Let’s talk about suicide!
The single-most read entry of this blog – ever – is seeing an up-tick in hits as the one year anniversary of this local tragedy looms large.
Today, with the recovery of his body, social media are decrying the suicide, and circumstances behind it, of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, a gifted eighteen-year old violinist who was humiliated, and outed, more than he could bear when his room-mate posted a video to the internet showing Tyler and another man having sex kissing!
Three days later he leapt from the George Washington Bridge. His was the fourth young gay suicide (widely reported across the United States) this month. One shudders to think how many others there might have been that didn’t make such a public statement.
Now do I really think that, on top of all their despair, these young people decided to die with such an exclamation point? Probably not, but who’s to say there might not have been a bit of “I’ll show you!” to underline just how hopeless they felt.
It’s difficult to know. It has never come up on the gay agenda. That’s right the “gay agenda” which intolerant people seem to believe is our quest to take over the world and yet who bristle at the idea that we would just settle for full equality. Intolerant people, beginning with adults, feed intolerance to others. They can’t eat and spew it all themselves. Kids like Tyler Clementi’s room-mate are enslaved by the need for conformity. Anything different is to be avoided – they even call it “gay”. Intolerance responds well to peers. Gangs are not required when more innocuous cliques or clicks (of the mouse) can puff up your social network and whatever views you wish to share. I’m the first to admit that this works equally well for the intolerant and the intolerant of the intolerant.
I suppose it’s my choice to be connected with people who report such things as gay youth suicides. Suicide has been a fact of gay life since I came out nearly thirty years ago. What makes these four recent deaths so vexing is that they were each preceded by bullying. It’s bad enough that the conditions are still not right to prevent some kids from feeling like they need to commit suicide, but it’s worse – and criminal – to describe the situation as having been driven to do so.
Sometimes I think, and perhaps project, that when I’m telling my story there’s a sinking feeling inside my audience (one or one hundred) such as, “I don’t know how (and/or why) you’ve avoided suicide.” My story, however, betrays any idea that I have not and, for the purposes of my definition, I’d suggest there is both active and passive suicide.
How many times have I been warned that I was killing myself? Whether or not the concern seemed reasonable to me at the time an autopsy of my spirit would most likely have confirmed it. This goes beyond not looking after myself, too, as if that were not insane enough. The end-game in my young adulthood was not to end up unable to work for physical and mental reasons. However I was so intent on running away from myself and my secrets and my shame and – it must be said – everything good about me it seemed the formula to do that was the easily available poisons, legal and illegal, mostly consisting of (or certainly starting with) alcohol.
One of my favourite descriptions of where this led, and the search deep beneath it, was described in a letter from psychiatrist Carl Jung to one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson:
You see, ‘alcohol’ in Latin is ‘spiritus’ and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.
One of the peaks of my early coming out process was when I was able to cut loose from the fundamentalist Christian tradition I had taken on in college where, at the time, there was no positive reinforcement of any kind for LGBT students. (That’s something that is a must, and a barometer for tolerance, on any campus!)
I didn’t give my beliefs as a teen much thought when my family attended church each week so, coupled with the angst of my being gay, I was ripe for the picking by the Bible-literalist church I went to in college.
However I led a double life which became unbearable and I eventually came to see coming out as freedom, not something to be feared.
Had I ever attempted suicide? Yes, at a surprisingly young age with a blessedly inept plan. I tried to shut my bedroom door on my neck repeatedly. Just not too forcefully, besides which the faux wood of the door would not have hurt me too much even at full strength.
Such was my most serious attempt but, just thinking about it, what kind of despondency was I feeling? Well I was still in elementary school so the worst feelings always had something to do with my school bully/head teacher/principal wannabe.
The freedom I believed myself to be experiencing with alcohol as a young adult, self-abuse, was my suicide plan – no it was more passive than a plan. It was like, “Give me death, unless something better comes along.”
I did not realize, though, that thinking about suicide (and I assure you that I have checked “yes” to that on forms over the years without knowing the consequences), might put a little red star on your file. I understand that now. I know that if I’m capable of thinking about it, there’s always the risk of following through. Suicide ideation, as it’s called, is of course a much larger statistic than actual suicides.
All of which leads me back to Tyler and, locally, David whose circumstances while different led to them being driven, and quickly, to tragic ends. There are some instances where it’s not enough to just cluck “What a shame!”. Stock-taking of youth education, peer support, zero-tolerance of bullying (gay or straight as kids can be nasty to anyone), anti-homophobia measures – they must continue so long as the horror of being found out as gay, or nastily revealing evidence which would leave no doubt, is the most terrifying feeling a kid could, in their mind, possibly experience.