Monday, December 12, 2016

Why Christmas Hurts So Damn Much For Survivors Of Suicide

I hate Christmas. The mall is full of nothing but women and children. All you hear is "I want this.", "Get me this.", "I have to have this."... and then there's the children. And they're all by my store 'cause they stuck the mall Santa right outside ringing his stupid bell. As if you need a bell to notice a 300-pound alcoholic in a red suit. "Ho, ho, ho," all day long. So, nice as can be, I go outside, ask him to shut the hell up. He takes a swing at me. So I lay a hook into his fat belly and he goes down. Beard comes off, all the kids start crying and I'm the bad guy. - Al Bundy, Married with Children

First of all, I don't hate Christmas. There are some great things about the holiday.  I enjoy having two weeks off from work, Jack in the Box's eggnog shakes, watching my daughter's face light up Christmas morning, hearing John McClain say "Yippy Ki Aye Mother F*cker" to Hans Gruber, my wife's prime rib and mashed potatoes, free flowing booze (the good stuff no less) at her office Christmas Party, Zu-Zu's petals, and who doesn't love seeing Scut Farkus get his ass kicked over and over again as A Christmas Story rolls for 24 straight hours.

For me, and many others like me, Christmas hurts.  It isn't the commercialism, the bickering (Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays), the crowds, the lines, the perpetually happy people or the continuously angry, the parties we don't want to go to, every sitcom doing a spin off of A Christmas Carol, or even commercials featuring shallow adults jumping up and down because Santa brought them a luxury SUV.  For us, it is because we lost a loved one to suicide, and now we are faced with a never ending series of events that we will never get to experience with them.

I understand that other people have lost loved ones, and the holidays are rough for them as well.  I lost my mother unexpectedly in July of 2005, and that first Christmas without her was difficult, and   I know several people that have lost children to everything from accidents to cancer, and for them I pray daily, but for those left behind as the result of a suicide, the pain is usually worse.

Maybe our loss hurts so much because of the sudden trauma of it.  There are those among us that saw the signs, or previous attempts, and were not taken by surprise, but for the majority, it was a sucker punch to the gut.  If Peyton had been hit by a drunk, had his body ravaged by cancer, fallen off his bike and hit his head, or walked into a CVS and been shot by some tweaker trying to steal Sudafed, at least I would have an answer or explanation.  As it stands, I, and many others, have no reason, no explanation, no nothing.  Instead, we spike our eggnog and replay the situation over and over again in our heads.  We sneak off to the bedroom and cry into our pillows.  We watch It's A Wonderful Life and wish our guardian angel would give us a do over.

Many of us survivors of suicide want to skip Christmas all together, but alas, many of us can't. We have other children, family, and other obligations that will not allow us to just walk away.  We are forced to get out ornaments or stockings with our loved ones names,  We shuffle through Christmas cards and pictures with their smiling faces that hid a pain we can't even begin to fathom.  We see a gift at the mall that would be perfect if they were still with us.  We force ourselves to watch Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer with one child and imagine what it would be like to have our loved one sit next to us in wide eyed wonder one more time.  We look out the window  Christmas morning and see the neighbor's kid in their pajamas and robe riding their new bike only to have to turn away before the painful memories come flooding back and bring us to our knees.  We go to Christmas parties and pretend to be happy only to chug down the free flowing booze in hopes that, at least temporarily, the pain goes away.

So as you travel through your neighborhood looking at the colorful lights, knowing that Shlomo's family doesn't have lights up because they are Jewish, but Cathy's and Hannah's and Cassidy's and Lauren's and Haley's and Issac's and Johnathan's and Grace's and Brandy's and Matthew's and Hunter's and Trayvon's and Jack's and Hunter's and Peyton's families don't have them out because it just hurts too damn much.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Rest In Peace Brandy

'I love you so much just remember that please and I'm so sorry for everything.'  Brandy Vela's final text to her family

On November 29th, the pain became too much for Brandy Vela to bear and she shot herself in the chest while her terrified family looked on.  

The 18 year old senior at Texas City High School had endured relentless online bullying and harassment.  Her tormentors use encrypted apps in order to send her messages, set up false profiles on dating websites saying she was offering herself up for sex.  According to reports, she changed her number, but that didn't stop the harassment.  Eventually, it all became too much, and Brandy felt that the only way to escape the pain was to end her life.  

As I watched the story unfold on the local news, so many memories came flooding back to me, as Peyton had dealt with bullying and harassment at school as well.  But the person I could truly empathize with was her brother Victor.  As he looked into the camera and addressed those who had harassed his sister, "I'm glad you got what you wanted. I hope this makes you happy," but it wasn't what he said, but how he said it.  His voice was full of the anger and sorrow that would be natural in someone who had lost a loved one so tragically, but the look in his eyes told me that who ever bullied his sister to death had better hope that the authorities found them before he did.  

To the Vela family, I can't begin to express my sorrow for your loss.  I can't say I know what you are going through, as we all grieve differently, but I can empathize with you over the senseless loss of a child. The fact that bullying played such a central role makes it more familiar.  I know right now, that it feels as though your whole world has been turned upside down, and you have no idea how you can go on after what happened to your daughter. I can also imagine that you want frontier justice for your daughter, but there is a better way.  

After I found out that Peyton had filed a harassment complaint against another student the day before he hung himself, I was livid, especially when I found out that nothing had been done.  I don't know whose ass I wanted to kick more, the kid who taunted him or the administrator that did nothing.  The desire to inflict bodily harm was there, and at that point, jail did not scare me.  If I couldn't get my pound of flesh, I was also willing to sue the living sh*t out of the district and the parents who had raised a child who would willing harass a stranger.  All I wanted was some one else to suffer the way that I was at that point.  I wanted others to feel pain whether physical financial, or emotional.  Just as you do right now.  

However, over time I realized that no matter how ever much immediate satisfaction I would have gotten dragging an 8th grader, or administrator, into the hall and kicking their ass from one end to the other and back, would not have brought Peyton back.  The blood lust dissipated quickly, and my thoughts turned to putting my own life back together again.   

In fact, when I did speak to the principal of Peyton's school, my thoughts about the young man who had tormented Peyton had changed from violence to concern.  Unless that child was a sociopath, he was going to need help, and lots of it.  I imagined how he felt knowing that he was the final straw that sent Peyton over the edge.  Now he was going to have to spend the rest of his life knowing that he had played a role in the death of some one.  That in itself will be hell enough.  

I also realized that the administrator that dealt with Peyton's complaint had his hands tied by a slaws that all too often allows the guilty to roam free, and a education system more concerned with test scores and public image than with the children they are entrusted with. I am sure that they wish they could have done more to help, and knowing they lost one of their students is a burden they will have to bear. In no way will I ever  be able to forget what happened to Peyton, or what role his tormentors played, but I had to learn to forgive.  I already had enough on my soul without having to deal with the anger and hatred.  I had to learn to turn that into something positive rather than letting it eat away at me.  If I was able to forgive Peyton's tormentor, then perhaps the Vela's will some day forgive Brandy's as well.   

However, to the people that tormented Brandy to death, I do hope that the authorities locate you, and when they do, they prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law.  Some one will have to serve as an example, and it might as well be you.  As you sit in jail, let the idea of what you did to Brandy and the Vela's eat away at you.  You were cowards that hid behind technology to torment another human being to the point that they actually thought ending their life was the only solution.  For that, you deserve to be punished.  Perhaps some day, the Vela's and society will be able to forgive you, but let's hope a jury isn't.  

Monday, November 28, 2016

A Challenge To The Coaches Of Texas And Beyond

What is a coach? We are teachers. Educators. We have the same obligations as all teachers, except we probably have more influence over young people than anybody but their families. And, in a lot of cases, more than their families. Joe Paterno

I am proud to say that I have been a coach (and teacher) here in Texas for 26 years.  It is a job that I have loved and hated at the same time for each and every one of those 26 years.  Like many, I started out at the middle school level learning the basics, everything from planning for a game, washing uniforms, and helping the same kid put the knee pads in his pants for the eighth week in a row.  I have won games and lost them.  I have had undefeated seasons, as well as winless ones.  I have seen scrubs become stars and vice-versa.  I have seen the young men and women under my tutelage become soldiers, doctors, lawyers, social workers, and yes, coaches.  Most of all, I have come to see and appreciate the awesome power of influence that coaches have to shape and influence the athletes and students that we are charged with.  

