If you or someone you know is considering self-harm, please call 911. Or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at this number: 1-800-273-8255.
“Suddenly, pacing by the water, he was overcome with astonishment. He found himself understanding the wearisomeness of this life, where every path was an improvisation and a considerable amount of one’s waking life was spent watching one’s feet.”
William Golding, Lord of the Flies
This is for anyone who knows anyone who couldn’t see the ocean for the waves.
For over a decade, I was an English teacher for middle and high school students. From October to May each school year, my husband and I spent most of our evenings volunteering at the school. We coordinated teams and coached students in an international creativity competition, called Odyssey of the Mind. We got to know the students in the program very well, even called them “our kiddos.”
Every March, we took “our kiddos” to our state’s capital for state competition. Every May, we took “our kiddos” on cross-country trips for World Finals competitions. Summer of 2016, I even took some of “our kiddos” across the globe, where they learned design thinking and created solutions to global human rights issues. We watched “our kiddos” grow over the years, and they watched our own children grow. Some of our former students are now young adults and coaching teams, themselves. Over the years, “our kiddos” and their families became our extended family.
So it broke my heart, my husband’s heart, and hearts across our community when, just over a month ago, one of “our kiddos” died by suicide.
Here is the post I wrote the night we found out (I shared it with my own private safe-space support group):
Just taking a moment.
A former student of mine, a teen I taught and coached from 2013 to 2017, took her life last week. Another former student’s mom had tried to reach me, but we were out of town.
I am heartbroken.
In my personal story, I wrote that there was no way I would have survived the torture of being “victim-witness” when I was 17, 18, or 19 (time proximate the abuse). Going through the criminal “justice” process at 39 and 40 has me routinely wanting to scream, “Uncle.”
Harassment by a combo of cyberstalking, hacking, and physical intimidation fall in this limbo zone of “gray technicalities” and “tough to trace / prove.” Good luck getting police to take such harassment seriously. Many of you understand too well.
Tonight, I got horrible confirmation of how impossible this process is for young people.
This student was perhaps the most talented person I ever taught. Brilliant and witty. Mechanical and mathematical, yet also an artist and musician. The teen received numerous honors. She was on track to complete a Clemson engineering degree in two years rather than four.
We were honored to know this bright light. I have watched her solve challenging problems at Michigan State University and even The Hague (at a Global Human Rights Summit featuring Nelson Mandela’s grandson and Ghandi’s grandson, with whom this spunky girl shared conversation and a buffet-style breakfast).
[I’ll never forget her running up to my table, giddy, saying, “Mrs. B-, I’m never washing this hand again. It has Gandhi’s DNA on it.”]
Why did she take her life? I don’t know. What I know is that she changed high schools last year. According to friends and family, she had disclosed her own sexual assault account to school faculty and was frustrated, exasperated, and defeated by the school’s response (i.e. silence and indifference). She was 17.
Oh my goodness. My heart aches.
My former student’s sister posted that before she died, this beautiful soul compiled a list of stories of assault and abuse. She had notebooks full. She wanted to be heard. She wanted to help others be heard. She wanted to prevent abuse. She was a fighter.
A voicemail message said as friends and family went through the writings, my name came up. That’s why the other parent called me. The message said, “Your name came up a lot as a teacher who she really valued who changed her life positively and impacted her in a really beautiful way. First, thank you for that, and I wanted to make sure you heard the news because you were important to her…you should know she really thought you were important to her.”
In my own victim-witness intimidation fight, I have filed about 10 law enforcement reports in the last month and a half. I have had 21 electronic devices hacked or infected with ransomware, malware, and spyware. Our outside phone and cable boxes were tampered with. The damage is around $7500 [now over $9,000 and counting]. I don’t know what to do, just as I could never presume to know what is best for another victim. But I know what I cannot do.
I cannot quit.
“K-.” Her family does not want her death to be in vain. I am sharing in this safe space to give light to truth.
(My beautiful, smart, witty girl, know you were important to me, too. You rest now. Know we saw your strength. The fight was never fair. We’ll carry the torch on for you. Your light shines on.)
