I remember thinking that my life couldn’t get worse.
It didn’t matter that it wasn’t even close to the truth. It was, at that moment, my truth.
I was 17, and even though I didn’t know it, my world was small. I had no way of knowing how much more pain life could inflict or how much more joy it could offer. And to exacerbate the situation, no one could have convinced me that there would be far more humiliating days. More importantly, there would also be an abundance of the kinds of accomplishments and joy that would make me repeatedly wonder why I was so fortunate.
This experience returned to me, as it does now and then, this weekend after I spoke to a group of teenage athletes hoping to use their athletic talent to inspire and uplift their friends, families and communities. Dustin Smith, the founder and president of Especially for Athletes, invited me to speak at the group’s leadership summit at Pleasant Grove on Saturday afternoon.
He’d asked me to talk about some of the lessons I’d learned from the Olympic athletes I covered, specifically resilience and perseverance.
As the student-athletes enjoyed lunch, a group of us discussed the fact that there had been two suicides last week at high schools in Salt Lake and Utah counties. For one school, it was the sixth since the school year started. It is a reality so heartbreaking, it’s difficult to even find words to describe the magnitude of fear, regret and sadness that accompanies even the most superficial conversations.
Even as I spoke to the teens, I couldn’t completely banish the thought of those two struggling souls from my mind. I offered them examples of athletes who didn’t see failure as an end, only a new direction or a different chapter. I told them how one gold medalist had made me realize that it’s the very things I wished I could change that were, in fact, my super powers. And I recounted how failure and tough luck had turned one two-time Olympic medalist into the most committed athlete I’ve ever covered. Her preparation for her second Olympic Games, after an abysmal showing in her first, gave her the ability to be confident in the face of extremely tough circumstances.
She is one of the athletes who reminds me that the work you put in is yours to keep, regardless of the outcome of the competition. The work, I have learned, is actually the reward. And even on the days that it seems pointless, hopeless and more like an exercise in futility, it is, in fact, improving your life in ways you may not see or know for years.
I ended with the lesson so many successful athletes have taught me in dozens of different ways. Regardless of the situation, gratitude is everything. When viewed through the lens of a grateful heart, any situation is transformed.
As I drove home, I thought about them. Later that afternoon, I went running, and I couldn’t help wondering who they were, what troubled them, and how to talk about suicide in a way that might save someone from succumbing to hopelessness.
Struggling to run up a mountain path on tired legs, I crashed into that memory. I say crashed because it didn’t just pop into my mind, it returned with at least some of the force it gripped me with when I was 17. I was cut from the volleyball team my senior year, which is, in reality, something that happens to thousands of teenagers every sports season.
I thought about averting my eyes as the coach told me, and not being able to say anything afterward for fear that I would burst into tears. They offered to let me be a manager for the team, but I was so humiliated, I couldn’t even imagine it. My three best friends were on the team, and I was not. All I could see and feel was shame and sadness.
I went straight home and into my room.
I told my mother, who informed my dad. We were not on great terms, at the time, but he bravely knocked on my bedroom door in an attempt to console and commiserate.
I told him to go away.
How could he possibly understand my pain, I thought.
One of my favorite poets, Maya Angelou, said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I know this to be true because I only remember a few things my father said that night, and none of them are profound. He made a bad joke about the coach not knowing what he was doing, told me about his own disappointment, and offered up a couple of possible solutions that I knew were unworkable but that somehow made me feel like there were options, even if they weren’t ones I was willing to take.
It did not erase the pain, but it did ease the agony, just a smidge.
All I could think was, I cannot go to school tomorrow. My friends know I’m a failure.
Everything people said to me as I repeated my new reality, from friends to teachers, felt like another stab of pain. Attempts to console me were agonizing. I endured them only because I feared isolation more than humiliation.
I remember feeling dismissed. I remember some comments that made me feel bad for feeling so devastated and others that made me feel petty for shedding tears over sports. I was told by more than one adult that in a few years I wouldn’t even remember this disappointment. In the grand scheme of things, they said, who makes a high school sports team doesn’t matter.
It mattered to me. It mattered more than I admitted for many, many years.
And that is what I kept thinking about as I choked back tears on my run.
In the weeks and months that followed being cut, I repeatedly asked God to never let me forget how it felt to be 17. I begged him to let me remember this pain, this ache and this helplessness that comes with being so close to adulthood and so incapable of being an adult.
A lump stayed in my throat for miles, and I had to walk. I spontaneously cried twice, and I felt a soft, inexplicable sadness that I couldn’t shake for the rest of the run. I felt, if I’m honest, like an idiot.
I tried to write two other columns before this one. But I have been haunted this weekend. I just kept thinking, it mattered to them. So, I open an old wound in hopes it might heal someone stinging from a fresh cut.
It is the act of showing up, offering a hug, and reminding each person they are more than what they can see at this moment.
That can be a start.
Solutions may be more difficult, more individualized and will likely be discovered by people who study and specialize in these kinds of issues.
But for today, it is my sincere hope that we swallow our own discomfort and just reach out.
We may never understand what kind of hopelessness grips a person so tightly that they see death as a better option. We may never know how it feels to wonder if living another day is worth the struggle.
And we may never understand the depth of sadness and isolation that some people feel, but the reality is the reasons are irrelevant.
You don’t have to understand the inner workings of a teenager to knock on the door. You don’t have to recognize the reasons for the pain to reach out and let someone know you care. You do not need to offer viable solutions to someone to realize there is always hope.
You don’t need to do anything but show up, make the call, offer the embrace or be a sounding board. It is the kindness that transforms the darkness.
Editor's note: If you or someone you know may need help, please reach out to those with expertise in this area.
In Utah, there are services available for those struggling and those wondering what to do to help or support someone they know. Utah Suicide Prevention information is available at https://utahsuicideprevention.org/get-help
National Suicide Prevention information and resources: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org