None of this was more evident than on November 5, 2016, when 40 of my swimmers joined my family and me for the Out of the Darkness Walk at the Woodlands Waterway. The Out of the Darkness Walk is an annual event held in cities across the country to promote and educate people about suicide awareness and prevention.  Not only did they raise funds and participate in the walk, but they listened to speakers and others tell their stories, visited with exhibitors, and learned how they could help in their own community.  

Before school began, it had been decided by head coach Rachel Banes and I that our swimmers would take part in some kind of community service project.  Not only would it serve as team building, but provide our kids with an insight into the lives of others, especially outside the bubble of The Woodlands. As far as which project we would undertake, that decision was easy.  

On October 8, 2014, my 13 year old son Peyton came home to his mother's house and hung himself. Despite the heroic efforts of first responders, and the doctor's and nurses at Dell children's Medical Center in Austin, he passed away from his injuries on October 13, 2014.  In the days, weeks and months that followed, there was an outpouring of support from the coaching staff.  Meals were prepared, collections were taken, a Go Fund Me page started, and many made the 300 mile round trip from Conroe to Round Rock to attend his funeral.  

After his death, I started #Products4Peyton to collect toiletries for the Ronald McDonald House where my family stayed while Peyton was in the hospital.  It was my way to repay an incredible organization for their kindness and charity during an emotionally trying time for my family.  Because the Gulf TISCA meet is held at the Conroe ISD Natatorium, I reached out to the other coaches to encourage their swimmers to bring in donations.  I was not prepared for the volume of donations that we received.  Toiletries took over the coaches office and locker room, and they continued to come in until we were able to deliver over 250 boxes to various Ronald McDonald Houses in Texas.  

It was then that I realized how powerful a coaches' influence can be.  The other coaches took up my cause and encouraged their athletes to contribute.  Because of this, hundreds of people benefitted from the kindness of strangers.  Think about what could happen if we all chose some kind of community service project for our teams.  It can be anything from projects in your own community to nationwide campaigns.  The key is, to get your athletes involved.  

I am sure by now that many of us have seen the story of Florida State wide receiver Travis Rudolph and sixth grader Bo Paske, and how sitting with one child at lunch has changed his life.  When Travis say down to eat with Bo, he had no idea of the positives that would come out of it.  All he saw was a little boy eating alone.  But Travis is not the only one.  Student athletes at Penn State, Tulsa, Miami of Ohio, Duke, and even College of Mount Saint Vincent, to name a few, participate in community service, and have seen the positive effects in their communities.  

Your students could read to younger students, pick up litter, volunteer with senior citizens, or run with shelter dogs.   Some states, such as Maryland and California,  have gone so far as to require community service hours as a condition of graduation.  

So here is my challenge, choose a community service project and get your athletes involved.  Get your captains and team leaders together and discuss what they want to do.  Perhaps one or two have already been involved in projects that could expand to the team.  You also need to make sure that you are involved.  I know time is a valuable commodity, but if we want our athletes to buy into it, then we must as well.  You can start small in your community by reading to elementary students, having a party for the special needs kids, cleaning up trash in the community, or sponsoring families or children over the holidays. Or you could have your athletes take part in national events such as Out of the Darkness Walks and Race for the cure.  The key is to have them actively participate, not just donate money.  

As coaches, we all love to look up in the stands and see that the community has come out to support us.  Now, shouldn't we be willing to support the community?  

Are you up to the challenge?  

Friday, September 30, 2016

Peyton, I Would Still Die For You

The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time. -Mark Twain

Next Saturday, it will be two years since Peyton,  my 13 year old son, came home from school, went to his room and hung himself.  He clung to life for five days, but his injuries were too severe and he passed away on October 13, 2014. Not a day goes by that I do not miss him, mourn him, cry for him, and wish that God would have taken me instead of him.

I had just gotten in my truck to leave work.  My day had been sh*tty, and I just wanted to get home.  I was sitting in the truck, trying to catch my breath from a sprint through the driving rain, when my phone rang.  I saw it was Jacki, Peyton's mother, and thought seriously about letting it go to voicemail.  I didn't want to deal with any more drama at that moment, but something made me answer.

All she said was, "David, you need to speak to this police officer,"  In the second it took for her to hand the phone over, my mind raced through several scenarios from "there has been an accident" to "Peyton's temper has finally gotten the best of him."

The officer took the phone "Sir, this is Officer So and So (I remember so many details of that day, but names still elude me) of the Georgetown Police Department.  Peyton James has hung himself."  With those five words, my world turned upside down forever.

I sat in my truck, in that empty parking lot, momentarily stunned, listening to the rain pound on the roof  before I completely lost it.  I screamed, yelled, beat on the steering wheel and the roof of the cab with all my might.  I bargained with God and offered my life for Peyton's. Through tears and snot I kept screaming, "Dear God take me," but he didn't.  Never had I felt so convicted about something as I did at that moment.

When we arrived at the hospital, the doctor took us aside and told us about Peyton's injuries.  Because of the trauma to the organs from the CPR and the lack of oxygen, there was the possibility of organ damage.  When the doctor said that, there was never any doubt that if Peyton needed a kidney, a liver, heel, even a heart, I would be first in line to donate.

Over the next five days, I sat by Peyton's side as he drifted further and further away.  I held his hand and once again, bargained with God to take my life and spare Peyton's.  In a time of helplessness, when everything else was beyond my ability to aide my son, it was all I could do.  I hoped that every time I closed my eyes, I would open them to nothingness, or to a bright light that was drawing me closer.  I even went to the chapel in the hospital to offer myself.  Unfortunately, God was not in a mood to bargain, and my pleadings went unanswered until it was too late and Peyton was gone.

I know I am not the first parent to offer myself as they sat at their child's bedside, nor was it the first for me.  From the time Peyton was a baby with his first of many ear infections, to his first stitches, to knocking out a tooth, I wanted to take away his pain and anguish.  I would have gladly carried that pain with me to alleviate him, but now it was for keeps, but I was still willing and wanting to change places. I think that is part of being a parent.  We all go out of our way to take care of and protect our kids. We want what is best for our kids and sacrifice for ourselves.

Now it has been almost two years.  Peyton would have been a sophomore in high school.  He would be old enough to get his learner's permit and beg me to let him drive.  He would have been coming up with a theatrical way to ask girls to homecoming.  He would have been arguing with me about everything from grades to curfew.  Instead, his ashes sit on my dresser and gather dust.  His room is slowly being converted to an office.  His step-brother is buying a suit for homecoming, and his sister is already planning her fifth birthday. All of the things Peyton could have been and done are nothing but assumption and speculation.

As for me, my life goes on slowly and methodically.  I think about all of the aggravation and headaches Peyton would be causing, all the unreasonable demands he would be making, the money he would ask for, and the future he would be planning.  I still want that for him.  If God has a way to change the past, I would still let him take me so that Peyton could live his life.  Just so you know, Peyton, I would still die for you.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Living With Depression

That's the thing about depression: A human being can survive almost anything, as long as she sees the end in sight. But depression is so insidious, and it compounds daily, that it's impossible to ever see the end. The fog is like a cage without a key. -Elizabeth Wurtzel

When I was a 15, I had just finished my sophomore year of high school, and it was summer break. Back in those days, we usually got out of school before Memorial Day, and didn't go back until after Labor day.  That meant three wonderful months of swimming, riding bikes, hanging out, watching MTV actually play music videos, and all around tomfoolery.  But for me, it was the first time I ever truly knew what depression was, and it became something I had to deal with the rest of my life.

I remember sitting around with my friends the day school got out.  We were sitting on the hill (ok, a mound of dirt covered with grass, but in Houston, it was a hill) outside the community pool, and every one was talking about their summer plans.  They were all enthused about what lay ahead over the next three months, but I wasn't.  I was about to start working as a life guard, a dream job for a kid at that time, but I was unhappy, I didn't know why.  I also noticed that I would tend to binge eat. Because I had a job, I had money, so I would ride my bike to the store and buy boxes of Little Debbie's snack cakes, or candy or chips and consume them at once.  Because I was always active, it never really bothered me, and over time, I learned to turn it toward healthier foods, and this was the start of a life long practice that went with my depression.

I never told anyone what was going on.  To be honest, I was embarrassed and ashamed.  It seemed as all my other friends had their act together, and I was some kind of reject.  I hid my problems behind sarcasm.  I tried to take as many people with me as possible by being a smartass.  Looking back, I know that I was trying to make others feel as bad as I did.  I figured if I felt like shit, then others should too.  It was a paradox.  I wanted friends, and I wanted people to like me, but at the same time, I would push others away in an effort to keep them from finding out that there was something wrong with me thinking if they knew, they wouldn't want to hang out with damaged goods.  I figured I would hurt them before they hurt me.  This was a pattern that would occur time and time again throughout my life.

