I met Hunter very early in my freshman year of high school. My first encounter with him either involved showing me a messenger bag full of World of Darkness sourcebooks with a flourish and a grin, or handing me a contract which, as a member of the choir’s tenor section, gave him control of my soul. This was, once again, done with a flourish and a grin. The Hunter I met first had a very good handle on when to take things seriously but also when to not. He became a mentor for the anxiety-ridden kid I was almost immediately. Beyond sitting in the tenor section with him every day and exchanging snatches of conversation whenever our choir teacher wasn’t looking, he also taught me the Hero System and, more broadly, was the first person to really push me into playing something other than Dungeons and Dragons.
I also met Hunter’s other side, the brooding, angry side; the side which was just as frustrated by high school as I was, even if he was better trained not to show it. I remember one night during our choir trip to Florida when he told me of his desire to smash in the head of one of our classmates with a brick. It was a girl who I suppose had wronged him in the past…I didn’t know and after that vivid conversation I didn’t particularly want to.
I got snippets of the full picture of my friend and mentor through my freshman year, though in retrospect there was a lot I never knew. But even if I knew more, hearing about Hunter’s death, two days after my sixteenth birthday, would still have hit me just as hard.
It was actually announced in school; my US History class (I remember this vividly) was interrupted by the announcement. My teacher identified him by name, and even before he finished his sentence, I remember thinking that I had no idea what possibly could have happened. It was probably the first time I ever made any mental effort to repress something…that day was the first weekday after my sixteenth birthday, so it was the day I went and received my learner’s permit. I shifted all of my brainpower and anxiety onto that event, and simply did not acknowledge what had happened until the next day.
Context may not have helped the initial shock, but it would have helped everything else. Dealing with Hunter’s suicide was one of the more difficult emotional obstacles I had during high school, and it was because of how I looked up to him. At 16, I had no idea how hard people had it, and I especially had no idea about how much pressure is put on you to maintain a brave face, be it in the face of other conflicts in life, or trauma, or mental illness. What I saw was someone I wanted to emulate say in a very direct manner, “I can’t deal with any of this anymore”. And it came at a point in my high school existence where I had few friends and little direction. It scared the hell out of me. If I had known about the other issues he was dealing with, I may have been able to put things into context. Or maybe I wouldn’t have. I was only 16.
As high school went on, I made more friends, and then in college I had a much stronger support structure. I remembered Hunter, I remembered the shock and the loss, but it didn’t weigh on me to the same degree. When I had my own difficulties in college, I dealt with them constructively. I faced my own issues head on. Then, towards the end of undergrad, a friend attempted suicide. She was fine, in the end, but the situation rattled a bunch of us. And it made me think a bit about my encounters with suicide before.
I approached suicide as a topic with a sense of righteous anger when I was in high school. From my standpoint, it was an irrational act, bolstered by ignorance of those around you and what they felt. That viewpoint was softened as time went on, as I met more and more people who had either contemplated or attempted suicide. Now I have a different perspective: mental illness can kill just as readily as something like cancer. Depression can have symptoms that are so bad they literally make you want to die, in the same way that migraines can be so bad that they make you want to die. The only differences in these illnesses are how society treats them and possibly how little or how much we understand them. To chalk anything up to cowardice or an inability to cope is a grave disservice to the struggles that many are facing.
I don’t think much of this would have changed how I felt about it when I was 16. I struggled mightily to deal with my emotional reality during high school, and the notion of taking your own life made real was both profoundly affecting and terrifying. Even if I was not in a mental state where I contemplated suicide, being reminded that it was a decision that people not only could but did make was very difficult to deal with. At 16 I was just starting to get glimpses of just how much control one has over their life and also how little guidance…to be perfectly blunt I wasn’t ready for it.
Looking back, looking at how I was affected and how I processed the event, it becomes painfully clear that there was nothing I could have done. However, unpacking the emotions that surrounded everything helped me to become more empathetic in these situations. As with many things after high school, the reality is both a lot more pervasive and a lot less dramatic than a 16 year old would think.