“Jesus, Easter, Suicide and Me” — 40 Years On
Former K2 Radio News Director Roger Gray wrote this kind introduction to this column five years ago, 20 years after I first wrote it for the Casper Star-Tribune and 15 years after the attempt.
It has been edited slightly from the original.
I've added an epilogue.
This column was written by one of the best reporters I've had the privilege of working with in 48 years in this business. It is raw, personal and very revealing. It lays bare a low point in a person's life when they contemplate the worst. But, Easter is about new beginnings. It is a time when we celebrate the fact that the sacrifice has already been made, and we are the beneficiaries.
We as an organization, have been involved in working to stem the rising tide of suicide in this state. If Tom's personal battle can help, then it has been worthwhile.
On this blessed and joyous day, it might be useful to contemplate that considering this act, is to dismiss the promise of Easter.
Regional News Director
Jesus, Easter, Suicide and Me
Today is Easter, the day Christians in the Western tradition celebrate the resurrection of Jesus -- the event proving that he made atonement for our sins.
Today marks my own resurrection of sorts.
Fifteen years ago this weekend, I tried to kill myself.
Unlike a lot of people, I lived to talk about it.
I was in my last term at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts -- founded in large part by Billy Graham -- and was attending an Easter Vigil service in 1983, when circumstances, addiction and will converged.
The circumstances were ripe for a suicide attempt. I had recently endured a terrible break-up with a woman. That April was probably the last I would spend in New England. I didn't have a job after four years and a score or so of thousands of dollars on a good education to be a minister -- which I then knew I wasn't cut out for.
And I was staring down an impending 30th birthday feeling that I hadn't done much with my life, other than chasing a desire that drove me away from family, friends and people in general.
The addiction, if that's the right word for it, was to spirituality, Jesus, religion, theological education and anything that could resolve the Big Questions of life. Other people have their own addictions: sex & drugs & rock 'n' roll, gambling, materialism, or whatever they give everything for that doesn't give much back -- other than a crutch or a high that leads to a low that spurs the quest for another high and so forth and so on.
So it was with my relationship to God. For most people, piety offers hope, healing and community. But for some, it functions as a drug and harms them as they try to live someone else's idea of a relationship with God. Instead of following my heart, I followed the advice of others -- some well-meaning and some, not so.
What should have been a healthy relationship turned dysfunctional. This "faith" took my money, my personality, my youth, my relationships, my hopes. It exacerbated a very real clinical depression. Through years of devotion, I came to equate the love of God with self-hatred. More piety meant more hatred. I became imbued with a deep and terrible shame, a stranger to myself, my family and what friends I had.
And I hit bottom.
At the Easter Vigil that year, circumstances and addiction merged.
My will took over probably about 10 p.m. when my former girlfriend walked in with some friends and sat down a few pews in front of me.
Whatever else was in me vanished.
My world went black, and I began my exit.
I blew out the flame on my little Easter Vigil candle, walked to the back of the church and handed it to the usher.
I drove to a liquor store, bought a bottle of whiskey -- it seemed to me to be the strongest thing available -- drove home, swallowed every pill I had and drank half the bottle.
Mother Nature got to me before Old Man Death. I threw up half of what I ingested.
Nevertheless, my sole intention was to make this the last night I would lay me down to sleep.
But miracles still happen.
I woke up.
I went to church. I had lunch. I finished a resume.
I had a two-day buzz like you wouldn't believe.
I began to realize the horror of what I had done.
And I told my ex-girlfriend. Suicide is one hell of a way to try to get revenge.
I told a few others. Some of them, including a counselor and a physician, told me that what I did should have fried my brains at the least.
But over the past 15 years, I've not told many beyond that. So why now?
Because I know I haven't held myself to the same standard that I hold those who are sources for stories I write.
For example, in recent years, I've covered multimillion dollar securities scams, some of which have had the complicity of local churches.
People who've been suckered by them say they are embarrassed, ashamed and sometimes destitute. I tell them that these frauds, as well as domestic violence or institutional corruption, thrive in silence. If people speak up, they may be able to help someone else avoid being taken, or beaten, or abused by individuals or corporations or governments.
But I've come to realize that I'm a hypocrite for asking people to come forward with their stories of being financially scammed, when I won't talk about the biggest scam of all -- suicide.
On a personall level, it may solve your problems or my problems, or so we think. But those who solve their problems in this way inevitably leave behind a legacy of heartbreak.
I also feel ready to discuss my story at this time because Wyoming has one of the highest suicide rates in the country, especially among youth.
And it's got to stop. It's wrong. It's irrevocable.
We all have our own dark nights of the soul, the tragedies that, no matter how common, are still intensely personal -- and unbearable alone.
It can seem easier to yield to the temptation of prematurely embracing the significant other of death. And that significant other to me is beautiful.
For me, Lent and Easter are still the saddest times of the year, although they're getting easier to bear.
Of course, it's better not to have taken whatever road that led us toward self- destruction in the first place.
But we can retrace our steps on the wrong road. We can't do that buried at the crossroads.
If I had succeeded in my own self-destruction 15 years ago, I would have failed at everything else. I never would have known what it was to struggle and maybe triumph.
