My transition from childhood innocence to the harsh reality of the world began July 20, 2004. The date changed my life in a way I could never have imagined. My Aunt Julie died that day. She committed suicide. I was only 8 years-old. An 8-year-old can hardly comprehend death, let alone suicide. I was confused. I felt pain and hurt. Everything seemed out of control. My family had always felt safe, now it felt chaotic, random, uncontrolled. Looking back now, I see how that dark July day, a day so final, marked my beginning.
For the next several years, memories of my aunt periodically came up in solemn conversations among family members. As the fifth anniversary of her death passed, I began to ponder how my life would be different if she had lived. The more I thought, the more sorrow I felt. I began to slip into a state of renewed grief. Was I slipping into depression? Fortunately, I realized grief was not going to make my situation better. It was in that moment a passion began to stir within me, and I became determined to make a difference.
One year ago, the beginning of my junior year, I realized my calling was to educate my community about depression, the same illness that took my aunt's life. Leading a group of my peers, I managed the planning of a convocation to be conducted at three Knox County high schools, including my own. I had never been involved in or organized such a large social justice project. Surprisingly, however, I didn't have one worry. Throughout the entire project, I knew my Aunt Julie's love from above would be supporting me. I was impassioned and committed to taking depression down. I couldn't bear the thought of someone suffering the way my family had.
The resulting project was named Down with Depression. It encompassed 50 hours of planning and required fundraising in excess of $2,000. My passion to lead and educate, the stirring I had felt, became a force. I knew Down with Depression would be a successful and worthwhile endeavor.
On March 9, 2013, that force guided me onto the stage and into the spotlight of my county's 1,800 students. I first addressed the ways in which students and family members could detect depression and perhaps prevent a loved one's suicide. Afterwards, I told the story of my Aunt Julie. A hush fell over the crowd. The reaction triggered feelings in me I'd forgotten I had. That old grief began creeping into my throat. Although emotion tried to overtake me, I continued speaking. I continued as if my life depended on it. I had to get the message out. According to statistics, I knew one or more of my audience members might be struggling with depression or know someone who was. I had to make them understand. I had to persuade at least one person attending that suicide was not the answer. If at least one person heard my message, I had done my job.
At each auditorium, as I finished speaking, the crowd would erupt into applause. I knew I had done the right thing and that I had made my Aunt Julie proud. But more importantly, during the final convocation, I searched the crowd for two familiar faces. The most defining moment was spotting my mother and father in the back standing and applauding, tears streaming down their cheeks. In that moment, I knew I had become the young man I'd always dreamt of being. My journey was predestined, the one that began the day my aunt died. Finally, I knew I could look to the heavens and say, "Aunt Julie, I'm sorry I was too late for you, but with your love I will continue to fight. I will make sure depression is taken down!"
If you're struggling with suicidal thoughts or know someone who is, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline for support: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).