[Note: many of my articles are now available in audio form on the Pondering Purple podcast.]
I remember the phone call. I have no recollection of who was on the other end of the line. But even eighteen years lately, the words are still a paralyzing wound.
“Riley killed himself.”
He was a former student of mine. An actor in the play I’d directed just a couple years before. He used to appear out of nowhere, on occasion, when I was in the kitchen at the boarding school residence where I volunteered. A deep soul. A keen mind. Slightly haunted eyes. He’d materialize beside me as I was fixing dinner for the dorm and, as if he’d been working up the courage and had to ask his question before it went internal again, would blurt it out. No, not blurt. He’d mumble it in his soft baritone voice, but the undercurrent of intense grappling made it feel urgent somehow.
Some days it was something like, “How can you believe God is good?”
Other days it was, “What’s the point of life?”
Elbow-deep in dish soap or juggling pans of cookies coming out of the oven, I’d try to answer as honestly and deeply as I could, knowing he wouldn’t tolerate simplistic explanations.
I never knew if my words offered him any degree of clarity. His face was inscrutable under a shock of wavy blonde hair that nearly covered one eye.
And I will never know.
Riley (name changed) ended his life a year and five months after he left the school. He’d made a couple transatlantic calls to ask similar questions during that time. On the last one, he’d seemed a bit brighter. Or maybe just a little less dimmed.
Receiving word of his passing undid me. I loved the boy. His insatiable analysis. His mystery. His beyond-his-years, profound contemplation of a world that seemed toxic to him in so many ways.
Perhaps most jarring on the day I learned of his death was the understanding that it could have been me. I could have been the one—on the cusp of adult life—who never saw it dawn. I’d certainly tried, in the winter I turned seventeen and again that summer, to make that year my last.
But nobody knew. It didn’t feel significant enough to mention. Just two botched efforts to end a life as empty as it was pointless.
There’s a family portrait that hangs above the desk where I get ready every day. It was taken when I was about fourteen. I was wearing my favorite cowl-neck sweater-dress and had taken some time to tame my hair. There’s a deadness in my eyes that articulates how life-deprived I felt. How life-bludgeoned and life-exhausted I was already at that age.
When I look into that teenage face today, I can see it all. The fear. The sadness. The hopelessness. The disappointment in myself. In my friends. In my dreams. In my body and mind and spirit. In God.
Yet I came from a Christian family. I’d been raised in a faith defined by hope. I knew the scripture references and had plenty of genuinely Jesus-loving friends.
So did Riley.
And so, maybe, do you.
May I tell you what I wish someone had told me? What I still wish I’d been able to convince Riley of, even all these years later?
If Riley were looking over my shoulder right now, telling me that he’s considering the unthinkable to end his misery, I’d want to sit him down, look into his (likely averted) face and tell him this with all the conviction I could muster—perhaps you need to hear it too:
You are not the lies of bullies intent on harming you. Don’t listen to them or to your inner bully. You are not worthless, you are not loveless and you are not rudderless.
I know it feels that way right now. I know you’ve found evidence to support that conclusion and I know it feels solid. But our perspective on life and our own value, when we’re at the end of ourselves, can’t be trusted. It’s too distorted by a destabilizing mix of desperation and apathy.
The prism through which you’re seeing yourself right now was built by pain—and pain is a vicious, self-accusing abuser. What feels so true to you is a lie intent on destroying you.
Don’t believe it. Don’t trust it.
I know it feels like the anxiety and helplessness of this moment will bleed into the rest of your life. That you’ll never feel a lightness of spirit or a desire for community or a sense of being loved or strong or worthy ever again. I know how agonizing it is to try to look into the future and see only a reflection of your hollowed-out self.
As someone who was stuck in that same place for years, with occasional vistas that felt hope-tinged until the darkness settled in more crushingly again, believe me. Had I ended my life at seventeen—when I was so sure that my future would be a barren emotional landscape burning with interminable suffering—I wouldn’t have known the beauty and flourishing I’ve found today.
It came slowly. In fits and starts. Growing along with my healing. But it came. And it can come for you too.
This isn’t forever.
Someone needs to know.
Not words written in a journal or screamed at the top of your lungs to empty fields. Someone human needs to hear them.
For so many years, I thought I was controlling the emotions by keeping them quiet—either ignoring them altogether or speaking them only to myself. But “myself” had created the false narratives destroying me. “Myself” had begun to believe the mantras harming me. Life is meaningless. I am repulsive. God is a myth. No one can help me. This inner horror-show is going to last forever…
The courage it took for me to speak the words to someone outside myself felt beyond me, but I finally found just a trace of it. Just enough to write a note and deliver it to an adult in my community. And I’ll admit that my first couple attempts at making the darkness heard fell on unhelpful ears. (It happens.) So I had to drum up the courage again. I had to speak the quiet things out loud—again.
