When former NFL great Junior Seau committed suicide last week at the early age of 43, by all reports, it came as a complete surprise to everyone who knew him. In stark contrast to his reputation as one of the fiercest defensive players the game has ever seen, Seau was a beloved, jocular human being on and off the field, a man whose energy and joie de vie rubbed off on friends, teammates and family members alike.
And yet he took his own life before the age of 50, leaving no clues behind to help explain why.
Because the self-inflicted gunshot wound that killed him was to the chest, rather than the head, people familiar with the recent history of the NFL (National Football League) suspect Seau’s motives for suicide may have been identical to those of Dave Duerson, another former pro who killed himself in a similar fashion only 15 months ago.
Duerson had struggled for years with various symptoms of CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy — as brilliantly described by guest blogger Kathryn Fox yesterday), brought on by the multiple concussions he’d suffered throughout his playing career, and taking his own life, it seemed, was his way of escaping a future that promised only more of the same. He’d shot himself in the chest, a text message he sent his ex-wife before pulling the trigger explained, to keep his brain intact for researchers studying the long-term effects of CTE on former players like himself.
As Junior Seau had suffered multiple concussions of his own prior to his retirement in 2010, it’s at least improbable that the similarities between his suicide and Duerson’s are just coincidence. In the absence of any concrete evidence to that effect, however, all anyone can do to understand his final act is speculate, and wonder why, if his troubles were so grave, he never sought help from any of the many people who loved him.
Or did he?
What does a cry for help sound like under such circumstances? Does anyone really know? Ideally, of course, it would be short, sweet, and impossible to misconstrue: “Help me. I’m in pain. So much pain I’m thinking about taking my own life.” But who ever speaks that openly, that frankly, about themselves? Who has the kind of humility required to admit to such vulnerability?
Junior Seau was a former professional football player, a future Hall of Famer in one of the world’s most violent sports, so it’s easy to understand how difficult it may have been for him to reveal his troubles — whatever they were — to anyone. But Seau was also just a man, and men as a general rule don’t come to admitting weakness — let alone asking for help to overcome it — naturally.
Old fashioned though it may be, the idea that a man is supposed to be invincible — capable of fending for himself under any and all circumstances — is still very much in effect for most of us. It’s how we were raised to think, it’s the example we saw set by our fathers and their fathers, and their fathers before them. It’s the through-line of every ham-fisted adventure story we ever read or heard told around a campfire: A man survives. A man provides. A man bends but he never breaks.
But of course, some of us do break. At the whim of love and pride, among other things, we fall short of our great expectations and go to pieces. And some of us even do the unthinkable first: We ask for help. We just don’t do it in a way that’s easily recognized for what it is. We take the edge off, put bells and whistles on the plea so that the desperation behind it — the terrible, soul-crushing desperation — doesn’t show through.
I speak from experience.
No, no, put down the phone! I’ve never contemplated suicide. Ever. The God I believe in has never allowed things to spiral that far out of control for me, and I know with absolute certainty he never will. But my life has never been, and is not now without, shall we say, the occasional threat of rain. In fact, I’ve come close enough to losing everything I hold dear in this world to feel the draw of the abyss, to at least wonder how much worse death could possibly be than another day living in pain.
When I find myself asking that question, I ask for help.
But I speak in code.
I make my need sound like a nuisance, my level of discomfort akin to a sore tooth. I don’t talk about life and death, or the shedding of a single tear. I choose my language carefully, so as to avoid any suggestion that what I’m asking for is nothing less than my last hope.
Sometimes, a friend will see past all the camouflage and bullshit to the harsh truth underneath, but mostly, no one ever does. They just see what I’ve allowed them to see: one more disheartening message from yet another poor devil of their acquaintance looking for work. And what, in these hard times, is unusual or alarming about that? There’s no need for panic. Everyone remain calm. Bankruptcy is not a fatal disease. Divorce is not the end of the world. Hell, it’s not like Haywood said he was going to throw himself off a fucking bridge if he didn’t find a job soon, right?
Or blow a hole in his chest with a gun?
See, that’s the trouble with cries for help, especially those that come from a prideful man: They don’t always sound like a “cry” at all.
My father committed suicide. He was no football player, but he had been a police officer and a construction worker, two very macho jobs for the war baby generation he came from. No one heard his "cry" either. It was a phone call from out of the blue, and seems obvious with 20/20 hindsight.
I don't like to compare footballers and fighters with soldiers, but they are both members of our gladiator class. They fight for us, whether it is for our bread or circuses. And we ignore their pain. 18 veterans commit suicide a day, according to the Army Times.
Well said, Gar. Sometimes the message is easier to receive than others but we all need to be vigilant for those we love — or those we pass and think 'something doesn't seem right.' Writers are greatly intuitive; we see more than we know.
Well, that's some heavy stuff, my friend. I've been there, as you know. I've felt that crushing sense of disappointment and shame for not being able to support my family. The things that really keep me from falling off the edge are 1) my beautiful children, and 2) the fact that my father killed himself. I promised I would never put my children through that. My father taught me that lesson. My children are better off because of it.
