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The Hidden Realities That Come to Light When Someone Dies by Suicide

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He seemingly had everything. Young, good looking, a star with a major collegiate football program set to inherit the starting quarterback job from a sure first-round draft pick. The California boy was “the kind of kid that put a smile on everybody’s face when they were down, especially his family,” a statement from his family read.

Tyler Hilinski killed himself in his Pullman, Washington home on Jan. 16. The 21-year-old student at Washington State University left a suicide note, details of which have not been released.

Think about that quote and how Tyler tried to make his family’s life better. What so few people understand is the complexity of depression. While everyone is truly different in their triggers and how they process, certain themes perpetuate.

How many times have we heard after a suicide that the person was “always happy, always trying to do things for others and make them happy”? This is a mask that many people with depression wear — and a fairly endemic trait for the depressed.

It’s also sadly an oft-mentioned refrain in situations like this: He had everything; what could he possibly be depressed about?

Let’s take a deeper look at the pieces that make this up. I’ll look at Tyler’s situation, keeping in mind I never met the man nor knew anything about him aside from what is publicly available. However, the bits coming out have an eerily familiar tone, enough so that I can make some fairly educated guesses.

“The smile that hides all.”

It was said that Tyler made it his mission to ensure family and friends were happy. I’m sure he did whatever it took to bring a smile to their faces: bringing them food, coming over to watch a movie, talking or texting when someone was feeling blue…

In thinking about a person with depression, the focus is on their happiness. But someone with depression is sometimes focused on other people’s happiness. No matter what is hurting them in their life right then, it’s not uncommon for them to devote their energies to making someone else feel better. It hurts them more that someone close to them — even only as close as coworkers — could be upset or suffering.

However, the corollary to that magnanimity is that the person can feel like they are responsible for the happiness of others. Thus, there is an added sense of urgency or dedication — the person with depression does want the other person to be happy, but also wants to find out if any unhappiness was caused by them.

“If I just check it one more time…”

There is sometimes a link between obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression/anxiety. You know you locked the office door when you left work, but you had to turn the car around and check again, just to be absolutely sure. That doubt crept in that maybe, just maybe, you imagined locking the door, but you in fact did not, so someone will break into the office, steal all the equipment and you’ll be fired. That’s how our minds think, and that’s what makes us get out of bed at 2 a.m. to drive to the office, check the door and go back home — accomplishing nothing but interrupting sleep.

This also leads us to the same repeated questions: Am I OK? Do you still like me? Am I doing a good job?

We fear something could change. We did or said something that immediately invalidates years of friendship or job success, and that one thing — one innocuous thing — will clearly lead to our downfall and demise. We’ll surely be fired, lose our home, be on the streets and will never recover, all because of one thing.

But to the anxious and depressed, they’re all front-burner, equally destructive issues. On the personal side, maybe you texted or called too much or leaned on your friends too much, fearing they will need to pull away for their own good. On the professional side, every missed deadline or task brings fear of a checklist against you, fearing you’re on a clock counting down to your higher-ups bringing you into that empty conference room.

Thus, we return to our boss. Are we OK? Have I screwed up? Do you still like me and want me around? And, we go back to our friends: May I still talk with you about my problems? Have I scared you off? Do you still love me?

It’s very much like that office door. We know we locked it, but we have to check. Our bosses will let us know if they need us to take action in a certain area, and our friends will be brutally honest with us because they love us. We don’t have to ask, but when we feel our world is always on the verge of collapse, we are compelled to beat that horse again and again. If we can be completely sure we’re OK with the people around us, we can use our energy to confront the other boulders about to fall on our head.

“He has it all. What could he be unhappy about?”

It is never about what we do or don’t have. It’s about what we could lose. Tyler was on national television in a major college football bowl game, heading an offense he’s about to inherit when his predecessor, Luke Falk, likely moves on to the NFL.

We judge things on how much it would hurt to lose them, not on how much enjoyment we get from them. The new job may be just what we dreamed about, but some people only see it as something catastrophic to lose — so we ascribe over-importance to the smallest of tasks, feeling we have to be 200 percent perfect to insulate ourselves from even the smallest, simplest transgressions. Our bosses may not be keeping a list, or even noticing — but we do.

So it would not be surprising had Tyler looked at his impending ascension with doubt and fear rather than exciting challenges and opportunities. He would play on a national stage against some of the best competition in Division 1 collegiate football, perhaps with an eye on also playing on Sundays under the brighter lights. And that could have been an impetus to him — that all eyes would be on him each Saturday and the fate of Washington State athletics, the PAC-12 North division and the entirety of the careers of every man on that team hung on his arm.

None of that was true, but to someone struggling with depression and anxiety, sometimes there is no other reality.

We get the great job we want, but it is something we allow to define us. We want to do Thing A, Thing B or Thing C in our life. People who don’t get it look at this as an opportunity to move ahead. But people who struggle can look at this as something to fear losing. We can in fact do Things A, B and C, but surely we will screw this all up and be fired and not only will we not be able to do those Things, but we’ll now have Problem A, Problem B and Problem C. Thus, we have multiple fears: we can no longer do the Things, which makes us sad, but we now also have the Problems to deal with.

We reach out to family and friends who are always there for us, and we over-thank them for their time. They love us and don’t need thanks, but our appreciation is the only currency we have for repayment. And, we do not feel our thanks are enough, so we over-thank.

That is part of “having it all” we fear losing the most. Jobs come and go, living situations can shift and material things lose their usefulness. But when someone with depression lets someone in, we open very vulnerable parts of ourselves to them because we realize we need help. And sadly, this is what keeps us from reaching out as often as we need: We care about our family and friends, and no matter how much we hurt, it hurts us more to think we disrupted the lives of our loved ones and possibly made them angry with us or tired of listening to the same thing multiple times.

