Matthew killed himself two years ago. Everything changed and nothing changed. We were dear friends who lived three states apart, and he didn’t have much time for texting at the Air Force Academy. When he died my little corner of the universe kept on exactly as it always had. But then there was the Thanksgiving church service, the Christmas party, his younger sister’s wedding, moments when his absence filled the room. The whole world is a place where Matthew isn’t anymore.
Matt and I grew up in the same Presbyterian youth group in Dallas, so we spent our teenage years together at potlucks and Montreat. He didn’t always fit in with the other guys in the group — he was more contemplative, dryer in his humor and generally smarter than most boys in junior high and high school. He gravitated toward the adult male sponsors and was pretty much always surrounded by us girls. We loved him, and we felt protective toward him, too. He was a weirdo, sure, but he was our weirdo. He was compassionate, loyal, and offered a fierce sort of kindness that made our friendship feel steady and vibrant even after we went off to college and passed weeks or months without talking.
I saw him a few months before he died, and we talked about our plans for senior year and joked about his pathological hatred of vegetables. He seemed happier than he had in the 10 years I’d known him. He had come to terms with the fact that his phenomenally bad eyesight meant he had to let go of his lifelong dream of flying planes in the Air Force, and he lit up when he talked about his final aerospace engineering project. We hugged — the kid gave million dollar hugs — and said see you soon. When our friend Allison called me the morning of September 29, 2012 to tell me he had died, the words held no meaning. I was driving from Austin to Dallas to see our youth pastor get married, and I pulled over before I asked her to say it again.
“Matthew Patrick committed suicide. He’s gone. That’s all we know.”
I’m not sure how long I sat there on the shoulder bawling. Matthew wasn’t depressed, had no personality disorders, never abused alcohol or drugs. It was like hearing war had broken out in Iceland. I called my best friend. I called my mom. I started writing a poem. Somehow, I got back on the road and made it to Dallas to celebrate the wedding of our dear friends while a roiling monster of despair growled below the surface. When our Sunday school teachers and friends asked how I was, I gave the only honest answer: “I don’t know.” We smiled with knowing in our eyes and pretended the most devastating thing hadn’t happened.
Two weeks later when I returned to our church to read a eulogy at his memorial, the pretense began to disintegrate. Later that night all us girls from the youth group sat around talking about anything we could think of but Matthew’s death, and I wallowed in the brutal wrongness of him not being with us.
As far as we know, Matthew never saw a therapist or psychiatrist and never received a formal diagnosis of depression or any other mental illness. It would be irresponsible to try to offer some posthumous diagnosis, but I don’t believe Matthew was mentally ill. He got blue, he got angry, and he sometimes lost himself in difficult questions about sports, mathematics and God. His pain reached far deeper than anyone realized, but we have no evidence that he had clinical depression or any illness linked with suicidal thoughts. Whatever was wrong, it doesn’t surprise me that he didn’t reach out. He always insisted on solving his own problems, even more so at USAFA, a pressure cooker where needing help is a sign of weakness. He told no one about his plan and left no explanation, just the bewildering slap of a Facebook status — “Congratulations world, you win.”
Statistics show hanging is often a suicide method of opportunity, of impulse. Many people who survive attempted hangings never attempt suicide again. If the wrestling team had found him a few minutes earlier he’d likely be here today. This knowledge is alternately comforting and devastating. The fact that we can’t name his sadness didn’t keep him alive. Matt believed every question had an answer; he was wrong.
When we talk about suicide — when we talk about Robin Williams, for example — we talk about mental health, psychiatry and the ways neurochemical imbalances drag some clinically depressed people to their knees. It’s an understandable response to the streams of people who blabber on about selfishness and cries for attention and “how much everyone loved them!!!” anytime a very public suicide happens. According to the National Association on Mental Illness, 90 percent of people who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental illness, most commonly depression. I don’t doubt it, and I hope the community of medical experts, sociologists and other folks deeply engaged in talking about and finding cures for mental illnesses continues to grow and get more resources. But depression is not the only thing that makes people want to die. It feels like there is no room in the narrative for the space between the reality of devastating mental illness and the dangerous myth that suicidal people are selfish assholes.
That means people like Matthew and I feel like we have nowhere to go when it all goes to hell. When he died I reflected on my own struggle with darkness and suicide ideation — a struggle that may be ongoing, but who can tell in the good months? My former therapist said there’s nothing clinical or chemical about my sadness, it’s just that I don’t know how to manage the landscape between feeling everything and feeling nothing. I have been depressed, but I don’t have depression. There is no medical solution to the days, weeks and occasionally months of debilitating anguish that fill up my respiratory cavity until I resolve or let go of whatever underlying emotional shit has brought it on.
It took me a long time to accept that I’m not sick. I wanted someone to tell me I had a mental illness as a way to explain the way I could become an anthropomorphic blur of profound numbness mixed with endless crying jags. But my proclivity for deep empathy and emotional intensity combined with high stress, unresolved childhood trauma and some basic hormonal trouble don’t add up to a heading in the DSM V. It’s all just my life.
I can’t tell in hindsight whether I ever actually wanted to die. But there have been periods — weeks at a time when I was 14 and 20 — when I thought about suicide every day. I created countless plans for how I would do it down to what I would wear (my favorite dress, the sweater I stole from my then-boyfriend, nothing). I look back at my journal entries and poems from those times and am terrified to rediscover the depth of my blues. Crafting these elaborate narratives may have been just another place to project my despair, like blasting punk rock and over eating. Maybe telling myself the story of my death actually helped me avoid physical self-harm like a particularly grotesque form of journal therapy.
Then again, I may have sincerely considered death a possible solution to the pain. I can’t remember in these more level, happy days. There were times when the wrong bad day could have put me there. I think about Matthew in the academy, an environment that demands excellence, where his dream of flight died, where hazing is another way to force students to fall in line. His sister Cathy tells me she thinks he made the decision on impulse after a bad day or disappointment. Whatever it was, it was the last thing, not the only thing. He had been hurting, and he had been silent, for a long time.
I got to watch Cathy get married this summer. I hoped that if I loved her enough I could somehow make him present. When they danced the first dances at the reception, her husband Max invited Cathy and Matt’s mom to dance with him for the second half of the mother-son dance. It was perhaps the most honorable gesture I’ve ever seen at a wedding. I sobbed as quietly as possible at the single girls’ table in the corner and crumbled under the weight of Matthew’s absence.
Maybe if someone’s absence is that big it means they’re still with us — not necessarily in a supernatural way, but because every person is a product of every person they’ve loved. When Matthew missed our last Montreat Youth Conference because he had to go to basic training, we lifted him up in prayer at the candlelight service and wrote him letters on our last night. Today, I remember Matt every time I shine light into the shadowy parts of my brain by writing, making music and talking shit out. I conjure his voice when I need to remind myself not to let the days of sadness turn into weeks. I wave to him every time a plane flies low overhead.
Pervasive stigma against mental illness and mental health care endangers millions of people. But over-diagnosis of illness and excessive reliance on pharmaceuticals have their own risks. Some of us just get sad, for so many combinations of reasons, and we need a collective push to open up that conversation so we can all learn how to live through the darkness.
I will stay alive and keep waving at planes.