Leah Lair Conner
For the last few years, September being “Suicide Awareness Month” and housing “World Suicide Prevention Day” has made a lot of sense to me, since five years ago, on September 7, I had probably my most significant/profound brush with wanting to leave this world, to date. It wasn’t the first time. I’d love for it to be the last. But, it was A. BIG. DAY. I’ve written about it before, so I don’t want to go into the details here, but on that day, I really had what I consider to be a break with reality. I didn’t know who I was, where I was, what was happening…it was insane, for lack of a better term. It’s not always like that…and I know, because for me, it wasn’t the first time, it was just the first time that looked like that.
Current statistics from NIMH tell us that in 2019, there were more than 2 ½ more suicides in the United States than homicides. That seems a little strange, since we’re bombarded more than once or twice daily with news about gun violence and homicidal crime. TWO-AND-A-HALF-MORE souls were lost to suicide in 2019 than to homicide. Let that sink in. Yet suicide is still some taboo subject that occupies space on the dusty back shelf because it’s uncomfortable and squeamish. Apparently, it’s more uncomfortable and squeamish than murder.
Last weekend, I found myself saying to one of our daughters, “Ain’t nobody gotta live with you but you.” I was being silly with my terrible grammar, and I was talking to her about the importance of with whom she surrounds herself/dates, but after the words came out of my mouth, I felt a real revelation. It’s the truth. YOU are your longest relationship, and regardless of friends, lovers, family members along the way, YOU are the only one truly living with you forever. I’ve battled mental illness since I can remember. I have been in therapy since I was fifteen years old, and I’ve taken anti-depressants and/or anti-anxiety medications since I was sixteen, when I was first hospitalized for my illnesses. I’ve battled people telling me I didn’t need such treatments (pills or therapy) – “your faith will save you! just hand it over to Jesus!” – and me battling myself – “what’s wrong with you? why can’t you get it together?” I’ve fallen victim to the “what do you have to be depressed about? so many others have it so much worse!” and the “being mentally ill is a privilege – check yourself” attitudes across the years, and no matter what filters in to my conscious and subconscious from the outside, my soul never waivers – only I know me, really. And only you know you.
Recently (just four months ago), our community was completely shaken with the death of a young, beautiful soul – James Goggans. (God forgive me for not naming all of the souls of late – there have been far too many – but I had a personal connection to James, and his death shook me PERSONALLY, so it’s for that reason that I share his particular passing.) I’d watched James grow up in our church. His sister and our oldest daughter are the same age. My husband was his pediatrician. I went to school and graduated with his father, and ever since I’d met his mom for the first time, I genuinely liked her and knew she was a warrior. When I learned that James had taken his own life – that he’d lost his battle with mental illness (known battle or not) – I didn’t feel like I could take my next breath. I immediately wondered how his parents didn’t just somehow disintegrate with grief, on the spot. When faced with such tragedies, we often turn inward/selfish (it’s okay – it’s natural) and begin to insert ourselves into the situation, imagining all of the “what ifs?” I did the same, and quite honestly, given my own history, I selfishly started trying to figure out how I would ever navigate James’s funeral. Even in my distanced space, it seemed too much. For my own health, I’ve lately taken to a “never go to anything just because you feel you SHOULD” mentality, but this was different…and I knew it. I understood at least a part of what James had suffered, and I had to be there for him and for those he left behind.
I need to share something right now, and this is powerful. Attending James’s funeral took the option of suicide off the table for me. OFF THE TABLE. Forever. It’s hard to put into words, entirely, but for one thing, it was the whole tone of the funeral, itself. No one was trying to sugarcoat or gloss over the fact that James had, in fact, taken his own life. The preacher (Pastor Ed Lantz) said something like, “keeping a thing in the dark only gives it power. So let’s not give this power it doesn’t deserve…let’s bring it into the light.” I’d only ever been to one other suicide funeral before, and that was not how it was handled. THIS was revolutionary…and so necessary. He went on to discuss how it may never be possible to know the WHY behind James’s death…but it’s also not necessary to concern ourselves with the why. I learned a long time ago that wanting closure is about our own egos – not about healing.
I’m on the end of the spectrum that doesn’t understand a person who HAS NOT ever wanted to escape this world. For me, there have been many times that while I haven’t actually wanted to die or to truly take my own life, I DID want to cease being. And there’s a difference, but there’s also not. It’s a very thin line. And it’s not a cop-out. It’s not cowardly. In fact, I can assure you that any person who has contemplated leaving this earth feels that they are doing what’s best for those left behind – not causing them more pain. It’s called mental ILLNESS for a reason. If you don’t understand it, that’s all the more reason to NOT dismiss it, because we only understand through learning and experience and appreciation for our fellow humans.
Right now, in the United States, suicide is the SECOND leading cause of death, ages 10-34. It’s fourth for ages 35-44. If you’re hurting, if you’re even in the category of maybe just contemplating driving forever and not stopping (suicidal ideation, of a sort), I’ve been there, so I know that reaching out isn’t at the top of your list of things to do. I feel you that everything inside you wants to keep it personal. I’m also here to tell you that there is another side, and that you can make it to that other side. Sometimes, that only means holding on for one more minute.
I have James Goggans to thank for a lot these days. I’ve not been actively suicidal for a long time…and it’s even been awhile since I’d say I was passively so. But the darkness has always been there, lingering, along with the fear of slipping back into its grip. As I said, I can’t really put it into words, but my future changed at that young man’s funeral…and I hope, no I KNOW, others did, as well. Talk to me if you want to…if you feel you can. And know that there are other resources, always, as well – 1-800-273-TALK – suicidepreventionlifeline.org – twloha.com/find-help/ - you are not alone. And I want you to STAY.