Last week after work the Big Guy came home from work and soberly announced that the son of a neighbor had taken his own life. It took me a moment to start breathing again, and, out loud, I wondered what the rest of the town was wondering that day. “What was he thinking?”
Privately, I had a pretty good idea of what he’d been thinking. Only earlier that day had I been wrestling with those urges as I hugged my mother goodbye and had the irrational thought that I would never be happy again once she was gone. A vision of achieving perfect permanent peace flashed through my mind as I smiled at her and my father as they left. It was so strong and so clear that if I had not been having these urges and images since I was 10, I might not have chased it away.
My guess was that this kid, who, for as long as I had known of him, had exhibited self-destructive behavior, had been living with those urges for a long time.
My morning vision and the afternoon news brought me back to a high school assembly on suicide. After a movie and lecture, the hosts separated us into groups. I remember them asking us if any of us had ever contemplated taking our own lives. I was the only one in my group raised my hand.
One of the adults took me aside and asked me how often I thought about it. I answered, “I don’t know, every day. Doesn’t everybody?” The counselor shook his head no and gave me a pamphlet for nearby church.
Back then I don’t think I had even heard the word bipolar disorder. Manic Depression was just the title of the Jimi Hendrix song. I did know that just getting out of the house – even out of bed – was often an enormous task when depression hit. When mania was pushing me to outer limits, I was the life of the party. People thought (and still do) I was a drama queen. I was told to snap out of “it” but wondered why I couldn’t. I did know I couldn’t tell anyone about the places and pictures in my head. I could barely explain them to myself, and trying to describe them to other kids – or any of our teachers – would have added just one more oddity to my already odd personality.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that I might not just have the blues.
I was lucky. When my own bipolar disorder was diagnosed, my family was overwhelmingly supportive, and our home, at least, was a safe place to talk about mental illness. The rest of the world is not so safe, and not everyone is so lucky.
I don’t know if this boy had a safe place to talk about the suicidal tendencies he had been exhibiting for as long as I had known of him. I do know that we still live in a world that makes opening up about mental illness – or even its symptomatic emotions – is like baring your throat to the wolves. There is still stigma where there needs to be safe spaces.
Our very small town of 300+ people has talked of it regularly since it happened. I hope we all continue talking about it. Mostly I hope we start talking about giving other kids like him a safe place to talk about their visions before they become reality.