Working Ourselves to Death

*Warning – This post talks about suicide and can be triggering for some folks. If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, resources can be found here.

On May 4th, a teenager, Arlana Miller died by suicide after posting a note on Instagram. I learned about it from a video of my cousin tearful and shaken asking people to check on one another, and most especially the strong people in our lives who we tend to forget about, because we think that they can handle whatever life throws at them. As I listened to my cousin speak, my initial thought was to write an article on Linkedin about it. But, I hesitated because I remembered reading a post from someone saying that he was tired of seeing things on Linkedin that didn’t have anything to do with work or career related advice.

But now, a week out, I can’t think of a better place to share this because the fact is many people see suicide as a way of escaping the struggles in life and the feeling that they are failing at being the best version of themselves they can be. And the two places in life that I can think of where people tend to measure themselves against others the most is work and school. And for whatever reasons, it is in those spaces where the cultures tend to expect us to turn off the parts of ourselves that are challenging and just get the job done. But as the title of my newsletter says, “People are not things.”

When I read her note, it was so painful. It reminded me of when a high school acquaintance died in the same way. These are portions of Arlana’s note.

Arlana Miller age, 19

“I know that I’m letting a lot people down by what I’m about to do. I have written so many suicide notes in my life but finally, I’ve reached my end.

I have been surrounded by people who may have honestly thought that I was okay, but I [haven’t] been okay for a while.

I have fought this urge since my early teenage years. I gave this life all the fight I had. I struggled so much through just this year alone. From covid, to tearing my acl, to nearly failing all of my classes. I always dreamed of becoming so many things that I am today, but they just aren’t enough. I’m not enough. I [haven’t] felt enough for a while. But I say all this to say, I’m done fighting. My battle is over and I pray everyone finds peace in that.”

Some time ago, I wrote a piece on the concept of “Enoughness” and how it is critical for organizations to understand what that means for them and their people if they intend to work sustainably in every sense of the word. I feel that now more than ever. Many companies and other institutions say that their people are their biggest resources. But, do we really know what that means? I don’t think it is a part of the American culture. If anything, we push the “never enough” narrative that I think was haunting this young woman who lost her battle with this mindset. I took a hiatus from the corporate world so that I could learn how to share the message of “enoughness” with folks. We have to do better in creating spaces, to include work and school, where this message is communicated effectively.

Below is the story of the situation when someone I knew died by suicide. It originally appeared under the title The Ghosts of Suicide on my blog, The Roofless Church. I’m sharing this because the fact is that we never know what others are going through or how or seemingly minor interactions could impact them. And of course, I know that we can’t all be therapists for each other. Some people’s wounds go deeper than we can ever imagine. But one thing we can do is be kind to one another. I hope that in sharing this now, it might plant a seed of compassion for someone in your life.

In A Matter of Moments

For about thirty years now, I have been carrying with me the death by suicide of a girl I went to church with back when I was in high school. Just writing that sentence is tough for me. But I promised myself that I would write about *Sheila before the end of suicide prevention month so I am forcing myself to write this now.

The reason why Sheila’s death created a trauma for me is not because we were particularly close, but because I sometimes wonder if I should’ve been. When I ask myself if I think I am partly to blame for her death I can easily tell myself I’m not, but even as I tell myself this, I can feel in my flesh that I am still carrying her with me and likely always will be. And more than that for years I have been afraid that if I put my thoughts into words, I will realize that I am partly responsible.

If you haven’t heard of it, there is a show on Netflix called, 13 Reasons Why, about a teen who dies by suicide. She leaves 13 recordings to the people that she feels contributed to her making the decision and I imagine the show is about how each of them deals with the implications. I have not even watched one episode and truth be told, just the trailer got my stomach churning and feeling sick. At one time, I thought about watching it for cathartic purposes, but I am still not there. My biggest fear is that one of the interactions that contributed to the character’s choice will be something that one of the implicated people would have never considered–something like my interactions with Sheila.

