Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Tragedy Strikes Yet Again

Bad news isn't wine. It doesn't improve with age.-Colin Powell

Godfather 3 was unmemorable for many reasons.  Those of us that loved the first two movies and can discuss and quote them religiously were highly disappointed.  However, there is one line when family patriarch Michal Corleone says"Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in." That would have been me this past Monday night.

I was busy doing nothing when I received a text from one of the other coaches.  One of the cheerleaders at College Park High School, where I teach and coach, had attempted suicide, had been taken by Life Flight to the Texas Medical Center, and was listed in critical condition.  I was warned by others at the school based upon my past.  The last thing they wanted me to walk in on Tuesday morning was news of another attempted suicide.

I could have called in sick, taken the day off, and no one would have blamed me.  Before school started, counselors and administrators began to look for me to make sure I was ok.  Did I need my classes covered?  Is there anything they could do for me?  I asked them to read the principal's announcement to my 2nd period class, but that was it.  The rest of the day, I wanted to be there for my students.  I wanted to talk to them, to let them know that it was okay to be mad, scared, confused, or any of the myriad of other emotions that were over taking them at that moment.  I needed to tell then that it was nobody's fault, that based on percentages, the young lady most likely suffered from some type of mental illness, and that they could openly talk, cry, or scream.  I talked to them about Peyton and my experiences.  I told them to ignore rumors from people, and not believe what they hear floating around in the hall.  I told them to be patient, as news would be forthcoming eventually, but that it takes time.  I asked them to pray if they were religious, and send positive thoughts and wishes if they weren't. I told them what I had been told while Peyton lay in his hospital bed, that the next 72 hours were crucial.  Finally I told them to hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst.

I tried my best to find reliable sources that would give me any information to help me process the events.  In my own way, I needed details.  By no means am I an expert, but I have an unfortunate knowledge of a similar situation.  As I mentioned before,  I had learned about the 72 hour window, the damage to the brain when deprived of oxygen, how it dies from the top down, how the brain stem controls the most basic functions such as breathing, heartbeat, swallowing, and reaction to pain.  How doctors will test this part of the brain for reactions to stimuli, and the news they give when when those tests produce no results.  I also knew that news would be slow in coming, that caution would prevail, that  doctors would be neutral and try not to give hope if there was none.

Several days have passed  since I began this entry, and I am once again the bearer of bad news.  The young lady I spoke of, Cassidy Hess, passed away on Sunday, December 20, 2015.  I hop that she has found the peace that eluded her in life.

In fact, and I sit here and write this, I have received word that a 2015 graduate may have taken his life last night.  Tragedy strikes yet again.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Onward Through the Fog

"Onward through the fog" -Oat Willie's Slogan

I never thought that this would apply to me.  See, #OatWillie's is a headshop (of which they are proud) in Austin, Texas.  They were around long before I attended the University of Texas, and are still there today.  If interpretation is based on your knowledge of their inventory, then it is pretty easy to apply meaning to their slogan.  However, in the year since Peyton's suicide. I have begun to se it differently.

The fog is what many of the survivors live in, especially for the first year after the suicide of a loved one.  The fog seems to envelop everything we do.  We forget things that happened recently as well as long ago, as well as names and faces.  Events that once held relevance, such as our own birthday, Thanksgiving and Christmas, no longer do, On the other hand, new things such as the birthday of the lost soul and the monthly anniversary of their passing, develop great meaning.  We count off the number of days, weeks and months since they left us, much as one does with the birth of a new born child.  We begin to dread any day that marks a new milestone, such as their first birthday since their death, or what would have been the day they graduated. We tend to look at others, and try to understand how their lives can go on when ours have been tragically impacted.

As survivors, we are left behind to pick up the pieces of our lives.  Some of us become advocates for the dead.  Because of the pain we live with,  we vow to keep the same from happening to some one else.  Some of us withdraw from society, we become Boo Radley or Miss Havisham, shutting off contact to the outside world and locking the door behind us.  Others climb inside a bottle, bong or syringe.  We long to banish the incredible pain that we live with daily.  Others will follow in the steps of their loved ones and are driven to join them rather than live without them.  Regardless of which path we choose, we are surrounded on all sides by the fog.

Unfortunately, like any fog, the survivor's fog begins to burn off.  As it dissipates, we begin to truly see again.  What had once shielded us from painful reality, is gone, and we are left to deal with what is truly before our eyes.  The empty room we walked by is now a clear vision of what will never be, as we look at the trophies that whisper of the lost potential.  We see the last picture that we ever took, and realize there will be no more, that they are going to be, in my case, Forever 13.  We hear about the achievements of others and are left to wonder "what if?". The more fog that burns off, the greater the reality becomes.  The pain that we thought we had learned to cope with comes back in waves. Once again, we don't want to get out of bed, we break down at the songs on the radio, and we look for answers that will never come.

Now I am dealing with the pain all over again.  I find myself crying over little things such as Peyton's final school picture over the stairs .  I have a huge pit in my stomach as Christmas approaches.  I have even started to lose interest in things that once brought me comfort.  As we creep closer to the holidays, I am not looking forward to time with family, presents or good cheer, but the time to be alone and envelope myself in silence, and lose myself in a video game, movie or book.  Something that will make the hours pass while my mind is some where else other than the loss of my only son.

Now I am faced with the task of dealing with all the obstacles that I blindly ran into during the first few weeks and months after Peyton's death, only this time, they are vivid reminders of what happened, "“So [I] beat on, boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Dear H, I Heard About Your Death

Dear H,

I heard about your death this past Sunday.  Needless to say I was saddened to hear that you had chosen to end your life.  I didn't know you personally, but in a way, I know who you are.  You are the 13 year old boy from Georgetown, Texas with red hair, freckles, and striking blue eyes.  You are the beautiful blond cheer leader from Trumbull, Connecticut.  You are the gifted Academy Award winning actor/comedian.  You are the brilliant writer and leader of the Modernist movement in literature.  You are the musician from Seattle that created a new sound for a generation.

Your death was hard for me to take.  When I was informed of your death, I looked you up on social media.  I read the posts that your friends, classmates, and strangers, had left for you.  You are loved by your friends.  You were the one that made them laugh.  You were the star that shone so brightly for them.    Your classmates wish they had known you better, had gotten to know you better, or talk to you more.  They liked your sense of humor and ever present smile.  Total strangers expressed their sympathy for you and your family.

In a school of more than 4,000 students, there were many students who didn't know you, but your death has had a profound effect on them.  For many, you were the first person they know who died. Even more profound, was how you died, at your own hands.  You made them think about their own mortality, their own frailty.

You also left many asking, "why?" If some one that seemed to have it all would take her life, then what hope do they have?  The "why?" is simpler than it seems, at least to people who understand.  The desire to end your pain was greater than your will to live, and you are not alone.  Although the pain wasn't physical, it was equally as painful and just as debilitating. Judging by your friends' responses and posting, they didn't know you were in pain.  Like so many who suffer from this pain, you kept it hidden.  Perhaps you were afraid to speak out because you thought you were the only one that felt that way, or that no one would understand. Maybe you did say something, and you were told it was a phase you were going through, or that you will get over it.  There's even a chance your friends knew, but did nothing because, as a society, we aren't old how to help people that are hurting like you, and as a community, we are led to believe that everything is perfect, and that problems like yours only exist in "other" places.   If you did seek help, there is always that chance that no matter what you tried, it didn't seem to work, or you didn't click with the counselor. Regardless of the reason, people need to know that it wasn't their fault, which is something that took me so long to understand after Peyton's death.

Now parents, siblings, relatives, friends, and total strangers are left behind to pick up the pieces of their lives.  They must learn to adjust to life without you.  All the people you thought would be better off  without you will never get over you or stop thinking about you.  Instead, they will have a void that will never be filled.  They will go about with their everyday lives, but not a day will pass without thinking about you.  Perhaps a song on the radio, a smell from the kitchen, or a glimpse of a total stranger in public will some how trigger a memory of you.  They will have to sit down and collect themselves, catch their breath, or even cry, and that's okay.  Eventually they may be able to deal with the gaping hole in their lives, but they will never be the same.
Perhaps they will even come to realize that if you had known the pain your death would cause, you never would have taken your life.

