In the predawn hours of November 3, 2009, my beloved twenty-year-old son, Andrew Williamson-Noble, died by suicide. He jumped from the 10th floor of Bobst, NYU's main library. He chose the same spot that others had before him.
My son's death was a bolt out of the blue for my family. And all of us, privately and with each other, go over and over what happened. We go over and over what we know of Andrew; we ask ourselves what, if anything, we may have missed. What set of circumstances, people, instances, had they been different, would have prevented, foiled, stopped, that fateful night's events from coming together and ending in my son's death?
The Samaritans' web site tells us that:
...Most people can be helped in getting through their moment of crisis if they have someone who will spend time with them, listen, take them seriously and help them talk about their thoughts and feelings. Almost every suicidal crisis has at its center a strong ambivalence: "I can't handle the pain anymore," but not necessarily, "I want to be dead forever!" What most suicidal people want is not to be dead, but some way to get through the terrible pain they are experiencing and someone they can turn to during those terrible moments of fear and desperation...
They say: "You don't save the life of a person who is feeling suicidal, you help him or her get through the moment."
And I have since heard from several people who've told me in confidence of their own unsuccessful suicide attempts. They were found in time and did not bleed to death, or their stomach could still be pumped. Those people were able to go on to live a normal life. Others, by the dozens, have told me that there have been times in their lives when, for whatever reasons, they seriously considered suicide, but, unlike my son, they were able to move away from the dark spot they were in. All the necessary elements to carry out a suicide did not come together, One way or another something, and/or someone, helped them through the moment, until it passed.
In my son's case, if there were warning signs, nobody picked them up; if, in his own way, he reached out for help, as I believe he did, during the final hours of his life, he did not succeed in summoning that help. And the last chance to save him from death failed him when, at 4:30 a.m., he was able to ride the elevator to the 10th floor of Bobst, NYU's infamous library, lift himself over the eight-foot Plexiglas and hurl himself down. Andrew's life ended when his body smashed against the marble floor of the atrium below. He was found, I read, lying on his back, and there was no blood. Miraculously, mercifully, his face remained intact. My family and I, still at the hospital, were called away from our son's side by NYU's press office to agree to a statement of suicide. Yet the attending physician at St. Vincent's Hospital could not confirm that my son had taken his own life. "All I know is that he fell from a height," he explained. But the authorities knew that it was suicide, and they wanted us to agree to a statement.
NYU wanted to go back to normal, to business as usual, and they pressed us when all we wanted was to sit quietly by our son. We hadn't yet left the hospital when the first library tours had already started. And when the statement from President John Sexton came, (before we even made it home) was disappointing.
"...I have taught young people for some five decades," the statement read. "Drawn by their energy and their promise and by the unique bond that forms between student and professor. The impulse for self-harm -- particularly among young men and women with so much talent and so much to live for -- is incomprehensible to me..."
For the teaching President of a University to characterize suicide as an impulse for self-harm shows lack of understanding of the issue of suicide, as well as the students in the University's care.
Sexton's statement, together with the media coverage and readers' comments in the wake of Andrew's death, shows that there is a lot of misunderstanding about suicide.
For instance people think that: "If a person is determined to kill him or herself nothing is going to stop them." Not true, as the Samaritans' suicide literature tells us that:
Even the most severely depressed person has ambivalent feelings about suicide. Most suicidal people do not want to die; they just want their pain to end. Most depressions, with time, will alleviate and the suicidal impulses will, ultimately, dissipate.
...Most people have reasons for their suicidal feelings. They may be upset, grief-stricken, depressed or despairing, but are not necessarily suffering from mental illness...
New as I am to the subject of suicide, Andrew's death has forcibly driven home the need for a new and open dialogue about what, as I have since learned, is the third cause of death amongst teenagers and college students. Yet the tendency is to shove the topic under the rug.
Why? Do we shove cancer, diabetes, Parkinson's and all the other diseases known to man under the rug? No, we don't. We are sympathetic to the sufferers and to their families. We seek to understand and look for cures. What is different about death by suicide? Often, someone who dies by suicide suffers from an illness like depression, a "dis-ease" that, like other diseases, needs understanding and treatment; not stigma, condemnation and ridicule. College authorities cite the risk of contagion as a reason for not talking openly about suicide. But amongst the common myth and misconceptions that people have about suicide is the following:
"Talking about suicide may give someone the idea."
False, suicide literature tells us: "You don't create self-destructive feelings in another person. Talking with someone about his or her suicidal feelings may lead to a discussion of upsetting or painful thoughts that were already there but hidden beneath the surface. Openly addressing the subject shows a willingness to help and is the first step towards intervention."
Understandably, because of the site of my son's death -- the university library -- many have responded with an indictment of the academic pressures that teenagers and young adults today must face. Anthony Badami, an undergraduate columnist for the Brown Daily Herald writes, in "A Death at Bobst":
...ours is a culture that attaches extreme significance to academic achievement, to high standardized test scores, to "four-oh" GPAs, to U.S. News rankings and to institutional pedigree. It is the atmosphere of academic elitism promulgated by administrators, admissions counselors, parents, students and, most obstreperously, one's peers. It is the milieu of students who taught me to judge, to assess and to taunt. It is the binary of total success or complete failure...
It is true that young people live in a very different world with heightened pressures, new technologies - with a need to report on what's happening maybe even more so than reflect on what's happening. Maybe despite all the new avenues of social networking, we've lost true contact and found loneliness.
Because of my own Eastern spiritual sensibilities, my son's death has stirred and renewed within me the importance of learning who we really are. Without knowing the answer to this most fundamental of questions, whatever solutions we come up with -- help lines, antidepressants, education about drug and alcohol abuse, limiting access to firearms -- to confront this dragon of suicide are but stopgaps.
Developed by the ancient Rishis of India, I believe that Yoga and meditation, true gifts from the East to the West, are the way to "Know thyself," to know that we are spiritual beings in a human body, to know that within us lie all knowledge and love. Through meditation we learn that to look for happiness and love anywhere other than within ourselves is futile.
"Look, I am not an extremist about anything," I told a friend when discussing the subject. "I am taking antidepressants. But my point is that had I grown up with meditation as second nature, I wouldn't need to take antidepressants now."
"You mean that meditation could reverse the chemical imbalance in the brain?" My friend asked.
"With meditation it would be unlikely that there would be a chemical imbalance in the brain, or any other imbalance for that matter."
"I know that when I get angry, I have to go for a brisk walk," she said. "It's as if I have to get rid of the energy of anger from my body."
And on we went, talking about how thoughts have energy and energy doesn't disappear but is transformed, and to make a long conversation short, I went back to my belief that if children were taught yoga and meditation from an early age, we would see a dramatic reduction in dis-eases, including suicide.
Don't we owe it to our children and our children's children to try this?
I think so! And so does Rusell Simmons, for when asked by the New York Times to come up with a new year's resolution for New York City, suggested, "Meditation in the schools, quiet time for kids."
I would suggest making yoga and meditation part of the curriculum from pre-school onwards.
We may be at least a generation away from when yoga and meditation will become (as I believe they will) standard practice amongst children and parents. But even while availing ourselves of allopathic medicines and traditional Western therapies, as I myself am at the moment, we can still make a start now. In these times of great change the old paradigms are inadequate, it is time to usher in new ones.
I am committed to do my part to bring about the change we need even if the road ahead seems long, lonely and arduous. I can but take one step at a time and trust the Universe to lead me all the way.
I will not allow the sun to set upon you, my child. We have work to do, you and I and anyone who wants to join us. And in the still of the night, when from the darkness comes a light, I know in my heart that it is you.