Some of us have to die for the rest of us to live—A poignant tale of two suicides that gave me life and eternal hope
We don’t get to choose who loses the fight, but we can honor those we have lost by using their death to nurture life.
Storming into the recreation room, I threw myself down on the chair and crossed my arms.
It was my first week in residential treatment and my 25-year-old self had never been clean or sober in my adult life — not even for a day.
So on day-5, I was a raging bag of irritability, I am sure of it.
I don’t remember what I was even mad about, but someone made me angry and this was a wave of anger I felt justified having.
Jeff looked over and gave me a grin of wisdom as he folded clean face towels for the group.
The room they called the rec room was tiny, barely big enough for a small round game table, a cabinet and a treadmill. It was modest, but it did hold the only recreation we were rarely allowed to engage in, so I guess the name was fitting.
I could smell the AirMark trays being wheeled in for dinner. It made the entire unit smell like nursing home food. I watched his hands as they carefully patted the creases of our rough blue towels.
The undesirable smell fueled my state of annoyance.
Jeff smiled with his eyes as he looked at me.
It was one of those soulful eye-smiles that says, “It’s okay. I see you and I am listening. You can calm down now and tell me what is wrong.”
“What’s up Buttercup?” he said — jovially.
I told him whatever someone else was doing that had me so upset.
I do not remember what infuriated me. But I do remember Jeff, the look in his eyes and his response. I remember the way he made my problems feel so small and my world seem so big.
Today, in my mind’s eye, I can still see him folding those towels and looking at me as if I were a unicorn in the land of horses.
I stood up as I ranted about whoever wasn’t behaving the way I thought they should.
He provided no interjections and looked at me until my rant was over — with his listening gaze and a half-smile.
After I had no more complaints, I crossed my left arm to my right elbow and covered my mouth with a hooked pointer finger, as I do when I am listening intently.
He said nothing but carefully finished folding the last towel before walking up to me.
He put out a hand as if he wanted to grab one of mine and although I was a bit confused, I provided him one.
After giving my hand a tight but gentle squeeze as to say, “I hear you and I care,” he began adjusting the position of my fingers.
When he met my eyes again, he had all my fingers folded besides my pointer finger and had positioned my hand as if I was pointing at something.
“What is your hand doing right now?” he asked.
I answered with a perplexed look on my face.
“How many fingers are pointing?” he asked, as his grin became wider and wider.
I was still confused and stared at him blankly.
“How many fingers?” he asked again.
I guessed, but I didn’t think I was getting it.
“Nope,” he said, with a confident chuckle.
“Four of your fingers are pointing, but three out of four are pointing at yourself.”
I stood there trying to process what Jeff was trying to say with his little presentation as he put the stack of folded towels in the cabinet.
It was almost time for them to escort us to the cafeteria and no-one wants to miss 1 out of the 20 minutes we were allowed to eat dinner.
As Jeff walked towards the door and I started to turn towards it, he stopped and put his hands on both of my shoulders.
I made the eye contact that his body language requested and he left me with his final thought before heading off to meal-time.
“Any time you point the finger at someone else, no matter how justified, there are always three pointing back at you. It’s going to be okay, Holly, but you have to focus on yourself if you want to get better.”
He hugged me tightly as the tears rolled down my cheeks and my breathing shortened. Then he moved back a bit and cupped the bottom of my chin, pulling my head up and asking for my eyes again.
“Look at me, Holly,” he said decisively — yet lovingly.
“None of it matters. But you matter and you have your whole life in front of you. Most of us never recover and many of us will die. It’s your job to make sure you are not one of them. That is only possible if you take the rest of this precious time you have here and focus on yourself. Most of these people will not make it and if you feed into their drama, neither will you.”
He gave me another quick hug and headed off into the hall.
It was a couple of weeks later when we got word that our friend Chase, who had just left inpatient, died of a heroin overdose.
Many of us thought it was intentional as Chase had shared a lot lately about suicidal ideation and flashbacks that he couldn’t get rid of without drugs.
He was very intelligent, methodical and knew exactly how much dope his body could handle — this did not look like an accident.
Chase had witnessed his father shoot himself in the head and the trauma had crippled him ever since. He wanted more than anything to live and get clean but his flashbacks were enough to drive even the strongest person insane.
Chase had been the only one besides Jeff who didn’t treat me poorly ever since I took Jeff’s advice and started focusing on myself and my recovery.
Many people who came to the facility didn’t come because they wanted to recover. Those who were just doing their time or taking a break werenot too fond of my decision to save my life — or, better yet, the addiction that dominated their souls wasn’t a fan of life.
I had walked around the facility for a week with earplugs in my ears so I could not hear the cruel words that they would all whisper about me in the hallways. Even the ones who weren’t sneaking in dope were still stuck in the old behavior and followed the ones who were actively using.