This continued through college and into adulthood, but now, I would also throw alcohol into the mix to start numbing my feelings.  It wasn’t until I was an adult in my late 30’s that I even dared to speak up about it and seek treatment.  Unfortunately, I didn’t understand that depression is not like other illnesses.  I began to feel better, so I stopped taking my meds and going to therapy.  That mistake cost me my marriage, my house, and my son.  Now I speak openly and unashamed, not only for myself, but for others, so that they know it is ok to not be ok.

So what is it like to live with a mental illness?  For me, I live with depression and anxiety.  The biggest challenge I face every day is getting out of bed. When the alarm goes off in the morning (although I am usually awake and full of dread long before that), I have to decide if I am going to face my demons, or give in and call in sick.  My anxiety has already told me that If I go in, something will happen that will put me in an unfavorable position.  My depression tells me that it doesn’t matter what I do in class, the kids won’t care, they’ll fail, and it will be my fault.  I take my medication that is supposed to help, and I have no doubt that it does help, because the illness hasn't taken over yet.  I go through my morning routine, pour my coffee, and get in my truck for the drive to work.  Some days I hope that someone will rear end me or t-bone me and put me in the hospital for a few days. Others I wish my daughter was sick. Any legitimate  excuse to stay home because  I refuse to let the illness win and make me stay home.  I will not give in to it, and I will not let it dictate my life.

At work, the same student behavior that I used to find humorous or just ignore, now pisses me off. "This is stupid" or "I don't want to do this," hit me like hot needles under my nails.  I want to scream "You have opportunities my son never will!  Shut up and take advantage of those chances instead of bitching about it," but instead, I just a take a deep breath, look at the clock, bite my tongue, and count the minutes left in the class.

I hear snippets of conversations in the halls about parties, drugs, and alcohol, and wonder, "Are they trying to tame the monster as me?"  If they are, they're going about it the wrong way, as so many of their generation does, but because the monster has become "He who shall not be named," so in the "not my child" era they use what is available to numb the pain instead of what is proper.

Emails scare the hell out of me as well.  If I get an email entitled "Meeting" or "Conference" or anything similar, I have a small panic attack because I think I have done or said something wrong, or some parent wants their kid out of my class because my illness might be contagious.  To make matters worse, the state of Texas has adopted a new teacher appraisal system that has good teachers nervous, so it has ramped up my anxiety 100% and has me believing my future at my job is in danger.  Even though I have been told I am a good teacher, I still an't help but think that I am on the verge of unemployment.

When I'm at home, there are times I'll binge watch Netflix, play Xbox, or lose myself in a book rather than face life because all around me are reminders of Peyton, who he was, and who he never will be.  One of my worst habits to to grab a bag of chips or cookies and eat the pain away.  I want to hold my daughter close and never let go, but she is too much like her brother, and can't sit still.  At bedtime, I rely on Ambien to sleep, otherwise the anxiety of what has or might happen keeps poking at my brain until the wee hours of the morning.

I have to make myself take part in activities, to go places, to do things.  The things I used to love to do hardly interest me.  I battle daily to be as normal as I can, but it isn’t easy.  I know it puts a strain on my family, and that in itself tears me apart.  I keep people at an arm’s length because in my mind, I feel like I don’t deserve for people to love me or care for me.  I know that I am wrong to think that way, but that is the way the illness works, and that is why I fight it with medication and therapy.

Every day is a continuous battle for me, and I hate that.  Yes, there are good days, but they are far outnumbered by the bad.  I take my meds, but sometimes wonder if it is even worth it.  Maybe I should have the doctor increase the dose, but would that turn me into an emotionless zombie?  My job frustrates me to no end because of my inability to remember things, and because I feel as though the subject I used to love has now become nothing more than a test, so I think about what I could do besides teaching, or could I teach a subject that actually has relevance.  I also know it affects my family, and they suffer, which deepens my depression even more.

I want to "snap out of it" or just "choose to be happy", both sage bits of advice people have given me, but I can't.  I have an illness that tries to control my life.  I fight it the best I can, but it isn't easy. Some days I wish it was cancer or  gangrene so it could be cut out of me, but it isn't.  It is in my brain, and I need that.  I never asked to be perpetually miserable, to cry without warning, to hide the tears welling up in my eyes, or to go home exhausted everyday without the energy to play with my daughter.  So bear with me.  I'm trying. I really am.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

A Sh*tty Pair of Sunglasses

trig·ger (triɡər) noun an event or circumstance that is the cause of a particular action, process, or situation.

I hate triggers.  They are cruel, heartless, and generally unintentional reminders of an unfortunate past that all too often sneak up on us when we least expect them. Triggers are ruthless little bastards that seemingly come out of nowhere to ruin our day and turn people into quivering masses of jelly and tears.  The amazing part of a trigger is that you never know when it will affect you.  It could be something that you have seen over and over again on a daily basis, but on that one particular day, it hits you from out of the blue.

A trigger can be in the form of a song that reminds you of a love long lost, it can be a scent in the air that takes you back to a time when your life was not what you had hoped for, or a sensation that leaves you hollow and empty.  For people like me that have lost a loved one to suicide, they can be especially harsh, a Chuck Norris roundhouse kick to the face that drops you to your knees and leaves you on the floor of the coaches locker room screaming into a towel to muffle your anguish.

My trigger was a sh*tty pair of convenience store sunglasses.  Peyton had found them at a track meet about six months before his death.  They were mirrored, Aviator ripoffs that some kid had left behind at the long jump pit.  I told him to wear them around in case some one recognized them and wanted them back.  He strolled around the whole day with those ridiculous glasses on, and at the end of the day, asked me to put them in my backpack for safe keeping.  Since that day, those glasses stayed in my bag.  Through the rest of that season it was because I thought I may need them in case I forgot my own sunglasses.  Last year, it was because I convinced myself I might need them, but in reality, it was because I couldn't bear the idea of getting rid of them, even after I found a pair of Ray Bans after a meet in Houston.  Once the season was over, I hung my back pack on a hook in my locker and left it there over the summer, untouched until last week.

The month of August has been a cornucopia of weather changes here in the Houston area.  We ended almost two months of little to no rain with several days of torrential down pours followed by an almost daily chance of isolated thunderstorms, some possibly severe.  That meant that the bright blue cloudless sky I saw out of my window at the end of 5th period might be replaced by a downpour of Biblical proportions by the end of 6th, or vice versa.

It was on a day when all looked bleak weather wise that the nature gods took perverse pleasure on the populace.  After a morning of rain and gray clouds, the sun came out to heat the Earth and raise not only the temperature, but the humidity, to equatorial levels as well.  I had ventured out of the coaches office that day to drop off papers for copies.  Having noticed the bright sunlight, I went to the locker room see if my old Ray Bans were still in my track backpack.  When I opened up the side pocket, a spray can of sun screen, several pens and pencils, the Ray Bans, and the sh*tty pair of sunglasses fell onto the floor.  After a wave of profanity, I bent to pick up the flotsam from the floor. I shoveled most of it back into the side pocket, the Ray Bans were hooked into my collar, and the last thing left were the sh*tty sunglasses.  Rather than put them back, I knelt there staring at them.  I started to think about how they came to be in my possession, and then the wave hit me.  Suddenly, I was flat on my ass on the floor.  I tried to hold in the tears, but they came anyway.  I scooted across the floor and grabbed a towel from the basket, buried my face, and cried.  We're not talking just a few tears, this time, the water works opened and I let them flow.  I didn't care, I just needed to let out what had been building for a while.  Eventually, I composed myself, picked myself up off the ground, washed my face, and headed back to my day.This is not the first trigger I have dealt with since Peyton's death, but this one floored me.

I have been dealing with triggers since Peyton's death in October of 2014.  Whether it was walking past his room, looking at pictures on my phone, going places we had been together, his birthday, the anniversary of his death, seeing his friends growing up, or his sister Emmy ask when she will see him again.  I know I am not alone in my grief.  There are so many people out there that can no longer live a normal life as they had before the suicide of their loved one.  It is little things like triggers that get in their way, that stop them in the middle of a store, oblivious to everyone and everything around them, and leave them dumbfounded.  No one asks for this life, but unfortunately, there are far too many living it.