Here’s the thing with Sheila and me. In my mind, Sheila and I were not as close as she thought we were. Until a couple months before she died we only orbited each other’s worlds. I saw her at church every once in a while and didn’t even really notice her until one football game she came up behind me and hugged me. I was surprised by it, but didn’t make a deal about it. She was with some girlfriends and for some reason decided to hang with me. I hung out with them for a while and then figured that would be it. But, it turned out that she got my number from a mutual acquaintance and some days later she called me and told me that she liked me. I told her that was nice, but that I had a girlfriend. I thought that would be the end of it. We said we’d be friends which for me was easy. We talked on the phone a bit, but when she started saying that she still liked me I decided to stop talking to her. Some time later she stopped by my house unannounced. I talked to her for a little while and then I made an effort to be really clear that I only wanted to be friends.

The calls stopped for the most part, but she did call me to tell me when she found a boyfriend. She asked if I was jealous. I joked that I was a little, but that I’d get over it. She said a few other flirtatious things that I tried to discourage. But when I could tell that it wasn’t really working, I pretty much let her know I couldn’t keep talking to her if she persisted. Knowing how I expressed myself at the time I probably said it very directly with less sensitivity than I currently use. That’s the last I remember talking to her before hearing that she died.

It turned out that she became pregnant by the new boyfriend and he didn’t want to accept the child. She mentioned this in the note that she left as well as that she only dated him because no one else wanted to be in a relationship with her. As I heard it relayed to me, she said that she did not even like the boy but just wanted to feel loved and that when the person she liked didn’t like her, she figured that if she dated someone who she was not attracted to, that person would feel lucky to be with her. But now she was pregnant by someone she didn’t even like who was denying the child. Another factor was that she feared that she would be shamed by the community for getting pregnant out of wedlock in the first place.

It’s Not About Me

All of these year’s since Sheila’s death I still sometimes find myself wondering if there was something that I could have said or done to let her know that even though I didn’t want to be in a romantic relationship with her, I still could have been a good friend to her. But I imagine I am not the only one who feels that way. Besides that, I can only assume that she could not access that possibility from the place she was residing emotionally at the time. In order for her to have even considered that possibility, I would have had to be hyper-vigilant in conveying that to her, which I wasn’t. And the truth of the matter is that I probably would not have been as good a friend as I imagine I would have been. But that’s what the ego does. It makes everything about us and fills in gaps with coulda, shoulda, wouldas, that virtually have no substance unless we actually use the experiences to make a positive change.

One other thing that comes up for me is that I remember in those days, “go kill yourself” was a saying that many people my age would use when someone would say something that you thought was outrageous. These days, I know that this is something that no one should ever say to another person, but at the time, it was common to think that saying this to another black person was relatively harmless because the belief was that black people don’t die from suicide. I now also know that this is a myth, but at the time I thought it was a a fact. Now, I don’t remember ever saying that to Sheila, but I know there was a time that I used that saying as much as anyone else and I know that some of the things she said to me were outrageous. So there is a chance that I could’ve been careless enough with my words to have said this to Sheila in an effort to deflect her interest. That’s why even though I logically accept that there is no way that I will ever know if I said it or not, whenever I hear of a teen suicide, my mind replays my interactions with Sheila and I feel the thorns that remain in my flesh to this day reminding me that life and death are truly in the tongue just as the scriptures teach.

Even though I don’t know if I said this to her, I do know that I never said it again after her death and for a time I tried to stop other people from saying it. I guess I felt like since I wasn’t there for her in life, I could be there for her in death and hopefully know how to be there for someone else if I ever found myself in that situation again. The fact is I failed in my relationship with Sheila. I sinned in my encounters with her. I missed the mark. But, as famed futurist and thought leader, Buckminster Fuller taught, sin simply means omission where admission should have occurred. Additionally he taught, “The courage to adhere to the truth as we learn it involves, then, the courage to face ourselves with the clear admission of all the mistakes we have made. Mistakes are sins only when not admitted.”

My prayer with this post and the attached video that goes more in depth, is that we will be encouraged to forgive ourselves for the mistakes we make and extend that forgiveness to our brothers and sisters that we encounter in our day to day lives. We need to build this capacity now more than ever.

∗ I am calling her Sheila to protect her family and friends.

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