My Friend the Grim Reaper, a Practical Guide for Suicidal Ideation in the Face of Collapse
The first time I planned to kill myself, I was about to graduate high school.
I was doing a billion different activities, an overscheduled teenager who didn’t see any end in sight- except for graduation. I was set to go to Purdue in the fall, I had served well as Secretary of our National Honors Society chapter, regularly did the Morning Announcements, was a Captain of the Speech Team, Vice President of the Drama Club, had won a few awards for my speech, theatre, and journalism in state competitions, volunteered when I could, had a part-time job at a local nursing home, did sports like soccer and softball- I was one of the most involved students there. So, when I wrote my usual comedy opinion column for the student newspaper (I was a co-head editor with another student because I was so busy), I didn’t expect to want to kill myself over it. It was just supposed to be an opinion.
See, I come from a town so white that in 2006 (the year I started high school) our mascot was changed to the Lemont Indians- and it was an improvement. After rightfully receiving notice of a possible lawsuit if the mascot wasn’t changed from the native slur “Inj*ns”, the school put it to a vote. The high school seniors voted for “The Blocks of Limestone” for their senior prank (we have famous limestone quarries in town, as a note for the confused). The town at large voted for “The Titans” because I know every single football fan in town wanted to sing the chant from the movie and make the players do that dance. But, somehow, the school board walked into a closed-door, private meeting and came out with the name “The Indians”. We needed to pay to change the football field, all the murals around, the jerseys and spirit wear, the department & school headings, and official paperwork- we even ripped up the gym floor. All to place a feather sticking out of the LHS school abbreviation on a blue flame background- our school’s motto is “illuminating the future” so…we’re setting the feather on fire like a white supremacist and a tiki torch, I guess. Nevermind that Lemont used to be (and still kind of acts like) a sundown town, or that the Southern Poverty Law Center recognized a chapter of the Knight Riders Knights Klan group functioning directly out of Lemont until 2019- or that the SPLC’s hate map for Illinois still shows a cluster of groups all currently surrounding the area. Ignoring the town vote and spending money on a racist cartoon character was clearly an ‘educated’ choice by the school faculty. It’s still in place today.
The article I wrote in 2010 was meant to make people laugh. Social Media was not really a place for political conversations yet and Social Justice Warrior was barely even a term. I was still conservative in my mindset; I hadn’t started challenging any of my beliefs when it came to race, socioeconomics, or hierarchical structures. This article was the epitome of a fluff piece- basically, I was pointing out how stupid our mascot is and how it’s hard to get student involvement and team spirit up when you have a mascot you really can’t use at all, since we couldn’t depict any human characters with the name choice. To me, that is the most vanilla point I could have made in this conversation- but apparently, some of these people find mayonnaise spicy.
I was lucky to have a great teacher by my side as I was called out of Journalism class and brought to another one of those closed-door meetings at LHS. I was barely a legal adult when we had our meeting, right around my 18th birthday. That day a group of grown-ass, overpaid education bureaucrats all put on their most formal business outfits, called an involved student in (outnumbered by A LOT) for a disciplinary hearing, and questioned me about my article. My ethics. How I felt about my future, how I would feel if Purdue heard about what I wrote. If this article went forward, wouldn’t my college admission most likely be revoked? I should be careful and really think about whether or not I wanted the article to go forward, if I wanted to be the cause of so much pain exhumed for the town from a matter that was clearly over, clearly closed. Did I even think about the community, and what I owed all of them? They were blocking this article for my own good, you see- for my safety.
My teacher was livid- and thank God for that. We got through the meeting and, if my teacher hadn’t been honest with me about the rage he felt at that moment, I probably would’ve killed myself that night. We’re still friends because he understands respect- even if we don’t always agree on things (we’re actually not talking currently while we both come back from a hard discussion), I know that he’s a good human who is acting from a place of justice and mercy- that is more than enough for me.
