i was sitting in my high school algebra class, surrounded by 25 confused sixteen year olds working our way through an endless series of math problems. stuck on one that i couldn’t resolve i went up to my teacher’s desk for help. “excuse me, mr. cooper,” i said, “i can’t figure this one out.” he showed me what i was missing and then asked if i knew where the school choir concert was going to be – he knew i was a member. “rock spring church,” i answered, unaware that our conversation was about to go drastically wrong.
he squinted – thinking hard – then found what he was trying to remember. he smirked and asked, “that guy who killed himself – didn’t he go to church there?” i felt like i had been physically struck and a prickly cold feeling washed over my whole body. “ummmmm, i’m sorry?” i said, wishing that he would somehow take it back or change the subject. no such luck. he went on, “you know, that guy who committed suicide a few years ago? i think he went to rock spring church.” i felt like the entire class was staring at me, like the clock had stopped ticking, like the room was spinning around the two of us. the only thing i could think of to say was the truth.
“that was my dad,” i said, looking at the floor, wishing it would open up and swallow me whole. “oh – my god,” he stammered, “i didn’t know that was your father.” i looked mr. cooper right in the eye and said “yes. yes, sir it was.”
i turned around and went back to my desk. my arms and legs were shaking and my face was on fire. what had just happened? how did my teacher possibly know about my dad’s suicide? how had he happened to bring it up to me, of all people? and why was he smirking? why was he talking about it as if it were some dirty secret or a criminal act? fighting back tears, i tried to focus on the numbers on the page in front of me. but the 2s and 4s and 9s swirled together in a black and white blur.
when i got home from school that afternoon i told my mom, who told my guidance counselor, who called for the three of us to meet with my teacher. mr. cooper apologized, saying he had heard about it from his wife who taught at the elementary school my sister attended when my dad died. the atmosphere was tense – my mom was furious, my teacher was sheepish and i was mortified. it was clear that he had been reprimanded. he said he was very sorry. that he didn’t mean to hurt me.
but he did. he did hurt me. he hurt me and shamed me and made me feel like something was wrong with my dad and like something was wrong with me. even at the time i knew his behavior was totally inappropriate – no teacher should talk to a student that way – especially about such a sensitive topic. it’s safe to say that he had more than a few things to learn about creating a healthy educational environment.
while my interaction with him was the most extreme, it certainly wasn’t the only uncomfortable conversation i’ve had about my father’s death. suicide is hard to talk about and even harder to understand. when i was younger i was often tempted to lie and pretend that my dad didn’t kill himself just to avoid hearing insensitive and sometimes offensive remarks. i dreaded mentioning suicide in conversation and learned how to speed things up and change lanes when i did have to say the “s” word out loud. i was a traumatized kid surrounded by too many adults who didn’t know what to say or what to ask.
i have never forgotten the lesson my math teacher taught me: that we need to learn how to talk about suicide. here are a few numbers that mr. cooper didn’t know but should have: suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the united states and claims 41,000+ lives every year. i was not the only kid who lost a parent. my mom was not the only person who lost a spouse. and for each person who dies by suicide it is estimated that 25 more have made an attempt. hundreds of thousands of children and teens and adults have lived through suicide attempts and suicide loss. one in five adults and one in five teens in the u.s. will experience a mental health issue in any given year. do the math, mr. cooper: you talk to people every day who have lived through depression or suicide or both. stop shaming us and start understanding us. it’s time to become aware.
making it through hundreds of uncomfortable conversations about suicide and mental illness has transformed me from a frightened kid into an adult who is not afraid to talk about difficult things. today i can breathe through the awkward pause after saying the “s” word. i don’t take on the shame that another’s remarks may imply. if something offends me, i gently point out a kinder way to talk about suicide – one that preserves the dignity and humanity of the person who has died. and i don’t feel the urge to cover up my story to make it less painful or more comfortable for somebody else. because that isn’t fair to me. after all i have been through i deserve to honor the pain i have lived by being as open and honest as i need to be.
talking about suicide helps me heal and i believe that it also educates others. not about the statistics on mental illness but on the reality that suicide loss and mental illness impact everyday people like you and like me. it challenges the age-old stigma that we unconsciously hold about “committing suicide.” maybe my interaction with mr. cooper helped him to become more open and more sensitive. maybe not. although he hurt me, he helped me too. bit by bit those conversations made me open up. to stand where i am today – wide open in the truth about living through mental illness. and when i remember the burning shame i felt that day in math class, i recommit myself to never feeling that way again. i have taken back my power. mr. cooper, you remind me to hold my head high. to speak my truth. to talk out loud about suicide.
and for that lesson, teacher, i thank you.