I met Mark at the ripe age of 13 years. He was also 13, which was crazy-cool, because up to this moment in my life, I had no friends who were my age AND lived nearby. (Technically, we lived 60 miles apart, but that’s only an hour drive in rural Texas, so we were practically neighbors.) I could connect with Mark over our shared love of classical and sacred music, our enthusiasm to “figure out” the Christian faith, being one of (many) children in homeschooled families…you get the drift. (Not) the typical things teenagers connect over these days, I know!
Also, he had bad acne, just like me, so I felt better about my complexion issues when I was around him.
Mark was, in fact, was one of my first crushes because…well, there weren’t many options around. And, he was cool. (Love you, too, Mark!)
So picture two teenagers connecting over Fur Elise by Beethoven, hunkered on a piano bench, then fast-forward with me to our recent conversation about what keeps him alive. Instead of Fur Elise, Mark tells me about a song with a slightly different vibe: 1-800-273-8255 by Logic.
“What do you think?” he asked. “Well,” I said, “it’s…different.” He laughed.
“When I first heard it, I was rather offended and disgusted,” Mark explained. “Not only had I dealt with suicidal thoughts myself, but I was also grappling with my friends and family members’ suicidal struggles at the time. So when I heard the lyrics, ‘I don’t wanna be alive, I just wanna die — who can relate?’ I thought to myself, well, yeah, sure I can relate…but gosh, don’t glorify or normalize killing yourself!”
Still, the words struck Mark and fit his internal experience of himself, of his life.
“I feel like my life ain’t mine!” Yes, Mark got these lyrics. “I was really a shell of a person back then, thanks to my depression. A walking shell of a person,” he added.
“But the song’s first verse seemed to romanticize suicide,” he said. “Kind of like the controversial 13 Reasons Why TV show, which I watched so I could converse about the subject.”
Like many, Mark found the show to be helpful only for someone wanting to understand how people reach the point of suicide. “But for people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts? Not helpful at all,” he said, adding that the constant jokes about suicide in society as a whole are similarly damaging. “And this is coming from person who can appreciate a joke about almost anything!” he clarified as we chuckled.
But when I recently asked Mark about the reasons he’s still alive, he found himself returning to this song. Reading my friend, Laleska’s, list of simple life pleasures that keep her alive reminded him of the song’s lyrics, mid-way through (sung by Alessia Cara).
It’s the very first breath
When your head’s been drowning underwater
And it’s the lightness in the air
When you’re there
Chest to chest with a lover
It’s holding on, though the road’s long
And seeing light in the darkest things
And when you stare at your reflection
Finally knowing who it is
I know that you’ll thank God you did
“I’ve always felt comfortable in water,” Mark told me. “When you go under water, everything becomes quiet and simple. And sometimes I would fantasize about never coming up again.”
Mark quickly noticed, though, that his body wouldn’t let him drown, even if his brain begged for it. Mark referred to this as our base, human “survival instinct.” Whatever it was, it wouldn’t let him stay in that close, comforting, but heavy silence.
Every time, he would emerge again, experiencing the very first breath when your head’s been drowning underwater. Somehow, admist all the pain, Mark’s always taken one more breath in.
Chest to chest with a lover. These words struck Mark, too, because romantic or not, he’s experienced relationships with other humans. And through them, he’s discovered, then re-discovered all over again, a powerful truth: “I want to be around to participate in others’ lives,” as he told me. Plain and simple!
Except it hasn’t been simple. The “others” in Mark’s life were people who didn’t really know who he was, and thus, couldn’t really love him, even if they tried.
I was one of them. After spending almost every Sunday together throughout high school, Mark kind of, well, went away for a while. From the people back home, I eventually heard bits and pieces — words like “an atheist,” “gay,” “living with a partner.” That’s all I knew, except I didn’t really know it at all — it’s just what they, the people in Mark’s life, told me. Or it’s what one person said to another person who then told someone else.
And eventually, the words reached me. I wondered.
I didn’t hear anything else about him, or from him. He disappeared from my Facebook page for a while.
Sadly, Mark had been boiled down to his (supposed) beliefs about a Higher Power and the kind of people he felt attracted to. What about his job, his friends, his music, how he was doing, how he was feeling about all this? I didn’t know. I didn’t know he had two adorable cats, either.
So when he and I finally started texting, then skyping and talking over the phone, we had a lot of catching up to do.
Part of catching up was telling each other our deepest wounds. His wounds included how completely miserable he had often felt back in high school, but especially as he tried to navigate life as a young adult on the outside.
Mark had been part of a Christian cult throughout his childhood and adolescence, so when he showed up as a freshman at Bob Jones University (BJU), he came face to face with a slightly larger slice of humanity. I emphasize “slightly” because BJU students’ beliefs and lifestyles still make up a minuscule percentage of Americans, and especially, of the world’s inhabitants.
Even at BJU, however, Mark discovered a few discrepancies between his beliefs and and those of most BJU faculty and students. We can’t both be right, he realized, but we’re both sure we’re right and we both have Bible verses to prove we’re right.
Suddenly, it dawned on him. If one of us are wrong, we could both be wrong. All of this — the Christian faith as a whole, and heck, even God’s existence — could be one big construction of our imaginations.
“I don’t believe in believing something just for the sake of belief,” Mark explained. So after a year-and-a-half at BJU, he headed off to a semester-long program in Christian apologetics at Focus on the Family, a well-known, conservative Christian radio program.
“I went there to ask the hard questions about Christianity that I needed to. Hard questions I’d never asked before.”
To Mark’s disappointment, though, the program staff never really addressed the hardest, most probing questions. And when they did, Mark heard the same unsatisfactory answers he’d always heard. If he pressed further, he felt push-back, as if there were some things that just shouldn’t ever be questioned.
But Mark’s inability to fit in with the students at Focus on the Family was just as damaging to his soul. This wasn’t Mark’s first time around this block. The block — or box — that he could never quite squeeze into. The box was what his fellow, southern, conservative Christians seemed to expect of him simply because he was a him. Yes, they expected him to like girls, not guys, but also to be rugged, tough, and well, masculine. Sensitive, but not too sensitive. Fine if he liked music, as long as he wasn’t too worried about his looks.
Mark told me what his initial, teenage conclusion was for why he was different. “While perusing through a book store, I saw this book about ‘metrosexuals,’ defined as straight men who simply like to dress well and keep themselves well-manicured,” he explained. “Even though it seems silly now, at the time I thought, whew! That’s it — that’s me! I’m not gay, I’m just metrosexual.”
To be continued…Part II will continue through Mark’s journey to still being alive today.