But here’s the truth: each time I did, I uncovered a tiny bit of strength I hadn’t known was in me.
Every simple sentence I uttered (I’m sad. I don’t want to keep living. I’m stuck in this spiral. I hate myself. I despise God.) was like a tiny insurrection. In barely perceptible ways, I was wrestling the reins away from an unseen tormentor by simply stating its name.
That’s the thing about depression. About anxiety. About despair. It makes us feel like we’re a slave to it. And over time, it anchors in our mind a scenario that stretches out as far as our imagination can reach—a desolate, endless expanse of worsening “bad” that falls over the horizon into the abyss. A loveless, hopeless, purposeless, crippling “bad” that feels like it will last our entire future on this earth.
We need to speak it to defuse it.
[Note: If you’re a Missionaries’ Kid, like me, this can be a frightening notion. We’re supposed to be stronger than this, right? Our faith is supposed to be firm enough to see us through? And our parents are so stressed out by ministry that we don’t want to add to their burden. But it’s precisely because we’re MKs that we may be prone to anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. There are factors in the MK life that increase pressure, encourage scrutiny and prevent intervention. If this is you, please—power through. Your life is worth it.]
But somebody has to know you need it in order to offer it. And friendly ears are great, but you may need more than someone who will show compassion and concern. If you’re thinking—casually or intensely—that death might be preferable to whatever tomorrow or the day after hold, you are who I was at seventeen. And you’ll be needing both the friendly ear and the help of someone who has an arsenal ready to be aimed at what has wounded and broken you. Plus a treasure-chest of antidotes to the lifelessness haunting you.
It may take a couple attempts. The first time I saw a counselor, she gave me verses to read. But how could “his eye is on the sparrow” make a dent in my despair when I was so convinced that God himself had ambushed me? I waited years to try again.
Don’t do that. Don’t wait.
If the person you seek out for help isn’t a good fit after a meeting or two, look elsewhere. It isn’t lack of loyalty. (I made the mistake of thinking that.) It’s knowing what doesn’t help and being committed to finding what does.
If you don’t know where to start—reach out to someone who can point to your first step.
There’s something galvanizing about first steps. They can be brutal. They can feel like too much. But they lead to a second step and a third. And together they will lead to a different tomorrow.
For many of us—dare I say, for most of us—that future, in time, can feel like full healing. Like a vibrant flourishing that may still see darkness, but trusts in light’s return.
For others of us, that future can eventually feel like hard-won overcoming. A journey on which the consequences of past pain and trauma become more bearable companions, instructive voices of caution and wisdom. A path on which light outshines shadow and shadow lends meaning to the light.
I can’t tell you which of those will be the future for you. But one of them can. And I want you to live long enough to see it become true.
Can I tell you this from my current vantage point—from a clear perspective informed by years of hindsight since those days when I was certain that death would spell relief?
But you’ve got to give it intention and time. You’ve got to give it courage and survival. Borrow them from others if you must.
The muck sucking you down right now may not last forever. It feels like it will. In the depths of your life-ravaged soul, you’re certain that it will.
But take it from me—take it from the multitude of friends and students I’ve seen come through the unbearable and from my own plodding journey from broken to buoyant: the current agonizing deadness can and will change.
Every morning, I look at the picture of seventeen-year-old Me in her cowl-neck dress, sobered by what my life is now and by all I would have missed had I succeeded in rushing into death when reality felt maiming. Nearly every day, I take a moment to acknowledge that though my life hasn’t been easy in my adult years either, it sure has been worth living.
And every time I think of Riley, I’m reminded of the miracles he didn’t see because desperation overwhelmed him to the point where he couldn’t believe that…
He was not the lies swirling around his brain.
This wouldn’t last forever.
Someone needed to know.
There was help to be found.
His current pain could and would change.
Friend, I may not know you, but if you’re feeling like Riley did on that day when his life ended—whether it be a frantic sense that you need out or a rational conclusion that life isn’t worth enduring—please, I beg you, reach out to someone. To a loved one. To a caregiver. To a pastor. To a colleague. To a neighbor. To a counselor. To a hospital. To a hotline.
Don’t let this moment that feels like forever rob you of the years ahead, in which understanding and healing and dreaming and living can be possible again.
You are important. You are worthy. You are priceless.
- United States Suicide Hotline: 800-273-8255
- Canada Suicide Hotline: 833-456-4566
- Reach out to me through messages if I can help you find help
- Please suggest other suicide hotlines and assistance resources in the comments below.
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