As Program Director of p:ear, I wanted to share the news of my brother’s passing. He committed suicide in the early hours of Thursday April 22nd, 2010.
It seems important to share this heart-breaking news for several reasons; to use this tragedy as a means to highlight the issue of the challenges facing young people today (my brother was 27), especially those facing the multi-faceted challenge of depression.
Even though I have worked with many of the p:ear kids since our inception in 2002, I was surprised at the extreme reaction many of the youth had to the news of my brother’s death. There was wailing, alcohol abuse, anger, as well as deep concern, compassion and sadness. Not only do the young people care for me as a friend and mentor, but the death seemed to trigger the painful memories of the death, by suicide, murder, age, overdose and general sickness that these vulnerable and young people have seen in their brief lives. For many of them, the death of a loved one was a direct cause of their present homeless situation.
For many others, their lives have brought them, through fate or accident, into situations where death has not been unknown. One young lady shared with me that when she was 10, she was the one who found her 16-year-old brother strung up in the shower. That was right before her father left “to avoid the same fate” and she was sent away for “misbehaving”. Hmm… Another told me of a friend who ended his life soon after she left town. Another young man currently at p:ear has cute dimples in his cheeks. I was told they are bullet entry and exit points. “An accident?” I asked hopefully. “No.” These are young people with missing parents, lost friends, and lonely childhoods, full of bad food, frustration and instability, on a good day.
My brother, on the other hand, had a absolutely OK childhood. Divorced parents, but lots of love. He struggled a bit in school, but had plenty of determination and a solid work ethic. So much so that at his funeral, three co-workers came up from Louisiana, where he held his first and only job as a helicopter mechanic, and his supervisor said that in his few short years, Max had risen to have managerial responsibilities and was one of their best workers. I had no idea. To me, he was just a good kid who had struggled from the beginning with a deep sense of a lack of self-worth. Every conversation rotated around this central core.
Why this lack of a sense of self-worth? No one outside his family seemed to know about it. For me, it was obvious, and simply a part – one facet – of this lovely person I called my brother. His friends, even some of his closest, saw another face. They saw a very amiable and fun character, with tiger-striped hair and green sideburns. A slightly chubby fellow (that was the anti-depressants which caused the weight gain and the sweating which drove him secretly to his knees with shame), with a jovial graciousness and style about him. He was a treasure. Interestingly, though, what he shared in common with every single kid that we see at p:ear is this inscrutable inability to value oneself rightly. Where did he get this? Where do any of these kids learn this? For many of the kids we see, it’s easy to track the rough course of their lives to the doors of p:ear.
p:ear is a place designed to create some amount of nurturing and safety and dignity and a place to meet socially healthy, non-abusive adults (imagine not having safe adults in your young life, or in the lives of your youngsters!), a place of respite, the developing a more interconnected (as opposed to a “me vs them”) mentality, from which to grow into young adulthood. In the final analysis, the problem of youth homelessness is much more systemic than p:ear alone can address, because the solution is both social and political. But p:ear is also not “enabling” these kids, any more than your mother “enabled” your growth by feeding you.
These young folk are like fragile and unformed creatures, trying on different costumes as they make their way to adulthood. Our job as responsible adults is to stress and model a perspective in which these young people see themselves as part of a larger whole, and not isolated elements immune from the rest. My brother’s death has left me with a sense of urgency regarding this sense of connection, this sense of valuing oneself rightfully as part of a whole. My brother felt disconnected. The youth we see at p:ear, many for much more obvious reasons, see themselves as disconnected. From this point of view, any despair or destruction that is experienced or imposed doesn’t matter. What does matter is the understanding that it is through healthy mentoring relationships that these vulnerable kids can learn to see themselves in perspective, from which they can learn to make their own right and healthy decisions and invest in their own maturity.