One of the worst for many survivors of suicide is the terminology in today's society.  You refer to people that are different as crazy or insane without taking into account that 90% of people that complete suicide are dealing with some sort of mental illness.  You make statements such as "I should just kill myself," or "if I were her, I would commit suicide."  You make gestures such as shooting yourself in the head (the number one method of suicide) or hanging yourself (number two) When we hear or see you spout such ignorance, we want to scream at you, grab you by the lapels and shake you, and pummel some sense into you.  I know you may be thinking "How was I to know that you lost some one?"  With an excess of 40,000 suicides in the US each year, and with each death affecting on average six people intimately, there is a good chance that some one in your life, be it a friend, relative, or acquaintance, has been affected.

Just last night, a friend of mine posted to face book about a t-shirt she had seen that depicted a San Francisco Giants fan standing on a chair with a noose around his neck, a Los Angeles Dodgers fan sitting down, eating popcorn and seemingly enjoying it, and the caption reading "Suicide Watch".  I had seen similar shirts before on Amazon, and heard the anguished and angry responses of people who has suffered loss, and now I have to hear them again.  Seeing this image was a trigger for some, and caused them grief.  For others, there was outrage that some one would find this funny.

As I stated earlier, triggers are ruthless little bastards.  They have the power to bring a person to their knees.  Some are unavoidable because of their personal nature, but others can be avoided.  References to suicide and killing one's self as a joke, should become taboo in our society.  You would never tell some one they should contract leukemia or heart disease, so why suicide?

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Dear Stranger: Thank You For The Giant Heart

Like many parents after a long family holiday, I usually welcome the moment when my kids head back to school.- Jose Andres

The first day of school is a bitch.  As a teacher, I miss the old days when we would start school on a Wednesday.  You could spend the first three days getting all the beginning of the year paper work, get to know you, and other activities out of the way and then you came back Monday and started teaching.

As a parent who lost his son to suicide, it is a bitter reminder that my son is dead and will never have another first day of anything.  Yes, I have a step-son and daughter that still have a first day, but it does not replace seeing your first born on the first day.  I remember taking off half a day to take Peyton to kindergarten on the first day, and receiving a picture from his mother every year at their annual "First day of School Breakfast".  For the last two years, I have had to look on #Timehop to see his last first day.

Needless to say, I spent Monday in a sh*t mood.  I avoided Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for the most part because I didn't want to see all of the pictures that people had posted of their smiling children heading back to school. I was exhausted by night time, went to bed early, and woke up Tuesday morning dreading another day of back to school activities, shortened classes, paperwork, schedule changes, figuring out where to out the students I had no desks for, and the other joys of the first week.  I went through my morning routine of a shower, getting dressed, putting on the accursed post surgery walking boot, grabbing my lunch from the fridge, pouring my vat of coffee and heading to work.  On the way to work, I had to deal with those that are blinker usage challenged, can't comprehend speed limits, and feel that traffic laws are for suckers.  I limped into the building and headed for the work room to check my box (The architects who designed the building are still laughing how they managed to put the teacher boxes in an area where two people walking in the opposite direction cannot pass without turning sideways or gaining intimate knowledge of each other) because you never know what last minute notices, bonus checks, or bite sized Hershey bars might be waiting for you.

On this day, I could see nothing peeking out, so I reached in.  I felt something soft and pulled out an enormous heart made from yarn.  The heart itself was a larger version of the ones that people make for the #PeytonHeartProject.  There was no tag or name on it, I even squatted among the throng of teachers trying to squeeze into the crowd to get a better look, but there was nothing.  I took the elevator up to my room, took the obligatory selfie with it, posted it to social media, found the perfect place to hang it above my desk, sat down and lost my sh*t.

People need to understand what it is like to lose a loved one to suicide.  Once the initial shock of Peyton's death was over, the world went on spinning for most people.  Yes, there were those that mourned along with me, but eventually they went back to their families and lives while I was left to try and make sense of my life.  I would drive down the freeway, walk through the mall, or sit in a restaurant and see people laughing, having fun and carrying on without a worry in the world, and I would want to shout, "What the f**k is wrong with you!  My son is killed himself and you don't care!"  I was feeling that way on Tuesday as adults and kids alike talked about the first day of school. I wanted nothing to do with happy people, but just wanted the day to end so I could go home.  Then I got your heart.

I don't think you realize how much a small gesture to a parent who has lost a child, or other loved one, to suicide means.  We feel forgotten or avoided.  Our loved one didn't fight the good fight against cancer or some other insidious disease.  They weren't taken from us by a thoughtless drunk or careless texter.  They weren't cut down on the battlefield or in the line of duty.  Our loved fought bravely against the demons in their heads, the bullies in the hall, the expectations they couldn't live up to, or the pressures of a life they had never achieved, and they took their own life in order to end the agonizing pain that they were living with.  Unfortunately, because of a lack of understanding and education, people brand them as cowards or crazy, and those of us that are left behind feel avoided, shunned, and forgotten.  Our friends no longer call, we are kept at a distance, or ignored.  Maybe it is because people don't know what to say, maybe it is because the subject of suicide is so taboo, or maybe, because of the lack of understanding, people are afraid that what ever caused our love one to take their lives might be contagious, and now we are infected, and they could be next.

On that day, you let me know that Peyton had not been forgotten, and you let me know that some one cared.  That heart will always occupy a special place in my classroom and in my heart.  You may be a a teacher, a student, a parent, or none of the afore mentioned.  I don't even know if you realized the effect that heart would have on me that day.  But I want you to know that some thing so simple meant so much to me on a day I needed it the most, and for that Dear Stranger, thank you.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The "Year of Saving Lives" Because "All Means All"

The following opinions being expressed are mine, and mine alone.  While there are those that may agree with me, they are not included here.  I have been, and will continue to be,  outspoken about school districts, including my own, and their lack of action regarding suicide.  For my beliefs, I make no apologies.  

School starts tomorrow for many across the state of Texas.  That means for the thousands of teachers across the state, it meant that last week was filled with a never ending slew of meetings of everything from STAAR remediation to T-TESS, the new teacher evaluation system (teacher organizations have already filed lawsuits over the unfairness it).  For new teachers, this week of meetings is an indoctrination to the world of educational bureaucracy, or the harsh realization that it really is about test scores.  For others, it is a soul crushing reminder that their class room will sit untouched while they are told what they are required to teach, how they will be required to teach, and how they will be remediated and punished should their students not master the test.  Some will spend their time surfing Indeed. com looking for less stressful jobs such as driving trucks full of "stuff" through Syria, or being Ryan Lochte's publicist.  Others will sit and weep silently when they realize their raise will be eaten up by the jump in their insurance premiums causing them to take home less than they did last year. However, there are some that look forward to these meetings where they anxiously soak up all of the new state mandates, requirements, data, tools of measurement, and increase in paper work and loss of planning time.  In reality, none of those exist, in its entirety, but parts of them live in all teachers.

Some districts will even go so far as to have a convocation where all are required to gather in a single spot to be told how lucky they are to to work in that district, and how lucky the district is to have them.  Some times the principals will dance for the amusement of others, counselors will put on skits, talented students from throughout the district will be paraded on stage for the amusement of the masses, or a guest speaker with no interest in the district, beyond a large check for their services, will deliver a well scripted speech to the proletarian masses.  What ever the case is, teachers will flock in, sit, applaud at the appropriate times, hang their heads in shame when chastised, and generally feeling like time has passed since the time they entered.

This year, two of the points made at my district's Festivus were that this is the "Year of Saving Lives," and that "All Means All." Now the Year of Saving Lives referred to school nurse Rachelle Thinnes who was able to help save a man’s life by using immediate bystander Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) and an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) to “shock” the victim’s heart when a guest to her school suffered a cardiac arrest.  All means all is a reference to the district's mandate that we educate all students when they enter our schools.  First of all, high five to nurse Thinnes for saving a life, and secondly, to any one that has ever taught, you know that there are kids that we fight tooth and nail to educate and love, even when the kid resists.

Now I know what was meant by the "Year of Saving Lives" and "All means all", but being me, and based on what I have dealt with in the past two years, I decided to look at it a different way.  I look as saving lives as a priority.  Not only do they want us to rush to the aid of those that suffer cardiac arrest in our midst, but schools educate students about the risks that might lead to something as serious as a heart attack.  Legislators and schools try to remove risk factors in order to keep students safe from heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and the like.  Students wanting to participate in athletics, dance, cheerleading, and marching band are required to have a comprehensive physical.  Abnormalities are scrutinized, and sometimes, the student must be evaluated by a specialist in order to be cleared to play.  All of these are good things, and I have no problem with any of it. Saving the life of any one is a good thing, whether it is through CPR or preventive measures. Every year, there is a tragic story or two on the news about an athlete that collapsed or died at practice or during a game, and when that happens, people scream and yell for better physicals, and screensing and preventative measures.

