Know someone dealing with depression? In my newly released “Suicide Escape”, an older hiker spots 15-year-old Clarissa on a remote mountain as she prepares to take her life. The hiker does everything he can to convince the despondent young woman to give life another chance, sharing stories of what he learned about life after he battled through his own severe depression as a young teen. A unique combination of novella and memoir, “Suicide Escape” is a must read for anyone facing or around depression.
Available on Kindle for just 99 cents. Borrow free with Amazon Prime. Foreword written by terrific friend who is a suicide survivor and founder of The C.A.R.L. Project. I am donating $1 for every review posted on Amazon to The C.A.R.L. Project and 50% of profits to mental health charities, including C.A.R.L. No Kindle? Read on your computer using Amazon’s Kindle Cloud Reader.
A second of inattention left the Colemans scrambling as they spotted their five-year-old new swimmer in mid-jump off the three-meter springboard at a local pool. The next morning, after an early rain, John found Clarissa outside on the driveway, picking up worms and gently placing them back where she had decided each must reside.
John, Clarissa’s father, said he remembered those events because it was the first time he fully realized that life with Clarissa would provide him a continuous pendulum swing between heartwarming pride and heartbreaking fear.
Clarissa had been daddy’s little girl; in many ways the boy the Coleman’s had hoped to add to their family when they decided to have a third child. When John went to the shooting range, Clarissa was usually his lone company. She was the only one of the girls who enjoyed going to work with John on the many Saturdays he spent trying to optimize his latest waste recycling separation gadget. Clarissa, though, spent most of her time creating mosaics and statues out of spare parts and garbage strewn around his lab.
John had required all three girls to join him for a series of survival training weekends as his fears grew for his family’s safety, but Clarissa was the one who flourished in the outdoors. As she transported into her teenage turmoil years, she frequently took off alone on all-day wilderness excursions, causing her parents to panic in the hours between when she told them she was going to a friend’s house and when they tracked her down somewhere between their home and Humphrey’s Peak or some other nearby wilderness area.
Only Clarissa’s proficiency with a tranquilizer gun – and more recently with an odd-looking rifle John had designed and built – had kept them from sending the authorities after her when she snuck out and travelled too far to reach quickly. John chased her down many times tracking Clarissa on her Lifelink mobile device that allowed the Colemans to watch her on satellite at not-insignificant expense until they could escort her home safely. The Colemans never figured out how to punish Clarissa appropriately to keep her from just taking off. When grounded, Clarissa would isolate herself from everyone, disappearing inside the house for long enough that the rest of the family often forgot she was there. All too often, when they went searching for her, she was gone. When, instead of grounding, her Lifelink was taken to keep her from connecting to the outside world, Clarissa would take off into the woods or nearby canyons or mountains with no way to be traced.
In the last few years and particularly in the last few months, John Coleman said he would have given anything to recapture moments of warmth with Clarissa to replace the constant fear barrage that pounded away at his conscience as she isolated herself and became increasingly sullen. Her previously confident disposition had been wilting in recent years, and now seemed completely shredded. Signs of happiness had fallen from occasional to sporadic to now nearly non-existent. John felt helpless to intervene.
Had I really known Clarissa when I first read her suicide note, scrawled out in pencil and shoved inside her clothes in case anyone found her body, I would have felt at least a part of the soul shattering that John clearly felt in his nearly daily panic.
“i’ve had enough already. i mean, seriously. people hatin me. callin me stupid, snake hole, skeleton and way, way worse. everybody dyin around me. Grandpa’s dead. Sarah’s dead. nobody knows i’m alive or even cares. a-holes at school are alive and smilin and happy and tellin me i’m not worth wastin their oxygen. their oxygen. like i don’t deserve any. at least they’re honest, i guess. my friends abandoned me. great friends, huh. thanks for abandoning me girls. you know who i mean. i mean, seriously, how much am I supposed to just take and take and take and take.
“i just can’t do it anymore, so i won’t. it’s better this way. it’s not like anyone’s gonna care, but in case someone finds my body before it’s all chewed up and turned into animal crap, let anyone who asks know that i’m relieved it’s over and done with and i can not have to wake up every morning dreading how f-ing miserable i’m gonna be again and who’s gonna rip on me in front of everyone, or who’s gonna trip me or shove me or grab at me. it’s weird, but those aren’t even always the worst days. the worst days are when nobody even sees me, even knows I’m alive or cares. imagine being surrounded by a thousand people and still being completely, utterly alone. abandoned. empty. that’s my life now. well, it was anyway.
