Late August days in Southern Ontario giveth and they taketh away. Sometimes they’re cold, windy and wet, like the worst parts of October two months before you’re braced for the weather. Sometimes they’re ridiculously hot and humid. Sometimes you get both extremes in a single day, which means you head out in a pants and a heavy sweater under a raincoat, and end the day painting for breath as you try to figure out how to lug around two unnecessary layers of clothing in a way that means you don’t actually have to touch them.
The day in August I’m about to talk about was not one of those days. It was a day in just about perfect equilibrium, with a slightly chilly morning giving way to a pleasantly warm day and a gradually cooling afternoon. My family would call it “T-shirt weather,” and it’s pretty much my ideal environment.
Beyond the weather, the day’s events had gone fabulously as well. At the end of the last school year, I ran a completely dark horse campaign for student class president. It really shouldn’t have gone anywhere because I had no strategy, no manager and, really, no position beyond, “C’mon, let’s be serious, this is Student Council. Any ‘position’ beyond, ‘Let’s have some fun,’ is pretty much impossible anyway.” I was, however, fearless, though more in the sense of a virus facing an antibody rather than actual courage.
I met my cabinet twice before the end of school, and at the second meeting the newly appointed secretary invited us to her house for a meeting before school. I accepted, but I’d completely forgotten about it until the week before, when she’d called to remind me.
The meeting had gone very well indeed. Honestly, I’d been more than a little concerned how things would go because everyone, and I mean, everyone, seemed to have more political ambition than me, and I was apparently supposed to be their leader, but outside the framework of a council meeting it turned out that we were just a bunch of nerds who actually enjoyed doing their homework in history class. We did talk a little shop, but it was mostly light stuff about our goals for the year which, by and in large, consisted of, “How much fun can we have this year?” It felt good.
I left the party in good spirits actually looking forward to an hour-long walk home so I could put some thoughts together about future plans. I was walking down Plains Road opposite the traffic, ruminating on what was coming up that year, and how I’d meet the challenges when I suddenly realized that no matter how hard I tried to do well in the coming year, I’d fail and let everyone down and so it really would be best if I just stepped out into traffic and ended it all.
So I did. Well, I stepped out into traffic, anyway. One prolonged horn honk was enough to snap me out of whatever state my mind had gone to and I jumped right back to the curb where I suddenly found I couldn’t stand. The crushing despair wasn’t gone, I’d just lost all desire to move my limbs and collapsed on the grass. I’d left the party at about 4 in the afternoon and by the time I cleared my head enough to stand up and head home, the sun was low in the sky. I didn’t get home until 7. My parents, who were used to their son’s rambunctious social life, didn’t ask any questions and greeted me warmly. Somehow, I responded back in kind, although the voice that wanted me to feel worthless was still crawling around in the back of my head.
My mom offered to reheat dinner for me, but I begged off. I think I lied and told her that I’d eaten dinner on the way home or something, and I headed to my room.
I put on some music and threw on headphones - Buddy Holly or Roy Orbison, I think, romantic music that didn’t require me to think about it much - and turned on my computer. I loaded up a game and, with the moving parts of my brain so distracted, I poked at my despair like a small child poking at a sore and wiggly tooth. I don’t think I got anywhere - the feeling of being crushed dissipated, but didn’t lift. It turned to shadow, always with me, but out of sight.
That was more than twenty years ago, and that shadow’s never entirely left. I was able to handle it with counseling, Christian and otherwise, and no drugs. It’s never come back like it did that day, the day I tried to kill myself.
Why am I saying this, on my tiny blog in a tiny corner of the Internet. A few reasons.
One, most of the people who read my blog know me personally, and I want to give a face to suicide and depression that might not come naturally. We tend to think of people who’ve attempted suicide as being morose and sad but that’s just not the case. We’re just folks, just people like you.
Two, I want to get rid of the secretiveness that creeps in around suicide attempts. We don’t talk about it, I think in large because it’s easier to just ignore it and hope that it goes away. Well, it’s not easier, and it’s not going away. In fact, rates are slowly increasing. One of the big reasons it’s taken me this long to write about this publicly is the fear that people would judge me as weak. I lost an uncle to suicide, so screw that - I’m talking about this.
Third, if you’re reading this and you know what that shadow feels like, if yours is stronger or more persistent than mine, I’m writing this so you can know that you aren’t alone. The fight you’re in, it’s a common one. Reach out. Here’s a list of NH phone numbers you can call here. Call me. Call a friend. Call someone and we’ll help. Don’t let the shadow win.
Fourth, I want to do what I can to boost the signal for Willow’s Run, an event put together by my friend Kim Mihelich (and a bajillion volunteers) in support of suicide prevention. Check out the donations and sponsorships link. If you need help finding a similar event in your area, let me know. And if you do go to the race, say hello to the guy waving you into your parking spot. I hear he’s pretty cool.Let’s beat back the shadows, for one more season.
1 A friend tells me that when I stood up to the podium to deliver my speech, the crowd was kind of rowdy, and I held up my hands in the air and brought them down with such authority that the crowd immediately went quiet. I do remember being annoyed at the noise level in the gym, but I have no actual recollection of this event. For me, a crowd of five is the same as a crowd of five hundred in terms of the nerves I get before speaking, so this seems plausible.
2 I feel like I need to pause her to say that while I’ve never talked about what happened outside of a narrow group of counselors and, well, my wife, there have been tons of people who’ve helped. Did you say a kind word to me? You helped. Did you pick up when I fell down? You helped. Did you laugh at one of my jokes? You helped. You’re helping, actually. While I’ve never actually talked to them about it, my family has been an incredible source of support just being being their awesome selves. Thank you. Thank all of you. I’ve had my shadow in a chokehold for better than 20 years because of you.