The Burden of Reality

This is the most personal post I’ve ever attempted. I didn’t have any near death experiences or anything like that. Definitely wasn’t influenced by any religious experience considering the last time I was in a church was for a wedding in September. I was just standing in the kitchen when I started thinking about things of my past.

There’s somewhere around a million things I’m not proud of from my past. Some of them taught me great lessons that I will never forget. Others have cost me friendships and relationships that I’ll never get back. There’s some mistakes that I’ve made when I was a younger man that I still pay for to this day. Maybe not financially, but mentally they definitely take a toll. People tell me how great of a memory I have, but let me tell you, having a great memory isn’t always the most fun thing in the world. You’ll remember things that you would rather forget. Every time a bad memory pops up you have to relive the details over and over again. I can always remember all of the emotions and uncomfortable feelings that come with a mistake that I’ve made. There’s no one harder on me than me as I’m by far my worst critic.

Without any warning or trigger that I know of I started thinking about a kid from my childhood and high school years. I’m not going to use his real name out of respect for him. I’ll call him Gary for the sake of this post. I grew up down the road from Gary in the middle of nowhere Wisconsin. When I say down the road, I mean he was about a mile and a half away. For those of you who grew up in the middle of nowhere you understand that a mile and a half way means he’s practically your next door neighbor. There were literally 3 houses between Gary’s and mine. I would ride my bike past Gary’s house to get to school almost every morning. We went to the same grade school which wasn’t necessarily commonplace because the grade school we went to was a Lutheran school. It was in the middle of the farming community we lived in and didn’t have a lot of students. Growing my classrooms consisted of 2 grades combined in each room. 1-2 grade, 3-4 grade, 5-6 grade, and 7-8 grade. That was the extent of the school. And yes, I can still name all of my teachers from each grade. But that’s pretty easy considering you had the same teacher 2 years in a row.

Gary was a heavier set kid, socially awkward, didn’t really pay attention to hygiene, and loved to work on his dad’s farm. One would think that being at a Lutheran school in such a small community would mean that we all just pretty much accepted each other for who they are and it would be more like an extended family. Very much not the case. In most cases I credit my dad for making me the straightforward person I am today. However, the more I think about it right now, I’m coming to the realization that maybe it was grade school. We could be pretty brutal toward each other. Boys toward boys, girls towards boys, boys toward girls, girls toward girls, nobody was off limits and nothing was held back. Gary was definitely a target. There were a few other ones, too. Including myself for quite a while until the upper classmen moved on to high school. I was a scrawny, pasty,  ginger kid with large glasses and a side part haircut that I held in place with too much hairspray. I was about as easy of a target as you could get. That being said, it didn’t stop me from turning my own anger and frustrations toward Gary.

I’m not going to go in to all the details. Look up bullying 101 and you’ll know how Gary was treated throughout grade school. It wasn’t pretty and all in all he didn’t really deserve it. His life wasn’t exactly easy. Coming from a poor family, going to a small school where most people make your life hell every day, and growing up in the era where you were basically told to “get over it” if you were getting bullied added up to a difficult life. Near 7th or 8th grade Gary developed this relentless crush on a girl we’ll call Elle. I remember somebody finding a letter from him to her and it being spread around the school like wildfire. Thank goodness for the lack of social media back then. It went “viral” in the school, put it that way. What was all in the letter I can’t tell you. I can’t even recall if I read it, but I do know that I heard enough about it to let Gary know exactly how I felt about it. You would think that when he started crying from embarrassment we would have stopped. Negative. It just fueled the fire. Damn, we sucked as humans. We all did. No one was innocent.

Of course, Elle was a beautiful golden haired girl who was one of the nicest people you’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. If she was ever mean to someone I never saw it. I’m sure she was at some point in time, but I wasn’t involved so I really can’t say if she was ever mean. Even though she had absolutely no interest in Gary she let him down easy. She didn’t shut him out, she didn’t ignore him, she definitely didn’t lead him on, and she actually encouraged him to stay positive because he would find someone that makes him happy one day. That’s just the type of person that she was.

