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.