I live in a small town. No traffic lights. Hard to find a store open past 11:00 pm. Only about 10,000 people, total, and it's on a fingernail of one of Virginia's few fingers sticking out into the Chesapeake Bay, so it's not a place you'll find through-travelers. It is at the end of a journey. When you get here, you either stay or go back the same way you came in, unless you brought a boat or aircraft.
And in this small town, like the rest, everybody knows everybody's business.
The big news last week was of a young man, barely out of high school, who killed himself. I didn't know him personally which will allow me to keep this relatively objective, although many of my friends did. I haven't heard why he took his life. From most accounts, he was a funny guy. A country boy. He wasn't the type of guy people disliked. He was on a promising career path.
I heard about this and I was immediately taken back to 1997. I was on the back-end of my freshman year in college (back when I had the fire in my belly and cared about nothing more than keeping up the 4.0 GPA which I eventually squandered). It was PSYCH 102; the 2nd half of a fat textbook we worked through, although my professor used the book rarely. He drew on his experience more than anything as a clinical psychiatrist, combined with some more rustic elements of his personality... he was an ex-Marine. If you wanted to compare him to a recognizable figure at least in personality and behavior even if only slightly in appearance, he was like Donald Pleasance as Dr. Loomis in the original Halloween.
Despite his somewhat rogue approach... despite his air of being a rebel, serving not the DSM-IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders... the psych. field's bible), he did most of his work for free in counseling and gave at least 10% of his salary to charities every year.
Those two things alone--the charity combined with the rebellious, killer Marine with his rough edges--introduced a dichotomy in his personality, really. And that wasn't a problem; he once held up the DSM-IV and said, "I promise you that everybody in this room falls under at least a couple of the labels in this book," and for him, maybe that was a duplicity in thinking. He did seem to stay away from centrist views.
There was one thing he said, though, that I know I'll never forget. He was in the middle of lecture one evening, my pen burning up the paper on my notebook, when he brought up suicide. He might have said a couple of things about it first but he finally said, "Some people just need to go that way."
And that was the end of his very short suicide discussion.
He had led into the conversation talking about a lab assistant from his younger days who was always depressed. This man that he worked with would always slouch and appear miserable and complain about everything. It bothered Dr. Dooley. He let us know that it wasn't normal. You can't live in misery. What he was implying, far as I could tell, was if you don't have happiness, go get it. If you can't find it, oh well. "Some people just need to go that way."
I think most people can agree that they have at least imagined the early ending of their own lives. Maybe not the act; maybe just what the world would be like without them. Maybe just how nobody would have to hear their problems anymore... nobody would have to help or support them or sacrifice for them. Even perfectly healthy minds are capable of contemplation of the worst, even if the contemplation is only in its most abstract form or hypothetical form.
"Some people just need to go that way."
It sounded brash. I couldn't picture this charitable professor who had the tenacity of a Marine just giving up on somebody. He had built his life around understanding the human mind to best fix it when it was broken, and he had uttered those callous words. I think it stunned the whole class, but we paused not...
This kid named Chris hadn't apparently suffered a job loss or love life issue or loss of a loved one (those things they call "stressors" in the field... they even rank them) and had even spent time with friends not long before he ended his life. Because I do make some effort to keep my nose out of the details, I don't know what else was going on, but I do know that people that end their lives can be described by one or more of the following:
1. They are in intense physical and/or emotional pain (injuries, guilt, anger).
2. They believe that of all of the ways "out," death is the only viable one.
3. They rarely let anybody know what's coming; they just do it.
4. Occasionally, you'll see signs such as loss of interest in things they used to care about (sex, eating, social life, hygiene) or they'll give away their possessions or they'll say things with finality. But all too often, you'll have no indicators, and possibly even some deliberate misdirection by somebody so as not to raise suspicions (they may act very carefully to appear normal and happy).
So, let's have a look at this. Pain. If it's physical pain, maybe he needed meds and didn't know where or how to get them. If it's emotional pain (owing somebody, feeling guilty for having hurt somebody) maybe he needed forgiveness and didn't know where or how to get it. Whatever it is, a person hurting bad enough to want to END their LIFE needs something, and that something is relief.
"Some people just need to go that way..."
Take a quick side-trip with me: the human mind is hardly understood. What we know is we have grey matter... we have billions of neurons which, through small electrical charges caused by calcium and potassium sliding along their sheaths, store and share charges (if my memory serves... ironically). Neurotransmitter chemicals are released and re-absorbed in a synaptic event... like a bunch of fish food thrown off of one dock, picked up by another dock once it floats over there. Add in some hormones and environmental influences as well as foods/liquids/meds that combine in unique ways. It is the chemicals, their level and speed/accuracy of transmission/movement, that combine with unique memories, knowledge, behavioral patterns (learned and inherent) and other things/chemicals/reactions we have not yet discovered that make for our thoughts and actions. That soup, if you will, is never served the same two days in a row, and its contents (regardless of how many people are trying to get their names into textbooks, credited for figuring it all out) are largely a mystery.
