Wednesday, April 13, 2016


I'm not mad.  Really, I'm not.

And I'm not disappointed.  In you, anyway.

But I'm glad you didn't succeed. That would've been devastating.

I wouldn't call him a close friend.  We knew each other in high school. He was a couple of years behind me. We only shared one class, I think, choir.  At 15 he was still a little kid, especially compared to me.  I'm sure he got his share of teasing.  I hope I wasn't one of the ones teasing him, but I can't remember.

We reconnected a few years ago via Facebook, as people of our age do these days.  He was out.  The fact that he's gay didn't surprise me; sometimes you just know these things, no matter how carefully they're hidden.  But it's hard to be out in Arkansas.

I'm a different person from the one I was when I knew him in real life.  It took some time, and an experience I now regret (and about which I've previously written), for me to realize that being gay is like having blue eyes or freckles.  It's not a good thing or a bad thing; it's just a part of being human.  I used to worry that other people might think I was gay, like it was something to be guarded against, like the flu or drinking too much.  Better not hang around a gay guy too much, or people will think you are, too.  Back then, the voice in my head, the one that follows up stupid thoughts like that with so what if they do?--that voice was silent.

I'm hesitant to write this story.  It's really not mine to tell.  But it needs writing.

*  *  *  *  *

He came to me about writing.  He was finishing up his certification to be a counselor, and he wanted to start writing a blog, and he knew I wrote a blog, and I guess he liked it.  We exchanged a brief set of messages about the process--technical stuff, like how to set up a blog, and more substantive stuff, too.  My advice was what it is to every aspiring writer who asks me:  Write about what you care about.  Don't worry if no one reads it, or likes it.  The writing won't mean anything if it doesn't first mean something to you.

A few weeks later, he sent me a short note about a post I'd made about the Justin Harris incident, in which it came out that a state senator had "re-homed" two girls he and his wife had adopted, sending them to live with a man who proceeded to rape them, on the basis that they were "demonically possessed."  His praise was flattering and meaningful to me. 

I do write about what I care about, but I'd be lying if I said it didn't feel good to know that other people read it, and like it.

A few weeks after that, he was involved in a Facebook discussion, or argument, with a friend of his from college, about whether homosexuals are "born that way."  I wanted to step in on his side, in the thread, but I was unable to comment on the post because I'm not friends with the original poster.  I sent him a personal message instead:

[That] comment about not being born gay really sticks in my craw. I can only truly know my own experience, but I know that being straight wasn't a choice I made--it is just the way I am. I don't expect it would be different for anyone else, gay, straight, or other. But even if it were, so what? There are many choices that other people make that I wouldn't make. That doesn't mean they aren't allowed to make those choices or that discrimination against them on that basis is right. After all, religion is 100% a choice, yet we don't allow discrimination on that basis.

Ever the conciliator, he rose to his friend's defense, explaining that at least his friend, though ignorant, was talking with him about it, and that made him at least somewhat open to being educated.  I thought his approach was amazing and strong.

He thanked me for my support, and I explained to him why I offered it--because there was a time, years before, when I could have offered support to a friend, and didn't.  When I should have offered support to a friend, and didn't.  When I made a fool of myself, and hurt my friend in the process.

Better not hang around a gay guy too much, or people will think you are, too.

That little voice was silent that day.

So I can't be silent now.

*  *  *  *  *

He got a counseling job, then another.  This new one was going to be a challenge--being some sort of social worker in an impoverished county in the Delta.  He embraced it with relish and excitement.  I could tell that this was the kind of work he had been looking for all along.

But fate intervened.  He became sick--some sort of flu, that turned into pneumonia, and a lengthy hospital stay and plenty of missed work.  Even the most understanding supervisor would have his limits with a new employee.  It took a long time to recover.

I still don't have the full story, but what I can surmise from his comments on social media is that the job had gone away.  When you lose a job, it's easy to feel like a failure.  Forget about the loss of income; it's the feeling of failure that hurts.  When you lose a job that you've worked toward for a long time, it hurts more.  It hurts even more when it's nobody's fault, but it can somehow still feel like it's your fault.  If only I'd been stronger.  There's supposed to be a little voice in your head that says, don't be silly; this has nothing to do with you; sometimes bad things happen no matter what you do.

But what do you do if that voice is silent?

*  *  *  *  *

I had been off social media for a few days, busy with work.  When I got back on, his messages were at the top of my feed.  They were disturbing:

"I'll miss you all.  I love you."

"If I died today, what would you have wanted to tell me?"

"Giving up isn't cowardly.  It's finding freedom in a way that you never knew existed before."

Immediately I sent him a personal message.  I was intentionally cautious; he was clearly depressed, but I didn't know if he was serious about suicide, so I didn't want to plant the seed.  I split the difference.  "On the chance that you're saying what you could be, I want to reach out to you and remind you that there are many people who love you and who want the best things for you, that I'm one of those people, and that your story isn't finished being written yet. And, come to think of it, I think everybody could stand to hear that once in a while anyway."

I don't know if he saw it.  If he did, he didn't respond.

*  *  *  *  *

Four days later, he posted on Facebook that he had indeed attempted suicide, that he'd been hospitalized for a few days, and that he was headed to a 28-day program.  "I'm so sorry that I disappointed you all. I hope you can forgive me."

I'm not mad.  Really, I'm not.

And I'm not disappointed.  In you, anyway.

But I'm glad you didn't succeed.  That would've been devastating.

*  *  *  *  *

If there is one thing I know to be true, it's that depression lies.  I have been depressed at times, though I'm lucky that it has never weighed on me to that point.  But there have been times in my life when I had to struggle to force that little voice inside me to speak up, to speak up for me, to counter the lies that my own traitorous brain was throwing on me.  When the pain gets to be too much, will you do anything to make it stop?

No matter how strong you are, there may be times when you can't hold back the tide by yourself.

*  *  *  *  *

I look back, now 23 or 24 years ago, to that little kid, the late bloomer, the tag-along with the nice tenor voice. I had a foot or more on him in height and maybe 150 pounds on him in weight.  I want the 17-year-old me to have hugged that kid, to have let him know that I loved him.  I want the 17-year-old me to have been able to do that, so that it wouldn't be so hard for the 40-year-old me to do it today.  I don't pretend that it would have made a difference in what happened, but we'll never know.

*  *  *  *  *

I hope that someday there is a good coda to this story.  When my friend gets out of his program in a few weeks, I hope the little voice inside him will have learned how to speak up again.  I hope that one day he'll maybe read this and know that I care about him, even if we're hundreds of miles apart, and even if we weren't all that close to begin with.  I hope he'll come to understand that I know how strong he really is.  I hope he'll know that I'm not disappointed in him, that I don't think he's weak or cowardly. I hope he'll recognize that even things that feel like failure aren't always bad.

And most of all, I hope he's not disappointed in me.

*  *  *  *  *

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.  If you are having thoughts of suicide, don't wait:  Call (800) 273-8255 now.  You do not have to bear your burdens alone.  There are people who care about you, even if you don't know it.

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