By Colin Schoenberger
At Soldier Field, a crowd of 1,500 took a break from tightening their fanny packs and filling their water bottles as they became transfixed by a booming, disembodied male voice and subtle piano music playing over the speakers across the grass. The voice said that he admired everyone gathered here because they knew someone who committed suicide and are not afraid to face that.
The opening ceremonies for the 20-mile dusk-until-dawn walk known as Out of the Darkness Overnight, held by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention ( AFSP ) on Aug. 12-13, shifted the formerly cheery and chatty crowd. Everyone became startlingly still. Almost everyone in the crowd had an AFSP T-shirt on and a miniature AFSP flashing red beacon light on his or her waist. The announcer's words seemed to have caused the same deeply felt response in the entire crowd. The only movement at this moment came from two kids waving the red AFSP lights that their parents must have given them while they ran in circles. They and I were the only ones who don't seem to be recalling some crippling pain. But I probably underestimated what even they have felt.
The walk, primarily a fundraiser for research, education and survivor support programs for suicide ( which results in some 30,000 deaths in the U.S. each year ) also serves to create awareness and a sense of community for those who have experienced its effects. The first Out of the Darkness Overnight Walk was held in 2002 in Washington, D.C., and was the largest fundraising event for AFSP.
'Suicide is an issue that is really kept in the dark,' said Bob Gebbia, executive director of AFSP. 'People really treat it with secrecy, yet it's the fourth-leading cause of death in people ages 18 to 65. We want to raise funds, but we also really want to get people involved. Most things tend to change once more people know about it.'
According to Gebbia, because people usually choose not to talk about suicide, many are startled by its high rate in the U.S.—and the rate of suicide is even higher in the LGBT community than the rest of the population. The New York Times reported in 1999 that gay or bisexual teenagers were three times as likely to attempt suicide as other youths. Programs for LGBT suicide survivors, however, are hard to come by. Dr. Edmond Yomtoob, who provides private therapy in the Lincoln Park and Loop areas, wanted to create such a support program in Chicago.
'We needed a gay-affirmative group,' said Yomtoob, who was also on the executive board of AFSP of Chicago and who has been trained by AFSP to facilitate survivor groups. 'We wanted a group where people wouldn't have to legitimize or justify anything; they could just talk about their losses. So, people don't feel like they're being judged walking in, they don't feel like their loss won't be equally understood.'
The LGBT Survivor Support Group, which meets twice a mo0nth at the Howard Brown Health Center on Halsted, is still in its infancy, but Yomtoob, along with fellow AFSP exec member Michael McRaith, hope and expect attendance to grow, considering what it has to offer here and throughout the country. They know that too many people in the LGBT community deal with the effects of suicide.
'Ultimately, it's going to be a great resource for those of us who have relationships that some people might think are unconventional or that have judgments about them,' McRaith said. 'For me, anyway, those relationships are just as intimate and meaningful. So, it's great that [ the LGBT suicide survivor support group ] is and is going to be there. Nowhere else in the country is there that kind of resource.'
McRaith and Yomtoob were both preparing for the night walk as well as telling fellow walkers about the new LGBT survivor group. Yomtoob smiled and reassured me that he's cool enough to miss the group-stretching session to talk to me as a woman on the main stage yelled into her microphone, 'FEEL THAT STRETCH IN YOUR CALVES!' But their investment in and devotion to the walk and AFSP itself were so evident just from their excitement to be here.
Something else that was hard not to notice was the sea of multicolored Mardi Gras-type beads that adorned many participants, including McRaith and Yomtoob. Organizers were passing out different colored beads based on the relationship the wearer had with the person who committed suicide. McRaith wore a red one, meaning his spouse or partner killed himself, and Yomtoob wore a gold one, meaning a parent did. I wanted a blue one, which meant that you simply supported the cause, but they said they had quickly run out of those.
