Beyond Bullying: Suicide of a Friend

Some of you are probably wondering why I ended my life, some of you are probably angry at me, and some of you probably don’t care. I think it’s pretentious to write a suicide note, but it seems to be the thing to do.

— Ryan, ; September 2005

NOTE: ; This has been cross posted at Pam’s House Blend. ; There are comments there which you may find interesting.

Ryan

I first met Ryan in 2001. We went on a few dates and then settled into a friendship. As fellow geeks, we had many common interests. We’d hang out, showing off our newest gadgets (remember the Nokia N-Gage?), debating the religious arguments like vi vs. Emacs, and tabs vs. spaces and watching Star Trek over Ezell’s Fried Chicken. We saw each other every so often, and we always had fun together. Ryan was sweet, smart, handsome, well read. Professionally, he was successful, having worked at prominent technology companies. ; He owned his own condo, had a very Seattle eco-friendly car. He was well liked by a lot of people.

Gone

In September 2005, I was driving home from work, just about ; to get onto the 520 bridge to Seattle, when my phone rang. I answered it without looking. ; A woman’s voice asked is this Josh Cohen? Yes, I replied. Not recognizing the number I figured she was some telemarketer, a call I should have just ignored.

This is Ryan’s mother. Ryan took his life last night…

It hit me like a ton of bricks. I honestly couldn’t tell you the exact words she said after that, but it seemed like she was reading from a script. Roughly, she said that Ryan had put my name on a list of people to call to let them know and to give information about services, as well as a site and letter he had left to be published on the internet. Always the geek.

Can you imagine being a parent who must go through a list of people, a list I suspect was not short, and call each one to tell them this grim news about your child? It had to be unbearable. ;

I hung up the phone. I couldn’t believe it. Ryan? Really? WTF?

I still had his text messages in my phone. I thought back to the last time we’d talked, less than two weeks prior. He had let me know that he would not be attending the upcoming Human Rights Campaign dinner. He gave an explanation about suddenly not feeling political and offered the usual debate about these kinds of events. I’d gotten annoyed with him and we’d argued. I felt sad then—and still do—that our last conversation was an argument. Since then, I’ve made it a priority to rebuild my relationships with those I’ve fought with. Life is short.

I called his cell. Part of me hoped he’d answer, that this was some sort of prank. Really, deep down, I knew it wasn’t. I figured it would go to voicemail and I wanted to hear his voice. I did. He sounded happy.

I drove home in silence. I went online to see what he had left.

In the last month and a half, I’ve woken up every morning and cried. I cry partly because I wake up at all and partly because I am in so much emotional pain.

When I’ve thought of suicide in the past it has been more of a passing thought — just an option. Two months ago I began to think about it again but more seriously. I spent a month searching for a reason to stay alive, watching people, traveling, thinking, trying to distract myself. I couldn’t find a good reason and began to feel like more of an outsider as I watched happy people going about their happy lives. I spent the next month planning the details of my suicide while trying to appear as normal as possible. I simply began to disengage from life. — Ryan

As time passed, we learned more. He was a clever guy. It turned out, of course, that the real reason he was canceling plans was because he knew he’d be gone. The HRC dinner was the weekend immediately after his death. That was a very weird night. Just in case you are wondering: No, I never seriously considered that our argument contributed to his death.

Ryan was a great project manager. The police were able to analyze his computer. He’d researched suicide and books on the topic, including ways to do it. He picked his chosen method and ordered the necessary supplies. He’d laid out his plans in secret and had instructions for everything he wanted to happen after he was gone.

The next few weeks were messy — services, memorials, and a lot of pain. Ryan was well liked by many in the Seattle community, and lots of people showed up. For me, and I suspect for many of us, this was the first time someone we had known intimately had committed suicide. Why would someone with so much going for them take their own life?

Ryan wasn’t a teenager, he was an adult. So he was able to articulate his feelings well.

I have never liked myself. When I look at myself in the mirror I see only flaws. When I am out in public, I compare myself to everyone I see and never measure up. I feel completely and totally crippled by my insecurities. Why would anyone ever want to love me when I can’t even love myself? — Ryan

It’s painful to read his words. I feel sad that he could not escape those feelings of unworthiness and realize the truth about what a wonderful person he was. At the same time, I get a pit in my stomach. As I walk though what he says, and I’m sure many of you will feel the same way, ; sometimes we have felt the feelings Ryan felt. Those feelings are within us that come from the wounds of past times. While we are able to overcome those wounds enough to see alternatives, there are others that ultimately made the same tragic decision as Ryan:

There is very unfortunate news today as yet another young gay man has taken his own life. Twenty-six-year-old Joseph Jefferson of Brooklyn, New York reportedly committed suicide on Saturday by hanging; friends and associates of the former gay youth activist and HIV peer educator tell Rod 2.0.

