The new year was only a few hours old, and so was my sleep, when the phone rang, too late for revelers to be calling, too early for any good news.
“Hi Joline, it’s me,” the familiar, but unexpected, voice said. “Can you help me?”
“Me” was a neighbor boy whose family had been close to mine for years. JL and his older sister were friends with my kids when they were in elementary and middle school, and I consider their mother a good friend, both of us commiserating over the unique challenges of raising adopted children who come with emotional baggage no amount of love and therapy can fully heal.
JL was weeks away from turning 18 the morning he called, and the challenges had become so intense that his relationship with his mother was strained, but not broken. He had moved in with a girlfriend and her family, dropped out of military school. His days of hanging out at our house had long been over.
Yet, here he was, calling me at 3 a.m. on a New Year’s Day.
My number, he said, was the only one he could remember.
He was in trouble, he said, kicked out in the cold by the girlfriend with nowhere to go and no way to reach his mother, who had the odd habit of turning off her phones at night. Could I, he asked, drive to her house, wake her up and have her come get him?
Outside our East Mountains home, snow lay thick on the ground and roads were icy. But off I went because this is what moms do for each other and for their children, no matter how outlandish the request or how strained the relationship.
It’s been eight years since that New Year’s call. I never heard from JL again, except through the occasional social media post. Over the years, he had fallen into addiction and was recovering. He had gone from a scruffy-haired teen to a young man with a shaved head and neck tattoos. He had given his heart away several times, had it broken several more times.
My sense is that he continued to struggle with abandonment and attachment issues that many adopted children are saddled with, no matter how much love and support surrounds them.
His one constant was his mother. No matter how bad things had gotten, she never gave up on him.
This week, he gave up on himself. He was 26 when he ended his life.
Facebook posts from last month show photos of a young man in love who looked like he had finally found his way. But, this month, his posts were somber, bitter. Among his last posts were these words: “u deserve someone who never leaves, no matter how dark it gets.”
He did deserve that.
His death comes, as it turns out, during National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and, this year, state departments have worked together to help reduce the stigma that still surrounds suicide and offer help for those who feel suicidal.
This month, behavioral health responders began answering calls for service involving suicide and other mental health issues under the fledgling Albuquerque Community Safety Department. Such calls are normally handled by law enforcement officers, who are already stretched thin and are not always the best trained to handle mental crises.
This week, Albuquerque Public Schools issued a memo voicing concern over the recent spate of troubling behaviors among its students, likely the aftereffects of what was a lengthy lack of safety net, structure and socializing when schools shuttered because of COVID-19. The memo suggests that the behaviors may also be cries for help.
“It is now more important than ever to talk with your students, be aware of their social media activity, listen to their concerns, and access available school wellness resources if needed,” Superintendent Scott Elder wrote. “We can’t ignore our students if they are acting out because they need our help.”
These efforts have been especially crucial in these isolating times of pandemic and polarizing rancor. In New Mexico, preliminary numbers suggest that death by suicide has increased in nearly all age groups, from the youngest to the oldest among us.
In July alone, the most recent month for which there is data, the New Mexico Crisis Line reports that it handled 9,806 calls from its various support sources. In July 2020, the number was 5,298.
But one wonders how many people in crisis did not make that call. New Mexico remains a state sorely lacking in enough mental health care providers. Which is to say that, in large part, the onus of suicide prevention remains on us.
“It’s up to all of us to connect and reach out to our family, friends and neighbors who might be suffering in silence. Simply to let them know they are not alone and that someone cares,” said Bryce Pittenger, CEO of Behavioral Health Collaborative, the state cabinet-level group representing 15 state agencies and the governor’s office. “Sometimes, all it takes is just a little word of encouragement for someone suffering in silence to let them know that help is available and that brighter days are ahead.”
No matter how hard my friend had tried to convince her son, it appears that JL no longer believed in those brighter days. And I wish – oh, how I wish – that he had still remembered my number, anybody’s number, and called it, no matter what time it was.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.
The New Mexico Crisis and Access Line offers immediate access to mental health professionals and resources anytime at 1-855-NMCRISIS (662-7474), nmcrisisline.com or download NMConnect, a smartphone app.