That night was one of shock, disbelief, and heartbroken grief. It was as if I’d been told one of my own children was gone. Then I read the circumstances surrounding her death, and I felt sick.
Three weeks before “K” died, I had posted a foreboding warning. I said I knew others were watching my own fight. In my case, I didn’t want to have to be public–but (1) my name was already made public and there was no chance of staying anonymous and (2) the actors were destroying evidence (e.g., defragmenting and altering videos recorded on our phones before we could share/download). We had to preserve evidence and have some way to reasonably warn others (several friends of ours saved and printed backup copies of what we shared).
At the outset, I was concerned what might happen to others if I “failed” in this fight. I knew many survivors were without “safe-spaces,” and that it was likely some had put what little hope they had in my “keeping my eyes above the waves.” I said my prayer was this:
“Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders…let me walk upon the waters…wherever you would call me…in the presence of my Savior.”
Just days before K’s death, I got a couple of messages from former students, and some were K’s friends. My students courageously shared their own stories with me, thanked me for sharing my own fight, let me know they supported me, and encouraged me to continue being strong. Two days later, there was an article in K’s school magazine–“K- starts [high school name]’s first sexual assault prevention club.” Looking back, putting the pieces together, it seems K may have been aware of my own fight. It’s possible she was watching from a distance, while enduring her own battles, battles about which I had no knowledge.
But even if I had known, I couldn’t have reached K. She couldn’t reach me. That same week, my electronic devices were suddenly hit with ransomware. We were cut off from our connections and contacts. I lost all access to cell phones, most electronic devices, and the internet (we even lost access to landline phones for a period). My online and social media accounts were hacked and security settings changed. It was a complete infrastructure attack. Friends and family were worried for our safety. We went through a couple of dark weeks. I was worried for other survivors who might be following, concerned they might take mistake my sudden absence for defeat.
[I referenced the cyberattacks in the post I wrote the night we found out K had died. We have a good faith belief that, for no other purpose than intimidation, harassment, and retaliation, actors (very likely actors connected to a man who committed multiple crimes against me) are wantonly, purposely, maliciously, deceitfully, and unlawfully violating my privacy rights: using Bluetooth technology to breach firewalls, mining data from our electronic devices (sending our info to remote, cloud-based storage), installing spyware applications to wiretap and to track us by GPS, creating hidden partitions on devices (thereby corrupting those devices), replacing operating systems with Linux-based, pirated software, and more. Worse, they are doing the same to family members–including my three minor children (the persons remotely installed graphics packets with inappropriate images in the packets on my sons’ devices so that these persons could later create fake “overlay” gaming programs and advertisements–it’s all incredibly sick but real, and we’ve documented well. We’re letting the proper authorities handle it as reasonable persons should).]
The malicious actors likely intended to isolate me, make my life so hard that I would “give in” or act unreasonably. Maybe agree not to testify as a victim-witness. Maybe it’s just plain ‘ol retaliation and harassment (continuing the very behavior that prompted my reporting). In itself, this is foolish because the case will continue regardless of whether I testify on the stand at trial (though I will be there to testify). Police have recorded admissions, my statements, a handwritten letter of admission, and more–together it’s more than enough to proceed. But this is malignant narcissism, and these actors don’t care who they hurt.
When a person (or group) intends cruel conduct to blame, shame, or intimidate one victim, that person (or group) wounds all victims. It’s like the children’s Sunday School hymn says, “Be careful little mouths what you say…be careful little hands what you do….”
The group who has been attacking us never considered the collateral damage to those around us–our family, our friends, our children, our colleagues, and “our kiddos.” They didn’t just cut me off from these folks. They cut these folks off from me. Abusers and the mercenaries they hire to do their dirty work treat precious souls like K as “expendables,” “mere casualties” of war (reportedly, five other students attempted suicide the same week as K). The callous, reckless disregard for these precious, innocent souls makes me angry. And more determined than ever to keep moving forward. This is exactly why it matters.
