“You see the giant and the shepherd in the valley and Elah and your eye is drawn to the man with the sword and shield and the glittering armor. But so much of what is beautiful and valuable in the world comes from the shepherd, who has more strength and purpose than we can ever imagine.”
By Cortland Pfeffer
I survived a suicide attempt. I also spent years receiving treatment in rehab centers and psychiatric hospitals. However my friend, Joe, did not survive. He spent many years on the streets and in jails before taking his life on February 25, 2010. This is what suicide looks like. This is him after hanging himself.
There is no difference between us, besides our resources and the subsequent treatment we were provided. He grew up in a rough environment including his home, neighborhood, school, friends, and life experiences. I grew up in a family that had money, offered support, and always knowing I had a security blanket if things went astray.
That is how our stories began and unfortunately how one of our stories end. But did it have to end this way?
There is enormous stigma associated with the word “suicide.” People cringe when you even mention the word and immediately change the subject. If we are afraid to talk about it, how on earth do we think we are going to prevent it? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States, taking more than 40,000 per year. At this rate, in one decade, we lose 400,000 people to suicide – equivalent to the entire population of Oakland, California.
When someone is suicidal, the typical reaction is “don’t talk like that!” or “that’s not even funny.” Or it turns to simplifying the situation such as, “other people have it worse than you,” or “just snap out of it, things will get better.” Nobody wants to “deal with it” and most people will adamantly refuse to even discuss it. You may even be considered selfish for having those thoughts and leaving close ones behind.
But when suicide does occur, the response is quite the opposite. Suddenly, everyone is there and feels terrible. They did not see the signs, never saw it coming, and can only talk about the amazing qualities of the deceased. It even goes as far as to hear people saying, “why didn’t they just reach out?”
If anyone has ever lost someone to suicide, they know the tremendous amount of pain associated. There may not be a worse feeling in the world. There are so many unanswered questions, “what ifs”, and “Should haves”. In the end, nobody commits suicide because they want to die, they commit suicide because they want the pain to go away.
I was suicidal, Joe committed suicide.
Part of the reason Joe is dead is because of the stigma associated with suicide along with the professionals he worked with that neglected and labeled him. He did not get treated as he deserved.
Joe didn’t have money, my family did. He went to jail and stayed long-term, I went to jail and got bailed out. He stayed in jail, while I was offered treatment instead. His crimes were all non-violent drug possession charges, mine were DUI, assault, and disorderly.
The difference? I had money and resources. Based on the information in the paragraph above, is there any other reason for the difference in penalties?
Joe and I were also born with the same temperament, which is more in tune with others emotions and greater sensitivity. This is neither good nor bad, just the way we were born. This is not to say that being emotional is guaranteed to create issues.
To be on this far end of the spectrum, along with consistently being denied needed support, along with the unhealthy environment is a formula for addiction. They refer to this as the biopsychosocial model. The biology is the genetics, the psychological refers to the emotional neglect and trauma, and the sociological refers to growing up in a broken home, overpopulated schools with minimal resources, poverty, and lack of positive role models.
But to also be denied the needed support on a consistent basis.
Some people are born more sensitive than others, which means they are going to get hurt more easily. Being an extremely sensitive male is vastly unacceptable in this society. It results in repeated invalidation such as “you are overreacting,” “you shouldn’t be feeling that way,” “men don’t cry,” “tough it out,” or “what’s wrong with you?” It also leads to being greatly misunderstood and isolation. The only way to gain acceptance is to create a mask, or a false self, to find a sense of belonging or purpose. People accept you when you wear your mask, which makes it more difficult to remove. But deep inside, we know it is not our true self.
For example, the mask teaches us that men are supposed to act out in anger when they are hurt. When we respond in anger, it is accepted. When we misbehave, we are accepted.
The mask brings us great power to finally feel alive. The more acceptance and connection the mask gains for us, the more we try to fill these roles. In fact, we start to believe that we are the mask we wear.
Then something bizarre happens. People turn on us for that exact same mask that they once praised. Suddenly you took things too far, you get labeled and judged for the same behaviors that were once glamorized.
This leads to addiction. It can be any substance or activity outside of ourselves that allows an escape from the pain. This can take the form of alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, co-dependency, anger, or any compulsive behavior that lets our soul temporarily come through the cracks in our mask.
