An Open Letter on Suicide by Paul Downing

Throughout National Suicide Prevention Week, Brothers will share personal stories of how suicide has affected their lives in an effort to show the impact that suicide can have. The hope is that by creating awareness and shedding light on a hard truth, Brothers may be able to intervene and save a life.

Brothers who want to share their story can send an open letter and a headshot of themselves to editor@sinfonia.org.

Paul Downing, a 2014 initiate of the Sigma Alpha Chapter at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst shares the story of how sharing his struggles with others saved his life.

Paul Downing
Sigma Alpha – 2014

Still Here: An Open Letter on Suicide

I am fortunate enough not to know anyone who’s done the deed. There have been a few attempts, but they’ve never succeeded. So this isn’t necessarily about how it’s affected me.

It’s about how I came dangerously close to doing it, and how I’m still working to survive it.

It started in the summer of 2013 when I theoretically had it all. I had just started a new college major that I was finally passionate about, I had come off a very successful tour of drum corps, and everything just felt right for the first time in my life. And then my grandfather passed away a week before I was set to go back for my junior year.

To give some clarity to the kind of man he was, I will simply say that my grandfather embodied all of the ideals that we strive for as Brothers; you all would have loved him. He was the greatest man I ever knew. And like the dumb teenager I was (I was barely twenty when he passed), I took him completely for granted. When you finally realize the type of person you want to be after that person is already gone, it changes you. It shifts your perspective. And it doesn’t matter how much you have going for you, none of it matters when the person you want to share it with most is no longer there.

So I stopped going out. I barely left my bed, let alone my room. I went to a few parties, but more out of obligation than actually wanting to be there. I missed so many classes that I started failing by default. I didn’t put any effort into my music. I didn’t do anything at all, because what was the point? I didn’t feel anything either, because what was the point?

And the worst part was, no one knew. I had been conditioned before this to think that revealing that I was both hurting and numb was a sign of weakness. At the same time, there was a part of my brain telling me that no one wanted to hear about my problems. No one would actually care if I wasn’t okay. So I told people I was and deflected whenever the conversation turned towards me.

It was easy to maintain the lie because I had a random roommate during the first half of the year that was definitely not my friend and I lived alone in the second half. There was no one to see that I was a mess and force me out of bed. I wasn’t suicidal at this point, and I thank God for that because it literally would have been so easy.

No, that part came the following summer of 2014, once again just before I went back. I finally decided to try to tell my parents how I was feeling. And before I even got one full sentence out, they were telling me that I was stupid for feeling that no one cared about me, that I was being unfair to the pain of other people, and that I was wrong for feeling alone. Inadvertently validating in my depressed view every single horrible thing I had ever thought about myself.

That was when I started to wonder what would happen if I stepped out into traffic right at that very moment, or if downing the entire bottle of allergy medicine would do anything.

That went on for a couple of more months: just straight-up fantasizing about ways I could do it. And the worst part was, I didn’t know if I even needed to plan it. Because again, I would get enticed by a speeding car to just step in front. It could have happened at any moment. And still, no one knew, even though I wasn’t living alone anymore. I just kept smiling and asking about their problems, because I just knew in my mind that I was worthless and that no one cared about whether I even wanted to live.

Fortunately, that semester, I decided to finally join a group on campus that I had wanted to be a part of for a while at that point. I started the rush process to become a Brother. And I had a wonderful class of PMs with me that I slowly grew closer to than probably anyone else in my life. I still said nothing, because I finally had something good that I didn’t want to ruin.

One night, I told them. I told the entire chapter and some alumni about the summer of 2013. I told them about the subsequent year. I told them about the kind man that I wanted to be but knew I wasn’t, I told them about the 48-hour periods spent solely in my bed, I told them about all the lies I had to spread to make it seem like my head was above water, and I told them about how completely empty I felt. I told them almost everything.

I stopped just short of telling them about the suicidal thoughts. I couldn’t bring myself to share that much. All a part of the conditioning. But when I was done, I felt lighter, freer. And when the night was done, every single Brother in attendance, even the ones that still didn’t know me that well yet, came up to hug me. And I cried when I got back to my dorm that night because I had finally had a chance just to say it and have people understand.
When I tell people that Phi Mu Alpha saved my life, most of them never realize how I mean it. I will never stop thanking the Sigma Alpha chapter for everything they gave me, even if they don’t fully understand why I am.

I wish I could say it was cured in that one night, but that would be both naïve and irresponsible of me to say. It’s never that simple, there’s no instruction manual on recovery, and I’m still working through everything that year and a half did to me. In fact, the suicidal thoughts briefly returned in the fall of 2017 during a particularly rough stretch of grad school. But I’m working on reaching out to loved ones when I need it and being open in public when I need to be. Being vocal is my recovery plan at the moment because it was when I wasn’t that I came very close to ending my own life. And I don’t ever want to be at that point again; my sympathies go out to anyone who’s currently there.

This isn’t easy to type down. I can count the number of people that know I’ve felt like this on the one hand, and now I’m preparing to potentially share this with the entire internet. This is proving scarier than coming out. But if I can help even one person by sharing this, it’s worth it. If even one person recognizes themselves in this story and seeks out help, it’s worth it.

If you are that person, I’m willing to listen. Your fellow Brothers are willing to listen. Please just reach out. I understand how difficult it is: it took me a year and a half and a special event to even hint at everything going on with my head. But it is not the job of our Brothers or me to judge you for your troubles; we are here to help one another any way that we can, whether that be a helping hand, a place to stay, or just an ear to hear your story. If you feel that no one is here for you, I am. I am still here. I’m still figuring it out, but I am making it work. And a whole lot of people, myself included, want to see the same for you.

Fraternally,
Paul Downing

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September 13th, 2018|
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