A poignant sign in London (above) photographed by Pietro Recchia/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
Editors’ note: This article focuses on suicide and contains details about those who have taken their own lives. If you are having thoughts of suicide or are concerned that someone you know may be, resources are available here.
Earlier this year, news came out that prominent LGBTQ+ and gun control advocate Mark Glaze, who was 51, had died. Glaze did phenomenal work as executive director of Everytown for Gun Safety, serving as one of the architects of the modern gun control movement and pushing the White House and Congress for gun measures like background checks.
Prior to that, Glaze had worked for the Human Rights Campaign during the Obama administration, where he helped push the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” He was a frequent voice in The Advocate. He was also a gay father who struggled with addiction. His death, it was announced, was the result of suicide. Friends, colleagues, and fans of his work were shocked. They shouldn't be.
Suicide, to many people, is something we usually associate with LGBTQ+ youth, those who struggle mightily with their sexuality or gender identity, with parents who aren't accepting, with peers who bully. Amazon just released the film Joe Bell, about a father (Mark Wahlberg in a poignant performance) who attempted to walk across America to call attention to bullying, which ultimately led to Bell’s own son committing suicide. For Black teens it's even worse; suicide attempts rose nearly 80 percent among Black youth in the last decade, according to a JAMA study.
My own experience and that of Mark Glaze show that middle-aged gay men are just as much at risk as we struggle to adapt to aging, surviving the early AIDS epidemic, all while sometimes carrying immense pain through our lives that stem from difficult teenage years coping with the fear and loathing of being gay, or remnants of abuse. And for some of us, suicide can feel inevitable.
As with lesbian, transgender, and bisexual peers who came of age prior to the 2000s, the treatment from our families, employers, friends, and judicial systems was very different than it is today. Many of us lived with estrangement at best, criminalization at worst. Self-medicating depression or anxiety or grief with alcohol or drugs isn't uncommon. And for some, the holidays can be a lonely and unforgiving time for anyone in the throes of desperation. I know it was — and is — for me.
Glaze's family took the very difficult step of being up front about the cause of his death, releasing the following statement on Facebook:
“As we celebrate the life of our beloved Mark, we would be remiss not to mention his harrowing struggle with alcohol, depression, and anxiety. In the last years of his life, Mark actively sought help. He completed several treatment programs, with the hope of finding peace and breaking free of the addictive cycle that caused him to feel so desperately alone and in pain. All who have been bereaved by suicide face a time of unimaginable grief, misplaced guilt, and unanswerable questions. We pray that by being open about Mark’s cause of death, something positive may emerge from our devastating loss.”
Perhaps, Glaze’s final advocacy will be to shine a light on a subject that is very dark and very prevalent, and which few people truly understand, suicide.
When the editors in our newsroom saw the news of Mark's death on our company Slack, we were all very saddened, and in the process, we had a running dialogue about how prevalent suicide is in the LGBTQ+ community. To my surprise, it seemed as if everyone on our staff knew at least one person who had taken their own life. Regrettably, I have lost three people to suicide: a high school friend, my cousin, and recently, a very close friend. And I have come close a few times to losing my own battle with suicide.
This column isn’t about statistics or studies. You probably don't need to read more comments from psychologists that reaffirm why our community seems to be impacted more often by suicide. We don’t need anyone to tell us that it is. We just know. And I know personally, and maybe revealing my own experience can help others recognize why someone would attempt it themselves — and why they shouldn't. I'm basically telling you, don't do what I have done, because with all my heart, I wish I could take it all back.
This will come as a big shock to some, but I’ve tried three times — four if you count when my 13-year-old self banged his head against the wall in his grade school lavatory. That boy, who was abandoned by his father (he died when I was 12), fell victim to the grooming and sexual advances of a Catholic priest, endured unimaginable verbal and physical abuse at home, was frightened out of his mind that his secret of being different, of being gay, would be exposed, and who always felt that he never quite fit in.
That 13-year-old boy pushed those unconscionable struggles as far down as he could, And, throughout my life, I battled mightily to keep that boy suppressed. When I hit my 50s, PTSD unearthed the brittleness of that teenage boy. He had remained hidden through 40 years of alcohol abuse and risky behavior.
I’ve made no secret about my battle with severe depression and anxiety. To get well, it required a year on disability leave from work — and I'm still dealing with the ramifications of it six years later. Carrying the heaviness of that 13-year-old boy in my heart and my head is something I will have to keep a close eye on for the rest of my life.
What I have been less forthcoming about are my attempts at suicide in my 50s. People will be quick to judge. They may also feel that I might be “too sensitive” to handle pressure or defeat. That I’m “not in my right mind.” That there is something abnormally wrong with me. That I don’t appreciate what I have. Nothing, and I mean nothing, could be further from the truth.
