Sunday, November 3, 2019

I'm Here To Chew Bubble Gum And Stop Suicide

Good morning Warriors, and thank you for coming out today.  My name is David James from the Peyton Heart Project.  I'm here today for two reason, to chew bubble gum and to stop suicide, and I am all out of bubble gum. 
My journey began a little over five years ago about four miles away from here in the parking lot of College Park High School where I worked as an English teacher and swim coach.  My day had begun at about 5:00 AM when I arrived at the school, picked up the shuttle bus, and drove to the natatorium for practice. After a morning practice, a full day of teaching, and an afternoon practice, I went back to the school to make sure that everything was ready to go for my classes the next day.  It had been storming on and off all day hard enough to cancel football practice, so at 5:30 when I walked out the door,  I was not surprised to see my truck by itself in the coaches parking lot as the rain continued to come down. I waited for a break in the downpour , but there was none, so I ran through the rain hitting the unlock button on my key fob, threw my bags onto the passenger seat, and jumped inside.  I sat there listening to the rain beat down on the roof of my truck as I caught my breath and was just about to put the key in the ignition when my phone rang.  I saw it was Jacki, my ex wife and mother of my 13 year old son Peyton.  I answered the phone and all she said, "David, you need to talk to this officer." A man came on and identified himself as an officer with the Georgetown Police Department.  He then told me in a flat, emotionless voice that Peyton James had hung himself. He then handed off the phone to a woman that I believe to be a nurse.  She told me that Peyton was at Seton Medical Center in Round Rock, his condition was critical, and I needed to get there as fast as I could, as time was of the essence.
After hanging up the phone, from some dark place in my body came the most primitive, guttural scream I had ever produced.  I screamed, I yelled, I cried, I slammed my fist into the steering wheel and punched the roof. I had tears streaming down my face, snot running out of my nose, and I didn't care.  I was able to calm down enough to call my wife Lisa to come and get me.  While I waited, I begged and pleaded for God to save Peyton, but if he was intent on taking a soul that day, I volunteered to exchange Peyton's for mine.  Once Lisa picked me up, we picked up my daughter Emmalee from daycare, stopped by the house to grab some clothes and headed for Austin.
Somewhere on the outskirts of Brenham, I received a call that Peyton was being taken by life flight to Dell Children's Hospital in Austin where he would be in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit.  When we arrived, we met with a doctor who told us about the severity of his injuries, a plethora of outcomes, mostly negative, and that the next seventy two hours would be critical.   There was always someone by his bedside, we talked to him, prayed over him, and I continued to bargain with God for his life. Unfortunately, we found out that the damage his body had sustained was too great, and that his brain was dying and he would not survive. Despite the best efforts of the incredible medical staff at Dell, Peyton was declared brain dead on October 13, 2014.  Six days later, on October 19th, we said our final good-byes at his funeral.  
For a while, the support from my family, friends, co-workers, the community, and even total strangers was great, but after a while, everyone got back to their own lives, and I was left to live my "New Normal".
At times, as I knew that no matter how strong I thought I was, I knew that I would need support. At first,  Lisa and I tried a support group for parents who had lost children.  The meeting began with each couple saying their child's name, how old they were, and how they had passed.  The causes of death ranged from illnesses, to accidents, to overdoses.  When it was our turn, and I said that Peyton had taken his own life, it was like the air had been sucked out of the room. I had never felt so judged before in my life. The expressions on their faces made me feel even guiltier than I already did.  It was at that moment that I truly realized the taboo of suicide, and how uncomfortable even the mention of it made some people, but at the same time, I was not going to dishonor my son and his memory by not talking about him and what had happened to him. Sadly, that was not the last time that I would encounter that feeling, but it did help me to realize that educating people and removing the stigma behind suicide and mental health issues would be paramount.  
Even though that support group didn't work out, I was not deterred.  As I am sure far too many of you can relate, I felt alone and lost. It seemed as though no one understood what I was going through, and I needed to find others that not only knew my pain, but had been where I was, could validate my feelings and listen without judging.    
Not too long after, I was contacted by another employee in the district who had lost their child to suicide. She emailed me and told me about a local support group for survivors of suicide loss.  Lisa and I went to our first meeting, and every person there introduced themselves, spoke the name of their loved ones, and how they had taken their life, but this time there was no judgement, just acceptance.  That night, I talked openly and honestly about Peyton to a group of strangers that would become like family to me. We all shared our stories of heartbreak and loss, and comforted one another. I knew I had found where I belonged, that I would keep going back.  At first, I went for help and support, and over time, to help others. 
I want to take a moment to thank my friends Jenny, Linda, Starlet, Tim, Donna, David, and so many others who have helped me over the past five years. They have been rocks for me, but have also given me the strength, support, and encouragement to go out into the community and beyond spreading the Peyton Heart Project's message of suicide awareness and and prevention. 
That is what brings all of us here today.  We are here to honor our loved ones, to end the stigma of suicide, and to support each other. We are here to speak openly and honestly about our loved ones, to proudly say their names, and to tell their stories.  Today we are all part of the largest support group in the Houston area and perhaps the entire state of Texas. 
Whether you are here for the first time, or the tenth, I want you to find someone close by that you have never met before and introduce yourself.  Tell them the name of your loved one. Now, look them in the eye and repeat after me:
  • I am sorry for your loss. 
  • I know what you are going through. 
and most importantly:
  • You are not alone!
Now find another person and do the same thing:               
  • I am sorry for your loss
  • I know what you are going through
  • You are not alone!
Hug each other, cry on each other's shoulders, and let each and every person know they are not alone.  We are here for each other!!!
As you venture out on the walk today, make it a point to greet each other, to share your stories, and to form bonds that will last a lifetime. It is through all of us that AFSP, and organizations like the Peyton Heart Project, Cassidy Joined for Hope, Kindness Matters, and so many others are able to spread their message, to lead us to a a world where mental health issues are treated just like physical health issues, a world where people can talk openly and honestly about how they feel without shame, and most importantly, a world without suicide!!!  