In closing, allow me to say that I hope you found the peace you were looking for, and to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, I hope that where you are, everything is beautiful, and nothing hurts.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Rest in Peace Young Lady

 "Things just seemed to go too wrong too many times"- Tony Hancock

it happened again. Another young person in our "perfect" community has taken their life.  

I received the news last night about this tragic loss, and have processing the news in my head over and over again.  I even went so far as to look up the young lady on social media, in part to leave a message of condolence, in part to see if there was a clue as to why, and in part to see "who" this young lady was.  I read the posts left by others.  They all seemed to say the same thing, that she was the person that went out of their way to make sure others were happy, to comfort others in a time of need, and to be there for her friends when they needed it.  

All of this sounds painfully familiar to me.  At the tree planting in Peyton's honor at his old school, I heard many of the same things.  Kids told about how Peyton had befriended them when they were new, how he had made them laugh when they were sad, or how he had been the only one to stop and help a total stranger in the hallway when she had dropped her books.  

Now the community is left to wonder "why?"  This is not something that is supposed to happen here. This is something that happens to "other" people.  Our community is consistently voted one of the the tops in Texas.  We have great schools, parks, greenbelts, stores, shops, restaurants, a waterway, hell, we even have a mall.  We are totally self sustaining,  Our kids graduate from high school and go off the Ivy league and other top colleges.  They come back and get high paying jobs, get married, have kids, and raise the next generation of people that nothing bad ever happens to.  How could this happen to "us"?

The answer is actually quite easy, it happens all the time to people around the world.  People that are in such gut wrenching emotional pain that the thought of taking their life outweighs their fear of dying. People that are afraid of speaking up about their thoughts and feelings of sadness, anger, and worthlessness because things like that only happen to "other" people in "other" places.  People that suffer in silence because they are supposed to project an image of happiness because that is what expected of them.  

it made me think of Robin Williams when he said,  “I think the saddest people always try their hardest to make people happy because they know what it’s like to feel absolutely worthless and they don’t want anyone else to feel like that.”  We realize now, that this was how he felt.  Was this how Peyton and this young lady had felt?  How many other kids find themselves feeling the same way as they sit in class looking at all the others who have it all together, whose futures are bright and rosy.  How many of these people sit in their corner office with the spectacular view wondering where they went wrong.  How many of them have lunch with their friends as they talk about their perfect children, and ponder why they don't feel the way they are supposed to.  

To the family members that  are left behind to wonder, it is not your fault, she didn't do this to hurt you. It will take time, a lot of it, to get over this, and you will never get over it, but you will learn to live with it.  

To those that knew her, and those that wish they had, she is at peace, and you need to go on living.  It hurts, it sucks, and it will take a while to get over.  Cry for her, mourn her, grieve for her, but go on living.  

As for the young lady who took her life, I am sorry that you felt that way.  I hope that you have found the peace you were looking for.  I hope that the pain you lived with is gone.  Rest in Peace young lady.  

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Speaking for the Silent

"Speak what you think now in hard words..."-Ralph Waldo Emerson

When I returned to teaching last year after Peyton's suicide, the first unit I taught was American Romanticism.  Included in this unit was Emerson's "Self-Reliance".  It wasn't the first time I had taught this highly quotable essay, but this time, it took on new meaning, especially when he told people to "Speak what you think now in hard words".  I truly thought about that line and how it applied to me. 

I knew that I was not going to stay quiet after Peyton's death.  I felt as though I had some how failed him, and needed to make up for what had happened to him.  I began with social media and talked openly and honestly about what had happened to him.  I talked about his battle with depression and anxiety.  His torment at the hands of his classmates, and his all too early death at the age of 13.  I spoke to any reporter who would listen, and I spoke at schools.  Any chance I had to talk to others, I took.  The more I talked, the more I opened up, the more other people opened up to me.  People began to tell me their stories about losing loved ones to suicide, their experiences with bullies, or their own dark moments where their demons and pain became so overwhelming that they considered or even attempted suicide.  

Many of these people had never told any one before.  They had kept this inside waiting for some one else to open up and allow them the opportunity to tell others.  They had been told not to talk because it made other uncomfortable, it was a deep family secret, or it was frowned upon in our society where things like suicide and mental illness are taboo subjects.  It was then that I realized that when I spoke, blogged,  or posted, that it wasn't just for me, or for Peyton, it was for all of those that, for what ever reason, couldn't.  

In the past year, I have come to realize that I am not alone in my grief, nor was Peyton alone in his pain. There are thousands of people out there that remain silent about the suicide of a loved one because society wants them to.  People that are ashamed to ask for help because of the stigma of mental illness. People that take their own lives because they feel that the world would be better off without them because no one has ever told them otherwise.  It is for these people, the silent, that I will continue to speak in hard words.  

Friday, November 6, 2015

How to Save a Life

On October 30th, I drove across town to speak to the PACE classes at Cypress Lakes High School.  I have spoken there before in regards to bullying and the role that it had in Peyton's suicide.  That first time, I spoke to the PALS classes.  PALS stands for Peer Assisted Leadership, and these are the "good kids" of a school.  Students must apply and interview to be part of the class.  PACE is another matter all together.

In the Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District, PACE is a required elective for all students. Generally, it is for freshmen, but students who are new to the district take it as well.  It generally serves as a transition course for freshmen to help them become accustomed to high school by teaching skills and ideas such as goal setting, time management, post secondary options , and career exploration.  However, any time you tell a teenager that they "have" to do something, you know that there will be push back.  Yes, there will be students that openly embrace the class, but others will fight it tooth and nail, "just because".  As a result, I wasn't sure what to expect from the students.

As I stood in the LGI (large group instruction)and watched the students file in,  I was apprehensive.  I wondered if the students would take it seriously, would they want to listen to yet another person telling them "what to do" or "how to act".  My fears, however, were soon alleviated.

I began my presentation with a slide saying, "Every person you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about."  in order to get them  thinking about the inner battles we all fight, and how you never can tell about a person just by looking at them.  I then show Peyton's 8th grade picture, how normal and happy and relaxed he looked.  I then begin to put together the pieces of the puzzle that was his life, and how those pieces led to that fateful October day.  I always show a picture of Peyton, Emmalee and Ian all smiling and enjoying ice cream at the Bluebell factory, a Norman Rockwell-esque moment, right before I tell them that three months after the picture was taken, Peyton hung himself. That moment is meant for dramatic effect.  I even pause to let it sink in.  I then begin to explain about the issues Peyton dealt with on an almost daily basis.

As I was talking about the bullying he dealt with, I looked toward the back of the darkened room and saw a teacher walking a student out of the room.  I wondered why, but only briefly.  I kept talking about the power each of them had to make a difference, how they could perform small acts of kindness such as holding a door, picking up a dropped book, or even smiling at a stranger.  I talked about the mission and purpose of #Products4Peyton and #PeytonHeartProject, and ended with the last part of the quote I began with, the simplest way they could help some one, "Be kind.  Always."  A moment of hesitation and then applause.  With the time remaining, Terri Pruitt, the teacher who had invited me, let the students ask questions. There were students who cried, who wanted to hug me, to thank me, to shake my hand.  I realized that they had listened, and it felt good.

As the classes filed out, Terri came to me to tell me about the boy that had been walked out. Unbeknownst to any one, he was suicidal.  Not only had he thought about killing himself, but that day, he had a knife with him to finish the job.  His teachers didn't know.  His friends didn't know. His family didn't know.

I was stunned. This is what I have been trying to do since I began #Products4Peyton and joined up with Jill Kubin and the #PeytonHeartProject. I got to witness first hand, the power of Peyton's story. I saw with my own two eyes, and have proof,  how to save a life.  

I have preached from my soap box that educating people is the key to stopping suicide. Suicide is not going to go away because it is not talked about.  People will not stop taking their lives because we remain silent and pretend that it only happens to "other people."  To all the naysayers out there that want to dodge the truth, or hope that the problem goes away on its own, it is time to pull your heads out of the sand.  We  have to say the "word" out loud, to let others know it is okay to talk about, to know that they are not alone, broken or damaged, to remove the stigma and shame that is heaped upon mental illness, and most importantly, to encourage people to seek help.  

