Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Suicide

Here's a sobering statistic for you.

Every two hours, a teenager or young adult commits suicide in the US. Every two hours. That's 12 each day. That's four or five while you're sleeping, every single night. That's one every time you watch a movie. But for every teen that makes the choice to kill themselves, many thousands consider it but choose to stay alive. Some 60% of high school aged teenagers have considered suicide; 14.5% of them actually made plans. That's 900,000 kids who have made actual plans to kill themselves. That's 100 kids an hour.

That's about 100 kids too many.

If you are sad, lonely, depressed, hormonal, rejected, overwhelmed, angry, frustrated, lonely, or any combination of the above, please understand that there is hope. Don't believe me? Well then let me tell you a story.

If you're reading this and don't know me, let me take a few minutes and introduce myself. I am a 44 year old man and I live in a small apartment in Corvallis, OR, with my wife and two pre-teen sons. My daughter lives six miles away, but is old enough to be out on her own. I grew up in a lower middle-class home in Connecticut; I was an only child, and for much of my life both of my parents worked outside the home. Growing up, I played a few sports passably well; I am no athlete by any means. School was fine for me until 7th grade, when I realized that having cool friends was more important than grades. I spent the rest of my school years taking drugs, hanging out with friends, and doing anything I could think of to avoid going to school or doing schoolwork. I stayed like that until my mid-20s, when I got tired of not having any money or any prospects, and decided to join the Army. I spent almost eight years on active duty; while I was in, I got a Bachelor's degree, met my wife, and had our first son. Since I got out of the Army in 1999, I have worked a succession of jobs, mostly in Human Resources and Manufacturing. We had another son, moved across the country twice, and lived in poverty for a few years while I got an MBA degree. The past ten years have been amazing, filled with love and adventure that I never dreamed possible. As I sit and look at my life now from all angles, I love what I see. I have a roof over my head, money in my pocket, healthy and happy children, a partner who likes and accepts me, and abundant love from my family and friends. I have all of the stuff - physical, material, and emotional - that I could ever need. People like me for the most part, and I have many talents that I enjoy sharing with many people. I am at my happiest when I am around children and teenagers, laughing and playing and watching. I smile and laugh at least five times as much as I frown and cry. There are some things that I wish were different, and many things that will change over time. But because I am fundamentally happy with my life and with myself, by almost every definition of the word I consider myself successful.

I think that when most teens see a successful adult, they often think see the end result with no idea about what journey the adult may have taken to get there. That perspective is understandable; after all, so many of us simply take things as they are with little thought to how they became that way. But even the most "successful" adults have not lived a land of milk of honey. Even the adults who have had every conceivable advantage have had miserable periods in their lives, times of self doubt and worry and confusion about how they fit into the lives of other people of the universe as a whole. I know I did.

So, why am I telling you all of this? Quite simply, when I was between the ages of 12 and 22, there were many, many days when I was ready to kill myself.



If you have to ask why, I have to ask whether or not you've ever been a teenager. But I was able to get through it and make it to be a happy adult who lives life out loud. So I am writing this in the hopes that, by sharing some of my own pain and journey, you can see that there is always hope for something different and better.

When I was feeling bad, I rarely let anyone know because almost everyone else I knew seemed happy. I figured that the people who I thought were happy, or smart, or attractive, or athletic, would never want to hear about my problems or sadness because they had never experienced sadness themselves. I mean, what would someone who "had it all together" have to offer me, except more ridicule and a reinforcement of my own inadequacies? That was my first mistake - believing that I was alone.

Only over time have I come to see that virtually everyone has been sad, and that many people feel lonely. It is one of the few things that we share as a species. Yet we pretend that it doesn't exist; we lock it away on a closet because to admit to feeling sad and lonely is to admit to weakness, and to demonstrate weakness is the single worst thing you could ever do because once you admit it, then everyone will know it and mock you for it. That was my second mistake - believing that feeling sad was a weakness and that I would be rejected for it.