Each culture and society has their own version of acceptable masks. But they all serve the same purpose, to escape the pain and hide from any difficult emotion. It grants us temporary relief, which is reinforcing, as it seems quite simple to take a pill, smoke a joint, or drink a beer and the pain instantly vanishes. This creates a pattern of depending on our substance/behavior, believing that we are killing the pain, but in essence we are only adding fuel to the fire. The need for the substance/behavior becomes a matter of life-or-death and we start doing things we normally would never imagine all in an effort to use again and ease the pain. These new behaviors get judged and labeled as being a “bad person” which only adds layers to the mask and we begin to hate the monster we have created.
And that is just it, we hate the monster, the false-self, the mask. We don’t hate ourselves, we hate the mask that we have been wearing.
So, the truth is when we say, “I want to kill myself,” we have it reversed. It is not the “self” that needs to die, it is the “I”. The “I” refers to the ego, the false self, the mask. We need to kill our false self and then the healing can begin.
As Eckhart Tolle states, “The secret of life is to die before you die, and find that there is no death.” He is referring to the death of the ego, the self-righteous suicide.
No health professional ever reached out to Joe, no one even talked to him, nor did they even know how to approach him. Instead they saw a “criminal” who was “angry” and was misjudged and mislabeled. While I went through the same difficulties, I was referred to as the “patient” that had a “disorder” and only needed proper treatment.
They never got to see beyond his mask. Joe was the most sensitive, caring, loving, and loyal person you could ever meet. However, that was not accepted in his culture so he became the angry, arrogant, drug addict – which is more acceptable. He wore this mask his entire life, hiding his true self which led to more drugs, crimes, and erratic behavior.
No one in the field ever even dared to think, “This is a genuinely caring kid who has never gotten a chance to show himself.” Because once the label is created, everything you do is attached to that label. They read your chart and a decision is made before the first encounter.
While my rap sheet was for more horrendous, I was considered “a poor sensitive kid that needs someone to love him.” Whereas Joe was considered “unreachable.”
The difference in outcomes is related to how the patients are treated. One of my favorite sayings is, “you can get anyone to tell you their secrets if you love them enough.” Yet, in this field we are told to get the deepest secrets of the client, but not get too close. It doesn’t work that way. I won’t show you what is behind my mask until you show me what is behind yours.
He let me see behind this mask and I let him see behind mine. And that is how true connections and relationships are built. I know the real Joe, something the “professionals” never took time to do.
Although I received better treatment, Joe was the better man. We shared a special bond and he would always reach out to me at times of need. One time he ended up in jail and had no place to go once released. He called me and we let him stay in our home for a while. On the first night at dinner, he looked to my wife and said, “this is the best food I’ve ever had.” And he meant it, to him it was everything, while I had become so grown so accustom to these things I had taken them for granted.
Joe had a unique following of people. He loved to love. If he had two dollars to his name, he would spend it on others. He gave just to give, never expecting anything in return. This is what attracted people to Joe, he was pure once you got to see behind his mask.
He also had a son, Anthony, who he loved more than anything. You could see and sense the love these two had for one another. Joe would always say, “I love you buddy” and kiss Anthony. I never saw a man kiss his little boy before, it was admirable. I make sure that I do that with my three-year-old son now and I think of Joe every time.
Anthony never saw the labels of “drug addict,” “bipolar,” or “criminal.” That is the beauty and genius of children, they do not see masks or labels. Anthony only saw him as I did, as an angel. A kind, beautiful human with so much severe pain that nobody knew existed.
His friends started showing up at the house, and I started coming home to see my 10-year-old daughter sitting at home with a bunch of strange men I’ve never met.
After a few warnings we told him he couldn’t stay here if these people kept showing up on their own. He told his friends to wait until he was home, but they refused to listen. That’s the downfall of being so pure, people will take advantage of you. It broke my heart, but we had to remove him from our home for safety of our daughter.
A few months later I received an email that gives me chills just thinking about.
“Joe is dead. He hung himself.”
He didn’t call me this time. Perhaps the pain grew too great that he didn’t want someone to talk him out of it one more time. I had kicked him out, I was his support, and the guilt I carry with me is insurmountable at times.
So, when people ask me why I fight so hard for patients, this is one of the main reasons. If we lived in a just world, Joe would have received the treatment I received and he would be with us today. If we lived in a world guided with love, somebody would have built trust with him, got to know him, and offer the services he needed. But in a world guided by fear, we judge, label, and allow 40,000 cases like Joe happen each year.
People do not go away when they die. Only the false self dies along with the body. Our spirit lives on forever. The things Joe passed on to me, I still carry and pass along to my children. He is with all of us that remember him. He is here right now as long as we let him in.
I love you Joe.