None of this would have been possible without Katherine Moore, Katherine Parker, Michael Kelly, Linda Griggs & Lisa Schwaeble, the PACE teachers at Cy-Lakes High School,  Rebecca Weitzenhoffer, a friend and collegue who first suggested that I speak at the school, and to Principal Sarah Harty, who took a risk by allowing a distraught father to pour his heart out to kids.  All of these people care about the students that they areentrusted with to take an uncomfortable topic and put it out there in the open.  Thank you to each and every one of you for allowing me to see first hand, how to save a life.  

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

To Peyton, One Year After Your Death

Dear Peyton,

It is hard to imagine that it has been a year since you left us.  I guess I could throw out all the cliches about not a day going by that I don't miss you, or that you are always on my mind because they are true, but you are more than just a cliche, you are my son.  You were then in life, and now you are in death.

at 12:02 AM on October 13, 2014, you were pronounced legally dead by the doctors at Dell Children's Medical Center, but that was your body.  I know who you were, your soul and personality had left your body long before that.  When Lisa, Emmy and I walked back across the parking lot that night to the Robnald McDonald House, we had said our good byes knowing that your pain was over and that you had gone to a place where "Everything was beautfil, and nothing hurt."

When I woke up that morning, the only thing I knew for sure was that we had to plan your funeral.  As a parent, this was something I had never planned on doing.  It went against the natural course of action.  You were supposed to grow up to be a successful vet, to have a family and a big house, to give me adoring grandchildren to spoil, and have a room set aside for me in my old age to live in. Instead, I found myself in an office at a church telling a stranger about you so that they could say the right words to cpture who you were (fortunately they did), and to choose songs for them to play during the service.  I chose Golden Slumbers/The Long and Winding Road by The Beatles and The Dance by Garth Brooks, which was also played at your Grandma's funeral.  Once we had planned the service, we went to a funeral home to flan the rest.  You would have been proud of your Uncle Mike and how he took control at the first place, which treated the family with little to no respect.  We walked out and went to another, where we were treated with the compassion a grieving family deserves, and we knew our wishes and your memory would be honored.

Once we headed back to Houston, I had no idea how I would go on with my life.  I just knew that I was not going to let your death be in vain.  I would make sure that you would never be forgotten, never be just another statistic, and never would I tell anyone less than the truth about what happened to you.  I started #Products4Peyton to repay the kindness that the people at the Ronald McDonald House showed us.  I used the opportunity to speak out and raise awareness of suicide, bullying and mental illness, and to my surprise, people responded.  We delivered more than 150 boxes of supplies in your name, that went straight to families in a time of crisis.

I have spoken about the lives you saved.  Your organs and corneas went to help others.  From an 8 month old baby, a seven year old girl, a seventeen year old boy and others all were given hope because of you.

I have spoken at schools to bring awareness of the problems that you faced and dealt with.  I wanted kids to know that they are not alone in the world, that they are not the only ones that feel "weird or "different", and that they don't have to let others make them feel ashamed of who they are.

I have spoken to legislators, and with the help of others, especially Coach Kevin Childers and the good folks of Fairfieled, Texas, saw Governor Abbott sign a law requiring all teachers. counselors, administrators, and others, to be trained yearly in suicide awareness and prevention.  It hasn't been accepted with open arms by all, but it is a start.

I have spoken to parents who have children that deal with the same issues you did, and because of you, they are seeing their kids in a different light.  They now know that it is ok to talk to their kids, and, even better, are seeking the help they need.  Peyton, your story is saving lives.

I have also spoken to parents who have lost their children the same way I lost you.  I have talked about your love of life, your infectious personality, your giving and compassionate soul, and how you have made me a better person.  I have told them how it is ok to talk about what happened to their child, how to be open and honest with others.  How I tell your story in hopes that others may learn from it, and that they can do the same in the name of their loved one.

In February, an incredible woman in New jersey named Jill Kubin, and her two daughters, Julia and Emily heard about your story and wanted to help.  They collected winter hats in your name to help the homeless and less fortunate.  I know how compassionate you are and how much you liked helping others. This past July, Jill created the #PeytonHeartProject.  Small hearts with positive affirmations are left where people can find them.  The project is meant to bring public awareness to suicide bullying,  and the stigma of mental illness.  The project has gone global, and your memory has helped so many people.  I see messages every day from people that have dealt with many of the same issues you did, and have found strength through you.  You have made a difference in their lives.

I wanted you to know all that you have accomplished since your death.  Myself and others are simply carrying on the message you started in your heart.  My life, and the lives of those that have been touched by your spirit will never be the same. When I talked to Leslie, the mother of Carmel the little girl that received one of your corneas, she told me that you gave her and her family hope.  You need to know the effect you have had on the world, and what you are bringing to so many, Peyton, hope.
As Andy told Red in Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,"...hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies."

Good night Boo.  Daddy loves you very much.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Peyton Gave Us Hope

"Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies."
-Stephen King, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption

I'll never forget October 10, 2014.  that was the day we were told that Peyton was going to die.  A CAT scan had revealed that his brain was dying, and that it was not a question of "if", but "when". At least we knew what was going to happen.  It crushed my soul beyond comprehension, but now the out come was determined.  I knew plans and decisions would have to be made.  At least one of them would be easy.  Peyton's organs would be donated.

The idea had first been presented to me by my friend Jeff.  I didn't want to think about it until I had to, but now that the time was upon me, I knew it was the right thing to do.  I approached Peyton's mother, and we talked about the appropriate course of action.  Something positive would have to come of this tragedy, and giving others a chance at life seemed like the best course of action.

When the time came, we donated Peyton's heart, lungs, kidneys, liver, pancreas, and corneas.  All in all, 8 people received transplants from Peyton, including an 8 month old baby that received part of his liver, a seven year old girl that received one of his corneas, and a 17 year old boy that received his heart.  I cried as I read the notices from the Lions Eye Bank and the Texas Organ Sharing Alliance (TOSA) because I knew that not only was Peyton living on, but the right decision had been made.

Following protocol, I sent letters to every recipient.  It is a complicated process because it goes through the donor organization, to the transplant center to the recipient.  We were told that we may never hear from any of the recipients, but I still hoped and prayed that I would.

Day after day, I followed the same routine, stopping by the mailbox on the way home and anxiously checking the mail, but I never received a thing.  I held no ill will against the recipients.  The road to a recovery after a transplant is long, painful and difficult.  Many feel remorse because it took some one's death to give them life, not every transplant takes, and unfortunately, the transplant may not be enough to save that person's life.

I eventually resigned myself to never knowing who the recipients are, but praying every day that they were well.  All of that changed forever on the morning of Friday, September 25, 2015.  When my alarm from my phone went off at 4:50 to get ready to head out for swim practice, I rolled over, grabbed the phone, turned off the alarm, and scrolled through the messages on the screen.  One of them froze me.  It was from a woman named Leslie to me on Facebook and stated:

Hello, my name is Leslie...I am mom to Carmel---7yr old recipient of 1 of your sons cornea's. I wanted you to know we have recieved your letter and we will be responding soon. I wanted to wish you and your family a Marry Christmas and to say THANK YOU (I can be long-winded and these words sum up my thoughts).

I was dumfounded, especially when I saw the date on the message, December 24, 2014, this past Christmas Eve. How was it, nine months and a day later, I was receiving this message? Then I remembered that the night before, I had accepted a friend request from Leslie. I really though nothing of it because I get and make friend requests through some of the Survivors groups I belong to. I had learned that if you are not friends, any message you send will go to the person's "Other" box. Now that we were FB friends, the message came through.

I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and read it again and again. Now things made sense, including getting two small, handmade stuffed animals in the mail back in May. They were from Leslie and Carmel. I thought perhaps some one had sent them to me to donate to the Ronald McDonald House. I even posted on Facebook asking if any one knew anything about them. Just on a hunch, I decided to keep them, and lo and behold, y wish had been granted. I had heard from a recipient. I messaged Leslie back with my phone number, asking her to call me during my conference period at ten. I then found both of the stuffed animals, and sobbing, woke up Lisa to tel her the news before heading out the door to work.