But what about the 20 percent of students (ages 13-18) that have a serious mental illness (50% of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14)?  Or how about the approximately 50% of students age 14 and older with a mental illness who drop out of high school? Or the 70% of youth in state and local juvenile justice systems who have a mental illness?  Or the 90% of those who
died by suicide who had an underlying mental illness?  Where is the public outcry when a chid goes home and shoots themselves or overdoses on medication?  Are these students part of "All means all" in the "Year of saving lives?"   What are schools going to do for them?

As a teacher, I got into teaching to effect the lives of students.  What I didn't get into teaching for was to administer tests.  Some districts offer PACE (Personal, Academic, and Career Exploration) in order to help assist them in future transitions to career, college, adulthood, and independence. PACE also links relevant concepts so that students understand the "big picture" in preparing for life after high school while still in high school.  This 1 semester course helps students address many of the issues faced in society today, and is even required for graduation.  Yet many districts shy away from courses such as these.  I would even ask to teach a course such as this.

As we head into the new school year, I ask all of those reading this to work toward making this the year of saving ALL LIVES.  Teachers, work with your kids, take an interest in what they are doing, ask questions of them, and should you notice something wrong or out of the ordinary, speak up and voice your concerns.  Sure you may be wrong, but err on the side of caution.  Parents, talk to your kids, and let them know that it is ok to not be ok.  Also, ask what the schools in your district are doing to address these issues.  You pay taxes, and you have a voice in how your schools should be run.  Address the school board, ask them what is being done.  These people work for you, and can be voted out if they don't have the best interests of the students at heart.  What if you don't have kids in the public schools?  Don't you still have to pay taxes?  Would you mind if a few of those dollars went to helping kids stay alive?

When those buses pull up in the morning to take our kids to school, we rely on them in the afternoon to bring them home.  Shouldn't we hope that what happens in the time between pick up and drop off assures that this will be a routine?  Remember, ALL MEANS ALL.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Peyton A. James Middle School? Why Not?

I attended five public schools in my life: Decius Beebe Elementary, Robert V. Yeuell School, Middle Road School, Wunsche Middle School, and Spring High School.  Three of the schools are named after local, notable citizens, a philanthropist, a war hero, and a prominent citizen.  The others named after their locations.  I have taught at schools named after historical figures, sugar barons, educators, locations, and trees.  Every district has a process, rules and traditions that they follow when naming schools.  Some times schools will even change the name of a school if the original name is suddenly found offensive.  The Austin Independent School District recently chose to rename an elementary school originally named after a Confederate general, and looked to the public for input. While I am sure that there were legitimate suggestions, the most popular was Donald Trump Elementary School.  Needless to say, the process is imperfect, and no matter what you choose, there will be those who will not be happy and will feel slighted.

Earlier this week, Peyton's mother sent me a link about Georgetown ISD asking the public for their input into the naming of a new middle school.  It was suggested by a friend of her's that the district name the new school after Peyton.  I looked at GISD Board Policy CW (LOCAL) outlines criteria for the naming of a new district facility. The policy states that a new facility shall be named for one of the following:
      1. A historical or geographical site or community
      2. A local, state, or national historical event or place
      3. A significant local, state or national figure
      4. A person who has made a significant contribution to education in the district
Furthermore, if the proposed name is in honor of an individual, the name must be accompanied by a written rationale and/or description of the named person’s accomplishments. Each name nominated must fulfill the following criteria:
      1. The nominee shall be widely respected, regardless of any partisan affiliation.
      2. The nominee shall be a person of character who embodies a wholesome image that would be               expected to stand the test of time.
      3. The nominee shall have a background of service to people of the district, Texas, or the United             States.

As I looked over the criteria, I began to wonder how Peyton would fit.  Was he significant locally?  I can't think of how he isn't.  Peyton' mother has done everything possible in Georgetown to keep Peyton's memory alive.  Through her organization, Kindness Matters, she has addressed hundreds of students and faculty about the importance of students treating each other with kindness and respect, to help friends in a time of need, and how to stand up to bullies.  The students and staff of Georgetown ISD are better because of him.  Peyton was not partisan.  He actually had no interest in politics, on fairness for all.  He was of character, honest and decent, fair and kind to all, and how can you get more wholesome than red hair and freckles.  Peyton's service to the people of the district is keeping people alive.  I can't think of a more noble case than saving lives.

Yes, there are those who would, and have, voiced their opposition.  They ask why would a school district choose to name a school after a student, especially one that completed suicide?  I ask them, why not?  Yes, there are hundreds of schools named after presidents, generals, politicians, historical figures, towns, geographical locations, prominent local citizens, school boards members, and administrators.  What you don't see much of are teachers and students, the back bone of any district. In my experience, I know of one school named for a student that died in the prime of their life, yet without students, then schools no longer exist.

I am not overly optimistic that Peyton's name would even garner any consideration.  In larger, expanding districts, cronyism runs rampant, and the names of schools are decided long before ground has even been broken for construction. However, it would be a bold move on the part of Georgetown ISD to give Peyton's name consideration.  Think of the message they could send to the community that students rate consideration, that they are the backbone of a school system.  When I originally posted this information last week on Facebook, Chelsea Fullwood, an Austin area attorney and suicide survivor, said it best in her letter to Georgetown ISD in support of Peyton, "We’ve got schools named for politicians, religious leaders, educators, civil rights advocates and – let’s be frank – donors.   Peyton represents the fragility of adolescence.  His name should serve to remind parents, teachers and students that kindness, love and patience are more important than grades, scores or celebrity.  His name should serve to remind students that none of us is alone. I don’t believe Peyton’s parents would shy from admitting that their courage, compassion and resilience in the wake of such tragedy comes from a desire for their son’s death to mean something.  And for every person that wakes up and thinks, “I’m not alone and I’m not going to let anyone else feel that way today,” because they knew Peyton James – it does."

Monday, June 27, 2016

Peyton's 60 Year Old Latino Twin

I have a confession to make.  I am white, inescapably white.  My ancestry reaches back to England and Ireland, some of the whitest, most translucent people to ever walk the face of the Earth, as long it was not during the midday, as we burn easily.  Because of my lineage and Wonder Bread and mayonnaise complexion, you can imagine my shock when I found out that Peyton, my 13 year old son that I lost to suicide in 2014, had a 60 year old Latino twin, David Gonzales. I found this out in November of 2015 when David's daughter Brenda contacted Peyton's mother, Jacki.

I know many of you are befuddled right now, so I guess an explanation is due.  The story begins on October 8, 2014 when Peyton hanged himself at his mother's house in Georgetown, Texas.  Because of the extent and severity of his injuries, he was taken by Lifeflight to Dell Children's Medical Center in Austin.  When we were told that he would not survive his injuries, his mother and I agreed to donate his organs and corneas.  We were told by TOSA (Texas Organ Sharing Alliance) that once Peyton's organs were transplanted, they would send us information about each of the recipients, and we knew that one of his kidneys when to a 58 year old man with two grandchildren, his heart to a 17 year old boy, and part of his liver to an 8 month old baby.  Because of privacy laws, that is all the information we were allowed.  We were able to write letters to the recipients, which I did almost immediately.  I was hoping to hear back from the recipients.

Days turned to weeks, and weeks to months, and I became convinced that we would never hear anything, until one morning, I received a message on Facebook from a woman named Leslie telling me that her daughter Carmel had been the recipient of one of Peyton's corneas. Even though the transplant didn't take, Leslie told me that Peyton had given them hope, and after a full transplant, Carmel is now able to see with both of her eyes.  I also became hopeful once again, and hoped to hear from more recipients.  A month later, I did.

In October, shortly after the one year anniversary of Peyton's death , I received a call from Peyton's mother.  She told me about an email she received from Brenda Gonzales of Kingsville, Texas telling us about how she believed her father David had been the recipient of one of Peyton's kidneys.  Jacki provided me with the contact information, and I began to correspond with Brenda.  I didn't want to rush things, especially when I found out that David was recovering from back surgery.  In fact, I wasn't sure how to handle the situation, after all, it was the daughter, not the recipient who had initiated contact.  I was fine asking Brenda questions, and knowing that David was ok, and that the kidney was functioning well, was good for me.

Jacki called me to let me know that she was going to meet the Gonzales family in San Antonio on Easter weekend, and I welcome to join them, but due to circumstances beyond my control, I was not able to make it there that weekend, but I wanted to meet David, to see Peyton living on, so I began to formulate a plan in my head about how we could make it happen.  My family had talked about taking a weekend vacation to Corpus Christi.  My wife Lisa and I had both been there for work, and thought it would be a great place to take the kids.  There were the beaches, the Texas State Aquarium, and the Corpus Christi Hooks, the Double A affiliate of the Houston Astros, and it is only a 45 minute drive to Kingsville from there.