What does that cry for help look like? Perhaps it looks like a car driven off a cliff; a football player claiming he fell asleep at the wheel. Seau called out once before.
Sometimes it looks like a blog post.
But I'll believe the strong words you've written – the God you believe in would never let things spin so far out of control that you would contemplate suicide. You've convinced me of that. But there's a lot of room between "things are a bit tough" and contemplating suicide. A lot of us live in that gap. Friendship and understanding, and sometimes a helping hand are the things that carry us through it.
What an incredible post in so many ways. One, such a perfect follow-up on Kathryn's from yesterday. Two, what a thoughtful examination of a topic we all too often dance around like it might blow off our legs. Three, what a moving insight into you, the man who says he doesn't open up as readily as Stephen or I do.
Well, when you do, it matters.
I love Thomas' reflections on military people, and I can only imagine the pain his dad went through. What soldiers and cops have to erase from their memories on an almost daily basis, and find they can't. Call it macho stoicism, the warrior ethic, the gladiatorial shell we call our manhood — it too often becomes a way of casting the blame for our anguish on ourselves.
But that's not limited to men. There are a record number of women, especially middle-aged women, committing suicide in this economy (so I've read). A good friend of mine, who'd battled fierce depression for years, took her life last year after hitting the financial rocks. And though many of her friends knew she was having a rough go, no one knew how rough.
I think the code you talk about is universal. And here's where I'm going to go out on a limb: I think it comes from a deep sense that we don't really deserve others' love or help. We feel we have to prove ourselves worthy of that love, for whatever reason in our upbringing or past. Love is a gift and we're unworthy. And so our pain is a burden on others, a hopeless task, and it's wrong for us to inflict it on anyone else.
Other times the pain just swallows you up. I have a very dear friend who just falls into a depressive down-spiral and can't pull herself out for days. Terror, dread and sorrow engulf her. But she was raised to be independent, look after herself. She holes up until it passes. I fear one day it won't.
After Terri died I confided to my closest friend I wasn't sure there was much point going on. And I could see in her eyes that what I'd done was a terrible imposition. I'd put my life in her hands. It was wrong and selfish. She loved me but had no idea what to do — how do you reach inside someone else's soul and turn off the pain?
And so I never said such things aloud again, and won't. Either I find a way to find a light in the darkness — and that often means taking heart in those who care about me, recognizing that concern more honestly and fully, or turning it around and stop dwelling on myself and focusing on someone else — or I admit I've lost my way and do whatever I've decided to do. That last decision is mine alone and I can't ask others to bring me back from it. I can't make them responsible for my life. But I can more fully accept their love and comfort, and let that make a difference.
Okay, I'm going on. Wonderful post, Gar. Thank you.
Wonderful post, Gar!
I've been in that dark place – battered and bruised, emotionally and physically, and feeling like all I had to look forward to was more of the unremitting misery I'd already experienced. I can remember contemplating who would miss me if I was gone, who'd be better off if I did it. Looking back with 15 years of perspective, I say frequent prayers of thanks that I didn't jump off the abyss. Like the Trevor Campaign folks tell GLBT youth, it DOES get better. At least, it did for me.
But it doesn't for everyone, and I can imagine only too clearly how powerful the siren song of oblivion can become when hope is lost.
Thomas: So sorry to hear about your father. One of my concerns in writing this post was poking at the open wounds of those who'd been personally affected by suicide. I didn't want that. Hope that comes across.
What you say about war vets is true and utterly heartbreaking. I don't know how anyone comes back home from war and finds a way to hold it together, I really don't.
JJ: Vigilance was precisely the message I was trying to convey here. And not just for friends and loved ones who may be contemplating suicide—but for friends and loved ones who may be hurting far more deeply than we have yet to notice. Because we all tend to measure our responses to calls for help by how much pain we think the person issuing the call is in. We need to learn to read between the lines better, to recognize a brave front for someone who's actually dying inside when we see one.
Stephen: I'm not going anywhere. I've never come close to inflicting the pain of surviving a parent's suicide on my children and I never will. My troubles just aren't that severe. But that's not to say they don't sometimes hurt like a motherfucker. But I suspect I'm preaching to the choir, aren't I?
David: You're right – men don't have a monopoly on the kinds of depressive forces I talk about here. Women feel them, too. And you bring up a good point about the reluctance one feels to "burden" his friends or family with the knowledge that someone they love is in grave turmoil. We don't want others to carry any part of our grief, and often fail to see how that would help, in any case. But sometimes it does help. Just hearing yourself admit what's real, out loud, can sometimes be an incredible relief all by itself.
Tammy: It DOES get better. Absolutely. All you have to do is find the strength from somewhere — or from someone — to wait the darkness out.
When I watched the San Diego Padres games and saw the men in the stands wearing their San Diego Chargers gear, it made me tear up. Not for the sentimentality of it, but for the identity — to bond with the man who went down.