Before I hand the mike over, I want to thank each and every one of you for being here today. Because of you, your loved ones will live on.  On the count of three, I want you to shout out their name loud enough to be heard across the Greater Houston Area, south to Galveston, East to the Sabine River, West to El Paso, North to Amarillo, and straight up to our loved ones in Heaven. Let them know we love them, we are proud of them, and they will never, ever be forgotten. 
One!!!!  Two!!!! Three!!!!

Thank you, and may God bless you. 

Friday, September 27, 2019

For My Birthday, I Want One More Day With Peyton

I decided if you're lucky enough to be alive, you should use each birthday to celebrate what your life is about.- Mary Steenburgen

When I was a kid, I was all about my birthday.  It always  meant cake, ice cream, presents, and a party with all of my friends.  As I got older, it was all about milestones from becoming a teenager, getting my license, being able to drink legally (twice), and a deduction on my car insurance.  Since then, it was each passing decade.  I went from my thirties to my forties and onward.  But now things have changed.  Birthdays don't hold the allure for me that they once did. I have actually gotten to the point that I no longer care to celebrate my birthday. 

On October 18, 2019, I will turn 54 years old, and the other morning, my wife asked me what I wanted for my birthday.  Please understand this, I am a pain in the butt to buy presents for as I already have food in my belly, clothes on my back, and a roof over my head.  If I want something, I tend to go out and get it, and because my tastes are usually Target cheap, there is nothing too expensive I just have to have that I won't buy for myself. The other reason I am hard to buy for is that the one thing I truly want more than anything else can't be bought in a store, ordered from Amazon, or hand made by an artisan craftsman.  I want one more day with my son Peyton.

