(Warning: this post does not qualify as a short Two-Minute Tune-Up)
An airport architect told me that his favorite childhood pastime was building roads and bridges. Then he asked what made me happy as a child, hoping my answer would support his thesis that we all end up doing what we loved as children. I am afraid my answer disappointed him.
First I went completely blank. I couldn’t remember feeling happy as a child. I tried to pull up images of me happily engrossed in play, but the only image that floated into my conscious mind was of a seriously whacked-out kid sitting in the backyard praying for Martians to come and abduct her. While my siblings were out playing with the neighbors, I was spending my time wondering why I felt so alienated and different from everyone else, and what I could possibly do to change it.
But, because of the architect’s question, for the first time, it became clear to me; I am doing what I did as a child! I am still trying to figure out ways to obliterate isolation and hopelessness!
So, as best as I can remember, here is the story of how I became a suicide groupie:
In Act One, I meet Suicide. We kinda hang out and become friends.
At fifteen, along with my fear about being tragically different from everyone else, I was also depressed about using toxic levels of boys and alcohol to blot out that pain, I had the he-loves-me-not blues, and I was scared of the future.
So, I decided to do the overdose thing and get out before it was too late.
I kept thinking, “If I am already this unstable at fifteen, what will I be like at twenty-one?” (It really worried me that my mother and I were strikingly similar in personality and she had already been married six times.) So I stayed home from school, emptied the medicine cabinets, put the pills on the kitchen table, and stared at them through midnight-blue mascara-tears for a couple of hours before I chickened out. Thinking about the odds of surviving and that big tube going down my throat for stomach-pumping was the potential deal breaker.
Suicide seemed like a friendly, intriguing option until I thought about the freakin’ pain if something went wrong.
So instead I went to church with a friend and spent most of the hour staring at the sea of people who were my age, wondering why they were there. But, at the end of the service I silently made a deal with God. I handed over control of the most valuable and challenging thing I had to navigate – Friday and Saturday nights — in exchange for the hope of a new start.
Afterwards, I felt a lot less troubled. That was the good part. The not so good part was how I annoyed the life out of all my friends and relatives with my new, super simple worldview, even though that simplicity would come in pretty handy when my gentle step-father, Bob, killed himself a few months later.
In my brilliantly thorough and analytical opinion, I thought my step-dad and mom both needed God. I was convinced that would have fixed everything. Case closed. Bob had moved out and used his own garage for the carbon-monoxide poisoning, so I really didn’t stop being sixteen long enough to look death straight in the eye.
But a few months later, my friend, Tamara did look death straight in the eye when her dad brought cyanide home from work, swallowed it, and died right there on the kitchen linoleum. Afterwards, Tamara and I spent a lot of time hanging out and I thought I did a pretty good job consoling her with jokes and Bible-talk. Suicide seemed pretty manageable to me at the time.
Then, a couple of years later, while my hippy-Christian friends and I were having a Bible Study on our front porch, a guy across the street tumbled out of his front door after slitting his wrist and overdosing. We called the ambulance and by the time it arrived, he was covered with blood and unconscious. We were told that he probably wouldn’t survive. When he did, our group spent several months protecting him from dealers and nursing him back to health.
Tamara came with me to the hospital one day to sit with him. When she saw the guy’s emaciated, jaundiced face, she passed out behind me with a thud. I turned to find her lying like a corpse, wedged between the door and the hospital bed, preventing the nurses from getting in to help. The incident set off a hospital code-blue.
Blame it on my Mad Magazine addiction, but I told that story a hundred times to any willing audience. I never thought to ask Tamara if passing-out had anything to do with her dad taking cyanide and dying on their kitchen linoleum. (I had things in common with Suicide…like insensitivity.)
Well, a year passed and my best friend Christy’s beautiful mother drowned herself in the bathtub. Her suicide note mentioned disappointment over Christy’s cult-like commitment to her new church friends. I felt really bad about that since I was the main offender. And Christy didn’t do well afterwards, either.
Then, a few years later, Lisa, the absolute most competent and cool member of our college Bible-study group surprised us all by hanging herself in her living room.
So much for easy answers.
At this point I wish I could tell you that I was beginning to rethink the seriousness of suicide and my casual friendship with Suicide, but, sadly, that didn’t happen until much later.
In Act Two I sleep with Suicide…and its murder.
One sweltering hot night, deep in the heart of Texas, the father of my friend, Barbara, shot her mother multiple times, then turned the gun on himself.
I was married by then and my husband was caring, so we immediately offered our help. Barbara and I drove down from Oklahoma with our husbands, arriving at the rural Texas farmhouse just after the funeral home had removed the bodies.
I dreaded going in the house so much that I can still remember how the gravel popped under the tires as we pulled to a stop behind the sheriff’s car, and how the faded wood creaked under my first reluctant step onto that porch. As if it were yesterday, I can still see the scrawl on the small, crumpled suicide note that the sheriff handed us once we were in the living room. The note contained Barbara’s dad’s last words of explanation, written on the back of the score sheet from a domino game with their neighbors. Sadly, it read, “You can’t boss me around anymore.”
