There was a time when I didn’t feel this way. A time when I wasn’t suffering from depression; a time when I didn’t want to die. It’s faint in the recesses of my mind as if the emotions are hazy and distorted. I can’t make out quite how I felt before but I know it wasn’t this utterly soul-crushing despair. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to tell my story. I wasn’t sure if I should let people in. After all, this is my struggle. My battle. My problem. Or, at least that was the form of thinking that had dominated my life and my mind for the better part of the past seven years. But I now realize that, at the very least, I need to confront my depression. I need to face the looming black cloud of doubt and self-loathing that has darkened my skies for almost half of my life. Opening up is something that I never thought I’d do but, because of a few people that have truly saved my life, I believe it’s important to share my experiences. To declare without guilt, embarrassment, shame, or hatred that I am Jake Lawler and I am depressed. I have been for quite some time.
It never starts with someone wanting to take their own life. At least, it didn’t with me. The thought of suicide never even crossed my mind in middle school. I mean, the sheer finality of an act like that was inconceivable for 13-year-old me. It starts small. Someone says or does something that doesn’t make you feel good and you internalize it. It stays with you, almost as if it’s seared into your brain and behind your eyelids and if you don’t address it, it will burn hot and bright. My branding occurred in sixth grade. I was a strange looking kid. My facial features had not yet settled in an appealing fashion and my style was unequivocally atrocious (to be fair, we seldom see fashion icons in middle school so I’m willing to give myself a pass on that). Additionally, my lips were quite large and I hadn’t grown into them yet. This was the target a girl in my science class had picked to exploit. My name became Fish Lips and I mean that literally. Some people in my school didn’t even know my real name after that moniker found its footing. That’s just who I was to them. To everyone. It’s one thing to be teased and picked on but to have your name, your identity, taken from you is demoralizing and dehumanizing.
My only solace during this period of my life was that I was only Fish Lips to the white kids. The Black kids at my school rarely called me that and some even came to my defense. Until I joined the football team in seventh grade. There’s a certain sort of solidarity that comes with being a minority. A unifying bond forged in the fires of oppression, discrimination, and unfathomable hatred. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a punishment to be black. It’s a privilege. However, some in our community feel that this privilege shouldn’t be extended to mixed kids.
When I found out that I made the team, it should’ve been an extraordinarily jubilant occasion. The socially awkward and athletically inexperienced outcast was handpicked by a team of coaches to be on an actual organized sports team. I mean, it was truly something out of a Hollywood movie. All of my new teammates were congratulating me and voicing their approval as we walked out of the locker room. For the first time in my life, I truly felt as if I belonged to something outside of my family. Until my father came and picked me up. Initially, the guys thought that my dad was just another white man but as I started walking towards him, the realization set in.
The moment I opened the door to my dad’s car was the moment my Black card was revoked. My new brothers shunned me. They called me “cracker” or “white boy” and they called my father “slave master.” I had acclimated to Fish Lips. It was hurtful and demeaning to be known as that but, at most, it was a physical imperfection that could be remedied should I choose to do so. Losing my Blackness was and is something I will never be able to compartmentalize. I was broken by their words. Being insulted and disparaged by white kids hurt but to be ousted from the Black community was devastating. If I was too weird for the white kids and too white for the Black kids, what was I?
By the end of my middle school experience, I was lost in the world. I didn’t know who I was or what I belonged to. I had never felt more alone in my life. The summer going into my freshman year of high school is the first time I remember wanting to die. Initially, these thoughts were never something that I’d consider acting on. These fleeting, twisted notions were dismissed as quickly as they arrived but as the days passed, they began to stick. I couldn’t understand why this was happening to me. My family life was amazing and I was a good student with a new opportunity to start fresh. None of that mattered. I didn’t know why and it scared the hell out of me but every single day I thought about killing myself. I thought about extinguishing my life, my essence, my being, because I honestly believed that was my only out.
I analogize my experience to two versions of me walking on a track. The better version that wants to live is out in front while his suicidal counterpart lags behind. Every day I wake up, they begin to walk. On the good days, the better version of myself will be far out in front. On the bad days, the space between is much, much closer. The worst part about dealing with my depression is the sheer randomness of its appearance. There’s no varying degree of predictability. It comes in waves and there’s little to no reason for its arrival. I feel helpless and alone when these feelings invade my mind, evicting any semblance of happiness or self-efficacy.