Sometimes, it's easier and quicker for me to list the reasons why I didn't kill myself than to list the reasons why I thought about it. My home life was, for the most part, pretty good. It had ups and downs, of course, but even on the hardest days I never thought about killing myself. No, my reasons had more to do with things outside the home. There were a ton of reasons. Maybe some of these sound familiar:

I hated the way I looked. My hair was all wrong, too bushy to wear the styles that were in vogue at the time. My teeth were discolored and crooked, mostly due to some medicines I was given as an infant, and I felt like they were so bad that I could not smile. I thought I had big thighs, which made my jeans fit strange and I looked like a penguin. I could not stand in front of the mirror without turning away in disgust. I was convinced that I was so physically repulsive that no one would ever want to be with me.

I hated what I wore. Most of the kids who I admired wore better jeans, nicer shirts, and cooler shoes. I wanted to be accepted and fit in, and I wanted people to think that I was cool - but I knew that would never happen with the way I dressed and with the types of clothes I wore. My clothes screamed "poor" when all the cool people were rich. No combination was good enough, no shirt was cool enough, for me to overcome my belief that my clothes set me so far apart from others that I would never be accepted by those I thought to be cool.

I hated the fact that I was alone. I had a few close friends, but most of them had other close friends and I never felt like I was the top choice. The girls I liked all really liked me, too - but as a friend, someone to cry to when their boyfriends dumped them. Whether it was the way I looked, my body type, the clothes I wore, or something else, I obviously screamed out "stay away" -and they did, for a long time. The heartbreak of rejection ran so deep that I felt too ashamed to ever ask anyone out; I just knew that I could not handle another "just a friend" talk. I spent my nights wishing that the girls I liked would just notice me, just make the tiniest little effort to show me that they thought I was a worthwhile person to spend some time with. A few did, but most did not. For many years, this experience left me very tentative and shy when it came to dating and sex; it was almost as if I was convinced that I would be rejected, and wanted to do all I could to be sure that no one ever got close enough to me to be able to reject me. Of course, this fear and timidity was in itself unattractive, creating a spiral that forced me deeper and deeper into a hole of solitude.

I hated the fact that I wasn't good enough, at school or sports or music or any of the other things that interested me. I hated that other people were better than me at things I liked. I hated never being #1 at anything worthwhile.

All of those things were terrible, traumatic events to go through. But to some degree, and at some point in our lives, almost all of us go through them. Not only do these feelings themselves make us sad and lonely, but the worst part is often how we feel about our capacity to deal with these things. It is one thing to think "I am ugly and stupid"; it is quite another to think "I am ugly and stupid, and I hate myself for feeling that way." Words like "ugly" and "stupid" can often be catch-alls for how we feel in a moment, or how we react to what other people say to us or how they treat us. They hurt, deeply and completely, but we can get some relief from those feelings with sleep, or perspective, or love, or ice cream. However, there is little relief for the times when we hate ourselves for feeling angry, or helpless, or sad, or lonely. When we continue to beat ourselves up for whatever shortcomings we have, real or perceived, it hurts even worse - because then we are the ones doing the hurting. Sometimes when others hurt me, I felt that I could forgive them or avoid them or ignore them. But I could not forgive, ignore or avoid myself.

As these types of things piled up, I began to think about killing myself. I easily could have simply overdosed on one of the many drugs I was taking, or I could have drank myself to death; in many ways, the fact that I survived the things I did to my body is a miracle. But I had made up my mind that I wanted my death to be painless, and so each day when I walked home from school I thought of simply stepping out into the road in front of a car. I figured that if I could get one that was going fast enough, it might be over soon. And the sooner it was over, the sooner I could escape the fear, the rejection, the shame, the hurt, and all of the other things swirling around in my body.

For some reason I never did step off that curb, and I never did take that extra drink, shot, or sniff. Maybe I was too much of a coward to do it; maybe I was too afraid of the pain I would cause myself or others. And maybe it was a combination of one or more of these things that kept me safe and healthy, even if it took a while for happy to come around.

But I think that the reason I am still alive is because I simply found enough small pockets of joy and hope in isolated events that I knew things would someday get better. I found people to talk to, people who helped me understand that I was not alone. I found adults who would share their hopes for me, and share their experiences with me. And as the years went on, as I came to know more and see more and do more things in the world, I started to feel better.

