This is a tough topic for anyone to talk about, and I’m no exception. A conversation about suicide. I actually tried to write about it a couple times and couldn’t bring myself to do it, for a couple reasons. I’ve tried to be pretty transparent in my blog and to tell it like it is, but it was just too hard to write about this topic while I was in the midst of it and when it was still just too fresh. I want to be clear that I am not currently struggling with thoughts of self harm or suicide, and I feel like I have addressed the issues well enough and given myself enough time to be able to talk about it candidly.
To be honest, it’s actually kind of hard to recall the exact feelings I felt during those dark times, but I will try my best, because I think it’s important for people to know, whether they are struggling with this issue or not.
I’ll start by saying that when I was in the midst of extreme lows, I really didn’t know how extreme they were. I think that’s probably one of the scariest things. Like thinking about dying and even thinking up scenarios about how it could be done somehow became normal enough that I didn’t realize how poorly I was feeling at the time. It came in waves, so at times I think I honestly was “over it,” but then it crept back up again. It accompanies deep depression, and that’s kind of the same thing, like I knew I was depressed, but I didn’t know how significantly it was affecting me until I had gotten out of it and could look back in hindsight. The way I can kind of see it now is pretty random. Sometimes I’ll walk down an aisle in the store and suddenly be hit with a memory of what I felt the last time I walked down that aisle. I’ll hear a song and remember what I was thinking about the last time I heard that song. I’ll smell a smell or eat a food that brings back a flood of memories of the last time I had that particular sensation, and where I was at mentally and emotionally at that time. It’s pretty strange, because it’s like now that things are so much different, in a better way, I can look back and see how deep those lows really were. Again, that’s pretty scary, because it just makes me aware of how unable I was to fully understand how I was feeling, what I was experiencing, and how it was affecting all aspects of my life. This is very common with depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation: a lack of self-awareness or an inability and unwillingness to understand and address emotions can be permanently devastating.
As I mentioned in a previous blog, it was suicidal thoughts that led me to seeking professional help to begin with. You would not believe the kind of stress that builds up over 26 years of being a closeted gay person. I was a closeted gay man whose life revolved around youth ministry and education, the two fields that have historically been most unwelcoming and hostile toward people like me. When I started getting help, things got better. When I started addressing my sexuality, things got worse. When I got to the point where I knew the only way forward was going to be coming out, I honestly thought that just wasn’t an option. It’s pretty messed up to think that the social stigma and religious pressure made suicide a better option than coming out, but this is a very important point, because it’s something that many, many gay people feel and experience when they consider coming out. Of course every single situation is different in its own ways, but mine seemed like the most impossible. From what I understand, everyone thinks their situation is the most impossible, so if you’re feeling that, just know, it is possible. A common slogan you hear about depression and suicide is the old “it gets better.” But if you don’t know how bad it is at the time, that slogan falls on deaf ears. It should be “it got better,” because you can only see that it got better well after it got better.
It is also important to note that no one else knew at the time that I was struggling with suicidal ideation. I did share honestly with my doctors, but I did not share this with anyone else in my life at the time. I don’t think anyone would have ever thought or suspected that I was close to taking my own life, and I think that is also very common with suicide. There is pressure to put on a strong face, and talking about negative emotions is seen as a sign of weakness. There is shame attached to asking for help and being vulnerable, so people don’t do it, and then friends and family members are shocked when a suicide takes place. The realization that no one could see what I was experiencing internally enabled me to understand that there may be people in my life standing as close to the edge as I was, and I have no idea. I am sorry. Please talk about it.
Before I came out, it was the fear and stress of what I thought would happen when I came out. Like I built that up into something way bigger than it ever had to be. I literally thought I would have to move because I would not be able to withstand the guilt and shame and rejection I would face. The technical term for that is “catastrophizing,”which means I expected the absolute worst and dwelt on hypotheticals that never materialized and were never going to materialize. When I came out, most people were like, “So what?” or “Yeah, I pretty much knew anyway.” It was honestly no big deal, but of course I had no way of knowing that before I came out. The response from the community was very positive. Parents actually appreciated the example I set because everyone knew it must have been very hard for me. So it got better for a while, and I couldn’t believe suicide and moving away had previously been my best options.
Then it got worse again. The support from the majority of the community was nice, but I will never be able to express in words exactly how it feels to be rejected, dehumanized, outcast and shunned by the religious community. I had put my whole life into faith and ministry, and the people who are supposed to be the most loving and accepting honestly believe that the way God would have them respond to me would be to remove me from participating in ministry, indicating that I am somehow suddenly worthless. Something that I didn’t choose and could never change, the way God Himself created me, somehow became a reason for them disassociate, to lie to me and about me, and to shun and excommunicate me. The most fucked up thing is that they genuinely believe that they’re loving me by doing that. They’re showing me grace, because simply being gay puts me in position of needing their grace, and puts them in a position to be merciful enough to give it. They love me, but I can’t sit at the same proverbial table or drink from the same metaphorical water fountain. That’s what Jesus would do. But I can’t tell anyone how they’re loving me, because Jesus wouldn’t do that.
