One Year Ago
November 4th, 2015. One year ago today, a sixteen year old boy named Cameron Lee passed away. That’s what we like to say, at any rate. Cameron jumped in front of a train at 1:30 in the morning, and that was the last anyone heard from him — but the conversation about him still goes on. You see, nobody expected Cameron to be suicidal. Hell, nobody was even saying the word suicide. It was a word that belonged in hushed conversations between close friends, or in weary ruminations at ungodly hours of the night. It was a thing that happened, a dark part of a past that we were scared to bring into the present. Something that was treated with due silence and respect, something under the surface — and it was taboo to break that barrier.
The day Cameron died, that taboo broke. I knew him only distantly — we shared a few months of a mostly silent class. I had exchanged twenty words with him at most, and yet that distance didn’t stop the effects of his death from permeating through everyone, everything, through to me and out the other side. He was a friend of a friend, one of those people that make up the background of our lives, but turn out to be essentially nodes in the web that’s keeping all of us tied to sanity.
When the news of his passing was brought into the school, everything stopped. Moments became eternities. I’m not sure what was more common — tears, or expressionless faces, shocked into disbelief by reality. We don’t know why Cam’s death was so painful. Maybe it was because he was popular, well liked, and happy — always so happy. Maybe it was because he was a symbol as far removed from suicide as it was possible to get, and we hurt because the unimaginable had come and past, and now nobody was safe. Why he did it was a mystery to us — but the common opinion seemed to be that it was stress, that he’d taken on too much and he couldn’t be who he wanted to and his life had come tumbling down around him and, in a moment of desperation, he’d offed himself. But really? We couldn’t know why. All we knew is that Cameron Lee was dead.
The tide of emotions swept through the school instantly, churning up everyone and anything in its path into the same thought cycle, the same words repeated over and over. The same reality hitting us over the head, minute after minute. The day passed by mainly in flashes. Thirty minutes after hearing the news I found myself sitting on a stoop, staring at the ground, and contemplating why we lived. Another thirty minutes after that, I was in a room full of people grieving. People hugging people they barely knew and crying their hearts out into a stranger’s arms. Inexperienced counselors desperately trying to make sure that everyone was alright, and worried administrators talking quickly and nervously into phones. Thirty minutes after that I was in class. Our teacher said nothing, did nothing. We followed suit. The silence was pierced by barely a few whispers as the hour crept by. A while after that I found myself on a walk. Then back among people. A normally bustling lunch hour became silent as a graveyard — partially because many people were nowhere to be found, and the rest were still caught up in the rush. Thirty minutes later, I found myself in the middle of an exam. I probably failed, but I don’t even remember. I found myself holding hands of people I barely knew, desperately begging them not to break back into tears, trying to disconnect them from reality long enough to heal. I was a zombie — a composed exterior, but inside I was just reacting out of instinct. I desperately wished someone would come and ask me if I was alright — but nobody did. I was one of the strong ones, asking that question.
But was I really?
What the hell does it mean to be strong? Can strength stop rushing trains? Can strength keep your brain in your head when you’re ready to bawl your heart out and there’s still an infinity of work in front of you? Can strength carry you through one of the worst days of your life? Can strength take you home when everything in the world seems to want you to lie down right there and let yourself go?
They tell me that the next day was the same — barely anyone in the classes, all tests cancelled, coursework postponed, and a deathly quiet come over a community of two thousand people. They tell me this, as I tell it to you now, with a hope of transmitting a fraction of the sheer emotions that were our world that day. They had to tell me this because I wasn’t there to see it, no matter how much I wanted to be. I was instead seeing the other side of the equation — not what happens after a suicide, but what happens before it. I saw, true to life, the system built to prevent a tragedy like Cam’s from ever coming to pass.
One year later, let me tell you what I saw.