From my point of view in that moment, I had written a nothing-burger of a piece that, somehow, had the potential to destroy my future. If something so useless caused this big of a reaction, how was I ever going to say anything, write anything that was worth something? Like it was a cartoon character, for God’s sake. They wouldn’t let me make silly jokes in a student paper that no one even really read- I had no delusions of grandeur and they still managed to hurt what little confidence I had in myself. It was such a stupid thing for them to admonish me for and I knew that even at the time. But being told to shut up, even for something silly, causes harm. When I sat with a pill bottle in my Jeep out by a cornfield that night and contemplated it all, I was very close to just swallowing. I have always been a storyteller. And here were people I had worked tirelessly with as a bridge and part of the student community, and they couldn’t and wouldn’t let me tell the truth- even a small one, and in a silly way. If these people who knew me wanted to shut me up so forcefully, what was the rest of the world going to do to me? They even changed the requirements for who could submit graduation speeches. I loved our graduation speaker and I’m certain that speech would’ve been chosen no matter who entered. But I’ll be honest- I was pissed that I didn’t even have a chance to submit a speech, to try. Because suddenly, after my ‘meeting’, the requirements only allowed the top 2% of students to submit and I was in the top 5%. It may have been nothing, but it happened so quickly after our meeting that I couldn’t help but be suspicious. Thank God high school ends- right? The adults and their egos are impossible.
I’ve had many more suicidal ideation moments (and a handful of attempts) since then, but never as bad as that first time. The first cut truly does seem to be the deepest, having your brain turn on your like that is a terrifying experience I don’t wish on anyone. Now, on the other side of healing parts of my brain, I look back at the trigger. At the core of each of my attempts or ideation episodes, the process of being shamed and silenced is intrinsic to the event. My pain and rage internalizes and, instead of defending myself from the attacker, I took their ‘punishment’ for perceived wrongs as my own personal failing, that I deserved to be belittled and silenced and small. And while I took those reactions personally at the time, I began to conquer those moments when I tried to figure out how a person could be so cold, so cruel as to silence another person, instead of thinking of what I might have done to elicit such a response. Because it didn’t matter what I said or did- I wasn’t trying to hurt anyone and, whenever I did say something that caused pain, I either made repair or had enough confidence in my writing to stand by what I said. Growing and birth pains exist, even in writing and artistic creation. My writing has never been a wild swing in the dark at things I don’t understand; on the contrary, I write in order to understand. That’s why I was also awarded by the teachers at the school who knew me day-to-day; I was chosen as the English & Literature department’s star senior near that time as well. Because the teachers who knew me, who helped me find my voice in the first place- they are not the same as the bureaucrats who run the administrative part of the school. Hierarchies function from the top, and I had an array of fantastic educators throughout my entire schooling- I’m lucky as hell in that department. And, even in the bureaucrat’s unevolved response, the admin could see that while I might be aggressive what I was saying was inherently true. That’s what scared them so much, I know that now. Wish someone had told me at the time, but I also didn’t want to embarrass myself and have other people admonish me in the same way- I was too fragile still and I worried that the wrong phrase might set me off on another suicidal ideation episode. What their reaction taught me was that the truth isn’t the point- it’s the comfortability of those in power that matters and that’s what I have to prioritize above all else. And silencing a person, even in something as First-World-Problems as this situation, has an effect.
Overreacting to something as dumb as a high school mascot means that any additional ‘rebellion’ or ‘destruction’ will cause them to escalate- it sets a precedent for future situations and places the person speaking out in the community as a problem to be removed, rather than someone to be respected enough to have a discussion, in the public, with. If this is how they treated one of their more favored students, I worry about who else they harmed in their crusade for perfect obedience from the student body, teachers as well as students. Because now, with the stupidity of climate change and the Capitalist hierarchy rotting under our feet, there are much harder conversations we have to have in order to prepare current high schoolers for a radically different future. But if the administrators can’t even stomach someone poking fun at a fucking cartoon character, how are they going to have conversations about these essential, necessary topics? They won’t. Because they’ve decided any viewpoint other than their own is a form of emotional terrorism and they refuse to negotiate. Because they hold all the power and, if we have real conversations, they might actually have to share the power- not realizing that means they’d offload a ton of the responsibility that’s overfilled their plates for so long.