As I arrived at the natatorium, Leslie messaged my back saying she would call. Knowing she was up, I messaged her back asking if she could call me then and there. When she said yes, I went into the coaches office, grabbed a wad of toilet paper and waited for the phone in my trembling hand to ring.

When Leslie called, we talked about how her message had been delayed, the mystery of the stuffed animals, and the grueling process her and Carmel went through for the transplant. We also talked about how hard it was to reach out as a recipient. She had read Peyton's story, and wasn't sure if she should, and had struggled with the decision. When her message went unanswered, she thought we were reluctant to respond and left us alone. One day, she was at a craft store, and Carmel picked out a kit to make a little stuffed dog. Leslie remembered that Peyton loved dogs, so she sent the dog and a little stuffed hamster, Carmel's favorite, to us, but having not received the first message made the gift a mystery. Now I knew who they were from, and now I also knew I would never let them go.

Fianlly, I asked how Carmel was doing with the transplant. There was a long pause before Leslie told me the transplant didn't work. Complications from previous surgeries had damaged the donated cornea. Carmel had another cornea transplant, and finally a full transplant since then, but she was now doing well, and the prospects for the transplant were good. It was what she said next that started the tears streaming down my cheeks. Before they had received that call about Peyton's cornea, Leslie and Carmel had all but given up hope. "Peyton gave us hope," Leslie told me. I choked back tears and thanked her. The message that she had sent Christmas Eve had now become my belated Christmas present. Knowing that we had made the right choice. Peyton hadn't given Carmel sight, but he had given her and Leslie something just as important, hope.

I now plan to send another round of letters to the other recipients. Maybe enough time has passed that they feel up to it. Even if it didn't work out, I know that they, and their families, at least received something almost as important as life, and that is hope.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Who is Peyton James, and Why Should You Care?

Peyton Andrew James was born on June 16, 2001 at St. Joseph's Hospital in Houston, TX.  He was two months premature and weighed slightly more than two pounds.  His parents, David and Jacki James were both in their mid 30's when Peyton was born, and both were educated, middle class Americans.  Both worked as teachers and tried to instill their love of learning in Peyton.

Peyton spent his early years in a three bedroom house in Tomball, a suburban bedroom community north of Houston.  He had his fair share of childhood illnesses including but not limited to ear infections, strep throat, and the flu.  At the age of four, his parents divorced.  At five, he started school and earned good marks; he learned to read and write; he learned to add, subtract, multiply and divide; he learned to say the pledge of allegiance; he learned about mammals, reptiles and fish; he learned about pilgrims and Indians; he learned how cruel kids can be to a boy with red hair and glasses; he learned that differences cold set you apart for harassment and torment.

After fourth grade, Peyton and his mother moved to Round Rock, a suburb of Austin.  There Peyton learned to deal with seeing his father less; he learned to make new friends; he learned new places to play and ride his bike; he learned that despite having moved 160 miles away from his old school, problems such as bullying and name calling had managed to follow him.  

Peyton left behind elementary school for middle school.  Unfortunately, his problems followed.  In fact, they got worse.  As the students developed into cliques and groups, Peyton was left on the outide looking in.  He wasn't athletic, so sports were out.  He wasn't musically inclined, so band and choir were out.  He possessed no real artistic ability, so that wasn't really an option either.  Peyton had a flair for the dramatic, so he gave theater class a go, but found that it wasn't to his liking.

What Peyton found to his liking narrowed his social options considerably.  He discovered his fondness for anime, Dr. Who, My Little Pony, video games and role playing games.  He did make friends, but not many.  They were loyal to each other, defended each other, played with each other and supported each other.

Before he entered 8th grade, Peyton and his mother moved to Georgetown, Texas.  Once again, Peyton had a chance for a new start, and once again, the old problems followed him.  One day, while sitting in the cafteria before school, Peyton committed the heinous crime of reading for pleasure.  an observant student noticed this, and quickly confronted Peyton about his faux pas.  So intent was this child on showing Peyton the error of his ways that he expanded the discussion to ridicule Peyton for his belief in God.  A frustrated Peyton reported this harassment to school administration, but they were unable or unwilling to help him.  That afternoon, Peyton went home, took his belt, and hung himself from his ceiling fan.  Five days later, this action would claim his life.

That folks is Peyton James in a nutshell.  Now the question remains, "Why should you care?"
That's easy because he was a human being.  He was a relatively good kid that had his fair share of problems and bad breaks.  He ended his life without warning or explanation.  Most of all, because he could be anyone you know.

That's something I have learned over time.  Suicide is non-discriminatory.  The major cause of suicide is illness.  Mental illness to be exact.  Like most illnesses, It doesn't care about your age, your race, your gender, or your socioeconomic status.  You can be the apple of your parents' eye, or the bane of their existence.  You may be the captain of the football team, or the kid in all black that skulks through the hall.  You may have clawed your way to the top of the ladder, or dwell at the bottom.   You may even be the bully or the bullied.  Just like cancer hits all, so does mental illness. But unlike cancer, no one is going to hold a bake sale to support your mental illness.  You will be treated more like a leper than a victim.

So why should you care?  Because it could happen to your friend, your classmate, your neighbor, your brother, your sister, your husband, your wife, your daughter or your son.  If any of the above were to come to you and confide they had an illness that could be terminal, would you urge them to seek appropriate medical help?  I would hope so.  So if they confide to you that they were suffering from a form of mental illness, would you do the same?

Keep in mind that Peyton could be any one, any time, any place.  That, is why you should care.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

And the Countdown Begins

It is hard to believe that today, September 13, 2015 marks 11 months since Peyton died.

Since his death, the Patriots won their 4th Super Bowl, the US lifted sanctions on Cuba, Donald Trump announced his run for the Presidency, the Avengers saved the Earth yet again, and the sun rose and fell over 300 times.  Yet one thing remains the same, and that is the huge void that his death has left in my life, and the never ending pain that has become a constant.  While the rest of the world has gone on, mine has come to a stand still.

Now I am faced with a new first, that anniversary of his death.  I have read, and numerous people, who have been in my shoes, have told me that the anticipation is worse than the actual day itself. And while that may be true, I still have another month of anticipation to go, and for lack of a better term, it sucks.

Part of the problem is that the original numbness that came with the shock of his suicide attempt and subsequent death, has worn off.  Now it is all an exposed nerve, and everything sets off a new wave of pain.  Even as I sit here writing, I am fighting back tears.  I have been told to think of positives whenever I think of the negatives, but even those bring me no comfort.  I just keep realizing there will never be any more positives, and the beat goes on.

I launched #Products4Peyton, I immersed myself in the #PeytonHeartProject, and plan on captaining a team, Peyton's Heart,  for the upcoming Out of the Darkness Walk to help raise money for suicide prevention, but none of that takes away the sting of Peyton's death.  Don't get me wrong, I love knowing that I am helping out others, and hopefully, I have made a difference in some one's life, but it never seems to fill the void.

I think the worst part is that the world just keeps going.  To me, and many in my shoes, that is the hardest thing to deal with.  I see people driving in their cars without a care in the world, filling up stadiums to cheer on their teams, voting in elections across the country and around the world, and i want to scream.  their lives get to keep going on.  Their lives haven't come to a screaming stop.  Their lives are full of the people that they love, and care for.  To them, Peyton and 40,000 others in the US, 800,000 more around the world, are nothing more than a statistic they saw somewhere.  It isn't their problem.  And to me that is unacceptable.

They say that a suicide affects at least six people intimately.  So for those 4.8 million suffering around the globe, I will spend the next month and beyond being a voice for you and your loved ones. I will speak out when I feel the need.  I will inform and educate when it is called for.  I will answer questions that may be ignored otherwise.  Most of all, I will make sure that those that take their lives are not merely a statistic, and for those that are uncomfortable with the topic of suicide, I will continue to speak until there is no longer a need for me to speak.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The First Week of School Sucked

Last week, all across the great state of Texas, millions of students returned to school.  Some went to suck up the knowledge being offered, others went to suck up lunch and socialize with their friends, and some even went to suck up oxygen.  To greet these students, more than 300,000 teachers stood ready and waiting to feed hungry minds, hungry bellies, and help others satisfy conditions of probation or parole.