I never would have interviewed Lech Walesa on the fifth anniversary of the crushing Solidarity. I never would have known the ugliness of Southeast Texas culture or the exhilaration of living in the West. I never would have learned ballroom dancing. I never would have inhaled the intoxicating perfume of lilacs growing in my own back yard.
I never would have known the pain of joblessness for 17 months or the joy of finding work I enjoy. I never would have known the reconciliation with my family, the fondness for my cat, the shelter of a house I can call my own, and the rare joy that something I write might actually cause change in society or another person.
There are some things I haven't known.
At the age of 44, I often still wonder what "normal" is in terms of desire, bonding with people, goals, and love.
I haven't worked through those Big Questions I thought I could through knowing Jesus and attending seminary and practicing devotion.
But I don't worry about "normal" or Big Questions, because in time I'll find healing, just as I've found healing over time in so many other areas of my life.
And I do know that I have the opportunities to recover what I lost.
So do you.
A lot of life is beautiful. A lot of life sucks. Most of life lies somewhere in between. But you cannot know the extremes or the great gray middle when you're dead.
Don't give in.
Call a friend, a counselor, a hot line.
After all, it's Easter.
Forty is a big deal number in the Bible.
Noah, family and animals in the ark endured 40 days of rain.
Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years before arriving in the Promised Land.
Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness after being baptized and turning down the devil's offer of total world power in exchange for his soul. (Cue U2's "Vertigo" on How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb.)
Speaking of U2, "40" -- based on Psalm 40 -- is the final track on their album War. A month after the attempt, I saw the band play at the Orpheum in Boston and "40" was then and often the closing song of their concerts. (That was the same day I got the call about my first journalism job.)
In other words, 40 in the Bible often indicates a time of testing and coming out on the other end with a vision for the future.
Forty also marks the number of years since the attempt.
In the 25 years since I wrote this, my parents died; my goal/calling to be a reporter has sharpened; I've traveled; inherited and restored my dad's 1948 MG TC; acted in community theater; became friends with the aforementioned ex-girlfriend; became financially stable; suffered the deaths of two cats; met a lot of amazing people; covered stories big and small; endured another round of unemployment from when I got walked out of the Star-Tribune in May 2012; learned this newfangled digital stuff at Casper College; was hired by K2 Radio News in 2014; retired in April 2021; and returned to the Townsquare Media fold in July 2022.
What you don't see in the above paragraph is my development of what "normal" means in terms of desire, bonding with people, goals, and love -- the humanity that augments and enhances the above experiences.
Abuse started all that.
Over the years, I've covered a lot of crime, courts, cops and litigation. Some of that includes cases of child and elder abuse, child pornography, sex crimes of minors and adults, and violence of all sorts.
The effects of such abuse, especially among the young, will dog a person for a lifetime: post-traumatic stress disorder; sexual dysfunction; grown victims abusing child victims; victim blaming; social and economic problems; mental health issues such as depression and anxiety; loss of self-esteem; substance abuse; and the fallout of what I didn't understand in 1998 -- about "what 'normal' means in terms of desire, bonding with people, goals, and love."
Of the four, "goals" became clearer.
Bonding and love are batting about .005.
But killing desire was the worst.
What I didn't understand in 1998 is what might be best called "spiritual abuse." There's been plenty of that forever with religious authorities justifying war in the name of God, ripping off people for money in the name of God, and ripping off souls in the name of God.
Abuse is just as bad when you do it to yourself.
My soul was ripped from me in my freshman year at Miami University. Growing up, I was the ugliest thing you ever saw walk on a playground, with the major feature being really thick glasses to overcome a nearsightedness of probably 20/2000 and the consequential low self-esteem and utter failure at sports. A couple months before heading off to Miami, I got contact lenses. For the first time in my life I saw what I looked like.
So I get to college with a new image of me, and then ran into evangelical organizations doing their evangelism thing, especially with the new students.
That appealed to me. How could it not, because I would have personal relationship with God and would do what God wanted.
However, there was this inner child nagging me with, "you don't know who you are yet and now you're getting into something really foreign."
I ignored my heart (because the heart's desires were considered wicked) and immersed myself in that subculture.
My involvement with that meant putting aside desires such a pursuing a career, grafting on to a sometimes weird subculture, pushing down the "me" that I interpreted to be the former unsaved self, and foregoing any romantic relationships (in college, for crying out loud!).
And the results?
There's no there there when it comes to my basic human behavior: Why would anyone want children? Why would anyone give me a second glance to be a friend or lover? What's the point of being interested in someone else?
This fed on itself, and was fortunately interrupted with my first reporting job in Southeast Texas where I had to deal with people not from my subculture.
There's more to unpack with this life thing, but I'm getting there.
So back to 40.
Maybe there's something to it, a time of wandering and testing and leading to a vision for the future.
My hope for you is that your 40 doesn't take 40 years to gain some realization for you to understand your self-worth, your ability to give and receive love, and the time to figure out what you want to be and do.
Resist those who promise to offer something -- a slick business deal, an "I'll respect you in the morning," salvation, some cause or movement -- when something inside you says "wait a minute" or just "no."
After all, it's Easter.