Calkins: Suicide story hits close to home

Matt Calkins: Commentary

By Matt Calkins, Columbian Sports Reporter

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The most foolproof way, it seemed, was a bullet to the head. But I didn’t have access to a gun.

The most painless way, hours of research told me, was carbon monoxide poisoning. But catalytic converters make it nearly impossible for exhaust fumes to kill these days.

I thought maybe I could make a fall from a cliff look like a rock-climbing accident, which might ease my family’s pain, but just like overdosing on pills, I feared the insufferable future that survival might bring.

Whatever the means, I knew this: In a world where everyone preaches that “life’s too short,” I fantasized about making it shorter.

Nobody who knew me would have guessed this, of course. Just like nobody would have guessed it with Junior Seau. In the hours after the future Hall-of-Fame linebacker took his own life via a gunshot to the heart, tributes to his effervescence and affability slammed news outlets like a flash flood.

Yahoo Sports’ Michael Silver described him as “gregarious, ebullient, hilarious, and immensely popular.” T.J. Simers, normally The Los Angeles Times’ resident curmudgeon, reflected on a man who was “always so full of life” and “prompted an incredible feeling of joy.” And U-T San Diego’s Logan Jenkins noted how, three days before the suicide, Seau attended the funeral of a cherished mail carrier, where mourners described his demeanor as “cheerful” and “motivational.”

Obviously, Seau hadn’t been feeling very cheerful lately. Irrational as suicide may be, it’s rarely an instinctual act but rather one that’s been cocooning for weeks, months, or years. But sometimes there is no better camouflage than human flesh, and as any seasoned sports writer can attest, few are more adept at putting up false fronts than pro athletes.

I’m not going to pretend to have a clue what was infecting Seau’s brain. Maybe he had concussion-induced depression. Maybe there was a recent event that threw his world into a 1,000-watt blender. Or maybe, despite the 43-year-old’s fortune and accomplishments, his sense of purpose had long been on the run.

I am, however, willing to guess that the following were true:

1) He didn’t want to discuss his emotions. Despite the ever-expanding market for psychotropic medication, mental-health issues are far more stigmatized than just about any physical condition. I was a 175-pound geek who played back-up shooting guard in high school, and I didn’t want to admit to any sort of weakness. How do you think a 12-time Pro Bowler would feel?

To me, confessing suicidal thoughts would be devastating to family members, off-putting to friends, and was the kind of disclosure that would cause a therapist to have me committed. Never mind the emotional gut punch the revelation would have on me. The one time I managed to force the words out to a counselor, I cried. Hard. Is it that difficult to think that Seau, universally known for the delight he brought to others, would be reluctant to divulge something similar? Which brings me to my next guess.

2) He still wanted others to be happy. I think one of the bigger misconceptions about suicide victims is that they are self-absorbed narcissists completely devoid of empathy. How could anyone worth a damn risk causing their loved ones such grief?

And there’s something to that. After all, if a man would be willing to go through hell to save his wife or child’s life, shouldn’t he be willing to do the same to prevent permanent emotional scarring?

But when you’re in a 50-foot-deep depression, your thoughts get twisted into Eagle-Scout knots. And people imploring you to ‘get over it,’ or to ‘man up,’ or to ‘stop being so selfish,’ are like Ruth’s Chris patrons complaining about a transient’s growling stomach.

The truth is, I would have loved to be able to man up. In fact, most of the time I did — presenting as chirpy a disposition as possible so that others would remain upbeat. But that can be exhausting, and if the proper outlet fails to surface — deadly.

Most writers are reacting to Seau’s suicide by asking what kind of effect concussions had on his decision, and whether other football players are at risk. But what about also using his death as a catalyst to show how even the strongest and sprightliest suffer internally, and that it’s OK to unload our darkest thoughts to loved ones or professionals?

You know how you walk into a restaurant starving, wondering how the other diners can possibly leave food on the table, then walk out stuffed, wondering how they could possibly eat?

Well, for years after college, I suffered through unexplained melancholy — unable to fathom a constant state of contentment. But now, after talking to people willing to listen, and getting the proper help, I can’t fathom ever wanting to leave this world.

Depression is just as real as a bulging disk or a broken leg. But because there is no limb to wrap or skin to stitch, it often goes untreated.

Most of the time, victims make known their suffering. Unfortunately, when they do, it’s often too late to help.

Matt Calkins can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or email matt.calkins@columbian.com. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.