As the evening of that day was drawing near, and the sun was setting, I was getting on my bike. I was exhausted, but I didn’t steer myself home. I went to a nearby park, stocked with green meadows, a slow creek, and plentiful redwood trees that pierced the suburban canopy to overlook the entirety of Silicon Valley. I went there to relax, to climb — probably with the hope that it would return my mind to a state where it could function. I reached the bottom branches of the tree just as the sunlight was beginning to slide up as it disappeared on the other side of the hills. It occurred to me that I should catch it, catch those last rays of sunlight — then maybe I’d catch the ghost I was chasing. So I went for it. I can climb well, but eighty feet up that tree the wind began to blow. Still the light was above me. Higher, then. The spacing between the branches began to get more than I’d ever tackled before. No matter. Higher.
I caught that sunset, over a hundred feet above the ground. It was to no avail — the sun’s rays faded over the hill, and the darkness began to come over the valley. People went about their lives below me, and I watched — but this time was different, somehow. I was scared. Scared of what would happen when I climbed down. Scared of the future, and scared of myself. Fear, but a desire to drive out that fear. What if there was just pain? Just nothingness? It came to me that all I had to do was lean forward, and let go. They’d find me sooner or later, and then the madness would continue. Nothing would change. I had friends, and I know people who would have cared that I was gone — but time would make it pass, just like everything else. There was really no barrier there.
I’d like to say I stared death straight in the eye, and then decided against him. It was nothing like that. I was tired, weary, and decided that today was not the day. That wasn’t what I wanted to leave behind in the world. Call it ego, but I did not want to be just a sad memory in someone’s past, or the reason that someone else would trigger their own demise. David Foster Wallace said that suicide wasn’t something you wanted to commit — there were simply moments where it was the better of the two options, where you couldn’t let yourself be burned any longer and so you jumped, because you had to jump. This was not one of those times, and, talking to the suicidal people I have met, I don’t believe I have ever felt such a moment. I lowered myself down back into the world, got on my bike, and went home.
Thirty minutes later, I was laying on the couch by the door, letting life whirl and spin around me, too tired to process it but yet too tense to fall asleep. There was a knock on the door, and I answered it. Two police officers stood there — for a moment. Then one of them said into his radio, “We’ve made contact with the subject. Appears to be calm.”
The fear snapped back, this time with a surge of adrenaline and mental clarity. Shit, the thought shot through my head. They mean me.
A few minutes later, I was staring out the back window of a police car on my way to the emergency room, fully patted down, free of handcuffs only because I seemed non-threatening, and cooperative. That’s how it begins, ladies and gentlemen. When they hear you’re likely to off yourself, they pull you out of your life and send you down the rabbit hole. In my case, I’ll let you decide for yourself if it was right or not.
I spoke to two doctors that night — one who told me that there would be more doctors in my future, and another who didn’t do much talking. He simply asked what was wrong with me, and knew that his job was just to funnel me deeper into the system with a more detailed report. I’d been reported for climbing dangerously high, and looking like I was going to jump. Someone I knew had seem me in that tree. There was no denying that anymore, and so everything I said was meant to mitigate, to ameliorate, to make that seem like it was just a way to de-stress and that whoever had seen me had no idea what they were talking about.
It didn’t work. I had been placed on a 5150 hold — a complete suspension of human rights for 72 hours — or longer, if the psychiatrist felt like it. After a night in the hospital, 4 A.M. found me on the way to a lovely place known as the Mills Peninsula Adolescent Psychiatric Ward. All I wore of my own was my watch. They told me I was lucky to get in with even that.
Life at Mills is a caricature of the outside world. It’s inhabited by kids with every sort of mental illness — from schizophrenia to the autistic spectrum, from suicidal ideation to mental conditions so severe that I can’t even place words to them. They’re all thrown in together. These are the type of kids that point loaded guns at their parents, and would start twitching their fingers if the time felt right. Some of these kids were downright alcoholic, some were sadistic, some were pregnant at age twelve, and some were just plain psychotically depressed. Here at Mills, we help you get the skills you need, they say. They have you sign a safety contract, promising that you won’t do anything to harm yourself. It’s about as effective as getting someone who looked into the mirror, put a gun to their head and almost pulled the trigger to pinky promise that they won’t do that again. Maybe they’ll agree in the moment, but what does that really mean when you control everything around them? And then there’s the fact that the contract just can’t cover everything that someone might do — Does defecating all over the wall and smearing it into patterns count as harming yourself? Does surviving someone else doing that count as coping, as becoming stronger?
