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
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