“you’re lucky i hate my life more than other people. i coulda done it too if i really wanted to hurt people, but then i’d be an even worse person than people who make me sick. i know how to shoot. i coulda gotten a bunch of people, but i’d still feel terrible. and I don’t want to hurt people because i know what it’s like to be hurt all the time. this way, no one’s in pain anymore. it’s probably the right way to go, don’t you think. i don’t wanna burn in hell, and i know i’d get sent there if I killed other people. that’s where i woulda ended up, always in the worst place possible. this way, maybe i’ve gotta shot of goin if there is a heaven. i mean, look at how many lives i saved gettin rid of mine. that’s a lot of people to save for anyone. and if there isn’t a heaven or hell, then i’m just gone and nothin hurts anymore. anyway, tell my parents and sisters i’m sorry that i got found. i’d just as soon they just figured i ran away than have to know i’m dead, but, if you see this, it is what it is, i guess.
“at least i don’t hurt anymore. sorry.”
No teenager should have to feel lingering pain that reaches that depth. For that matter, neither should anyone else.
On the first day of freshman football, I measured in at four-feet, 11-inches tall. On as full of a stomach as I could muster, I weighed in at a staggering 98 pounds. With physical presence like that, and zero previous football experience, you can imagine I wasn’t a star athlete. Even use of the word athlete to describe me was a stretch. Perhaps for giggles but more likely because there just weren’t that many boys on the freshman team at Geneva High School in Illinois, the coach would have me practice at offensive tackle some days. I would line up across from the true stud defensive lineman on the team. At double my weight, he would either pound me into the turf milliseconds after the snap or, every once in a while, I would succeed in chopping at his knees. On the occasions my chop block worked, he would get back up and then pound me into the turf angry that I cut his legs again. “Block like a man, you wuss,” he would bark.
After many weeks of this beating, I met the varsity team physician/dealer. He wasn’t actually a doctor or trainer or anything close: just a varsity player with spare time to acquire and distribute pain-reduction therapies. By the end of the season, I was inhaling an occasional dose of weed therapy. As bad as I was at football to start the season, I was even worse by the end. I don’t blame the coaches in any way for my pot and hash use. I would have found a reason to start regardless. It seemed the cool thing to do and I was eager to erase one of few sources of developmental delay I thought I controlled compared to some of my Catholic elementary school classmates.
By the time the next summer came around, after my freshman year, I had been getting high for a stretch already, though I was doing most of my smoking in the back alley behind a restaurant where I bussed tables or stopped off somewhere on the way home from work. I’d started wearing cowboy boots under wide-flare jeans to school, providing a convenient place inside each boot to store some of my stash for far less common mid-day use. I slowed down on the weed a bit during tennis season that freshman year. Having recently crossed the five-foot threshold, I played first doubles on the sophomore tennis team with a sophomore partner who would turn to me at crucial points in almost every match and spout his words of motivational wisdom: “You better not f*#k this up.” I’m sorry for the language, but that’s what he said.
Having finished a painful first year transitioning from Catholic elementary school to even more mind-numbing public high school boredom, I was just days away from turning 15 in the summer after freshman year when the water tower incident happened.
I remember it because I remember all of my failures with an overabundance of precision. Every girl I said no too (I was so lacking in confidence at various points, I figured they must be asking as a joke), treated poorly (there are one or two college girlfriends who rightly should still hate me) or disappointed (I have to guess at this list, but I’m sure there were several). I remember every person I angered, or at least a long enough list that it seems like everyone. The Lutheran preacher I mistreated in the high school newspaper because I didn’t do my job as a reporter properly. The disabled boyhood friends I only visited twice as an adult because I was too busy with my priorities, convincing myself I would see them more when I retired even though they had already far surpassed their life expectancy. People I fired to meet cost-savings targets without what I considered reasonable warning. Far too often, the person I disappointed most was myself, like when I rushed through a last paper while working on my masters. The poor result cost me a level of recognition I badly wanted because I was simply too tired or too lazy to put in the last bit of work. There’s plenty more where these came from, and, believe me, far worse.