Why is it that after so many years we still suffer from these wounds and in some cases kill ourselves?

;

Loser!

It’s been about five years since Ryan’s death and I hadn’t thought much about it until I started reading about the seemingly endless string of teen LGBT suicides. We don’t know how long this has been going on, but what has changed is that they are being reported and we know that the victims were LGBT.

In the past, people would just say things like “Man up!” or “Don’t be a wuss!” to boys. Now we know a lot more about bullying and how much damage it can cause.

Bullying is a form of abuse. It involves repeated acts over time attempting to create or enforce one person’s (or group’s) power over another person (or group) , thus an “imbalance of power”. The “imbalance of power” may be social power and/or physical power. –Wikipedia: Bullying

;

Bullies need to maintain power over others to prevent situations that are a threat to them. However, those situations are not really a threat to them. Bulling us just a form of abuse. It’s about the same thing: power. In order to secure that power, they employ abusive tactics.

Bullying consists of three basic types of abuse – emotional, verbal and physical. It typically involves subtle methods of coercion such as psychological manipulation. – Wikipedia: Bullying

We’re all too familiar with how this plays out in the schoolyard. However, these kinds of abusive behaviors are not confined to the schoolyard and neither is the harm that they cause others.

In domestic or family relationships it can mean forced to sacrifice basic human, emotional and sometimes our physical needs to serve the bully’s need for power. ; ; Persistent psychological manipulation tactics like invalidating verbal abuse, emotional blackmail, ; ; scolding, or others to beat down a person into sacrificing their needs.

In professional or academic situations it can mean using these tactics to take tasks or opportunities away from us because we are seen as a competitive threat rather than a potential collaborator. It can also mean being harassed for pointing out a mistake on the bully’s behalf.

A key distinction here is that the bully’s primary concern is power for themselves rather than the well-being of all involved. Why is it that they are in pursuit of this power imbalance?

Bullying types of behavior are often rooted in a would-be bully’s inability to empathize with those whom he or she would target. –Wikipedia: Bullying

It is their own inner issues that cause them to need this power, and they are so focused on maintaining that power imbalance that they are blinded to the harm they are causing. To do so, that would require empathizing with something that they perceive as an attack on themselves. To them, their actions are in self-defense.

This post is the first in a series exploring the following questions:

  • Why does someone become a bully?
  • What are the wounds we suffer as a result of being bullied?
  • How do those wounds affect our behavior later in life?
  • How do we stand up against this abusive behavior?

Ammunition

In order to create that power imbalance, bullies need ammunition. Religion based bigotry is a major source of that against LGBT people.

More than a million LGBT teens are suffering debilitating depression because their families and religious institutions see them as deviants. Suicide rates amongst LGBT youth are four times higher than those of heterosexual youth.

LGBT people are victims of discrimination and bigotry, which are often justified and promoted by religious teaching that says homosexuality is immoral, sinful or abominable. – Faith in America

The best way to help combat these shame inducing messages that can debilitate our community is to educate people. The best resource I know of is Faith In America. If you want to join in the fight to end this, please make a donation. https://www.faithinamerica.org/donate/

While religion based bigotry plays a widespread role in bullying, it is not the only fuel. People of all types are bullied and ostracized for a variety of reasons. People are made to feel not good enough. Not masculine enough. Not feminine enough. Not thin enough. Not pretty enough. Not smart enough. Not cool enough. Not Good Enough. Loser! Fag! Unworthy.

The mechanism of bullying is the gun and dismissive messages of unworthiness are the ammunition. When these are present and driven by a bully, we the target are forced to submit to a power imbalance and accept that we are unworthy. ;

Being exposed to the combination of the ammunition of invalidating or dismissive messages, the gun that is the mechanism of abuse, and the bullies who pull the trigger is what drives us down the path of unworthiness. If we are driven far enough, we end up in a box.

All the parts of the combination need to be addressed. ; What I’m focused on is the mechanism, the gun and why people pull the trigger.

These experiences can result in a chronic sense of unworthiness. We become timid and afraid to assert who we are and protect ourselves, our basic needs, our self-esteem, and our physical and emotional well-being. We honor their needs at the expense of our own. We aren’t worthy enough to deserve it. We abuse ourselves. Sometimes we abuse ourselves to death.

