I was sitting at Reagan National with my fiancé waiting for our flight to Colombia; a red-eye to Medellin.
Twenty minutes before boarding started, I received a text message.
“Hey man. How are things going,” the message said. It was from my friend Colin. He’s an Army Veteran, having served with 82nd Airborne.
“Good. How are you?” I replied. I had a feeling Colin was looking for help. He’s leaned on me as a confidant in the past after he admitted considering suicide.
He’s become comfortable with talking with me about this because I’ve been there. A while back, about 7-8 years ago, I attempted suicide. I was home on leave and panicked about life. I found a bottle of medication from my parent’s medicine cabinet and washed it down with a bottle of beer. I went to bed unsure if I’d awake. Fortunately, I survived. Since being open about my experience, I’ve had the honor of talking with other people about theirs.
“Ok, I suppose. Hey, weird question that’s kind of out of the blue … how do you or have you dealt with strong desires to end life since your incident?” Colin followed.
It’s amazing how profound and scary the text conversations inside digital green and white bubbles can be.
Suicide prevention is not easy. I’ve been involved in the Veteran space for five years now and have addressed the issue of suicide for much of that. I’ve given talks, hosted podcasts, and have had hundreds of conversations regarding suicide among Veterans.
However, it still isn’t easy. I didn’t know how to respond to Colin’s cry. It made it even harder as I felt guilty. “I should know how to handle this,” I thought.
I suggested that he talk to people. That he talk to anyone about anything. That he get positive human engagement. I knew it was a lazy answer, but I didn’t know how else to respond through text message. So I called him.
We talked for about 15 minutes. We chatted about what was going on in his life and where his feelings were coming from. His marriage was in question and he’s been wondering, “What’s the point?” as it pertains to his life. I continued to give him support. I recommended a number of things like discovering how he can be a better husband, volunteering with an organization like Team Rubicon for a sense of purpose, and I awkwardly told him about the Veterans Crisis Line.
Suicide prevention becomes awkward when the conversation shifts from trying cope with emotional concerns to actively saving someone from suicide. Suggesting ways one can feel better seems noble.
As soon as you make it clear that you feel the person is capable and willing to take his or her own life, it gets awkward. That never goes away, but the awkwardness should never be avoided.
When we hung up, I didn’t know how to feel. We made an agreement to get together when I returned from vacation, but I still felt uneasy about where I left him. I texted him some more encouragement, and asked him to hold on until I get back. I emphasized the importance of the Veterans Crisis Line, and that he should call it when he feels like this. I gave him the number, and reiterated my advice. I asked him to hold on for just 10 more days so we could talk face to face.
“Honestly, I will promise to try,” he texted. “But I can only do that.”
I boarded my plane and found my seat. I was scared. I knew there was more that I could do. I knew there was more that I should do. Thoughts of hearing the news that he had taken his life plagued my head. My eyes swelled. There was no way I could enjoy my trip if I didn’t exhaust all of my resources.
I got my phone out and went to the Veterans Crisis Line website. I saw an online chat option, so I clicked on that, unsure if it would work on my device. A chat box opened. I wasn’t confident that it would work. Despite working at VA and seeing the good work being done, the reports of its shortcomings convinced me I’d be let down.
I wasn’t. A woman’s name popped up and asked me how I was doing. I typed furiously about the situation. My friend needed to be reached out to. He needed help. He needed more reminders, past my own, that he’s cared for. She prompted me for information and I gave her everything I could. She said she needed to speak with me before she could reach out to Colin. I explained that I was literally on a plane in taxi about to take off. She recognized my situation and said she’d attempt to reach out to my friend.
She explained what the process would be from that point. Then, unexpectedly, she asked me if I was OK. “Are you, yourself having any thoughts of suicide with this stress.” My heart warmed a little. “I’m not,” I responded. “Thank you for asking.”
It’s important to remember that an individual’s stress can weigh heavy on those around them.
The flight attendant reminded everyone to place devices on airplane mode. I messaged the VCL with my thanks for their help, and put my device away. I still wasn’t comfortable with the situation, but I did feel better knowing that I did all that I could.
As our plane ascended into the sky and my phone incapable of making any more contact, I was reminded of when I first moved from Sacramento to D.C.. I was not prepared financially or mentally. My at-the-time girlfriend and I broke up shortly after we got to Washington, and my emotions couldn’t handle it. I was alone and gloomy.
I remember texting my friend Thomas saying, “I’m in a dark place right now.” I received nothing back. It unnerves me to think I could ever ignore a friend in need like that. I’m thankful I had the opportunity to respond to Colin.
I still don’t know if the Veterans Crisis Line ever contacted Colin, but I’ll find out today as I’ll be meeting him. I will let him talk about whatever he wants to talk about, but I will not let him leave the conversation without telling me if he’s still experiencing suicidal behavior.
Suicide prevention starts before we see the signs, but it becomes even more important when we do. It’s not worth the risk to rationalize the behavior we see from people. “He’s just in a tough time.” “She says she’s doing fine.” Lines like these place more time and space between you and the person in need. Suicide prevention is a part of every engagement we have with a person. Sometimes, a lot of times, it means feeling awkward and uncomfortable. It’s not easy.
It never has been. It never will be.
Today, begins National Suicide Prevention Month. Call someone. Share your experiences. Establish those lines of communication and remind people that they matter. Put the Veterans Crisis Line phone number in your contacts list. You may never need it, but the person sitting next to you might. Be prepared.
The more uncomfortable talking about suicide gets, the more real it becomes; the more urgent it is.
Author’s note: All of the names have been changed to provide privacy to those involved.