The short version; we don't know a lot about how a human mind works. We really don't.
That kid, Chris, needed relief from something. Maybe he needed counseling, but we have not yet removed the labels placed upon those that seek such help, have we? "He's in psychological counseling," even in modern thought equates to, "He's effed up. Unstable. Can't be trusted. Genetically weak or broken. He's not normal."
We killed Chris.
Chris is gone because if he had asked for money for something he needed, the shame that WE, as a society, connect to asking for money was too much for him to imagine taking on. He is gone because WE have not recognized and made clear to our young ones that getting counseling is NOT something reserved for weak and damaged people anymore than going to the doctor when you're bleeding profusely is a sign that you aren't normal. We killed him, because whatever it was that he needed--whatever relief it was that he was looking for--had such a social price connected to it that when he put that price on a scale and he placed his life on the other side of that scale, the burden sunk lower.
Sure, it's true that people kill themselves in episodes of drinking or using drugs who would normally not consider such things, and I can't rule out that something of that nature happened. What I do know is what I've read and heard, and I've read and heard a lot.
People kill themselves because of extreme need for relief and I know that most of the time, that relief COULD have been obtained from other people by the affected person and would have if the price weren't so high. If I can't ask for money to help me buy a prescription to treat physical pain, that pain may push me over the edge, all as a result of my avoidance of the emotional pain of having to ask--the shame connected to it... the inference that I am not a man if I can't pay my own bills. If I need counseling because I'm having suicidal thoughts in my otherwise normal life, I may just jump off of a cliff because as soon as anybody finds out I'm in counseling, the labels fly and I don't want to pay that price. If a woman breaks my heart and I believe she was the one, and I can't go to my sister to vent and get re-assurance because I don't want to be labeled needy, or I can't get counseling because my friends think it would be weak ("Hey, just get over it...") then I might find some rope and a tall tree.
So it's time, my friends. Please don't read this and think a few of my friends in the city might read it, like it, and pass on the philosophy. I need everybody who reads this (and agrees, to any degree) to help by sharing your views that shame must be removed from the game. Shame must die so others do not.
I'm asking you to talk to anybody and everybody in your life that you even remotely think might be having thoughts of taking their own lives. Ask them if they are having financial problems if you think you can help. Ask them if they are in pain of any kind, and make some type of real effort to connect them with relief. Most importantly, convince them, no matter how long it takes, that there is no shame in needing help. Chris is gone. He's not coming back. What if he would have been the man that saved your child or grandchild from a burning building? What if he had a second chance and started a movement toward feeding the homeless in America or found a cure for cancer or prevented a nuclear war? From all accounts, he was certainly capable of such things and had a good heart, but he's gone. He's gone because we made it too hard for him to get relief from his situation.
This is not going to be a fast change. It's going to take years, but it shouldn't take decades. Start sharing with your friends and family that there is always a way to find relief without ending your own life. I don't want to bring philosophy or religion into this but I do need to say this; some people don't believe in an after-life and that makes them believe, to some degree, that life is pointless.
It is now up to us, with this movement away from religion, to define reasons to live for them. If they can't see the value in a life fully lived, we need to show them. Find out what their passion is and help them envision scenarios. You have the capacity, as long as you are alive, to help other people and living creatures. You have the capacity to help your environment and to add to the richness of human history. Don't cut that short. Be determined to last as long as you can, and to give when you can, and especially, be that relief that those teetering on the edge may need. Offer them what you have if you have anything. Don't assume that because they worked the day before and smiled when you saw them that they are ok; your effort must be pro-active in making sure that those close to you not only know that you are available for help, but exactly what type of help you are available for.
If you have forgiven somebody for something, don't assume that's enough; reach out and tell them in clear terms that they are forgiven, or you might just find out the hard way that they didn't know you forgave them. If you are younger and don't have financial or other big help to offer (place to live, car to use), make sure you friends know that no matter what their darkest, ugliest secrets or fears are that they can share them with you and do so with confidentiality.
If we can combine that with working, daily, to spread the word that it is not shameful to ask for help--that a person asking for help will most certainly have an opportunity to pay it back or "pay it forward,"--that getting counseling from a professional is actually a responsible thing to do--if we can accomplish those two things together, I can promise that tragedies like Chris's will decrease. Because the truth is that nobody needs to go that way.
Rest in peace, Chris. We will try not to let your passing be in vain.