The Inner Conflict

When people of faith understand they are causing harm, it creates a conflict or question – can causing such harm to others exist comfortably with the core faith principles of love and compassion? That inner conflict will be resolved in two ways:

  1. Avoidance that results in unresolved inner conflict; or
  2. Analysis and reconsideration of their attitude or belief.

http://www.faithinamerica.org/bigotry/

The inability to resolve this conflict leads to both the tendency to abuse others as well as to abuse themselves. The avoidance is also what inhibits them from empathizing with those whom they abuse.

To be clear, the underlying need to abuse is not caused by religious messages. Those messages are just ammunition for abusers’ unresolved inner conflict that they direct at others. ; ; That is why the focus needs to be on the behavior, not the people themselves.

This inner conflict can be caused by any number of factors. To understand how this conflict emerges we can look at ourselves. Our community is just like any other. We have our fair share of conflicted people who take that out in the form of abusing others or themselves. It’s easy to be angry at those who do, but they are not unique. In fact, it is often the result of invalidating messages early in life that breed this conflict within us.

The next part will explore the roots of this conflict: Unlovable

Making us feel like shit

My experiences in high school left me deeply scarred. I came away from those years feeling fundamentally broken and not good enough. I always thought I could shake those feelings in adulthood, and have learned various techniques to distract myself from them, but they still haunt me. As much as I’ve tried to rid myself of certain feelings I can’t shake the idea that I’m not good enough and that I am unlovable. — Ryan

Like many, I have had my own experiences of being exposed to dismissive messages that made me feel not good enough. While I’ve never considered suicide an option, I do have moments where those thoughts of unworthiness haunt at me.

In grade school I got beat up a few times by a bunch of classmates, egged on by the neighborhood bully. One girl called me ugly in front of others. I got harassed for being a band fag. I couldn’t wait to get contact lenses to put Four Eyes behind me. These experiences made me feel like shit.

I came out of the closet in college. Well, outed might be a better description. A little sister of my fraternity, was the best friend of my last girlfriend, who was upset when I disappeared. Unknown to me, she spotted me and my first boyfriend coming out of the local gay bar. She told our fraternity’s executive board. I got a private visit from the board to discuss the situation and set the record straight (pardon the pun). I told them the truth, in tears. I was still at the point where saying I am gay was so difficult. A special house meeting was called, ostensibly for the purpose of telling the house, and for the brothers to figure out how to mitigate any embarrassment the fraternity would experience on campus that would affect rush where we recruited new members.

fireI was an RA in a freshman dorm. Prior to coming out, I was viewed as positive example for the fraternity, — an asset for someone with access to freshmen. After this, to some I was an embarrassment. Luckily, as an RA, as well as a volunteer firefighter, I was on friendly terms with people high in the university administration and local police. So when I got threatening messages, I had lots of support. At the fire department, the response was mixed. In private, there were gossip and the ridiculous concern about whether or not people could trust me backing them up on a hose-line in a fire. I will say that that to his credit, the chief a man I had never seen exhibit much affinity toward me, pushed back on homophobic discrimination. I stuck with my fraternity, and over time had a positive impact on—and got props from—the brothers I least expected. Over time I disengaged from the fire department. I miss being a firefighter.

My parents always taught my sister and I that we should never be ashamed of being Jewish. No matter what, if you got asked if you were Jewish, regardless of the consequences you say yes. Always. You don’t hide your identity.

However, when I chose to be open about my identity as being gay, my parents were not pleased. I was forbidden from telling the extended family. I was put in a position where I could not be open about who I was. I wouldn’t go for that. I didn’t want to have to lie when my grandmother asked “Do you have a girlfriend?” So when a tech job opportunity that involved a move to the west coast came along, I jumped at it.

I’m sure many reading this post have had similar experiences. They leave wounds. And those wounds stick around for a long time. Even decades later, when I would drive to my parents’ house, I would pass that girl’s house, the grade-schooler in me blurts out, Bitch! I am not ugly! Then I laugh to myself at how long that message stayed with me.

Shame

The truth is that we grew up disabled. Not disabled by our homosexuality, but emotionally disabled by an environment that taught us we were unacceptable, not “real” men and therefore, shameful. As young boys, we too readily internalized those strong feelings of shame into a core belief: I am unacceptably flawed. – The Velvet Rage

In order to develop a strong sense of self, you need authentic validation from your environment. You may be saying to yourself, “I don’t need external approval.” Demanding that we, as LGBT people, be treated as equals (validating) and not as unworthy (invalidating) is not the same thing. Validation is a basic psychological need. It can be something simple as having your partner acknowledge that they are listening to what your concerns. It can very significant like not being treated like second class citizens. Being constantly bombarded with invalidating messages makes us feel broken and shameful of our identity.