In the most vulnerable and painfully honest season of my life, local Young Life staff lied to the community about the reason for my termination. Rather than admit that I had been terminated due to a disagreement with the organization’s beliefs and policies regarding the involvement of gay people, they said that I had been terminated due to communicating inappropriately with students. They sent emails to parents and held meetings with student and adult leaders to tell this lie and to spread a false rumor that would distract from the reality of their beliefs and policies. Everyone knows that rumors can ruin lives, whether they are true or not. In some ways, it was about the actual rumor, and in some ways it was about my new reality that living as an openly gay man working with youth makes me a target for the most common and destructive implication that has been wielded against gay men throughout history- the idea that gay men cannot maintain appropriate boundaries with teenage boys. That’s an overwhelmingly damaging reality to face, and it almost drove me to suicide. Both Bellevue Young Life staff members, Scott Didrickson and Danielle Eylander, told me not to talk about Young Life’s beliefs and policies about gay people, and they told me not to talk about their action of terminating me when I came out. Micah Humann, who is still a volunteer leader in Bellevue Young Life, told me to “Suffer in silence,” which is the exact opposite of what anyone should do while experiencing anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. My determination to talk about my experience is a huge part of the reason I am still here today. Please talk about it.
I will never be able to fully express the psychological, mental and emotional damage caused by being people who represent my Creator implying that my greatest gift- the way I love- makes me a detestable, unnatural abomination, the ultimate sinner, incapable of intimate relationship with Jesus, who should be put to metaphorical death, because my blood is on my own hands.
That kind of message, whether communicated verbally or through action, is enough to drive anyone to suicide, and it does. LGBT people are four times more likely than strait people to attempt suicide, and LGBT teens in conservative religious families are 8.4 times more likely. Suicide hotlines across the country report that their largest volume of calls comes from LGBT youth in religious settings feeling that there’s no place for them within their faith, most likely because there really isn’t. 50%- half!- of transgender people attempt suicide at some point in their life. The rejection has got to stop. Rejection in God’s name is absolutely unacceptable. If you wonder why LGBT people are so adamant about their beliefs, it may be because people who have absolutely no idea what we experience feel they have the right to treat us as worthless, and then try to manipulate and guilt trip us for wanting to be treated as equals.
When suicide is an option at any level, it affects how you live. Depression is definitely real, and it heightens insecurities, prolongs stress and anxiety, makes you question everything about yourself and everything and everyone, affects your sleep, your appetite, your focus, your energy, and dulls every aspect of your life. I’m a highly functioning person in general, so I was a highly functioning depressed person, but there definitely days I just couldn’t get out of bed, and other days when I just drove around endlessly in my car because I just could never feel comfortable anywhere or around anyone. I’m an introvert, but I isolated myself to levels I now understand were unhealthy. I’m genuinely a pretty mellow, easy-going, even keeled guy who is not affected by much, but I definitely went through phases of being highly sensitive, noticing things I generally would just let roll of my back.
On the worst days, there were only two things that kept me from following through with my plans to commit suicide. One reason I could never do it was because I would never be able to forgive myself for setting that example for students. I want to demonstrate that gay people can not only be genuine, dedicated Christians can live happy, healthy lives, and contribute positively to society, and committing suicide would send an absolutely terrible message to students that that is not possible, and that suicide is an escape for when life is too tough. To be honest, on some days I got so deep into it that I thought I could overcome that obstacle by making my death look like an accident. I planned to go to Maui and drive the Road to Hana, which wouldn’t seem out of character for me, and to drive off a cliff, which happens often enough that it wouldn’t be a definite suicide. It’s hard to even think about and write this, but I feel it’s necessary to show how deep into it you can get. Again, it is scary to think that at the time I did not even realize how much of a bad place I was in. The only thing that stopped me from booking the flight was my dog, who can sense when I am upset. He gave me a reason to live, because I could never imagine who would take care of him if I were gone. No one can love him like I love him. He quite literally saved my life. I know what you’re thinking- you should find your love in Jesus only. But remember, Jesus would reject me, just like you did. If you love like Jesus, then Jesus must love like you. That’s the kind of love that drives people off cliffs.
But it got better. It does get better. I am thankful that I was able to get regular help from a very good psychiatrist. If you are struggling with anxiety, stress, depression or suicidal thoughts, I would always recommend getting professional help. I know there’s kind of a stigma attached with that, but who cares? Pursuing emotional, psychological and mental health is one of the best things anyone can do for themselves, and it’s no different than treating a cold or a broken bone, so there’s absolutely no shame in it. If you don’t have healthy insurance or can’t afford regular help, there are most likely free resources in your area that you can utilize. If you’re in a religious setting, be very careful about who you seek help from, and if you are dealing with LGBT issues, do not engage with anyone who believes sexual orientation and gender identity are a choice, can be changed, or should be denied and suppressed.
Talking about suicide is difficult, but someone has to do it. I hope that the more we talk about it, the less we need to talk about it. Someday people will understand.