Frank Gaugler, who also helped start the LGBT support group, wears a gold Mardi Gras bead. Having lost his parent in a community that viewed suicide with a sense of scandal and shame, Gaugler knew the necessity of finding support when such a tragedy occurs. This, in part, led to his desire to start the LGBT survivor support group for a community that already deals with enough issues of secrecy and shame.
'There's just so much stigma [ with suicide and depression ] ,' said Gaugler, who was also trained by AFSP. 'I grew up in Montana, and it's a really rural area. And people talk about it; they want to know why [ and ] they're really surprised when it happens, but they mostly treat it with silence. And issues of sexuality are sometimes part of the reason people commit suicide ( people coming out, [ have ] HIV, or [ have to deal with ] non-accepting families ) and with this group, it's good to have a starting point of commonality.'
Throughout this part of Soldier Field, walkers connect with others but also take time alone. Under one of many white tents on the open grass, one person after another quietly takes a rock taken from a pile and drops it into a plastic mini-pool; a sign suggests they think of the rock as the burden they've shouldered. One woman who has printed on her AFSP shirt, 'For my nephew…' closes her eyes and slowly releases a rock from her hand into the water. She inhales deeply and then rejoins her group. The pool is filled with rocks. Despite the upbeat atmosphere of this event, it seems that everyone attending still struggles with cherishing the life of someone they loved, while letting go of the pain of their death.
'I have that box where I keep that pain,' McRaith said earlier. His boyfriend, Eric, hanged himself in 1996 after an argument. 'I walked last year [ in Out of the Darkness Overnight ] , and that emotional intensity allowed me to open that box and really reflect on the meaning of his life, how his life and his death have shaped my life today—the life of a person who is more compassionate and stronger in many ways.'
Like McRaith, even the facilitators of the support group readily acknowledge that their grief is always close to the surface, even if time has taught them how to deal with it in different ways. The walk provides invaluable help, but can never resolve.
'Both Edmond and I lost parents, and I mean, it's been a while for both of us,' Gaugler said. 'So, there's some distance. But it's interesting, and you see people at different points in their grief, and we realized we're still healing.'
Michael Kelley, an attendee of the LGBT suicide survivor support group, is preparing for the upcoming all-nighter. He wears a gold bead and prefers to whisper to me when talking about this subject, but is determined not to keep what happened just within himself.
'I feel like enduring this 20-mile walk; it could be a way to memorialize everything, to face it,' said Kelley, whose mother recently committed suicide. 'And being gay, I remember how emotionally destructive keeping a secret like that can be. So, not facing this, not doing anything about it, it was not a mistake I wanted to make again.'
Over and over, those at the event, gay and straight, express the damage that the rampant secrecy and embarrassment surrounding suicide and mental illness can cause. And everyone seems truly moved by everyone else's mere presence, a hopeful sign that the secrecy is on its way out.
'Our community needs to be able to acknowledge that challenges in mental health are a problem for us,' McRaith said. 'Until we confront that, the symptoms of those challenges are going to come out in other ways. More people in Illinois die from suicide than from homicide. That is also certainly true of people in the gay and lesbian community. When Eric killed himself, I would estimate conservatively that 15 to 20 people that I knew came to me and said, 'I have confronted suicide myself,' or 'I have contemplated it,' or 'my father killed himself' or 'my mother battles bipolar disorder.' Those were a revelation to me.'
The sun goes down, and the dramatic voice signals the start of the walk. The crowd applauds and cheers as walkers begin to leave the grass and head toward Lake Shore Drive, and the applause continues until every single walker has left Soldier Field. Many even follow the walkers onto the street to cheer even more and take pictures.
'We had hundreds of different people walking to Lake Shore Drive,' Yomtoob said earlier. 'But there was a community. It's not a typical community. It's not a reason most people are brought together, it's not something you think you would be social for. And it wasn't social; it was a community, a shared experience. I felt something inside of me that compelled me to talk to people … because they just shouldn't be alone.'