When I tell people what I do for a living I am invariably met with a mixed response. Some people grimace and ask if I find my work depressing or sad, while others, with a serious tone and expression, say that it is much needed work. I’ve found that talking about my work at parties can be a major turn off. People usually discreetly edge away from me with an “oh yeah?” Researching the causes and cures for suicide isn’t sexy. We aren’t able to play upon the objectification of women nor trivialize it with a social media challenge. But the work that suicidologists do daily is incredibly important to the health and well being of our society. And it’s largely thankless work. However, we all get up every day and do it because it is, to us, a matter of life and death. At last year’s American Association of Suicidology conference in Atlanta, Ga, one of the speakers said that working for suicide prevention is working for life. Rather than researching suicide, what we are really researching is life. His statement resonated with me. I am working for life. And since that time I have been thinking about why I am a suicidologist and why I get out of my bed every day to research the causes of suicide and how we can prevent them.
Because Suicide Has Touched My Life
In 2012, I came across and article about a gay teenager in Michigan who died by suicide after months of bullying. I read about this beautiful boy with all the promise of life ahead of him, who was loved by his friends and family, who felt the only way he had to escape the pain he was in was by hanging himself in his garage. That boy, Josh, has gone on to touch my life in a way he could never imagine. His story moved me so much, and angered me so much, that I began volunteering in the Suicidal Behavior and Psychopathology Lab at Auburn University. Because of that experience I am who I am today. Josh’s picture sits on my desk at work, and whenever I feel like I am too tired (or too lazy) to make it to the end of my work day, I look at his happy face and I am renewed. That beautiful boy should still be alive today. Several years later, in 2014, I was walking home from work at the Auburn University Psychological Services Center. Near my office is a public parking garage, and as it came into my line of vision, at about 500 yards from me, a student at Auburn jumped from the deck. He later died, and I found out he was a guy who I had met a few times and who had dated a friend of mine. We were the same age. He was well liked, and his death affected hundreds of people. I was, obviously, shaken by the experience. If I had only left sooner, if he had only come to the clinic, he might still be alive. His death made me even angrier. He was a beautiful man who should be alive today. Bear’s picture sits on my desk at home, another reminder of why I do what I do. A year later I see an ambiguous post on Facebook that made me take notice but doesn’t concern me. Later, a friend posts a message in memory of a mutual friend, and I know exactly what had happened. A friend of mine had taken a gun and died by suicide. She was a beautiful, loving, and self-less person. She had so much love to give to the world. Her loss made me even angrier than before. She was a beautiful woman who should be alive today. It’s still too soon for me to look at the picture of her that I saved from her Facebook before it was taken down, but one day it will sit in my lab, another reminder of why I do what I do.
Because I am a Survivor
I’ve struggled with whether or not I should share my story. I was afraid for a long time that it would affect my work— either I wouldn’t be allowed to work in suicide research or people wouldn’t take my work seriously. But after thinking about it for two years and consulting colleagues and peers, I’ve decided that I want to share it. Before I read Josh’s story, I almost died by suicide. In high school I suffered from a painful illness which lasted almost an entire year. I formulated a plan that I was going to kill myself to escape the pain and fear I felt. My life was burdensome to me, and I didn’t want to live it. Thanks to the swift intervention of two of my closest friends, my life was spared. I am a beautiful woman who has been blessed with a longer life. I wish it could say that it ended there, but I cannot. Almost a year later, I attempted again. I had just been outed as “gay” and faced rejection from my friends, family, and even the man I loved. Again, I felt, very strongly, that death was the only option I had to escape the pain, fear, and isolation I felt. Life was a burden to me, and I didn’t think I could bear it any longer. It was the support of a few close friends and my faith community which saved my life. I am a beautiful woman who has been blessed with a longer life. I wish I could say that that was an end to suicide’s foray into my life, but I cannot. Again, when I was contemplating coming out as transgender, I considered taking my own life. However, because of my previous experiences I knew to immediately reach out for help. Thanks to a friend I am alive today and was able to enter therapy. Two years later I am a stronger and happier person for it. I am a beautiful woman who has been blessed with a longer life. I tell my story because I think that it is important for people in my same situation to see that life can get better than that desperate moment when you think you simply cannot go on any longer. My life 5, 4, and 3 years ago is nothing like my life now. I am so thankful that I am alive today because I would have missed out on so many wonderful and rewarding experiences. Moreover, I think sharing my story is important because people need to know that stable and successful people can and are affected by suicide and thoughts of suicide. Suicide does not discriminate.
Because I am Mad as Hell
Like cancer, suicide is a toxic destroyer which can affect any person, anytime, anywhere. It destroys lives— the life it takes and the lives it leaves behind. It is an emotional terrorist which forces people into the mindset that they are unworthy, are alone, are a burden, and the world would be a better place without them. A noted suicidologist, Thomas Joiner, once wrote that no person should die alone thinking people would be better off without them. This statement has stuck with me since I read it in 2013. No person should ever feel like they are worthless or that their existence is a burden to others. I’ve seen too many families and friends after a death by suicide to think that anybody’s death comes as a relief to their loved ones. Suicide does not care who you are, how many people love you, or what good (or bad) you do in the world. It can touch any person, and it will if it can. The idea that any person would die by their own hand makes most people angry, and rightly so. It should make us angry that someone we care about, or even someone we don’t know, felt that death was better than life. It goes against everything that human beings instinctively strive for. It goes against our very nature of survival. I’ve talked with so many people who have told me that suicidal people are selfish, and that they don’t think about how their actions affect those around them. If you get nothing else from this post then get this: Suicide isn’t a selfish or cowardly act. It takes an enormous amount of strength and courage to overcome the basic instinct to live. Moreover, people who die by suicide often feel like they are a burden to their loved ones. You could pile on top of them in a huge love pile and they might not feel loved. Suicide is toxic, and it destroys normal thought and behavioral processes. When I see people get passionately angry about suicide and direct that anger at people suffering from suicidal thoughts, I think that what they are really angry about is the fact that their friend is so miserable and they, the angry person, feel hopeless or ill-equipped at helping them. The fact of the matter is, simply telling someone you care about them and want to help them is enough to start the process of recovery. Moreover, there are resources available to help you help your loved one. When I hear that someone, whether I know them or not, is suicidal, I too get passionately angry. But my anger is directed at the real culprit. Not the person, but at suicide. That is where our anger should be directed. Not at the person who feels like they are isolated from their loved ones or a burden to their loved ones, but at the monster inside who has taken their very essence hostage.
Because I Want to do Something
When I get angry I am called to action. I cannot merely sit back and passively observe something that I think is wrong. There are only a few things that I feel passionate about enough to take action. One, I believe that there should be several varieties of pie and cake at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. I mean, what’s the point otherwise? If we cannot be united as a family under one ideology can we at least be united in our love of dessert? Two, I believe that every person should be treated with respect and dignity, and for this reason we should all be treated equally. Lastly, I believe that everyone has the right to live a happy and fulfilling life. Everyone. No exceptions. As long as suicide is allowed to continue its rampage against our brothers and sisters, our mothers and fathers, our aunts and uncles, our grandparents, our friends and neighbors, vulnerable members of our society, and even ourselves, then not everyone will have the right to a happy and fulfilling life. Therefore, I will not rest until suicide is irradiated. I’m not naïve. I know this will never happen in my lifetime. Therefore, I am prepared to dedicate my life to the prevention of suicide. If I find out someone is suicidal, I am coming for them. And suicide, my posse of researchers and I are coming for you. So watch out. Shots fired.
As you leave this place, go in peace. Make no peace with oppression, and love and support one another. If you are in crisis, please click here.