So that is my story.

In the 20+ years since I left those dark times, not a day has gone by where I have not been thankful for whatever kept me safe and alive. But I can say that in some small ways, I am grateful for having come so very close because it has provided me with a healthy appreciation for all that life has to offer. It has also provided me with some thoughts and feelings about why suicide is such a sad choice.

Depression and hurt in teenagers and young adults is so complex, and there are very few reliable ways to navigate people through it. But there are some things that people try to do that I wish they did not. The first is when people say things like "I know it all seems so important right now; before long, you'll see that it's not such a big deal." How thoughtless. When I hear someone say that, I feel like saying "It doesn't seem important - it is important. Maybe it's not important to you, but it is a huge part of my life that is falling apart. It's kind of the single most important thing in my universe. And the fact that you don't see that means that you don't care. I can't wait for it to go away, because I am sad and depressed and I don't have any idea how to feel better."

The other happens when you express some thoughts of suicide, or wanting to do something - anything - to stop feeling the pain. Many people respond to that by telling you to think of how your suicide would affect other people - friends, family, lovers, children. You know what? If you killed yourself, it would have a tragic, long-lasting impact on the people around you. I know, because I have had people I cared about kill themselves, too. You can use the pain your death would cause others as a reason not to do it, if that works for you.

What if you decide to keep living for you - not for others, but for yourself?

I mean, after all, the one constant in your life is you. You will always be by your side; you will always wake up with yourself, and talk to yourself. You will be the only one who shares in all your successes and overcomes all of your challenges. You are and should be amazingly important to yourself.

Hopefully, I have shared openly enough about the difficulties of my past that you will now let me share some truths with you. Here are some things I have discovered over the past twenty years or so - things I never would have discovered if I had gone through with my thoughts of suicide.

I am beautiful. I am not - repeat NOT - Brad Pitt or George Clooney. But I am beautiful. Maybe I am better looking that I was when I was younger, and I just grew into my body as the years went by. Maybe I was never quite as fat and ugly as I thought I was back then, just unable to see the good in me in so many aspects of my life. And maybe I just care less about how I look and more about how I feel emotionally and spiritually, and so the looks remained the same bu the way I felt about them changed. But I can honestly tell you that the way I look has never been an obstacle that got in my way of pursuing anything that was ever important to my heart and soul. I have a beautiful wife, children, friends, and family who all think of me as Jeff the Man and not as Jeff the Body. I don't spend much time thinking of Jeff the Body either, because Jeff the Man is accepted. No matter how you feel now, it will change; it gets better.

I am pretty fucking cool and amazing in my own way. I am not the best in the world at anything, but I am damned good at many things. Some of those things I never even knew existed when I was a teenager - like boogie boarding or making stir fry or working with computers - so I never would have had the chance to experience them if I had killed myself. When I was young, I thought I would never be good at anything - but I had no idea how many things there were in the world that I had not had the opportunity to try yet. It is a world of wonder and new ideas and experiences; I am so glad that I did not rob myself of the chance to learn new things.

Right now, you only know maybe 5% of the people you will meet throughout your lifetime. There are still thousands of people for you to meet, and the odds are good that many of those people will bring you new ideas, new skills, new experiences, and new hopes and dreams. A good portion of them will accept you for who you are, always and all ways, and they will help you laugh and love in ways you never thought possible. There are thousands of people in the world who will bring magic to your life. Give yourself a chance to meet them.

You know yourself well right now, but eventually you will know yourself better. Your likes will change, your needs will change, and your wants will change with time and experiences. There is no way at all that any of us can predict what our lives will be like in five, ten, or twenty years, because life changes based on our experiences as we go through it. You may not like some parts about yourself right this second, but as you go on and get to know yourself better, you will like yourself more and more. Give yourself a chance to get to know the real you.

