Betty Greene Salwak

Toward Life

Filed By Betty Greene Salwak | September 07, 2010 7:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: National Suicide Prevention Week, suicide, suicide hotline, Trevor Project

It is National Suicide Prevention Week. A terrible statistic reveals that a disproportionately high percentage of suicide attempts are by LGBT youth. More than 5 million people in the U.S. have been directly affected by suicide.

suicide.jpgAn online friend of mine is a passionate and intelligent man who reached out to me at a moment of deep grief. He lost his best friend who took his own life in a moment of surrender to despair. "Jim" called me to talk because he knew of my own experience with my father's suicide many years ago.

I was eighteen and Dad was fifty-five. He had moved out of the house when I was nine. I saw him one weekend a month, but many of those days were filled with words unsaid. We didn't have much time for those spontaneous conversations that fill in the jigsaw gaps of who we have become, but it was a gentle silence of mutual love. I knew without a doubt how much my father loved me. All of us kids knew.

When I learned of his suicide, the first thoughts of my young mind were of guilty ownership. Somehow I had contributed to his death. What could I have done to prevent it? My thoughts raced with all the "what ifs." What if I hadn't asked for help with college tuition? His death gave me the benefits that allowed me to stay in school. What if I had told him more how much I loved him? I wasn't alone in that kind of thinking; I learned from his friends that my older brother was convinced that our father couldn't live with the thought of a gay son, which was nonsense. I'm willing to bet my two sisters had similar thoughts of responsibility.

Over time I have come to understand the folly of "what if." We simply don't have that kind of control over what other people do. Control of anything but our own actions is an illusion.

While I can accept now that I could not change the outcome of this event, I still mourn briefly at special moments I have not been able to share with my dad. And a few years ago when my husband and my daughter reached the same ages as in that tragic year, I looked at my daughter's complete devotion to her father and imagined how she would be irrevocably damaged in similar circumstances. Perhaps for the first time I truly allowed my anguish full expression. How could you do that to me? I was so young. I loved you so much. I needed you here.

The devastation of that act has repercussions even today, as I struggle every day to give the ones I love access to my heart. Having been burned to the ground by someone whose love was certain, it has been a long and difficult journey for me to give anyone the power to do so again; and in recent years I have succeeded in keeping the walls down. My husband wields his power gently, and it is a gift without measure.

Jim's best friend left behind similarly devastated loved ones, people who cannot fathom the depth of his despair. We who choose life will never fully understand. There comes a time when we must acknowledge that "I don't know" is a sufficient answer. It is the first step to forgiveness.

Jim and I talked for over an hour. I don't know how much help anyone can provide for such grief, except to say "I'm so sorry." We connect over terrible pain and memories. It is what we must do, for ourselves and for each other.

We come together in our vulnerability. It is our humanity that binds us. Our most difficult moments become our finest as we seek our commonalities, accept our differences, and forgive ourselves and each other. Can we seek those moments of reconciliation with purpose? Can we prevent the pain that leads to thoughts of suicide? Let us try. Let us all move toward life.

If you are young and gay or questioning and need to talk to someone about thoughts of suicide, call the Trevor Project at 866-4-U-TREVOR / 866-488-7386 any time day or night. They will listen.

Anyone can call 800-SUICIDE / 800-784-2433 any time. They will listen.

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The following is not -- I repeat, not -- that proverbial "cry for help". Rather, it is a blunt honest assessment, so do with the information what you will.

I have often considered the idea of self-termination and have acted on it once: an act interrupted by well-meaning but somewhat misguided friends. The nature of my particular despair is the growing and incessant awareness that some of us human beings are simply not cut out for life in these times. We are not a good fit, as they say. I have known a few such people in my lifetime. Most simply soldier along, compromising as best as they know how and offering a smile as they do so... even as they are beaten down further and further into a life that, in some cases, they never wanted and would not have chosen.

My own comes from five decades of trying to fit into Life, sometimes by defining it one way, sometimes by trying another definition -- and seeing all of them fail, for one reason or another. It's not a matter of casting blame, either at myself or anyone around me; rather, it's like never finding the owner's guide that teaches me even the basics of how to maneuver through... well, anything. And as a result, I have often considered the option that I will never know what I am expected to do. Instead, I have been consigned to watching Life while others have lived it. And now, as a birthday approaches that fills me with dread, I look back on an existence that is as empty and desolate and alien as a Martian landscape. There is simply nothing there.

And so let us say, for the moment, that someday I act on this and terminate this God's-joke of a life. The oft-stated reaction is "he had so much to live for" and "what about his friends? Didnt he care about how they would feel?" -- to which I respond: I have nothing to live for, sorry -- no purpose, no defined goals, no connections that would fulfill even the basic requirements of "having something to live for". My friends? Well, if they didnt understand me before, they wont be any more enlightened after, so what's to be gained here? Am I to hang around for their convenience, no matter how painful and defeated life is for me? We always talk about "a better place" -- well, knowing that I've moved onto to *should* be enough, right? We're always told that suicide is an act of self-centredness -- well, what pray tell do we call it when one hangs around just so his friends are kept happy? Who, really, needs to be forgiven here?

I'll end what's now a ramble by underscoring, again, that this is not a cry for help. It is acceptance of a life that, however it happened, turned into a train wreck of Olympic proportions and is now well beyond the point of simple repair. And, to be even more bluntly honest, I'm too old for the repairs to be worth the effort involved. I dont know what the future holds, but I can assure you this: I will not be the unwanted guest at the party. At some point, it's simply best to look up and notice that the host is standing there at the door with your coat in hand.