And if it doesn’t matter to you, then you aren’t even a good human. Much less a “good Christian.”
The line is bold between good and evil, right and wrong. And apathy is evil.
It might sound egocentric to write about this–to put K in my story or to put myself in hers. But the fact is, human stories overlap just as human experiences overlap. Just as human suffering overlaps. Many victims felt that overlap during Justice Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing, with every victim-blaming, cold, shaming, cruel, empathy-lacking social media comment. Every wholesale generality caused wholesale hurt.
And I really don’t care what critics think anymore, anyway. I love people as God requires, and I believe in due process, fairness, and restorative justice. But I am old enough to say I really don’t like it when people intentionally harm others. I don’t like people who are apathetic to evil. I definitely don’t like people who assist evil. Kid gloves off. We are past being polite. This is not a game. It’s serious. We aren’t betting on poker chips. It’s not a business deal. These are human lives.
I want to be clear, I don’t know all that was happening in K’s life imminently before her death. But I do know she knew we shared a common experience. Outsiders may not understand how I know K was aware of and tuned in to my own fight. I think the inner circle knows she had been paying attention, but even the inner circle closest to K may not know the following (I’ve only shared with my immediate family and one other).
In “Dear Abuser,” I wrote about being at The Hague and listening to a young woman from the African Leadership Institute who spoke candidly about sexual abuse. It was the moment when I became aware I was still wearing chains of abuse, myself: I was still an unfortunate and unwitting party to another’s power plays.
The man who hurt me named his son my first name and sent me a birth announcement in the mail. However one “spins” that, it’s cruel and shows a serious empathy deficit. It also shows there was risk for more community harm. I was conflicted about what to do. I had communicated with church leaders but got no response. I tried to disassociate again. Detach and put it out of my mind. However, a series of events unfolded that made “forgetting” impossible. God dragged me, kicking and screaming, out of my “avoidance.”
I had never cried in front of students, but when the young woman at the summit talked being abused in her sleep by a teacher (and then later being coerced by that teacher to “keep the secret”), I very unexpectedly got choked up. The topic caught me off-guard. I wasn’t prepared. The woman said,” If you’re silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” Whoa. Hard hit there. The woman spoke so candidly and without shame. I envied her freedom. I had traveled there from the “land of the free” and the “home of the brave,” but I wasn’t free. Not then.
I sat there trying to hold it together, fighting stinging eyes, sniffing in the snot, swallowing a sob. My small group of students (including my own teenage son) looked over at me, wide-eyed. Their eyes showed surprise and compassion. “Take no nonsense” Mrs. B’s tough exterior cracked in front of them. K was sitting beside me, and she asked if I was okay. Of course, I smiled, said I was fine. I never said a word about my own experience to my students. I didn’t have to. They knew. K knew.
What happened next was completely unforeseeable. A teen girl stood, took the microphone, and asked the speaker what someone should do if she had also been abused, but if she’d never disclosed to anyone, not even her own parents. The adults in the room sucked in a collective breath. The floodgates opened. Dozens and dozens of disclosures followed. Event organizers had to call in counselors. None in the room could ever forget that moment. On the other side of the ocean, in the room where the United Nations met, American teens found a safe space that didn’t exist in their home communities. I saw American culture was terribly broken. We all saw American culture was broken. No one in that room could ever forget that moment.
So, yes, when I put the circumstances of K’s death in the context of what I know–what I observed–it makes me so very angry.
Anger swells, and then recedes, replaced by guilt. Then, more anger. And then sadness. These feelings flow in waves, like the tide. It’s just so senseless. And unfair. All humans have the potential to shine light, but God grants some souls extra wattage. K’s light was extraordinary. And she was just a child on the brink of living. I grieve again and again for the potential lost. The world needed K. The world needed a million Ks. I wish I could stop time, suspend time, rewind time. My mind keeps saying, “If I’d only known, I would have helped her fight. I would have gotten her help. Maybe she would still be here.”