It’s extraordinarily difficult to admit to, much less talk about suicide. I can say to you, "Luckily, and thank God, I wasn’t successful in my attempts." However, the mindset of even considering such a drastic measure means that you want to be successful, and that’s something that a lot of people just can’t comprehend.
That's because most people have healthy minds. The brain is the most powerful instrument in our body, so when it becomes sick, it provokes irrational thoughts. And, at the same time, it dredges up from deep within old, unimaginable wounds, and weds all that hurt with all that illogic. It's a horrendous marriage.
If you’re going through all that horror or have survived that nightmare, you just don’t talk about it because it's impossible to rationalize. I never planned on writing about it, but if it helps clarify for people what is immeasurably hard to elucidate, then maybe it’s worth it. And if it helps others not to attempt this, then it’s worth all of the self-humiliation and inane questions and assumptions I expect.
I never thought I'd be in the position of trying and that you would be reading about my innermost thoughts. For example, I never wanted a funeral or a memorial service. I don't want people writing memories on my Facebook wall. It has nothing to do with a fantasy of watching people grieve about me. When I tried, I just wanted to be forgotten about. If there's a heaven on the other side, I reasoned I probably didn't belong there. And if there's a hell, then it was my destiny to burn.
Christians often say at the moment of death, you see the face of God, but not when it comes to suicide. God is really your last thought. At that moment, it’s a juxtaposition of shunning the life you believe God gave you, for a Godless way of exiting. As a Catholic, I was always told that suicide is the ultimate sin. But to me at times, the bigger sin was living. You can be no closer to death than when the thought of death is a consumption, a passion, a plea, an answer to your prayers.
Those moments where self-harm goes to the extreme, where jumps, razors, and pills become threats to life, you don’t see the face of God. You see darkness. No bright lights. No hallelujah moment. No salvation. Life is death itself and in death no desire for a second life, a reincarnation, a resurrection. Death is it. Life is over. One moment in darkness, then the rest in eternal dusk.
The darkness you’re in is inexplicable. It’s crushing. It’s suffocating, and if you can't find help and don't seek it, soon you begin to believe that the only possible way out is to end it all. This pain is unimaginable. It cannot be adequately described.
At least that's how it was for me.
I didn’t think about how successful I was in my career or how I was the proverbial life of the party or all of the amazing friends I had accumulated along the way. I did not think of family, but I did feel regret for what I was doing to my life partner. That was the only bit of remorsefulness I felt. But it didn’t stop me.
Now I can't even write these words of sorrow that I feel for all I have put my partner through throughout these last few years. My heart breaks just looking at him and also when reading his frantic text messages asking why I’m not responding to him. He fears the worst while I lie passed out drunk and drugged.
These feelings, or lack of, can be exacerbated by addiction. We know Glaze struggled with alcohol use disorder. Likewise, I was, and sad to say still at times am, the definition of an excessive binge drinker. And I ended up either in the hospital or in really dangerous situations numerous times as a result of being drunk. Rather than making me let loose, being inebriated can wrap an ominous hold around my mind, which wasn’t healthy to begin with.
Alcohol was used to extreme in order to try and suffocate that 13-year-old boy, and conversely, provide me with an opportunity to make up for a lost, uninhibited youth.
During each attempt at ending my life, alcohol also acted as an accelerant for my misguided judgment. Many treat alcohol as an escape, but it’s not. It’s a depressant and it takes you further and further into the abyss. It doesn’t clarify a reason to live. It strengthens and clouds your feelings of hopelessness and dark thoughts. It's an insidious demon that callously and continues to whisper to you, "You can do it," as you look over the edge at a deep, dark hole.
I wrongly associated drinking with being young. The drinking was a way to keep trying to grab that missed youth. And the older I got, the harder it was to get drunk and recover. Thus, I struggled to continue being the jovial drunk. Suddenly I felt like an embarrassing drunk, an older man in a young person’s bar, who inevitably was anything but fun — and usually hurt himself. We saw those men when we were in gay bars in our 20s and heard others call them "chicken hawks," a slur, sometimes for just daring to share the dance floor with us.
In our community, there are so many reasons why some people will lose hope. Being old and lonely. Being young and conservative. Being shunned by your family. Being without a family. Being dumped. Being alone. Being assaulted, raped, or violated. Being unable to come out. Being outed. Being trapped in a gender presentation that isn’t you. Being self-loathing. Being caught in a systemically racist world. Being unable to admit who you are. Being gay. Being a lesbian. Being bisexual. Being transgender. Being undefinable. Being a person experiencing homelessness. Being caught in a cycle of addiction. And just being you. Because life is hard sometimes, for some of us more than others.
Some of us live in communities or circumstances or environments that don’t allow us to be who we really are and don’t give us the opportunity to live the way we were meant to live. And what’s really sad is that so many contemplate suicide as an escape rather than a real escape that would let hope shine through.