The brunt of my depression’s unrelenting assault came during my sophomore year of high school. I wasn’t being bullied or ridiculed anymore for my lips or my lineage and I actually had friends. But the seeds had been sown. From the soil of derision sprouted a firm, menacing oak whose branches manufactured suffocating darkness around my mind. It had been months since I felt anything other than anguish. I had endured enough. I didn’t want to live anymore. My plan was to wait until after my brother’s birthday, as if it would be a courtesy to stick it out. As I said before, the dominant form of thinking during this period of my life was that this burden was mine and mine alone to bear and as much as I loved my family, I couldn’t bear it any longer. The day after his birthday I sat on a bucket in the shed behind our house with a belt laced between my fingers. My hands were shaking uncontrollably and I dropped the belt more than a few times. I tried in every way to force myself to go through with it, but staring at the abyss of death made me realize something. I wasn’t ready to go. Maybe I wanted to end it all, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
I kept thinking about my brother and my parents who love me more than words can express. Taking my life would be an action that would reverberate through the very fabric of their lives, and would ring for the rest of their lives. It would be at the end of every sentence they breathe, the echo of every footstep they take. If this was to be my struggle then I would allow no one else to suffer because of it. My family saved my life on November 23rd, 2015 and they didn’t even know it.
From that moment on, I was determined to fight back. I still wouldn’t allow anyone to know what I was going through but I’d be damned if I’d ever sink that low again. I threw myself into football and school, working tirelessly at both so my mind would never wander back down that path again. It worked for quite a while. During the last two years of high school, I can’t remember feeling depressed for longer than a few days here and there. I earned a great many scholarships to play college football and I found my home at the University of North Carolina. Life was really good, I mean really good. There were even some days where I felt happy. What I didn’t realize during this time of my life was that my depression had not died; it had been sedated.
October 2017 was when the thoughts came hurtling back with the velocity of a meteoroid. I was almost finished with my freshman year of college and I wanted to die again. As the year drew to a close, I needed to find another outlet to help subdue these compulsions. I found it in writing. I started small. A few sentences here and there. I just wrote about anything that came to mind. It helped, for a time, but I knew that if I wanted more substantial results I would have to think bigger. In early July of 2018, I began a short story inspired by a song from my favorite artist, The Weeknd. It felt so damn good to write it. I felt better about myself in every way. I was crafting a narrative. Creating a world in which I had control over what happened was immeasurably cathartic for me. It was so helpful that I didn’t want to finish it. I told the few close to me that knew I was working on the piece that I had writer’s block and I needed time away in order to finish. In reality, I was terrified that if I finished, I would be back in that pit, alone and desperate. But I wouldn’t let that fear control me.
In January of 2019, I finished my story. It was exhilarating. I didn’t know if other people would enjoy my work but I was immensely proud of myself and when the overwhelmingly positive response did come in, I was overjoyed. For a moment, I thought my depression had gone again. I thought wrong. Two weeks after releasing my story, I stood on the top floor of a parking deck on campus. I was going to jump. There was no family or friends or football or writing in my mind that night. The only thing I was considering was when to take that step. To this day, I don’t know what prevented me from jumping. I don’t think I ever will. The only thing I was certain of was that this had to stop. I still wasn’t sure if I should tell anyone. I still believed it was my problem. My roommate Michael convinced me otherwise. After we spoke, I decided to make an active change. I let more people in. I told my family. I told other friends. And now, almost eight years later, I’m telling you all and it feels better than anything else I’ve ever done. It’s like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders. I don’t know what lies ahead for me, but I know now I won’t have to go it alone.
For anyone that is concerned about their friend or family member, don’t wait to reach out. You don’t have to be inspiring or unusually motivating. You just have to be present. If they choose to reach out, listen to them. Look them in their eyes. Be with them in that space and understand that when they reach out, it is a sacred invitation. Don’t tarnish that. And please don’t say “at least” or “look on the bright side.” When you’re depressed, your world operates in shades of gray and you believe that you’re the reason for it. There is no bright side or light at the end of the tunnel initially. Understand that is a slow process and the only thing you can do for them is to be what they need when they need it.
For my brothers and sisters that are depressed, if you’re reading this, tell someone. I spent years in an echo chamber of self-hatred and it almost cost me my life twice. You are stronger than you know. Someone in your world loves you even if you don’t love yourself and if you think that people don’t care about what you’re going through, you’re wrong. I had the same thoughts as you did and if people didn’t care about me, I’d be dead. If you think no one understands, I’m living proof that someone does. I encourage you to reach out to me if you think you can’t talk to anyone else. My line is always open for those that need it. Your life is worth living. Start living it. Thank you to those who read this and those who helped me along the way. I don’t know what happens next, but I know that things will be different. So begins the first day of my new life.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255