Logically, I realize these feelings are normal parts of grief. But I must acknowledge the feelings and process them. Grief is real, and it is hard. The fact is, there are many variables that factor into suicide. Reasonably speaking, it is unlikely any one person could stop another who had determined a course and made plans.
That said, we aren’t helpless. We cannot change the past, but we can act and intervene in the present. We can stop ignoring, start understanding, and build better support systems so that those burdened by the contributing variables can access better solutions to life’s hardships.
“Suicide.” It’s a dirty word, and we don’t dare say it. Speak about it. Write about it.
There are people who will say suicide is a “sin.” Or that it’s selfish. Not like this, it isn’t. This is murder. Soul murder. The callously reckless are culpable.
I briefly discuss mental health below. “Mental health” isn’t a catch-all to excuse human culpability. It is important to distinguish between the many forms of mental illness. Some forms are causes. Some forms are effects. Effects of trauma. Not all mental illness is cut from the same cloth. Some persons are biologically predisposed. Some are triggered by a traumatic event. Some are long-term. Some are episodic.
Schizophrenia is not the same as PTSD. Bipolar disorder is not the same as depression. Personality disorders, disordered thinking, OCD, the list goes on. Mental health issues reach the very top of government leadership (narcissistic personality disorder, anyone?), and they are often untreated and undiagnosed. A combination of factors–both nature and nurture–play a role.
Depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and PTSD may be part nature, but they are often triggered by nurture. Environment. They are often effects of trauma. Read Lord of the Flies, a novel of biblical allegory, to see just how quickly civilized humans who know right from wrong can descend into wicked, savage tribalism (sounds like empathy-deficient, anti-social personality disorder). Humans have great capacity to help others or hurt them. It all depends on who gets the metaphorical “conch.” The dominant take the “conch,” and if the dominant have a heart to help, the soldiers follow suit. Likewise, if the dominant design orders to hurt, the soldiers will follow suit.
Where “conch” holders are corrupt, brute, base, survival-of-the-fittest attitudes take over. Humans will torture and torment for sport. They will glory in their kills. They will fill their fat bellies with greed, pride, power, self-glorification, and self-justification.
Since the dawn of humankind, this has been the order of things. Despotism, slavery, genocide–it is all there in history’s pages. For our instruction. For our understanding. We cannot claim ignorance. Ignoring evil isn’t the same as being ignorant to it. Ignoring takes a lot of work.
The amount of work humans put into ignoring evil and the harm caused by evil must put Satan in awe because he didn’t have to work half as hard to help original sin in the Garden of Eden. If we want to prevent others dying by suicide we must understand this. And we must change it.
I’m breaking the unwritten code and talking about suicide here for several reasons:
(1) I’m a teacher;
(2) I’m a mom;
(3) Suicide rates among teens are increasing (there was a steep increase in incidents between 2014 and 2017);
(4) I’m a child of God, and I am commanded to “love” my fellow humans;
(5) “Love” means bearing one another’s pain;
(6) Each human life is created in God’s image;
(7) Each human life is too precious to ignore this issue or be indifferent to it; and
(8) K’s life and light was (is) important to me. But for the grace of God, that could have been me at seventeen. I owe it to K to do all I can to help others who can’t see the ocean for the waves.
Talking about suicide doesn’t cause suicide. In fact, the opposite is true. Creating safe spaces for people to talk about pain is the very thing that can prevent it. Here’s a statement from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP):
“There is no single cause to suicide. It most often occurs when stressors exceed current coping abilities of someone suffering from a mental health condition.”
In general, more white males die by suicide than any other ethnicity/gender. However, a 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found the rate of suicide attempts to be twice as high for female teens as compared to male teens (grades 9-12). Suicide occurs in all age groups and across all ethnicities. “Suicide is a human issue.”
As survivor Sadie Penn says, “81% of people who attempt suicide tell someone what they are going to do and when they are going to do it before they do it.” It’s unrealistic to think all suicide can be prevented. But “getting real” and getting rid of the silence, shame, and stigma can save many lives (see the video below).
