Thursday, January 3, 2013

The Blues: Teenage Suicide (Don't Do It)

Suicide has been on my mind. Over the past month a chum of mine has been writing powerfully about his own experiences and the events and illness behind them, and last weekend one of my former students, age nineteen, killed herself.

She was bright, beautiful, and artistic. As a freshman she made the honor roll. In the first semester of her sophomore year she took my journalism class and did pretty well.  

“I would consider myself a bundle of joy,” she wrote for a reflection assignment, “and many others would think of me as weird.  My priorities are somewhat unclear to me, being that I am a sophomore and everything, but having a good time, maintaining my grades, being with my friends, and sunny days are the only interests I have time to really endure and appreciate.” 

The second semester of that year she failed my creative writing class because she stopped attending. A couple of years later I started seeing her name in local police logs: just small stuff, but it stuck. The reports come up when you Google her name – along with an online campaign to raise enough money to bring her body home to New Hampshire. It’s a tragic narrative and not much of a legacy.

I don’t know why she killed herself, any more than I can explain the dark days I had during my own adolescence. Days when I thought about putting my car into a tree — the quickest, surest way I had in a gun-free family. What stopped me then was my belief that my life wasn’t really mine to end. Many other people held stakes in it – my parents, my friends, my employers, any number of people who I let into my sphere of influence and responsibility.  I knew anything I did would affect them, and make me a thief.  I made a deal with myself. I wouldn’t act to end my life, but if it happened to occur, I wouldn’t fight it. And so I survived my teens and early twenties.

I didn’t think about it much in my late twenties and thirties. I was experienced enough then to realize that this too, whatever it was, would pass.  When I hit forty and realized that I likely had less time ahead than behind, my attitude changed. I still have dark days, but I’d fight death now.  My wife would kill me if I did not.

About a week before the young woman died, I saw a post on Facebook about suicide. I can’t remember who put it up, but it was one of those canned, shared gifs and asked why people who committed suicide weren’t seen as courageous – like pioneers trading the sad, old world for a undiscovered country. I wish now that I responded to it, but at the time I was suffering from a fever and could barely muster the energy for a scowl. Sad, yes. Tragic, of course. But courageous …? Not likely.

Death is the end.  You die, and anything you were or could have been is gone. You’re not an angel or a karma-free resurrected newborn; you’re dead. Out of the picture. All that’s left is the aching vacuum where you used to be. And, in the case of suicide, you did it on purpose. You made the hole; you created the ache. It’s the ultimate case of taking your ball and going home, a dick move.

The family of this talented, beautiful young woman will feel that ache for the rest of their lives.  Every happy memory they have of her will be tinged with the tragedy of her ending. It’s not fair. It’s not right. And it’s a waste of potential.There are so many things she could have been.

If you’re thinking about it, and can't figure out your own workaround, get help, if not for yourself then for the people who’ve invested in you.


  1. Rob, this is a good topic and timely. I think that being angry with people who commit suicide is a natural step on the grieving process. Maybe we're angry with ourselves for not having been able to prevent it. The person took something from us and it's not fair. But, to be fair to the folks who suffer from serious mental health issues...maybe suicide can be seen another way: it is a statistical death sentence for a certain percentage of mentally ill folks. Like saying (and I'm making these stats up) that 15% of cancer survivors will die of cancer; 25% of clinically depressed people will die of depression. I'm not trying to make excuses for this or to say there's nothing we can do. There is always something we (as a society) can and should do to help those who are sick/suffering.

    1. I take your point, but I don't know many folks who choose to die of cancer. In order to die of depression, you have to make a choice. Often several choices in succession. And what separates us from the monkeys is a heightened awareness of what effects those choices will bring. We are a species that can see beyond its nature. We do have control. Alcoholics can stop drinking. The cycle of abuse can be broken. Or a drunken father can shrug, pop another beer, and start swinging his belt.

    2. Rob, I had a nephew who had bipolar. He took his own life at nineteen years-old. He was talented in music and writing. He overdosed on the meds his shrink gave to him. I think doctors shouldn't give kids high doses of narcotics. They are part of the reason kids are so screwed up in this society. My nephew messed up the entire family when he died, but mostly his father, my brother. Two years later my brother died of cancer. I believe as well as my family my brother died of a broken heart. He became so depressed himself that he couldn't live and fight any illness that came along. Suicide is the worst kind of death. Like you wrote "Death is the end." Thank you for posting this.

    3. Thanks for your thoughts, Beth. As I high-school teacher I see -- and think about -- this stuff way too much.

  2. About a week and a half ago, a kid that went to my high school killed himself. He was only a junior and while I didn't know him personally, I can't stop thinking about him. Not only is it painful to watch my community grieve over this boy, but I can't help but feel this intense sorrow mulling over how awful he must have felt to take his own life. I remember feeling that miserable in high school and when I look back, I desperately wish that no one would ever have to feel that way. I can't really convey with words as to how I feel, but I guess I just wanted to thank you for writing this. You always seem to write about exactly what is on my mind, but say it way better than I ever could. So thank you dandyrob.