We chose the weekend of June 10th, and I contacted Brenda and told her we would be close by, and perhaps we could meet up.  She told me that David's birthday was the 12th, and they were planning to come to Corpus to celebrate, and we were welcome to join them.  It sounded like a great idea, so I agreed.  However, I also began to formulate a plan of my own.  Knowing we wwould be attending a Hooks game on the 11th, I asked Brenda if they would be interested in meeting at the game.  When she agreed, I contacted the Hooks to see about getting seats together.  I told them who I was meeting and why, and with the help of Tanner Twomey, a plan was set in motion.

When the 11th rolled around, I was a bit edgy to say the least.  We spent the morning at the Texas State Aquarium, and agreed to meet the Gonzales family at Whataburger Field at 5:35, as soon as the gates opened.  WE had gone back to our hotel to change before the game, and were late getting there.  I picked up our tickets from Will Call and then proceeded to the main gate.  Because this was a Saturday, and a give away night (camouflage Hooks jerseys), the line to get in was long.  I was growing impatient.  I just wanted to get in there and meet David.  We finally got to the front of the line, had our tickets scanned, and entered the stadium.  In front of me was a flight of stairs, and when I looked up and to the left, there was the Gonzales family waiting for me.  I was met at the top of the stairs by Natalia Contreras of the Corpus Christi Caller Times.  I had contacted her about this meeting in hopes that this story would raise awareness of organ donation.  After greeting Natalia, I began to work over to the area where David stood waiting.  I began walking through the crowd until I was able to embrace the man who had a part of Peyton still living inside of him, and  the tears flowed.

After giving an interview to Natalia, I was able to go down to the field as part of the pregame process, and Ian, Peyton's step brother, was able to throw out the first pitch.  But it wasn't until the game started that I got what I wanted most, a chance to talk to David.  I learned that during a routine physical, it was discovered his kidney function was far below normal and they were shutting down, that he had been on dialysis for six and a half years, that during that time he had spent four hours, three days a week having his blood cleaned, and after those six and a half years, he had all but given up hope that he would receive a new kidney As a man that had worked hard all his life, those six and a half years had taken a toll until October 14, 2014.

On that day, David had driven home from San Antonio after visiting his wife Sandra.  When arrived home, Brenda ran out to meet him with the news, a donor had been found, and he needed to get back to San Antonio.  David and Brenda arrived at the hospital and met up with Sandra.  Later that night, the kidney of a 13 year old boy who had taken his life was transplanted into a 58 year old grandfather to save his.  After a successful surgery, David was taken to observation.  After a kidney transplant, they keep the patient in observation until the kidney begins to produce urine.  The usual time for a transplanted kidney to function is four to five hours, for David's new kidney, it took thirty minutes. Doctors told David that the kidney couldn't have been a better match if Peyton had been a family member.  They said that Peyton was his twin when it came to matching, and his recovery was amazing.

I sat there and watched David interact with his family and mine.  I watched his grandsons and his children and prayed to God that they would all grow old and happy together.  Sadly, the night came to an end.  The heat was too much for David.  We said our goodbyes during the 7th inning with another round of tearful hugs.  As the Gonzales' walked away, I looked at the shirts they had made
2 Lives
1 Hero
1 Family
Peyton Andrew James 
June 16, 2001-October 13, 2014

The Gonzales family and the James family were now one family.  We share an unbreakable bond because of Peyton and David, his 60 year old Latino twin.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Whiskey And Milkshakes Don't Dull The Pain

I contented myself with whiskey, for medicinal purposes. It helped numb my various aches and pains. Not that the alcohol actually reduced the pain; it just gave the pain a life of its own, apart from mine.- Haruki Murakami

Dealing with the death of a child is difficult enough.  Make that death a suicide, and for many, the pain becomes unbearable, and they look for ways to cope.  When I talked about dealing with depression at a recent Community Forum, I talked about the signs of depression and how eating too much or too little, as well as the abuse of alcohol and drugs, can play a roll in the battle to dull the pain.  For me, I turned to whiskey and milkshakes.

As a staff, we were excited when they opened a Chik Fil A in front of the school.  Now we had access to decent fast food within walking distance.  Their salads sustained me on days when I forgot, or was too lazy, to make my lunch.  It was easy for me to walk over during my conference period, grad a salad and store it in the fridge in the coaches office until lunch.  Unfortunately, it also meant I was within walking distance of their milkshakes, one of my biggest vices.  After Peyton's death, their milkshakes became a crutch for me.

The days and weeks after Peyton's death were a fog for me.  I worked, coached, picked up my daughter, and went home.  Some days I don't remember, others, I don't want to remember.  After particularly bad days (and there were a lot of those), I would swing through the drive thru and buy a shake, usually a large cookies 'n cream, and became almost a habit.  it got to the point that when I picked up Emmy, she would look in the cup holder to see if I bought a shake that day. For a while, I bought one almost every day.  It helped me ease the pain as I escaped into the cold, frosty goodness.

One day, I stepped on the scale and realized that I had been eating my feelings. It wasn't just shakes, but other sweets and fatty foods that gave me momentary release from the pain.  I knew what I had been doing, but never did anything to stop it.  I knew exercise would have helped, but I chose to go the other way and ate and ate and ate.  Maybe it was comfort in a full belly or that tired feeling that helped was taking away the anxiety.  Regardless of the reason, I knew it was time to make a change.

The rational part of my brain told me to get off my ass and exercise, which I did. Once track season was over, I used my down time to run, or I took Earl the Fat Corgi for walks.  However, the emotional part of my brain told me that the exercise was helping, but not enough, and if I wasn't going to drown my pain in milkshakes, then I needed something else.  Enter whiskey.

I have never been one to down shot after shot. In my younger, dumber days, I was not above taking a slug straight from a bottle to prove just how stupid macho I was, but I never developed a taste for hard liquor until later in life.  I began with vodka chilled, and moved on to brown liquors, particularly whiskey.  I developed a taste for single malt Scotch and single barrel whiskey.  I also learned to appreciate sipping rather than shooting it.  I discovered that it took a while for me to down a couple of fingers of my favorite brown water either neat or on the rocks.  Often I would take my drink to the back yard where I could sit by myself and be alone with my thoughts.  Unfortunately, when those thoughts turned to Peyton, the drink went down a little faster in order to dull the pain.  What ever brief respite I got from the emotional pain would vanish soon enough, and the pain would be back, often with a vengeance.

I finally decided I needed to concentrate more on ways to deal with my pain that didn't make me fat or kill brain cells.  First of all, I went back into therapy. I know this is not something I can go though alone.  I tried therapy once, but felt that I had gotten as far as I could with that therapist and stopped, but as time moved on, I realized I needed more.  I threw myself into my writing, especially this blog. It gave me not only an outlet for my pain, but a platform to call out what I see as problems in our society deal with mental illness and suicide, especially in schools.  I also escaped into books.  The writings of Brad Thor, Brad Taylor, Ace Atkins, and others allowed me to not only escape into another world, but to hone my own style as a writer.  I submerged myself into Netflix, especially DareDevil,  Jessica Jones, The Flash, Arrow, and Peyton's favorite The Walking Dead.  When I spend my time hoping Pike Logan will save the world, or will Quinn Colson keep law and order in Tibbehah County, or who Negan was beating up during the season finale, I don't delve into the pain.

I made the mistake of letting my grief get away from me the first time.  I don't plan on allowing that to happen again.  My heart and my liver can't handle it to begin with.  If I take care of myself physically, it actually helps with the mental aspect of recovery.  Yes,  there are times I spend too much time reading or watching TV, but the alternative is worse.  I still grieve on a daily basis.  Not all days are good, and not all days are bad.  On the bad days, I try to find a constructive way to take away the pain.  I read, write, or watch.  It's not perfect, but I know by now that whiskey and milkshakes don't dull the pain.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

An Open Letter to YouTube/Google: Suicide Pranks Are Not Funny

Dear YouTube/Google:

My name is David James.  I am a teacher and coach at College Park High School in The Woodlands, Texas.  First of all, I want to thank you for both your vast reserves of videos as well as your search engine.  I have made use of both religiously in my classroom over the years.  Whether it is finding a simple video to explain the concepts of the American Naturalistic Movement or an extensive list of the writings of Edgar Allan Poe.  Needless to say, both are invaluable resources.

