Suicide is on the rise in America. When I was young a neighborhood boy that we all knew hung himself. My dad sprinted to their house and tried to revive him. Two of my best childhood friends took their own life in their 20s and a close cousin killed himself by setting himself on fire. Depression and mental illness are all around us and many of us have loved ones that are struggling. It’s important we learn how to properly care for them and for ourselves as we do so.
My own life has been impacted too many times by suicide. It’s an awful, ugly, scary thing to have to deal with. It inevitably brings about what my dad would call “what-ifs”. You replay recent conversations. You look for clues in correspondence. You think back to what the person was wearing or their body language the last time you saw them. You think about what you could have done to save them. It doesn’t matter though because they are gone and there’s nothing you can do, say or think that can bring them back. Unless you have been on the brink and come out on the other side, I think it’s perhaps impossible to understand what drives someone to make such a permanent decision to exit this world as opposed to staying and fighting. Sometimes the pain is too much. Sometimes the other options seem absolutely impossible. Occasionally there are truly no other options such as when terminal illness strikes.
When I was fourteen years old my dad gathered me, my brother and sister together and sat us down on the living room sofa. He was pale, out of breath and it was so clear that something was terribly wrong. That’s the way I remember it. He proceeded to tell us that Adam had killed himself. In a panic, some member of Adam’s family called my dad. We didn’t live far away. My dad sprinted to their house. Adam had hung himself and was already dead by the time my dad arrived.
I don’t remember how the actual conversation went, but I know it hit us all really hard. It was the first time any of us knew someone that took their own life. And to make matters worse, we teased Adam so we all felt partially to blame. We were kids and kids tease other kids. There was nothing out of the ordinary about how much we teased Adam, but it was an intense and difficult lesson to learn. Be kind to one another. Be sensitive to other people’s pain and suffering.
When I was a little older one of my cousins who wasn’t much older than me took his own life. When I was in my 20s, one of my childhood best friends hung himself in a park. Just over 4 years ago another of my childhood best friends killed himself. There have been others that I wasn’t as close to or weren’t close personal friends, but they’ve had a tremendous impact on me. I hate that I am so familiar with suicide.
Aaron Swartz took his own life yesterday, which you may have seen in the news today. I didn’t know Aaron personally, but I enjoyed his writing, followed him online and supported his quest for freedom and intense desire to make the world a better place through technology, disruption and open access to information. Aaron’s death makes me particularly sad because, well, that’s just how you feel when the world loses someone like Aaron. 26 is far too young for someone to die, particularly by their own hand. He was undoubtedly a change agent in the world. He was prodigious, strong-headed, laser-focused and exceptionally passionate about the causes for which he fought. He inspired me to be more active and outspoken, particularly when it comes to digital freedoms.
The sadness is somewhat outweighed by the anger I feel about Aaron’s death. The fact that MIT and the United States Department of Justice had a hand in Aaron’s death is very troubling. After reading his family and partner’s statement there is no doubt in my mind that the combination of DOJ’s bullying and his battle with depression had quite a bit to do with Aaron feeling like suicide was his only real escape. They were scared of Aaron and were going to make sure he was put away for the rest of his life. And for what? For downloading too many journals. Demand Progress’ David Segar likened it to “trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.” It’s no wonder that the United States, and frankly the entire world, sees a rising tide of people-powered, radical movements like Occupy and Anonymous. As people gain a better understanding of the lengths that governments will go to remain in power, the more they will pull away from the mainstream.
My heart goes out to Aaron’s family and partner. I hope they take comfort in the outpouring of support from the Internet community and from everyone who was inspired by him. We will ensure that his passing is not his legacy. I feel grateful for having been moved by Aaron.
I don’t know many people that haven’t dealt with depression in some form or another. If you are feeling low, perhaps so low that you think you might take your own life, please talk to someone. If not a friend, then call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and get help. If you know someone who you suspect is suicidal, get them help and don’t leave them alone for any period of time.
Take the time to read a few things that have been written about Aaron:
Tonight the Internet goes dark for Aaron.