There were 14 of us and only two refrained from the constant verbal abuse. Jeff and Chase still talked to me and didn’t talk about me.
I could remember the last time I talked to Chase. We were by the coffee pot and he had not spoken to me that day. I was worried that he hated me now too.
“They get to you too?” I asked.
He responded with a smirk, knowing exactly what I meant.
“They will never get to me.”
These words may sound small and insignificant. But for me, they meant the entire world. I was alone in the world and even at the place where I was supposed to be around others like me, I would have been alone if not for Chase and Jeff.
I could still see Chase standing by the coffee pot that day and with all my might I wished that I could go back.
Please God, I just want to go back. Please just take me back to that day and maybe if I say something different… Maybe if I focus on him instead of me… Maybe we could change this…
Crushed, and hopeless, I sat in the rec room and soul cried. My heart was broken and my mind was racing.
Was this how it was going to be? Why is there so much death? This isn’t fair. Life isn’t fair. These are good people. This is too much and it hurts too bad. I don’t know if I can do this…
Jeff walked in and saw me there, in the same chair I had plopped down in on my angry day.
He immediately put his arms around me and my body let out the rest of the cry — the one that comes when someone holds you and you melt into their embrace.
It’s the cry that comes when another human holds you tight and tells you, without telling you, to just let it out — the cry that seems to only come when someone is there to catch all your tears.
As my breathing started to slow, we let go of each other and Jeff sat down in the chair next to me.
I managed to get only one word out, but Jeff heard the hundreds of other words that I couldn’t say out loud. After all, the heart hears what words can’t speak.
He looked over at me as his silent tears fell.
“I can’t tell you why Holly. No-one can. But I can tell you one thing. Our friend would have surely given his life if it would help us live.”
I tilted my head to the side a bit as he continued.
“You have two choices now. Either you use this pain to feed your life and your recovery or you let it feed your addiction. There is only one way you can ever give yourself a reason why and that is for you to live.”
I had two choices. I could allow this to feed my addiction or I could use it to feed my recovery.
Jeff died clean, yet by the heavy hand of his addiction, 3 years later. His death was an obvious suicide, the details of which are too private to share.
In honor of Jeff’s expressed wishes, I share his story. I share his story because he would want me to and the world needs to hear more stories like his.
Most importantly, I share Jeff’s story because it is our aversion to discussing these stories that lead to the stigma around suicidal thoughts and addiction — the stigma stopping apparently happy people from being honest about their internal misery, for fear of burdening the world.
Jeff was the most uplifting person in any room. He was generally happy and very wise. His death was a shock to all who knew him. Of all people, we would have never dreamed that he would be one to take his own life.
He didn’t burden the world with his pain and sorrows, yet he eased the sorrows of many.
A few years later, Robin Williams died — his death ruled as a suicide. The same feelings emerged and I asked the same questions.
How could someone so full of love, light and life not have the will to live? How could those who improve the lives of so many other people not be capable of creating a life for themselves that is good enough to live?
Jeff and Chase gave me a lifeline that they were never able to tap into themselves. They saved my life but the world couldn’t save theirs.
When I mourned the loss of Jeff, I had to take the advice that he didn’t know he was giving me when he gave it — how to cope with his suicide.
As you can see, I chose life.
But it was hard to accept the saying that we, so often, hear in recovery.
“Some of us have to die for the rest of us to live”
In my despair, I wrote a poem for Jeff, including these 4 lines.
Sometimes I can’t accept this
Who really gets to choose?
Who says which lives will be saved?
Or which ones we will lose?
At his funeral, his family read the poem. Since I could not bring myself to attend, the sharing of the poem allowed me to be at Jeff’s funeral anyway.
Jeff may have left this world years ago, but he never left me. He is with me and always will be through the messages of his that I carry and my simply being alive — let alone successful and happy.
Jeff taught me things that changed the way I view the world. But it was more than that. What mattered most after he was gone was not the clever mantras or the lessons he gave, but the way he made me feel.
He made me feel like I mattered and even more, he made me feel like I was not alone.
Jeff loved me enough to tell me the truth.
He saw what I could be — who I really was, underneath the unprecedented amount of trauma and pain that I had endured in my short 25 years on this planet.
To Jeff, I was more. I was more than an addict. I was more than a mother who hadn’t been a good mother and more than a human who had lost their way. To Jeff, I was more than my number on an intake chart. I was more than my past and my mistakes and yes, even my pain.
I was so much more, but that life was all I had known, so I didn’t see it. But Jeff did. Not only did he see it, but he managed, miraculously, to show it to me.
We will never know what would have happened in my life if not for Jeff and my other earth-angels. But, chances are, I wouldn’t be here today to tell you about it.
Written by Holly Kellums
Names have been modified to protect the privacy of my deceased friends and their family members.