The whole thing is brutally useless. Kids that end up in there usually end up coming back, until they no longer can. Why, you ask? Let me paint you a little picture of what it’s like.
There’s a common room, in the center of all the little hospital bedrooms. All the free time you have, you’re expected to spend there, with everyone else. If you try to stay in your room and read a book, you’re withdrawing, and such behavior will be noted on your record. So you suck it up, and you go outside into that screwed up world and you smile and you play and you keep your anger inside, because you know it’ll never help. As it turns out, no matter how sane you are, no matter how happy and healthy and determined to live and thrive you are, it’s not seen that way. Once you’re in their system, you’re no longer human. You’re a collection of statistics with measured behavioral responses and a very clear solution. Because according to us, that’s how humans work.
There’s group therapy. You all gather in a circle, and make goals, to help yourself cope. Oh, I almost forgot about coping skills. How could I? How else would I cope with life right now? How are my coping skills holding up? Have I coped enough to achieve my goals for today? Coping was the only focus there. There was no mention of success, or happiness. No, no. We were all too far gone for that. We had to cope. We had to examine and accept ourselves, no matter how messed up we were — no mention of changing ourselves for the better. Good boys and girls have good coping skills and follow the rules. You all want to be good, don’t you?
There’s the twenty minutes a day when you meet with an actual psychiatrist. He talks to you, he tells you you’re fine, that it’s all going to be OK — but really, he says nothing of substance, and you know nothing more about yourself, except that you’re not getting out today.
There’s the hour that our parents are allowed in. The hour full of angry ranting, the hour of barely contained crying and raw emotion that you can’t express otherwise. The hour where you know that there’s nothing but pity and confusion and a desire to help there — without comprehension of a problem that doesn’t exist anymore. There’s the hour where your friends visit and you never realized how much you loved these people, and how far gone you’d be without them, and how much they really care, and it’s one of the best feelings in the world but it passes. The clock ticks past visiting hour, and you’re still there.
There’s the nights, where every fifteen minutes the door opens to make sure nothing untoward has happened. These rooms were supposed to be proofed from self harm — and yet, during my stay, I found at least four ways around that. I wasn’t in the least tempted to take advantage of them, because Mills had a peculiar effect on me: I wanted nothing more in life for those three days than to get out. To breathe air that wasn’t filtered. To leave this fucked up caricature of a world behind. To finally get a diagnosis for what was wrong with you, and to be assigned a goddamn pill that would make it all OK again because even though they were wrong you didn’t care anymore, you just wanted to be free. I suppose it worked, in its own twisted way — but to those who were truly suicidal in there, there was nothing more soul crushing.
Why is all this happening? There’s no one answer — but one of the main reasons is something else that we also tend to ignore unless it stares us in the face. Our culture is workaholic. Silicon Valley is a great example of this — even interns pull sixteen hour days for months on end in the name of demonstrating passion and gaining work experience on their resume, all so they can be happy — later. Always this. Happiness is for later. Before ‘happiness’ comes years, if not decades, of sleep deprivation, stimulant addiction, and constantly rising expectations. How can we help but feel inadequate, when each year success seems to be harder and harder to attain. It’s causing widespread depression and an unhealthy, unbalanced culture where people are transformed into automatons, stifling their sense of humanity, putting their enjoyment in life. Where self worth is defined by grades and the length of one’s honors list. The system feels like this all the way through, because that’s the way we’re taught to achieve success — hard work until you can’t work anymore. It starts in high school, where we’re in a rat race up a mountain to get into a prestigious university — so that we can enjoy a summer of excitement and pride before going back into the chopper for four years — so that we can get a job that pays well with a successful company — work hard for them, maybe harder than we’ve ever done before, until we would give up anything to feel rested again — so that we can follow our dreams, and be happy. Happy? After you’ve been beaten to a pulp by all that, what the hell is happy?
