Michael's nephew, Chucky, went to war. He served our country faithfully, rounded out his tour of duty and when he came home he was different. Friends and family noticed the change immediately. Chucky was more withdrawn and depressed. And there was something else...a quiet desperation, which I believe you can see in this photo. Look into his eyes. It's as if he wore a mask to cover the suffering within.
Michael's family used the tools they had at their disposal to help Chucky. His sister took him to the VA Hospital to get him psychological care, but since Chucky refused to admit himself the VA couldn't help. His parents tried to get Chucky to embrace religion, his mother is a Jehovah's Witness, his father Baptist, but it turned out getting on his knees and praying couldn't help either.
Sebastian loved his older cousin, and at the family reunion four years ago, the only person Chucky could comfortably relate to was my then four year old son. Interacting with Sebastian was nonthreatening. There were no awkward conversations to worry about or concerned stares to deal with. All haunting images of war were temporarily shoved aside while Chucky played with Sebastian, revving Hot Wheels across the floor.
That was the last time I saw Chucky; on the carpet with my son, working through his demons, hopefully on the mend. Not six months later, he bought a rifle and killed himself, as much a causality of war as if he had died overseas.
I didn't reach out to Chucky during that time. I had met him only two times previous and felt it wasn't my place. But now I wish I had. I would have said something like...
I get that you feel things are hard right now. I get that you feel all alone, like no one could possibly know what you're going through. But understand, those are feelings. And feelings are of a moment.
Think of it this way: emotion contains the word "motion." It's supposed to flow through us. We are not supposed to staunch emotion and wallow in it.
If emotion does take hold, however, get out of the house and do something. Go climb a mountain, or volunteer at a soup kitchen, or beat the fuck out of a punching bag. Getting off your butt is half the battle. Getting out of your head is the other half.
But if you choose to marinate in a dark room with a remote control in your hand, then you've also chosen to label yourself "victim." No one else is doing that. YOU are. Likewise, no one else can do for you. YOU have to do for you. Sure, people might extend their hands along the way, but you have to find your own path, flick on your own switch.
I speak from first hand knowledge. When I was an adolescent, I was diagnosed with epilepsy. I took pharmaceuticals to stop the seizures, but the side effects of the meds made it really difficult to concentrate in school. I went from A minuses to Ds and Fs. My grades sucked, I fell down at inconvenient moments and I shook all the time. I felt I was a social outcast. I felt alone and insignificant. (Once again, "felt." Emotion, not reality.) And I chewed on that feeling of powerlessness, and it grew and grew. It was my choice to not look for the pressure valve. I didn't talk to anyone, or swim laps, or face my problems head on. My thing was to disappear into movie theaters and gnaw the fuck out of it until it was untenable and reality became distorted. At that point no one could say anything right. Friends' support sounded like taunts, my parents' concern, condemnation.
That's when I swallowed a bottle of pills.
I was lucky. My mother figured out what I did. She drove me to the hospital. Doctors gave me ipecac which induced vomiting. The pills went down the drain rather than into my system. I ended up physically fine, but mentally, I needed help from a therapist, who helped me discover the tools to move forward with my life.
Let me be clear. I am grateful the pills did not take hold. Suicide is not le grand geste. It is not romantic. You do not find answers in the last moments. It is final and lonely.
This note is not really meant for Chucky. It's too late to help him. This is for anyone out there who is grappling with thoughts of suicide.
Homosexual youth are four times more likely to kill themselves then heterosexual youth. Like Chucky, they too feel broken, alone and unappreciated. The wartime that homosexual youth are facing may not be car bombs, but there is a constant barrage of destructive statements and abusive actions being hurled at them. From the horrific gay bashing in the Bronx, to our religious leaders labeling homosexuals "impure and unnatural," to political bickering over gay marriage, gay adoption and openly serving in the armed forces, today's gay youth are inundated with negative images and somehow they must navigate the treacherous terrain of our divisive society.
Those who recently chose to take their lives, hurling this issue into the national spotlight, are Tyler Clementi, Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, Justin Aaberg, Raymond Chase and Billy Lucas. Fallen soldiers who tried to live with dignity and yet were beaten down for being true to who they are.
My personal stand...
First, to parents: For goodness sake, keep your eyes open. If you get the sense your kid is a bully do something about it. Don't sit back and say, "Boys will be boys." Humans are supposed to be humane and compassionate. That's what separates us from the beasts. Also, if your kid comes to you at some point and says, "Hey, I'm gay," don't say something stupid like, "Well, I'm not proud of you." As a matter of fact, don't say anything at all. Go over to your child and give him the biggest hug of his life. And only then, after you've collected yourself do you tell him, "I love you so much and I will always be here for you." Because that's what parents do. They offer unconditional love. Don't try to guilt him and definitely don't try to change him. I can be made to wear brown contact lenses to disguise my eyes' true color, but trust me, underneath they will always be blue.
Next, to the bullies, the name callers, the finger pointers, the politicians using stump issues for reelection, and to our religious leaders who instill fear in their flock: There is no one as cowardly as you. You gather in groups and single out the unsure and the awkward. You say in the name of whatever deity you worship that homosexuals are not welcome. You say that you have homosexual friends, while strongly denying us marriage and adoption rights. You harass us, invade our privacy and beat us to a pulp. But here's an idea, it's in your Bibles, Torahs and Korans, let's be civil to one another. Can we do that? No one is asking you to jump into bed with, or even split a banana split with someone who is gay. Just nod your head in acknowledgement and move forward. We've all felt pain from another hand, from someone's hurtful words. We've felt the knife, imaginary and real, twist in our gut. Let's just stop it. Let's exercise civility and stop causing pain.
And finally, to my brothers and sisters who are wrestling with self doubts: There is so much chatter. And sometimes it is hard to hear anything but the negative. But do me a favor, call The Trevor Project. They will listen and lead you in the right direction. Sometimes all we need is a boost. Let the Trevor Project be yours. Seriously. Call them. Right now. I mean it. (866) 488-7386. Like the YouTube videos say, "It gets better." And guess what? It does. Take it from someone who's licked the bottom of the pickle barrel. DO NOT GIVE IN!
October 16th was Chucky's birthday. Yesterday was Matthew Shepard's. Both would have been 34.