This morning, a friend who writes fiction posted a query on Facebook asking a question about a certain character’s development, specifically why a 17 year-old girl would commit suicide. Now, she gave more details about the situation, and several fellow writers and friends—including me—commented with ideas and suggestions; however, I couldn’t help but feel she was asking the wrong question. Like most adults, she was asking, “What could be so bad or serious to drive a kid to throw away her future?” But this isn’t the question the suicidal kid is asking; therefore, no answer given will be sufficient.
I have recently begun teaching a weekly writing class for secondary students in the homeschool group my sister’s family is a part of. I was talking to my all-girl class today about figurative language, and spent some time on the subject of hyperbole. We all had a good laugh about how teenage girls live in a world of hyperbole; everything is a disaster or a miracle. The truth, however, is that all teens are residents of a very small world; that’s why everything causes drama, everything is life-changing and important. One must realize this in order to understand what question the suicidal teen is asking.
The human brain is an amazing thing—how it develops, changes, learns—and it dictates much of how a person responds to a certain situation at a specific time. For example, a 5 year-old, a 15 year-old, and a 25 year-old will all respond completely differently to an event. This is why adults are so easily frustrated with their teenage children; their brains function differently. Your son’s not just being reckless; his brain is actually telling him he is invincible—it’s a developmental stage. Your daughter’s not just being a drama queen; her brain honestly can’t see past this current situation, so of course, it has monumental importance for her. When you add to the mix the high pressure of our modern American society, the ridiculous obsession with appearance and social status (the two things most in flux during the teen years) and the break-down of the nucleus family unit, you have a recipe for stressed-out, confused kids.
In my opinion, the issue facing this teen, the question she is trying to answer, isn’t, “What is so bad?” but rather, “What is so good?”
Most people have either extremely good memories of high school or extremely bad memories; very few of us fall somewhere in the middle. This has a lot to do with how teens view the world in general, but also much to do with how the world interacts with them. To a kid facing high expectations on the sports field, a blown game can be life-changing; to one focused on high grades, a failed test is a disaster. A girl desperate for love and acceptance from anyone sees a break-up as a direct reflection on her worth as a human being. A boy trying to figure out to be a man views that argument with his dad as proof he is a failure. These kids see themselves as disposable, perhaps even replaceable.
Now, before someone gets upset, let me clarify that I’m not saying that all kids who have dealt with suicide has had a person, or persons deliberately, repeatedly telling them they are worthless. Self-harming isn’t proof of abuse or bullying, and even when another person is involved, the act was usually indirect.
Our society over the last 100 years has created a world of disconnected people. Where once a child was born, grew up, married, lived, and died all in the same town or neighborhood, surrounded by family and familiar people; now, we are constantly on the move, never really knowing our neighbors. It is now unusual to find an unbroken family unit, and often, the pieces of the family live far apart. Our heroes and celebrities have changed from great leaders or statesmen to entertainers and athletes. Where popularity used to hinge on the opinions of a few people you knew personally, it now lies in the hands of strangers—the nameless, faceless internet. It used to be expected to learn about manners and courtesy; now, our world is all about self-gratification and expression, without regard to whomever it may affect. It is no wonder that bullying is more prevalent than ever; abuse—in all its forms—is also more common.
We, as a society, must stop trying to convince these kids not to die, but instead, give them a reason to live. Talking the jumper down off the ledge will always be more effective if there is someone he loves, and who loves him standing beside you.
I’m sure that you may be wondering why I took the time to write all this and what right I have to give my opinion (although I did just point out we live in an age of opinions). This topic grabbed my attention this morning because I can remember so clearly what it was like to be the kid wondering if anyone would care if I were gone, thinking it would probably be easier for them all, and trying daily to find a reason to hang on. I’m not sure when I first began thinking about suicide, but I was very young. I remember getting the gun out of Dad’s hiding place and mentally walking through how to load it and fire. I remember standing by the road one day as a semi drove by, wondering if it would hurt to step in front of it. I remember the years where I couldn’t drive over a bridge without thinking about driving off. I remember all of this, but I don’t remember once thinking about the future, how things would change, how this was just a season. Never. Not once.
This is how I know.
It’s been said that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. That is true, but only for those on the outside. When you’re on the inside, it’s the only thing you can see. Your world shrinks down until the problem facing you is your entire horizon, as far as you can imagine. Nothing else exists. This is why they do it. This is why it seems like a viable choice, the only choice. You reach a point where the only thought in your head is, “Make it stop.” Make the pain stop. Make the abuse stop. Make the inferiority stop. Make this problem screaming at me day and night stop.
We must be louder than the screaming, louder than the incessant pounding that says, “You’re worthless. You’re a failure. You don’t have a reason to go on.” We must find a way to show what we can see because we’re on the other side of adolescence. We know life changes; we can see how situations alter. We must keep telling them through our love that they are worthy and important.
We have to answer the right question.