We’re conscious enough to realize that this is a problem. There exist articles bemoaning it constantly. A new flurry of them pops up every time a new tragedy occurs, or some intern is discovered living in his car. Then the whole issue promptly fades back into oblivion, just another one of a myriad of problems that plague modern society.
Yet the problem doesn’t lie with the people inside the system, and the solution isn’t to pull them out of their lives, screw with their heads, and then throw them back in. The problem is with the expectations that drive them to those lengths, with the entire damn system itself — and the solution isn’t as simple as arresting everyone you think is vaguely suicidal. Our school district reported 52 kids hospitalized for “significant suicidal ideation” in the 2014–2015 school year. Such a high number of kids condemned to a full-color view of exactly how bad it can get. After I got out, I realized I knew far too many of them. One went on to commit suicide a few months later, after multiple stays in Mills and its clones that exist throughout the state. Yes, that’s right. He went ahead and killed himself, no matter how hard we tried to care for him. I hope that after all this, we can talk about it freely. Because it exists. There’s no barrier. It’s not taboo. It’s very real, and when the light of your life extinguishes itself, you can’t hide from that any longer. When I got out of the hospital and back into the ‘real world’, all my teachers knew what had happened to me — and they weren’t even surprised. They’d seen it in so many others, and I was just another casualty of how things worked. How can this possibly be normal? How long can we keep going on like this?
The system we’ve built is so warped that it’s tried to fight workaholism with the opposite, with forcing you to take a vacation and let the rest of your life disintegrate. For some people it might be effective. But for everyone I know who’s ever been “helped” — all they want to do is never go back there again. In more than one case, killing themselves seems like a better option. Those days of “care” don’t seem like a long time until you’re in the middle of it, feeling like you’re barely even a person anymore, with each minute ticking by second by second — and always the uncertainty. How long will they keep you? Are you crazy enough to finally be chucked in the permanent asylum? Will you lose the little shard of dignity you have left, and finally crack, just like the rest of them? We need help, but our concept of help is so far wrong that what we’ve built to save us encourages us to do exactly the opposite. I needed help — but that’s not the help that was rammed down my throat. That was a knee-jerk reaction to a systemic problem. Right now, the bigger issue is that we don’t even take the time to listen to what people have to say before we throw them into the nuthouse.
I made it out — and, despite the best efforts of Mills Peninsula Adolescent Psychiatric Ward, this past year has done well for me — but that’s not the case for everyone. We need to be more than OK. We need to talk about what we’re harboring inside us, and we need to fix our idea of what help means. Because what we have now? It doesn’t help. It just can’t. It doesn’t stop Cam from killing himself, and it never will. One year later, and two more kids in the same school district killed themselves. One year later, and all of the talk has resulted in almost nothing except a general foreboding among us, that one of us might not be OK, that we should be careful in what we say as to not trigger the worst. Sometimes we panic, and send one another to three days of subhumanity in the name of prevention, outreach, and kindness. One year later and we’re just as hopelessly distorted up as we were before, and the culture is getting worse and worse. How long before we reach the tipping point, that side of the pendulum where it’s gotten so far removed from normal that we open our eyes to what we’re doing? How long before we see how we’re fighting and destroying ourselves from the inside? How long until nobody else kills themselves just because they can’t bring themselves to meet expectations? At Cameron’s memorial service we shared our memories and swore that something like this would never happen again. But it has, and again we share our memories and make the same empty promises, full of false hope that it’ll be better in the future. How long is it going to go on? Because one year later, not enough has changed.
A few references:
3. School District hospitalizations: http://www.modernluxury.com/san-francisco/story/why-are-palo-altos-kids-killing-themselves