So, how does someone get to the point of denying others their inherent right to an opinion, to freedom of expression, even when the outcome of redistributing power and resources will benefit them in the long run? Through religious or cultlike dedication to a cause. See, the human brain can’t tell the difference between fiction and reality- that’s why we developed science, so we could see where reality and imagination intersect in our shared space and time. Because everyone has an opinion and that’s a good thing- but just because someone has an opinion it doesn’t mean it’s valuable. Conversations should function like a potluck; you work on your recipe and practice it on your own so that, when it’s time to share your creation, you can taste everyone else’s ideas and be proud of your contribution to the table. The rules are that you have to make it yourself and it has to be edible. So when someone doesn’t ground their opinions in shared reality or they just regurgitate what they heard from someone else, it’s like they shit on a plate and threw it on the table. They technically made it, but that doesn’t mean it’s worth eating. And some people are just bad at cooking; that’s okay! But bring it to a table where you know you’re safe to learn from the other cooks, out of the public eye- not to a group that’s as publicly underbaked as you are. With an opinion, it’s your responsibility to ground it in factual reality- it is not the job of everyone else at the potluck to poison-test your creation for you. That means questioning everything you hear in the media by going to their scientific, artistic, and journalist sources yourself, whenever you can. It means checking their funding sources and who controls the messaging about those resources. It also means breaking the delusions you carry whenever you find them. I’m still not halfway through my own imaginary demons, but I know I’m making progress. The only unforgivable sin, in this case, is to not try at all and let your ego run the show.
The people who decided I don’t have a right to the first amendment unless my opinion aligns with theirs are blinded by the cult of Capitalism, specifically through the lens of Neoliberalism. In their cult, it’s the job of institutions to be socially liberal on the surface (changing the mascot to “Indians” as a lesser slur is their socially liberal moment, the ‘compromise’) and maintain Capitalism with a focus on the good of the market over the human need (a reason given for “The Indians” change was that it was a ‘legacy name’ and therefore cheaper to change back to), and enacted by a modest welfare state and limited democracy (i.e. having a decent school, but ignoring the town vote & limiting free speech of community members). Basically, the machine has to keep going without question and, if someone is concerned with how the controlling group is functioning in any way, shape, or form, they are a threat to be eliminated & silenced. It doesn’t matter if the way the hierarchy in power is functioning harms people or perpetuates outdated customs or ideas- maintaining the status quo under their control and by their rules is the only way for society to function. Everyone has to play by their cult’s rules. They are divorced from reality and ready to violently enforce this viewpoint so their brains can maintain the structure it’s used to no matter how incorrect that worldview is. Brains seek familiarity above all else, even if it causes great damage or harm to others. The verbal violence of being silenced literally caused me to have an episode of suicidal ideation. To say that violence only counts when it’s physical is cruel and stupid beyond measure- violence has more forms than we currently recognize, and we are suffering as a result. So while they might not realize the violence they inflicted on me, involuntary manslaughter still counts as murder. Intention and motivation are nothing compared to the actions you take as a result of those beliefs, and in our shared reality we can only be judged on what we do and not the intentions behind our deeds. They decided to silence me over something genuinely stupid. That was the action they took. And that’s all I can judge them on.