I'm one of those who is making it all up as I go along (as I suspect most people are). Long ago I realized I don't fit any mold. I've been told I'm "different" countless times since I was six years old. It took 50 years for me to take joy in that difference, but now I am glad for it. I still muddle along and look for purpose where I can find it. Since I can't find the owner's guide either, I'm writing my own.

Sean, it was the dry humor and intelligent commentary of your comic that drew me to campaign for your presence here on Bilerico. For as long as you choose to be on this earth, we welcome you here.

Tab Hunter’s Ghost | September 7, 2010 8:36 PM

Sean, I appreciate your honesty. I can empathize as I am about to “celebrate” a similar milestone birthday and have pretty much the same desolation in my background. Sometimes it seems that this is, ultimately, the only control one has over one’s life but suicide doesn’t appeal to me because I can’t give up the idea that someday, somehow I will find that missing “key” to having, living, and enjoying a real life.

Three of my closest friends committed suicide in the last 15 years. Each person left a large hole in my life; I don’t know what pain, torment, or despair led them to the point they finally reached.

Last month a dear colleague committed suicide. It was a shock to all but me; I believe this person simply wearied of trying to “fit in” to a life that wasn’t the one this person wanted. This person was attempting to maintain a traditional heterosexual marriage while fighting off same-sex inclinations for most of the time I knew this person and this person’s profession frowned mightily on same-sex employees which left little wiggle room in this person’s mind.

Then I read this article about 3 LGBT teen suicides in a Minnesota school district today:

I don’t have any answers. Sean makes some valid points. The pain suffered by those who loved and miss the person who has taken their own life doesn’t seem to ever completely heal.

Having this conversation, however, is important and I thank Ms. Salwak for posting this. There may not be any answers, easy or otherwise, but there is power in sharing and perhaps another hour or another day of strength can be found by those most in need of it by sharing their burden with others.

Not sure how helpful this may be to anyone, but I am going to share a bit of my anti-suicide philosphy with everyone. I approach this from a different perspective. (I have a bent sense of humor.) Maybe this will work for some of you. Please feel free to share with whomever.

I am still here because killing myself would make too many people happy.

I stick around because my continuing existence pisses people off.

I get a sense of empowerment, (yes, twisted, but still empowering), from thinking of all the people I can piss off every day by just getting out of bed in the morning.

I can piss off Christians, Isalmics, and many other (if not all) major organized religions. I can piss off Uganda, America and a number of other governments of the world. (I am sure you can think of others as well.) I can piss off conservatives, bigots, homophobes, tea-partiers, republicans and a number of other human race sub-divisions.

All I have to do to accomplish this, is to get up in the morning and be myself. My gayness, spiritual thoughts and a number of other things, will piss people off, because I am different.

As you can see by my above lists and the potential added lists, there are a lot of people that I can cover by doing this.

I f you wouold like to try this as a possbility for personal empowerment, take a moment to think of all the people that you can piss off just by existing. You might find it to be a very long list. (Keep in mind, even if you only manage to piss one other person off, this still works for you.)

So, feel free to share this idea, as much as you want, if think anyone might find it all useful.

As far as I am concerned, the more of us that stick around as long as possible, pissing people off by being different (or ourselves) as much as we possibly can, the better off we will all be in the long run.

Thanks for reading.

{If you like this idea and would be interested in reading more about me and my thoughts, please feel free to give me some encouragement. I have been contemplating starting a blog of my own, for a while now, but my courage is not anywhere near what it used to be.}


Thanks for the post Betty (or Ms Salwak if that is more PC). I'll add my plea to anyone considering suicide. Please reach out to one of the numbers provided above.

Sean, if you off yourself I'll never speak to you again - at least until your next incarnation. Now on the other hand, if you stick around I'd love to meet you so I could tell you in person how much I admire all that you are and do. No that is not a come on. I'm just telling you that I think you are way too cool and it would be a pleasure to know you in person. Hold a party in North Carolina. Invite all of the Bilerico readers. I'll drive up with a bottle (or 2 - or 3) of wine.

Thanks, Betty- we need to be reminded of how precious life is- for all of us.

Rick Elliott | September 8, 2010 1:39 AM

Sean, I believe I understand some of the pain you and I have in common. Physical as well as emotional pain wracks my life and there really doesn't seem to be anything out there that's worth the suffering. When I overdosed two decades ago, I remember the world being a centripetal vortex with God welcoming me home with peace.
Another bludgeon of the "religious right" (actually wrong)is suicide is the unforgivable sin. Jesus offered abundant life, not existence. Accepting the promise by taking one's life is a fundamental way to acknowledge God.
Sean I'm a fiction writer--an artist like you. One of the sad things I've come to realize is that the best of my art comes from melancholy.
Probably the only way I will get to know you is when we cross paths in that place of promise we've been granted. I eagerly await our meeting!

Ending life, ends possibility and that really doesn't make much sense.

Wow, thank you so much for posting us! This is so important!

Having walked the path of melancholy, sadness, and darkness twenty years ago, I find myself going there again. I also was prevented from finishing my unwelcome life by well-meaning friends, and now, I find myself without the support I had then. My wife does not understand, and I am far away from those who did at one time. My counselor is the one person who is keeping me afloat at this point, and I am not sure whether she can keep doing it. What can one do when there is no purpose out there to wake up every morning, to do our jobs during the day, to kiss our loved ones good night? What can one do when there is no seeming fit with the world? Do I keep attempting to change the world, one person at a time, leaving it a bit better, waiting for the next one that needs help? Who will help me? Well-meanign acquaintances tell me to pull myself up, to change the way I think about myself; and yet, after all these years of doing just that, of recreating myself time and time again, when I fail again, why should I try, once more, to keep my head up and put one foot in front of the other?