19

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By Joseph Cox

I was 15 years old when I self-harmed for the first time. In media, there’s always a pale character shimmering in the darkness of the room. The knife slides through the flesh off-screen, the camera zooms in on the neck as it gasps in succulent relief, and the character fades into sleep as all the troubles slip away and the blood reaches the comfort of the sheets.  I found relief, but it came only from the shock of the moment. It wasn’t the cut, but the bitter realization that suicide was drawing near.

Every year as the clock ticks by, the candles get more plentiful, and I venture just a bit farther from home, that kid with the knife gets a little bit farther away. I remember the days when I’d stand in front of a crowd and shake so much that my skin would beat against my baggy jeans, but that boy gets buried a little deeper with every presentation, speech, and leadership role I encounter. Though, all the drifting feelings can’t hide the reality that the boy is never too far away. He was wrapped in the same blanket I’m tucked beneath as I write this now, he wore the same watch, he sang too loud in the shower to the same music, and, truthfully, the same things scared the hell out of him. The people that didn’t care about him then don’t care about him now, he didn’t stop caring about the people he loved, and he stubbornly refused to have apathy for just about anyone, yet, somehow, he became much happier. He rose the tired body that he detested out of bed every morning, tried to fix the hair he could never get right, brushed the teeth that pounded with brace pain, and put on polos that looked atrocious on him only to drag his depressed self to the high school that had zero chance of improving his happiness. I just turned 19, and I think back to what I’d say to that kid now.

I’d tell him that the sweaty palms and resounding thuds of his heart won’t go away no matter how many times he stands in front of a crowd, writes down words he hasn’t heard someone else say, or talks to a girl he finds attractive, but it won’t matter that he can’t quell his heart. His heart is what makes him feel alive. Even when he horrendously massacres a social situation, he’ll learn to laugh at himself, and he laughs quite a lot. Sometimes, he screws it up just for the fun.

I’d go on to explain that I don’t blame him for anything he’s feeling right now. He lives in a society that’s rigged with systems built to retain commerce instead of happiness, and high-school is a breathing example of a system that went horrifically wrong. I’d also know that he spends every day surrounded by people struggling just as much, if not more, than he is. Then, he comes home to watch the news that belts a cheerful, “Good evening world,” while proceeding to tell him all the reasons why the evening is not good at all. Also, his parents ask him, “You okay?” so many times per day that he’d love to have something go right in life just to have something else to talk about. I’d tell him that life is incredibly tough at times, and I don’t blame him for wanting to die for a fair portion of it.

I’d also tell him that his polos and overly large jeans aren’t hiding his chubbiness from anyone, that his brown polo he used for picture day in middle school made him look like a UPS salesman, that the roundness of his face is hilariously more accentuated when his hair is short, that he’ll forever have a hatred of sandals and flip-flops unless they are worn by Spartans, and that he’d probably hate himself less if he just went to the gym instead of dissing muscular people that have the bodies he wishes he had. Also, I’d tell him mac-n-cheese is delicious, and even though he’ll go on a ridiculous diet plan that no one should ever do, learn the convincing rationality of veganism, and come to despise the drowsy feeling he gets from consuming cheese, he should keep eating it for the fun of it.

I’d tell him these things because depressed people aren’t always blameless. People confined to wheelchairs aren’t always nice, veterans aren’t always cool, policemen don’t always shoot unarmed people, and small children don’t always bring me to tears with their high voices, so no one should be treated a specific way due to one characteristic.  Don’t get me wrong, life became immeasurably more enjoyable upon graduating from the cesspool of self-loathing that is the average American high-school, and some mentally ill persons are dictated by the terms of their respective diseases. But, it’s not as if the universe delivered happiness to my life. As much as I wanted it to happen, happiness never burst through my door in Kool-Aid man fashion with an “OH YEAH!” no matter how many times I said, “Oh no.” to the life I so desperately hated. Why? Because depression doesn’t come from having a terrible life, it comes from the perception that life will always be garbage. Hence, we kill ourselves to avoid the insurmountable avalanche of trash coming our way. No suicidal individual ever had the final thought of, “I’ll bet life would be great if I was living tomorrow, but nah.” The truth is, I always defined what happiness was for me, but the kid I was had no idea what that definition might be.

What I did know is that other people weren’t bullied, other people weren’t chubby, and other people didn’t struggle with the immense amount of other troubles that are too personal and lengthy to mention to an audience that didn’t ask for any of this. I also knew that I felt sorry for everyone else, didn’t want to be worthless, and wanted every person on the planet to be happy. Yeah, of course I was going to be sad when that’s all I was consciously aware of.

Look, what I’m trying to say is being purposefully antagonistic to any ill person, mentally or otherwise, is probably one of the least cool things you can do as a human being. It’s right up there with kicking the crutches out from underneath someone and hitting a dolphin with a boat; cruelty and misunderstanding to any ill person is no bueno. However, bashing the ill person over the head with empathy until they feel helplessly defined by the ailment isn’t a better alternative, for we should strive to listen and care for the people that need it rather than berate them with empathy. Had I received more understanding, perhaps I would have learned to define my own happiness sooner. Instead, I was caught in the world that always loved to come crashing down.

Obviously, I’m not asking anyone to walk up to a cancer patient and go, “Hey pal, I empathize and understand the severity of your situation, but walk it off, homie. It’s just cancer!” because anyone who says that should be kicked in the left knee repeatedly. What I am saying is that empathy, as rare as it may be, is only the beginning of a decent conversation. Empathize, think through the situation, and respond accordingly. Don’t just hit him or her with an, “Aw, I’m sorry, but life will get better soon.” That’s about as useful as reacting with glee at any cat video; it’s an automatic reaction now.

So, in conclusion, I’d tell my 15-year-old self that he’s incredibly strong for enduring the pains that his perception, and the things that caused such perceptions, had brought him. I wouldn’t blame him the least for wanting to kill himself either. But, most of those crappy things aren’t going to change quickly, and life is still going to be insanely difficult regardless of what he does. However, with some work, some great friends, and a hell of a lot of mistakes, he can manage to work his way through life. I won’t propose that there’s some one stop solution to everything, but I will propose that life gets to be much more interesting when you leave that dark room, that desolate high-school hallway, and the daily drag of allowing yourself to have the exact same thought patterns. Start small, kid, because each step makes the next step a little easier.

You’ll probably never figure it out, but that’s what makes it all so entertaining.

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