Let’s not suffer in silence — or expect it of others
I don’t know much about my late father’s Army experience beyond that he served from 1937-41 and was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, which hosted the 2nd Cavalry Division. He told only two Army stories.
One was about participating in the Louisiana Maneuvers, massive war games held following Germany’s September 1939 invasion of Poland. Dad was separated from his unit for a few days without food in the woods. The maneuvers’ effect on my life was that we never had Spam or mustard in the house, because when he got back to camp after being cut off, that’s what he was given to eat, and he got sick. This story came up when Spam was mentioned.
He married my mom in October 1941 and finished his Army stint soon after, returning to the family farm. His other Army story, told only if his kids asked why he wasn’t in World War II, was about being recalled to Fort Riley after Pearl Harbor. He stood in the rain for a day waiting to be called. When he wasn’t, he saw the commanding officer, who told him the country needed farmers and to go home.
I asked a couple times what happened to his unit in the war, but he never would say. We never met any of his Army buddies and he never spoke of them. As an adult, I’ve wondered if Dad lived with some embarrassment or guilt. He was fit and trained, but didn’t serve in the war, as so many men of his age did.
Like so much else among people of his generation, he just didn’t talk about it. The closer a subject came to feelings or finances, the more distant it was from conversation.
As a society, we are different now, but some topics remain uncomfortable for some of us.
Last week showed that. PI Publisher Mike Bennett wrote about an anonymous note he got criticizing columns he’s done about personal issues ranging from his drinking problem, now in abeyance, to the death of his wife.
“Readers don’t want to know about your life path,” the note said.
Mike writes about these things because he wants to share how he has gotten through them and what he has learned in hopes of helping others. The fact is that our hyperconnected world full of cheerfully curated Facebook pages doesn’t make a personally connected world. We often remain alone and feel isolated.
Perhaps this is part of the reason Colorado’s suicide rate far exceeds the national average and why it is even worse in some of our most gorgeous resort communities. This is supposed to be paradise. Perhaps people think that if they are struggling here, something must be irreparably wrong with them, so shameful that they can’t bring themselves to reach out for help.
We all know how reluctant we are to share our struggles, and the scant mental health resources for the non-rich here could exacerbate the problem. We are in the rugged West, not in an urban culture more likely to lean on life coaches and therapists.
So good for Mike.
And doubly good for one really brave young woman in Carbondale, Emily Bruell.
Emily is the 17-year-old Roaring Fork High School valedictorian who, in a graduation speech about how we label ourselves and others, told classmates and their families that she is gay.
Coming two weeks after Evan Young was barred by his Loveland charter school from the same thing, which had generated widespread publicity, Emily’s speech struck a chord across the country.
She’s come under a little criticism (which has been overwhelmed by widespread support) for disclosing her sexual orientation at a graduation ceremony. This is a reversion to my dad’s generation, whose approach was to suffer in silence.
Being gay, as much as it is gaining acceptance around the country, is no cakewalk, particularly for teens who are struggling to learn about themselves and fit somewhere in the world. Suicide is the leading cause of death among gay teens, according to speakforthem.org, which combats youth suicide.
As Emily said in her speech, when she came to terms with being gay, “I was terrified of the stigma that that label held.” If you watch the video of her speech, you see that it wasn’t easy for her, but it was important — much more important for her peers than wishing them well in college and urging them to dream big and make lots of money.
Openly gay people do us all a service. When I was young, I joked about gays, used derogatory language. In my 30s, after a co-worker showed up at a party with a female date, I struck up a conversation with him at work. Seared in my memory is telling him, “She’s pretty. You know, I’d wondered if you were gay.”
He later came out. I can only imagine the struggle he lived with, trying to conform to societal norms and jerks like me.
I learned not to be a bigot by getting to know gay people, and I am grateful for their openness and friendship. Just as I don’t give a second thought to holding my wife’s hand or kissing her in public, no one should have to hide who they are.
Emily Bruell said of her speech, “I hope it got to someone who needed that message.” A lot of folks need to hear it, Emily. Well done.
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