I give this lecture every term where I ask a question of my students: “What will you set yourself on fire for?” I ask that question after lecturing about a produce farmer in Tunisia who set himself on fire over the injustices of a corrupt system that exploited everyday workers.
At first, few care about Mohammed Bouazizi, the produce farmer. Tunisia is a long ways from Ellensburg, Washington. Most of my students can’t find it on a map. Few even try. Most think the idea of setting fire to one’s self to be absolutely insane. They don’t care that the produce farmer’s actions created the revolutionary uprisings across the Arab world. They are often more worried about what grade they will make in First Amendment than they are about being a revolutionary.
I tell them that, too. Tell them that it is my intent to turn them all into revolutionaries by the end of the term. That’s my goal – to make them care about something beyond the grade they are earning. I tell them that I don’t really want them to douse themselves with gasoline and strike a match. I just want them to care enough about something that they would go beyond themselves to make the world a better place.
“You know what they call a nurse who makes Cs versus a nurse who makes As?” I ask. And they look at each other and shake their heads in confusion, until I answer my own question: “A nurse.”
“Nobody will ever ask you when you leave college what grade you made in First Amendment Class. They will, however, expect that you learn something in college. They will want to hire people who strive to make the world a better place. Revolutionaries for a better world. ”
So imagine my delight this past week when a former student reached out to me on Twitter saying he’d found that thing that just might make him light himself on fire.
It’s called the Bread Tie Challenge.
You know those little wiry things that twist around the end of a bread sack to keep the bread fresh?
Donnie Santos, my former student, and his buddy, Dean Neilson, have lit up the campus at Central Washington University with the Bread-Tie Challenge: Take a simple bread tie and twist it around your finger and wear it throughout the month of October, or longer. And every time you look at that bread tie, Donnie and Dean would have you remember their friend Josh Martin.
Josh took his life on Oct 27th, three years ago. He was 19 years old.
Dean, Donnie and Josh grew up together. They played sports together. Donnie and Josh were roommates at the time of Josh’s suicide. There were no warning signs that anything at all was wrong with Josh.
“I lived with Josh for a year-and-a-half and I never saw him depressed or anything,” Donnie says.
That fall day in Spokane, Washington was like any other. The boys had come home from classes at Spokane Falls Community College. They’d sat around talking before Donnie headed out the door early to baseball practice. All the boys were on the team. Josh told Donnie he’d catch up with him at practice. He had some things he wanted to wrap up, but then Josh never showed for practice.
Donnie’s dad was a mentor to all the boys. He’d been their coach growing up. When Josh didn’t show up, Donnie just figured he’d fallen asleep. Donnie told his dad they had been up late the night before studying for a test. Donnie’s dad asked for the keys to the apartment. He was going to go rouse Josh and get him to practice.
Donnie’s dad returned in a rush, grabbed the coach and headed back to the apartment. When Donnie heard the shriek of the sirens, he knew something was terribly wrong. He ran back to his apartment. His father came out of the front door, crying. He told Donnie that Josh was gone. He’d killed himself.
Disbelief washed over Donnie. He couldn’t wrap his brain around it. Neither could Dean. Nor anyone else who knew Josh. It just didn’t seem possible that the friend who had kept them all laughing, was gone. Dead. A victim of thoughts so dark he never ever expressed any of them to Dean or Donnie.
“It was something deep within him that he didn’t want anyone to know about,” Donnie said. “We had conversations about drugs, but never about depression. I don’t think he wanted the negative stigma that comes along with talking about depression and suicide.”
And that right there is the very thing Donnie and Dean are hoping to change. This notion that seeking help for depression or suicidal thoughts is a bad thing.
“Josh had a great family. He had a great girlfriend. But I think he was just over life. He couldn’t take dealing with the depression any more. He didn’t want anyone to look down on him for having these thoughts. Maybe he thought it would be easier to go away than to ask for help,” Donnie says.
“It was one of the biggest shocks you can imagine,” Dean says. “I had no idea he was depressed. Josh was always happy. He didn’t seem depressed. He seemed like the regular happy Josh.”
Focused on school and sports, the three athletes did not abuse alcohol or drugs.
“We were a close triangle of friends,” Dean says. “I thought we could talk about anything. But it seemed like Josh never had anything bad going on. This is why we are doing this. We want to make it possible for others to talk.”
If only Josh had told Donnie, told Dean, about his struggles. Maybe they could have gotten him the help he needed. They think about that a lot. How they might have helped, if only they had known.
But you can be roommates with a person, close friends with them, best friends with them, and still not know that they suffer from depression, that they are having suicidal thoughts.
Donnie and Dean think that’s because there is so much negative stigma dumped on people who suffer from depression. Perhaps Josh thought he would be a burden to others if he told them what he was really thinking.
So he didn’t. He kept the dark thoughts all to himself. Carried that burden alone until he could no longer carry it.
After Josh’s death, Dean started having panic attacks. He didn’t know what it was at first. He thought he might be having a heart attack. Turned out to be anxiety due to post-traumatic stress disorder. You don’t have to be a front-line soldier to suffer from PTSD. Trauma happens every day to people all around us.
The anxiety got so bad that Dean couldn’t leave his apartment. That led to depression and pretty soon, Dean himself was struggling with dark thoughts. His mother, wise woman that she is, suggested that Dean see a counselor.
Talking helped enormously, Dean said. “It healed me.”
Through counseling Dean learned that most people struggle with depression at some point in their lives.
“It is not unnatural to be depressed,” he said. “It’s okay to tell someone that you are not okay.”
Did you hear that? It is okay not to be okay.
The most important thing is to tell somebody that you aren’t okay. Don’t be afraid to talk about those dark thoughts. Don’t hide them. Ask for help. People love you. They will be heartbroken if you leave this life and them behind. Just tell somebody how scared, how lonely, how sad, how frustrated, how confused you really are.
Tell somebody who really loves you that you are not okay and that you need help.
That’s what Donnie and Dean would tell Josh if only they had the second chance.
Donnie and Dean don’t really need a bread-tie to remind them about the importance of suicide prevention awareness. They have a brotherly tie that forever keeps their hearts tethered to Josh’s. But if you would like to participate in the Bread Tie Challenge go to this link. And share it with others.
Needless to say, I am quite proud of Donnie and Dean. Revolutionaries in their own right.
Karen Zacharias is author of Mother of Rain (Mercer Univ. Press).