By Sam Lustgarten
Dusk’s afterglow remained on April 6, 2009. I couldn’t see in the car that held an unresponsive man. He reminded me of my resident, but it was too dark. Police were called and people were blocked from the scene. I stood next to my resident director and one of my best friends, a fellow resident assistant. As we ran around the car and tried to see in with our phones, we saw just enough to see how he had died. The police were there seconds later and the first officer shined his light on the body. “He’s dead. He’s been dead for a while.” With the light, I saw everything and knew it was my resident.
I remember turning around and crying for a few seconds. Then it stopped. This wasn’t the time, place. Hell, I didn’t even know what to feel. I’m supposed to cry, right? This is how the movies go.
The first night I didn’t sleep. The pain in my chest overwhelmed. It felt like a continual panic attack for about 6 hours. In the darkness and all alone in my room I’d go through a fit of crying and suck it up. I’d cry. I’d suck it up. Finally, I called my father at 3 in the morning. There was nothing he could say, but his voice was comforting.
The next day came and went. Fuck, the semester came and went. Fuck, the summer came and went. I was checked out the whole time. I started to right myself just as another suicide of a friend-of-a-friend happened at the end of the summer. In the fall, another student died by suicide. Three within 6 months.
Devastation doesn’t explain the horror. These tragedies turned into my own self-hatred. I saw one escape route: my own death by suicide. In December 2009, I could barely get out of bed. I could barely function. I had finished the semester and there wasn’t any more energy. I fought constantly with my then girlfriend. As she stood by me, I pushed her away. One night I drove off. I dreamt of driving off a cliff. Instead, I went to the local hospital and was placed under a 72-hour hold.
It was the beginning of a long journey called recovery. The deep wound of explicit suicides began to heal. In March 2010, I desperately sought out a way to make a difference. A scholarship came to mind. By April, it was founded and the fundraising began. The money poured in. From seemingly everywhere, people donated – were compelled to. As the fundraising succeeded, the deaths and attempts continued. A professor, a son, a friend, a family member all hit me.
I can’t tell you how many times I collapsed to the ground. For years I felt on edge. I could snap at any moment – trigger anger. I was haunted by the memories of lost ones and could see them. When I walked around campus, people that looked vaguely familiar would become Travis, Alex, Dave, and the list went on and on. Suddenly Sixth Sense took on a whole new meaning, depth.
Many a time I would leave a class, meeting, or get-together to cry. But men aren’t supposed to breakdown, right? I would stop. Inevitably, I would look into a bathroom mirror to wipe myself off. Then the stare would go through me and I’d bawl. Who had I become? Men don’t cry. Strength isn’t in weakness, right?
This tortured existence continued, despite the growth. Losing somebody simultaneously connected me to an exclusive network, while also isolating me – dangerously so. Fortunately, the depressing images began to subside ever so slightly. The scholarship and money being earned all fed my passion for living. Every critical, cynical thought about giving was unabashedly beaten back. Belief in others’ support followed suit.
After Travis died, I said I would need to run for a long time to get over this. Running would always clear my head. But in growing and healing, I didn’t forget or magically get over it. Instead, I run with Travis. Every time I slow down, I fight back. I push harder and faster for Travis. He won’t ever run and enjoy the sun – I must.
Dear Travis, the world isn’t better without you.
Dear Travis, your kind, friendly, artistic personality is sorely missed.
Dear Travis, you have no idea how many times we’ve talked since you passed.