It has nothing to do with how many people around us are there to help and who genuinely care about our well-being. It has everything to do with looking at how many teammates we have on the field and realizing how much we stand to lose.

“Didn’t he have friends to help?”

It’s likely Tyler had a support system more robust than he realized. But as above, we balk at tapping into that resource too often. And it’s not necessarily that he — or we — don’t have a network. It’s how that network is structured that makes the difference.

Tyler was in the spotlight. As such, unintended eyes were seemingly on him all the time. This also brought up the marriage of a popular figure and social media.

He had more than 2,700 Facebook friends and likely an untold number of lurkers. In his capacity, surely many felt they knew him or wanted to know him or in some way enter his orbit. And as such, the actual outsiders felt they had the right to hide behind the relative anonymity of social media and comment on every aspect of this kid’s life.

By now, we all know the horrific consequences resulting from cyberattack and online bullying. I don’t know if Tyler received this type of vitriol, or if so how he handled it. But it would be surprising with his stature in the sports world if he did not receive some personal attacks and unwanted comments.

“How could you miss that throw?”

“You’re nowhere near as good as Luke Falk.”

“You should transfer schools.”

Someone pre-wired to second-guess oneself is far more susceptible to personal attacks. We don’t possess the level of self-assuredness or confidence to overcome them, to look the doubters in the eye and say, “I’m doing the best I can, I am happy with myself and how I am progressing, so your comments have no influence on me.”

Instead, we need affirming comments from others to know we’re doing things well and proper for the comfort of others, not for ourselves. If we were just a little better, we would not inconvenience others. We would not cause pain in their lives. So, we take it all in, take personal ownership of the transgressions that are clearly our fault and try to do everything we can to improve it. But along the way, we take on that extra stress of obsessing over the feedback to ensure we are in fact measuring up to those around us.

We can have all our close friends and family — those we trust with the deepest parts of ourselves — tell us we are in fact doing great and to pay no heed to the noise around us. But those voices of doubt in the mind of a depressed person resonate much louder because of the what-ifs.

It is not a question of having people around to help. It is all about how we process the information.

Most people have a natural, internal risk-versus-reward discussion. Rarely is it life or death. But to someone with depression, prone to rampant and destructive over-thinking, reward often a distant concept. In reality, it is trying to minimize risk, or at least anticipate risk, in order to prevent outright catastrophe.

My wife once said I am not a glass-half-empty person. I am a glass half empty, it’s broken, spilling on the table and my hand is bleeding person. It was an exceptionally true statement, one I did not fully appreciate until we divorced and I faced a future completely on my own.

So for Tyler — and others — having friends and family around who are always ready, willing and able to help is not the issue. It is the fact that their advice, concern and counsel gets drowned out by the darker angels on our shoulders, the ones dismissing the overwhelming evidence our loved ones are showing us because if we listen to those demons, and heed their warnings, we believe we are better off.

“Where do we go from here?”

This is a question so often asked, and sadly one for which a succinct answer is elusive.

From the Crisis Clinic to one-on-one therapy to group sessions, there are resources across the spectrum of mental health. Even with the crushingly disappointing misunderstanding of mental health, there are options. That being said, people who struggle must realize their affliction and take that step to reach out.

Therein lies the rub.

We know we hurt. We know we need help. But we rank that against our inherent fear of inconveniencing others or upsetting those we care about. So we keep things inside. We suffer in silence because we don’t want people to avoid us. The very thing we need — closeness with loved ones — is what will help us through the roughest patches, and yet it’s the scariest thing we have to face.

Our circle is important to us and they can help us, but we don’t bring them in because we do not want to lose them. It’s a painful dichotomy.

Turning to our loved ones and asking for help hurts us in two ways: We don’t want to say the words “help me” because we feel selfish, taking time and energy away from others for our own gain, even if we need it. Second, we do not want to saddle others with our hurt.

We have to be honest with ourselves and admit when we’re hurting or sick. While sometimes it is OK to sit on the couch all day and binge-watch something while eating an entire pint of ice cream, it can’t be a regular pattern, no matter how tough it is. We need to accept that the hardest thing to say to someone is, “Help me.” However, that is exactly what we need to do. The aforementioned Crisis Clinic is a 24-hour resource staffed by trained volunteers to get you through those exceptionally tough moments.

Family and friends are in our lives because they love our whole self — the good parts, along with the challenges. They often know more about us than we know about ourselves because they are a step removed and have some objectivity, as well as a care to help us be better. Honestly, they want us to be as happy as possible. They choose to have us in their lives. That is a powerful thing.

Where do we go from here? We all have our paths to take, with different mile markers and potholes. Our loved ones can help guide us, but they can’t drive it for us. When we stray too far out of the lane for them to help, we must call upon the trained professionals to tow us back to the route and allow us to give it another go. And if the automotive metaphors aren’t already too much, those out there to help us can bring that little extra fuel we need to complete our journey, or pick us up and take us home when we suffer a flat.

Tyler had people around him. But what we won’t know is the character of those in his circle. Did he in fact have a support network he felt comfortable confiding in? Did anyone recognize he was hurting and try to reach out? Did he know he was hurting and attempt to find some answers? Nothing will ever be known for sure, and that is part of the point of this piece. We can’t wait for the answers to fall in our lap or for someone to come up and spell it all out for us. We owe it to ourselves — and to those who love us — to say those two critical words: Help me.

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Photo by Abigail Keenan on Unsplash

Originally published: September 2, 2018
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