Writer’s note: At the Out of the Darkness Walk in Salem last weekend, organizers handed out honor beads for participants to symbolize their loved ones and friends lost to suicide. Purple signifies loss of a friend or relative. Teal signifies support for a friend who struggles or has attempted suicide. Green signifies personal struggle.
Name: Mr. Westerman. Age: 60s. Method: Gunshot. Relationship: Family friend. My age: single digits.
Mr. Westerman taught me that we don’t talk about suicide the same way we talk about other methods of dying. Instead of brave battles, we talk about suicide in hushed whispers, and only when pressed. No one presses hard.
Until his suicide, life was binary – living and dying – and I assumed we didn’t get much of a say in either one. Mr. Westerman showed me a door I hadn’t seen when I arrived. “Choice” is stenciled on the glass. I’ve examined the typography in all its fine detail nearly every day since.
Name: Mike. Age: 18. Method: Overdose (revived four minutes after heart stopped beating). Relationship: Best friend. My age: 18.
By the time I learned of Mike’s overdose, several weeks after the event itself, calling us estranged would have been generous. I hadn’t seen him in months. I confronted him about his drinking and drug use on the stoop of his mother’s porch almost a year prior, if memory serves. I cried, he giggled. I was not ignorant of his struggles, but I denied them for a long time. To the point where I’d convinced myself I wasn’t sitting in my car waiting for him to make a buy before taking him home.
Mike taught me I couldn’t love someone enough to make them want to stay.
Name: Billy. Age: 38. Method: Gunshot. Relationship: Extended family. My age: 21.
Billy was my preteen cousin/godchild’s uncle. I was 600 miles away at college when he killed himself in his bedroom at his parent’s home. I drove home for the funeral because I knew the effect Mr. Westerman’s suicide had on me at a young age. I needed to be sure my cousin had someone who would listen if he wanted to talk about it.
Billy’s suicide seemed to be proof that my own battles with suicidal ideation were not something I was going to “grow out of.” I, and I assumed others, were in it for the long haul, and the ones that decided to walk through Choice’s door amounted to circumstances and a coin flip.
Name: Jayson. Age: 13. Method: Gunshot. Relationship: Replacement. My age: 25.
Before I even knew that suicide was an option, my maternal grandparents disowned my family. My grandmother, who babysat my sister and I since we were born, went out and found another family with a son and daughter to babysit. Jayson became my stand-in. When the family finally reunited, I would end up in the same room as Jayson from time to time. I hated it. I hated him. When I was asked to babysit him once when I was 16, I reluctantly accepted and I hated that even more.
My grandmother died several months before Jayson took a gun out his father’s gun cabinet and paired it with bullets he’d gotten from a friend at school. He retreated to his bedroom and left his body for his younger sister to discover.
Jayson left me with a question: Would I trade all the time I got back with my grandparents for his life? The final lesson was and is decimating: My inability to answer makes me so much weaker than him.
Name: Eric A. Howald. Age: 40. Method: Depends on the day/hour/minute. Relationship: Strained at best, tenuous at worst.
There was a gag used by almost every cartoon character I ever saw as a child. Some anthropomorphized duck, coyote or cat would end up plugging holes in a dam with its fingers and toes. They tried to keep up, but they inevitably ran out of things to stuff in the holes. Finally, they pull out all their digits, give an apologetic look toward the camera and let the water rush over them, taking with it the burden of caring.
That’s how it feels to be suicidal.
Aside from counselors, people’s responses to my attempts to talk about how I feel fall into three frustratingly neat categories: judging me, pitying me or trying to talk me down. I will tell you from experience that none of these is helpful, and all for the same reason: they add to the burden, real or self-imposed, felt by the individual.
It’s why I decided to volunteer at American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Walk in Salem, organized by Keizerite Shawn Lott, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2016.
I interviewed Shawn about the walk, and her son’s suicide, almost a month before it took place. Mostly, we listened to each other as we both tried to talk about this difficult subject. Prior to that night, I was not one who thought of these types of events with any great regard. The frequency with which they happen dulls their luster. It’s good cardio, perhaps, but it’s easy to lose the point beyond raising money for seemingly unsolvable problems. But the more I listened, the more I realized Shawn was creating a safe space not only for those who have lost someone to suicide, but for those of us that struggle. I wanted to know what that felt like, I wanted to be part of making it happen. I knew I was going to volunteer before she left the office that night, but I didn’t work up the guts to tell her (or my wife) until almost a week later.
I arrived at 7 a.m. on Saturday and, within 20 minutes, I met another volunteer, James, and we spent the entire morning in close orbit. We set up tents and chairs, marked off the walking path with signs and tried to find other places to insert ourselves for the common good. We shared what brought us there on the most perfect of early autumn mornings.
Prior to the walk, the organizers held an “honor bead” ceremony asking those of us in attendance to hold up the beads we’d collected earlier in the day, each color was given its own moment. One of the first to hold up his hand was a man, Rodrigo, standing just behind me. His strand was gold, signifying the loss of a spouse or partner. In the moment, emotion was overcoming him and I stepped back to put my arm around him. We hugged and introduced ourselves after the ceremony and then he headed out on the walk.
Since James and I had already done most of the walk, I stayed behind and picked up a surprisingly small amount of trash. More than 2,700 people participated. More than $96,000 was raised to continue research and, I hope, continue the work of removing the stigma of suicide in our society. But as the end neared, I still felt like I was waiting for some sort of deeper meaning to reveal itself.
I was sitting in the amphitheater area as walkers returned when I started counting kids. Kids who were there with their families taking part in an extraordinarily public way to change the conversation around suicide. Kids who were my age and younger when I first learned what suicide was and not to talk about it. Kids who will grow up knowing it is okay to talk about suicide and mental health, and know they are problems to be faced, not feared. And then I realized my daughter didn’t even know where I was when she woke up that morning.
My wife and I changed that with a long talk and a lot of tears when I got home. She’s already said she would like to volunteer with me next year.
I wish I could say that this is the end for me, that everything was wrapped up and healed in the course of a long morning, but I’ve struggled long enough to know that it isn’t over. It’s not over for all the others who wore green beads during the walk either.
I don’t have the words to make it better for anyone beyond letting them know I understand the struggle, but I do have some advice based in experience:
In my darkest moments – the time when I cracked open Choice’s door, the ones when I feel like I can’t even love myself enough to want to stay, the ones when the psychological toll seems never-ending, and in the moments of suffocating guilt over the role I could have had in helping a 13-year-old -boy find a way to carry on – the thing that’s pulled me back from the brink was finding someone who would just listen.
Listen without judgement.
Listen without waiting to talk.
Listen without fear.
That’s a monumental request to make of even our closest friends, but it can start so simply. Take time to be with them. If they need to, they will talk, then all you have to do is listen.
It sounds trite and obvious, but it can and has saved a life. Including my own.
If you or someone you know is struggling, visit www.afsp.org for more information. If you are experiencing a crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 1-800-273-8255 (it’s going to be hard, but I’ve done it).