This is Why I Didn’t Kill Myself.
I was twelve years old the first time I attempted suicide. The whys aren’t the important bit here, but the Cliffs Notes version is this: it was bad at home. The more acute trauma came a few years later, when I was locked up in a notoriously violent “adolescent treatment” program, one which would later be investigated, sued and shut down for abusing kids.
After sixteen months in the program I was psychologically shattered. I returned to my high school with every reason, and concrete plans, to kill myself. But then I met my English teacher, the soft, wise, living embodiment of Blanche Dubois. In exactly the ways I needed, she was kind. She kept me from committing suicide. She did this by caring about my words.
To visualize the traumatizing effects of the program, consider this snapshot: hundreds of kids trapped in a warehouse, tasked with brutalizing each other into morphing from rebellious teens into compliant, self-hating dweebs. To do the job we used “attack therapy,” which included subsets “spit therapy,” “toilet paper therapy,” “the spanking machine,” and child-on-child five-point restraints. There was a running soundtrack of screaming and sobbing and preschool songs. On bad days we heard cracking skulls, breaking ribs.
I returned to my high school with every reason, and concrete plans, to kill myself.
When two Parkland school shooting survivors committed suicide, my heart ached, but my brain understood. I can’t speak on the images and sounds looping through their conscious minds, but I can describe my own post-trauma experience. It was lurid.
This next sentence is so bleak, it feels like it needs a trigger warning. But for me it’s a simple truth: when you’re an up-close witness of human-on-human atrocity, your perception of humanity changes. You can’t snap back to zippidy-do-da faith in your fellow man, once you’ve been intimate with the barbarity of which he’s capable.
But humans are social animals. Our survival depends on our connection to other people. Thus, pervasive fear and distrust can make every day feel like torture.
Compounding the pain of feeling disconnected from humanity, post-traumatic stress disorder ensures that you keep seeing, feeling, hearing, tasting, and smelling the scenes that traumatized you. They flare up with every stimulus that reminds you of the event. The trigger can be a sunny blue sky, a child’s playground shriek. It can be anything, anywhere. Everywhere. You live in terror, because you can’t escape your brain.
What I needed as a damaged, suicidal teenager was the countering of these effects. My English teacher was trained in teaching vocabulary. She had an innate passion for literature, introducing me to the escape hatch of A Streetcar Named Desire, of The Catcher in the Rye. But she didn’t hold a psychology degree; she didn’t sit across from me with templed fingers and a diagnostic manual. She just genuinely liked teens. Especially those who liked vocabulary and literature.
In exactly the ways I needed, she was kind. She kept me from committing suicide by caring about my words.
I read an article recently about the deep fear, among Parkland parents, that their kids, the survivors, aren’t talking about what they’re thinking and feeling. The parents expressed concern because their teen was refusing continued therapy.
This, too, I understood. For me, the horrors I witnessed were ineffable. I had no words to describe them. And a therapist’s job is not to bodily wrap around you as you sob and scream and shake. So why go to an office to be stared at by a stranger?
When I did finally see a psychiatrist, her job was to prescribe antidepressants. But the listeners who healed me weren’t professionals. Not in the immediate aftermath of the trauma. Instead, they were adults — ones with whom I had unplanned encounters — who simply liked me. Respected me. Wanted to hear whatever I chose to talk about, to write about, without needing to steer the conversation.
In his book The Body Keeps the Score, Dr. Vessel van der Kolk offers a lucid summary: “The essence of trauma is feeling godforsaken, cut off from the human race.” With their authentic warmth and acceptance, these near-strangers countered the violence I had endured at the hands of those other humans — family members and fellow program kids — with whom I had lived, breathed and bonded.
Humans are social animals. Our survival depends on our connection to other people.
When I trained to become a certified teen life coach, the research-based strategies I learned mirrored the approach these grownups had used instinctively. For instance: to encourage an adolescent to speak openly, the adult should take themselves entirely out of the equation. They should speak — and more importantly, listen — with singular focus on what the child is saying; with all their own perceptions, suggestions and curiosities scrubbed out. So instead of, “How was school?” or “Are you dating anyone?” we might say, “I’d love to hear about whatever is important to you right now. Want to get a Starbucks and catch up?”
Empowering the teen with choice is pivotal. While it might seem counterintuitive to the protocols of caring, adults shouldn’t assume their show of care is welcome. They should, instead, offer an invitation the teen can accept or deny: “I’d love to know how you’re doing. Would you like to share?” or, “I would like to hug you. Would that be a good thing?”
We get bonus points for acknowledging our own fallibility or insecurity. A line like, “I care so much, but don’t want to show it in the wrong way. Can you tell me how to best be supportive?” hits all the right notes for a teenager. What backfires are comments that convey our own priorities, like, “When I was a teen, I experienced something similar” — in other words, “I want to talk about myself” — or, “I’m so proud of you for being strong,” which could be interpreted as, “I don’t want to know about your struggle.”
The selfless adults I encountered in my adolescence gave me the greatest gift: human connection. Their interest in me was my bridge back to a desire to stay amongst the living. When Blanche Dubois said, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” she was offering us an elixir. We can all be that stranger, helping to heal damaged young souls. All we need to do is listen.