sidle up, and let your iron be a source of strength.
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