CW: This essay discusses suicide. If you or someone you know needs immediate help, please call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting CONNECT to 74174. The world need you.
By Donna Baier Stein
The first boy I fell in love with in college hung himself from a tree north of San Francisco, a short distance off the Pacific Coast Highway U.S. 101. I don’t know exactly how far up the highway from the Golden Gate Bridge or exactly what kind of tree. I do know at least one of the secrets that led him to take his life and how damaging long-lasting guilt can be.
Decades later, I decided to write a story in which he—let’s call him Don R.—was a character. I had to research “suicide by hanging.” The gruesome physical details I read made me regret confronting the painful memory. I realized that because I hadn’t seen Don’s body, part of the terrible impact of his act had bypassed me. But I also realized, after he appeared in a second story and a third, how much and for how long, his choice to end his life affected me.
When Don took his life, I—and his other friends and family—were halfway across the country in the Midwest. I was in Lawrence, Kansas—a listless undergrad who had returned, to my own and my parents’ dismay, from a semester at Bryn Mawr. I felt like a failure. My academic drive faltered, my mood plummeted. I found myself looking for any reason to affirm that life was really, really painful.
My first sight of Don R.’s high-voltage grin jolted me. His blue eyes sparkled, and he bounced as he walked around the K.U. campus—sometimes affectionately called “the Athens of the Midwest”—in his white leather Adidas Pro sneakers. We met through mutual friends, and when he asked if I’d like to go see Easy Rider with him, I grinned back an enthusiastic Yes. Continue Reading…