My dark night of the soul took place sixteen years ago. On June 11, 2003 I made the near-fatal mistake of trying to end my life leaping from the Manhattan Bridge. For the weekend leading up to this crisis I was in a very dark place, wandering the streets of New York unable to call out for help but knowing my life could not continue as it was. This year I chose to commemorate the date and again walked through the night, but this time with a purpose tackling the 16.3 mile Out of the Darkness overnight walk to support the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. I set out to raise $1,600 but have nearly doubled that with donations still coming in. While I walked with others, I walked alone. I wanted time with my thoughts to reflect, remember, and renew.
I said I wanted to walk alone with my thoughts, I just did not realize how many of my thoughts and memories would join me on the walk. I was both inspired by the life I have today and saddened by the friends (mostly men) I’ve lost to suicide over the years. After checking in for the walk I visited two of the booths sourcing rituals of the walk. First I decorated several luminaria sacks for the closing ceremony. Then I adorned myself with beads reflecting my relationship to the walk: a single green strand because I struggled personally, and a purple strand for each friend I’ve lost to suicide.
The longer I thought the longer my list became of the teachers, students, friends, ex-lovers, high school classmates, AA sponsees, and relatives I had lost.
Glen, Ryan, Dave, Frank, Ab, Lary, Jon, Alex, Brad, Joe, and Gibbs…
The list grew and my neck grew heavier with each additional string of beads. And I kept thinking, “Why me?” How is it I survived my attempt and others are gone. What is mine to do that I have been blessed with this second chance? Truly unanswerable questions but an opportunity for discernment as I walked along.
Our walk began just past sunset and we were in a rather tight crowd for a while. I began alongside a new friend who had organized an LGBTQ team. We discovered quickly friends we had in common (Edna) and experiences we shared (AIDS Bike Rides) and we held a simple steady pace; comfortable with both the silence and the conversation. At some point we broke off from each other without a goodbye, but knowing we’d connect again along the route. There were many tight-knit teams on the walk, often in solidarity for a lost loved one or volunteers or employees from the same organization. I drifted away from these groups to let them have their experience as I pursued my own solitary path along the same route.
But, as often happens in life when we have an agenda, around mile marker 11 or 12 my journey changed. It was nearly 2 AM, I think, and I came across a teenager and his mom. We chatted easily until he asked “So why are you walking?” I paused, then shared, I had an attempt almost 16 years ago; this seemed like a good way to honor that. Then he softly said “Yea, me too.” He and his mom were sharing the walk this night, but also clearly sharing the journey back from the attempt too. Neither of us pried more than that, there was no need to do so, but we had a kinship that transcended the differences between us. We both wore green beads. That’s all we needed to know. He carried a Polaroid camera around his neck (yes they still make them!) and shared some of the shots he had taken that night.
At the rest are around mile 13 I was done. Nobody would fault me for not finishing; my donors might not even need to know. But I was inspired by this young man and his mom. I told them I would finish the walk if they did. We agreed and recommitted; we pulled ourselves to our feet and kept moving forward. He began to set “mini goals” for the three of us. “No stopping until we cross Mason street.” Then as we neared that goal, “No stopping until we cross Taylor.” We laughed with each new goal we set and accomplished.
At mile 16 he snapped my picture; it was near the end, but the number marking both the miles we had walked, but also the years of my recovery, was more significant to me than the finish line.
At the end of the route he honored me with a Polaroid of me finishing that I will treasure forever. What had begun as a “solitary journey” was only possible to be completed when I sought and supported the help of others, namely him and his mom. The experience was an allegory for my own recovery from depression: I was trying (somewhat unsuccessfully) to manage life alone as I spiraled deeper into self-destruction. Only when I allowed others in was I able to walk slowly out of that dark place, often using “mini goals” to keep me on track. So too with the “Out of the Darkness” walk, I needed the companionship of others to succeed. I love it when lessons like this sneak up on me.
Two days after finishing the walk was Tuesday June 11, the anniversary of my attempt. This one simple text from my sister Kathy, who was a huge champion of my recovery and remains one of my closest friends, said it all.
And therein lies the answer to the question “Why am I here when so many others have perished?” My book’s not over. In fact in the years since my attempt I’ve added numerous chapters “sobriety” “marriage” “children” “doctorate” and so much more. Perhaps it’s not mine to discern why I survived my dark night of the soul, it’s just mine to discern what’s the next right action and take that step. And to remember not to attempt the journey alone, but to look for the traveling companions who can support me as I support them.
JD Schramm is a writer and educator currently teaching communication courses at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business. His 2011 TED Talk, Breaking the Silence for Suicide Attempt Survivors, has been viewed over 1.8 million times. He frequently speaks on the topic of his (slowly) forthcoming book: The Bridge Back to Life: one man’s journey from the edge of death to the center of life. He and his husband, Rev. Ken Daigle, have three active children and very busy lives. Readers can continue making donations to support JD’s 16.3 mile walk by visiting his donation page.