I am one of those teachers, and for me, the first week of school sucked.  Not because we had to redo our entire curriculum because of changes to the SAT and PSAT.  Not because we are forced to spend our conference period in meetings at least twice a week.  Not because my pay raise amounted to $28 per month after yet another increase in the cost our insurance.  Nope.  All of that pales in comparison because this is the first start of school since Peyton took his life.

Peyton's mother and I have been divorced since he was 4.  With the exception of Kindergarten (which I took off from work to attend), I have missed every first day of school.  Although I wasn't there in person, I always received pictures and talked to him that night.  Over the years, the conversation went from "I love my class," to "Its ok," to "ugh."  There were always pictures of him with a smile on his face, his hair neatly combed, and a shirt with a collar.

This year, I spent the first day of school looking at other people's pictures of their kids with elaborate signs, dressed up in their best, standing with their siblings, even college kids with posts reading 16th grade, and I was jealous.  I wanted to turn away, but I couldn't. Like sniffing the milk, even though you know it will be sour, I had to look. I looked back at the Time Hop picture on my phone, and there was the last picture ever of Peyton on the first day of school.  He looked happy and ready to take on new challenges.  If only I knew what would happen a month and a half later, I would have taken the day to go up to Georgetown, to have breakfast with him, to drive him to the school.  If only.

Now I sit here wallowing in regret.  I constantly think about all the "what if's" and "Woulda, shoulda, coulda's"  It is truly painful.  I look at all the freshmen running the halls of the school where I work.  They are small, goofy, obnoxious, immature and frightened.  Peyton would have been one this year, and I keep looking for his face in the crowd, but it is not to be. "Peyton is dead," as his little sister, Emmalee, says when asked where her brother is, and I have to face that every day.  What I don't have to do is allow it to happen to another student.  I will continue to make noise, to speak out, to make others uncomfortable, to remove stigma, to open dialogues, to keep Peyton's memory alive, and to not let him be just another statistic.

Monday, August 3, 2015

The Exquisite Pain of the Needle

Last week, I laid down on a table and grimaced in pain as local artist Lana Gooding etched yet another tribute to Peyton into my skin.  This time, it was on the back of my right calf.  This is the fourth such tattoo that Lana has done for me since Peyton's death.  I chose these permanent reminders not only as a tribute to my son, but as a reminder to me that I need to stay strong, keep his memory alive, and most of all to help others, so that they never have to know the emotional pain that draws me to this physical pain.

Growing up, the only people I knew with Tattoos were the fathers of my friends.  This was the early 70's, so most of these men had earned their ink while they served our country during Korea, Vietnam, and in one case, World War II.  They told about getting them in far away places like Saigon, Tokyo, Seoul and Manila.  The ink had faded over time, and Dads were somehwhat hesitant to tell us the full story behind the tattoo as it usually involved a large amount of local beverages leading to their decision.

Fast forward to high school and college.  I knew a few people with tattoos, but they were the ones on the fringe, the ones whose butts wore grooves on the chairs in the principal's office, the wannabe musicians, the "artists" and what not.  Tattoos themselves never seemed to be part of the mainstream, or accepted in society.  Tattoo parlors were the domain of bikers and criminals, not respectable citizens.

Fast forward to the new millennium.  Suddenly, tattoos were being accepted more and more.  You could go to the local tattoo shop and find CPAs, teachers, and doctors getting inked alongside every one else.  Tattoo artists were now being considered true artists, and their work being sought out.  People would travel miles and save their money to have work done by a particular artist.  Even reality TV started to see the attraction in this business and began not only to profile the artists, but to talk about the backstory behind many of the tattoos themselves.  They talked about the meaning and memories that people were choosing to have forever etched into their skin.

I had the itch for many years to get a tattoo, but never did until I was 39.  My first tattoo was the Longhorn emblem on my right ankle.  Unfortunately, as I would later find out, orange ink fades faster than all others.  Now there is nothing in the original spot.

A few years later, after being baptized, I got a cross with "2 Corinthians 5:17" on my left shoulder.  It symbolized my rebirth as a Christian, but also a new me had been born.  I wanted the tattoo, not only as a symbol of being reborn, but a reminder of who I had been, not wanting to ever be that person again.

My third was on the back of my right shoulder:  a small cartoon Charlie Brown ghost with Peyton's birthday 6-16-01.  I got it the same summer Peyton and his mother moved to Round Rock.  I had always called Peyton "Boo", but I thought the comical aspect of the Charlie Brown ghost matched his personality.

Shortly after Peyton's death, I wanted to modify the ghost tattoo to memorialize him.  My wife Lisa's hair stylist Brain introduced us to Lana.  We had told Lana about what had happened, and what we wanted.  We also sent her a picture of the current tattoo.  When we arrived for our appointment, Lana had me show her the original.  She took a sharpie, and drew a set of wings and a halo on it.  They went perfectly with the tattoo.  She then prepped the area and began to go to work.  My God it hurt like hell, but in a strange way, there was something almost peaceful about it.  As she put the ink in my skin, I almost felt a bond with Peyton.  Maybe by feeling the physical pain, I was able to empathize with the emotional pain Peyton felt.

Since that time, Lana has done three more tattoos for me.  Each one connects me to Peyton, and each one serves as a permanent reminder of the son I will never forget.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Angels In New Jersey

Triggers.  For those of us that are combating grief, the term takes on a whole new meaning.  These are the things that set off yet another crying jag, an ache in the heart, or just completely deflate us.  We never know when they are going to come mainly because we have no idea what they will be.  Anything from a song on the radio, a smell, a sound, or even seeing some one that resembles our departed love one.

For me, the most recent trigger came this past Thursday morning.  I was in the living room scrolling through Facebook to kill time before I took Emmy to her swim lesson.  I came across a picture that Peyton's mom had posted for #TBT.  It was from one year ago while they were on vacation.  There was nothing special about the picture, just Peyton with his hat pulled down low grinning his goofy grin at the camera.  All of  sudden i felt my chest tighten and my eyes water.  Before I knew it, I was crying, and made no effort to stop.  I pulled Emmy up on the couch with me and held on tight, but just couldn't seem to stop the tears.  Finally after a few minutes, I was able to compose myself.  I still had that hollow feeling in my chest as I went into my bedroom to get my wallet and keys.  As I stood at my dresser, I looked on to the cedar chest sitting next to it.  On top of the chest was what I needed to turn my mood around.  It was an ordinary cardboard box, but it was what was inside of it that truly mattered.  Dozens of knitted hearts that had been sent to me by my Angel from Jersey, Jill Kubin.

I have never met Jill Kubin.  I have never talked on the phone with Jill or held any kind of conversation with her.  I don't know what her favorite flavor of ice cream is.  I don't know where or when she was born.  I don't know where she grew up or where she went to school.  In fact for some one that I call an angel, I know very little if anything about the woman, but it is what I do know about  Jill Kubin that allows me to call her an angel.

The first time I ever heard the name Jill Kubin was in February of 2015.  I had begun following a page on Facebook called The Sidewalk Smiles Campaign.  I was trying to expand the reach of Products for Peyton was attempting to get in touch with any group or organization that I thought would help.  The person behind Sidewalk Smiles is Julia Kubin, Jill's daughter.  This amazing child had a brilliant idea.  Her and her friends in the Town of Morristown, New Jersey would go and stand on street corners while holding signs with the simple sentence, "Your Are Beautiful" written on them.  They would take their signs with them wherever they went spreading this simple message to as many as they could with the goal of stopping bullying and harassment.    I introduced myself over Facebook and thanked her for what she was doing and told her about Peyton.  Shortly there after, I heard from Jill for the first time.  Jill messaged me and told me about her other daughter, Emily, and that Emily was involved with the Hats for Hope Initiative.  Jill told me that they wanted to do a hat drive in Peyton's honor in order to bring attention to the consequences of bullying.  I whole heartedly agreed, and over the course of the next few months, they began to collect knit hats for the homeless made by people from throughout the country.  It seemed that every time I would log on to Facebook, there was another picture Emily had posted showing more and more hats that she  had received.  For the first time, I knew Peyton's message was getting out there, and more importantly, people cared enough to do something about it.