The chest wound though — still giving to others (the medical research) — that weaves a complicated story.
One of my law partners is close to the two guys who started the "It Gets Better" Project (http://www.itgetsbetter.org/) and became their (pro bono) general counsel. As a consequence, I learned a lot about it, and all of that rose out of the need of others to prevent the suicide of young people who felt hopeless at a very vunerable time of their life. It has been effective.
What else can be done?
I have never confided to anyone when I was really down — although many who know me have a sense when I'm not myself (something akin to mentally curling into fetal position in a dark cave), the hardest thing for me to do is ask for help. I was the oldest, with a strong father, and grew up at a time when being stoic, brave, even macho for girls was all valued, and being needy was bad. I have no idea where that left me except I have that same God you do, and trust myself to pull out of whatever it is I got myself into.
Writers, and many come to mind, suffer the depression whirlpool and can't escape. I just got back from New Orleans and Confederacy of Dunces comes to mind. What a mixed bag of feelings and thoughts. All the more reason to provide support (and protection first) for the football players' and their potential injuries, to provide real counseling for our veterans and to provide some safety net out there for those that seek help. The "It's Get Better" project instills a kind of faith, and maybe that's what we have, in ourself, in life, I don't know. I would certainly like to weave it around those who are in pain and keep them afloat.
Insightful post on a difficult issue. So many great comments as well. The unheard cries for help are definitely out there for many, but there are others who refuse to cry out. And that leads me to agree with David's comment that "I think it comes from a deep sense that we don't really deserve others' love or help" — feeling unloved, undeserving of love, from either self or others, is a core imbalance and is often tied to an innate susceptibility within one's individual nature. I believe that, ultimately, only self-love keeps us here on earth, but often others who see and hear our pain can help ground us long enough to realize that self-love. Anyway, thank you for writing on a subject that is riddled with cracks and crevices…
Such a good point, Gar, and so well stated. Speaking in code – yes. And even those listening may not feel confident that they have heard it right, and don't want to trespass in someone else's innermost life and be wrong. Even when others figure out the need for help, the next barrier is what and how to offer.Thanks for reminding us to keep trying.
I think we're better at decoding the messages than we let on, even to ourselves, because we recognize that we don't know how to help and fear making things worse. And those who feel the need to send the messages also know that truth, and so aren't more forthcoming because they know the help isn't.
Or so I think as I write a horror story about a man waiting to die. 🙂
Allison: You are so right. Depression comes so easily to us writers. We're always inside our own head, the voices are never turned off, and when things go bad we can imagine a boat-load of worst-case scenarios without even trying. Something horrible befalls a non-writer, he thinks, "Okay, but really, what's the worst that could happen now?" And maybe he can think of one thing. But a writer? The awful possibilities just keep on coming…
Darla: "I believe that, ultimately, only self-love keeps us here on earth, but often others who see and hear our pain can help ground us long enough to realize that self-love." That is perfectly stated.
Stephen D.: Thanks for leaving us on that high note regarding your story. I feel so much better now. 😉
About 40 years ago, three friends suicided within a 10-month span: one man (family/money/sexual identity issues) and two women (family/professional/medical issues). The man planned his exit. For the two women, the circumstances suggested sudden decisions.
One of the women had intermittent severe chronic pain issues; today we call it fibromyalgia. Back then, people were told they were crazy, it was all in their heads, and so on. She had four children, a loving husband, and many students.
None showed signs that something final was in mind. But I think David got it – in retrospect we could see their conclusion that they were unloveable, unforgiveable.
It wasn't true. We still miss them.
Great post, Gar. Did you have this one planned before Kathryn's post yesterday? Or did her post inspire this one?
I didn't realise you were out of work and looking for a job. I'm very lucky and feel very removed from it over here – for whatever reason, the GFC didn't really seem to hit us. Certainly not like it has in other parts of the world. Or maybe our turn is yet to come. I'm not sure. Maybe you should come out here!
But back to the heart of your post. I think Tammy's point is key – it DOES get better. Even if it doesn't seem like it now, eventually you'll look back on this period from a time and place when things ARE better. Hang in there. And try to ignore your male programming and cry out whenever you need.
Gar, love… I know that code of safety and danger. One foot out the door commitment. Help. No I don't need help. God I hope he'll help me without actually helping me. No judgment that way. Strength gets help without risking the shame of weakness. No platitudes that way either. No consequences with possible benefits. xo
This is such a great post, Gar. I'm female, but in "man's work," and as the only child and grandchild in my immediate family have always felt like I had to be strong and perfect – so I ask for help "like a man…" and don't get it either. I'll support my brothers in opening up, you all give me a hand too! Life is too short to stay in pain, not know how to open up, and always look strong for others…
Thank you, Gar. Someone close to me has been crying out for help, and I didn't realize it.
I hope now I can do something to ease the pain.
Connie, if that's true, then my work here is done. Thanks.
PS, Gar: I loved this. It was very moving – and important.
Thank you, Reine. You're a doll.