Yesterday, Sept. 10, was National Suicide Prevention Day. It was also my birthday. Here are my thoughts and recollections regarding the issues surrounding this day.
The behavior of bullies must be stopped. Teen suicide must stop. Cold.
Daily, we become more aware. The issue is deeper, however. We cast young people into a web of social complexity and ignore what happens to them as they leave the innocent playfulness of childhood and go into the harsh realities of adolescence. We expect them, on their own, to cope not only with bullies but with themselves.
When a young person dives into self-destruction, so often the comments "but she [or he] was depressed" or "there were other problems" are used to claim that bullying was just a final straw. We treat the malaise of depression as if it were just a common cold going around. In my opinion, it is not; it is created by the same environment that creates bullying. The fact that one feeds into the other just adds to its complexity.
I'm not writing from the perspective of a dad. I'm writing from the perspective of having lived in my own personal hell as an early teen -- one of which no one was aware, but from which I could see no hope.
"These are the best times of your life," my folks said to me as I walked into my new school in eighth grade. They had just signed me up for cadets, a junior-high-school version of ROTC. It was basically orchestrated bullying passed off as "discipline," meant to toughen you up. For me it meant another opportunity to demonstrate how woefully non-masculine I was.
We had just moved from a stint in Italy to a rural, high-desert town in southern California. Any sense of confidence I had built in seventh grade was gone as I faced T-shirt-and-blue-jean-wearing kids in my "mod," multi-colored shirts and striped bell bottoms. My mother told me that the kids would be "fascinated" by the fact that I had just come from Italy. I felt more like I had just dropped in from Mars, and that also seemed to be the consensus of my classmates, who stared, giggled, and spoke to each other behind their hands (intending to hide their mouths from my view) when they were not completely ignoring me.
If this had been a movie, at that point a small band of misfits would have shown up to befriend me. Then, while we griped about popular kids, I would have discovered how these other misfits were my true friends. They did not show up in real life. I kept silent, and to myself.
Every day I would run home and lose myself in the aptly titled soap show Dark Shadows. The melodrama and daily travails of the show allowed me to escape the dark shadows of my own adolescent isolation.
I tried to like girls but found myself obsessing over their attractive boyfriends. I would tell myself that it was because the boys were my "competition," but deep inside I knew it really meant I had a secret to hide, which inspired my humiliating silence even more. The constant wave of homophobia expressed all around me at school sent me the very direct message: Lie low, very, very low... Never let them suspect you are one...
One day, for no apparent reason, at the end of math class, my body decided to bestow me with an impromptu erection. The sense of complete mortification came over me as the clock hand crept closer and closer to the hour mark and the discomfort was giving no sign of decreasing. I am sure I was beat-red and trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. As the bell rang and the normal chaos ensued, I grabbed my books, covered my loin area, and walked out.
I had no indication that anyone had taken note of my issue or understood what was happening, but to me they all seemed to have noticed, and it furthered my sense of needing to hide out. The next week, terror started to encroach upon my isolation as I discovered the word "FAGGOT" etched across my locker. I felt discovered and humiliated. The word rang out to me with a specific truth that I could tell no one, and with the shame and the fear that they had already found out on their own.
I wished for death. Complete removal. If this was the "best times," I had no desire to find out what the worst were. Instead, I hid in Dark Shadows and trays of Oreo cookies.
There is no real bully in my story. I could not find a way to open my mouth or reach out my hand. Luckily for me, while there was no hand reaching out, there was no bully's fist, which I feared more than anything. I laid low so as to not attract attention or commentary. There was no MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, or texting. Thank God there wasn't. I could not have withstood it.
Recently, a 15-year-old named William Lucas could not withstand it, either. He committed suicide after being subjected to bullying over his ethnicity, the perception that he was gay, and his ADHD. According to court papers, even the school administration was part of it: "[Principal] King and [Vice Principal] Strouse had actual knowledge that [Lucas] was being harassed but turned a blind eye to the harassment."
Thirteen-year-old Alexander Frye could not withstand it, either. He also committed suicide after being subjected to bullying and not being able to fit in with his peers. With adults he "was talkative, made friendships easily and impressed even longtime Union Pacific veterans with his encyclopedic knowledge of trains." He was defensive about school with his father, and his stepsister stated, "One-hundred percent in my mind, no doubt, this was sparked by bullying ... He got along great with his dad. He got along great with our mom. He had so much going on in his life that wouldn't have turned him to do something."
Laramie County School District 1 Superintendent Mark Stock followed the pattern of excuse to which I made referece to earlier. He stated, "But I do know that when a student chooses to end their own life in a tragic manner like that, I can tell you that oftentimes there's a lot of issues going on in that kid's life ... And school's likely to be one of them, but I wouldn't be surprised if Alex had other issues that he was struggling with that maybe no one knew. I don't know."
The only difference between William Lucas, Alexander Frye, and me was luck. I was lucky. I hid in my dark shadows and stayed there until a friendly hand helped guide me out years later. William and Alexander were not so fortunate. They got the exposure I was terrified of receiving, and they reacted accordingly.
Eventually, I did get hands held out to me, and they drew me from the shadows. There were ups and downs, which lead me to today and a fantastic life -- and I have never been in as dark a place as I was at 14. It is a place that I am resolved that my two sons will never experience. Not if I can do anything about it.
"These are the best times of your life." Those words should not be ironic. They should be a promise. We owe it to our children to make them true. We as adults, especially those of us who have been there, have to reach out to the kids in the darkness of their own heads. We need to give them the path out. And we certainly need to keep the bullies away from capitalizing on an already dangerous situation.
Dark shadows should be nothing but an old TV show.
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