“There are a lot of people in pain,” someone once said to me. It wasn’t that I disagreed with that statement, but at the time I’m not sure that I’d ever experienced true pain. And so I simply nodded my head in agreement and probably thought to myself, “There are a lot of people who are happy too.” And then I likely went about my day and planned for my next happy occasion. Not long after that exchange, I experienced my first painful moment as a young adult. It’s a story that I rarely share because I’m still not sure why this storyline entered my life.
I was finishing up my senior year at Ohio State and living in a worn-down, yellow house with four of my closest college friends. We had the kind of good times that college kids have while we lived in that house - the occasional house party; a quasi-bachelorette party for a themed date party where I saw my first and only male stripper; and on some late nights we would play “The Map Game.” The rules of this game were simple: we hung a large paper map on the wall and any time we didn’t like someone (ie. the girl who had the attention of some boy we liked), we would cast that person to some distant location in the world and come up with all the reasons why they would never escape their new home in Madagascar, Tanzania or any place that seemed far away. It was a silly and immature game. But that’s what you do when you’re young - it’s your window of time to act silly and immature. Now that I think about it, we might have been the the original creators of the reality show “Survivor.” But the only reality we were hoping to survive at the time were our midterms and finals.
We laughed a lot. And we shared many happy memories together. Sure, we shed some tears too. But our yellow house was mostly filled with happiness.
And then, one night, one of my saddest memories in that house became my reality. I was half asleep in my twin-sized bed when there was a knock on my door. It was one of my roommates. She was unloading groceries from her car that night after she got home from work. In between trips from her car to our house, there was a package (a medium manila envelope with something thick inside) placed by our front door. It had my name on it. My roommate found it strange that a package was dropped off late at night as she was running in and out of the house. I recall her saying that whoever dropped off the envelope must have been watching her and waiting for a moment when they wouldn’t be seen dropping off the package. I was groggy, but decided to open the envelope right away. I was curious. Who could this be from?
Inside the package were four crisp $100 dollar bills, a tape labeled “Running Against The Wind,” and a note. The note was signed by our neighbor. And while I’ll never forget his real name, I’ll call him Jackson in this story.
Jackson was always a bit odd. Truth be told, he kind of creeped out all of the girls who lived in my house, myself included. We often caught him standing by his kitchen window just staring at us. He wouldn’t wave or smile, just stand and stare. He once wrapped up a gift for one of the girls in my house - it was negligee. And quite frankly, it was an inappropriate gift to give a college woman whom you never spoke to. There are times in life when a person gives you a bad feeling in your gut. You can’t always explain why, but something about that person doesn’t sit well with you. Jackson gave off that kind of vibe. I only had verbal interaction with Jackson twice that year. It was awkward and strange both times, but I didn’t have the heart to be mean to or dismiss him. So I smiled, said hello, and exchanged a few kind words with him (all while hoping that he wouldn’t drag me into an alley). I’ll never know for sure, but I’m guessing that those smiles and pleasantries were rare in his life.
As I read the note from Jackson, that was included in the envelope, it became clear to me that it was a suicide letter. His words made my heart sink and then panic kicked in. I read the letter to my roommate to confirm what I was thinking. She agreed that it sounded like a suicide note. I immediately called 911. But I knew nothing about Jackson except his name and his address next door. I didn’t know his phone number, the names of any of his friends, and I definitely had no way of contacting him. In essence, the phone operator told me that they couldn’t do anything to help with the limited information that I gave them. So I called the police. They couldn’t help me either. So I called the campus police. Same response. I felt helpless. And I could only imagine how Jackson felt. I was only 21-years old. I didn’t know what to do. And at the time, I wondered how this storyline fell into my lap? I didn’t even know this boy, why did he leave this note for me? I’m not sure there are words to express what that evening felt like, but helpless, distressed, and emotional are probably fitting. After my three frantic phone calls to authorities, I decided that there was nothing else I could do.
The next day, I read the local papers to see if there were any reports that might match what I feared was Jackson’s fate. Nothing. I called the police again to see if there was any news. Nothing. And if there was something, no one was telling me. After three days passed, I saw an article in the campus newspaper. To my recollection, the title read something like: Man found dead on Ohio State’s campus. I read the article. The details were vague, but it sounded like it was an apparent suicide. There was a detective quoted in the article. I called the detective and explained who I was and the package that I received. He agreed to meet me at the yellow house - where the package and its contents still remained.
The detective was a kind man who assured me that there was nothing that I could have done to prevent this outcome. Through tears, I told him to take the money, the tape, and the letter because I didn’t want any of it. The detective read the letter and told me that Jackson probably left this for me because I showed him kindness. I didn’t think I was especially kind, but maybe a smile was more than what he usually received from others.
There isn’t a single time when I hear Bob Seger’s “Running Against The Wind” that I don’t think of Jackson. Maybe that was his intention? Maybe not. I used to look for clues in that song; some kind of hidden meaning. But it’s pretty straightforward. And it’s true, eventually we all meet challenges in life that seem to hold us back from moving forward. Sometimes, it does feel like we’re running against the wind. I suppose Jackson didn’t feel like he could run anymore.
I’m not a psychologist and I have no business counseling on the topic of suicide. It’s complicated. And it’s painful. I learned that those words spoken to me years ago are true... There are a lot of people in pain. Be kind. Offer a smile. Listen when someone needs to talk. And when you feel like you’re running against the wind, keep pushing forward. Eventually the winds calm down.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255