Jill's next idea is the reason I am working on this entry.  It is called the #Peyton Heart Project.  Jill originally came up with the idea of giving a knit heart to each of the incoming freshmen at the local high school so that every student would know some one cared about them.  She asked me if she could name this after Peyton as well, and of course I agreed.  What was originally a good idea became a great idea when her daughter Julia began leaving the hearts, each containing a small message, in various public places for find.  The next thing I knew, people as far away as South Dakota and England were getting involved.  They were either passing out hearts or knitting them, and word began to spread.  Eventually, Jill sent me a box of these hearts to me so that I could leave them for people.  I began to leave a few here and there, from the local mall to bookstores and restaurants.  I never heard anything about any of the hearts I left, but was hoping they made it into the hands of someone that would truly love it.

As I said before, on Thursday, I was having a bad day.  As I left to take Emmy to her swim lesson, I saw the box, and loaded up the pockets of my cargo shorts.  I left a couple at the pool, and after her lesson, Emmy and I headed to the mall (July in Texas is indoor activity time) so Emmy could play on the play ground.  As we went into various stores, I left the hearts where I hoped they would be found.  That night, I had to run to the local Petsmart to get dog food.  I left a few here and there in the store, and had one more in my pocket as I headed to my truck.  Rather than take it home, I left it under the wiper of the car next to me.  The next morning, Lisa was looking at Facebook and came to show me.  The lady who had found the heart on her window had posted it on Facebook.  Joy flooded my heart, and I knew that some one had been reached.  She had actually hears about Peyton, and was now spreading the word.  Once again, when I needed a jolt of inspiration, Jill Kubin had been the mastermind.

New Jersey takes more abuse than most states.  It is a puncline, whipping boy and red headed step child all rolled into one.  Some of the abuse may be well deserved (they did elect Chris Christie after all), other times it comes at the expense of a network choosing the worst possible representatives of the state and highlighting their lives (Jersey Shore any one?). However, I will say that Jersey doesn't always deserve the punches it take, and in the case of three angels, Jill, Julia and Emily Kubin, I know there are some damn good reasons to love the state.

I know I have probably left things out, and no matter what I say, it will never do justice to Jill, Julia and Emily, but I want to thank them from the bottom of my heart for all that they have done for me, my family, and most of all, the memory of Peyton.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

A Questionable Death

On Friday, July 10, 2015, a 28 year old woman was pulled over in Prarie View, Texas for failing to signal properly.  According to witnesses and news reports, she was asked to extinguish a cigarette but refused.  Words were exchanged, and the situation escalated.  She was then taken to the ground and arrested for assault on a public servant.  She was taken to the Waller county jail where she was working on posting her $500 bond.  According  to friends, she seemed to be in good spirits.  However, at 9:00 AM Monday, July 13, the same young woman was found in her cell not breathing and unresponsive.  Jail staff performed CPR, but it was too late, and she was pronounced dead.  The cause given was self inflicted asphyxiation.  According to a statement, a garbage bag was used by the woman and an autopsy by the Harris County Medical Examiner confirmed the cause of death. The woman's family is outraged saying that her death is suspicious.  They claim that there is no way this woman would have committed.   The Waller County District Attorney has begun an investigation and asked both the Texas Rangers and the FBI to investigate.  If the facts com out that there was foul play, then all parties involved should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, but that is not why I am writing about this.

Over the course of the past week, this story has received a great deal of traction in the Houston area news, as well as national news and of course it has taken center stage on social media as well.  There are racial undertones to the story, but that is not my focus here.  Instead, I want to examine the reaction of the public to suicide, and how their actions showed how far we, as a society, must go in order to understand mental illness and the motivations of a person to complete suicide.

In March, this young woman posted a Youtube video saying that she had been dealing with some depression and PTSD.   I empathized with her.  I have dealt with the same thing after Peyton's suicide.  However, the reaction of people from her friends to people on social media showed how little others understand.  I have heard and read everything from "That was in March, she would have been better by now, " to "Depression goes away, so it couldn't have been that" to "She probably had a bad day and thought she was depressed."  My reactions to these statements ranged anywhere from bewilderment to wanting to climb into the TV, grab the person by the collar, slap them around while yelling, "You are part of the problem!!!!  Shut up and educate yourself. "  This is what is wrong when it comes to mental health, a total and complete misunderstanding, as well as a plethora of misinformation surrounding it.

Depression is not something you get over, nor does it go away like the common cold, and who knows better if they are depressed than the depressed person. As an adult, I knew that my depression was more than just a bad day, and I am sure this woman did as well.  Depression is an illness, much the same as cancer, and like many illnesses, it doesn't just "go away".  and just like you would never tell a cancer patient to get over it, or that it is all in their head, the same goes for some one suffering from depression.

The other aspect was the subject of her suicide, and the lack of understanding by the public.  Once aging, I cringed in horror at the statements people made.  Apparently the woman had moved from Chicago to Prairie View to begin a new job and start her life again, so people said there was no way she would have killed herself because she had a new job, or because she was a spiritual person, because she always seemed positive, the list is endless.  In the end, there is no telling what the trigger was, if in fact she did kill herself.  I can speculate, but I don't know.  I am sure that spending three days in any jail is not good for the psyche of any person.  Being charged with a felony can endanger a job, the looming court battles ahead, who knows?  Others have stated that she never said she was suicidal when they booked her into jail. Once again, three days lone in a jail cell for a person that is suffering from depression can change things.  In addition,  I spoke to a nurse that works in a hospital ER that receives more than it's fair share of patients that are brought in after an arrest.  She has had several lie to her about being suicidal in order to have the opportunity to attempt suicide.  Most people that plan on taking their own lives do not broadcast it.  Most won't tell people because they don't want to be stopped.  Some are even able to put on a smile and lie straight to your face right up until the point that they follow through on their plans.

If the death of this young woman was in fact a suicide, then let us hope that it turns into a teachable moment.  Perhaps her death will not be in vain if others can learn from it.  To the woman her self, I just want to say, Rest in Peace.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Ignorance Is Fatal

On Tuesday, July 7th, 37 year old Dennis Clevenger jumped to his death from the top level of a parking garage in The Woodlands, TX.  There was a brief article in the community newspaper, some mention of it on local Facebook pages, but for the most part, it went unnoticed. No news crew from Houston made their way up I-45 to cover the story, even though several reporters from various stations call The Woodlands home.  There was little else said.  The only comment in the online version of the community paper was anger at the paper for posting s picture of the body covered by a sheet taken from above.  A Google search of Dennis Clevenger didn't reveal much, nor did a search on Facebook.  For the most part, the life of Dennis Clevenger was limited to a mere six paragraphs. We have no idea as to why Dennis was on that parking garage that day. It seems that the reporters from the paper ran a quick Google search themselves, and when they found nothing, moved on.

Unfortunately, an opportunity to educate the public, to bring to light to the far reaching effects of suicide, or to talk about the stigma of mental illness went away.  This seems to be par for the course, not only in communities such as The Woodlands, but communities throughout the country.

I went back through the comments on Facebook to see if any one had comment.  Perhaps some one would have talked about how Dennis had suffered a series of setbacks recently, or had battled depression, or been recently divorced and lost his kids in a heated custody battle.  Nope.  No such luck.  The comments were heavy on the "oh my", "such a tragedy", and "prayers for the family" to the "I had to find a different jogging route", "this made me late for work", and even one ignoramus who referred to Dennis as "cowardly" because he "took the easy way out".  I could let this jackhole get off easy.  After I explained that his view was one of pure, unadulterated ignorance, I asked if he suffered from mental illness,  if he had ever suffered from emotional pain so crippling that it physically hurt, and if by saying that suicide was cowardly, would he be willing to come and debate his views to my survivors group.  I even told him when and where we met.  The next thing I knew, the jackhole's comments disappeared.  It was jackhole's ignorance that led me to thinking about one of my favorite quotes from literature, "Ignorance is fatal."

