I was sitting at an Internet kiosk in Cairns, Queensland on a Friday night. The kiosk was placed between the food court and the late-night market that sold souvenirs. You could get a giant plate of Chinese food, a bag of kangaroo jerky, a palm reading, a massage, a boomerang, and a peanut carved and painted into Pikachu all within a 50-foot radius of each other.
I had spent the day snorkeling in the Great Barrier Reef. I was excited to spend the next morning bungee jumping in the rainforest. And for the current evening I had plans to go drinking and partying with my hostel roommates: the three beautiful Frenchmen, the clever Englishman, the quiet German girl, and the loud Canadian girl.
But those plans were cancelled when I discovered a message.
The keys at the kiosk were sticky and slow, and the computer itself was barely capable of processing any websites created after the year 2007… so, you know, most of them.
“If I’m slow to reply it is because this computer is slow” I typed, “If I get cut off I am not ignoring you it is poor service. I am traveling and I don’t have my laptop and Internet is hard to find.”
I had tried the McDonald’s down the street earlier, but the Wifi wouldn’t properly connect to my phone. It wouldn’t be until the next day that I would discover the city-funded Wifi hotspot installed in the outdated payphones just outside the door of my hostel.
So I was forced to use a shitty Internet kiosk, clumsily and forcefully pushing the stubborn keys, telling this person I have never met not to kill herself.
She was from my home county, young, still in high school. She discovered me through my blog, some random web searches, to see if anyone was out there.
She found me. She isn’t the first.
As we talked I went through all the cliches about her value as a person and to ignore others and the potential of her future, but it felt flat and wrong. As someone who’s hated himself and the majority of the people around him for as long as I have, it felt… fake. I was telling her not to hurt herself while planning to voluntarily toss myself off a ledge the next day, for fuck’s sake.
I related to her. I liked her spunk. What’s a bigger “fuck you” to the people making you miserable than leaving a bloody corpse to clean up with no explanation as to why? She had a spark, and I wanted to see her channel it in a productive way, because the potential energy of someone capable of committing such a heinous and violent act could be utilized so beautifully if taken in a new direction. I wanted to see this girl grow up and help save the world.
It was selfish, but I didn’t want her to die so I could see who she would grow up to be.
When I stressed to her that I really wasn’t qualified to handle this, I felt rude and as if I was trying to toss her aside. When I said there must be a passion she could pursue, I felt like a liar.
What’s that saying, about faking it until you make it?
“Look… my life isn’t the same as yours, I had a completely different family and childhood, but… in my experience suicidal thoughts are about wanting to feel alive even though the result is the opposite of what we want. We all feel like jumping off a ledge sometimes. I’m doing it tomorrow. But I’m doing it in a way that improves my life instead of ending it. So… I don’t know. I guess things suck now, but maybe in a few years I can meet you and we can jump off a ledge together and wave our middle fingers around at all of the bad thoughts and experiences that come with being different. This… this awful, horrible thing, it’s what’s going to make you more interesting than other people. It’s what’s going to equip you to be able to help others like you in the future.”
The keys and computer were so horrendously slow that it took over ten minutes to type that. I read it again and it looked stupid. It still looks stupid. It read as stupid and desperate and totally full of shit. But the thought of attempting to edit it on the mid-2000s relic I was using was unbearable so I pressed ENTER and waited.
“You can be like lesbian Batman for freaks like us,” I added, realizing as soon as I wrote it that the current Batwoman is a lesbian.
We spent some more time talking about potential resources she could turn to for help, potential skills she could start learning in high school to prepare her for a fresh start somewhere new, and some more of the similar experiences we shared growing up in Putnam County, Ohio.
I asked her to talk to a counselor at school or through a hotline and to have that counselor email me afterward and she agreed.
After I logged off the kiosk, I walked to the beach and cried, which has seriously been one of my favorite hobbies since coming to Australia. If you’re going to cry in public do it in style. The beach is perfect for dramatic crying.
I was happy to receive an email from a hotline counselor the next day. Crying next to a payphone-turned-Wifi-hotspot while waiting for a shuttle to take me and some hostel friends bungee jumping was considerably less stylish.
This is the third time someone from my home county has contacted me with dangerous and suicidal thoughts in the past year. The first time I was living in Phoenix, Arizona and the two most recent occurrences have happened during my time in Australia. Dozens have contacted me with issues from everything to sexuality to abortion to faith to interracial dating (is this seriously a thing people struggle with in 2013?).
There are married women who have had abortions. They attend your children’s birthday parties and your family barbecues. Some of them have children now. They are your bridesmaids and sisters.
There are married men and women who are struggling to stay faithful to their spouses because they are gay or bisexual or something vague that they’re not quite sure they understand. They collect money at your churches and hold up your dead relatives at funerals.
There are people who go to church every Sunday and think it is the stupidest way to possibly spend their time. They coach your little league teams and bring cold beers to your place just to hang out.
There is a girl who is secretly dating a Muslim from Findlay, horrified of what her friends and family will do if they find out.
This is Putnam County, Ohio.
It’s the Putnam County most of you ignore. It’s just under the rug, right where you swept it.
But it’s still there.
I couldn’t imagine the types of circumstances that lead people to reach out to someone on the other side of the world for just a moment of understanding and compassion.
I left Putnam County years ago, but for so many others like me it’s home. They don’t plan to leave. They don’t want to leave.
I don’t know much about homes, I’m on my fourth city in three years with plans to spend 2014 in Asia just because I can.
But I lived in Putnam County for 18 years with a family that is most definitely my home, and I do know this:
Home isn’t about insults and rudeness and swears.
Home is compassion and empathy and forgiveness.
If you give those up, you give up everything that makes life a worthwhile experience.
You give up your home.
You give up the people you love.
Putnam County, Ohio is home to hundreds of godless, baby-killing, suicidal faggots.
You’re most definitely thinking “Nobody I know is like that.”
I absolutely guarantee you are wrong. These people are your friends and teachers and siblings and priests.
Show some of those Christian values you never shut the fuck up about and deal with it gracefully, compassionately, and lovingly.
Or you’re going to lose the people you love.
You’re going to lose what makes your home, home.