A story from a friend of mine, Michael, illustrates this:

When I was 15 I was walking home one evening. I was just minding my own business, wasn’t provocatively dressed or doing anything other than just…walking. And then the car pulled up and before I knew what was happening the passenger door was open and two of them were on the pavement, egged on by the others, all of them hurling insults about how this wasn’t a “faggot neighborhood” and who did I think I was showing my “faggot ass” in public and I should just be killed — everyone would be better off.

Some porch lights flicked on; someone opened a screen door. The boys retreated in a shift of gears and a squeal of tires, but the damage had been done. They hadn’t beaten me up, but they’d pummeled me psychologically. Because all I could think was, “How? How did they know?” Which immediately downshifted into, “We have to work harder. We’re not hiding this well enough. They can SEE through us. They KNOW.”

I was so deeply ashamed of the truth I was just beginning to grapple — I was gay — that their terrorizing me only fed into justifying the self-loathing that growing up in an intolerant working-class family had already ingrained in me. It’s all your fault, I thought. If you were just more masculine, beefier, had a deeper voice, WALKED differently–they wouldn’t be able to see you.

Ten minutes later I walked into my house. “Everything go ok at the store?” my mother asked. “You were gone a while.”

“Fine,” I said.

To me, removing these invalidating messages is why the Repeal of DADT and attaining Marriage Equality are so important. LGBT people should be able to be open about their identity and treated as equals. It is these invalidating messages of inequality which we deserve to have eradicated.

Society in general and bullies use this ammunition to make us feel shame. ; In response, we find ways to hide from that shame, sometimes in dangerous ways. ;

Next part: ; Hiding From Shame.

Hiding from the Shame

[This disability] crippled our sense of self and prevented us from following the normal, healthy stages of adolescent development. We were consumed with the task of hiding the fundamental truth of ourselves from the world around us and pretending to be something we weren’t. At the time, it seemed the only way to survive. – The Velvet Rage

As a gay person in a world where we are viewed as shameful, we learn to hide the characteristics about us that might reveal our gayness. We are pretending to be straight. We are a superhero with a hidden identity. Even if we’re not gay, the childhood experiences of being teased for whatever reason, lead us to develop an alternative identity. We make a series of decisions about our identity, some authentic and others inauthentic.

We find activities and groups that validate our identity and talents. I was a computer nerd from grade school. I would rather be sitting at home on my computer than playing sports. I had my dad take me to the local computer club meetings. We schlepped the computer gear over to the meetings at the library. Other kids did the same. We traded software. We showed off the programs we wrote. We bragged about our choice of computer. There weren’t Macs or PCs yet. Some of us had Ataris, some Commodores, some Apple ][s. I had an Atari 800. We all got along.

Instead of being made fun of for our interests, there was mutual respect. I belonged. This was authentic validation.

Inauthentic Validation

Sometimes rather than follow our true interests, we find things that will counterbalance the things that we are made fun of.

The first early example of this is an attempt to pass as straight. We may not even be conscious of the fact that we’re gay or that we’re pretending to be something we’re not. We may date girls or follow our straight friends’ leads. Eventually, we realize that we’d rather spend time with Tom rather than Sally or that we’re not getting the same excitement from sex as our peers do. We are getting positive validation from society, but it is inauthentic. Still, we continue what becomes a charade. We learn that we will receive invalidation if we follow our true interests and become shameful of who we are.

My father was an athlete when he was in high school. He had visions of me doing the same and applied some pressure in that direction. Starting In junior high, I joined the wrestling team. Of all the sports, it was most attractive to me. It required the kind of thinking I liked. It was basically geometry. Our team was one of the better ones in the area, and I performed pretty well. Whenever you won a match, you stuck a tongue depressor on your locker with the name of the guy you beat. I had my collection. I had some athleticism under my belt

It also had some other benefits. I learned how to defend myself. Nobody screwed with the wrestling team. It elevated my social status in school. I wore my uniform with pride. However, it provided inauthentic validation. In hindsight I can see that I was more focused on what it gave me than enjoyment of the activity itself. As a result, I didn’t feel the need to be the best wrestler I could be.

The team was actually quite bully-ish. There were plenty of fag jokes and making fun of people. I didn’t participate but I didn’t do anything to stop it. When a few team mates made fun of the “most likely to be gay” guy, I dared not confront them. I didn’t want to be called a fag. I didn’t care enough about it to continue it in college. Instead I found the EMS and fire departments. This was something I truly enjoyed, was talented at and had the passion to be the best EMT I could be. It provided authentic validation.

It meant going to continuing education, pursuing more advanced certifications, and extra training .