The quote itself is from Usher II in Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles.  In this story, our protagonist Mr. Stendhal plots revenge on the Moral Climates people.  These are the people on Earth that had deemed science fiction and fantasy inappropriate and ordered all of these books destroyed, including Stendhal's (see Farenhiet 451).  Now the same group had come to Mars and set about telling others what they could read and believe.  The head of this group was Mr. Garrett.  Garrett arrived at Stendal's house, and watched as other members of Moral Climates were killed off one by one in methods directly from Stendahl's (and my) beloved Edgar Allan Poe.  Finally, Garrett, the last one left alive, was led into the catacombs and was in the process of being walled up alive by Stendhal in much the same fashion as Montresor had walled up the unfortunate Fortunato in The Cask of Amotillado.  Stendhal lectured Garrett about how his ignorance and arrogance had led him down there.  Garrett had never read Poe or he would have realized what was about to happen.  Instead Garrett had allowed others to tell him what was bad and not acceptable rather than deciding for himself.  As Stendahl places the last few bricks into place. he reminds Garrett that "Ignorance is fatal" as he places the last brick into place.

I see the jackhole on Facebook as a modern day Garrett.  Based upon what he had said, he subscribed to some very outdated and erroneous information.  Had he bothered to do even the most rudimentary research into suicide and the causes behind it, he might not have sounded like such a jack hole.  I think that for the most part, people who suffer from mental illness battle it for as long as they can.  I tried to use the analogy of a terminal cancer patient choosing to end their life on their own terms rather than live with excruciating and debilitating pain, but then I got to thinking about the analogy itself.  People with cancer aren't afraid to come forward and discuss their illness.  If some one in the community has cancer, others will rally around that person, they hold fundraisers, open Fund Me pages, and  bring casseroles.  On the other hand, if some one in the community suffered from mental illness, no one holds a bake sale, probably because no one knows.  The family will keep it to themselves, that is if they even admit that it is happening.  And why does this happen? Because people choose to be ignorant about it.  Instead of, "That Timmy is a fighter.  I hope he beats this," we get "Stay away from Timmy.  Kid's got a screw loose.  Best thing they can do is ship the little nut job out to an asylum.  God I hope he didn't give it to our kids."  Little do they know, mental illness, like cancer is not contagious, but, it can be just as deadly.

It is this ignorance that is truly fatal.  It is ignorance that keeps parents from admitting that their child night have a problem.  It is ignorance that keeps schools from openly addressing the topic of mental illness and suicide with students even though a student is much more likely to die of suicide than a fire or shooter in the school (both of which they are required to have multiple drills for).  It is ignorance that perpetuates the stereotype of the mentally ill as writing fan letters to Jodie Foster or planning the next Columbine.  It is ignorance that makes jackholes on Facebook say that some one who dies of suicide is a coward rather than saying that the person's desire to end their pain outweighed their desire to live.  

So tonight, I want to tell Dennis Clevenger that I hope he is at peace.  That where ever he is, the pain is over and cannot hurt him any more, "Requiescat in Pace".  And for those that choose not to fully educate themselves, or regurgitate what they have been told without verifying what they are saying,  "Ignorance is fatal."   

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Statistics Don't Lie

Last week, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) released suicide statistics about suicide in each of the 50 states as well as the District of Columbia.  When I saw them putting them out on Twitter, I kept checking back and refreshing until they put up the Texas stats.  I immediately saved the picture and then began to absorb the information. 

For example, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among 15-34 year olds in the state and the third among persons 10-14. In cottage groups, a person is more likely to die by suicide than they are to be murdered. In fact, for the entire state of Texas, suicides outnumbered homicides 2 to 1. For those outside of the state, who envision Texas as the wild west, I am sure that comes as a surprise, and for those that live in the larger metropolitan areas such as Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, who are subjected to almost nightly reports of homicides on the evening news, might find that surprising as well.

 In my school district, as a teacher, I am required to review the evacuation plan with all my classes on the first day in case of fire, the lock down plan in case of an intruder, even the policy if a student comes in late or has to pee, but there is no mention of what a student is to do if they feel sad, or left out, or hopeless, or in so much emotional pain that they don't feel that they can go on. Now entering my 25th year in the classroom, I can count on one hand the number of fires and lock downs I have experienced, but would need to take off my shoes and socks to count the number of students that have taken their lives. 

Now the question here is why don't we know this?  The answer is simple, no one wants to talk about this dirty little secret.  I know that the news media, both print and broadcast, are hesitant to cover suicides, and if they do, the name of the deceased is rarely, if ever, published. Even if it is a suicide, it might be referred to as an accidental death.  Incidents such as one car accidents, drug overdoses,  even gun accidents might not be revealed for why they really are. Generally,  unless the suicide is that of a celebrity such as Robin Williams, or some other high profile person, the public remains uninformed.  This is a kind of double edged sword.  On one hand, I can understand not wanting to bring any more pain to the family to any more than they have already endured, but at the same, that ignorance can be fatal.

The time has come to educate the masses.  With 90% of suicides being carried out by people suffering from some sort of mental illness, the first step is removing the stigma.  Let those who have spent their lives suffering know that they are not alone, and that help is available.  Let the public know that those who do suffer are not the stereotypes that are common in the media and on TV.  Let those who live with a mentally ill person know that there is nothing to be ashamed of, that it ins't their fault, and the worst thing they can do is to hide it. 

As macabre as it sounds, despite the tragedy of Robin Williams's suicide, it was one of the best things that could have happened in the mental health community.  Williams's death actually made it okay to talk about mental health.  For the first time, people actually knew some one else that was dealing with the same demons they were.  Others realized that despite fame and riches, people can suffer silently, and even more so, hide how they really feel from the world.  Most of all, an uneducated public finally began talking about how real and  crippling emotional pain can be. 

Two months and two days after Robin Williams passed away after hanging himself, my son Peyton did the same thing.  This time, there was no media coverage, no headlines, no talking heads on the evening news speaking to a mental health professional about the why's and what's of suicide. There was just me, a bald 49 year old high school English teacher.  I made  vow to educate as many as I could to avoid having to hear about another person dealing with so much pain that their desire to end it causes them to take their life, or for a parent to deal with the gut wrenching pain of losing a loved one to suicide.  Thus far, the task has been difficult, and I have met with a great deal of resistance in my community, but if I can get a 16 year old to read, understand and even appreciate Whitman, Thoreau, Bierce, Crane and many others, then I can handle this as well. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

God Trusts Me Too Much

There is an old adage that God will never give you more than you can handle.  Over the last week, I discovered he either trusts me too much or has a seriously warped sense of humor.  Over the span of eight days, I had to deal with three different days where I wish he didn't have so much faith in me.

The first was June 13th.  That was the eight month anniversary of Peyton's death from suicide.  In a way, it is strange that I still measure his passing in months.  In a way, I feel like a new parent when you measure your child's age by months until they hit a year.  I did the same thing with Peyton and Emmy, once they hit a year, I began to tell people they were a year, or just over a year, or almost two. I stopped counting off months.  I wonder if I will do the same thing in October when the once year anniversary of his passing arrives.  There really is no telling.  Right now, with the wound so raw, I still count months.  The day itself matched my mood.  It was gray and dreary with rain off and on.  I did my usual posting on Facebook and Twitter, but aside from that, I did nothing all day.  In a lot of ways, it is still hard to believe that he is gone.  I look at pictures and videos of him, and it is like he is still with us.  The the realization  will hit that he is never coming back, and that drops me deep down into depression.  I hate that people are able to go on with their lives while I struggle with the day to day never knowing what will trigger the next breakdown, the next stream of tears.

Three days later, June 16th, was supposed to be Peyton's 14th birthday.  Instead, based on what I have seen others do on various suicide based Facebook pages, I started calling it Payton's First "Forever 13" Birthday.  It still sounds strange, but it seemed to fit the occasion.  I knew I had to do something to recognize it, so I asked for suggestions from people that have traveled the same long road as me, and they suggested every thing from a balloon release to a grave side memorial.  Because we had Peyton cremated and his ashes are sitting on my dresser (I'm not ready to let go), I decided to go with a balloon release.  I posted the event on Facebook and Twitter and received a good reaction.  Yes, there were those that were against it because of possible damage to the environment, and I understand, but I needed to do something, so that is what I went with.  I ordered the balloons and encouraged others to come and join us.  Unfortunately, Mother Nature had different plans, and they showed up in the the form of Tropical Storm Bill.  Now the local news teams in the Houston area would have had you believing that it was the Apocalypse, and after the storms of Memorial Day weekend, no one wanted more rain.  Fortunately, Bill turned out to be nothing more than a popcorn fart for most of the area.  Yes, it was cloudy with intermittent rain, but not the gather the animals of the world by twos kind of weather we were told to prepare for.  About 40 people braved the rain and warnings to show up for the release.  As we all stood out in the field across the street, a cold rain began to fall, and upon release, many of the balloons headed straight to the ground where they popped unceremoniously.  Yes, a few brave and hearty balloons made it, but they were the exception rather than the rule.