(Survivors cannot blame themselves. If you were there for someone, acknowledged their pain, and listened, then rest knowing you did help–again, suicide is complicated and multifaceted, and 90% of the time there is an underlying, untreated mental illness involved).
Dr. Jane Pearson, Suicide Program Expert at the National Institute of Mental Health, says talking about real issues doesn’t put an idea in anyone’s head. It actually lets a person know someone cares. It is important to understand that asking someone if he is considering harming himself does not increase risk. I recommend checking out the Suicide Prevention Resource Center here: https://sprc.org.
Allow people safe spaces to speak light to truth–let them tell their stories.
Silence fuels an engulfing, rolling-boil shame. But storytelling and connection can cool conflict, calm rough waters, and restore order to a mind in chaos.
As a writing teacher, one of the most challenging tasks was teaching young writers how to write a “personal narrative.” Young people encountered narratives primarily as fiction stories. Students knew fiction meant “not real” and nonfiction meant “real.” But they struggled including the narrative structure in a traditional essay. To be fair, that’s a tough task. Real-life, personal narratives aren’t neat and tidy, and they’re tough to pin to a chronological timeline.
I had to get students to understand that both fiction and nonfiction “stories” share the same elements of plot: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution, and denouement. I’d use the analogy of boiling water:
In an exposition, you set things up. You put water in the pot. You put the pot on the stove. But if you leave it there and nothing else happens, the water will never boil. It remains still. A “still” narrative stays stuck in exposition.
Just as something must move the water, something must move a story for action to rise. It needs heat, conflict. Heat disrupts the water, makes it rise, bubble, and roll. You need conflict to boil water, and you need conflict to tell both fiction (i.e., “not real”) and nonfiction (i.e., “real”) narratives. The personal narrative is a real story with real conflict.
Real conflict was something students understood. They knew chaos. Brought it with them in their backpacks. Hid it in sarcastic one-liners, buried it in hungry bellies, walked with it in too-small shoes, carried it in tired eyes. They didn’t need me to teach them about conflict. What they needed was for me to help them place the conflicts of their personal experiences into categories of universal experiences. They needed connection.
They needed to know they weren’t alone.
They needed to know their individual chaos was already woven into the great big tapestry called humanity. Their chaos transcended time and culture. There was no place their feet could wander that human feet hadn’t wandered before.
Our external conflicts are universal: human versus human, human versus nature, human versus “beast,” human versus society, human versus fate/God/the supernatural. And our internal conflicts are universal: human versus self.
There is no shame in being a part of universal human experience. In fact, one teacher from the Bible talked candidly about real issues, and he said an understanding of universal human experience is necessary for soul healing. That teacher was Jesus Christ (teaching Nicodemus).
Validating what someone at-risk for suicide is feeling means meeting the person wherever he or she is in that moment.
Most teens who die by suicide don’t want death. They want a release for pent-up pain. They are overwhelmed by suffering, they are engulfed in shame, they are drowning in chaos, and they grasp in the darkness but can’t find the life-preserver.
It reminds me of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The novel is set in the Florida Everglades. The universal conflict is human versus nature. A hurricane comes and there’s nothing but darkness:
“It is so easy to be hopeful in the daytime when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands . . . They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”
Suffering a traumatic event is like going through a hurricane. When power lines are knocked down, a person might temporarily lose access to light. PTSD, generalized anxiety, and clinical depression might result, especially where pain begs to be felt but instead is suppressed. Depression feels like an eternal night. Losing one’s light means losing sight. Desperate eyes search for God in the darkness, while hope burns on a short-wicked candle.
Of course we cannot save everyone, but Jesus is clear that we have a responsibility to our fellow humans. We are to help, not harm. Sometimes, those desperate eyes can’t quite see God in the darkness. But they see us. We are to share our light with those eyes who are watching us. With those eyes who are watching God.
Matthew 5 (KJV):
“And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
10 Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake.
12 Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.
13 Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? it is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.
14 Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid.
15 Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house.
16 Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”