If I remembered the highlights in my life as easily, the brief moments we should all live to savor, life would bring more pleasure. But my failures take a disproportionate amount of my memory capacity, even to this day. The only difference is I’m conscious of this now, and combat it by purposely thinking about reasons I have to be grateful. I’ve read that most people’s memory helps them remember events with a more positive spin than how they actually occurred. I wish my mind did a better job of recasting my failures.
I remember the water tower incident, at least after the drug and alcohol-induced unconsciousness passed, because it was the first time I considered killing myself. I wasn’t yet in the depths of depression, but I’d already started a steep downhill slide. From that height, my chances of immediate death if I jumped were high. It might not even hurt that bad since I was still at least eight to 10 hours away from sobriety, but death wasn’t certain. With my luck, I’d leave myself paralyzed from the neck down and lose total control of my life – and death. I decided not to risk it. I was pretty sure I wanted to die, but clearly not yet certain. I’d already learned in football and too many childhood fights that I wasn’t a big fan of physical pain. I didn’t even know whether I hated pain more than I hated myself for hating pain.
So when I spotted what turned out to be Clarissa high up on a mountain north of Flagstaff in June of 2041, I thought again about that day, and many others, even as most of my focus turned to an awkward, gangly girl all alone and off trail, acting strangely not far below the tree line beneath Humphrey’s Peak.
As I walked close to her, my mind turned to questions:
Is she the reason I’m alive?
Is this one of the moments that makes the days, months and sometimes years of struggle worthwhile, or will this encounter be another addition to life’s miseries?
Then I realized that the tall, thin-hipped body bent over a wood stick with ass pointed skyward belonged to a young girl, a teenager in all likelihood. Despite her baggy sweats, it was hard to turn my eyes away until it was clear that this rangy body belonged to a face so young. Even at a distance, something about her was captivating my attention. I didn’t know why. When Clarissa looked toward me, though, I knew she needed me in her life. I couldn’t let her down.
Already on that day, Clarissa had the makings of a beautiful woman. She might not have been a head-turner in high school terms, mind you, where beauty is defined as too much make-up, overly tight clothes, the right weight, perfect hair and other telling signs to a high school boy that a girl might gain portions of her self-worth or her own pleasure from satisfying his spear-motivated desires. Beautiful nonetheless. A pleasant, disarming face highlighted by high cheekbones. The rest of Clarissa was hidden under a baseball cap and overly loose clothing covered in a desert camouflage pattern.
Clarissa’s body didn’t appear to have filled in all of the parts boys seem to care about in tremendous disproportion to their long-term relationship satisfaction value. That, combined with being six-feet tall at an age when she likely looked down at most classmates, meant Clarissa didn’t get noticed the way girls who were perky, busty or smiling happily and frequently were noticed.
It was clear she must be overly thin from the taut appearance of her visible cheek. Still, she was clearly athletic enough to have hiked up here, so can’t be too devoid of physical strength. But anyone could see past Clarissa’s effort to hide inside her own skin that she isn’t too many years away from catching more than her share of attention.
My seconds of evaluation as I ambled toward Clarissa reached conclusions about her solely based on physical appearance, even though this is the least important part of a soul’s worth in this world. Appearance was all I could see at this point. It was all I could initially judge.
When she looked again toward me as I drew near, I spotted more fear and pain in the eye I could see. That eye exposed a despair I fully recognized. Then I saw why she was bent over. It wasn’t a wood stick wedged into the ground. It was a rifle. Her mouth remained over the barrel as her head turned partially so she could look at me with one eye.
Clarissa was reaching for the trigger.
During the next several weeks, I’ll be posting sections of my upcoming novel/memoir tentatively titled Suicide Escape combining my early teen struggles with deep depression and suicidal thoughts with a story of how I share what I’ve since learned with another teen battling depression. The story is set in the year 2041.
I was catching my breath on a tree stump just below the Humphrey’s Peak tree line when I first spotted Clarissa, bent over in a remote spot well off trail and not even looking around to see if anyone could see her.
