National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Ray and I recently came back from a trip to bid farewell to an extended family member, a charming, compassionate, loving 31-year-old young man who committed suicide. I can’t begin to really understand what leads a person to this sort of utter and complete hopelessness, especially at such a tender age (or even much younger, as has happened with others to whom we’ve had to say goodbye). But I came away with the same thoughts that have been niggling at me for…well…years, really:
1. The Elephant Circle – The brain is not fully developed until about age 25 (probably later for young people who have also struggled with substance abuse before this age). Until that age, when the nerve fibers in the brain are fully myelinated (a fatty coating), young people have a hard time seeing the potential consequences of their actions. For this reason, I believe we need to keep young people in the center of the circle. Like elephants, we adults need to surround them with love and protection (even from themselves), until we’re SURE they can fend off the hyenas (despair, drugs, alcohol, gangs, whatever shape the hyenas take) on their own. This ability to be independent will come at different times for different kids—there’s no definitive magic moment, so we need to be vigilant with EVERY kid.
2. The Abyss Mirage – Imagine you look down the road ahead of you, but you can’t see where it leads. For most of us, it’s foggy ahead; we know the road goes on, we know there’s more stuff ahead, we just can’t see the details. But some people, it seems to me, look down the road and, for maybe only a split-second, see an abyss. Nothing. The void. And in that split-second, they do the only thing they can to escape that moment of complete despair. Maybe it’s not about ending life (because impulsive thought doesn’t see that); it’s about ending pain. Now. Someone said once that dogs have only two senses of time: now and not now. Maybe people who kill themselves see only now, and now is pain. They can’t see not now. They can’t see that the Abyss is a mirage, and there’s ice cream and sex and chocolate and music on the other side.
3. Pre-Funerals – As people from all over the country exchanged memories at the funeral, broken and aching over this young man’s death, I wondered how his life might have gone if we had all gathered 5, or 10, or 15 years ago to surround and enfold him with the same love, desperation to protect and defend, fierce loyalty, and open hearts we were all baring in the funeral home. Had this young man known how many lives he touched? how much he was loved? what joy he brought us? So I’m thinking we should have pre-funerals, a sort of It’s a Wonderful Life for any human who’s getting too close to the Abyss. Maybe there’s a panic button you can push at the first sign of trouble. Maybe you can even help bake your own reception bars.
Anyway, here’s a poem I wrote after our son’s best friend fell into the Abyss at age 19. Let’s form our circles, people...
SUPPLICATION TO THE SUICIDES
You will wake up tomorrow and the sun will be up.
Stores will open. Some idiot will forget to signal
his turn. There will be dishes to do. You’ll get a job
offer in Big Sky, Montana.
This will all get easier. Then it will get harder
again. Then it will get easier again.
That girl you love will leave her next boyfriend too.
Your mother is canning peaches right now.
She will need you here to eat them.
The pain you feel now comes from a cauldron
of teenage chemicals swirling through you like bad
soup, like toxic river water, like grain alcohol, like Drano.
It will eventually push through your system, and you will
be able to laugh and think straight again.
Remember that time I stomped in your house and screamed
in your face and jabbed at you with my finger? I really
wanted to hug you and lock you up and never let you go.
Going to the zoo is almost as much fun at 35 as it is at 13.
It will one day be a mystery to you that you ever felt this bad.
I don’t know if there’s an afterlife. But
what if you have to watch the chain
of sorrows you leave behind?
The belt will burn and cut into your neck. The pain
will be unbearable before you black out.
You’ll pee your pants.
You’ll change your mind.
You won’t be able to stop it.
I love the way your hair flips to the side, and the way
you look sideways when you grin, and the way
my youngest son’s heart opens up around you.
That girl you love will end up with four kids from three fathers.
She’ll work at Walmart and live over her parents’ garage.
She’ll try and fail to kick meth. Her kids will be taken away.
That girl you love will end up married to a banker
and will live on a lake and have a housekeeper.
That girl you love will be in therapy for the rest of her life.
That girl you love will use your memory like a crucible
excuses for sleeping with her future husband’s boss.
After your sister died, your mother stayed alive for you.
We are only here for a blink anyway. Can’t you wait that long?
My son will have a redheaded child. She’ll skateboard.
She’ll be beautiful and jolly and full of mischief.
He’ll take her to the skatepark in Lennox.
He’ll cry because you’re not here to hold her.
You’re my child. You’re everyone’s child. We will all be broken.
You’ll fall in love again and again and again. You might have twins.
They’ll be skinny and blonde and hold your hand.
You’ll rock them to sleep with Jack Johnson lullabies.
When they’re 15, they’ll say we hate you.
You’ll try to keep a straight face.
Your mother’s smile will be manufactured and hard for the rest of her life.
You are so full of love and light and promise that it burns
our fingers to touch you. We are moths and choose
winglessness over being without you.
My son will carry you like a scar,
like a confession,
like a stone in his gut.
Someone will have to take a picture of your body.
There is nowhere else to go.