Monday, April 29, 2013

Honoring an Honors Student: Why Would He Kill Himself?

One of the first lessons I learned while training at the suicide prevention hotline is to never say, "But how could you want to kill yourself? Don't you see how much you have to live for?"
In Cincinnati, Ohio a student the La Salle High School shot himself in his first period classroom.

The controversial gun legislation in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting has assured that the coverage on the incident has focused on issues around how the gun came into the student's possession and how he was able to bring it, loaded, to school. I will, therefore, leave that important question for others to decide.

Instead, I will ask who was he? Who was this unnamed student?

According to, he was an honors student with more than 80 hours of community service under his belt at a private school.

Read: Likely to get into college. Has future.

So, instead of asking how did this student manage to shoot a gun in a classroom, I will ask why would an honors student with a conceivably bright future attempt suicide? 

This question resonates more deeply with me because I feel like I have spoken with him dozens of times when taking calls on the suicide prevention hotline.

So often I speak with individuals for whom it is common to hear: "You have no idea how much others would give to have what you have." or "You have nothing to complain about." or "You don't know how good you have it."

The most frequent reaction I hear from people who take this to heart is, "You know what, it was a mistake calling. You have someone else who needs your help more."

These are people who go to Ivy League schools or who have been accepted to graduate school or who have amazing jobs or are beautiful or have the perfect husband or children.

Then I tell them the truth - that I want to talk with them. I'm here to help those who reach out for help, not to judge within minutes if they are close enough to Holocaust victims to deserve my time.

If they choose to tell me their story, I hear the same beginning to the story again and again. How the individual is tired of the mask they have to wear every day. They have to be the happy like the intelligent, successful person they are. And pretending all day makes them exhausted. 

But no matter what they have to face, the fact is that every one of them has something they are dealing with that legitimately grieves and/or tortures them. But they don't feel their pain is legitimate because there is this competition with some unknown horror.

And every time these end up being people who have been sexually abused over long periods of time, who have gone to treatment for their mental illness and have tried half a dozen medications with little relief, who have lost close family members, or struggle with horrific health conditions. These are people for whom, when I hear their stories, I want to get up and scream at the government for mismanaging their case or cry for how much difficulty they have had to endure or jump across the phone and protect from the bullies they have to face the next day. Or I wish that someone in their life would just stand up and show them that they are worthy to be loved.

But instead I have to hear their heartrending stories from a thousand miles away. I thank God if the individual has a friend or family member with whom they are allowed to be in pain. With whom they can talk about the very real issues they have had to face.

For those who have no one I feel like I a rope dangling to save someone who is falling fast, who may manage to cling to me or may not. 
So who was this boy? Honors student who couldn't see that he had the world underneath his feet? Or individual who was so haunted by something he couldn't even begin to consider that there was a future beyond it, nonetheless one that would offer him all his wildest dreams.

For more information on the La Salle High School suicide attempt see:|breaking|text|FRONTPAGE&nclick_check=1,0,1933386.story

Thursday, April 25, 2013

An Introduction to Crazy

So Am I Crazy?

What a common  - and frankly cliche - question. And yet how little we dwell on how what it means.

Let's try it out in a few contexts I've heard it before:

        "I think my boyfriend is cheating on me."
        "You're crazy! He loves you." 

Seems harmless enough - doesn't it?

Let's try it again.

        "I feel like I have nothing left to live for."
        "You're crazy! You have a million things to live for."

One last one for good measure.

        "My father is raping me and I want to report him."
        "You're crazy! He wouldn't do that. Why would you want to ruin everything?"

So what do we see? Dismissal. "You're crazy" translates to "That doesn't make sense to me" in the best case scenario and "I don't want to hear it" in the worst.  It's all fun and games until we're at the receiving end. Until we, too, are shut down.

"You're crazy!" Is another way of saying I'm not interested in hearing what you are going through because it make sense to me.

So what does this have to do with mental illness?


Mental illness, by definition, doesn't make sense to the average person. If you are mentally healthy, you don't think in a way that is mentally ill.

If you are mentally healthy, you don't understand how locking and unlocking and relocking your door three times before you leave the house could possibly make any difference.

If you are mentally healthy you don't understand how a lamp could be mistaken for a cat in broad daylight.

If you are mentally healthy, you couldn't understand why the president of the student body of one of the top ranked high schools in the United States could feel so worthless that he would kill himself.

An argument could easily be made for the pretense of a mental illness in each case. But are the individuals with these attributes crazy? Does the fact that we don't understand what someone is going through mean that they are crazy? That they are worth dismissing without another thought?

Let's be honest, though. Psychotic thoughts are hard understand.  Delusions don't make sense. This is why we say that a person is "out of touch with reality" - because we assume that we are in touch with reality.

And I'm not argue that here. Most people are. Most people, when they see a tea pot, understand where it is in relation to the themselves, what its purpose is, and what it is capable of doing. If you set a group of 8 people who are in touch with reality down at a table and ask them about that teapot not only will their answers correspond but they will probably be annoyed with you for asking such a stupid question.