More than halfway through a long day of hiking, I hunched over on a long-felled tree trunk, catching my breath, rehydrating and chomping a chocolate orange fruit and fiber bar when my eyes were drawn away from the stark, steep white hills that served as monuments to all who ascended as far as I had come that day. While reveling in a view too simple to be art but too dramatic and majestic to be anything else, motion just hundreds of yards away grabbed my attention.
It was awkward, stilted motion, but motion nonetheless. Almost instantly, I felt compelled to find out what or who else would be up here, removed from the hiking trails that most follow religiously either to avoid getting lost or to avoid trampling on elements of nature that recover slowly, if ever.
It didn’t take long to rule out any animals that could pose a physical threat. Few of the most threatening fauna find food at a tree line more than 11,000 feet above sea level. While the form moved gawkily, it still appeared to move with purpose – human purpose my curiosity wouldn’t allow me to ignore. A person this far off trail almost certainly would have come here to be alone. I moved closer anyway, finally getting close enough to realize that the form was a woman. I watched intently as she stood up, picked up a long, thick wooden stick, set it back into the ground and bent back over it.
I couldn’t tell initially that she was only a teenager, younger than the children of my children. I like to assume I was drawn to Clarissa because the way she was acting just didn’t seem right. It’s funny how instincts take over our bodies at times, pushing an old man with high blood pressure and countless unwanted aches out of a state of exhaustion into action, even more than halfway through a long day of hiking.
I am by no means fearless. But the idea of death is far past frightening and approaches in an accelerated march in any case. I never guessed that I would have lived to see this year. Perhaps, I thought, my life’s challenges had as a purpose preparing for this test of every ounce of my humanity.
I certainly would not have expected to be alive today thinking back to the summer of 1979, when I woke from a drug- and alcohol-induced nap – I’ll call it a nap, anyway – along the metal ridge surrounding a water tower a few towns over from my home. I don’t remember how I got up there, but my dealer-friend and his buddy thought it was hysterical to watch the drunk and stoned little freshman climb up the water tower steps to reach the exterior walkway that ran a rim around the bulbous part of the tower.
This friend, who had become my dealer at about the time we discovered and started picking a wild-growth marijuana field in West Chicago, later told me they boosted me up so I could pull down the ladder to get started. They all bolted when it looked like I would fall off during the climb up the metal-ladder steps. The last they saw of me was as I tried to push open the metal floor-hatch to climb up to the rim. None of these convenient stand-ins for friends wanted to be around to take the blame when I fell.
But this temporary friend, who I’ll leave unnamed since he may have gone on to respectable life, came back hours later to see what happened. I don’t know if I fell asleep before or after they left, because to this day I don’t remember climbing up. But I do remember what it felt like to regain consciousness looking down through the metal grates to ground that seemed a long distance removed, particularly for someone like me who didn’t even enjoy standing high up on a ladder. I had enough of a fear of heights that I felt my stomach convulse, whether out of simple natural reaction or drug- and alcohol-induced nausea wasn’t quite clear.
At 14 back then, I was already at a point where I really didn’t care if I lived to see the next day, or hour, or even minute. Every moment of life simply hurt. The pit of my stomach often felt a depth of pain I only later recalled being equal to the agony of watching my father’s cancer-riddled body breathe in its last bit of oxygen. I didn’t realize how fortunate I had been to reach 14 with so little experience at dealing with death. With this depression, this shredding pounding a near constant at that age, I didn’t often think about whether I wanted to die. Instead, I thought about how to die, when, and whether I could make my body disappear so no one would have to actually know.
It’s not that I didn’t have a family who loved me. Looking back, I realize I was blessed, particularly considering the crap-excuses for families many others often endure. I look now at kids who survive continuous abuse, neglect and drug-addicted parents – or who live in surroundings containing all the physical threat of a war zone with no commensurate opportunity for glory – and wonder what it was that made me think I had a horrific life destined only for failure. But, over well more than a year, that feeling beat at me to create a relentless barrage of self-loathing, broken by only temporary respites of slightly more tolerable, but still intense self-doubt. The reality is that I didn’t want to hurt my family. But I hated myself and couldn’t see any chance that life would get better. I just couldn’t take how much it hurt to be alive, knowing, or at least thinking, my misery would just compound itself into eternity.