Gary’s life didn’t get any easier throughout high school but he did make it through. By the end of high school his family had lost their farm. He still loved being involved in the farming community and, from what I understand, held jobs on different farms throughout high school and shortly after. During the summer of 1999 he ended up working at a feed mill in a tiny town near where we grew up. It was the same feed mill I worked at for a while, but I was gone before he started there. He was driving one of their bulk trucks and was a model employee. Hard working, always on time, never complained. He also became a member of his local volunteer fire department. I don’t know a lot of details of his life after high school. I think he did his best, but I think he still had a lot of voids in his life he didn’t know how to fill. I’m not sure how he was treated in his adult life. By this time I hadn’t really ever come across Gary and I certainly never asked about him.

On February 23, 2001 at 21 years of age Gary decided to take his own life. He left a note that I never knew the details of except for one. He expressed his love for Elle one last time. I remember hearing the news of his suicide and I recall blowing it off like it was no big deal. No great loss. I was different then. Battling alcoholism without realizing that I was doing it. Living life recklessly with absolutely no regard for myself or anyone else. Allowing myself to feel like it was alright that I didn’t care about the death of a kid I’ve known most of my life. I scoffed at his suicide proclaiming his weakness as a person. I was convinced that you have to be extremely weak to actually go through intentionally ending your life. Not realizing. at that time, how incredibly difficult it is to get to the point where you want to take your life. It’s not “the easy way out” as so many like to proclaim it is.  Another person I didn’t think about was Elle. What must have been her thoughts and feelings on the situation? How tragic for her. Knowing her she probably felt guilt even though it wasn’t her fault. I think it was thinking about the guilt she must have felt that made me think of my part in his suicide while I was standing in the kitchen that evening.

It’s easy to point out all the things that led up to a person’s suicide. All of the different factors that were involved that collectively became too overwhelming for a person to handle. We can name twenty or thirty people who were just as mean or meaner than I was to Gary. We can talk about situations in his life outside of his peers that may have led to it. We can blame it on his mental capacity that didn’t allow him to deal with difficult situations the way a lot of people do so it ultimately led to him feeling that there was no way out. Blame it on whatever you want. That night in the kitchen I could only think of one thing. Could I have said something at some point in my time knowing Gary or given him some reason to not take his life? Was he one kind word away from sticking around? Did he need someone other than family as a support system? And how supportive was his family? Everyone seems to automatically assume that people have this family support system around them, but a lot of people don’t. I’m not sure if he did. I am sure that I didn’t do anything to help his situation in the time I knew him.

Exploring the way I feel about this is pretty confusing to be honest. Guilt sinks in, but then I convince myself that I wasn’t even a thought in Gary’s mind when he ended his life. I feel sad for his family, for Elle, and for Gary. Even more than guilt I just feel like a jackass. Trying to be the cool guy I participated in verbal and physical bullying that did nothing but leave me questioning the type of person I am 18 years after Gary took his life. The impulse to be mean, to show someone up, or to act like you’re superior to someone else always ends up being a moment of instant gratification that has no lasting affect on your life. Gary wasn’t the only kid growing up that I was mean to. Hell, as an adult I’ve been meaner to people than I’d like on plenty of occasions. It’s definitely not a fulfilling trait. I’m quite sure that my life hasn’t ever changed for the better after treating someone poorly.

This is coincidental that I’m making this proclamation now. It’s not a New Year’s resolution. It’s more of a lifetime resolution. I need to listen more and react less. It’s so easy to act on impulse rather than really listening to the person you have a problem with. Maybe the reason you have a problem with that person is because of your own insecurities. I’ve discovered that about myself a few times. I would rather be the reason someone hangs on for one more day than the reason they decide that’s the day to end their life.

My burning question will never be answered. How much did I have to do with Gary taking his life? That’s my weight to carry through the rest of this life. Many burdens that people carry are created by the person carrying them. I created the burden of that question that rings through my head. Like many other poor decisions I’ve made I get to live with the consequences of those decisions. I don’t think you ever get to “make up” for mistakes. The only real hope is that I can help someone in the future rather than hurt them. You can’t erase your past, but you can change your future.

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