I guess what I am trying to say is simply this: If I had had the chance to meet and know the "future me" when I was 15, I would have been surprised, impressed, and really fucking relieved.
When I was 15 or 20, I was convinced that I was ugly, stupid, and unlovable. My experiences over the past 25 years have convinced me that I am none of these. No matter who you are or what the circumstances, you have not even begun to scratch the surface of how amazing you are. You have not even begun to experience the joys that come with growth and learning. You have not even begun to feel the goodness and warmth that is inside you. You deserve the chance to watch yourself blossom.

If you need help or feel stuck, reach out - to a friend, a teacher, a coach, a counselor, a family member. If you can't do that, then write down this number for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255. Program that number into your phone today, now. Share it with your friends. Doodle it in your books. Tattoo it on your arm.

But realize that you are not alone. Most of us have been through it, and we can all get through it together.

11 comments:

  1. with tears I thank you for writing this .. reminding me I have a story to tell as well .. on this very same topic

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thank you for sharing so openly Jeff!
    I think you are awesome :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Ironically as I was reading your post it reminded me that I needed to return a call to my 22 year old son who had called me while I was in the middle of a meeting last night. Before even finisihing your post I went to return his call while I had the chance. He informed me that his cousin that he grew up with had comitted suicide the night before...SAD. How's that for sychronicity and coincidence. I can only hope that the ones in need will find your post at the right time. Thank you again for being a voice that needs to be heard.

    ReplyDelete
  4. You know... this post is better than anything I've read from the "It Gets Better" campaign, which at its core often seemed to be saying: "Hey, your life isn't REALLY starting yet, so just stay alive a bit longer".

    Thanks so much for your post.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Beautiful post. The statistics are heartbreaking. I'm 28, and it was only after watching Race to Nowhere with my parents a few weeks ago that I admitted to them that I had suicidal thoughts when I was in high school. I didn't make a plan, but I definitely had the thoughts. It seemed easier than living if my life was going to school every day. I am glad I lived to talk about it too. Thanks for writing this.

    ReplyDelete
  6. :*-(
    Next to the fact that I am crying right now, because this obviously hits on a personal level right now, I keep wondering what these statistics would look like in a different society...
    When I was a teen I didn't kill myself, because the people who would have come to my funeral didn't love me and I didn't want to grant them the opportunity to use my death as a way to get attention.
    Horrible isn't it.
    I did come really really close a couple of times.

    I also didn't because I thought it would take too long for someone to find my corpse, and that's just disgusting... and sad

    ReplyDelete
  7. Thank you for taking the time to write this. I was going through some things the other day and I came across a picture. It still hurts to this day. I wish I could have done something I wish I would have known more. The man in the picture may still have been alive today.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Jeff, you are awesome. I was a suicidal kid/teen too and I am constantly grateful that I never attempted it. Thank you for writing this and putting it out there.

    http://www.suicide.org/suicide-hotlines.html has many more suicide hotlines for people to go to if they ever need, including many outside of the US, which I think it's so important to include. http://t-vox.org/index.php?title=Hotlines has a list of more general support hotlines in six countries (so far - anyone reading it who can add more, please do!).

    ReplyDelete
  9. Thank you -- been there, too. **HUG**

    ReplyDelete
  10. Hi, your post resonated deeply with me in regards to my 9 year old son who feels badly about the way he looks, he started talking about killing himself at the tender age of 7 which is when I took him out of school. It began with a school yard taunt 'flat face' which he took as a truth, this led to staring in the mirror with self disgust and a rejection of anthing that resembled 'cool' as he felt he didn't look right to be wearing his hair styled etc. He now won't smile for photos because kids have pointed out his 'wonky' teeth and some have named him garfield saying he is fat and ginger. Needless to say he prefers hanging out with me and avoids most of the kids he knew. My apologies for the long winded way I am saying thank you, it's just that as I read your story I saw his pain too and hope that one day he too will be able to say 'I am beautiful'. Mel

    ReplyDelete
  11. Wow Jeff. I comment with tears running down my face. Thank you for sharing this. Having never liked myself now and having rougher time than usual the last few months I've had some not too good thoughts lately. Reading this made me consider talking with someone.

    ReplyDelete