So. Why am I here? I wish with all of my heart that I could tell you I’m here because I’ve been passionate about bringing awareness and light to mental health for a long time, or that I read about the devastating effects of suicide in a book or newspaper story and decided to get involved. Both of these things are true, but neither is the full truth. The reason this club exists is much more personal for me.
Benjamin Elliott Clark, or simply Ben, was one of the best friends I have ever had and ever will have. All told, relatively, we weren’t friends for very long — we had known each other since the sixth grade, but we really grew close our senior year of high school. Ben came into my life during a time when I felt that some people were leaving it, and I felt an almost inexplicable amount of trust when talking with him. Ben was so genuine and in high school, that is so rare. He gave honest, heartfelt compliments, had the wittiest sense of humor, and was the guy who always noticed when you cut your hair or wore a new shirt. He cared about people and the world and thought high school was bullshit, which was refreshing amidst all the drama.
About three weeks before our graduation, Ben took his own life. May 19th became the absolute hands-down worst day of my life — the day I found out Ben had left my life forever. The overwhelming feeling at first was complete and utter shock. Ben wasn’t the “type” of person who was “supposed” to be suicidal, according to what society teaches us. In this society, we’re taught that only severely depressed or “crazy” people choose death or that suicide is “caused” by one single thing. We want to blame something. This is over simplistic and simply wrong.
I learned the hard way how very stigmatized suicide is. From the very start, people very close to me accused him of being selfish or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, a coward. People assumed I was pissed at him. In reality, I was “mad” for maybe a few hours — and that was mostly because the grief counselors that came to our school suggested to me that I was. Mostly, the shock and grief and pain overtook me completely. How could I be mad at someone who suffered in silence, without even feeling comfortable enough to tell one of his best friends?
About a week after Ben died, I had my yearbook and was walking through the parking lot when a teammate’s mom approached me. Our yearbook staff had somehow managed to insert a very nice memorial page for Ben even though his death was only about a week before yearbooks were released. My teammate’s mom grabbed my yearbook and saw the memorial page, and proceeded to ask me if I’d known him. I barely acknowledged her — it was pretty obvious I was upset. She went on to ask if I knew the “reason why” he killed himself, and that she’d heard that it was because he’d been waitlisted to his top college. I was stunned that she was talking about my best friend’s death like it was the latest petty school rumor. I remember thinking, “She’s an adult. Is this really happening?” Even if I hadn’t been close to Ben, I don’t think I would have boiled down his death to a college acceptance letter. That is a major disgrace to such a beautiful person’s memory — to any person’s memory. This was the first time I learned how oversimplified suicide is, and this is sadly a lesson I have been learning ever since. People want there to be a reason, a single thing to blame. There isn’t one.
The summer after senior year was kind of an odd limbo time for me. The fall was bittersweet — I couldn’t be more excited to put high school behind me and start fresh at college, but I was devastated that Ben wasn’t with me. We were supposed to take this step together. We were supposed to explore Seattle together. Nevertheless, I loved UW with all my heart and soul, and school ended up being a positive way to use up my energies.
I had been transported from a school and an environment where everybody knew about Ben and had some experience with suicide to an environment where virtually zero people around me knew or cared about the effects of suicide. This was both a welcome relief and a terrifying realization. I felt isolated because losing Ben felt like such a big part of my life, but I didn’t feel comfortable bringing it up in conversation, either. In the spring, a boy from my dorm took his own life — and it was another stark reminder of how judgmental people become in the face of suicide. “I get stressed about finals too,” people in my dorm said, “But I would never do something that cowardly.” Even then, a year out, I couldn’t bring myself to stand up and speak out to these people. I regret that and am trying to be better about talking now.
Planning the Out of the Darkness Walk with some friends ended up being a good outlet and a nice “excuse” to start telling people about Ben — it started naturally coming up in conversation. This year, I want to build on that by having a club where talking and Speaking Up is an integral part of the club — not just a side note to fundraising.
As much as suicide is stigmatized, I also have to remember to not take things too personally. For a long time after Ben died, if I so much as saw the word “suicide” in a book, even when used as a metaphor, I would freeze up and sometimes have to put the book down for a few days. To this day, I tense up when people joke about suicide — how common is it for people to say “Blah, this midterm is too hard, I’d rather shoot myself in the face,” “I’d rather kill myself than study for O-Chem,” or something similar? I probably did it too before I lost Ben. Where do we draw the line between good fun and hurtful jokes? At what point is joking about suicide unacceptable or a cause for concern? It’s a complex question that deserves a complex answer — I’m just asking that we start trying to answer it. Our society hates addressing these questions, but address them is what we must do. Not knowing where to start is no excuse not to start.
This is my story. It’s out there now, and I’m not taking it back. I’m not ashamed of the way my friend died. I’m irrevocably sad that he’s gone, but I’m not going to be afraid to talk about it anymore. Please, ask me questions. Join me in my mission. Let me be the one to decide if your question is too personal. What I want more than anything is for people to care about suicide awareness without having to go through the heartbreak of suicide loss. There is a broader need for social change around the way we talk about suicide and mental health in general. We talk about suicide and mental illnesses now the way people talked about HIV/AIDS twenty years ago — hush-hush, behind closed doors, not in pleasant company. It doesn’t have to be this way, and it doesn’t need to take twenty years — it can start today, by being open about discussing these topics and by dedicating ourselves to mobilizing change in the form of policywork and community outreach. I believe in this cause and I hope you do, too.
Thank you for reading.
To contact Juliana Borges personally about her story, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. To visit Ben’s memorial page on Facebook, visit Memories of Benjamin Elliott Clark.
[photo credit: Ben Clark, 2009]