The biggest trail was yesterday, June 21st, Father's Day.  Father's Day is perhaps the most ignored "Holiday" there is.  Whereas Mother's Day is during the school year when kids make decorative cards and gifts, and husbands are forced to look for the Holy Grail of gifts because the asshole Bob down the street went all out in an effort to make the rest of us look like fools, and none of us want to be the douche bag that went cheap on his wife.  No, Father's Day is usually a day when Dad is left alone to watch the US Open in peace, and the kids go out and do all the yard work poorly, thus creating more work for dear old Dad next weekend.  For me, it was yet another reminder that Peyton was gone.  I woke up and went out to the living room to sit on the coach and read.  I liked the idea of silence, and enjoyed the time to myself.  soon enough my wife and daughter were awake, and the day went on like another with the glaring exception of the missing boy that would have bitched and complained that he didn't want to watch golf all damn day.  Instead, I let loose with the occasional stream of tears and self pity that goes along with being a suicide survivor.

Now that stretch is over.  June 22nd is here, and my focus has shifted.  I am trying to get the College Park High School branch of The Locker ( off the ground.  I am bound and determined to get this going at CP knowing that it will benefit students as well as help carry on the goodwill that Peyton would have wanted.

Trust me God.  I have this.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Doctor, Donuts, and the Dead

Today is June 13, 2015, and it is eight months to the day that Peyton passed away after he hung himself on October 8th.  Here in the Houston area, the weather matches my mood.  It is a gray, cloudy day, and we have been hit with several showers already, and there is a promise of more on the way.

I came up to the office in our house to write.  I had no idea what I wanted to say, but I felt the compulsion to write.  As I sat at the desk, I look out the doors of the office to our play room at Ian, Peyton's step brother, playing lego Batman on the Xbox.  It is the latest version, and I think about how much Peyton would have loved it.  It was one of the few games we could play together without making each other crazy.  In part because one of the goals is to collect other characters from the DC Universe.  When we played the previous version, every time a character was collected, peyton would inevitably want to know who it was.  I got in the habit of keeping my iPad with me so we could look the character up and look at their backstory.  This was a big factor for him in the free play section of the game, as he would only use characters he felt were cool enough to play.

Super heroes were one of the bonds the two of us shared.  We saw all the movies together and discussed the merits of each individual character.  I think our favorite character was Batman.  Maybe because he was a normal person, just like us, that saw a problem and decided to do something about it.  We saw all the movies, even the wretched Batman and Robin (George Clooney?  Really?), but we preferred the newer Christian Bale version.  Most of all, we both liked to make the raspy voiced announcement that "I am Batman."  At his funeral, I placed a small Lego Batman figure in his casket with him and identical to the one I keep on my keychain.

I also started thinking about how diverse the two of us were.  I have been a coach at the high school and junior high for over 20 years.  Athletics make up a big part of my life, but for Peyton, they were something he would try, but quickly lose interest in.  He played basketball and t-ball through the YMCA, but didn't care for either, as games with a strict set of rules didn't interest him.  If he wasn't able to create his own rules, or find some wiggle room in them, then he chose to pass.  He was on a summer league swim team for a season, even received the Most Improved Swimmer trophy, but to him, pools were for playing not working.  He even tried out for the track team in 7th grade, but never made it to a meet.

Throughout my career, Peyton spent many Friday nights in the bleachers, but the game on the field held no interest compared to running around on the field and wrestling with Ian (a perk of being a coaches kid) after the game.  Track meets for him meant either discussing video and computer games with my athletes in the know, or educating the uninformed.  He would even volunteer to time at swim meets, but was more interested in seeing how quickly he could start and stop the watch or how many times he could stop it at exactly one second.

We were both obsessive over the pop culture we loved.  One time, after and intense Nerf gun war, I stood over him, pointed my gun at him and asked if he was ready to surrender.  He responded with "What?" to which I quickly responded, "Say 'what' again. Say 'what' again, I dare you, I double dare you, say what one more time!"  Unfortunately, and thankfully, he had no clue as to what I was talking about.  Peyton had no use for any movie that made you think or have a knowledge base deep enough for allusions.  He loved the potty humor of Family Guy and The Simpsons, but was clueless about some of the other references which would explain why we would laugh at different times.  

After his death, I wanted to understand Peyton more.  The first thing I tried was Dr. Who.  He was obsessed with the show.  He could quote the show, tell you history of all the characters, even understand the back stories that seemed to populate the show.  He would borrow my iPad and wear down the battery watching the older shows on Netflix or Amazon Prime, stopping them to give me a blow by blow account of what he had just seen.  I tried to watch it with him, but I could not get into the show.  There was too much background for me to truly understand, and I didn't really know where to start.  He had a Dr. Who encyclopedia he had begged me to buy for him at a Half Priced Books store, but even that was no help.  I just couldn't get into the show.  Now I know how he felt when I made him watch Lost.  

The first real connection I made with him after his death was at a place called Round Rock Donuts.  Since he and his mother had moved to Round Rock, he kept telling us all about this incredible Donut Shop.  To me, donuts were donuts, especially the glazed donut.  Peyton kept insisting I was wrong, to the point that when we did get donuts, he wouldn't eat the glazed because they weren't as good as Round Rock Donuts.  

About three weeks after Peyton's death, Lisa, Emmy and I went to Round Rock for the State Cross Country Championships.  The College Park team had a good shot at the state title, and having worked with the coaches for for so long, wanted to be there to share in the joy.  Alas, the title eluded them (they finished third).  We had decided to spend the night and drive into Austin the next day to spend some time exploring South Congress Avenue and the various stores there.  When Sunday morning dawned, we decided to visit the now infamous Round Rock Donuts to see what Peyton was so obsessed with.  What we expected and what we got were two different things.  I'm used to a donut store being in a strip mall of some kind with each one being relatively the same and offering the same basic fare as any other.  What we found was a free standing structure that required us to park a couple of blocks away, and then stand in a line that stretched out the door.  At first, I thought its location next to a church may have had something to do with the line, but judging by the clientele, that was not the case.  We ordered the glazed donuts Peyton had preached about for several years and found a table outside to eat.  OMG!!!  he was so right.  The donuts, still warm, were a far above anything I had ever tried before.  They melted in my mouth, and despite having already eaten at the hotel, I ate all of them and contemplated getting back in the ever growing line to get more.  As I sat there, I felt a bond with Peyton that had been missing since his death.  I could picture him sitting there gloating about how good they were, and how I should have listened to him sooner.  

When season five of The Walking Dead premiered, Peyton's mother Jacki had posted on Facebook how much Peyton had loved this show and that they had always watched it together, but he wouldn't be there to see this one.  I remember how he had talked about this show, but I had never seen it.  For one, AMC had not been an HD channel on our cable service, and I was never really a fan of zombie movies.  I did like Zombieland, but that was more because of the humor behind the premise than anything.  Once again, seeing an opportunity to bond with Peyton, I started to watch it on Netflix.  After one episode, I was hooked.  Soon, I became as engrossed in the lives of Daryl, Rick, Carl and Carol as Peyton was.  I could see why it appealed to him, and thought how much I would have loved to sit there with him and hate on Carl together just like every one else.  

There are still things that I think about that bring me close to Peyton.  I know he would love the new Jurassic World movie, or The Avengers, or Star Wars.  He would love going with me to take Emmy to story time so he could wander off to his own section of the library in search of books.  Most of all, I think he would hold over me the fact that he was right about so many things and never let me forget it.