Updated: Dec 31, 2020
Note from the editor: This editorial discusses suicide. If you are struggling, worried about a friend or loved one, or would like emotional support, click here for a list of helpline resources provided by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
“What makes you happy?”
That is the question my mom asked me that one time when I came home from school earlier last Thursday, and you know, the great thing about such a question is that there is an infinite number of ways to answer it: there’s my friend who finds his warm and fuzzy side conversing with God at church, and then there’s the girl who likes horseback riding (equestrian stuff, as she calls it). There’s also no limit on your amount of answers, which makes it doubly appealing: my brother finds enjoyment in both lacrosse and engineering (he loves building bridges and robots). Depending on your background, finding satisfaction and happiness in life can either be extremely easy or seemingly impossible. For those suffering from depression, enjoyment can seem like something unattainable, and for those satisfied in life, warmth can come in the form of skipping pebbles against the flat stretch of the river where I caught my first fish. Having been on both sides of the spectrum, I’m grateful to have an understanding of what makes me happy, but I also know how hard it is for many people my age to feel that way.
So when I went to answer the question my mom posed me, I didn’t know what to say, but I found the words deep in my voicebox anyways:
“Uh, well, I guess I just have the opportunity to live life and be me. Not many kids do.”
I turned away to start my homework but remembered one thing I had somehow forgotten to tell her, a truth she knew all too well but remained glad to hear regardless.
“Oh, and fly fishing.”
Suicide is the second-leading cause of death in adolescents and young adults (after motor vehicle crashes), according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and deaths by suicide have been climbing for nearly two decades, with an especially concerning spike since 2010. Children’s hospital visits for suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts have doubled since 2008. The culprits are what you might expect: social media, the loss of a loved one, bullying, sexual assault, and the feeling of failing to live up to societal expectations. There aren’t many constants (no two teenagers are alike) but certain patterns do emerge when looking at the data. Groups of suicides in a small area — termed, 'suicide clusters' — are riddled throughout the country, most notably in the Bay Area and New York, which brings up a point that seems false but sadly is not: most teenagers who attempt suicide are actually from wealthy families, families we’d deem 'comfortable'. These are kids with seemingly the most in life, kids who could have the world at their feet, and yet so often and so heartbreakingly their lives are taken prematurely.
It begs the question: Why?
Luckily, albeit unfortunately, I know the answer. I should know, anyways. I was once one of those kids.
By blind luck and some divine intervention, I am alive to tell the tale.
Among the things that make me happy, fly-fishing is certainly my favorite. There’s also an uncomfortable irony that sets in every time I make a cast, even if I don’t consciously think about it: if it weren’t for getting hurt, I wouldn’t be trudging through these creeks and out of cell phone range hunting endless hours for something that isn’t even a foot long. Yes, that concussion I received playing JV Lacrosse during my freshman year is to blame for this, although to be fair, I’d like to reiterate that it got me fishing, so, traumatic brain injury aside, I can’t be too upset. There isn’t anything that compares to being in the middle of nowhere, tiptoeing between ponderosa pines and cornfields and high mountain passes with a 6x tippet in one hand, my rod in the other, and polarized sunglasses plastered on my face, and if there is, I’m still searching for it. I’ve caught fish from numerous places in numerous states, yet one thing is constant: the euphoria I got from catching my first (a small bluegill on a little midge from the pond my cousin’s grandma lives on) and my biggest (a 20” cutthroat trout from the Snake River just outside of Jackson Hole on a grasshopper) fish on the fly equals the joy I find in casting in my backyard. The infinite modifications you can apply to fly casting, fly presentation, and fly line make fly fishing my version of Battlefield, one where the goal is to get inside that fish’s skull and figure out what it wants to eat and eventually catch it.
Lesser known are the struggles of fly fishing, the millions of times you fail to set the hook or net the fish or cast into a tree and have to re-rig. Fly fishing takes serious work. It’s a craft, a craft that demands even the most talented of anglers improve and expand upon. It’s in these moments, however, that I retrospectively take the most pride in. As the old fishing adage goes, it really does take one cast to catch the fish of a lifetime but a million to prepare yourself for it. I remember when I first got into fly fishing, and with every bad day on the water, as a novice angler typically has, a greater and greater urge to quit built up inside me. The reason I didn’t? Truthfully, I don’t think I knew any better. I was stubborn and determined to make it work, and besides, it was still an immensely enjoyable experience every time I got on the water. The rustling of the leaves, the bubbling of those streams and brooks, the howl of a timberwolf, the eagle perched on a branch — all of these moments are those that you can’t experience from your desk, mindlessly sifting through your computer or phone or any other device.
I’m thankful for that.
And it sure beats being in a coffin.
Teenagers don’t typically engage in outdoor activities. Social media has seemingly sucked the life out of our souls and projected it onto an idealized collection of photos that leave out the struggle we all go through. This makes those who are suffering from mental illnesses common with suicide — depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia just to name a few — feel that much more isolated and worthless. As many can attest, life with suicidal thoughts doesn’t feel like much of a life at all: cries for help feel ignored, and unlike adult suicides, in my opinion, teenagers never truly want to die. We simply want to live. We want help so we can stop feeling like we want to die. People say that we are impossible to care for, that we are determined to rid ourselves from the world, but that could not be further from the truth. Of all those sleepless nights, those times I thought I wanted to die, I didn’t want to die. That one time I took more sleeping pills than I normally did in an attempt to sleep permanently led only to me desperately trying to stay awake all night and feeling an immense sense of gratitude when I woke up comfortably in my blankets the next morning. We are all fucked up in our own unique ways, going through our collective hells, but there is hope. Some things will always make us smile, whether it be something as intimate as fly-fishing to something as trivial as walking in the rain, and when we feel like there aren’t, people are out there actively working to change that. Even as we lament those we have lost, they live on in half-part misery, half-part heartbreak, but full-part saviors. The reason we’re alive is the same reason that they aren’t, and I promise I’ll remember to thank them once I get there.
So, yes, reader.
We are all headed someplace beautiful.
But it’s also important to remember the following:
We are somewhere meaningful.