Note: in this post, there are mentions of suicide and depression
This is a story I’ve been meaning to write for years. It’s funny, it’s something I’ve been trying to tell but have been unable to find the words for. It’s a story that is painful but begs to be written, I can see the lines in my mind, but putting them to paper is next to impossible. It is a story of love and loss and friendship and heartbreak--and I’m always so nervous I’ll say the wrong thing or use the wrong voice. Mostly, I’m afraid I’ll spill it all and still not be able to do it justice.
How do you write something that has scarred over, but the ache is still as real as if it were yesterday? I’ve felt like telling the story will be forgiving myself of something, removing a burden, I don’t deserve to be free of. For so long, I’ve felt the guilt pushed onto me by outsiders; who am I to say that I can step away from that?
Yesterday would’ve been my best friend’s birthday. At one point, he was my significant other, too, but above all, he was always my friend. His name was Tyler, and on February 2, 2017, he would’ve been 22 years old.
This story really began when I was just a junior in high school. Young, and most definitely naive, I started a friendship with a boy. We told each other everything, spilled secrets and confessed fears that in hindsight weren’t that scary. I wish I could tell my young self that your life is not, in fact, dictated by your high school GPA score, how well you do in a sporting event, or what college you get into. But back then, that was all that mattered.
Before long, this boy and I were dating. He was friends with my friends, and I was friends with his. He was one of those people who got along with everyone and was good at everything. I’m not exaggerating when I say that. He got A’s in every class he took, and lettered in every sport he participated in--football, basketball, and baseball. It was odd for me, because in those days, I wasn’t super great at making friends, mostly because I was more outspoken than I needed to be, and now I was dating someone who was socially the polar opposite.
Regardless, we were dating, and still best friends. As such, we knew most everything about each other. Still, I can’t imagine how hard it must have been for him to tell me about his mental health. Even nowadays, there is still this notion that men must be mentally strong. So for this high schooler to tell someone that he was depressed was incredibly tough. But he told me. It was largely from pressure he was facing at home and in sports. He felt suffocated; like he wasn’t allowed to make his own choices. Even though I was young, I told him I would do whatever I could to support him and help. I did a lot of googling about mental health, something I initially understood from family members suffering from depression and mental illness.
We were together for over a year, and in that time, his mental health had a lot of ups and downs. At the time, my parents were going through a rough divorce, and put us kids in counseling. As Ty talked about his depression, I continuously offered to take him with me to a therapy session to talk to someone professional. He always refused, saying he wasn’t that weak and he didn’t need it.
Throughout all of this, he came to my house a lot and spent time with my mom and siblings. He was like an older brother for my brother and sister, and someone my mom was always excited to have because he ate anything put in front of him. But even with the support from my family, he never wanted to tell his own about what he was going through. He thought the repercussions would mean he’d be even more suffocated by them and he’d have fewer choices and less freedom than he already did.
It was during this time that he began to have suicidal thoughts. He joked about it in school, and the majority of our friends thought they were just that--a joke. Ty was always the kind of person who had a smart ass comment to make, so why would this be anything different? To me, he confided that they weren’t a joke, and were something he was seriously thinking about. He truly thought no one would really notice if he were gone, and that it would be easier to take his own life than to deal with the issues he faced at home. He didn’t want to wait for his own graduation, in 2013, where he’d be able to leave home, he just wanted everything--the pain, the overbearing--to end now.
At 17, I had no real way of understanding. And beyond googling, I didn’t really know what to do. I told my mother he was depressed, but that was it. I continued to give Ty the option to come with me to therapy sessions, which he always refused. Instead, I made him make me a promise. He swore to call me, no matter the time, whenever he had these thoughts and before he chose to act on them. Our promise resided in the word “always.” We would always be there for each other, we would always be friends.
The summer before I went away to college, I was getting calls maybe every other month. Always, we just talked his feelings out, and he never acted on how he felt.
Fast forward to autumn. He and I had broken up, but remained good friends. I was a freshman at a college three and a half hours north of my hometown, but still made time to talk to Ty, and always answered the phone when he called. His thoughts were darker, but now there was an escape route--college was just around the corner. He could leave home soon. He had applied to the University of Minnesota and the University of Madison, and was hoping to major in Engineering. Mostly, he wanted to play baseball.
In the winter, I went home for Christmas break. We saw each other, and he announced he wanted to get back together. I did not. After that, we didn’t speak nearly as much, and soon, I had to return to school.
It was my first week back up North, and I was getting reacquainted with living in a dorm room. My grandmother had passed away earlier in the week, and I missed my family more than ever, but couldn’t miss the first week of classes--especially bearing in mind my previous semester’s GPA scores.
A few days later, my friends and I were out exploring campus. It was late at night, and we were just being young and stupid. Running around and catching up. When I eventually checked my phone, I had a series of texts from Ty, asking to get back together, and where was I, and why wasn’t I replying. I figured I’d give him time to cool down and text him back in the morning.
I was preparing for my first class of the new semester. It was early morning, with the sun just beginning to stream in through our cheap dorm-grade curtains. I checked my phone and there was a missed call from Ty, and a text from him saying he loved me. I texted him back asking him how he was doing. My roommate was still asleep, and I was checking my Facebook. I started to have an icky feeling in my stomach as I started seeing posts from Ty’s friends, saying odd things like “I can’t believe this…”
All the sudden, I got a phone call from my sister. She was in the same school as Ty. She asked me if I’d heard from him this morning, if I knew anything, if I knew if it was true. I couldn’t answer her questions. Then, there was a long pause.