Nobody thinks of their privileges when they are at that bleakest moment. Nobody remembers the moments of sheer joy, the laughter, and orgasms, their successes at work and home, their incredible impact on the world around them in those bleakest moments. And if they are successful, as Mark Glaze was, we don’t truly know why they chose to leave us.
I admire Glaze’s family for being so open. Historically, most families try to cover up suicides; obituaries of "sudden deaths" with no explanation are common. But more people today are admitting that a lifelong struggle with untreated mental health issues led their loved one to this point. They want you to read that and go get yourself help now.
I can’t even imagine their pain, but I could possibly imagine Mark’s pain and what was going through his mind, the addiction that was so dark and overwhelming, that he could leave behind the son he so cherishes. I so wish that I was there for him, even if I didn’t know him. And imagining his pain and what he was going through makes me very sad and forces me to zero in on my own suffering.
My second suicide attempt was on Christmas Day two years ago. I spent four days in the hospital's intensive care unit, more or less clinging to life. That was right before the pandemic started. I told no one out of shame. For me, the beginning of 2020 was at once harrowing and enlightening. It took months for me to forget that baleful night of swallowing pills with a bottle of vodka and lots of wine. It never really goes away.
For the last year or so, it's been as if I was pushing everyone out of my life. My friendships dwindled down to a few, and then almost none. It’s as if I was preparing to try and make another exit.
Sadly, just two weeks ago, I was in the same place. It led to another long stay in the ICU, and this time, three days in the psychiatric ward. It’s the midst of the holidays, and the ward is full. Brutally, sadly full. The head nurse told me that COVID has had an exponential and alarming effect on mental health, and this holiday has been especially worse. Three young men I met were there because they lost their job, business, or livelihood because of the virus. They felt that they couldn’t support their families, and like me used alcohol to spur their attempts to end it all.
And then there were several elderly women, who were all alone. No family. No friends. Nothing to seemingly live for. One continually cried out in pain. One carried a baby doll. One kept her head down constantly, as if there was too much pain involved in trying to keep her chin up. One with eyes that sunk deep and dark. I’m thinking about them all still, and my heart breaks.
When I meet people who have suffered or are suffering through severe depression and anxiety, there’s an immediate connection. If you have, you know what I’m talking about. There’s an intense shared familiarity that no one else can understand. We bond over our plights of desperation, and we know how fragile our lives are, and we have to be convinced about the fact that we are lucky to still be alive.
Intense therapy and medications are critical and an absolute necessity to survive. Anyone who has lived through it will tell you that. And we also know that for some, the honest truth is that therapy and medications sometimes don’t work without other help.
The constant drip that becomes a firehose of severe depression, anxiety, and addiction can sometimes collide in a way that resists all that’s meant to help. And that hurts so badly because these folks will hurt more than many will ever be able to grasp. I left all those people behind when I walked out of the psych ward this week. It wasn’t because I was “better” than they are. I am not. I want them to know that I have faith in their ability to walk out of there like I did.
I didn’t walk out alone or with a feeling of achievement. I carried out with me that heavy, heavy heart of that 13-year-old boy. And I’ve come to the realization that he will be with me, every day, for the rest of my life. And that I will have to learn to live, not die, with him. I want to live and I want that boy to be free of all his pain. And I need to be free from the grievous grip of alcohol.
Those around people like Mark, those who have died, are left with nothing but guilt, self-recrimination (what could I have done?), and unanswered questions. The “why” is never answered. Lives lost to the eternal mystery. It is something that clings to survivors the rest of their lives too.
"Why" is going to be the first question each person who knows me will ask after reading this. Sadly, I don't have answers. It can't be explained adequately, and it can't be talked about in a way that reassures the questioner in any way. Because only those of us who have lived in that darkness and felt that vicious pain can truly understand.
If you feel that darkness and powerful pain that I’m talking about, please do something to save your precious life. There’s the LGBTQ Suicide Prevention Hotline. Please call them. Write to me if you like (seriously, I'm at email@example.com). If you're young, Trevor Project has 24/7 chat, voice, and text counselors available. Just text START to 678-678. The National Suicide Hotline is 800-273-TALK. There are plenty of places where you can text or chat, without having to speak to someone, in case you don't know the words to say just yet. Reaching out is the main thing to do, and do it now.
Your life is worth so, so, so much more than you realize.
And for everyone else, please let’s let Glaze’s death — and my own experiences — be a moment where we try to better understand the plight of those who are literally fighting for their lives, where those around us really see the struggles we are having.
Reach out, ask us, tell us we're wanted and needed and beloved. And where the entire LGBTQ+ community looks to the survivors and strugglers among us and celebrates the resilience it takes to be queer or trans, even in 2021, and holds our friends and lovers even closer.
John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.