What we can learn from suicide, addiction

A little over two months ago, a friend of mine committed suicide.

We became friends in middle school. We were both struggling with depression and general teenage angst. I had been self-harming for years, and he became my confidant.

At first, we enabled each other. He introduced me to his unhealthy coping mechanisms, and I introduced him to mine. Somehow, that progressed into a kind of tough love, with him calling out all of my bullshit and basically forcing me to get help. If it weren’t for that pressure, I’m certain I wouldn’t be able to say that I’m approaching three years of being clean.

We drifted a little. He got addicted to heroin and dabbled in other drugs. He would message me at odd hours and none of what he said made sense. It was overwhelming. I knew he was high, and it felt like he was far too close to overdosing. I had to resort to ultimatums.

He eventually got some of the help he needed, and was able to maintain sobriety for considerable amounts of time. He came so far in such a short period of time, and I have never been so proud of someone’s progress and commitment.

There would be the occasional slip-up, and there were a few serious relapses. But, the last I knew, he was doing much better. He had a job and was taking classes at our local community college. We had plans to get together and catch up over Thanksgiving break.

It still doesn’t feel like it actually happened. I have lost far too many friends and acquaintances that were around my age to things like suicide and overdoses, and each loss is just as shocking and devastating as the one before.

The national drug epidemic is a tragic problem, and it is going to take so much—beginning with widespread legislative overhaul and a change in the attitude we use to approach these problems—to even make a dent in its influence. Sadly, but also thankfully, the death of an individual makes this a tangible issue to all of the people that knew them. It forces a dialogue focused around traditionally taboo and “shameful” topics like addiction, depression, and suicide. The absolute least we can do is embrace that dialogue.

When someone dies, it’s natural to want to romanticize that person’s life. It seems like there’s no purpose in remembering the negatives, as it’s too late to do anything about them. My friend was a wonderful, kind-hearted, nurturing person, and, understandably, that’s all anyone wants to think about after his death. But he was also addicted to drugs and faced a very imperfect system for handling that addiction. It’s important that we talk about those negatives, for the sakes of all the people who are—or ever could be—in situations similar to his.

While no particular thing, process, or person should be left with the blame, we all could have done more. I could have done more, and nothing hurts quite like knowing that.

Instead of wallowing in that sadness and guilt, I am committed to doing more, and I guess that starts with writing this. While we have made progress regarding addiction and mental health, there is a lot more to be done. We need to start by having an open dialogue that extends beyond those forced out of tragedies, and it needs to start on an individual basis.

I know that emotions are messy, and sometimes it’s easier to ignore them, but it’s important to be mindful. Talk about these kinds of issues with friends and take them seriously. Check in on the people around you when things seem even slightly off, or when they seem to withdraw. Disregard the potential for discomfort and awkwardness. Something as small as reaching out when someone needs it can make all the difference.

Also, if you are struggling, please know that mental illness and addiction are not things to be ashamed of. They do not make you any less of a person, and these things do not define who you are. If you’re ready, don’t be afraid to get help. There are resources available, such as counseling, hotlines (like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline that can be reached at 1-800-273-8255), and a variety of others at poly.rpi.edu/s/resources, if you want, or feel the need, to take advantage of them.