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Stephen 'tWitch' Boss and the Grief Behind Suicide

Stephen "tWitch" Boss

Exactly one year ago, I was in the hospital and had survived my attempt. 

You never know what someone is dealing with.

I know we were all shocked by the tragic death of Stephen "tWitch" Boss, the happy, upbeat, always dancing DJ and co-executive producer for The Ellen DeGeneres Show. He radiated goodness. When I spoke to Ellen this year as she said goodbye to her long-running talk show, during our long conversation, she mentioned he would be one of the people she would miss the most.

Last year, around this very same time, I wrote honestly and brutally about my own struggles with suicide. I explained that if you're going through all that horror or have survived the nightmare of suicide, 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.

What I didn't expect from that article was the incredible amount of reaction it spurred, not only in my own life but from those who read and shared my innermost thoughts. I was taken aback, and what I also didn't anticipate was how those words not only helped others but helped me.

Last year at this exact time, I was in the hospital, in the ICU for a few days and then in the psych ward, and I was dismayed to see how many people in the ward were suffering and dealing with what seemed like insurmountable issues. I fought hard not to go to the psych ward; however, I'm glad I did. It made me feel lucky for what I had in my own life.

We can't even imagine what Stephen was going through. Like him, I was the personification of happiness; yet he must have been dealing with immeasurable pain, heartache so consequential, that he felt the only recourse was to end his life. When someone of his stature dies by suicide, it strikes so deep into the heart of those who have survived.

We may never know why Stephen took his own life, and for that, I'm devastated for his family. And this proves so hauntingly that you never know what challenges people are facing emotionally, mentally. They might be outwardly happy but ruinous in heart and mind.

Some people will be quick to judge, as I said last year, and say he "wasn't in his right mind." That there was something abnormally wrong with him. That he didn't appreciate what he had. Nothing, and I mean nothing, could be further from the truth.

That is why 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.

Stephen probably never thought he'd be in the position of trying. And contrary to false assumptions, those of us who try don't long for some glorious oratory about ourselves at a funeral or a memorial service. We don't want people writing memories on our Facebook walls. It has nothing to do with a fantasy of watching people grieve about you. 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, and that burning couldn't be compared to what was searing in my mind.

You just want to disappear.

As I wrote, "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."

But, and this is where my message from last year starts to diverge, it really can get better. Why I'm so devastated by Stephen's death is that I wish fervently that he would have just hung on and tried to get through that dark tunnel, which to him seemed inescapable.

I'm amazed at how my own life has changed since I attempted one year ago. I made the decision to stop drinking, and a year later I am proud to say that I've stuck to that decision and am much happier and much healthier for it. I took a huge assessment of myself -- on my own terms, in my own mind, and in the endless pages of thoughts I wrote down.

Professionally, at 58 I landed a job when I thought at my age, my career would be over. I've had an incredible year of writing this column, talking to so many amazing people and personal heroes, and writing about everyday issues that confront our community and our world. Writing is a salve, a balm of healing.

I don't dwell on a past anymore: that was agonizingly dark. A 13-year-old self banging 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.

I've cut people out of my life who were hurtful, and that includes my mother, whose very presence made me feel so less than I was throughout my entire life. When I tried to reach out to her a year ago at what I knew would be an impossible attempt to understand me, I asked her if she read my writing. She said no. But then went further. "You live in a dark world," she said. What a completely cruel thing to say to someone, especially your child, who is working so hard to run away from a dark world.

There are many other things that have changed over the past year, but the point is that I've changed, and don't think for a second that I feel brazenly cocky about everything. When I heard about Stephen's death, there was just a tinge of self-doubt that crept back in and that needed to be fought off.

Stephen was such a bright light. Some will say that it is unfortunate that he did it at this time of year, during the holidays. But the truth is, for some reason, the brightness of holidays seems to be an optimum time for the darkness of despair.

We must watch out for each other. We must recognize that everyone deals with problems, issues, circumstances, some of us more than others, and the frightening thing about that is we don't know who those people are, because they remain silent about their innermost thoughts and suffering.

I said last year that 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. We know how fragile our lives are. 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. I don't know the details of Stephen's life, but if he wasn't seeking or receiving help, that just crushes me.

Stephen's death should make all of us stop and think about each other. About the unknown world that most of us live in. About secrets, shames, and sorrow that some have an enormously difficult time grappling with.

Don't take your friends, family, and colleagues for granted. We are all hurting to some extent, some infinitely more so than others. And those who are hurting more than others might not be down in the dumps. Like me, and like Stephen, they could be the life of the party, dancing, singing, and effusively fun.

If you do notice someone hurting -- they don't always exhibit it -- let them know you care. You'd be surprised how much words of encouragement and support can mean. Don't take anything for granted, especially when it comes to someone's life.

John Casey is editor at large for The Advocate.

Views expressed in The Advocate's opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.

If you are having thoughts of suicide or are concerned that someone you know may be, resources are available to help. The 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 is for people of all ages and identities.

Trans Lifeline, designed for transgender or gender-nonconforming people, can be reached at (877) 565-8860. The lifeline also provides resources to help with other crises, such as domestic violence situations.

The Trevor Project Lifeline, for LGBTQ+ youth (ages 24 and younger), can be reached at (866) 488-7386. Users can also access chat services at TheTrevorProject.org/Help or text START to 678678.

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