When you jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, you perhaps expect to slide effortlessly into the water below and quietly cease to exist, like a lit match under the open spout of a kitchen sink. You don’t expect waves to feel like concrete, ocean to chew and then swallow. But it does. Or so that’s what the man being interviewed on NPR says when the reporter asks him how it felt to attempt suicide.
I regretted it the moment I was in freefall, he says. I asked myself, ‘What have I done?’ and prayed, ‘Please, God, save me.’
Since 1937, over 1,700 people have jumped over the edge of the Golden Gate Bridge. Only 25 have survived. Kevin Hines, the man with regret, is one.
I listened to that segment in the front seat of my car during lunch yesterday, legs propped up on the dash, a burrito in a foam shell on my lap, thoughts too riveted for me to make much work of eating. The interviewer asked Hines why he did it. Mental illness, he said. Voices that, in a dark lapse, took over and told him to leap. He never really wanted to. They asked him how he survived. He said, By some miracle. Three of his vertebrae shattered on impact, and dozens of feet under the water, barely able to move his legs, he realized he didn’t want it to end that way. He made it to the surface, treading water until he thought he couldn’t. Something touched him — a shark, he thought — and he panicked, staying afloat until first responders arrived and pulled him to safety. Witnesses say it was a sea lion that stayed with Hines, bumping him upward and keeping him above water until help arrived.
The interviewer asked Hines if having a net there would have kept him from jumping. San Francisco is slated to finish construction on a 20-foot wide stainless steel net 20 feet below the bridge barrier in 2021 as part of ongoing efforts to prevent future suicides. Hines paused. I think it would have, he said. I wouldn’t have jumped had I known a net was there.
Today I catch myself thinking about nets, particularly the kind made of bones and skin, an open embrace or kind word, and if people wouldn’t jump if they knew that we were there.
On April 29th, 2015, I lost a friend to suicide, a friend who left so quietly that I didn’t find out until three days later. It was a searing, new kind of absence that brought with it layers of guilt, questions, and pain.
Everything Uyen touched she made happier. I shared an office with some other students my senior year of college and she would turn all of the clocks upside down constantly. Exhausted students would nap under the center table in that office, and she knew it. She’d stick post it notes with quotes and jokes under the tabletop, hide treats down there for people to find later. She and I played this game where she’d take the name tag off of my desk and see how long it would take for me to find it. Sometimes it took a few minutes. Other times, it took a few days. She always laughed at me when it took a few days. “Oh, but it’s so obvious!” She would say. She always left origami stars and dollar bills shaped like hearts at my computer, little pieces of her that made a bad day a little brighter.
But Uyen had a dark place she retreated to now and again, moods that were heavy, deep scars and a history that she hinted at. She would occasionally talk to me about Vietnam, about her family, and about music. She’d sometimes become so sober and distant in the middle of these conversations that I wouldn’t know how to pull her back. At one point, I worried that she thought about taking her life.
Then she did.
Back then, I thought that I could have held on to her somehow, that I could have been there, that I could have done more. I wasn’t always in her life, but would it have changed things if I had been? Today it haunts me to think about how many people have jumped or left or cried or hurt because they didn’t know that I was there to catch them, if I was even there at all. What if I wasn’t?
In 2011, the World Health Organization estimated that approximately one million people commit suicide every year, which is one death every 40 seconds and 3,000 deaths every day. That was six years ago. In 2015, the National Alliance on Mental Illness estimated that one in five adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness in a given year, and one in twenty five experiences serious mental illness that disrupts and interferes with their life. The numbers are staggering.
Ours is a planet of shattered people who carry quiet grenades in their fists. We share sidewalks and roads, classrooms and break rooms, even homes with people mere seconds from pulling the trigger of a loaded gun against their head, and we don’t even notice. Maybe we do notice, but we turn our backs because we don’t feel big enough to stop it, not ocean big, not net around the Golden Gate Bridge big.
But what if we are big enough? What if we could care so intimately and strongly about one another that our silent pains as well as our loud ones could be more bearable?
We can’t make a person’s anxiety or depression or mental illness go away, but we can show them that we will love them in it and through it, in spite of it and because of it. No one should ever have to be alone in that. We can’t always see the quiet battles others are fighting, but we can assume there always is one and treat them with kindness. We can’t always ground a person who wants to jump, but we can collectively be the net that’s there to catch them. They need to know that we are there, no matter what choice they make. We can line their edges with a community of faces that look up at them without condemnation and arms that are always stretched out to them in love. Ultimately, that’s what I hope Uyen saw in me: love, even if it was imperfect.
In a world of seven billion people, no person should ever have to feel alone, unsupported, or unloved, consumed by darkness without any help. We (humanity) are a protective barrier. We are the net that stops the most heartache and loss. Let’s love people through the things that break them and simply be there for them. Such is what it means to save.