“Veins full of disappearing ink, vomiting in your kitchen sink, disconnecting from the missing link. This is not my life, it’s just a fond farewell to a friend...who couldn’t get things right.”
—Elliott Smith, Aug. 6, 1969 - Oct. 21, 2003
Chances are by now you’ve heard the story of Tyler Clementi.
He’s the Rutgers University freshman who recently jumped off a bridge and died after the Internet’s oft-unseemly Klieg lights and a cruel roommate outed his sexual preference in humiliating fashion. Or perhaps you heard about Justin Aaberg, the 15-year-old boy who was bullied into hanging himself by kids who thought his sexual orientation was somehow their business.
I can go on, but you get the picture. Suicide’s in the news and that’s never a good thing. It’s a tragedy of the highest magnitude. I grieve for these kids, their families and friends. At the same time, I also find myself curiously captivated by the very idea of killing one’s self; the very idea that some circumstance can become so enormously taxing to the brain and body that the only way it can be dealt with is by turning out the lights for good.
This column is not about bullying, though bullying is an abominable act. It’s not about sexual preference, because that’s your business and not mine. This column is about the line that separates living in spite of pain and pulling the plug. It’s about how close each of us can get to it before we either turn back or cave in.
You may ask why I’m so concerned about that line?
Because one year ago this week, I found myself treading dangerously close to it.
I was 25 and recently divorced. Living on my own again for the first time in nearly four years. Found an apartment. Got a new job. Met a girl.
She was married, but seven months into her third separation from her soon-to-be-ex-husband. She assured me that the divorce would commence as soon as the logistics of their separation (house, cars, boat) were settled. I won’t lie, I was head-over-heels for her...at least I thought I was. I convinced myself I was, at least. So much so that I overlooked a deal-breaker or two, such as her spending nearly every weekend in Atlanta...with her husband...in their house.
In an attempt to soothe my reservations about her admittedly odd relationship with this man, she assured me that things had regressed to a platonic state and that I had nothing to be worried about. But I should have known better. Couples on the precipice of divorce generally don’t spend their weekends happily co-existing with each other. Platonic or not, love still played a role...and I found out just how large a role on Oct. 21, 2009, when her husband fell victim to a predawn car accident.
What do you do when your girlfriend’s husband suddenly dies? What’s your role? I lived that scenario first hand and I still don’t have a good answer to either of those questions. In her state of near-catatonic grief—which lasted for months—she assigned me excruciating, sometimes emasculating duties. She had me post her wedding pictures on her Facebook page, gave me the receipt he had saved for her massive engagement ring (which she began wearing again)...God, there’s more, but you get the picture.
As time went on, I became jealous of this man who, despite the notable handicap of being dead, was stealing my girlfriend away. My psyche was shredding under the weight of that jealousy, the sheer shock of the death itself, the responsibility of caring for this grieving widow who suddenly did not love me anymore and my lingering postdivorce depression.
I spent many nights laying on the floor of my apartment, fists numb from pounding the ground, eyes stinging with tears, voice hoarse from yelling. Yelling at God, yelling at myself, yelling to just squeeze the stress out of my lungs. Then I would fall into a fitful slumber, only to repeat all of it again the following day. In short, I began to feel as if the frayed ends of my rope were slipping from my fingertips.
Retroactively, I panic a bit when I think of those times. I imagine how close I must have stood in proximity to that line. I swore I heard those voices that people claim to hear from time-to-time, asking me how much more I could take. But as the year turned over to 2010, I stepped back from the edge of a breakdown and broke free from what had become a completely untenable relationship. Some of you skeptics might scoff, but I believe it was the hand of God that grabbed my collar and yanked me back from the abyss. Because sometimes God is like Tom Bosley from Happy Days...he lets you suffer the consequences of your mistakes just long enough to learn your lesson, and then he pulls you out of the fire.
Things have changed drastically for the good in just a year, yet I still suffer emotional aftershocks in the wake of that tragic day. My insecurities are more numerous, at times consuming; my fears of abandonment and rejection sting me daily. But I’ve met a girl, an angel, whom I truly love and adore and trust. I have reaffirmed my faith in God and my faith in friendship and family.
But there are some who don’t have faith, family or friendship. And they step over that line. And then there are others who have all of that stuff, and still step over the line. You don’t have to be a lunatic to commit suicide. You don’t have to be a loner or an outcast. You just have to be a human being faced with pain and sorrow in a moment of extreme weakness.
If you’re battling those demons, literally fighting for your life right now...please do this: Call the Crisis Center (205-323-7777), call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273- 8255). Don’t sit in the dark and let the darkness consume you. Your life is precious, it is worth living, it is special. Whatever has you down right now will eventually pass. I assure you it will. I know from experience.
Matt Hooper covered sports for Birmingham Weekly from 2006 until January 2010. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org