Most of us are in touch with reality.

But does that mean that the person that sees poisonous bugs crawling out of the tea kettle is crazy?

So what does it is like to be mentally ill, then?

Being mentally ill is like being in a dream.

Here's an example. A few years ago I had a dream where my Mother passed away. The depth of my despair while I was asleep was heart rending. I felt grief to my core when I watched my mother's coffin descend into the earth. It was so real, so intense, so unshakable that I literally had to call home when I woke up. My mother was still asleep (she had just come back from an all night shift) so I was chatting with my step-dad about the breakfast she had two hours before. And still, at the end of the conversation I was burning to ask, "So she's alive, then?"

That's mental illness.  When reality gets turned on its side so much that even when we "wake up" we're not sure what happened wasn't real.

As a volunteer on the suicide prevention hotline I regularly hear people tell me in a state of profound depression, "I'm going to have to live in this pain forever. I've been here so long and it will never end."

Imagine if you were in a dream where intense emotional suffering was all there had ever been. How could you have the foresight or the self-awareness to say this isn't real - I'll wake up in two weeks once my medication has kicked in?

Would you say, "That's crazy!"?

Imagine if you were in a dream where every second you were followed by someone who wanted to kill you. Every second you didn't keep alert might be your last. Every person that caught up with you might mean that you wouldn't live another day.

Then would you say, "You're crazy!"?

Is talking to someone while they are in a dream as if they are not ever going to help them?

Or will it simply make them feel more frightened, more confused, and more alone?