“Meghan,” she said. “I think Ty is dead.”
I don’t remember the rest of the phone call. Eventually she hung up. I refused to cry, I refused to believe what she said. First, I called his cell phone, then his home phone, then his parents. There was no answer. Then, I googled. I found every hospital in the tri-county area and called them and asking if they had a patient by Tyler’s name there. I promised, I swore up and down, that I didn’t need details, I just had to know if he was there. Everywhere I called, the answer was no.
I was stuck in the terrible limbo that is waiting. I attended class but didn’t pay attention, instead shamelessly leaving my phone on the table, waiting for it to go off. I let my professors know I was waiting for an important call.
It came in the middle of my Spanish class. I quietly excused myself, and answered the phone to hear my mother on the other end. I wanted to hear that it was all a big mistake. Maybe he’d done something foolish like run away, or maybe he had attempted suicide but messed up and he was alive but in bad shape. Was that selfish? Definitely. Did I care? Not a bit. I just wanted--needed--him to be alive.
Instead, my mom told me she was sorry. The swirling rumors were true. He was dead. He had taken his own life in the wee hours of the morning.
I sat on the steps of the atrium of our lecture hall and it hit me. He was gone. Deceased. Dead. In the middle of the building, I cried. That word doesn’t do it justice. It makes the process sound polite--cute sniffles and tears welling in eyes. In reality, I was sobbing, I was a grief-stricken mess as sorrow tore itself out through my chest. I was sitting in the mid-morning sun, but I felt cold. Once the tears started, they wouldn’t stop. There was no “pulling myself together” to go back to the classroom and grab my things or to leave. I was a hunched figure on the steps, losing herself in the thought that this person who I cared about so deeply, who as my best friend I loved, had taken it upon himself to put the mouth of a rifle against his chin and pull the trigger.
The twitch of a finger, the life of a loved one gone.
Eventually, I managed to leave my place on the stairs. Even now, all I remember is the sorrow. I have no recollection of taking my things with me. As I was crossing campus, I got a call from his mom.
I remember thinking I could get some answers. I could figure out what actually happened.
Instead, during that phone call, her boyfriend asked me if I’d known about his depression. Then, it spiralled into her getting on the line and telling me that since I’d known, I should’ve done something about it. I should’ve told her. And because I didn’t, it was my fault.
How do you, at 18, tell a parent that the reason you couldn’t tell them about their child’s depression was because the root of it was issues at home and in his life and that he’d requested--no, demanded--that she not know?
If you’re me--you don’t. You keep silent and let this woman berate you.
A week later, I was back in my hometown for Ty’s funeral. In such a small town, everyone knows everything. Based on the conversation I’d had to have with a police officer, Ty’s mother had let people know I knew about the depression, and I was the last person he’d spoken to.
Walking into the wake was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. I knew I had the support of my family and my friend who’d come with me from college. The moment I walked into the church and saw the casket, I lost it. I had to be coaxed and guided through the line of his family, down pews of friends, most of which I knew.
It was open casket. I will never forget looking down at his face, caked in makeup from the funeral home, but still very much looking like himself. I touched his cheek and instead of the warmth I expected, was met with waxy cold.
I was at the church for the entirety of the funeral service. His mother said maybe two words to me, while the rest of his family allowed me in to grieve with hugs and tears. In shadowed hallways of the church, I had my first experience with panic attacks--what started as one branched into more. The words I spoke in remembrance of him hardly did him justice--and hardly felt like my own… his mother had asked that I send them to her first so she could approve them. She didn’t want the speech to be about me.
For the next few months, I would be on the receiving end of vitriolic hate. Even sequestered in the woods of Northern Wisconsin at school, I would avoid social media. High school classmates of Ty’s would send me messages on Facebook or tweet at me about how they’d never forgive me for his death, that it was my fault, that I should feel ashamed. While you can block these people from your life, you can’t remove the way those things made you feel.
I grieved for him for ages, I let these strangers define how I felt. I let myself think and feel that it was my fault, I had broken our bond of “always” and I deserved to be treated this way. Anxiety grew from my experience. I dreaded returning to my hometown. His mother openly said hateful things about me to my parents, as a result, I can’t imagine what she said to others. I avoided being in public places where I thought she would be. I was terrified of a woman three times my age.
Over time, my grief would subside into a scar, of sorts. I still mourned his loss, but I refused to let myself be defined by it. Instead of letting myself drown in thoughts of blame and inaction, I remembered our good memories, and grieved for him on the anniversary of his death, choosing instead to celebrate him in all other times. I changed my definition of “always.” It’s something I still want to survive. I knew that for being 18, I did what I thought was right and good. Having someone promise to call you before they do something about their feelings is one of the rules for suicide prevention. At 18, I’d just been going with my gut.
Now, it’s been several years since that cold January morning of 2013. Now, always to me means that I will always tell my friends how much they mean to me, I will always be an advocate for mental health, and I’ll always remember the impact that one person’s life can have on mine.
This life of ours is too short to let someone toxic define how we feel and how we live. We have to be there for each other, and we have to support each other. As friends, we must not forget how easy it is to take advantage of our relationships. Love is a big word with a vast number of meanings, but I will throw it around like confetti if it means my friends and family know how much they mean to me.
So today and forever, let us always choose love, let us always be advocates for each other, let us always support each other, and let us always appreciate this time we have been given.
Mental health is an important thing. If you or someone you know has thoughts of suicide, please know you are not alone and contact National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
By phone … 800-273-8255
And online … https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/