The Grim Reaper and I are good friends now. Whenever I feel that need to shut myself up permanently I employ the Stoic exercise of memento mori, or the contemplation of death, and get a wider perspective on whatever trigger has thrown me out of shared reality. If someone is trying to shut me down, that’s usually a good sign I should keep standing up even taller than before- but only after checking as to why they’re stopping me. I take the time to check where I’m sourcing my information from and how my perspective is shaping my response. That’s literally what an English degree teaches you to do, dissect information and develop a personal point of view beyond that information. So when someone has a reaction to things I say and do and post now, I make sure that the RISA framework is employed, a debate and conversation structure I learned from international debate champion Bo Seo, and go from there. Do I have a shared reality with this person? Do we both agree on the importance of the topic? Are we specific with our vocabulary and using that specificity for understanding? Finally, are our goals for the conversation aligned? If Reality, Importance, Specificity, and Alignment are not in place, then we cannot have a discussion- you need the right ingredients to bake a cake, and the same goes for conversations.
There are people who pretend that they want to have a conversation but in reality, they want to set a mandate to stop you from having a voice or needle you into retracting your opinion. They want to hear your opinion so they learn how to squash it; they want to wear you out, they aren’t looking for an actual conversation. I’ve watched more and more friends experience the silencing effect, especially now that U.S. society is in full collapse mode. People who they’ve worked with, neighbors, and friends they usually agreed with in the past are suddenly freaking out at a difference in opinion. We’re watching the world collapse and people are clinging to their five-day workweek and the empty promises of Capitalism like a child with a dirty blanket that needs washing. The world is on fire and they're screaming about silly things, like workers making enough money through striking or how climate change can’t be real or else mad that most of the highest paying jobs are about to be automated out of oblivion as the ‘unskilled/essential workers’ that cannot be automated anytime soon are forced to work for starvation wages.
My first wish is that anyone on the receiving end of a crazed conversation killer who is having trouble with present reality is to take that step back and not take it personally. This human’s brain is literally in attack mode because they’ve been lied to about something to the point that they are in a life-or-death situation anxiety-wise. You cannot have a conversation unless you are sure you live in the same reality. Ask them where they got that information from and, after properly vetting it, only move forward with the conversation if the rest of the RISA framework is in place. If the facts don’t live in reality, you can tell them or not- entirely up to you. But your obligation is to vet the opinion, not to listen to insane ramblings from incorrect or insecure people who have been lied to. And as another reminder; you cannot save everyone. You can, however, tell people to fuck off if they continue to attack after you’ve made it clear that you will not be silenced and that, just as they have a right to their opinion, you have the same right to your own. Finally, when someone gets squeamish with how you’ve said something, rather than the contents of the message, resist the urge to laugh at them openly. This is the biggest coward of them all, a person who sees the truth and chooses to act as part of the lie, simply out of ease. Negating someone’s message because you don’t like how they expressed it is like throwing away candy because the wrapper isn’t aesthetically pleasing- genuinely, a fucking stupid response. This human, above all, is not worth your time or effort- they are blind to their own actions, do not want the truth, and they will derail anyone who is expressing those hard facts no matter how well you express them. Do not engage with them and let others know why you’re not entertaining those ‘ideas’. The ideas are half-baked, inhumane, helpless & nihilist in nature, or just useless if the person holding those views prioritizes the packaging over the content. Conversations are about finding solutions- fights are about winning. Go in to solve problems and you’ll find the other helpers instead of wasting your time fighting with dumbasses.
I know the helpless nihilism seems overwhelming and I always want to punch those ‘Good Vibes Only’ idiots. Things are really bleak right now and the depression and inability to see the future is too much- you are allowed to have these hard feelings, even if it makes other people uncomfortable. Sit in that emotion for a bit and really acknowledge it. Because in that darkness, you’ll be able to see the candlelight of hope. You’ll find that while you can’t do everything, there is some small, little step you can take out of the darkness. And then you find another action you can take to help. And another. I know it’s hard- that it feels like anytime you say or do anything, everyone and their cousin has a goddamn opinion so it’s just easier to be quiet and not deal with all of that. And it’s hard when people you thought you agreed with suddenly turn and think they have to teach or belittle you because you’re not acting in a way that they know how to handle. I know that sometimes, because of situations like this, you might ask other people in quiet conversations off to the side if what they’re saying is really a worthwhile thing to say, because someone pulled you aside and shamed you for expressing yourself like that in the past. Where you ‘worried’ about what someone else was saying, just to get them to be quiet too. It’s okay. This is the part where you forgive yourself for all of that, make repair with those people, and stop behaving in that way- for good. Because once you let go of that guilt and clean up your mess, you open up your options.
