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.  

Thursday, June 4, 2015

School's Out For Summer

Today is the last day of school.  For students across the district, there is an air of excitement and anticipation.  Unfortunately for me, there is a great deal of dread and angst.  This will be my first summer without Peyton.  My wife Lisa just posted a picture to Facebook of Ian and Emmy on their last day, and it made me think about how difficult this summer is going to be for me.

His district got out last week, so he should have already been with me.  For him that meant staying at the house all day playing XBox and loving the fact that his step brother had to go today.  Last year was the same thing, but Peyton had to come with me and be put to work to pay off the bill for the downloadable content he wracked up.  Right now, I would give anything to have him here complaining about having to do the work.

As I sit here, I think about all the things we won't be doing.  He would have gone to indoor skydiving today with Ian to help celebrate Ian's birthday.  He would have gotten to complain about having to go to the library with Emmy and me for story time.  He would have been arguing with me about whose turn it was on the XBox.  We could have gone to the movies, the mall, the book store (he would never leave the Dr. Who display). He would have had the whole family over to celebrate his 14th birthday.  Instead, I face the prospect of my first summer without him in 14 years.

About this time 14 years ago, I was pacing the halls of St. Joseph's hospital in Houston.  His mother, Jacki had been admitted with preeclampsia when she was 29 weeks pregnant with Peyton.  The doctors originally thought they were going to have to deliver Peyton that night.  Thankfully for us, they were wrong.  He held out for another four weeks, and was born on June 16, 2001, the day before Father's Day.  It was the greatest gift I had ever received.

He was small, just over two pounds, but he was a fighter.  He spent the first 33 days of his life in the NICU, but he never ceased to amaze the nurses and other staff members with his amazing burps.

Peyton struggled all his life with some of the effects of his premature birth.  First and foremost was his size.  He always seemed to be one of the smallest in his class, and it never went unnoticed among his peers.  He had to wear glasses from an early age, and because of his rough and tumble personality, they were usually the toughest pair of frames his mother and I could find, so they were usually the less fashionable.  Most of all Peyton had discolored permanent teeth as a result of receiving pure oxygen as a baby.  This was a flaw that the other kids went after with a zeal.  They questioned his brushing habits, and made other crude and crass remarks intended to hurt, and they did. It got so bad, that he never showed his teeth when he smiled for his school picutres.

 Peyton wanted veneers so badly so that the comments would cease.  He was so happy about the prospect of getting braces because it meant that once they were off, he would get veneers.  A change in my dental insurance meant he would have to wait another year, so he endured just a little longer.  At least he did until that fateful day in October.

Now I sit here and listen to my students talk about all the things they have planned.  I listen to teachers talking about family vacations.  I even listen to some complain about having to drag their kid to this camp and that camp.  I wonder if they know that I would give my left nut to have to take Peyton to a camp, or the dentist, or lessons, or anywhere inconvenient and out of the way.

So please keep in mind that when you are driving across the country yelling at your kids in the back seat, or driving them to the mall for the umpteenth time to "hang out" with their friends, or being begged to go to the latest Marvel movie, or even yelling at them to get their ass off the couch and do something besides play video games or binge watch Netflix all damn day, at least you can.