On October 8, 2014, Peyton, who was only 13 years old, came home from school and hanged himself in his bedroom at his mother's house in Georgetown, Texas. He was rushed to a local hospital, but because of the severity of his injuries, he had to be taken by helicopter to Dell Children's Hospital in Austin.  Despite the best  efforts of the amazing doctors, nurses, and other staff members, Peyton succumbed to his injuries on October 13th.  Five days later, instead of celebrating my 49th birthday, I found myself in a hotel room in Round Rock preparing for his funeral the next day.  The fact that my birthday now falls just five days after the anniversary of the worst day of my life leaves little call for celebration.

During the time that Peyton was in the hospital, I spent as much time as I could with him a he laid in his bed.  I held his hand and talked to him about how much I loved him.  How I would do anything for him to survive his injuries.  I begged him not to leave me.  I apologized for having put work first too many times, for coming home after he was asleep, for being too tired to play, or for splitting up with his mother. I even offered my life for his, but nothing worked.  The last thing I told him before he was declared brain dead was that Daddy loved him very much.

In the days between Peyton's passing and his funeral, my family and I returned to Houston.  On several occasions I drove over to the local church with a cup of coffee, sat by the prayer fountain and talked to Peyton.  I wanted to know why he had decided to take his life.  What had been the defining moment when he finally decided that taking his own life was the solution to what ever was hurting him so badly, if he was safe, if my mother welcomed him, and if he was finally happy.

In the years since his death, I have talked to Peyton's urn that sits on my dresser, to dragon flies and cardinals, to the night sky, to his memorial stone at the Ronald McDonald House, to his marker at his old school, even to the empty passenger of my vehicle as I drive.  I have even spoken with mediums who said that Peyton was speaking to them, and whether it is real or an elaborate hoax, it is not what  what I want.  I just want one more day.

How would I spend that day with Peyton if the chance ever came?  I would begin it with the longest, most bone crushing hug I can imagine. I would take him to Round Rock Donuts for his favorite snack, and just stare at him in amazement.  I would lose count of how many times I told him how much I loved him and missed him.  Most of all, I would tell him that I understand what he did. How I couldn't even begin to imagine how much pain he was in, how the illness that attacked his brain had convinced him that his mother and I would be better off without him had was wrong.  I would tell him about how many people his death has touched, all the lives he has affected and saved, how I tell his story to strangers in order to help them realize how they matter to some one, even if they don't think so. As exciting as this day would be, sadly, the time would come where I had to say good-bye.  Of course, I would try to switch places with him again.  He could return to the world as a 13 year old boy with his whole life in front of him (I have watched Avengers: Endgame too many times).  If the old switcheroo didn't work, then the day would really have to end.  As gut wrenching as this would be, it is still better than the last time I had to say good-bye.  This time, I would be able to look him in the eye, to make sure he understood me, and feel him return the embrace.

I know that I am not alone in feeling this way.  To me a birthday is just another day to remind me that Peyton is never coming back, and I know I am not alone.  There are so many others out there that feel the same way.  Holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and angelversaries, even events that our loved one should be attending such as proms, graduations, and first days of school are all painful reminders for us that we would just as soon ignore.  The pain of losing some one unexpectedly, especially a child, is crippling.  The pain is not just emotional, but physical, and functioning in society after such a loss becomes a chore. When you are constantly faced with reminders, it just seems to make things worse. 

So if you were to ask me what kind of present I want, or where I want to eat, or if I want to do anything special, please don't think me a cotton headed ninny muggins when I say "nothing" or "nowhere". I do appreciate the thought and the concern, and I am not trying to be rude, inconsiderate, or condescending.   I am trying to spare myself any more pain.  Unless you can give me one more day with Peyton, I'd prefer not to celebrate my birthday.  Thank you. 

Friday, May 3, 2019

Pressure Washing, Crying, and The Dance

"How could I have known you'd ever say goodbye"- Garth Brooks, The Dance