Earlier today the news flashed across Twitter and Facebook: a 14-year-old middle school student in a nearby suburb shot himself to death in the school bathroom. Suicide. Friends of the teen told police the boy was depressed and bullied by his peers. But police and school officials say they have found “no evidence of depression or bullying.”
Where to begin on this one? It is my hope that by saying they have found no evidence that nothing obvious has come to light — yet — or that some other reason will make itself known. Why does a 14-year-old commit suicide? I hope they are not saying that because outward appearances don’t suggest it, that it didn’t exist. Depression — and in many cases –bullying are often secretive monsters. Sometimes they prey upon their victims sight unseen to outsiders. I say these things with no pretense of being an expert. I say them as one who has walked the road.
Each and every young person who takes his or her life is a tragedy. This story and its scant details take me back.
First, I travel to my fifth year of private school in Detroit. Toward the end of the school year we had a new boy in our class. Super cute in my opinion, with sandy hair and freckles and stylish clothes. He looked like an extra on the set of “The Partridge Family.” But something was off with this boy. He reeked of neglect. Even goofy fifth-graders picked up on it. One day after school, as we were messing around in the schoolyard waiting for our rides home, this boy methodically marched into the middle of the street, tossed aside his book bag and spread himself prone on the pavement, facing skyward. We watched him do this, suspecting a joke or a trick. We watched with alarm as the driver of a station wagon slammed on the brakes and shouted out his car window at the boy, who refused to move. We continued to watch, and probably shouted and screamed enough to call a few teachers to the schoolyard. One of the male teachers pulled him to his feet and dragged him to the sidewalk. I remember spending extra time on the phone that night, whispering into the receiver to my friends while compulsively twisting the curled phone cord around my fingers.
Did that boy really want to get hit by a car?
Did you hear him say he wanted to die?
Why would a kid want to kill himself?
In my innocence, I think I developed a crush on him. I reasoned that if I became his friend, I could make him not want to kill himself. (That is a story for another day and the beginning of a lifelong attraction to sorry souls.)
Which takes me to another place, one in which I befriend a man when both of us were embroiled in our divorces. We often took long walks to air our grievances, curse our former spouses, and I thought, prop each other up emotionally. I thought wrong. On a warm September afternoon he helped me return a truckload of borrowed furniture. We took particular pleasure in tossing the chairs and tables carelessly into my ex-husband’s condo, and on the way back to my apartment, truck windows rolled down, the wind whipping our hair into our faces as we laughed and laughed, I felt glimmers of hope for life after divorce. We promised to meet for lunch the following week. Two days later he hanged himself in his basement. For a long time, I couldn’t get out of my head the idea that I’d lent him a length of rope at our last meeting, which we used to secure the truck gate and which he kept. Everyone said it was a fluke, that rope is rope. You can’t wonder about what rope he used. He would have found a way.
Depression is a tricky thing. There are varying degrees. Many people are obviously depressed. Others are functional, smiling their way through the day while slowly dying on the inside. Bullying too, is elusive at times, as many victims suffer deep shame and take measures to hide it or justify it.
Depression is the stray black dog that follows me through life. I can’t outrun him. I learned to stop feeding him, though, because he’s on the move. Here today, gone tomorrow, back again next week. I have the wisdom at this age to know nothing lasts forever. Most fifth-graders and most 14 year olds have not reached that understanding. How do we stop this from happening to our young people? How do we look beyond the obvious to the demons sight unseen?