Dark Matter

cloudy sun 0119Yesterday’s reading material all led in a dark direction I hardly expected when I took it up, and that seems to be what’s on my mind today, so I’ll just drag you all down with me — although if we follow it through, what I read ultimately leads to uplift.

Everything started innocuously enough. At work, we periodically (I haven’t ever paid attention to the period — weekly, perhaps?) receive an advertisement e-mail from Travel Crested Butte, even though we are just down the road. Most of the time, I don’t even click on it, although sometimes I go for the opening photo, which is always impressive.

For whatever reason, I scrolled through the rest of the e-mail, which of course highlights places to visit, restaurants to eat at, typical tourist invitations. And then — and I have no idea if this is always there — down toward the end of the offerings were a couple of links to news stories, including one from the New Hampshire Union Leader.

It wasn’t even a new news story, since it turns out the events happened in 2007, but perhaps the Union Leader decided to reprint it for some reason. It was about a hiker named Pam who is also a search and rescue professional, and her rescue of a badly under-dressed, under-prepared hiker whose sneakered footprints she started following in the snow.

But then it turned out the man had gone up into the mountains dressed like that on purpose — he was trying to kill himself. She did not know that at any time during the rescue, which ended with him driving off in his borrowed car to where she didn’t know. He sent her S&R organization a anonymous letter about a week later, explaining his plan and perhaps marveling that he meant more to her than he did to himself.

It was an interesting story, and worth the read, especially with that unexpected twist at the end.

But then I came home and was going through many columns from the Washington Post, most of them discussions of the government shut-down, and came to the Erik Wemple Blog. Mr. Wemple writes about media issues, and what was on his mind yesterday was a layoff of personnel by HuffPost. [I could go into a very lengthy rant about the dangers of media news sources being owned by conglomerates that care nothing about news — Denver Post readers, you know whereof I speak — but let me struggle to stay on topic.]

He was particularly aggrieved by the dismissal of Jason Cherkis, and Mr. Wemple actually dared us to read the first two paragraphs of Mr. Cherkis’ piece on suicide and not keep going. I took the dare, and now I am page upon page (and still slogging, although it’s not really a slog) into this piece-with-no-end. So you have been warned, but it does seem a shame to have put a writer of Mr. Cherkis’ caliber out of a job.

This story/opus really is a very long offering of a pretty basic solution that seems to help, and to strip out the people who have figured this out, and the people they focus on, it comes down to: writing letters (or, in today’s wide world, sending texts) that don’t require much effort or even a reply from the recipient. Even a form letter that follows up from therapy seems to be sufficient to let those who have attempted (and failed, which sounds pejorative but in this instance should be regarded as victory) suicide know that someone is thinking of them and considering their life to be valid.

We have, here in Gunnison County, a not-quite-quiet epidemic taking place. Perhaps it was three years ago now, when in one horrible six-month stretch, three high school boys took their own lives. There were rumors of a pact among other students; I did not attend any of the services and did not know any of the boys (although I certainly knew one mother and it turns out, had interacted with another), but at the third service, the clergyman (father of the man who just framed our house) made an urgent and heartfelt plea for kids not to follow through on this pact. It may have made a difference: no one at Gunnison High School has died since.

But in Crested Butte, there may have been something like six suicides in 2018. None of them kids, most of them young adults. It galvanized that end of the valley, and this end as well. There’s a new mental-health/suicide prevention organization in CB; the hospital has beefed up its mental health offerings; and the CEO of Vail and his wife just made a substantial donation to this cause in the valley, site of their newest ski resort acquisition.

Through all this, I have done nothing. I have not even participated in the annual Darkness into Light walk (I think that’s what it’s called) that takes place on the very Van Tuyl trails I walk all the time. Suicide has never felt like my issue, even though it has touched me many times.

The first friend I lost died his freshman year at college (I was still in high school). It was either a really bizarre accident, or he killed himself. Almost 40 years down the road, and I still don’t know, and would never think to ask his parents, who are still here. A couple years ago, there was no wondering: a childhood neighbor, the biggest and strongest of all us kids, shot himself on Christmas Eve while the rest of his family was at church. Maybe a winter after that, a local man just up the street (both he and his wife grew up here) shot himself one morning while his wife and children were elsewhere in the house. A neighbor’s son’s wife shot herself on her daughter’s seventh birthday, again, in the house with spouse and kids present.

I don’t mean to go on a litany of People I Have Known, but it’s clear that the issue of suicide is closer than I would like to think. In college I had a classmate say to me one day about sometimes thinking of “offing” himself, followed up with, “But we all do that.” It startled me then, and it startles me now, and I have thought about that many times over these decades. (I hope it was not a cry for help from him; if it was, I failed to heed it.)

No, actually, I really never have given consideration to ending my own life, other than in the context of a terminal illness, where I might like to choose the moment of my end. It has never struck me as a viable option — or any sort of option at all. And I always carry with me a visceral image of the most naked grief I have ever seen: a man next to his two kids breaking down at the memorial service for his wife, another local person who shot herself. Suicide may end one person’s pain, but it explodes it for everyone around him or her.

I don’t know why this topic was so prevalent in my reading yesterday, especially when I started at a travel site and a media blog, but perhaps it was a call to arms. There are a couple of people I worry about, and probably people I should worry about and don’t know it. But I never really know what I can do to help.

Maybe something as simple as a “thinking of you,” every now and then, with no expectation of a reply or any action on the recipient’s part, could make a difference. Surely it can’t hurt, to let someone know you value their presence in the here and now. Maybe it could even save a life.

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