“Write ‘love’ on your forearm,” my student’s message said.
It seemed an odd request, but it came from someone I admired and respected, and so I read on.
To write “love” on my forearm, it turned out, would make me part of a national movement of forearm-love-writers. The following day was actually the second annual international “To Write Love on Her Arms” Day (TWLOHA), an effort to raise awareness about suicide prevention and offer support to survivors of suicide.
My student’s message directed me to a website that told the story of a nineteen-year-old coke addict, depressed and distraught over the downward spiral of her life, who tried to commit suicide. With a razor, she carved “fuck up” into her left forearm.
Fortunately, she got help, and the people who helped her resolved to show her that life was worth living. She should have a different message on her arms, they told her. She should have “love” on her arms.
I knew, without reading the full story, that I would write “love” on my own left forearm.
I wanted to show my solidarity with the nineteen million Americans who struggle each day with depression.
And I wanted to show solidarity with my student.
Over the summer, this inspiring, talented young woman had tried to take her own life by swallowing a bottle of pills.
I knew she had been wrestling with obsessive-compulsive disorder. “The record player that my brain had become incessantly played my fears, making it unbearable to be around those I loved, to read, to eat, to breathe,” she later told me. “I wanted to stop thinking, and I didn’t care what I’d have to do to get there.”
Moments after she downed the pills, the finality of what she’d done set in, shocking her into action. She did not want the finality to be final, so she drove herself to the emergency room, arriving just as the pills began to take hold. They saved her life. She saved her life.
I found out about the episode a few weeks later when she wrote to tell me about it, after she’d begun her recovery. I was terrified for her and glad she was okay—or, if not okay, at least getting better.
Her story brought to mind my friend Pete Welch, a fraternity brother, whose story didn’t end so well. It was the early summer of 2000. Pete had driven up to Bradford from his hometown of Butler, Pennsylvania, to get a haircut, and then he vanished.
Pete had always been an easy-going fellow with a relaxed smile. He always wore shorts or, if the weather got too extreme, he’d put on a pair of wind pants. We ragged on him constantly about the way his pants swished when he walked. Pete also smoked a lot of weed—which no doubt contributed to his easy-going nature and relaxed smile and his bloodshot eyes and droopy eyelids. We ragged him about that, too.
Driving to Bradford for a haircut seemed like typical Pete. As a student at Pitt-Bradford, he’d found a barber in town he liked, and that was that, school year or no. I found out later from a mortician friend that suicide victims sometimes get haircuts or take care of other grooming needs so that their loved ones won’t have to take care of those things afterwards. It’s one small, final act of consideration before carrying out one of the most inconsiderate and inconsolable acts possible.
Just before Pete went for his haircut, he sent an unexpected e-mail to another of our fraternity brothers. In the note, Pete admitted he was gay, then went on to add: “I wish I could make it stop because I feel like I make God angry all the time. I don’t know what to do.”
Only after word of Pete’s disappearance reached me did I realize how worrisome his e-mail sounded. By then it was too late.
State police searched for Pete for a month before someone finally stumbled across his small pickup on a seldom-used oil lease road somewhere south of the Allegheny National Forest. Pete had run a hose from his tailpipe into the cab of his truck.
Long after the fumes had done their work, long after the truck had idled itself out of gas, Pete’s body sat there, undisturbed, for a month. The hot summer sun—which was hot, indeed, that summer—mummified his remains.
Pete’s mother held a closed-casket service. The preacher spewed hell and brimstone and reminded everyone that gays go to hell. I’m not sure how that was intended to comfort Pete’s mom.
After the service, Pete’s mother gave me a photo that I still keep on my desk. In the picture, Pete sits atop a beautiful Arabian horse with the Great Pyramids rising out of the Egyptian desert behind him. That trip, he had once told me, was the happiest he’d ever been in his life.
I catch myself staring at the photo sometimes, wondering, wondering….
I could have been there for Pete had I known he needed someone, but I didn’t know. None of us did.
I’ve since found out that it’s hard for people suffering from depression to reach out and ask for the help they need. I also found out, to my horror, that suicide is the third-leading cause of death for people ages 18-24—people Pete’s age, people my student’s age.
But there is hope. There is the realization, as another of my students wrote, that “[t]he darkest night has stars somewhere above the clouds.”
That second student—a brilliant writer who’d been my advisee for three-and-a-half years—has also encouraged her friends to write “love” on their arms. Several years previously, she revealed, she’d had a suicide-related experience of her own, but the timely intervention of her parents got her the help she needed before things went too far.
“We’re all worth more than a flash of desperation,” she wrote. “Choose life. Choose hope. Write ‘love.’
“Live on, my friends.”
Indeed. Please. Live on.