The sheriff tried to be matter-of-fact about the whole incident, but appeared troubled. Before leaving, he advised us to spend the night in the house, mentioning that news had already spread in the area about the deaths, and about Barbara’s dad closing bank accounts and withdrawing a substantial sum of money before he died. He indicated that visitors might be stopping by, seeking more than a morbid thrill. Dutifully, my husband and I volunteered to occupy the house so Barbara wouldn’t have to.
All too quickly, everyone was gone and we found ourselves alone on a nightmare set wreaking of blood and fear. There was no air-conditioning, so we had to sleep with every window open and only latched screened doors. Even though a blood-soaked mattress had been taken outside, the stench from it forced its way back into the house on every innocent summer breeze.
With a dry throat, lying wide-eyed in a creaky old bed on the sleeping porch, I strained to see into the night. My imagination convinced me that wind in the trees, blowing corn stalks, crickets, every noise was someone casing the house. But, the really bigger threats to my sleep were the dark spirits, here, with me, inside the house.
After my husband was asleep, I got up, filled a pan with hot, soapy water and began to clean bloody handprints off the walls and furniture. I poured over life’s big questions while the red gingham curtains waved ghost-like above the kitchen sink and I poured pan after pan of red water down the drain.
I worked until the sun came up. When I finished, I had wiped away much of my naiveté along with the blood and brain matter on the baseboards. (And I never wanted to see raw hamburger again.)
Back home, after the funerals, I was embarrassed by my former life. It was like that humiliation one feels after waving and yelling frantically at someone to get their attention thinking it was a person you knew when it turns out to be a complete stranger. My innocuous friendship with suicide had pretty much veered off the road and ran off the cliff.
Now, I needed and wanted a better grasp of the dark side. So I started rereading all the classics that I had only pretended to read in high school and college, paying particular attention to Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov; books like that. The books took me to the depths. It only took one of the three Karamazov brothers to keep me in darkness and depression for several weeks.
For the next twenty years, there would be plenty of sadness. My husband would slip deep into a clinical depression. An old and very good friend, whose wife and kids had left him, would put himself to sleep in his parked car. An unhappy employee would intentionally overdose. My sweet brother-in-law would narrowly survive a desperate attempt to annihilate himself. My daughter’s landlord, my other daughter’s very best friend, and a coworker’s son would all fatally shoot themselves.
And, finally, serious suicidal depression would break as a major storm over my own head after a business failure, a divorce, and a subsequent romantic heartbreak. I am still here to talk about that storm because a friend’s father had introduced a profound alternative to suicide into my psyche.
Act III is where I face-off with Suicide and we break-up for good.
My friend Bill had told me the story of his dad, Eugene, who was a high-functioning alcoholic, a depressed war veteran, and also a strong Catholic. After retirement he wanted to kill himself, but he didn’t want to lose his soul. So instead, he went to a children’s hospital and said, “I want to donate my life.” After fifteen years of being a full-time volunteer there, he died a happy man.
His idea became crucial for me when I felt I had lost my reasons to live. Ringing in my head where these words: If you don’t want your life, why not give it to someone who needs it?
Why couldn’t I, instead of destroying my life, donate it—just as Eugene had done? Could there be a way for people like me who weren’t retired or independently wealthy, to step temporarily out of their painful lives and into another one for a sort of life-transplant option?
Just this slight glimpse into a possible alternative to the dilemma of wanting to live but not wanting to live my life as it was gave me hope. I started imagining a real place where people, whose suicide ideation was prompted by loss of meaning, could temporarily donate their lives in a volunteer environment that was productive enough to rapidly reveal the value of their existence and renew their purpose. My suicide note morphed into an outline for a screenplay, then into an adrenaline-pumping project.
In Act Four I wonder if something positive could really come out of my dark relationship with Suicide.
I began speaking and writing about suicide and this “life-transplant” option. As a result, my suicidal despair was neutralized. The donation idea really had saved my life. Before that, it had saved Eugene.
I was hopeful that maybe it could save others among the thousands who take their own lives every year.
According to statistics from the Center for Disease Control, (just in the United States) over one million people attempt suicide and around forty thousand people kill themselves every year. That translates to about one attempt every 30 seconds and one death every 13 minutes, and the numbers have been trending higher each year among teens, baby-boomers, and military veterans.
I want to help lower those numbers and believe that each of us has a chance to do that…if we will simply take the statistics seriously, provide connection to those around us who feel alone, and help those who want to take their lives find a way to donate their lives instead.
My name is Pam Boyd and I am a “suicide groupie.” I am a groupie who advocates for a new alternative, an alternative where giving our lives instead of taking them will be an obvious option, easily accessible, and available to anyone who desperately needs only one good reason to stay alive.