It’s been ten years since Nick took his life, but I still think about him every day.
When I think about Nick, I try to remember the good. The summer afternoons at swimming holes, the bike rides to summer football workouts, the late night video games and junk food binges, and the Techno Friday lunch trips from school in his red granny-mobile named Clifford. But those thoughts will forever be interrupted by the memory of the weight of his casket on my shoulder.
I’ve spent the better part of the last decade, more than a third of my life, trying to learn forgiveness.
At first, forgiveness was a mission that stemmed from a desperate need to understand why. I was so hurt and confused. I just wanted so badly to understand why he would choose to take his own life. I wanted resolution, to come to peace with what he had done and ease my grief and pain. I wanted to absolve him of the pain he caused those of us who loved him.
I wanted to forgive Nick but I never quite could.
I spent years of my life vaguely alluding to my “friend who passed” or the friend I “lost” in high school if he came up in conversation. The fact that he took his own life was not something I often offered up or mentioned at all. I struggled to sort out my feelings about Nick. I still loved and missed him but was angry and bitter about what he had done and put us through. It felt shameful and selfish. Telling people he committed suicide made me feel like the people I talked to about him who didn’t know Nick would think less of him and not understand the amazing person and friend that Nick was.
But as I moved into adulthood, my worldviews expanded and I learned more about what it means to suffer from a mental illness like depression. I began to understand that just as depression isn’t something you choose, it’s also not something you can just choose to get over. Nick didn’t make a spiteful selfish decision. He struggled with a real illness, and died as a result of lack of treatment. The stigma surrounding mental illness is real. We often expect ourselves and others to simply push through, and overcome when the reality is that often these real illnesses sometimes can’t be overcome without real professional intervention. No one ever expected me to beat cancer by sheer force of will, why do we so often expect it of those with a mental illness?
As I began to understand all these things, I stopped trying to forgive Nick and started trying to forgive myself.
I try to think about Nick as I knew and loved him. Hanging out in his bedroom wearing a Steelers t-shirt and a pair of basketball shorts, munching on a box of Cheez-its. But it’s hard not to think about the outfit I helped choose for him to wear on his last day in the sun.
Nick was my best friend. When he died, my way of grieving was to be as helpful and involved with the planning process as I could, and his parents obliged, consulting a few of us on most things, even down to decisions for his service and final arrangements.
I’d only ever seen Nick in formal wear at school dances, and even then we showed up in togas for his very last one because the theme was “Greek Paradise”. Not everyone at the formal thought we were as hilarious as we did for the togas. No, a suit made no sense for Nick. We opted to have him put in his infamous purple checkered vans, a pair of jeans and his favorite shirt. The ratty poncho he bought from a street vendor was supposed to go at his feet with his guitar but directions with the mortician got mixed and somehow he ended up wearing it. We were upset until we realized how funny he would have found it.
Nick was loved by everyone. He was a bit of a class clown and was well known for his sense of humor. He was a Yes Man, always up for anything that offered a hint of adventure. He was a stud on the football field, starting on both offense and defense. Nick was also brilliant. We initially became such good friends as the only 7th graders in our 8th grade math class. We had been able to test out of pre-algebra and to go straight into algebra I, and for the next 6 years we had the same math class and period together, all the way through AP calculus and statistics. Nick was planning on studying engineering after high school.
Nick had a great friend group and home life. His house was my second home, and our friends could walk in unannounced through the side door and the garage at any hour, and still be greeted warmly with offers of food by his parents when they eventually discovered we were there.
From the outside, Nick was the ideal All-American high school boy.
To most, Nick’s suicide came as a complete shock. But those in his close circle knew what had happened long before the toxicology reports came back. We knew Nick struggled with his mental health, we just didn’t know that it was something to be taken seriously. The comments were often one-off, or came at the end long nights with ill-gotten bottles of rum or cheap beer. If we brought them up later, he would brush them off as nothing. It was easy to blow off his dark words as a bad joke by the funny guy or an uncomfortable call for attention rather than the cries for help that they really were.
For years, I harbored a deep guilt over Nick’s death. I felt guilty of not doing more, not seeing the warning signs and recognizing them for what they were, or for not intervening and getting him help.
But as time wore on I began to realize how ill prepared we were to deal with this at 17. I’ve stopped trying to put the blame on myself for any of this. There has never been anything to forgive. Prior to Nick’s suicide, no one had ever talked openly or even privately about mental health. No one had ever taught me about the warning signs and red flags for suicide, or where to go if we saw them in someone else. After his death, school psychologists and counselors came out of the woodwork to offer services to anyone who should be in need. His close friends were all brought in to talk to them and make sure we were doing OK. This was a very appropriate response but it begged the question – where were they before, when Nick actually needed them?
Even if I had been able to read the writing on the wall, I wouldn’t have known what to do with it. In my 13 years of public education I had never once been told what kind of services were available from the public school system or even from the community for a 17 year old struggling with an illness that few would openly talk about or acknowledge. We were embarrassed to talk about our feelings, our fears, our stresses and our struggles because this was and still is the norm for adolescent males. We were overwhelmed. We were under educated. We were kids.
Though it’s taken many years, I’ve let go of my misplaced search for forgiveness for both Nick and myself, but I will not abandon the memory of Nick and his struggle. He never should have had to face his depression silently and alone. He should have had resources available before he took his own life. We should have had education about mental health and talked about it regularly in our schools, in our homes, and in our greater communities. I should never have had to write a eulogy for a best friend at 17. Nick should still be here.
I realize that these shoulds and should nots won’t change the past. But we can use them to change the future.
We need to change the way we talk and think about mental health and mental illness as a society. We need to ease the stigma against talking about our mental health and to normalize regular discussion of it. We need to change the way our youth are educated and engaged in regards to their mental health. Teen suicide and depression rates are staggering and on the rise. According to recent data, The number of children and teens in the United States who visited emergency rooms for suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts doubled in the last decade. This is nothing short of an epidemic and whatever we’re doing now is obviously not enough.
Our communities need more mental health resources available, especially to our younger populations. We need to implement earlier, more frequent, and more structured education and discussion about mental health and equally important how to access the mental health resources that are available.
I realize that these changes won’t happen overnight, but we have to start somewhere, and I am choosing to start here. I’m choosing to remember Nick and share his story. To honor the incredible boy he was and the man he never got to be. I’m choosing to talk about mental health today, and tomorrow, and every day after.
And I’m asking you to join me.