The Dialogue Projects

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The Dialogue Projects

James Wolf

It was two weeks into summer break between my junior and senior years at Vanderbilt University. I was at a friend’s house out in the suburbs of Massachusetts watching an episode of Treme when my phone rang.

It was JD, the bassist from a band we started with our friends Kyle and John. We were all about a month away from moving to New York so I figured the call would be about scheming an epic summer or how Session Pete, our band, would get a gig.

“Hey man, got a minute?” I can remember the exact tone in his voice. At that moment I stepped away from the couch. He went on to tell me that the previous night Kyle had jumped in front of a train and killed himself. No light way to put it. You can’t dance around or let someone down easy on that. It gives me chills every time I think about it. It gives me chills when I cross train tracks. I couldn’t immediately process what happened. It wasn’t quite real yet. I sat back down on the couch shaking as if I had a case of the chills. Was this really true? Really Kyle?!

He wasn’t the “type of person” who would do something like this. He was the rush chair (in charge of recruiting and charming freshman to join our fraternity), one of the most social and outgoing people on campus. He had thousands of friends. He was doing so well in school and was about to start a highly coveted internship in New York City.

This was Kyle, the most upbeat dude I knew, always ready with a smile, some dap, and an enthusiastic hug that could knock you on your ass if you weren’t ready for it when you walked in a room. Of course he was fine. I know now that I didn’t see the clear signs because I was ignorant about mental health. I didn’t want to talk about it, and I felt it was embarrassing to reach out to someone about it. “Are you ok?” wasn’t something “cool” guys said to each other.

Sadness, complete confusion, and anger took hold of me throughout the rest of the summer. What would possess Kyle to do something like this? How could someone with such an awesome and loving family and so many friends ever feel like the world would be better off without him? Kyle’s wake had a line hundreds of people long out the door. The funeral had to be moved to a bigger church to accommodate the number of people grieving his loss. How could he ever feel so alone?

The following school year was a blur. I coped with the loss of Kyle by drinking excessively, especially in the summer and the first semester at school. It was weird being back and Kyle not being there.

None of our friends wanted to talk about it, tight-roping around Kyle’s suicide, like maybe not talking about it would make it less real. But a palpable tension hung everywhere, the gigantic elephant in the room, smothering everything.

We decided we were going to honor Kyle with a concert in the spring. We wanted to raise money for mental health awareness, but most importantly, we wanted to remember Kyle in the right way. We were able to get State Radio, one of his favorite bands of all time to come play.

Through some family friends, we were put in touch with Minding Your Mind, and it became our benefactor. At the time, it turned out to be a perfect match. On a subject we spent all year not talking about, Minding Your Mind immediately came in and said, “TALK ABOUT IT!”

A non-profit organization dedicated to erasing the stigma around mental health, Minding Your Mind sends young speakers who have suffered with mental illness into schools at all levels to tell their story. Many of these stories include attempts of suicide and severe depression. I’ve seen these courageous speakers talk to students at Vanderbilt.

The impact is incredible. I tend to cringe at the end when time comes for questions. I expect all the students to sit silent and ignore the important message they just received—just like I would have before I lost Kyle. I am so relieved when so many hands go up, and so many thoughtful questions are asked. And, in that, Minding Your Mind taught me something without ever saying it: when you open yourself up, it makes the others around you comfortable to speak about their own issues.

Now, I’m opening up to you, the reader, and I hope it will make you comfortable enough to seek help when you need it, or to ask a friend if they need help, no matter how “awkward” you think that conversation may be. I hope that sharing my story may help you realize how silly the stigma around mental health is, much like the speakers from Minding Your Mind have helped me realize it.

In high school, a break-up with a long-term girlfriend put me into a “funk.” I called it a funk because depression was too real for me. Besides, how could I suffer from depression? I could tell my parents noticed but didn’t know what to say.

My friends at school tried to keep me occupied as well, but we never spoke about what was wrong or how I was feeling. It never got to the point where I considered taking my life, but since that time in high school, and especially since Kyle’s death, depression became something I would deal with moving forward. So for the first time really, I’m saying proudly that I have suffered and still do suffer from depression, as recently as a couple of months ago. I even started seeing a therapist for the school year after Kyle died. Four or five years ago I would not have told a soul (let alone write it down on a piece of paper for others to read) that I suffer from depression.

But now, I can’t imagine not talking about it. I speak about it rather openly now and encourage others to do the same. Who doesn’t get sad? Who doesn’t get extremely upset over seemingly trivial things? And what’s wrong with that?

And what’s wrong with THINKING about it? I used to bury my emotions in my song writing, with lyrics taking on meanings that others would have never known. Kyle did the same thing, and we’d sit around comparing our song lyrics, discussing what they really meant.

Maybe if only I’d known better, if I’d talked with someone about mental illness, I could have said, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear the song is about that. Do you want to talk about it?” Maybe I could have made a difference. Maybe Kyle would be alive.

Minding Your Mind’s recent campaign #BeTheOne is about being that person who says something, who maybe saves a life. I would do anything to have been the one for Kyle. It pains me every day when I think about how ignorant I was, and how it took one of my best friends being so severely affected by depression for me to open my eyes. I never want a friend to feel the confusion, sadness and anger I felt after May 22nd, 2010.

I never want a family to sustain the pain Kyle’s family has suffered from their loss. I never want a friend of mine to feel the loneliness and sadness Kyle must have felt to do such an act. This fall, on September 9th, we are bringing the fight against the stigma surrounding mental health to New York City for our first annual A Celebration of Life: New York. This is not a solicitation.

This is me asking you to join in the fight against the stigma. This is me asking you to reach out to someone you love and say “How are you doing?” and really mean it, and really listen. If that person is taken back, explain to them that there’s no shame in not feeling okay.

What’s so bad about not having a perfect life? Be the one I failed at being for Kyle. Don’t wait for a tragedy to care about mental health. If we can fight this battle just by talking—if it could maybe save your friend’s life—isn’t that something you’d want to do?

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