However, the other day, I saw the downside of YouTube.  In order to understand, I need to give you some backstory.  On October 8, 2014, my 13 year old son hanged himself from a ceiling fan at his mother's house in Georgetown, Texas.  Despite all efforts, he was pronounced brain dead on October 13, 2014.  Since that day, I have been working tirelessly to prevent any other family from having to experience what I have lived with since that day, and that brings me to the point of this letter.

On May 20th, I received a text from a friend of mine.  She wanted to share something with me, but was afraid that it would upset me.  She said it was a link her daughter said had been making the rounds at her high school.  I convinced her that it would be ok, that after everything that I have dealt with in the past year, and a half, nothing could shock me, but I was wrong.  I went to the link and discovered it was a YouTube video by a person who refers to himself as Riceman entitled "Suicide by Hanging Prank on Mom!"  Needless to say, I was appalled and disgusted by what I saw.  In the video, Riceman thinks it will be a hoot to pretend to hang himself and let his mother think he had actually hanged himself.  What could possibly go wrong with this idea?  After all, when his mother walked in, she feinted.  Hahahaha...not.

Immediately, I flagged the video and sent a complaint to YouTube asking them to take this video down.  I then posted to social media asking others to follow course hoping that this video would be taken down.  The post was shared, and complaints were made, but as of today, the video continues to stay up on Riceman's channnel along with other classics in which he tries to lure children into a van, get black people to attack him, or tell people on  a campus that he is going to shoot them.

Please understand things from the point of view of myself and many others out there.  I lost a loved one to suicide, as have numerous others out there.  Last year, close to 43,000 people lost their lives to suicide, and on average, each suicide affects roughly 6 people intimately.  That means that roughly 258,000 people in the US are deeply affected every year.  You may also take into consideration that for every successful suicide, as many as 25 people attempt suicide.  For some one such as Riceman to make fun of something such as suicide, and for YouTube to allow it is just not acceptable.

I went to the YouTube policy page and read your policies on Harmful or Dangerous content in order to see what it would take for a video to be age-restricted to removed.  Your polices are:

  • Whether the act in question could lead to serious injury or death.
  • Whether the individuals participating in the act are trained professionals taking all necessary precautions to prevent injury.
  • Whether the act could be easily imitated by minors.
  • Whether the content could be used to commit serious acts of violence.
  • Whether the upload is educational, documentary, scientific or artistic in nature.
First of all, yes, this is an act that could lead to death, especially by minors (see third bullet point).  I have been a teacher for 25 years, and it is rare to meet a teen ager that doesn't see themselves as ten feet tall and bullet proof.  It wouldn't take much for this prank to go wrong.  Second, I am guessing that Riceman is not a trained professional, and he sure as hell isn't taking precautions to avoid injuries.  He is putting himself in positions where he could do irreparable harm to himself and others, and once again, easily imitated by minors.  But the final, and perhaps most important point, his video is just plain insulting.  Hanging accounts for 235 of all suicides, and is fatal in 90% of the attempts. For Riceman to make it a joke is just adding insult to injury for those of us that have lost loved ones to suicide.  Many of us have suffered in the wake of the death of our loved ones, and have a hard enough time  getting though our day to day lives.  The fact that people not only make these videos, but that others watch them, just heaps on the suffering.  

I grew up watching shows such as Candid Camera and America's Funniest Home Videos, but there is a difference between a carefully orchestrated joke or prank, and an untrained amateur with a video camera, no common sense, and a lack of moral decency.  I understand that people such as Riceman have a right to make these videos, just as you, a private company has the right to allow on your site as long as they meet your "standards".  You can age-restrict it, or put a disclaimer or warning at the beginning of the video, but we all know those are as worthless as travel brochures in a coffin. I am imploring you to take into consideration the thousands of people that are suffering in their day to day lives living with the death of a loved one to suicide.

I am appealing to YouTube and Google on a personal level.  Please remove not only Riceman's suicide prank videos, but all of them.  My recent Google search turned up almost 600,000 results with just "youtube suicide prank".  That is just too damn much.  Survivors of suicide have suffered enough in our lives without having to fear finding these videos, and some people need to be protected from themselves.  I also Googled "suicide prank goes wrong" and came back with almost 400,000 hits.

YouTube, the benefits of a site such as yours are immeasurable, and the benefits to society are many, but have you truly considered the risks.  You can tell people that "You don't have to watch it if it offends you," and many won't.  Unfortunately, you know as well as I that some of these videos are soul crushing, painful reminders for people.  it is for them that I am asking you to take them down. Thank you.

David James

Sunday, May 15, 2016

We Treat The Body But Not The Mind

If you don't think your anxiety, depression, sadness and stress impact your physical health, think again. All of these emotions trigger chemical reactions in your body, which can lead to inflammation and a weakened immune system. Learn how to cope, sweet friend. There will always be dark days. -Kris Carr, New York Times Best selling author

Last week, I was honored to speak at a community forum about suicide and mental health.  Our community has experienced a rash of suicides, including two students, and close to 2,000 people attended.  After the forum, I spoke with some of those that attended and told me their stories very similar to mine.  They had lost a child, or had one battling mental illness.  I wasn't able to talk with everyone, and handed out my card to others asking them to call or email me.

One of the emails I received was from John* asking me to call him to speak about his daughter. Because it was Mother's Day weekend, I had to put it off a few days when I did get a hold of him, he was most anxious to talk.  It seems young daughter Nancy* began to deal with the symptoms of depression and anxiety during the fall of her freshman year of high school.  By January, Nancy, a child that had just been moved up to the varsity swim team, was barely able to leave her room.
Her father was near tears as he told me this. It has to be hard, as a parent, to see your once vibrant child reduced to a shadow of their former self.

As we continued to talk, he made a comment that struck home.  He asked why a school will have three athletic trainers to fix an athlete's body to get them back on the field, but no one to fix their mind to get them back in the classroom.   He made a good point.  Many of the larger schools in Texas have athletic trainers on the staff.  They treat athletic, (as well as band, drill team, and cheer leading injuries), and are a blessing, especially at lower income schools where many student athletes don't have access to sports medicine.  Don't get me wrong, as a coach, I am grateful for the training staff at our school.  They do an incredible job, and treat all athletes, regardless of sport, equally, and because of them, our student athletes are able to compete at a high level.

But what about the students that are injured mentally?  What is being done for them?  I know schools have guidance counselors on campus, but how many are sufficiently trained to handle students with severe mental health issues, and just like any other profession from teaching, to chefs, to knife throwers, there are those that are good, and those, eh, not so much.

When I look at the faculty roster for a random high school, there are three people listed as Diagnostician/Psychological Assoc., but after further research, that means they hold the title Licensed Specialist in School Psychology (LSSP) An LSSP will evaluate kids for Special Education (SPED) using testing materials much like a psychologist, but they are generally not a school psychologist, as that requires a Doctorate according to Texas state law. An LSSP is trained to evaluation children and adolescents’ behavioral, emotional, and social functioning in order to help them succeed academically. An LSSP can provide direct services such as behavioral interventions; therapy; consultation with teachers, parents and other professionals; and make recommendations for whether or not a child might qualify for special education services. In addition, the LSSP may only provide services in a school and not outside.  According to the job description I found on several district websites, the majority of LSSp's are generally in special education, and do not counsel most students. Once again, I am not trying to diminish the work of an LSSP.  Theirs is a nonstop job of meetings, consultations, evaluations, and the reams of paper work that the state and districts require.

I went to several district websites and accessed the student/parent handbook.  This used to go home every year, but is now available on line for easy access provided you have internet access.  Of the ones that mentioned suicide, they all had, word for word, the same statement:
Suicide Awareness: The district is committed to partnering with parents to support the healthy
mental, emotional, and behavioral development of its students. If you are concerned about your
child, please access or contact the school counselor for
more information related to suicide prevention services available in your area.  
It is though they have a one size fits all approach to the issue, if they even approach the topic.
Unfortunately, there were several multi-school 6A districts that made no mention of suicide in their handbook.

Take some time to look over the staff roster for your child's district.  You will see teachers listed as the Intervention Specialist, the Response to Intervention Support Teacher, the Student Success Teacher, Psychological Associates, Counselors, LSSP's, and Professional Athletic Trainers.  All are there for your kids.  All have their best interests at heart, but how many are there when your child has issues beyond grades, standardized tests, or sprained ankles?  Isn't it time school districts devoted time and money to mental, as well as physical health?  As a tax payer, you have a say in how things are done in your district.  Attend board meetings, rally other parents, talk to the board members you elected.  If they are going to spend money to treat an athlete's body, then they can spend the money to treat your child's mind

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Speech at Community Forum: Taming the Beast

On May 4, 2016, I presented to a community forum in The Woodlands, Texas to address the growing suicide problem in the Woodlands and surrounding community.  This is the speech I gave.  

