This week’s post is by Josh Walfish, a recent college graduate who currently is living his dream in North Carolina. He reflects here on the year that has passed since he wrote a column for his student newspaper in the wake of four suicides in one year on campus. He says he is constantly grateful for his wonderful support network and wants to de-stigmatize suicide by starting an honest dialogue about it:
On November 13, 2013, I wrote my best column ever.
I’m a sports reporter, but on this day, sports were irrelevant. The only thing that mattered was that I was alive and able to write my best column ever.
I knew when I began with the words “I shouldn’t be alive” that I was entering dark territory. When only 15 words in I dropped the line “I am a survivor of suicide,” I understood what I was about to endeavor.
Here is a snippet from what I revealed to a campus of more than 9,000 students, professors and administrators: “I tried to take my own life twice, and both times somebody was there to stop me. Someone was there to catch my knife-wielding arm as I attempted to slit my wrists or tackle me to the ground as I ran away with my noose made from a belt, ready to hang myself from a tree.”
I could not have expected the outpouring of support that I received in the days and weeks after I went public with my mental health struggles. Friends reached out to me and offered their shoulder, acquaintances told me that I was an inspiration and random people on the street gave me hugs and told me I was extremely brave.
A year later, I don’t know how brave I really was. I consider myself a very open and honest person, so it didn’t seem strange to me that I was opening up about my issues because I did that on a daily basis.
However, as I reflect upon the year since I wrote that column, I realize how important those words were to so many people.
A little background: Northwestern University had witnessed four suicides in a year, and the conversation on campus had not changed. The student body laid all the blame on the administration and asked it to fix things. But curing depression wasn’t as easy as making sure there were adequate resources.
My column was less about my story and more about what the campus as a whole needed to do if it wanted to stop holding memorial services for students who took their own lives. I am proud to say the conversation on campus did change. People understood that we needed to hold each other accountable and ensure that those who needed those resources used them.
Writing that column also taught me that I have some of the best friends in the world. Comments like “I’m having trouble putting into words that I care about you, Josh” and “This took a lot of courage and a lot of confidence, and it’s amazing to see how much of both you now have,” touched my heart. Status updates like the one that read, “Josh is one of the most dedicated, loyal and considerate friends I have. In fact, the most considerate,” made me cry.
When I’m feeling down, I go back and read those comments because it reminds me of the vast support system I have. Each time, the same emotions come bubbling back to the surface.
So every column needs a point, and this is mine. Coming out about your suicide experience is scary. As a survivor, I understand that you want to run away from that moment in your life and forget it ever happened. But unfortunately it did occur, and it made you who you are today.
The most important insight I gained is that every story gives someone else the reason to seek help.
About a week after my column was published, I received an email from someone in my hometown. It was not a normal email of congratulations or support, but a request for advice. He told me his story and why he was asking for my help, and in that moment, I realized why my coming-out story was so important.
In the moment, talking about your experience is cathartic and extremely therapeutic. But that feeling only lasts for a week or two at most. Your coming-out story can’t be just about the benefits you receive. You need to be willing to help people who are in similar situations.
Every chance you get to tell your story, you’re making the world that much more comfortable for someone trying to get help or someone who wants to tell their story.
I am excited that my words helped someone seek help and get back on the right track. As cathartic as my column was for me, getting a chance to help someone else was twice as therapeutic. That is why those 731 words comprise my best column.
In the past year, I have graduated from Northwestern and moved to a new state for a job that I love. A lot has changed, but at the same time, nothing has changed. I feel like I’m still the guy who wrote that column, but I know I’m much better off now.