Saturday, April 20, 2013

On the Fourteen Anniversary of the Columbine Shooting

Forget, Remember. Too Early
The retrospective gaze of a twenty-one year old. A certain third-party apathy mixes with the desire to drown memory in wine. A 2006 cabernet sauvignon - allowing the tannins, the body to wallow on the tongue with hints of black cherry, plum, vanilla. Glass after glass, making chic the art of forgetting. 
    Wine is the choice intoxicator. Celebrate wine in all its splendor on April 20th. Not those grassier choices. Not the inhalation of hallucinogenic humor, stimulation of contemplation. This is not a day to dwell on. 
    But of course, you forget. All the better perhaps, when there's no humor in remembering. Though maybe you were hundreds and hundreds, no thousands of miles deep in safety. Or perhaps like me, you want to forget. 
    Forget April 20th, 1999. Forget Littleton, Colorado. Forget thirteen dead, scores wounded. Forget the day that made suburban a high school a guerilla war zone. Forget the state flower dashed in dark red, no longer the Blue Columbine. 
    Forget with me.
    We'll start five miles away. Children are running through the stones in the playground, back toward classrooms though isn't over yet. Yes, run, run children don't walk, don't line up. Get inside! Leave the soccer ball, leave it!
    Inside the classroom - the dark classroom, no, don't turn the light on! The frazzled substitute searches the desk for a video, something - ah! Valley Forge. Then pops it in the VCR. Then sits. Then rises. Don't leave! I'm just going to go ask the front office something. And she's out, in the hall and away.
    And we are quiet. No one says, sh! But we mingle in whispers, ten-year-old theorists passing their privileged information. Some crazy guy is over at Powell Middle School, says one keeper of knowledge, waving a gun around. He might walk the mile down here and wave a gun at us. 
    And she's back. And she's quiet and we're quiet. And the air is palpitating with anything but quiet. 
    And we're in the passenger seat too early with a father that's cutting corners too tightly and a radio broadcasting too clearly. Too clearly telling us too many journalistic theories of a neighborhood that's too dangerous with too many, who knows how many, too many crazy men waving guns around, opening fire on the neighborhood. No wasted bullets. It seems no wasted bullets. Where are they, who are they... stay away. 
    Stay away, we think in bed, staring at the chair mere feet from our feet. Stay away to the man in the chair who will shoot me if I say to him, stay away. Who will kill me indiscriminately if I move indiscriminately. So we barely breathe, don't breathe. he may be a shadow of the light, but only may be. No, no, no. Shouldn't move. We won't move, don't move. 
    We don't move from the living room we watch the news, glues we watch the news. We watch scenes no R rating could could hide. No fiction, nonfiction. No, fiction can lie. Lie about the bloody body falling from the second-story library, half-conscious body, glass ridden body, dying body. Out that window we've driven by so many times, too many times, so many times. With the girl in the voiceover in utter disbelief drench in shock. How could it happen here? How this quiet, unassuming school? How here? How did it happen here? 
    And we're in church and we listen as Pastor Barry finally explains but what he explains no one will explain. They just bring us forward, here, yes here sign your name. For Rachel Scott? Yes, for Rachel Scott. Why only Rachel Scott? There were others, yes twelve others that died. 
    The girl who couldn't, who didn't, who couldn't finish out the year. The girl and her friends and their friends and their not so friends and their wounded and their dying, not dying, am I dying? friends. No one could. No one did finish the year. No one to the shattered halls and windows and adolescent memories. Many never returned, even when shattered halls were reformed and changed, never the same as each friend was never the same it was never the same.
    With thirteen dead. Yes, thirteen - not fifteen - thirteen. We don't count the killers, they are not victims, they took with their own lives thirteen others. No, not the friend in the parking lot - they told him he should get out of there. Not anther who drove away but moments before. Not the seniors exploring grasses to simulate hallucinogenic contemplation nor the seniors skipping out, missing out.
    Still, thirteen. Not soldiers, not workers, not lawyers, not patients. Twelve students, twelve teenagers, twelve children growing out of childhood, twelve leaders of our future, not the future, not our future, anymore. Twelve students and a teacher. A teacher who risked, who worried, who sacrificed to get his students out first, students first - get them out first, get them out. Got them out. A teacher, not the SWAT team outside, waiting unsure, too unsure, yes unsure who is killing, who is shooting who to shoot. So many killed but we don't know we must wait until we know, until we know we know we must wait.
    And wait and wait and thirteen killed, dozens wounded.
    Hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands and thousands and millions watch in memory of a memorial to remember, somehow remember tragedy with tranquility. Thousands, maybe millions, not just in Littleton, not just in Colorado or the United States, all over the world we listen to Pastor Barry, our pastor speak, yet again. But not just for Rachel Scott, for eleven other students, a teacher, and dozens upon dozens wounded still in hospitals. Thousands and millions watch the rainbow stretch across the stormy sky behind the stage behind the podium set up to remember. Thousands and millions watch the thirteen doves escape and fly and fly toward the rainbow, disappear in the sky like the souls of the thirteen now white, no more red no more blood, pure white. 
    And we disperse, walking through posters and banners and flyers and photographs of those who remember those lost to memory. Of those whose hearts bleed for those no longer bleeding. Our church's poster, friends' posters, families' posters, schools' posters, communities' posters, communities in Littleton in Colorado in the United States, all over the world. 
    Then years pass. And still, still we are silent. Grades pass by and still. And we grow inches then feet and we grow smarter then more stubborn and still, still we are silent. Littleton? but isn't that where - yes. And we're silent. Shifting eyes and shuffling feet and stammering hands. We are silent. Conversations of friends fade as we drive by Bowles St. and Pierce Ave., the silence piercing the conversation with memories that wish they were never memories. 
    And years lead us to high school. To youth group at the church whose pastor was Pastor Barry, whose pastor memorialized a disquieting memory. A youth group that changed our lives and saved our lives and gave us life in a life with so little life left. And we pick up a book we've heard of all these years and we read. She Said Yes. And you read Chatfield and Simms and Wadsworth and Kipling and you know these streets you been on these streets thousands of times. These are you streets. And you learn what she believes and you know what she believes because she believes what you believe. And they asked her what she believed, what you believe. And they ask her if she wants to live. And, no I don't believe says yes, let me live. And yes I do believe says do what will. She said yes. 
    And we read Rachel's Tears and her Bowles is our Bowles and her Wadsworth is our Wadsworth, as is our Santa Fe and her I-70. The schools are so near and the church...the church is our church. Her youth group is our youth group. The passion for her God is our passion is her passion is our passion. And they know her passion. And they find that day. And they ask her, do you believe? Yes. They shot her in the leg. Do you believe now? Yes. They shot her in the arm. They took aim for her head and asked, do you believe? She said yes. 
    The retrospective gaze of a twenty-one year old, setting down the Cabernet. In memory of a memory no longer remembered. Remember eleven years thirteen can't remember, won't remember, can't remember. Remember when thirteen was overshadowed by a shadow no one wished would descend. Thirteen overshadowed by thirty-three where invention, creation, intelligence were stained black by the black shadow of black memory. Eight years almost to the day after the day we tried to forget, we could no longer forget. Memory donned the black to memorialize those taken in Blacksburg.
    Remind those gone at Columbine, remember those gone at Virginia Tech. Not schools, numbers again. Thirteen, thirty-three, thirteen, thirty-three. Spiraling to forty-six, forty-six. But now, remember the killer, the schizophrenic killer the dead killer the victim killer. Yes, thirty-three, not thirty-two. Thirty-three. Halls close, memorials...You went where? Virginia Tech. Isn't that where - yes. Shifting eyes, shuffling feet, stammering hands. Thirty-three and dozens wounded.
    Blacksburg, remember with me. In eleven years, only seven more, most will have forgotten April 16th, 2007. you won't have forgotten, can't have forgotten, won't have forgotten. but they won't remember as you remember. No more will your eyes shift, your feet shuffle, your hands stammer as now at each inquiry. As now you try to forget you nearly forget will forget almost forget. Raise your glass to forgetting. 
    We all want to forget. Raise our glasses of Cabernet to memory, that memory that is merely memory and a long off memory at that. And take only a sip of the Cabernet, to forget what we almost forget but somehow can't forget. 
    Because of the lingering fear that again memory will be reality will be currently will be surrounding me again after all these years of forgetting. When not just thirteen, not just thirty-three - the forty-six but how many more will leave their bleeding arms and legs and chests behind, their yes's behind and rise to the sky as a white dove, too early. Too early.