by Michael C. LaSala, Ph.D.
Published on December 15, 2010
Because I work at Rutgers, and because I am gay and a psychotherapist, it is perhaps understandable that Tyler Clementi has been on my mind all semester. The many lights that decorate homes and trees this time of year, brightening the long nights of the holiday season, somehow make me think of the light that was snuffed out in late September this year. At times I indulge in rescue fantasies and imagine what I would say to Tyler if he had been my client and we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to change the course of what happened on that fall day. Of course, like any responsible psychotherapist, my responses and interventions would be based on my client’s expressed needs-and I didn’t know Tyler so I don’t know what they might be. But here is how my fantasy goes:
I would race to the George Washington Bridge to where Tyler’s car was pulled over and stop him before he lept into the dark, murky waters that would swallow his life. I would tell him that I understood how he might feel hopeless and inconsolable. I was the same age as Tyler when I had my first gay sexual experience and my feelings about it at the time were a potent mix of excitement, pleasure, and shame. If the act had been filmed or observed without me knowing, I would have been devastated, unable to imagine the future– wondering if I had one at all.
In therapy, Tyler would come to see the truth about suicidal impulses–that such feelings are invariably transient-they never last. Studies suggest that suicidal feelings pass within 30 days, and for many in 2 weeks or less. I wouldn’t be able to give Tyler the exact path out of this crisis, but could offer him the promise that, if he stayed alive long enough, starting each day by putting one foot in front of the other, he would surely find his way.
For many, suicidal feelings are rage mistakenly directed toward oneself-anger turned inward—and away from those who really deserve it such as rejecting parents, those who use religious teachings to justify and preach hatred, along with bullying peers and teachers–and the rest who watch it all happen but do nothing. Tyler would learn that depression is not the end, but actually a beginning-a gateway through which one must pass to get to the anger on other side-and that anger is a precious gift that if properly channeled, can fuel the action necessary to fight social injustice. We live in a country that consistently fails to provide equal rights to LGBT people, prohibits openly gay people from serving their country or marrying. We also live in a country that sends kids to schools where violence and abuse is sanctioned. So, in our work together, Tyler would learn that we can never have too many young, angry gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (and allied!) people. All are needed to fight the many difficult battles that lie ahead.
On the other side of that gateway, Tyler might also find a hunger and a drive to express himself and be recognized in world that ignores and marginalizes him and others like him. Tyler was a talented violinist whose pain and anger could have been a springboard to create something amazing, like so many gay and lesbian artists have done before, and like the beautiful young gay man who I saw in Newark at a World AIDS Day reception, whose grace and moves suggested a blending of his various selves; young, black, and gay. Like all good artists, he didn’t just leave his audience on the sidelines to watch but took us with him as his dance brought him to a place where race, gender, and sexual orientation intersected–then beyond it. His exuberance in expressing all of himself. freely and with pride, forced his audience to accept him–and taught us to accept those hidden, fragmented parts of ourselves. Could Tyler have done the same? Could he have expressed his pain through his music and used it to teach us all something about acceptance and freedom? Sadly, we will never know.
In the midst of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer. Albert Camus
32 years of living openly as a gay man, and practicing psychotherapy for most of them, has convinced me, beyond a doubt, that there is an invincible summer in each and every one of us–we just need to stay alive long enough to find it.
If you are feeling suicidal, please get help. Killing yourself will not make you a hero and is not a good way to make your enemies sorry. Fighting back and creating an amazing and happy life is a much better revenge. If you are thinking about killing yourself, please tell your parents, your friends, your doctor, your counselor at school, your partner…tell someone. If there is no one to tell or even if there is, please call the suicide prevention hotline at the Trevor Project 1 866-488-7386
The world needs you alive.