Good evening and thank you for coming tonight. My name is David James.    I'm a teacher and coach at College Park High School, the founder of #Products4Peyton, and an advocate for the #PeytonHeartProject, but most important, I am the father of my forever 13 year old son Peyton James.  I truly wish that none of us were here, but unfortunately, that's  not the case.

On October 8, 2014, I received the phone call every parent dreads.  I was sitting in my truck about to leave work when my phone rang.  I looked at the caller ID and saw it was Jacki, Peyton's mother and my ex-wife.  I thought about ignoring the call and letting it go to voice mail. I had already had a bad day, it was late, and I didn't want to deal with any more drama at that moment, but something made me answer.
All she said was, "David, you need to speak to this police officer,"  In the second it took for her to hand the phone over, my mind raced through several scenarios from "there has been an accident" to "Peyton's temper has finally gotten the best of him."

The officer took the phone "Sir, this is Officer So and So (I remember so many details of that day, but names still elude me) of the Georgetown Police Department.  Peyton James has hung himself."  With those five words, my world turned upside down forever.

I sat in my truck, in that empty parking lot, momentarily stunned, listening to the rain pound on the roof  before I completely lost it.  I screamed, yelled, beat on the steering wheel and the roof of the cab with all my might.  I bargained with God and offered my life for Peyton's, but to no avail.  I managed to compose myself long enough to call my wife to come and get me, but after that, I lost all control until she arrived and was able to console me.

That night, my wife Lisa, daughter Emmalee, and I traveled through the rain, traffic, and darkness to Dell Children's Medical Center in Austin to be by Peyton's bedside, but despite the heroic efforts of everyone from first responders to the incredible doctors, nurses and staff at the hospital, Peyton's injuries proved too severe.  He was declared brain dead at 12:02 AM on October 13, 2014, and was laid to rest six days later.

Like many survivors of suicide, I wanted to know why my son would take his own life.  At first I looked to bullying. Peyton had reported another student at his school for harassment the day before, and it had been a constant in Peyton's since elementary school.  His red hair, freckles, glasses and small stature made him an easy target, and more than once it took the threat of legal action to get his schools to take action. While it may have been a reason, it wasn't the cause.

Because Peyton's death was a suicide, an autopsy was required.  When we received the results from the Travis County Medical Examiner it listed suicide as the cause, but I wasn't satisfied.  I wanted to know why my son would choose to end his life.  It was then that I began to do my own research. Like many in today's society, I typed "causes of suicide" into Google.  I read, and I read,  and I read.  What I discovered is that 90% of the people that complete suicide are dealing with some kind of mental illness, many times undiagnosed and untreated. I learned that the most common mental illness, depression is the cause of over two-thirds of the reported suicides in the U.S. each year. I also learned that untreated depression is the number one risk for suicide among youth, it is the third leading cause of death in 15 to 24 year olds,  and the fourth leading cause of death in 10 to 14 year olds.  In Peyton's case, it was depression and anxiety.  Once you add in severe ADHD and the bullying, you have a perfect storm in the head of a person without the coping skills to deal with it. The crippling emotional pain he lived with, that allowed him to believe that death was the answer and that his family would be better off without him, had all became too much for him to deal with on that October afternoon.

When Peyton was 10 or 11, he began telling us that he "wished he were dead" or he "should just kill himself", and at first we thought it was just a was to deflect the trouble he was in or a way to seek attention.  He continued with the threats until one night his mother called him on it and took him to the emergency room.  He wasn't admitted that night, but through his pediatrician, and a psychiatrist, was diagnosed with depression and anxiety at the age of 12.  He started taking medication and attending counseling, and seemed to be improving until that fateful day.

As parents, his mother and I did everything we could, but it wasn't enough.  That's the thing with mental illness, you never know what the breaking point will be.  It's like an empty glass.  When the glass is empty, things are fine, but when you add in other stressors: grades but I studied so hard, bullying you're a little pussy, pressure to succeed how will you get into a good college with grades like this, divorce Daddy is going to go live some where else, death Papa went to be with God this morning, siblings I'm telling Mommy, parents I said turn off the damn TV and do your homework, the glass gets fuller and fuller to the point that all it takes is one or two drops to over flow.

Unfortunately, I know quite a bit about depression.  I have battled the Beast since I was a teenager.  I had always known that there was something wrong with me emotionally, but I never knew what.  It wasn't until my late 30's that I finally addressed the issue.  There were many reasons I waited that long.  I grew up in an age where it was "just a phase", and there was so little known about mental illness that information was not readily available.  I thought it was something that I could deal with on my own,or that it would go away eventually, but most of all was that I feared coming forward and admitting there was a problem.  The stigma of mental illness was, and still is, a hard one to over come. Once I sought treatment, I learned how to tame the Beast and keep it under control.  That was until Peyton's suicide, and now we do battle daily.

So what is it like to battle the Beast?  The biggest challenge I face every day is getting out of bed. When the alarm goes off in the morning (although I am usually awake and full of dread long before that), I have to decide if I am going to face my demons, or give in and call in sick.  I take my medication that is supposed to help, and I have no doubt that it does help, because the Beast hasn't taken over yet.  I go through my morning routine, pour my coffee, and get in my truck for the drive to work.  Some days I hope that some one will rear end me or t-bone me and put me in the hospital for a few days. Others I wish my daughter was sick. Any legitimate  excuse to stay home because  I refuse to let the Beast win and make me stay home.  I will not give in to it, and I will let it dictate my life.

At work, the same student behavior that I used to find humorous or just ignore, now pisses me off. "This is stupid" or "I don't want to do this," hit me like hot needles under my nails.  I want to scream "You have opportunities my son never will!  Shut up and take advantage of those chances instead of bitching about it," but instead, I just a take a deep breath, look at the clock, bite my tongue, and count the minutes left.

I hear snippets of conversations in the halls about parties, drugs, and alcohol, and wonder, "Are they trying to tame the Beast?"  If they are, they're going about it the wrong way, as so many of their generation does, but because the Beast has become "He who shall not be named," in the "not my child" era they use what is available instead of what is proper.

When I'm at home, there are times I'll binge watch Netflix, play XBox, or lose myself in a book rather than face life because all around me are reminders of Peyton, who he was, and who he never will be.  I want to hold my daughter close and never let go, but she is too much like her brother, and can't sit still.  At bed time, I rely on Ambien to sleep, otherwise the anxiety of what has or might happen keeps poking at my brain until the wee hours of the morning.

Depression has many symptoms:
  • Feeling lethargic -- having no energy
  • The inability to concentrate
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Feeling worthless, hopeless,  helpless, negative or pessimistic
  • Losing interest in activities that you previously enjoyed
  • Crying frequently
  • Withdrawing from others
  • Neglecting personal appearance
  • Feeling angry or guilty
  • Unable to think clearly or make decisions

If any of these symptoms apply to you or some one you know, and last more than two weeks, I beg of you, please seek help.  If you were had the flu, or a constant, nagging headache, or trouble breathing, you would seek medical help. The same goes for your emotions.  Begin with your family doctor and go from there. They can refer you to the appropriate mental health professionals if necessary. Depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder are all illnesses just like cancer and diabetes, and should be treated as such.

You also need to follow the course of treatment that is recommended.  Up to 80% of those treated for depression show an improvement in their symptoms generally within four to six weeks of beginning medication, psychotherapy, attending support groups or a combination of these treatments. If that means medication, then take the medication.  If it means counseling, then go to counseling.  There is no shame in either.  If the first medication doesn't work, try another.  If you don't click with your first therapist, find another. Just like any other illness, there is no "one size fits all" approach. What ever you do, don't give up or give in to the Beast.

If you needed chemotherapy or dialysis, would you refuse to go because you are worried about what the neighbors or your family might say?  Hell no, you would attack the illness head one, get a hold of it, fight it, and do what ever is necessary to defeat it.  Just like any other illness, it will take time, there will be missteps,  back slides, good days, bad days, and worse days.  You will want to give up. You will want to give in, but don't. As the Scottish poet Dylan Thomas powerfully states, and I have tattooed on my arm to remember:
     Do not go gentle into that good night.
     Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Fight it like your life depends on it, because in the end, it very well might.

Good night Boo.  Daddy loves you very much.

Thank you.