You free yourself to talk about the problems you see and feel passionate about in the world, because the first step to solving these problems is being able to bring up the topic and start the hard conversations. Read the room first, though- there’s a difference between engaging in conversation and starting a fight because you have too low emotional intelligence to know the difference between the two. What people like is familiarity- but unfortunately, what’s familiar in our society is killing us. So you do have an obligation to exercise tact in broaching topics, but keep in mind being liked isn’t the point here and you have to let that go. You have to own your voice and become yourself, even in little ways. Next time you’re at your book club and someone says something off the wall and out of reality, ask them about their information sources and ask them to ground their opinion in something objectively real. If they can’t do that, then don’t allow them to get everyone derailed into a goose chase masquerading as discussion- if RISA isn’t in place, it isn’t a conversation worth having. We have to start from the overlap in our realities if we’re going to actually speak to one another. It’s the little changes in our day-to-day interactions that will generate societal change. There is no Superman coming to save us, no savior politician who’s going to fix everything. We need to start these conversations- and that’s going to incite some pushback that you need to be ready for in your daily life. Time for some growing pains, but don’t inflict trauma on yourself or others- there is a difference between the two and you need to find it for yourself before you take on the task of changing the world around you.
And when the Grim Reaper seems to appear, asking you if you’d like things to be easy, to be quiet and silent forever, meet your fear with curiosity and watch how he opens up- Reapers are not often asked questions. Ask why he’s here, how he got here, why your life is worth taking early. My Reaper told me he was there the first time because I wanted to be silent forever after a few mediocre school administrators were so scared of my humor and viewpoint they had to lead a coordinated attack to silence me, and that if I didn’t die now I would be a problem for them and people like them now and forever. I didn’t think I was ever going to be a problem for those sad, spineless humans, but I realize now was. I am. See, they tried to bury my voice, thinking that would solve all their problems. Something small they could just crush in the darkness. What they didn’t realize is that I’m a seed- all they did was plant me. And now that the dark parts of society they’ve ignored and demonized are yelling louder and louder, I and others like me are blooming.
The reason these small conversations are so important is because little actions lead to bigger consequences. In 2020 a group of concerned LHS alumni tried to get a new curriculum in place that would actually address the racism inherently part of the education system at our old school. These were alumni who had been as involved, even more involved than I was, in their time at the school. The main part of this group, people with Master’s degrees and more in modern education, had even drafted the anti-racist curriculum for the current faculty to use. And these accomplished, bright, involved adults who love their community and want to make it better we were basically told, “Settle down, children”. No real conversations. No hard facts for their reasoning. Just…silence. So, to say that this ‘racist mascot’ issue is gone or part of the past is incorrect, even in 2023. And finally coming forward with the deep ineptitude, cowardice, and concentrated efforts to limit the community’s right to expression, discussion, and proper redress is the right thing to do now. Because they were mad when I pointed out silly things. Imagine how pissed those spineless fucks will be after they read this.
Thank God I’m still alive to tell them the truth, especially when they don’t like it. Because the truth is the only thing that will set us all free. And if you internalize your rage, it will kill you. When harm is done, speak about it- the ones who will try and silence you are usually the guiltiest parties, unable to stand in the light of what they’ve really done. Even if it seems small, even if it seems petty- we have to start having the small conversations that we’ve been ignoring, or we will all fail when the larger conversations finally stop looming and crash on our doorstep.
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