Doing those things, cleaning our unit and wiping the blood and mess off our uniforms to make them perfect again were not work. They were fun. Sitting at home reading computer books or writing programs through the night was intrinsically enjoyable. ; Doing extra training for wrestling was a chore.

We all created our identities to survive. Perhaps you joined the math club, the science club, the band. We went where our true interests drove us and found others like us. We also make inauthentic choices. Perhaps in order to escape being called “fem” we found a way to hyper masculinize yourself.

Our own inner conflict

The truth is that there is nothing wrong at all about being any of those things that we got made fun of for. It’s what makes us “us”. As activists we’re working on creating a world where we are not treated as second class citizens, that we’re not discriminated against because of who we are.

Things are getting better every day. The older you are or the farther you are away from accepting urban environments the more you’ve likely experienced proportionally harsher abusive, dismissive, invalidating messages.

If we’ve been a nerd, perhaps we join the science club or become a math genius. If we’ve been told we’re not cool enough, we make it a priority to be part of the cool crowd. Of course in order to do that, others must be tagged as not cool enough. If we’ve been abused for being “too fem”, maybe we make our identity about being more masculine. If we’re tagged as gay, we do what we need to do to appear straight.

In response to the dismissive and invalidating messages we receive we form postulates about ourselves which we use to define a counterbalancing identity. We then make choices consistent with them, some authentic some not. Some postulates are realistic, some are not. However, we need to do it. We need to escape the shame we feel.

Unfortunately, at a young age our ability to make informed decisions or realistic postulates that form the basis of our identity is limited. We lack experience, wisdom and knowledge that we will gain later in life. As a result as we grow, there is an increasing the gap between those postulates about ourselves, our true identity what we expect the world around us to validate.

I woke up in a motel room in Moscow Idaho about two months ago with the realization that my life had strayed very far from how I always imagined it would be and that I didn’t know how to correct it. I’m not exactly sure how I came to this point but I’m sure that it happened very slowly over a long period of time such that I didn’t notice the changes. — Ryan

This gap generates an inner conflict which, if unresolved, can lead us to much grief. This is similar to the unresolved inner conflict that exists in those who abuse us with religion based bigotry. To understand that conflict and why they behave how they do, we can explore how our own inner conflict can lead us not only to abuse ourselves but also to adopt the same abusive behaviors and bully others. I’ll leave you with this quote:

Levy uses a simple technique. He asks his fellow Israelis: how would we feel, if this was done to us by a vastly superior military power? Once, in Jenin, his car was stuck behind an ambulance at a checkpoint for an hour. He saw there was a sick woman in the back and asked the driver what was going on, and he was told the ambulances were always made to wait this long. Furious, he asked the Israeli soldiers how they would feel if it was their mother in the ambulance – and they looked bemused at first, then angry, pointing their guns at him and telling him to shut up.

— The Independent: Is Gideon Levy the most hated man in Israel or just the most heroic?

Take Action

Being exposed to these invalidating messages in society, from a bully, or from ourselves can lead to prolonged pain and suffering.

Not wanting to hurt my family and friends has kept me alive for a long time, but my pain has become unbearable. Please know that I have finally found the peace that I’ve been searching for for 17 years. — Ryan

No one should have to end up in the situation Ryan ended up in. As a community perhaps we need to embrace the good messages of faith and spend more effort helping others. If you see someone being abused, don’t stand by and do nothing. Standing by is validating their behavior and teaching them that they can continue to do it. They are likely to continue to hurt other people. Take action; Get help for the victim. Bring the situation to the attention of someone in authority or a leader in your community. I don’t want to read another letter like Ryan’s.

Help combat the fuel that bullies use to make us feel like shit. Get involved with or donate to Faith in America. https://www.faithinamerica.org/donate/

If you yourself are in crisis and consider suicide a way out, get in touch with people who can help you find an alternative. Things can get better. Really.

IF YOU ARE IN CRISIS You are not alone!

  • If you live in Washington state, here is a list of places by city and county where you can find help dealing with emotional crisis, get emergency food and shelter, etc.
  • The Trevor Project‘s Trevor Lifeline is a national 24-hour free and confidential toll-free suicide prevention hotline specifically aimed at gay or questioning youth, geared toward helping those in crisis or anyone wanting information on how to help someone in crisis. All calls are handled by trained counselors who are familiar with gay and questioning youth. Phone: 1-866-4-U-TREVOR (1-866-488-7386).
  • A huge list of other toll-free local, national and international hotlines can be found here at the Safe Schools Coalition website.

Thanks to Lurleen on Pam’s House Blend

PS: If you leave comments, please be polite and respectful. ; I’ll be moderating them to ensure this.

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